Issue 274 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
If we can explain and understand the past, says Mike Gonzalez, we will then be able to shape the future
|The National History Museum looted recently in Baghdad|
In the last few weeks the Spanish government has begun to excavate graves where civilian prisoners were buried during, or immediately after, the Spanish Civil War. It might seem an odd thing to do, so long after the event, when even the relatives will barely remember their lost husbands or wives, or cousins, or parents. Yet the families of those murdered by paramilitary gangs or off-duty soldiers in country after country have fought relentlessly for the right to know where and when their dead were buried, and by whom. Sometimes the hardest part of all is to understand why--why they were killed, and why their discovery is so important and meaningful. Wouldn't it be better just to let them lie?
During and after the military dictatorship in Argentina, the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, demonstrated every Thursday morning for the return of their children, their grandchildren, their partners. They walked in a circle in front of the presidential palace, wearing their white scarves, and for years they defied the attacks and the derision of the thugs in the street. In Guatemala, where so many men and women were murdered and buried by one military regime after another, the Widows' Organisation (Conavigua) has never lost the resolution to find their own, whatever it takes. In Chile, where Pinochet's regime peppered the country with the unmarked graves of the opposition, the relatives' organisations will not allow them to be forgotten.
For some bizarre reason, these extraordinary people came to my mind when I watched the tearful museum curator in Baghdad mourning the loss of the precious historical artefacts looted and stolen under the watchful eye of the liberating US forces. The link isn't obvious perhaps. But it seemed to me that, in both very different cases, the issue was the right to our history, the duty to remember.
The psychological explanation for the need to identify the anonymous victims of terror is very clear. To find closure, rest, an ending; to give the dead their burial and to be able to move beyond the doubts. But beyond the individual stories, there must also be a collective need. As long as the past is unresolved, as long as memory is suspended, there is no way of moving forward. At the personal level, knowing is what matters most; at the collective, it is more, I think, about responsibility.
In South Africa the process was called truth and reconciliation. There were extraordinary moments of confrontation and forgiveness, but it always seemed to assume that a moral victory was greater than a political one. And that would surely be true if, and only if, we had moved beyond a world of violence, of exploitation, and of a struggle for power. Until that happens, there has to be justice too, a settling of accounts. Not for revenge, but to answer the question why. It isn't enough to know who was responsible; it is as important to know what drove that person, why people inflict these things on other human beings, what forces and interests, what ruthless pursuit of power shape the torturer. Because they are not the victims, whether they gave the orders or not, they became the instruments of those who did. How did that happen?
History, of course, has the answer. A bomb dropped on Baghdad has a history, a bullet has a past. One of the ways in which war and oppression are dealt with by the spin doctors and the ideologues of the new imperialism (and the old) is to pluck them out of time, to make everything immediate, autonomous, history-less. The suicide bomber and the US marine are equivalent at that moment in time; bomb meets bomb in that instant. But they are profoundly different when their story is told. Without wanting to sound conspiratorial, that's why the reporting from war zones is unidentifiable in time and place--and not just because of some tactical consideration or fear of giving away the coordinates of some obscure bit of desert.
For me, that's the connection with the museum. It is strongly rumoured that several US museums have already put in their bids for the columns of Nineveh and the Assyrian statues; maybe the looters were working for middlemen in this highly profitable international trade in cultural objects. But if they do ever turn up in some US museum, they will have lost their meaning; they'll become trivia, new objects for some international Antiques Road Show, emptied and uprooted from their history and their direct and intimate connection with the present.
In both cases, memory--and the meaning of the present that it throws up--is stolen, hidden, or emptied. It's the same with the graves of the victims. Until they're dug up, named, replaced in their world, they can't be part of the history that comes out of the past and points towards the future.
Dir: Gillies Mackinnon
|Molly Parker as the drug addicted Mel|
Gillies Mackinnon's new film Pure opens with a ten year old boy, Paul, preparing a fix of heroin. He puts it on a tray with flowers and cigarettes, and takes it upstairs to his mother as 'breakfast in bed'. Paul thinks that all he is doing is helping his mum with her 'medicine'. She is sick--so sick she has forgotten it is his birthday. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, in which Paul's mother Mel's drug addiction is seen through his eyes. And this is what sets the film apart from other 'drugs movies'--we see how a child deals with the situation of a parent being on drugs.
The film is set in the shadow of West Ham's Upton Park stadium in east London. Paul looks after his mother and his younger brother, Lee, after the death of his father from a heart attack. He sees himself as 'the man of the house', and is trying desperately to keep the family together. Mel has gone to pieces after the death of the children's father and plunged into addiction, assisted by Lenny, a friend of the family who is also the local dealer and pimp.
Over the course of the film, Paul comes to realise that Mel is a heroin addict, and sets out to try to save her from her addiction. But he is thwarted in his attempts, mainly by Lenny, who keeps Mel in drugs for a price, and by the fact that Mel is terrified of confessing to the authorities that she has a problem, as it will mean losing her kids. Treating heroin addicts as criminals means that she has nowhere left to turn.
Those who are supposed to help care little for the individuals involved, preferring only to get a 'result'. The policeman who seems to care about Paul and Mel's situation is only interested in his promotion. The offices of the social workers who are to decide if Mel and her children can stay together still contain the outdated 'Just Say No' propaganda of the Tory years. And Paul and Lee's grandmother is desperate to take the boys away to live with her--she hated Mel before the boys' father died and she became addicted. The only person Paul feels he can turn to is Louise, a young waitress at the local cafe, who is also a heroin addict. In the end he resorts to drastic measures to try to save his family.
Harry Eden, who plays Paul, gives an amazing performance as a child forced into taking responsibility beyond his years, and holds the film together brilliantly. His fear at seeing his mother turning into a monster in front of him is palpable. Molly Parker as Mel does a great job of capturing the complexity of her character--how can someone love their kids so much and neglect them so much at the same time? The music by Nitin Sawhney reminds us that we are following the action through the eyes of a child, and the contrasts of colour and sound give us a glimpse into Paul's world.
There is very little sensationalism or melodrama in Pure, as sometimes happens when the subject of drugs is dealt with by television and films. It is harrowing, but it looks beyond the 'junkies bad' stereotypes to see the people who are really affected by heroin addiction, without offering any easy answers.
Trembling Before G-d
Dir: Sandi Simcha DuBowski
This beautiful, moving, perplexing documentary describes the lives of Orthodox Jews who are lesbian or gay. Orthodox Jews, a minority among Jewish people, live deeply conservative lives centred on the Bible and the family. Their attitude to homosexuality starts from the biblical judgement that sex between men is an abomination. Members of the Orthodox establishment have opposed any mention in America's Holocaust Museum of the fact that gays died in Nazi concentration camps.
Many Orthodox lesbians and gays face the kind of bigotry which most gays have not experienced since the 1950s. Their families disown them, they are expelled from synagogues and religious schools, they are forced to undergo 'therapy' to try and make them straight, they are forced into arranged marriages and years of living closeted lives.
Many of course reject the Orthodox faith, along with the communities in which they have grown up, and sometimes their families. This film shows those who are still Orthodox, and are struggling to find some accommodation between their sexuality and their religion. It's a moving struggle which they carry on with courage, humour and passion. People reach accommodations in different ways--some struggle to be celibate, others interpret the Bible to mean that anal sex is forbidden but other forms of gay sex are allowed.
The heart of the film is the Orthodox men and women who agree to be interviewed. David, who has tried to change his homosexuality for 12 years, confronts the rabbi who initially told him to seek therapy. The rabbi says he can't tell David to continue with therapy when it's caused him so much pain, but he can't approve of David being gay. Neither can see a way forward. Mark was thrown out of many yeshivas (religious schools) for being gay. He rejected his faith, became HIV positive and seriously ill, and has now become Orthodox again--though he's not ashamed of his sexuality. 'Devorah' only agrees to appear in shadow with her voice changed. After 20 years of marriage, and numerous children and grandchildren, she feels that she is falling apart. Israel has not spoken to his 98 year old father for over 20 years, though they live only a few miles apart. He is finally filmed speaking to him on the phone, the pictures interwoven with images of Israel and his partner Carl celebrating their 25th anniversary.
The film makes clear the value their religion has for Orthodox lesbians and gay men, so that they don't feel they can simply reject it to lead openly gay lives. Some of that appeal is perhaps foreign to many socialists--the attraction of prophecy, the certainty that god has a purpose for every life. Other aspects, such as the desire for dignity and a sense of community, are familiar, and beautifully represented by depictions of Orthodox ritual.
Despite its conservatism, the Orthodox community is not monolithic. Members of it are clearly trying to preserve a minority religion in a hostile world, trying to work out where they can afford to compromise with the mainstream and where they must remain inflexible. The rabbis interviewed are not people cruelly certain of their own righteousness--they know that the more they condemn homosexuality, the more lesbian and gay people will abandon their faith, and the more the Orthodox community will shrink. None of them wishes to cause human beings needless pain, or to claim that they are morally superior to anyone else. Yet they cannot accept homosexuality because the Bible forbids it.
Religion, said Marx, is characterised by contradiction. It is both the expression of real distress, of real oppression, and a protest against it: 'Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.' Orthodox Judaism provides a refuge from the world, yet is in some ways also a protest against it. 'I live in my faith,' cries Israel in the film, 'I don't know what my faith is.'
This film has been screened in a number of Orthodox synagogues, and others have sponsored discussions about it. Steve Greenberg, interviewed in the film, is the world's first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. The courage of Orthodox lesbian and gay people may be changing things. More power to them. Trembling Before G-d will be shown in cinemas soon, and on BBC television later this year. See it if you can.
Dir: Bryan Singer
|Storming the heavens in X-Men 2|
It's safe to assume that Bryan Singer's superhero sequel will not only dominate the multiplexes for the next couple of months. This $100 million-plus blockbuster also comes with the full array of merchandise tie-ins--figurines, magazines and no doubt promotions at a fast food chain near you soon. But is there anything of artistic merit to be gleaned from a comic book adaptation about mutant superheroes (and villains) with such implausible names as Cyclops, Magneto and Lady Deathstrike?
Absolutely. X-Men 2 is an extraordinary spectacle. Singer, director of the modern classic The Usual Suspects, creates a stunning series of setpiece battles which will undoubtedly be the main draw to the film. But this is no exercise in big budget vacuity. Singer utilises 40 years of comic book background to create a believable nexus of characterisation built on a strong central theme.
Whereas the Nietzschean echoes in Superman are plain to see, the superheroes created by Marvel Comics in the 1960s were based on a more complex dynamic. Forged in the midst of turbulent civil rights struggles, their heroes were fallible products of oppression and resistance. Daredevil was a blind man whose other senses had been heightened. Spiderman was a photographer whose boss used his own pictures to demonise him. And the X-Men were 'mutants', humans born with myriad skills ranging from telepathy to the ability to control the weather. But these superhuman attributes made them the subject of fear and discrimination. In the first X-Men film the attempt to impose a Mutant Registration Act (with obvious reference to anti-immigration laws) is narrowly averted. In X-Men 2 William Stryker, a hawkish politician with more than a hint of Donald Rumsfeld, attempts to start a human-mutant war--complete with a brutal assault on the X-Men's 'school for gifted youngsters'. Given the current climate of patriotic obsequiousness in Hollywood, this is pretty brave stuff.
Which is one of many reasons why socialists shouldn't be snobbish about the source material. True, many comic books objectify women and wallow in gratuitous violence. But porn and snuff movies do not invalidate the entire medium of film-making. Likewise the graphic novels of Joe Sacco, Brian Talbot and Grant Morrison are a world away from their more reactionary relations. The X-Men comics are not in this league, but they do provide Singer with a remarkably versatile metaphor which he uses to great effect to explore issues of discrimination.
The mutants' oppression is most clearly allegorical to the civil rights struggle. Ian McKellen, who plays Magneto, has likened his character's separatist solution to that of Malcolm X, and that of his integrationist rival, Professor X, to Martin Luther King. This is rather a liberal spin on the dilemmas that faced, and continue to face, those fighting racism. But it's a damn sight better than having another Hollywood Wasp shooting up faceless Arabs.
The discrimination facing the X-Men could equally be viewed as a metaphor for anti-Semitism, gay oppression, or even the disorientating effect of going through puberty. In one excellent scene a mutant teenager, Ice Man, goes home and is forced to 'come out' about his powers to his painfully liberal parents, who ludicrously ask if he'd tried 'not being one'. By deftly making the ignorant discomfort of his parents the butt of the joke, this is definitely one of the best 'coming out' scenes committed to celluloid.
This is just one answer to those who assume that science fiction must be intellectually inferior because of the free rein it gives to the imagination. Drama is based on the suspension of disbelief--the willingness to accept that a stage is a palace or a field, that a soliloquy is a character's authentic inner voice--to assert that this is only acceptable within realist cinema is akin to rejecting anything other than photorealistic painting. The measure of science fiction should surely be the internal consistency of the universe it creates, and the extent to which this speaks to our experience of the real world. X-Men 2 succeeds on both of these fronts. The only example of an apparent inconsistency, which occurs at the film's climax, nonetheless appears on reflection to be laying the groundwork for the surely inevitable further sequel.
So you can sit down to watch it with your X-Men 2 coke and popcorn safe in the knowledge that this is more than just chewing gum for the eyes. You'll have to let an inaccurate assertion about the permanence of conflict in human history wash over you, though. That and the utter implausibility of someone being born with the ability to control the weather, obviously.
Exodus: an exhibition of Sebastiao Salgado's photographs
Barbican Gallery, London
|The landless workers movement in Brazil as captured by Sebastiao Salgado|
A man sleeps under a dirty blanket beside a vast rippling expanse of water. A woman, perhaps his wife, waits, her arms wrapped around her sari. In the distance a modern city stretches across the horizon. A bird, blurred and flapping, swoops down behind the pair.
The photograph, one of the many striking images in Sebastiao Salgado's new exhibition, depicts poor migrants on Marina Drive, overlooking Bombay, waiting for food handouts. It epitomises one of the major themes in the Brazilian-born photographer's work--the cycle of displacement and migration in the developing world.
Salgado noticed, while completing his award-winning previous project 'Workers', that mass production is driving people into swollen urban centres like Mexico City, Manila, Jakarta and Sao Paulo. In his native Brazil, for instance, thousands of small family farms have been replaced by a few enormous agribusinesses. Some of the former owners are employed as part time workers. Most, however, make their way to the cities.
Salgado is himself a migrant of sorts. During his childhood his family moved from a farming village to a large town. After the 1968 generals' coup he left Brazil to finish his PhD in France. He trained as an economist, but purely by chance discovered photography on a field trip to Rwanda. He has gone on to produce some of the most powerful images of the last three decades. The ex picture editor of the Guardian Eamonn McCabe describes Salgado's work as 'iconic' and 'overwhelming'.
The exhibition, tucked away on the third floor of the Barbican, is a sprawling record of humanity on the move--sometimes in search of a better life, sometimes fleeing war and persecution. It opens with a spectacular picture of a once prosperous street in Kabul now reduced to rubble. It goes on to cover the desperate attempts of Moroccans to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in tiny motorboats, the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia, the Hutu genocide of the Tutsi and the ongoing plight of the Kurds.
However it's not just the worthy subject matter that makes this exhibition so moving. It is also the exceptional elegance and drama of the photography. For example Salgado's shot of a small Croatian boy rubbing his eye, standing at the end of a straight path that leads back to a stationary train--where he lives with 120 other refugees--is a stunning composition. Its impact is strengthened immeasurably by the beauty of the image. But whatever your view, as the British photojournalist Don McCullin recently observed, 'Salgado has managed to keep making people sit up and take notice.'
Neither is this exhibition especially depressing or gloomy. Of course the images are about suffering, but they are also about survival and struggle. Salgado believes he has failed if his work only provokes compassion. He wants his audience to understand that there is a solution. Consequently a considerable amount of space is devoted to the political campaigns of both the Brazilian landless workers' movement and the Zapatistas.
Nowhere is this struggle for survival more apparent than the section of the show dedicated to the children involved in migrations and upheavals. During Salgado's travels he was often surrounded by crowds of excited children. In exchange for peace and quiet he offered to take their pictures.
The resulting photographs are powerful and striking--a Palestinian child born in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, a Bosnian boy standing in front of a wall pitted by bullets, an Angolan girl in an old woman's dress, all defiant and strong, but children all the same.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Art Deco embraced the modern world. The exhibition blurb tells us that Art Deco 'reflects the plurality of the contemporary world, unlike its functionalist sibling Modernism, it responded to the human need for pleasure and escape'. So not unreasonable then to expect fun, excitement, excess and speed. It is billed as something of a blockbuster show, and it costs £8 to get in.
Well, it's not like that. It is a lot smaller than I expected given the hype, and it has a heavy emphasis on the lifestyle of the French haute bourgeoisie, and surprisingly little on mass manufacture, or the points at which it touched the lives of ordinary people.
Lots of space is given over to the 1925 Paris Exhibition. You can marvel at an exquisite sharkskin and ivory chest of drawers shaped like a woman's torso. Debates about form and function mix with the surreal and the exotic to be realised as armchairs, desks and table lamps for the rich. You can gawp at the silks and satins in designs referencing Egypt and the Orient that adorned them during the cocktail hour. The exotic is remade and marketed for the elite.
A tiny part of the exhibition is given over to the export of Art Deco design back to the corners of empire, but again the concentration is on the rich and the luxurious. A maharaja's silver bed holds pride of place alongside a rather dodgy portrait of him kitted out like Fred Astaire. You get barely a taste of the emergence of cultural globalisation.
When it comes to travel it has posters, costly Louis Vuitton luggage for those luxury Atlantic crossings, and little more. This was the age of speed and streamlining, of film and photography. Surely more could have been done? Visitors crowded round one little gem, a video monitor showing footage of the maiden voyage of the Atlantic liner Normandie. Jean Vivie, an early pioneer of colour film travelling on the boat, made it. We wanted more of this.
Hollywood, the Art Deco fantasy factory, was represented by projections of Fred and Ginger. There is a film programme running in conjunction with the exhibition at the Barbican, so perhaps that is why they only reference it here. Art Deco's great monuments, the New York skyscrapers, are again referenced by film projection and not much else. On your way to the exit you pass the rich boy's sports car that adorns the poster for the show, followed by a tiny array of mass produced objects. Plastic replaces ivory, aluminium replaces silver. As you leave there is a poster for the 1939 New York World's Fair. And that's it.
Scenes From the Big Picture
by Owen McCafferty
National Theatre, London
|Tensions rise in Belfast|
Against the backdrop of a divided Belfast, Owen McCafferty brings us a story of alienation and the day to day struggle of life. In 40 scenes that range from the darkly humorous to the despairing, the 20 characters play out storylines with a common theme.
'One of the saddest things in life is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours is work,' wrote William Faulkner. McCafferty's characters certainly feel this sorrow. Each of them is engaged in one of two battles--the battle to remove themselves from the situation they find themselves in, or the battle to prevent others from making the same mistakes.
Maggie and Bop open the play with a conversation that sets the scene for what follows. Maggie is determined to leave Belfast no matter what. Bop on the other hand sees no hope in the future--he desperately needs to find work, and is resigned to following his dad into the local meat processing factory. Maggie just wants to do something different, anything to get out of the city. She attempts to persuade Bop to go swimming, but his reply reveals much of his view of the world: 'Don't you have to be able to swim to go swimming?' Bop can't see a way to go against the tide, and feels himself just being dragged along. Bop's dad has other plans. He is determined to keep his son from the misery of the slaughterhouse and does his utmost to prevent Bop from passing the factory gates.
Joe, the factory shop steward, is in negotiations with management. He finds himself being persuaded to conceal the threat of closure from the shop floor, and is subjected to a barrage of lies and half-truths to prevent him from spilling the beans. It is not certain until the end of the day that the pay cheques will be forthcoming, and it is even less certain that any real future exists for the factory.
Despite being set in Belfast, it is never explicitly clear whether or not this is a Catholic or Protestant neighbourhood, and the Troubles only feature as an element of other stories. The strongest instance of this is in the relationship between two brothers who are not on good terms. They are forced together at the funeral of their father, and soon clash. They are both under the impression that the other lost money gambling and forced the father to sell his allotment--the one thing that the father and sons had in common. They would spend most of their free time helping out, and were devastated by the sale. The will reveals that the plot was never sold, and the brothers decide to make a visit. Their dad felt compelled to force the brothers apart, to stop them coming to the allotment in order to keep them from repeating his mistake. All is revealed when a sinister discovery is made in the tool shed.
Scenes From the Big Picture succeeds in characterising the life of working people in Belfast without a hint of religious of cultural difference. The characters could have been from either community, in fact any working class community, and it shows people struggling for a better life for themselves. What McCafferty doesn't do is give any real hope for the future. Watching this play only makes you even more determined to make some changes in our lives today.