Issue 285 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Urban solitude and the mobile phone

There are two sides to the communication revolution, as Mike Gonzalez explains

One of the less alienating uses for mobile phones--building a demonstration
One of the less alienating uses for mobile phones--building a demonstration

Standing in baggage reclaim at Luton airport the other day, it struck me that almost everyone around me had taken out their mobile phone. The 'William Tell' overture vied for space with 'A Little Night Music', while everyone spoke at a rising volume to be heard above all the other people speaking at the same time. What was the urgency? From what I could overhear there were two basic conversations: 'I'll be out in a minute--I'm just waiting for the bags' was one. The other just announced a safe arrival. Oh, and then there was the one making extremely loud business deals with what was probably an answering machine at the other end--to impress those around him, I suppose.

It's as if the mobile phone had turned us into people with a terrible fear of isolation and of silence. To reassure ourselves and others we have to find someone out there who will tell us that we're expected. If there's no one waiting for your call with bated breath then you're sad and lonely--a casualty of the instant society. It's the other face of the communications revolution--everyone and everything is accessible. I can get through reasonably easily to the CIA's database and any number of insurance companies and banks can find me wherever the hell I am. And yet this seems to bring no comfort, no security from knowing that everyone I care about is within reach.

It all seems so fragile, as if we cease to be human if we are not spoken to. On the one hand, the advertisers tell us we are part of a community--that we can send a photo from a mobile that arrives instantly on the screen of a smiling friend's machine. On the other, the community is only virtually there, and disappears with the flick of a button. So what should be a public place--a station, an airport, a cafe, a shop--becomes instead a space filled by a hundred tiny private bubbles. We can speak to someone we know--and avoid eye contact or casual encounters with the people standing next to us.

It's another and pernicious kind of privatisation. And is it only my imagination, or has it increased dramatically in recent times? There's not much there to protect you if there is a real danger--just a piece of plastic and a small Sim card. And yet it is marketed as a kind of protection, a shield against the world. Perhaps that isn't so surprising in the atmosphere of pervasive paranoia deliberately fostered by the Gauleiter Blunketts of the world who justify their assault on every kind of civil liberty with dark references to threats, some real, some imagined, surrounding us on every side.

Travelling recently in the US, it struck me that every radio station carried adverts every quarter of an hour or so warning of some imminent danger. There were security issues, there were threats from ageing, too much sun, contaminated water, uninsured travel, illness in a foreign country, unexpected death, breakdowns on the edge of the desert, exploding hairsprays and locusts. It was safe enough inside the car, but we wondered if it would be very wise to get out and risk contact with an outside world prickling with unseen dangers.

Obviously I'm not arguing for some good old days before phone boxes were vandalised and everyone knew your name at the Cheers bar. I'm not that much of a Luddite. What I am saying is that an unexpected consequence of instant communication might be to turn us in upon ourselves--ironically to create the communities that are exclusive and private spaces, to which we deny access to others while tantalising them by letting them know how wonderful it is to be part of that world we can only see one part of.

There is another possibility, of course, gloriously realised in Madrid particularly, but also all across Spain two days after the bombs at Atocha station. After the official demonstration, led (for the half hour of the photo opportunities) by grim-faced politicians whose intention was to mobilise people behind new repressive measures, a second series of demonstrations was mobilised entirely by text messaging and phone calls. Thousands emerged to express their rage and frustration at the politicians they kicked out of power a couple of days later. Now that was a real community, a victory of the collective over the private!

This will be the last of my Cultural Currents columns, for a while at least. I was taken aback to find I'd written them for five years, pleased to have been allowed to rattle on for so long and grateful to all those Socialist Review readers who took the trouble to read them, even if only to passionately disagree.


Music

HIP-HOP TAKES THE RAP


Standing out from the crowd: Mos Def
Standing out from the crowd: Mos Def

Hip-hop has arguably been the most influential popular music form of the past generation. Artists such as Jay Z, Nas, Eminem and Missy Elliott have become household names, while the production talents of P Diddy, Dr Dre and Pharrell Williams are in constant demand. Nor has this impact been solely confined to music. The 'uniform' of low-slung jeans, Timberland boots, expensive trainers and designer tracksuits has become de rigueur among youth from Brooklyn to Brixton.

However, this apparently inexorable rise has not been without controversy. Hip-hop has long been associated with an excessively hedonistic and macho materialism that celebrated guns, gangs and 'girls' (this last is probably the least offensive term used to describe women). One of the most negative consequences of this has been the incarceration of huge numbers of artists, often for violent or sexually aggravated offences, as highlighted in the current issue of hip-hop magazine Source. Perhaps rap's darkest days came in 1996-97 with the murders of two of its brightest stars, Tupac Shakur and Christopher Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G.

Today it is argued, by among others Voice columnist Tony Sewell, that the malign influence of hip-hop channel MTV Base is a key factor in the underachievement of black boys in schools. The suggestion is that these youngsters are being encouraged to adopt a negative 'ghetto fabulous' lifestyle rather than one that values education, and domestic and civic responsibility. In the wake of such claims commentators have clamoured to issue the last rites to hip-hop. Even the normally dry, dull and barely read political journal Prospect got in on the act with a feature in its March issue on the demise of hip-hop.

Politicians too have been quick to attack rap stars when seeking to deflect the blame for society's ills. Way back in 1992 US presidential hopeful Bill Clinton's campaign included a diatribe against Sister Souljah that was clearly aimed at appealing to racist voters. Similarly, in the aftermath of a tragic New Year's Eve shooting at a Birmingham party New Labour's culture minister Kim Howells issued a tirade against 'macho idiot rappers'.

The truth is, of course, rather different. Hip-hop first evolved in the early 1970s out of the huge block parties organised by Bronx DJs such as Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaata. Partygoers were encouraged to improvise lyrics in the instrumental breaks of the classic tunes the DJs played on their massive sound systems. Rap music was thus a playful escape from, and a creative response to, the poverty and alienation that blighted the lives of young black people in the inner city ghettos.

Inevitably over time the major record companies latched onto its commercial possibilities. Initially in time-honoured fashion they sought to promote 'white' forms of the music. Punk rock band Blondie had a hit with a song called Rapture which included an appalling rap by Debbie Harry but which did at least have the merit of namechecking some of the legendary black rappers that the band mixed with in the New York underground scene. Elsewhere these labels manufactured their own bands and wrote lightweight lyrics for them. Eventually, however, groups such as Run DMC forced their way into the charts--though they needed a little help from white rockers Aerosmith.

Today hip-hop and its close cousin R&B account for fully 25 percent of all record sales in the US. The companies that retain these artists therefore have no great desire to change a winning formula. In addition many other companies have rushed to exploit the potential for lucrative tie-ins and have encouraged performers to plug their products in their songs and videos. Meanwhile record buyers are encouraged to believe that with a little lyrical wordplay they too can live the dream, or at least mimic the lifestyle by sporting the right gear. It should be noted that there have always been artists that have sought to stand against this stream. Public Enemy, KRS One and Michael Franti and latterly The Roots, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are among those performers who have achieved a degree of success by carrying a more socially conscious message. However, these voices have usually been drowned out by those that vocalise commodity fetishism.

The short life of Tupac Amaru Shakur is particularly revealing. His single mother had once been a member of the Black Panther Party and he was named after a group of Peruvian revolutionaries. Tupac was a brilliant young poet whose early lyrics raged against the racism and injustice of American society. This approach got him virtually nowhere. While in prison he was offered an alternative path to fame and fortune. He chose to adopt that archetypal 'thug life' but it was to prove a self destructive one which led to his own violent demise. Yet even here it was not simply a straightforward case of selling out. He clearly remained a deeply troubled and tortured individual. Thug Life, he once explained, was an acronym that stood for 'The Hate U Gave Lil Infants Fuck Everybody'. In other words it too was a response to the seemingly hopeless alienation of black youth in a racist society. It is precisely this bitter sentiment that he spits out in songs such as Trading War Stories and Hellrazor. For sure Tupac was a seriously flawed individual, but hip-hop lost something it has never been able to recapture when he was gunned down in September 1996.

Nevertheless reports of the death of rap music are wildly exaggerated. Clearly it remains hugely popular, and at its best it can be wonderfully inventive and exciting, edgy and enraged. The hip-hop story is not yet complete but it is in desperate need of fresh ideas and impetus.
Brian Richardson


SKETCHES OF HARLEM

Romare Bearden revealed
by the Bramford Marsalis Quartet


Bramford Marsalis
Bramford Marsalis

A couple of years ago documentary film-maker Ken Burns made a widely acclaimed series entitled Jazz: A History of America's Music. It was part of a trilogy of subjects--the others being the Civil War and baseball--that examined the core elements that contributed to the development of US society. Jazz was chosen as the only authentic art form to originate in the US. However, the series was not without controversy. In particular it was criticised for bringing its story to a halt in the 1960s and 1970s, ignoring the contribution of latter-day figures such as Keith Jarrett, Michael Brecker and Brad Mehldau.

Burns's major collaborator and consultant on the series was Wynton Marsalis, the Grammy award winning trumpeter and director of New York's Lincoln Centre jazz orchestra. He too has been criticised for an approach to playing that is regarded as being too obsessed with technical expertise and the preservation of the 'canon' of jazz heritage rather than capturing the free improvisational spirit that is supposedly its essence. For these reasons many jazz fans prefer the more liberated if less celebrated playing of Marsalis's brother, the saxophonist Branford. In fact these siblings are just a couple of members of a musical family that also includes two other brothers, Jason and Delfeayo, and pianist father Ellis. All of them can be heard on Branford's new album Romare Bearden Revealed.

The album takes its name and draws inspiration from the artist Romare Bearden, much of whose work celebrated the great 20th century musical heritage of Harlem. Indeed one of Bearden's final paintings was the cover art for one of Wynton's albums, a track from which is included in the set. The paintings from which the song titles draw their names are included in the album sleeve--though the CD format can hardly do them justice. The concept of the album is therefore an ambitious one, in that we are invited to merge two distinct art forms. As its sleeve notes suggest, the album encourages 'hearers to see the music, viewers to hear the paintings'.

The New York we are invited to imagine is one that underwent immense changes from the cultural and political flourishing of the Harlem renaissance through to the deprivation and blight of later decades. For the musicians themselves this often meant a highly precarious and degrading predicament. They were lauded in the downtown ballrooms and whites-only establishments such as the Cotton Club. Yet after-hours they were frequently forced to live in segregated squalor. Back among their brethren in Harlem many took comfort in late-night jams--where the music really swung--but also in drink and hard drugs.

Branford Marsalis is one of modern jazz's more interesting performers who is not afraid to stretch himself and try out new things--or indeed sacred old ones such as a reinterpretation of the previously untouchable John Coltrane masterpiece A Love Supreme. However, Bearden is not an album that breaks any new boundaries. It does not fully manage to evoke the ecstasy and agony of either the musicians who lived through these times, or those who lived in the rural South, the other main focus of Bearden's work. This is not to say that modern performers are incapable of great musical depth. Requiem, recorded by Branford's quartet in 1998, is a wonderfully moving album made all the more poignant by the bandleader's use of the soprano saxophone, a beautiful haunting instrument, and by the fact that the sudden tragic death of pianist Kenny Kirkland left us with an album recorded in only one take.

What we are treated to on Bearden is an enjoyable mix of old and new with tracks by jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton set alongside a number of original compositions. It's a good introduction to one of the very best of today's small bands. It includes a couple of great earthy blues numbers and should also encourage new listeners to seek out some early jazz classics.
Alban Pryce


Theatre

TO DIE LAUGHING

Follow my leader
by Alistair Beaton
Hampstead Theatre, London


Leaders of the pack: Bush and Blair's singalong on 'Follow my Leader' Pic: Robert Day
Leaders of the pack: Bush and Blair's singalong on Follow my Leader Pic: Robert Day

God asks Blair to be a 'restraining influence' on George Bush, 'who scares the life out of me'. He agrees but is soon doing the exact opposite as he dances with Bush singing 'Two Loving Dads', which justifies the killing of other people's children. This is the opening sequence to Alistair Beaton's very funny musical Follow My Leader, which satirises Bush, Blair and other warmongers. Alistair Beaton explained to me that he and his family were drawn into the protests against the war. 'My daughter led a walkout from school. That was very heartening. I found myself sitting in the roadway outside parliament on 18 March, the final vote for war. I made up my mind I was going to be arrested... It got me very angry and made me want to write something.'

In the play Blair is shown helping Bush get the idea of a war accepted by the American people. The pair trample on civil liberties. Soldiers bring onto the stage a boiler-suited prisoner who is bound so he can neither see nor hear. Above them appear the words of government minister Ben Bradshaw reassuring us that Guantanamo prisoners are treated in line with international law. Newly confident, sharp-suited neo-conservatives sing the hilarious song of 'Pre-emptive Defence' in which almost any situation or person can be a potential threat and therefore destroyed. They point to the shoes of the audience as possible bombs and throw scarves over people's heads to see if it makes them look suspicious.

Mass protests do rattle Blair. Film footage of the millions marching on 15 February fill the walls of the stage as Blair and his advisers desperately discuss ways of ignoring it. Defying the protests, Bush and Blair go to war. They kneel to sing 'We are sending you a cluster bomb from Jesus.' Behind them filmed bombs fall through the air, splitting into numerous bomblets that land in a crescendo of explosions. The brutality of war is ignored by the embedded journalists who sing that they have 'become another weapon the army deploys'. But Alistair Beaton also gives us Robert Fisk's account of the bombed town of Hillah and we hear the desperate plea from an Iraqi doctor who has to treat the terrible wounds.

Not everyone suffers as a result of the war. When Bush visits Iraq on Thanksgiving Day, he carves up a huge turkey into four-foot slices, each slice bearing the name of an American corporation and the amount of money it is to be given.

As the neo-conservatives plan further grotesque invasions, Bush abandons the increasingly discredited Blair. The show ends with Bush standing ahead of his triumphant forces singing 'Welcome to the New World Order.' The tiny absurd figure of Blair grins from between his legs waving a small Union Jack.

The continuous stream of jokes against Blair and the neo-cons gives this show an optimistic mood. It is an exciting, stylish production. However, its lack of any explanation for the war, combined with the mournful song of the protester, carries a pessimistic message. Speaking to me about the show Alistair Beaton said, 'I want to give heart to the people who worked out of cramped offices for damn-all money and slogged the streets in protest. I think we are in for very dark times for civil liberties and military aggression. My hope is that the war can be the beginning of some sort of radicalisation. My fear is that it will just bleed away.' We must make sure that doesn't happen.
Keith McKenna


LIVING IN HOPE

The Big Life
by Paul Sirett
Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London


Opportunity knock in 'The Big Life' Pic:John Munday
Opportunity knock in The Big Life Pic:John Munday

The Big Life tells the story of four men who have just arrived in England from the West Indies. They are all so excited about life in England and have many expectations of everything it has to offer. Determined to make a go of their new life, they decide that women are a distraction they can do without and swear off them for three years. But they hadn't counted on meeting four strong-minded women who have also recently arrived in the country who they end up sharing a bed-and-breakfast with.

The men just want to make a better life for themselves, and having been 'invited' feel that opportunities are there for the taking. But they come up against unexpected prejudice and racism on the very first day they arrive when they can't find a place to stay, as everywhere is strangely full up. They don't have any better luck when they start looking for work. They have skills and are educated, but after ringing up about a job and being told to come down, they find that the position has just been filled when they get there.

Their skills and education are ignored as one ends up as a postman, one a bus conductor and one a casual labourer; one of them doesn't ever find a job even though he's prepared to do anything.

Despite not really liking musicals, I enjoyed this show, as it is full of great performances and songs, which had people dancing in the aisles towards the end. It is a very entertaining event, especially with the addition of a character, Mrs Aphrodite, who sits in the audience and offers thoughts and opinions in between scenes to the great amusement of the crowd. While this is essentially a tale of eight people who fall in love with each other, set against the backdrop of 1950s Britain, it is also a story of perseverance and endurance and triumph over adversity. It also comes at a very opportune time, as we witness a level of ignorance not seen since those days. Today refugees come to this country with many skills, wanting to work, wanting the opportunity to make something out of their lives, and yet they are denied that chance.

This musical tells the story of a very important part of British history--one we must remember and learn from. It also reminds us of an important part of British musical history. Ska was a revolutionary musical genre that celebrated multiculturalism and integration to an extent never seen before and is a clear influence on many young musicians today. While the music and subject matter will immediately appeal to the older generation who remember the 1950s, it is obvious that the music will also be a bridge to young people who will recognise elements of their own music in ska.
Kerri Parke


Exhibition

THE MYTHS BEHIND MAOISM

Li Zhensheng: Red-colour New Soldier

Hou Bo and Xu Xiaobing: Mao's Photographers
Mao's Photographers Gallery, London


Confessing their 'crimes' in 'Red-colour New Soldier' Pic: Li Zhensheng
Confessing their 'crimes' in Red-colour New Soldier Pic: Li Zhensheng

Maoism and in particular the Cultural Revolution are surrounded by myth and romanticism. As teenagers in the 1970s we discussed the apparent heroism of the Great March and the determination of the students fighting the teachers and officials. The reality, as Li Zhensheng's photographs on display at the Photographers' Gallery reveal, is quite different.

There are two displays running together at the Photographers' Gallery. Hou Bo and Xu Xiaobing were Mao's official photographers. Li Zhensheng was a photographer on a local newspaper and documented the Cultural Revolution.

In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, took power. They set about the creation of a state modelled on Stalin's Russia. In 1958 Mao attempted to break through the backwardness of Chinese society. He declared that China must 'catch up and surpass Britain in the output of major industrial goods within 15 years'. The breakneck attempt to industrialise China broke an already weak economy.

The photos of Mao are iconic. Formal portraits were designed to show 'the great helmsman' in his best light, addressing the masses, posing with children. They are interesting, but not unlike any photos celebrating our rulers.

The photographs of the Cultural Revolution are an important historical record. Li Zhensheng took official photos, but after the Cultural Revolution photographers were told to hand in their pictures. Li Zhensheng hid his under the floorboards and then smuggled them out of China.

Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward Mao turned to the transformation of education to take China forward, appealing outside of the party to the students. Red Guards were formed made up of students and school students. They were turned on all the figures of authority who Mao accused of taking 'the capitalist road'.

Li Zhensheng's photographs document what happened and shows the brutality and degradation of the Cultural Revolution. Regional party secretaries, headmasters and teachers were forced to wear placards confessing their crimes as a 'counter-revolutionary revisionist element'. One was condemned as a careerist for having a similar hairstyle to Mao. Many were beaten as they were dragged through the streets.

The photographs show how the Cultural Revolution turned China upside down. Li Zhensheng has a picture of a 'struggle session' in his own news agency, where he is denouncing a colleague. He is later denounced himself.

On 9 October 1966 1 million Red Guards travelled to Tiananmen Square to meet Mao. Li Zhensheng was there with his camera. But he also records the students addressing bemused peasants, now in their second decade of tumultuous events, having 'the contrast between past misery with present happiness' explained to them. As the instability continued workers became drawn in, raising their own demands. Mao tried to end the 'revolution'.

With little actually changing, the Red Guards started fighting each other. A civil war gripped parts of China. Photographs show young Red Guards fighting each other for control of a loudspeaker van, and over the body of the student who died in the fighting.

Mao's solution was to send the Red Guards back to the countryside. Li Zhensheng's pictures of this show how poor China remained: thousands of people working on massive irrigation projects with just shovels and wheelbarrows; people bringing in the crops with not a tractor in sight. This is the same year that China successfully tested its own hydrogen bomb!

The exhibition ends with the mass commemorations when Mao died. Particularly striking is a meeting of hundreds of thousands of people, all lined up in straight lines. How did they do that?

This is an excellent exhibition which runs until the end of May.
Peter Jackson


Film

WIPING THE SLATE CLEAN

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Dir: Michel Gondry


Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet

This is a dazzling and unique angle on the romantic comedy, penned by one of Hollywood's most original writers, Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). The rom com of late has been a genre where reality has been sucked out to be replaced by syrupy sentiment and synthetic Mills and Boon cliches. Instead Eternal Sunshine views the romantic comedy through the frame of a wry emotional realism, by looking at the angst, heartbreak and unfulfilled promise of romance, although the film remains tender, uplifting and inspiring.

The premise is deceptively simple but it is the way it unravels that fascinates and proves utterly engaging. Joel (Jim Carrey), who's shy, withdrawn, and with some unspecified emotional baggage, meets Clementine (Kate Winslet). She's a kooky, overtalkative eccentric and there's a breathless implausibility to the way the romance develops. Credits, darkness and then Joel's tears. The next time we see Joel he speaks to Clementine who seems to have no recollection of who he is, and she's found another relationship. Joel discovers that Clementine has asked a company, Lacuna, for all traces of his memory to be erased from her mind. Stunned and bewildered he asks the inventor of the process to carry out the same task on his mind. Lying in bed, attached to a memory eraser, he casts his mind over what we now see was a two-year tumultuous unsuccessful relationship. We are taken inside the mind, through the interlocking pathways of Joel's memories. This is a typical Kaufman device and is used to profound effect in this tale.

Playing fast and loose with time and space, this amazing film shows different levels of reality simultaneously. Joel views the affair in reverse order, from ugly break-up to sweet tentative first encounter. But what happens if the heartbroken lover decides he wants to hang on to his precious memories? In his mindscape he and Clementine are now both on the lam trying to escape the probing presence that wishes to erase her from his mind. They seek refuge in those painful comic moments, places he believes the procedure won't look; as a whingeing toddler, caught masturbating by his mother in the bedroom.

The film poses the question: isn't it better to hang on to the memory of the broken relationship, with all its shortlived joy and pain, than to have it removed altogether because that's the only mature attitude to take? Do we delude ourselves by only recalling the sweet, affecting moments and have some kind of convenient amnesia for what wasn't working? Knowing that you may be incompatible with your lover, do you give it a second chance because the good moments will eclipse the petty differences?

Jim Carrey would seem an unlikely star for this hip Hollywood offering but his performance as the morose, lonely melancholic revitalised by his foil, the irrepressible Kate Winslet, is utterly compelling. Gone are the mugging and teeth-baring antics--thank god.

In a climactic scene of great poetic power, Joel and Clementine discuss their relationship in a beach house that's falling apart all around them. Michel Gondry may come from pop promos but his use of imagery is never random and exquisitely illustrates Kaufman's vision. The film is shot simply and naturally, with low-tech special effects, which are all the more arresting for the memory- inspired surreal imagery. A very fine soundtrack shifts from a winsome romanticism in the early moments to the jarring untuned piano notes in the latter fraught stages.

This is a richly layered piece from a new generation of maverick Hollywood film-makers, broadening and flipping the genre similar to PT Anderson's Punch Drunk Love. It's a more accessible project than Kaufman's previous efforts but there's no hint of another Hollywood sell-out--we are still in very unsettling mind-bending territory here. A brilliant film that deserves a repeat viewing.
Stephen Philip


IDENTITY CRISIS

The Cookie Project
Dir: Stephanie Wynne


This year the 18th Lesbian and Gay Film Festival showpieces one of the still remaining controversial areas of gender identity and sexuality, transsexualism. Black American lesbian film-maker Stephanie Wynne's documentary style film, The Cookie Project, takes up the challenge in a very sensitive but down to earth way.

Derwin Fields is a black man who has served in the US army and is now a cop in the Los Angeles police department. He is married with two children and is the model of conformity. Three years later he has 'changed sex' and is an out lesbian. Derwin is now Cookie, the nickname acquired due to her passion for biscuits. She met up with Stephanie Wynne after placing a personal advert in Gay Black Female magazine, which Wynne also edits. She thought it would be a good subject for a film.

Derwin's internal struggle is not unusual as many male to female (MTF) transwomen try to prove to themselves that they are really men by being extremely macho. The idea that people 'change sex' due to a sudden whim fails to understand the internal emotional struggle that trans people go through to survive. We still live in a very straight world and not to conform is not the easy option.

This 60-minute film concentrates on the journey from male to female and the place in between. Cookie is a real transwoman, not an actor, who makes a potentially challenging subject accessible due to her good humour and honesty. A transwoman friend of mine could not understand why an MTF transgender person was a lesbian--why bother 'changing sex'? Although The Cookie Project does not explicitly deal with this issue in any depth, Cookie identified with the female gender (gender identity), but was attracted to other women (sexuality), which is not uncommon for transwomen. It is the separation of identity and sexuality that people can find difficult to understand.

If you're looking for an overtly political documentary about transgender this is not the film, as it is completely non-judgemental. Cookie explains her situation as 'god's will' and is a member of the Unity Church, established by a gay pastor. She travels to Thailand for the gender reassignment operation, as it is cheaper there than in the US. However, the redeeming feature of The Cookie Project is the section that concentrates on the 'sex change', the transformation of the penis into a neo-vagina. This is not for the squeamish. I kept my eyes pretty firmly shut, as the 150-minute operation was condensed into 20 minutes, with the occasional peek.

Changing gender is not in itself a revolutionary act, but the demand for a society that allows people to determine their own gender and then gives them not only emotional support and help but also provides free access to medical procedures, if desired, would be. With the health service under attack by the Labour government, transpeople are not a priority where it really matters, giving them the full emotional and medical support they require. While the government is introducing a gender recognition bill to allow birth certificates to be changed to show a person's new gender, this will not be of much practical use if you still look like your previous gender.
Xena Young
The Cookie Project is touring Britain and Ireland from May to September.


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