New Internationalist

A Film, A Book And A Classic Review

Issue 136

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VIOLENCE [image, unknown] Reviews

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NEW BOOKS

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This month we review an exciting film set in the Nicaraguan revolution that makes important connections between the West and the developing world. We also look at a book that shows, for once, the vibrancy as well as the suffering of Bangladeshi life.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Man bites journalist

Drawn into guerilla war: the photographer hero of 'Under Fire'. Remember the old chestnut about journalistic values? ‘Dog bites man’ is not news, man bites dog’ is. There’s a bitterer one about these days: A thousand dead blacks isn’t news, one dead White is.

Third World activists are familiar with this notion, but it’s surprising and heartening to see it put across forcibly in an American movie made for the popular cinema. Under Fire is set in Somoza’s Nicaragua. and shows how the murder of one American journalist hit the international headlines though the death of 50,000 Nicaraguans didn’t make it. We may be equal before God, but not before the media.

But the primary message of Under Fire concems a thomier issue: objectivity versus commitment. Is journalistic objectivity necessarily a good thing? It could be a moral cop-out in disguise.

The hero of Under Fire, for example, is a tough, tanned war photographer who risks his life for scoops butnot for causes. ‘I don’t take sides,’ he says nattily. ‘I take pictures,’

As the film opens, he is linked with a mercenary, an old friend, who neither knows nor cares which side he is fighting on. The implication is that both of them, one obviously, one under the guise of objective reporting, live parasitically off Third World liberation struggles. They’re only there for the beer.

But once the photographer’s cynicism is thoroughly established, the film charts his conversion to commitment. Bit by bit, his feelings are touched by the sincerity of the guerillas and repelled by the self-interest of the Somoza regime. In spite of himself, he finds himself caring.

The crunch comes when the guerillas ask him to photograph their leader. They need to prove to the world he is fit and ready to lead the rebellion in a few days’ time. The catch is, the leader is dead. Will the photographer use his skill to fake a living likeness?

Here’s the dilemma: should he comply, abandoning his professional integrity and his attachment (partly genuine) to objectivity, but thereby saving the revolution? Or should he refuse to interfere and watch the revolution collapse within sight of victory? He realises vividly how choosing not to act involves as great a responsibility as choosing to act. There is no longer a comfortable place where he can stand and merely observe ‘other people’s problems’.

The problem is now his as well - as it always has been. The identification is clearest in one terrifying sequence when he is on the run from Somoza’s army. No longer is he an American protected by his nationality and his press card. He is a man alone, grey and weak with fear, hiding from a coldblooded enemy. Who will help him now?

The echo of Pastor Niemceller’s lines is irresistible.

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.

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Quiet violence

A Quiet Violence: View from a Bangladesh village
by Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce
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Zed Press (pbk) £5.95/(hbk) £12.95
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There are two ways (at least) of analysing how a country is developing. You can start at the national level with aggregate statistics of wealth and production, à la World Bank. Or you can begin at the village level with ordinary people, ask what life is like there and how they make a living, and then expand the analysis to show how the village fits into the nation. Applied to Bangladesh the first method led a Kissinger aide in the early 70s to label the country with the infamous ‘basket-case’ tag. Using the second method Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce show that far from being a basket-case, Bangladesh is a vibrant and subtle society, where poverty and suffering do indeed exist but for man-made reasons, not least of which are international aid and trade.

The authors lived in a Bangladeshi village for nine months. They learnt Bengali, lived a modest peasant life and observed what was happening around them: Above all, they listened. As people gained confidence in them they began to tell them about their lives and how they came to be where they are. Introduced with a solid historical background, the result is a splendid series of cameos, some touching, some tragic, all relevant to village life. A memorable cast of characters is described with a novelist’s eye for detail and a social scientist’s concern for the facts. The authors established close relationships with both women and men and paint a comprehensive picture of the village and how the various individuals and groups, including the children, interact.

The women emerge as the most downtrodden and exploited group: ‘It is no wonder that peasant women often complain of too much work. In the afternoon, Aktar Ali often finds time to sit in the shade of a jackfruit tree, recounting tales of his past, but even when she is sick, his wife cannot rest. One day when her face was flushed with fever, she told us, "My work is never done. All day I’ve husked rice and now I have to collect fire-wood and cook. I haven’t even had time to bathe. I’ll work until I die - just work, work, work".’ Most women die young. Some are driven to suicide.

Of the men, Aktar Ali is the hero,revealing throughout the text a notable gift for story-telling and a fine sense of history. Saddest perhaps is the rich Kamal, a figure so obsessed with accumulating wealth that he indulges in petty theft from the poor and is indifferent to his wives, ‘as if his lust for money leaves no room for other desires’.

The book ends in a crescendo, with the authors linking the village and the capital, Dhaka, ‘with its concrete buildings, swarming motor vehicles, and billboards advertising Coke and Fanta,the carbonated holy waters of the modern era’. A World Bank tubewell project demonstrates how the village rich interact via the capital with the international community for their mutual benefit but to the detriment of the poor and landless. The Bank’s ability to stifle congressional criticism of the project is indicative of how power operates on a global basis: this is yet another memorable vignette.

Beautifully written, the book is a timely reminder of the quiet violence that oppresses the poor throughout the developing world - in the authors’ words, ‘the violence of needless hunger. It kills slowly but as surely as any bullet and it is just as surely the work of men . . . No work of nature dictates that many work and starve while a few sit and eat. Every day the villagers of Katni face the relentless violence of the status quo, a violence no less deadly for its impersonality. Their suffering is not only a tragedy, it is a crime.’

Tony Jackson

 

 


CLASSICS

Madmen and Specialists
...being the play that explored the importance of illusions

'I don’t need illusions.’

That, as you might guess, is the statement of a scientist. It is also the statement of an evil man from the play Madmen and Specialists, and the full quotation continues: ‘I don’t need illusions - I control lives.’

A large part of the world’s evils can be put down to man’s misuse of knowledge. Computers and atomic bombs give power to madmen. I recently heard a scientist on the radio describing perfectly seriously how brain transplants will soon become a reality. That modem Frankenstein certainly harboured no illusions - but it is doubtful if his skill is being used to benefit humanity.

How is it that the logic of scientists strikes most of us terrifying? What ‘illusions’ do they lack as so afflict the rest of us? Since most of our lives are dominated by science used to no good purpose, it is worth discovering. And Madmen and Specialists by Wole Soyinka provides some kind of an answer - though not a particularly comforting one.

It is a play about mankind on the self-destruct trail. According to Soyinka, we all contain good and evil; it is when we lose touch with our roots that the evil within us breaks out of control and destroys.

When an English city-dweller thinks of his roots, he generally imagines a country cottage with roses round the door and a cow leaning over the hedge. Soyinka, being Nigerian, as different roots: his vision is of a traditional West African village where the cycle of birth and death goes on under the care of Yoruba Gods. Either way, life lived in a pastoral idyll seems to have some purpose to it. That of course is an illusion - ask any scientist.

In Madmen and Specialists there are many clever people. the only wise ones are the old women of such a village. They are the repositories of generations of traditional wisdom. They are in tune with the knowledge they possess. And in the end itis they who must act as judges of modem man.

The play is a product of Soyinka’s solitary confinement during the Biafran war. It has a chorus of crippled ex-soldiers, grotesques, beggars, detritus of that war or another; they are under the sway of the madman of the title, a demonic old man who has taken too literally (for ‘sanity’) his task of re-habilitating them: he has taught them, not to weave baskets, but to think. He treaches them parodies of the meaningless spoutings of military authority and officialdom, which they perform throughout the play; he is trying to make them face the reality of what they have become, the broken tools of power-sadists. Above all he wants to instil in them self-disgust.

He has also tried to induce self-disgust among the serving officers of the army, by tricking them into cannibalism. That experiment failed: they found they rather liked the taste. The old man is on the run for his heretical behaviour and is being sheltered, or held captive, by his son, Dr Bero, the Specialist.

Bero’s specialism is torture. He is a doctor turned interrogator, the image of perverted skill. He can think only in terms of power and is jealous of his father’s influence over the beggars. The play turns on his efforts to extract the secret of the old man’s influence, the secret of’As’. ‘As was, as is, as ever shall be’ is all we are told of it. ‘As’ seems to be the knowledge of our own evil; it is also our humanity. Dr Bero has lost too much of his own humanity to understand it.

Yet in the struggle between the power-mad and the lone visionary, neither wins. Bero kills his father, losing his last chance of understanding; and the old women, seeing him irredeemable, set fire to the building, burning not only Bero but his sister, his opposite, the good seed that matched his poisonous one. It is possible that whatever is good may survive the fire; but we are left in doubt.

Newspaper headlines show that man cannot cope with the knowledge that he possesses. Madmen and Specialists shows the consequences. It is a chilling play to read; more so in performance, where its background of Yoruba ritual that blurs the distinction between drama and real life makes for powerful theatre. Its implication is that we are all, good and bad, too far from our roots to be saved. We will all of us be destroyed by the rootless, illusionless seekers after knowledge.

Julian Champkin

Madmen and Specialists
by Wole Soyinka (1971)
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Methuen (pbk) £2.50
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