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
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.
A Quiet Violence: View from a Bangladesh village
by Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce
Zed Press (pbk) £5.95/(hbk) £12.95
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.’