issue 187 - September 1988
Good Morning Vietnam
directed by Barry Levinson
The flood of Vietnam movies continues, as popular culture reflects the US struggle to come to terms with the damage done by the War. The pity is that the damage is always that done to national self-esteem or to its innocent young men rather than to the Vietnamese. Platoon at least made some gestures in this direction, while Kubrick's thoroughly offensive Full Metal Jacket made none at all.
Barry Levinson's film is a welcome sidestep from all the tales of young footsoldiers plunged into the hell of war. It concerns a deejay recruited by an unusually hip officer to pep up Saigon's Armed Forces Radio. He substitutes rock'n'roll for endless Percy Faith and Mantovani and speed-of-sound comic patters for bland and censored information. In the process he makes enemies in the military hierarchy, fans in the ranks and friends of a Vietnamese family.
It is the last point which gives the movie most value. Robin Williams' amphetamine-pace wisecracking (much of it improvised, as in all Levinson's films) is genuinely funny, though you wonder whether the inevitable sexism of army radio in 1965 could not have been toned down a bit more. And the clashes with the military mentality make a vital point in an entertaining way. But what gives the film depth, is that the Williams character engages with the Vietnamese as real people rather than just as enemies or victims. The love/sex interest which leads him into this is superficial enough but in the end there is enough contact for the right questions about US involvement to be asked. Now who's going to be the first producer with the courage to make a movie with the Vietcong as heroes?
South of the Border
directed by David Bradbury
'This film began as a search for the music of Central America', says Bradbury. And it went where the music led, which meant encountering politics, revolution and repression. In each of the five countries visited, the common denominator was the music which even the iron-fisted regimes were powerless to stop.
This is a full and heartening film, replete with images that stay in the mind a long time. The Club Med holiday group intercut with a struggling peasant farmer, the US helicopters overshadowing the oxcarts; the well-fed military professionals oblivious to the depressingly long supermarket queues; the wedding party slaughter; the tired poor (Are you communists?' 'No, we're just country folk who work hard on the land. That's all we want to do').
There are many texts within South of the Border, but it is mostly a film which belongs to the people of Central America it seeks to represent. The people of these countries share two things in common. The first is the nature of their enemy: lack of democracy and oppression by imperialistic forces The second is a love of life and its music, the 'international language' which cannot be suppressed. Bradbury approaches the former through the latter and in doing so conveys the spirit of a most remarkable people.
The impact of the international mining Industry on native peoples
by Michael C. Howard
(Transnational Corporations Research Project, Sydney University)
Mining on native lands has received considerable attention in recent years. The scourge continues on Aboriginal sacred sites in Australia, the tribal homes of Amazonian Indians, and numerous other regions worldwide. The world economy's search for mineral resources are vital for military and industrial development. But there now exists a broad network of regional, national and international native rights bodies that play an important part in the political economy of mining development.
The relationship between increased mineral exploitation and the political consciousness of tribal people is the central theme of this book. It is a well-documented study which shows the extent and nature of the giant mining companies, even outlining how private transnational firms now undertake joint ventures with state interests in the Third World. Of particular value are the sections dealing with the Philippines and the South Pacific.
This is far from a simple matter. Mineral resources are viewed strategically by all parties. But the wider impact on the native peoples of the world deserves closer study.
Dilemmas of development
Don Harris, John Sibily, Roger Smith
Longman Cheshire. 306pp, A$15.95
This geography-based critique of aid, aimed at high school students, considers the social and economic factors which shape development. Investigated are economic imperialism, the legacy of colonialism, and the new colonialism of trade barriers and multinationals.
In evaluating foreign aid, the authors argue that NGO assistance is often the least damaging form. The authors also maintain the case for radical change in determining what exactly should be pursued in the light of the needs of the developing country itself. The book's greatest strength is the case studies (including schemes in Zimbabwe, Brazil, Indonesia, the Philippines and Bathurst Island, Australia), which provide a solid, critical analysis of aid projects.
The greatest achievement is that it is able to see development through the eyes of the indigenous peoples themselves, and therefore learn to question the paternalistic - and sometimes arrogant - behaviour of a great deal of Western aid.
The German Greens
by Werner Hulsberg
Who hasn't heard of the German Greens? Their phenomenal success, unconventional speakers and frequent internal squabbles? Here is a book that tells more - more about how and why they arose, who they are and what they intend.
This story begins after World War Two in the forging of West Germany, under Allied management, into a bulwark against international communism. Parliamentary and trade union opposition was effectively muzzled early on. But by the mid 1970s several waves of opposition had arisen, based upon many, many 'citizens' initiatives' groups. These had gained in numbers and influence but were still lacking a parliamentary voice. Several key issues were irresolvable without this. Germany was still an armed camp. Industrialism was proceeding full tilt in paving the landscape and polluting the air, water and soil. A series of economic crises were merely the excuse for more arms, more industry - no room to breathe.
Greens lay a claim to be different on two grounds. First, their visions and programmes are based on a complex web of diverse perspectives or 'currents'. Second, they are not merely reformers nor are they outright revolutionaries - they seek to develop a new culture based on people-power, ecological fit and social justice.
Hulsberg writes with the language and perspective of socialism - but a socialism informed and updated by the experience of Green politics. It is not always an easy book to read but the complexity and the richness of the account make it a satisfying experience. A must for anyone interested in things 'green'.
World Military and Social Expenditures 1987-88
by Ruth Leger Sivard
For peace campaigners this reference book has always been mandatory reading, capable of turning anyone into a very formidable adversary in any debate on the peace issue.
Now in its 12th edition, it presents a myriad of facts on the arms race and, more importantly, highlights the absolute wastefulness of military spending in the light of human need. World military spending now runs in excess of $930 billion a year - almost two million dollars a minute. Meanwhile one third of the world's population has no safe drinking water; 800 million live in grinding poverty; and 14 million children a year die of starvation.
Meanwhile Third World countries account for over 75 per cent of all arms imports. Between 1975 and 1985, when their debt rose by $580 billion, developing countries imported $250 billion worth of arms.
Depressing but essential reading.
Confessions of a Pop Group
by The Style Council
Help Save the Youth of America
by Billy Bragg
The latest from two of the most uncompromisingly radical young Englishmen ever to wield a guitar against the system. But they are wildly different records.
Paul Weller's work with the Jam was fierce and brilliant, managing to merge acute social comment with a great gift for guitar-driven pop (as on the classic Setting Sons, the closest punk ever came to a concept album). Since he scorned rock and embraced white soul with The Style Council his efforts have been more patchy, though no less passionate in their anger against injustice.
His last two albums have been probably the weakest of his career. Confessions is ambitious in its range of styles - orchestrated ballads grinding funk, piano instrumentals - but manages to sound convincing only when it uses more established Weller styles (Why I Went Missing, How She Threw It All Away). We should always think twice before attacking an artist's attempts to escape from a musical straitjacket. But the dull funk-by-numbers too evident here should have been the first style discarded. While at the other pole the long orchestral piece The Gardener of Eden is an embarrassment thanks to a clumsy, pretentious lyric worthy of the 1970s' worst pomp-rock practitioners.
By contrast Billy Bragg has released a mini-album to tie in with the US Presidential election which will surprise no one but still enhance his reputation. It's recorded live in the US and the Soviet Union, which means that his Cockney squawk is unadulterated. And, like Weller, he over-reaches himself vocally - his voice simply does not have the resonance to carry Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto unaccompanied.
But this is still a powerful collection of committed singing. Most of the songs we've heard before, though a couple have lyrics adapted to fit the context Days Like These comes over particularly strongly: 'It's midnight in El Salvador, they're spending dollars in your name/ It's no bloody consolation that Reagan cannot run again! They'll trade with the Ayatollah if they can't convince Congress/ That the only type of patriot is an anti-communist'. There's Power in a Union is dressed up into an Appalachian hoe-down complete with fiddle, accordion and banjo.
And if we were in any doubt as to his political purpose, Bragg has a message on the sleeve. 'Remember, when you elect a President, you are electing a President for all of us. Please be more careful this time.' Amen to that.
.being the book by the first woman to make her living by writing
'All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds,' wrote Virginia Woolf in 1929. To understand what this means, cast your imagination back to Aphra's time: seventeenth-century Britain. It was a period when women had no other role in life than to 'submit themselves to their husbands as to Christ'. Try and imagine what it must have been like to have had your inferiority inscribed in religion, law, literature and any other place you can mention; to have been compelled to silence.
Aphra Behn broke this silence by committing herself to a career as 'a poet, the masculine part of me', by pouring out stories, plays and poetry which over 20 years made her famous. She wrote about love, sex, slavery and politics, and her works paved the way for the future developments of prose fiction. Yet she has been condemned to obscurity and has suffered a torrent of abuse over the ages, as in this unkind poem: '... that lewd harlot, that poetic queen/ Fam'd through Whitefriars, you know who I mean/... Long with a sciatica, she's beside lame/ Her limbs distortur'd, nerves shrunk up with pain/ And therefore I'LL all sharp reflections shun/ Poverty, poetry, pox are plagues enough for one.'
The recent republication of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko and other stories is part of an attempt to excavate history so that today's women might recall their heritage. Oroonoko is an African prince - a man 'who was as capable of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a soul, as politick maxims, and was as sensible of power, as any prince civiliz'd in the most refined schools of humanity and learning'. This 'brave and gallant man' was captured by white men, made a slave and, as a punishment for leading a slave-rebellion, subjected to the most hideous death. Yet his only crime, claims Behn, was to love honour and freedom above life.
Based on a slave Aphra met whilst living in the West Indies, Oroonoko is probably the first piece of prose fiction in English to have a black hero, and certainly one of the earliest denunciations of slavery. Buried in the story is a parody of Aphra's own life, for she was herself a rebel in search of freedom; the first ever woman in Britain 'to write for bread'.
Anger at the injustice of women's lives emerges time and again throughout Behn's writings. In The History of the Nun (also in this collection) she writes of the young girl consigned against her will to a convent: 'I could wish, for the prevention of abundance of mischiefs and miseries, that nunneries and marriages were not enter'd into, 'till the maid, so destin'd, were of a mature age to make her own choice'.
Aphra Behn led an unusual life for a woman of her time, a life as colourful as those of any of her heroines. After a youth spent in Surinam in the West Indies, she returned to England and married a Mr Behn, about whom little is known except that he was a Dutch merchant who died shortly afterwards. Her widowhood gave her an extraordinary amount of freedom, which she initially spent working as a spy for King Charles II. Drafted to Holland in July 1666, her instructions were to extract information about Dutch naval and military activities. This she dutifully did, but it proved to be of little value to the British Government, who refused even to pay her expenses. She ended up in a debtor's prison.
Driven by poverty after her release she started to write, embarking also on a tortuous love affair with John Hoyle. Known as '... an atheist, a sodomite, a professed corruptor of youth and a blasphemer of Christ...' Hoyle was regularly involved in brawls and duels, and led Aphra Behn a merry dance. He was the subject of many of her poems and perhaps this unhappy affair was responsible for so much of Behn's writings being devoted to a specific kind of slavery - that of love.
'Pan grant that I may never prove
So great a Slave to fall in love,
And to an Unknown Deity,
Resign my happy Liberty...'
Aphra Behn' s work is written in the language of a far-away time. It does not always invite the modern eye. But buried in the text is an important message from the past about a current cause: women's struggle to be free. It is part of our history. And it is precious, not least because so little of that history remains.
Oroonoko and other stories by Aphra Behn. Written in 1688; reprinted by Methuen 1986.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7