by Various Artists
(Go! Discs 828 682 CD)
Fight for Your Mind
by Ben Harper
(Virgin CD VUS 93)
While the music industry was gathering itself behind the rousing leadership of Bob Geldorf and Live Aid, a little badge began doing the rounds. ‘Charity is sadism,’ it read – a sour slogan designed to enrage, and it did. One reason is that it had hit a raw nerve.
The occasion of Help – put together for War Child, a charity dedicated to helping Bosnia’s children – once again brings up the complex relationship between music and charity. On an immediate level everyone wants Help to succeed – and it does. The brainchild of Go! Discs’ executive Tony Crean, the album is an astonishing testament to what co-operation can achieve. Consider the logistics. On 4 September 1995, the cream of 1990s rock – including Oasis, Radiohead, Blur, Stone Roses, Neneh Cherry, Suede, Sinead O’Connor and the Mojo Filters – recorded 20 tracks in studios around Britain and other European countries. Within five days the album was in the shops and beginning a soaring sales trajectory. So far $3 million has been raised to provide a wide range of humanitarian aid to Bosnian children. Wonderful, really. And we, the buying public, are doing our bit, too.
So why, despite the abundance of ‘feel-good factor’, does Help leave me feeling ambivalent? It’s something to do with the fact that such records are knee-jerk reactions to specific situations. They may unite musicians and fans alike in their concern, but this does nothing really to address the causes of conflict, disease, famine or whatever.
Ethics and efficacy aside, Help does produce the goods and remains a fine record. Sinead O’Connor’s version of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’, Radiohead’s ‘Lucky’ and Terry Hall and Salad’s ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ are truly outstanding tracks.
Ben Harper has one of those immediately comfortable, embraceable soul voices that make people go up to record store staff to ask what’s playing. On Fight for Your Mind he displays controlled versatility, in arrangements ranging from funk through blues to gospel. The playing is spare and clean, showing that a good acoustic set is capable of snatching notes from the heavens. Harper’s concerns are broad – people’s power and corruption, love, the environment and his Christian beliefs.
On one track a desire to leave him alone to smoke his own pot gets transfigured into a compelling plea for tolerance all round. The lyrics are straightforward, sometimes trite, but the true magic is in the voice and the music. Apart from a couple of tedious ‘epic’ gestures towards the end, this is an album of very accessible, somewhat wistful beauty. Something to keep you warm this winter.
Money, Heart and Mind: Financial Well-Being for People and Planet
by William Bloom
(Viking/Penguin Books, ISBN 0-670-86597-4)
At last a book about money which doesn’t entertain ‘root of all evil’ cynicism for long. A book which explains much of our neurotic behaviour in money matters, which makes clear the distinction between accumulating cash and creating wealth. A book which stabs the reader with moments of near-surgical insight. And written in lucid, entertaining prose, too.
However, Money, Heart and Mind is also a book which shies away from specifics when they are most needed to support the argument and which offers mainly optimism instead of attempting to formulate solutions. It’s one of those maddening works which positively light up the page in parts and yet can be incredibly foggy elsewhere.
William Bloom succeeds admirably in urging readers to look beyond the numbers that represent money transactions to considering the people involved, the environmental and social costs, and the possible benefits. He helps us understand our fear and anxiety around money, and argues persuasively that it is in our power to make money work in positive ways.
There is also a useful discussion on co-operation in tribal communities and the factors in modern society that have allowed the kind of competition which corners money by dispossessing others.
Money needs to flow; it needs to be a marker of meaningful exchange, of human creativity, according to Bloom. Though this compassionate view is desirable, it leads him to making some boggling assertions. Such as: ‘It is the human enjoyment of creation, exchange, communication and relationship which creates the market – not the need to trade.’
In highlighting our supposed preference for co-operation, he seems to suggest that the systemic exploitation of one people by another which characterizes so much of human history happens because ordinary people are uninformed rather than apathetic.
Though both the very rich and the very poor are often mentioned, the book constantly – and cosily – appeals to the middle-class reader’s conscience and choices. Bloom views the Internet as a tool for increased access to corporate information and sees the economic monoliths breaking down. It would have been nice if he could have given just one example. He concludes by eschewing apocalyptic visions for the planet’s economic systems, simply stating that they have to change for the better. For the hows and whys, search elsewhere.
The White Balloon
directed by Jafar Panahi
Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s debut feature follows a beautifully simple story of a little girl Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) and her quest to buy a plump white goldfish before Tehran closes for the New Year. It’s a tense and gripping race against the clock, with the film taking place in real time – the 85 minutes leading up to the holiday. As such it’s documentary-like in its observations of life on the streets in the Iranian capital. The fact that all the actors are non-professionals, from whom Panahi coaxes the most nuanced of performances, adds to the naturalistic texture of the film. White Balloon begins with Razieh and her mother doing some last-minute shopping. Wandering into a pet shop, Razieh decides that she wants one of the fish and starts nagging her mother. When they get home her mother relents on condition that her daughter brings back every ounce of change from the banknote she gives her. However, the journey to the pet shop is full of distractions and Razieh is easily side-tracked by snake-charmers and cake shops. Then calamity strikes: she realizes she has lost the money.
Panahi’s film follows a picaresque-style structure as the child learns from many encounters on her quest – including the young Afghan refugee balloon-seller who comes to her aid. It’s an evocative piece: the brief exchanges between the wearied mother and the demanding father – who we only hear off screen – speak volumes about family life.
For my generation – cynical thirty-somethings swimming through the flotsam of old certainties – there is a wide choice of defining moments: the events that crystallized our dawning recognition that in a tough world idealism is insufficient. High on the list for many people must be the US-orchestrated 1973 coup in Chile. The country had gained a reputation as an island of stable democracy in a region better known for dictators and tinpot military regimes. In 1970 Salvador Allende came to power as head of a broad coalition including liberal and centrist elements as well as communists and members of his own Socialist Party.
Such distinctions were lost on the Cold War ideologues in the Nixon administration who almost immediately started plotting to topple Allende. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously remarked that he didn’t see why the US should stand by and ‘let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people’. The coup duly followed, bringing murder, torture, repression and misery.
But such broad-brush history does not touch hearts or change minds: to do that it is necessary to bring great events down to the personal, something director Costa-Gavras achieved brilliantly in his 1981 film, Missing. Costa-Gavras’ work has always fused politics and drama. His earlier films, State of Siege and Z were fast-moving, semi-documentary in style and committed to the causes of the Left. In Missing he infiltrates the mainstream, with a large budget, well-known actors and a top-notch plot. It tells the story of Charles Horman, a young idealistic US journalist living in Chile. At the time of the coup he is holidaying in the coastal town of Viña del Mar where he meets several US military types who let slip more than is wise about their own and their country’s involvement in the overthrow of Allende. Charles notes down their comments. Five days later he is dragged from his home by Chilean soldiers. His frantic wife searches for him in the sinister aftermath of the military take-over. Desperate for any help she meets only evasion and bland reassurances from US Embassy officials. Charles’s father, Ed, flies to Chile in an attempt to unravel his son’s disappearance.
Conservative and deeply religious, Ed is not disposed to disbelieve representatives of his government but gradually and unwillingly he realizes that he is being duped. Embarking on his own investigation he retraces Charles’s life, following the trail from the meeting with the US military ‘advisers ‘ to the Santiago Stadium to the city morgue. In a heartrending scene Ed scours the morgue’s chill corridors, searching among hundreds of mutilated corpses for the face of his son, hoping to find something but relieved to be spared the horrific moment of recognition. In the maze of bureaucratic deceit the Hormans finally find an answer of sorts – the US Embassy informs them that Charles’s body had been identified by his fingerprints as one ‘found’ on the streets by the military, killed, they claim, by ‘leftist guerrillas’. The final irony comes when the new regime, having murdered a President, takes refuge in legality to stall the return of Charles’s body. They claim that ‘sanitary regulations’ forbid the transportation of decomposing corpses, offering cremation or return of the bones instead – presumably to cover signs of torture – and as a final twist, demanding $900 for transportation costs.
The force of Costa-Gavras’ film lies in the moral and political urgency of the story and the way it subtly reveals the intertwined worlds of the diplomatic functionary and the military executioner. The central performances from Sissy Spacek, as Charles’s wife Joyce, and Jack Lemmon as Ed Horman are both detailed and deeply moving. Lemmon has never had a better role nor performed with such conviction. Costa-Gavras graphically portrays the climate of fear that the coup unleashed on Chile, shooting scenes with overlapping foci in which ominous, silent shapes suddenly explode into noise and violence. In one emblematic moment a terrified white horse is chased through the streets of Santiago by jeeps full of soldiers – a heavy-handed piece of symbolism were it not an actual incident documented by several eyewitnesses.
I know of no other film that so vividly illustrates the interconnectedness of moral principles. In Missing the Horman family’s realization that ‘people who are loved can be killed’ underlined the sombre truth that the personal is inseparable from the political.
As Charles’s mother says: ‘His death taught me the lesson of political responsibility. I used to think that I could till the soil on my own little plot of land and let the rest of the world take care of its own problems... I was wrong. I know now that each of us is obligated to fight for what is right and take responsibility for what our government does. If we don’t, sooner or later it will affect us all.’
Missing directed by Costa-Gavras was released by Universal in 1981.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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