Juárez – the laboratory of our future
by Charles Bowden
(Aperture, New York, US ISBN 0-89381-776-7)
Okinawa Dreams OK
by Tony Barrett and Rick Tanaka
(Private Guy International, Strawberry Hills, Australia ISBN 3-9311126-11-0)
Coffee-table books sell us the world as we would like it to be. Juárez shows us the world as it is – a terrifying vision, less willingly seen, that implies the two worlds are falling apart.
Two million people live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas. They are, argues Charles Bowden, harbingers of a world devoted entirely to free enterprise.
There are over 400 gangs in the city. They kill at least 150 people every year. Wages in the export factories have fallen – from virtually nothing – by almost a half since 1994. At one time a certain Amado Carrillo Fuentes was moving an annual 100 tons of cocaine into El Paso and earning $200 million a week.
Jaime Murrieta has photographed over 500 murders. He is one of a band of ‘street shooters’ in Juárez whose best work is too frank for the local newspapers. A body hung from a pylon like a puppet, fried by the electrical power it tried to steal; a cayote – smuggler of migrants – caught by rigor mortis on the concrete slopes of the Rio Grande; the hollow mask of a girl raped, murdered and left to mummify in Friendship Park; the Queen of the Factory Olympics.
Charles Bowden writes: ‘Snapshots make Juárez stand still. You can run from photographs but you can’t really hide.’
Recycled Chomsky at the front and Galeano at the back can’t add much to this stunning book. Nor, perhaps, can Bowden’s inspired if meandering and slightly portentous prose. But then, what could?
Somewhat gentler in its approach is Okinawa Dreams OK. Okinawa, the main island of the Ryukyu archipelago stretching south of Japan, was once an agricultural, fishing and trading island. It was ‘administered’ – in other words, occupied – by the US from 1945-1972, during which time military installations became the main business and employer. These islands may have hosted 40 US military bases, but their people have stubbornly clung to their own culture. The voices passionately recorded here are a collective prophesy of the superpower’s retreat.
Local women’s captivity to base culture and the omnipresence of military hardware are explored. But there are also less predictable items, such as the Okinawa origins of karate or the use of the island as a surreal film backdrop.
Those involved in radical politics and arts movements alike are engaged in the common cause of rescuing Okinawa from the US military and, to an extent, from control by Tokyo.
The book’s final interview is with Ahagon Shoko – the ‘Gandhi of Okinawa’ – who has devoted half his life to non-violent struggle. He concludes: ‘Some people criticize us for our opposition to the bases. There are others who are only interested in the pursuit of self-interest. Peace cannot be constructed by these people.’
McLibel: Two Worlds Collide
directed by Franny Armstrong
(One–Off Productions video)
The Big One
directed by Michael Moore
(distributed by Miramax)
The long arm of McDonald’s seems to have no limit. Proposed transmissions of this excellent documentary on the libel case brought by the burger giant against two activists, ex-Post Office worker and single father Dave Morris and part-time bar worker Helen Steel, have been cancelled by both the BBC and Britain’s Channel Four. Although there is nothing strictly libellous in Franny Armstrong’s film, which consists of a dramatic reconstruction of the court case interlaced with interviews with the defendants, the stations have been threatened with legal action by McDonald’s in the past and are keeping their heads down now.
More reason why McLibel: Two Worlds Collide should be shown as widely as possible. For it is precisely about how corporations like McDonald’s can censor free speech unless we stand up to them. Early on in the documentary Helen Steel relates how when she was a child, there was boy in her neighbourhood who would beat and bully all the other kids. One day she told her mother, who urged her to fight back. ‘I did, and he didn’t give me any more trouble after that.’ Unfortunately it was not quite so easy with Big Mac.
At one point Steel and Morris are described as ‘modern day heroes’. Actually they come across as a pretty ordinary pair of unheroic, unassuming Londoners – but armed with a passion for justice. In spite of intense and exhausting legal pressure they solidly refused to retract the claims they had made in a leaflet called: What’s Wrong with McDonald’s? Helen admits to being a shy person who hates the limelight, and you can see that this is true. Dave says: ‘I never imagined it would lead to this.’ Indeed. How could anyone have anticipated the longest legal case in UK history with Steel and Morris defending themselves (they were refused legal aid) against a seven-strong team of McDonald’s lawyers. And still they managed to outwit the professionals at times.
Half of Steel and Morris’s claims against McDonald’s were upheld by the judge. Yes, the company exploited and manipulated children through their advertising. Yes, they were culpably responsible for cruelty to animals. Yes, they deceptively advertised their food as nutritious and paid their workers low wages. McDonald’s claimed a victory. Well, if you believe that, you’ll believe that burgers are good for you. At the end of the film David Morris holds up a placard saying: ‘Judge for yourselves’. If your TV channels let you. If they don’t you can see this dramatic, inspiring, hard-hitting and heart-warming documentary on http://www.spanner.org/mclibel/ The video can also be ordered (price £14.99) from BCM Oops, London WC1N 3XX. Tel/fax: (+44) 171 247 8881. e–mail: email@example.com
In The Big One corporate gadfly and veteran muckraker of greed, Michael Moore is at it again. This time Moore, of Roger and Me fame, broadens his scope to investigate the effects of corporate down-sizing throughout the United States. The goal, he says, is to find ‘one corporate CEO with a conscience’.
Viewers who remember his earlier documentaries will know the dramatic set pieces by heart. Moore, with camera-crew, entering a corporate headquarters – always that glistening glass and steel – searching for an executive who will talk. Verbal jostling with security guards and PR specialists, the classic ‘flak catchers’ in action.
The film, and the book tour for Moore’s ‘Downsize This!: Random Threats From an Unarmed American’ takes him far off the beaten track for a typical publicity junket. It includes Centralia, Illinois, home of the Pay Day candy bar. ‘Every Day is Pay Day.’ shouts a sign outside the factory, but alas the plant is about to close. Next stop, Rockford, Illinois, a city now ranked economically as the ‘worst in the USA’. Moore ends the sequence singing a sardonic version of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times Are a Changing’.
Throughout his films Moore plays a consistent character – equal parts the muckraking journalist, the comic fat man, and the neatly clichéd US working-man of the checked shirt, baseball cap, plumber’s-droop pants aesthetic. His meeting with the smooth, ultra-hip Phil Knight, Chair of Nike Corporation throws the two styles and the worlds they represent into fine contrast. It’s the centre of the film. Knight doesn’t hide from a showdown. He’s either arrogant enough or clever enough to step into Moore’s media machine and make his case – the CEO with a conscience.
Moore’s cross-country antics take centre stage in a way that threatens to turn the workers into background extras. And, as in his earlier work, Moore’s good-old-boy humour occasionally picks unfortunate, easy targets. As for economic analysis, Moore often runs close to an ‘America First’ outlook, where the loss of jobs to foreign workers comprises the greatest sin of all.
Still, in this age of global downsizing, with US profits up 250 per cent since 1991, but millions living in poverty, nobody’s playing the class clown in the mainstream like Moore.
Country Girls and City Women
by Najat Aâtabu
(Rounder 5077 CD)
The Legendary Fairuz
(EMI Hemisphere 23572 CD)
It’s one of the great contradictions of our times that some of the most restrictive societies – especially as far as the status of women are concerned – have also given us some of the best women’s music. In terms of the Muslim world, this is certainly so. Yet for all the lavish and impassioned richness that, say, Egypt’s incomparable Oum Kalsoum or Lebanon’s Fairuz possess, it’s arguable that the push for change comes not from the metropolis but the countryside.
Hailed as the ‘siren of the Atlas mountains’, Najat Aâtabu overcame the displeasure of her appalled Berber family to become one of Morocco’s greatest exponents of chaabi or ‘popular’ style. Aâtabu’s records are compelling. Traditional Berber rhythms and instruments – foremost among them buzzing, sheepskin drums called bendirs and a swarm of frenetic violins and ouds – are fused with Aâtabu’s pure and utterly direct voice. There’s no doubt in Country Girls and City Women who’s boss. But it’s as a song-writer that she really hits home. The title to her second western release hints at what it contains: it examines the conservative belief that cities turn (good) girls into bad women. Through the medium of impassioned love songs, Aâtabu rips into not only feckless men, but weeping women too. ‘Go find another lover, there’s plenty of single guys out there...’ she sings on ‘Shoufi Ghirou’, simultaneously beating off the competition and claiming the man herself. Her songs operate in a cultural minefield and are all the more delicious for their simple assertion: get a life! In addition to the unusual lyrics (translated into English), the fulsome sleeve notes offer an interview with the singer, tips on other discs, films and books about Morocco and some hot-looking recipes. All in all, Country Girls and City Women makes for a well-thought out package.
A Beirut-born Christian, Fairuz has become synonymous with the cause of freedom – in this case, of Lebanon. Backed up by the sensual orchestral tones of the Rabhini Brothers, Fairuz resisted becoming the nationalistic rallying point that some tried to make her, concentrating her efforts on a more pan-Arab ideal – songs on The Legendary Fairuz refer to Beirut, Kuwait and Baghdad. Her significance for today lies in how she bridged a gap between traditions and opened up Arabic music to its own particular lingua franca. That she succeeded is evident in the influences that remain today.
Reviewers: Louise Gray, Stephen Webb, David Ransom, Peter Steven, Vanessa Baird.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
T H E C L A S S I C
...a man with a mission to speak for those who didn't get away.
‘I should not be here to tell this story. It’s that simple: there is a day in my past, a day many years ago in Santiago de Chile, when I should have died and did not.’
So begins Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman’s luminous account of his life, Heading South, Looking North. Such an opening could be seen as melodramatic or self-dramatizing but in Dorfman’s case it is no more than the simple truth. As a supporter of the Chilean President, Salvador Allende, Dorfman was due to work a shift at La Moneda, the Presidential residence on 11 September 1973.
For the most trivial of personal reasons, he swapped shifts with a co-worker and so was at home when the military under Augusto Pinochet launched its bloody coup against Allende’s Government. Claudio Gimento, the person with whom he swapped shifts was captured, tortured and murdered. Small wonder that Dorfman, in his novels, plays, stories and essays, has felt an obligation to bear witness, to ‘keep a promise to the dead’ and speak for all those who failed to escape torture and death. Ariel Dorfman’s fascinating life history has resonances far beyond the particular and the personal.
His experiences stand as emblematic of our troubled, dislocated closing half-century. How this son of Argentinean leftists came to be one of the militants of the noble Chilean attempt at a non-violent, democratic revolution is a tale of exile and loss but also of belonging and hope. His grandparents were part of the Jewish diaspora; escaping Russian pogroms in the early years of the century, they settled in Argentina, only for his parents to be forced to flee to the US when the military took over in 1943. The pattern of displacements continued when the family was caught up in the McCarthyite ‘Red Scare’ of the early 1950s and had to uproot yet again, this time to Chile. Finally, Ariel himself had to flee Pinochet’s troops and go into exile, just as his parents and grandparents had done.
Drawing on his experience of this enforced nomadic life, Dorfman has built a body of work in which there is a constant dialogue between attachment to place and loyalty to people. His early years in the US and his adolescence in Chile meant that not only did he grow up bilingual in Spanish and English but that he also had a grandstand view of the rich world/poor world power struggle. His meditations on this conflict have led to his radical and innovative work on language and culture such as the groundbreaking anti-colonial classics How to Read Donald Duck (copies of which were publicly burned by the military after the coup) and The Empire’s Old Clothes with its splendidly explanatory sub-title, ‘What the Lone Ranger, Babar and other Innocent Heroes do to our minds’!
Dorfman’s peripatetic life is mirrored in a willingness to cross boundaries in his writing; Widows started life as a poem then became a novel before finding its finished form in the theatre. Arguably, Dorfman’s best and most powerful work is for the stage. His most famous play is Death and the Maiden, in which we share the dilemma of Paulina Salas, finally presented with the opportunity to confront and interrogate the man she believes tortured her many years before. The themes of revenge and reconciliation, justice and healing are presented to us not as stark choices but as central to the dilemma of what makes us human. As Paulina asks her vacillating husband at the end of the play, ‘Why does it always have to be people like me who have to sacrifice? Why are we always the ones who have to make concessions when something has to be conceded? Why always me who has to bite her tongue, why?… What do we lose by killing one of them?’
Paulina, in her struggle with the self-protective amnesia of her society, is central to the writing of Ariel Dorfman. In all his work there is a bloody-minded refusal to let the past be buried, a burning need to prevent memories and ideals from being extinguished. In Heading South, Looking North, Dorfman speaks of meeting a victim of torture who kept her sanity by endlessly repeating some lines of verse by the poet Pablo Neruda, preserving inside herself a small zone which she could keep from the men who were making her suffer. It is for this woman and thousands like her that Ariel Dorfman argues the case that we have an ‘obligation to remember’. In fulfilling his promise, in ‘writing to the future’, in singing of joy when despair would have been so easy, this expatriate son of exiles and refugees has made a vital contribution to the continuing literature of hope.
Heading South, Looking North (ISBN 0 340 71300 3) is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Widows and Death and the Maiden form part of the volume, The Resistance Trilogy (ISBN 1 85459 36 2) published by Nick Hern Books.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7