New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 310

new internationalist
issue 310 March 1999

Reviews

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Made in Hong Kong
directed by Fruit Chan

Fire
written and directed by Deepa Mehta

Made in Hong Kong According to his publicity, Made in Hong Kong’s director Fruit Chan has worked in film ranging ‘from non-profit to major studios’. In 1994 he secretly started collecting short ends of raw film stock. By 1996 he had saved more than 80,000 feet and was ready to begin his independent debut feature.

The result, Made in Hong Kong, blends action, comedy and social realism, the three poles of recent Hong Kong cinema. It follows a young punk and his mildly retarded side-kick through the streets and the two-bit world of the small-time con. The racket may be lively and exciting but it’s hardly lucrative. Our hero lives with his mother.

Their apartment complex immediately suggests a traditional motif of social realism – gigantic, noisy and decrepid. But Chan is too hip to let his audience take pity on the characters. As the hero tells Mr Big, the crime boss who sells him a gun, ‘Poverty begets evil. That’s the name of the game.’ Made in Hong Kong is definitely not a 1997 film – it does not deal with the hand- over from Britain to China. And yet even the title seems to challenge the outside world: the people of Hong Kong are not simply pawns in an international game of post-colonial strategies. The island’s popular cultures, and social problems are unique.

Chan’s characters and script take us quite a distance from the grace of Bruce Lee’s Kung-Fu or John Woo’s stylized gun play. There’s hardly room for a balletic kick or sweeping hand chop. Instead, in a key confrontation scene the hero and his rival smash beer bottles over each other’s heads in a cramped apartment kitchen.

Unfortunately, Chan’s independence only takes him so far. If there’s a punk aesthetic at work, speeding along in a raw, un-staged style, the story remains, nonetheless, a traditional youth-angst tale of flawed love, a nihilist prediction: the revenge of youth.

Still, the film shows a fresh, impressive mix of genre and theme determined to provoke its audience to think. Just how romantic can a hero be who steals from his mother and keeps his underwear in the fridge?

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Fire As the first major Indian film about a lesbian relationship Fire was unlikely to pass unnoticed. In India, cinemas have been attacked amid calls for the movie to be banned. Hopefully the controversy will not detract from appreciation of the intelligence, sensitivity and compassionate humour of Deepa Mehta’s ground-breaking feature. Set in a contemporay household in New Delhi, desire is Fire’s core theme. But it also highlights the tension and turmoil tearing at the characters living in urban India; pulled in contrary directions by the old and new, East and West, the spiritual and the material.

The action begins with the arrival into the family of Sita, a new young bride. Soon unhappy in her loveless marriage to the unfaithful Jatin, she finds herself drawn to, and raising the fire of thwarted passion in, her sister-in-law Radha. The latter has for years endured a childless and sexless marriage to the spiritually obsessesed Ashok. Sita also gets Radha, the heart and soul of the family fast-food-and-video shop, questioning beliefs and traditions she has never dared doubt before. Meanwhile, watching events unfold is the women’s ancient and demanding mother-in-law, Biji, muted and paralyzed by a stroke but still holding tremendous sway, both literally and symbolically.

‘There is no word in our language for what we feel for each other,’ says Sita at one point. Maybe not, but the film leaves the passionate ‘rightness’ of it in no doubt. The women pay a high price for their unorthodox love, but ultimately the film is an inspiration, resisting the all too common mainstream practice of depicting non-heterosexual relationships as somehow ‘doomed’. Neither does Mehta shy away from the erotic as well as the emotional richness of her theme, helped by deep warm colours, close sensuous camera work and some first-rate acting.

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Reviewed by Vanessa Baird

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The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India
by Urvashi Butalia
(Viking Penguin India, ISBN 0-670-87892-8)

There is no public memorial to the Partition of India which took place in 1947. Yet a million lives were lost in this period of convulsion, when the country was split into three along religious lines. Twelve million people were displaced and an estimated 75,000 women abducted and raped. Though never commemorated, the legacy of that unspeakable time is ever-present on the subcontinent, in what is at best wariness between Hindus and Muslims, and at worst murderous hatred.

The Other Side of Silence The available histories of Partition are often tainted with patriotic bias or discuss political events rather than the experiences of people on the ground. With the arrival of Urvashi Butalia’s courageous and incisive book the first attempt has been made to redress this imbalance. The result of years of painstaking research and numerous interviews, The Other Side of Silence seeks to put centre-stage the ordinary people ‘upon whose bodies and lives history has been played out’, especially the stories of those who have hitherto received little attention – women, children, the so-called ‘scheduled castes’.

Butalia navigates the anguished and searing testimony of her interviewees with dexterity, unafraid to question the motives that colour their versions of events, never prodding them to reveal what is too painful, yet suggesting with great care what might lie behind their silences. The great strength of this book is that it doesn’t strain to achieve an historian’s feigned impersonality, but actively grapples with the significance of what she has heard (some of which would be too horrible to be plausible, were it fiction) and supplements it with research. Butalia is Indian and her book doesn’t cover stories from the creation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) or the Pakistani side. She does, however, begin with a look at her own mother’s experience of Partition, and tracks down an uncle living in the family home in Pakistan.

The emotional core of the book is the exposition of the experiences of women during Partition, who were often subjected to rape and abduction; who were given no choice in their ‘repatriation’ and were often forced to abort or abandon children fathered by their abductors. Here the author’s questioning intelligence comes to the fore: women’s testimony is subject to greater self-censorship as it was usually not possible to interview them on their own. Often events concerning violence against women are related by the menfolk. She speaks with a man who felt compelled to kill 17 women and children of his family, rather than let them face potential rape or religious conversion, and with another who as a young boy witnessed his father’s beheading of his sister and the slaughter of the womenfolk of his extended family. She speaks to a survivor of an event that has mythic status amongst Hindus – the mass suicide by jumping into a well of Punjabi women – and analyzes the motives behind such actions, getting behind the language of martyrdom and valour to confront the violence towards women from their own community. Here, as elsewhere, there are as many questions as answers: ‘It is not my contention that the women who died thus in family and community violence were all victims, forced into taking their own lives, or murdered by their kinsmen. Or that they were mere victims of a “patriarchal consensus” arrived at by their men and the elders of their community. But how can we ever arrive at the “truth” of these incidents?’

How indeed? But this book is a valuable step in that direction. There is much, much more to commend it than this review can do justice to, and its flaws are minor. The Other Side of Silence is sane and compelling, it breaks new ground and deserves the widest possible readership.

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Reviewed by Dinyar Godrej

Available from Soma Books,
38 Kennington Lane, London SE11 4LS.
Tel: 0171 735 2101;
Fax: 0171 735 3076.
e-mail: books@somabooks.co.uk

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The Voice of the People
by Various
(Topic Records TSCD 651-670 20 CDs)

The Rough Guide to English Roots Music
by Various
(World Music Network RGNET 1018 CD)

Voice of the People Once the epitome of ‘popular’ music, what does folk song mean to us now? For long years it has become synonymous with culture and tradition: a type of oral history whose nuances are alive in today’s music, allowing for a breadth that can pull otherwise diverse singer-songwriters into the same fold. In the Western world, at least, so broad a definition would bring (and let’s suspend aesthetic considerations for a second) Bob Dylan, Kristin Hersh, Billy Bragg and (ahem) Dolly Parton into a cosy ‘unplugged’ clutch.

The Voice of the People If this seems academic, it’s not, as Topic’s huge and mighty Voice of the People project shows. Don’t be phased by its 20-CD size (all its volumes are available separately), for this represents a comprehensive selection of British traditional song, a far-reaching one which will rival John Lomax’s Library-of-Congress collection. Compiled by musician and lecturer Reg Hall, the collection contains recordings dating from 1908 to the present day with the material arranged thematically, with volumes dedicated to all aspects of life, ranging from sea-songs to love songs to rural events, with many jigs, reels and dances along the way. Once started, it’s addictive listening and the package’s presentation – full sleeve-notes and lyrics – only contributes to its pleasure.

While Voice of the People is certainly powerful and affecting, it’s fascinating also to consider the work’s contemporary importance. It could be argued that these songs take on a new significance as the devolution debates in Britain force each country to reconsider its own national heritage, but their real interest lies in their ability to travel through time and distance. To listen to many of these songs is to hear the raw material of songs from Australia, Canada or the US which have, in turn, founded new traditions. But, as may be expected, those are often tales of exile and emigration. ‘Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land’ (Vol 4) is as poignant an example as could be imagined: songs which dwell on leaving rather than arrival.

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If Voice of the People’s keynote is not so much about abject misery as the celebration of a living art-form, then what better place to start than the Rough Guide to English Roots Music. This up-beat anthology concentrates on the latter-day heroes: Bragg, Norma Waterson, Martin and Eliza Carthy. The songs are recorded with the benefit of modern studios and, often, full bands; but one thing shines throughout: the clear and joyful transmission of the past into the present and future.

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Reviewed by Louise Gray

THE CLASSIC

I...Rigoberta Menchú
... being the story of an Indian woman in Guatemala.

I… Rigoberta Menchú Recent newspaper reports have called into question the veracity of I… Rigoberta Menchú, the autobiography of the Guatemalan activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner. A Harvard Professor has claimed that she conflated events, claimed as her own story things that happened to others and portrayed what was essentially a feud between families as an attack by the military on the peasant communities. In a sense, given the vagaries of oral history and the bloody and complex nature of the Guatemalan people’s struggle, it is surprising that it has taken 17 years for the ideological witch-hunt that is American academia to turn its attention to Rigoberta Menchú.

Rather than engage in an arid battle over every last assertion and rebuttal, perhaps it would be more fruitful to examine those elements of Rigoberta’s life which are accepted as beyond dispute and ask whether, given this history, and this alone, she deserves not only a hearing but also our respect and admiration?

Rigoberta Menchú Tum was born in 1959 in the village of Chimel, in the north-west province of El Quiché, Guatemala. She was the sixth of the nine children of Vincente Menchú, a peasant activist and Juana Tum, a midwife and traditional healer. Her people, the Quiché, were descendants of the millennium-old Maya culture and, as in several other Latin American countries, the indigenous peoples constituted the majority of the population. Despite this they were grossly exploited by the Ladino minority and their human rights were non-existent. Apart from a decade of mild reform, under the administrations of Juan José Arévaldo and Jacobo Arbenz – the latter overthrown in 1954 in a CIA-backed coup – Guatemala has suffered a succession of right-wing dictatorships under whose rule torture, murder and repression became an obscene routine.

It is against this background of death squads and genocidal terror that Rigoberta Menchú grew up, working from an early age in near-slavery conditions, on coffee plantations. When she was 12, Rigoberta was sent to Guatemala City to work as a maid in the house of an affluent landowner. It is from this time that she dates the awakening of her political awareness, saying, ‘it’s then that I thought like a responsible woman’. Her daily existence, in squalor amid the opulence of the Ladino household, was also a forcible reminder that Indians were viewed as scarcely human by the ruling élite.

Quitting her job, Rigoberta returned to the plantation where her family lived. Her father was an organizer of the self-defence group, Committee of Peasant Unity, and he was constantly harassed and jailed by the authorities. Increasingly, Rigoberta took on a leadership role in the organization as it grew in strength and militancy.

The regime of General Lucas Garcia, which came to power in 1978, met petitions and protests with a programme of murderous terror. Rigoberta’s family, as with so many others, was destroyed by this pogrom. In 1979 her brother, Petrocinio – already at 16 a community activist – was tortured and killed by the military. In the following year her father was among a group of protesters who occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City to gain publicity for their cause. Rather than negotiate, soldiers lobbed grenades into the building. Vicente Menchú was among the 39 people who died in the subsequent fire. Three months later Rigoberta’s mother was kidnapped by the army, raped, tortured and killed.

Knowing that it was only a matter of time before she met the same fate, Rigoberta fled to Mexico and a life of exile. It was on a trip to Europe in 1982 to address a conference of solidarity groups that she met Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and had the series of conversations that became I… Rigoberta Menchú, the now-disputed book that was to make her famous and bring to the world’s attention the plight of the indigenous people of Guatemala.

After the success of her book, Rigoberta continued her tireless campaign for social justice and human rights. When, in 1992 she received the Nobel Peace Prize – becoming the youngest-ever recipient – she used the prize money to set up a foundation to further her work for peace and international solidarity. Bravely returning to Guatemala in 1994, she continues to use her high public profile to challenge the regime and advance the struggle of all indigenous people.

Many thousands have read Rigoberta Menchú’s life story as one of suffering, heroism and a passionate struggle for justice. They have taken her tale as a beacon of hope to all those who may have felt helpless and inadequate in the face of so much injustice in the world. It is surely wilfully missing the point to claim that they are nothing but credulous dupes, fooled by a young woman who opened her book with the words, ‘My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I am 23 years old. This is my testimony. I didn’t learn it from a book, and I didn’t learn it alone… My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.’

by Peter Whittaker

I… Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray (Verso, ISBN 0 86091 083 0).

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