new internationalist
issue 165 - November 1986


Star rating system. Film reviews

The Fringe Dwellers
directed by Bruce Beresford

White hand against black face in the Fringe Dwellers The treatment of Australian aborigines by whites is well chronicled: it is a brutal story that can be repeated throughout much of the world. The Fringe Dwellers is part of that story.

Through the lives of the Comeaway family, aborigines are depicted as people with their own culture, values, sensitivities and ambitions. Their story is set against the backdrop of their camp, a collection of 'humpys', makeshift huts consisting principally of corrugated sheets, wood and cardboard, on the fringe of an Australian town.

The film tells of the lifestyles and limitations imposed on aborigines - experiences the white person knows little about; let alone has to face. Although implicit, racism is not a central theme of The Fringe Dwellers. There are no crude political points scored. But anger and injustice simmers beneath the surface.

The family could be any poor family and in this sense the film comes close to transcending the issue of racism. But thankfully it never descends into innocuous soap opera

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We demand our freedom
directed by Gerard Bueters

A curious knot of people gather on a street corner. They might be waiting for a bus - they look bored enough. But this is El Salvador and what has actually drawn them to together is a man's body lying in a congealing pool of blood.

'It was shot from a green van. Then they drove off very fast,' says a small boy, smiling, eager to be helpful.

We demand our freedom is partly about the routine horrors of a country at war. The dozen or so death squads that roam the streets of San Salvador leave human debris that no camera can ignore.

But the real message is that of a growing political force. News bulletins may concentrate on the guerillas and the government forces of Napoleon Duarte, but ordinary Salvadoreans, who have little to do with either, are increasingly making their voices heard through the trade union movement. 'This is the people!' is the chant as they shuffle behind the banners.

Some trade unions are more acceptable to the Government than others but all do have some political space to work in, however small and dangerous.

This Dutch video, now available in English, makes their case. It takes a low-key approach. The commentary is pretty deadpan and there is little visual drama. But it does allow those who are 'extras' in the usual media coverage to move to the centre of the stage and argue for the 'honest dialogue' that could bring an end to the war.

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Available for hire (£7.50) from ESCHR, 83 Margaret St, London W1N 7HB, UK.


Music reviews

Qawwal and Party
by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
(Womad Records)

[image, unknown] Qawwali - devotional music of the Sufi Muslims - may not be everyone's cup of tea. But this record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is worth listening to if you like to explore types of music, rhythms and contexts.

The Qawwali are 'utterances' sung usually in Urdu, Punjabi or Persian; songs in praise of God, his prophet Muhammed and the other Muslim saints. Their purpose, similar to that of other religious chanting such as plainsong, is to provoke a devotional and contemplative mood. But unlike plainsong, the Qawwali are accompanied by instruments - tabla, mandolin, harmonium - and the songs are performed with increasing exuberance as they reach their end.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's family have been Qawwali singers for six centuries, and Nusrat is considered the foremost exponent of the art. He and his group have toured many Western countries, introducing people to Qawwali singing which requires years of training and co-ordination between the members of the party/group.

It's an intriguing record, but Nusrat's high tenor voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Demis Roussos.

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Book reviews

USSR: From an original idea by Karl Marx
by Marc Polonsky & Russell Taylor
(Faber and Faber)

[image, unknown] Who says the Soviet Union is not interested in innovation? The Commission for State Security apparently regards any mail box as a suggestions box and eagerly scours all items placed in it for constructive criticisms of the Soviet regime. Other countries take note.

There are also daring efforts now to introduce 'full communism' in the Soviet Union. Order a shvedsky stol in a restaurant and you'll get a mixed buffet from which you can eat as much as you like. Unfortunately Marx's rash prediction that the proletariat would not stuff itself sick under these circumstances has yet to be fulfilled. 'Each takes according to his greed and finishes up with the stomach in a state of revolutionary turmoil.'

This and other key pieces of information are helpfully provided in this handbook which every traveller to the USSR should study well before going - or instead of going.

All sorts of eventualities are sensitively handled. If you are being pestered in the street by a black-market speculator you should claim to be from a 'brother socialist republic' and interest in you will rapidly evaporate. If invited out you are advised to be punctual; ten minutes late and people will assume that you have been picked up by the police. You are encouraged to spare your hosts the worry - and any unnecessary flushing of incriminating papers down the toilet.

Cultural insights include an exploration of the Russian facility for absorbing vast quantities of alcohol - anything from vodka to whatever the cleaning lady's cupboard will provide. Women, however, are denied participation in these rituals - and indeed in the subsequent sprawling in snow-drifts or wrestling under the table with Latvians that such drinking seems to require.

The authors of this fascinating and entirely reprehensible book draw extensively on their experience as travel operators to the USSR - an occupation which, one imagines, may now be somewhat curtailed.

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[image, unknown] Beating Time
by David Widgery
(Chatto and Windus, UK)

On 4 May 1978 a Bengali tailor Altab Ali was stabbed to death in East London. The racial murder was greeted with official indifference. But for many ordinary people, especially socialists, the random violence by working-class people against a fellow worker of another skin colour was devastating.

Beating Time is an insider's account of peoples' response to that despair. It tells of black and white people, outside conventional politics, inspired by a mixture of socialism, punk rock and common humanity, who got together and organised to change things. Rock Against Racism (RAR) was the first time that popular music and politics combined in this particular fashion - a forerunner of Band Aid.

But for all RAR's efforts racism remains and Widgery shows the continuing need for this cross-cultural movement of music and youth. Beating Time is powerful stuff and essential reading.

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Debt Bondage or Self-Reliance
by GATT-Fly

GATT-Fly has succeeded admirably in making the complexities of the global debt crisis intelligible to the non-specialist and has done so in less than 100 pages. This book examines the origin of the debt crisis and the horrendous implications for ordinary people in the Third World of policies designed to service that debt. It argues that the International Monetary Fund is now playing a central role in helping international banks protect their capital and increase their profits by imposing policies of austerity on the workers and peasants of the Third World This is a highly readable book complete with cartoons, photographs, tables and graphs, containing a mine of well-organised information.

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Available from GATT-Fly, 11 Madison Ave, Toronto, Canada. N5R 2S2

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The machine stops
.being the tale that prophesied the enthronement of the computer

Because of the computer, some parents complain, children are forgetting how to add. But what if computers made parents forgot how to make love?

The Machine Stops is E M Forster's brilliantly prophetic short story about a futuristic society where couples come together not out of love but in obedience to a social duty to procreate - and then they part. Babies are brought up in nurseries scattered around the globe. Children and parents have no contact with one another - human feelings that we consider natural apparently no longer exist.

Instead these buried feelings of love and devotion are offered unconsciously to the gigantic octopus-like computer that runs their lives. They revere the machine as a god, and approach the computer manual in hushed tomes, kiss it secretly, venerate it as a holy book of magic power. The knowledge it contains is treated as sacred.

A corollary to this sacralising of linear, technical knowledge is that other kinds of knowledge, not mediated by layers of technology, become suspect. So any 'knowing' that comes from intuition, or from any direct experience of the natural world, is shunned. Sensual experiences that you or I might delight in - like tasting one's mouth water sweetly at the aroma from a hot, succulent stewpot, or feeling the shiver that runs up your spine as you look at the stars on a piercing night - would be shunned as gross, primitive, brutal.

The hero of the story, however, is a dissident. He is considered a throwback, because he is still 'primitive' enough to have hair on his upper lip - most of the others have refined themselves out of body awareness as much as possible; they are physically weak, their muscles have atrophied from their sedentary lives. No one really needs their arms or legs since no one moves out of their rooms to visit anyone else. They live underground in cells - the ultimate in atomised apartments, and make minimal contact through fuzzy television screens. To actually want to meet someone in the flesh is considered the height of bad manners.

But what happens to this passive, cerebral society when something goes wrong? No one knows how to repair the computer; it contains the knowledge itself, and if it fails, the whole of society grinds to a cataclysmic halt - as it does in the story when, as the title indicates, the machine stops.

Forster painted this portrait of a society that had given up its power to a machine at a time when such fears of computer-domination were not alive in the community as they are - finally - today. He wrote it back in 1909, in response to a piece by H G Wells glorifying in high tech future. Are Forster's predictions alarmist? Or are they coming too near the truth today?

It seems that society is becoming more atomised - we live in increasingly 'independent' ways; we no longer (in the high-tech West) meet at the river to wash our clothes - we each have our washing machines or if we are 'underprivileged' we sit anonymously in laundromats. We don't go out hunting together - we buy our individually frozen TV dinners which we thaw out in our individual kitchenettes.

In New York, people contact each other so much now through the telephone exchange that if you want an old-fashioned person-to-person meeting you sometimes need to specify a 'flesh meeting'. What is happening to direct experience? Direct contact?

Most frightening of all, though, are the computer scientists themselves, who see humans as one rung down the evolutionary ladder. Who is the higher? The fifth and further generations of the (Hail, O Lord!) computer. They actually proffer to us, the masses, a society where human beings will live 'in the interstices of uncomprehended, incredibly intelligent electronic organisms, like fleas on the backs of gods', as one computer scientist put it, with macabre cheerfulness. Was Forster being alarmist, three-quarters of a century ago? It seems not

Anuradha Vittachi

The Machine Stops available in The New Collected Short Stories by EM Forster (introduced by P N Furbank), £9.95 (hbk), Sidgwick and Jackson, London.

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New Internationalist issue 165 magazine cover This article is from the November 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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