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new internationalist
issue 166 - December 1986


Star rating system. Film reviews

The Mission
directed by Roland Joffe

The cross and the fire - Father Gabriel leads the Guarani out of the Mission to face the soldiers. The Mission has been attacked for its political superficiality. The film presents in the form of a piece of historical fiction - about 17th-century Paraguay and Jesuit missionaries in conflict with the overweening power of the Vatican - a parable about the massacre of the Indians of the rain forest.

This is a familiar argument. Whenever a genuine epic movie arrives, making its bold brush-stroke statement about a vital political issue (the Russian Revolution in Reds, say, or the Indonesian military coup in The Year of Living Dangerously), people stampede to be the first to score points by lambasting it. Let them stick to their art-houses and compare notes about the correct Marxist exegesis. What they leave out of their equations is the power of film to make a popular audience feel something about political oppression.

The Mission is a breathtaking example of a movie that makes you care. You start off holding your breath and watching for the flaws but end up being swept away by its conviction and grandeur. One of its virtues is that it never becomes 'mere history', never loses us in a costume pageant. The Jesuit heroes turn the Guarani Indians into heavenly choirs and you squirm occasionally at the arrogance of their mission. Yet the movie stakes out its political ground too - 'the difference between this plantation and yours,' the priest says to the slave-owning Spanish Governor, 'is that this belongs to them (the Indians)'. And it can be read ultimately as a debate between two wings of liberation theology about whether to take up arms to defend the poor against injustice.

Chris Menges' photography is outstanding - he's blessed the work of radical film-makers for years and is clearly not leaving his conscience behind now as his reputation becomes intemational; Roland Joffe's follow-up to The KilIing Fields proves he is determined to confront global issues that matter and not be sucked by money into meaninglessness; and Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro are as fine as you would expect; though it's odd to see the latter not monopolizing the centre of a film.

And when you emerge shell-shocked, Survival International are there to remind you that stories like this are still being played out every day - in Brazil alone, one Indian tribe has been wiped out each year since 1900.

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Rosa Luxemburg
directed by Margarethe von Trotta

[image, unknown] Revolutionaries are fired by ideas, but watching people talking about ideas makes poor cinema. Here director Margarethe von Trotta has included enough of Rosa Luxemburg's political life to give her heroine credibility while illuminating other, more watchable, aspects of her life. Polish-born Rosa was always exceptional. At nine she was writing poetry; at 17 her political activities forced her into exile. Her intellect, magnetism and passionate oratory made revolution possible in Germany. But von Trotta is fascinated by Rosa's personality, this woman revolutionary who theorized about the Spontaneity of the Masses while at the same time agonizing over whether to have children. 'Give birth to ideas urged her lover, 'they are your children.' Sleepless nights would not have speeded the Revolution.

Rosa's warmth and love of nature contrast with the rather dry characters of her comrades: 'However busy you are, don't forget to lift your eyes and see the silvery clouds'. Intellectually she could run rings round them, but it wasn't enough. She could shape the destiny of Europe, but not the shape of the relationship between men and women.

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Book reviews

Breastfeeding matters
by Maureen Minchin
(Alma/George Allen & Unwin Australia)

If you think there's little to choose between breastfeeding and bottlefeeding, think again. Breastfeeding matters because artificial milks simply cannot compete. But Maureen Minchin doesn't just say 'breast is best': she relights the touch-paper on the campaign to promote breastfeeding the world over.

Minchin argues that breastfeeding should be the norm. Mothers must be given active support and help with specific problems, and every attempt made to ensure babies are breastfed for the first months of their lives. She details the practical steps needed to achieve this, such as vigorous education or health professionals, improved maternity/lactation leave, the setting up of breast-milk banks and the adoption of the World Health Organization code on infant formula marketing.

The blend of research, passion and political comment make this a powerful book. Maureen Minchin doesn't condemn or pass judgement. She simply points out what has happened in the past, shows the inadequacies of research into breast-milk substitutes, demonstrates how breastfeeding can be promoted worldwide - and leaves one wondering how on earth bottlefeeding ever got off the ground.

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[image, unknown] Ayahs, Lascars and Princes
by Rozina Visram

An ayah was one of the Indian women who served as nannies to the children of British imperial families; a lascar was an Indian sailor; and there were many more of these in Britain than there were princes. But we only hear about the maharajahs at Oxford and Cambridge, and fail to realise that black people have a long history in Western societies - that we have a hidden multiracial heritage.

This book traces the history of people of Indian origin in Britain and acts as a companion-piece to Peter Fryer's Staying Power, about people of African origin. It is, on the whole, rather less lively and substantial than Fryer's book But it is just as important and unearths some similarly fascinating facts - about Conservative Prime Ministers Lords Liverpool and Salisbury, for instance (the former had an Indian mother, while the latter was ridiculed for opposing the idea of an Indian standing for Parliament since Salisbury himself apparently had the darker skin).

The very notion that there was a black MP under Queen Victoria (Dadabhai Naoroli, elected in 1892) is surprising - and shaming when there is not a single one now.

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Music reviews

Pacific Pilgrim
by Paul Metser

'We shall overcome' - remember that being done to death by protestors everywhere, for every cause? The stark appeal of such songs, where message may outshine melody, is alive and well in this album from Paul Metser.

Aotearoan Metser brings the range of protest issues up to date: South Africa ('the backs of the blacks ... for freedom will break'); the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior; the Bomb; and, of course, Maori rights in Aotearoa (NZ). Metser's potted colonial history ('They stumbled on your paradise and claimed it for their own') recalls the West's fateful impact on the Pacific region. His solidarity with the Maori cause is expressed through low-key nationalism: 'I'll never be a patriot ... but Aotearoa I love you just the same'.

Metser's messages are heartfelt and the musicianship is enthusiastic. It should put you in the right mood of indignation before that next demo.


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The Mission, directed by Roland Joffe. After this, and John Boorman's The Emerald Forest, you might almost think the plight of the Indian tribes of South America had moved to the centre of the world stage. It hasn't, but this spectacular and tragic film does everything it could be expected to do to make people care.


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Heroes, by John Pilger. The only work to get a double five star rating this year was this collection of Anglo-Australian Pilger's campaigning journalism. For years he has raised awareness and roused anger about famine and poverty, aboriginies and Cambodians - and reached the widest possible audience in the process.


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World of Wonders, by Bruce Cockburn. Canadian Cockburn is a radical Christian committed to the struggle for justice in Latin America, and this album shows him at the peak of his creative powers. He even manages to turn a blast against the International Monetary Fund into a great song. That ancient and maligned beast 'committed folk rock' at its best.

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A Question of Power
.being the book about exile from black South Africa

In April this year the much-loved black South African writer, Bessie Head, died of cancer in a small village in Botswana. She was only 49. Her name is unfamiliar to many people who have read everything by her white South African counterparts - Olive Schreiner, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing - and yet she wrote, in English, novels and short stories of disturbing power and beauty.

Born in 1937 in Pietermaritzburg, she had a tragic, emotionally searing childhood. Her father was African and the white mother she had never known died in an asylum, bequeathing to her daughter only the feeling of unbelonging and the terror that she, too, would go mad.

In A Question of Power Bessie Head turns her origins into a cruel revelation that does indeed push her protagonist into a horrifying mental breakdown; 'Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane like your mother. Your mother was a white woman'.

Bessie Head qualified as a teacher, then served her apprenticeship as a black writer on Drum magazine. In 1963, when her marriage had broken down, she left South Africa with her son on a one-way exit permit, never to return. Her adopted home, the village of Serowe in Botswana, centred her writing, which increasingly dealt with roots and rootlessness, exile and a sense of belonging, good and evil. Her novels are a curious mixture of the autobiographical and the visionary: both their realism and their transcendence are very shaking.

A Question of Power, her third and last novel, is Bessie Head's vision of the separation of the mentally sick, of the grotesque suffering of personal isolation and of the obscenities of racism. Elizabeth, like her creator, has a white mother and a black father, and has left South Africa with her son to live in the village of Motabeng ('the place of sand') in Botswana. Forever an outsider, she establishes an entirely abnormal relationship with two men, who become the two sides of her tormented soul. Real people, they are also the embodiments of good and evil and in their struggle for dominance over Elizabeth she enters a ghastly underworld of self-loathing madness. A Question of Power weaves in and out of sanity, conveying the external life of an unwanted exile and the almost unbearable anguish when the mind has become a torture chamber.

The mad internal life, where Elizabeth is forced to gaze at the foulness at the heart of things when all she wants to do is close her eyes forever, is mirrored by the sane consideration of her daily life. Although she loves her adopted home in Botswana - the warmth of its people 'was so inconceivable, the extreme opposite of "Hey kaffir, get out of the way" in South Africa' - she is always remembering acts of brutality and humiliation. At times her language splinters and almost disintegrates under enraged grief, above all when she considers old friends who 'were so demoralized that they cringed. they began to feel that they were inferior'. A Question of Power keeps circling back to 'Never think of I and mine. It is death. Black people learnt that lesson brutally because they were the living victims of the greed inspired by I and mine and to hell with you, dog'.

Bessie Head has been criticized for having rejected the political aims of fellow writers and for being out of touch with Pan-Africanism and South African politics. For although she abhorred white racism with a shuddering of hatred that turned days into nightmares, she also feared 'exclusive brotherhoods for black people only'. Underneath the shattered mosaic of her writing lies a fundamentally humanitarian message. 'It depends on where one places the stress. I place it on the soul. If it's basically right there then other things fall into place. That's my struggle and that is black power, but it's a power that belongs to all mankind and in which all mankind can share.'

In her novels, in her books of African history and in her life she avoided the rich, the powerful and the heroic and focussed instead upon 'common people' and daily things; the women struggling under male dominance; the scared, the humiliated, the generous and the courageous; the sickness of the soul and its resilience; the cruelty of the world and the beauty. What she wanted in the battered drama of her tragically short life was ordinariness; as Elizabeth says in A Question of Power, 'When a people wanted everyone to be ordinary it was just another way of saying man loved man'.

Nicci Gerrard
A Question of Power by Bessie Head

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New Internationalist issue 166 magazine cover This article is from the December 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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