issue 167 - January 1987
directed by Oliver Stone
War-junkie reporters desperate for another fix swarmed around El Salvador in the early 1980s Survivors of Nam made a bee-line for a small and convenient battleground packed with American interest, if few American dead. Salvador is based on the experience of one such US war-junkie, Richard Boyle.
Desperate for a photographic commission, he regales San Francisco's Pacific News Service with his previous exploits and privations in Kampuchea and Afghanistan - 'Two weeks staple-gunned to the toilet, man'.
But El Salvador transforms him. The macho, whoring, boozing photo-journalist joins the side of the angels - finally convinced by the slaughter of four American nuns. The movie seems to encourage us all to make the same discovery. But it needn't have bothered. The military and the death squads are such a sinister bunch of hoodlums that they would lose anybody's heart and mind within about three frames. And Boyle himself, for all the hyperactive amoral bluster that actor James Woods gives him, has so clearly got gold written all over his heart that he has to do the right thing.
Who cares? Salvador is a gripping production directed with verve and pace. And on an impressive scale, too. Battle scenes with bloodied photographers crawling from one corpse to another would not disgrace Rambo. Even the impassioned last minutes of Archbishop Romero - 'I order you in the name of God. Stop the repression!' - are given a full-scale recreation.
It's a pity that Third World horrors are only really frightening when they are suffered by Western journalists and nuns and aid workers. But Oliver Stone accepts this and plays it for all it's worth. A movie to rank alongside Missing for its skilful propulsion of political complexity into a popular form.
New Eyes for Reading
edited by John Pobee and Barbel von Wartenberg-Potter
(World Council of Churches)
A quote: 'Christianity has turned God into a prison warden. God is not different from the "macho"; usually absent from his home, yet served and feared; irascible and vindictive when he thinks he has been wronged'. This book promises to rush in where clerical angels fear to tread: it faces the task of reconciling a white male-dominated religion with Third World women's experiences and you read it to watch these two forces clash.
But the confrontation is surprisingly muted in many of the essays Several are purely devotional. In these contributions the ardour of faith smothers militancy. A few - like Bette Ekeya's denunciation of the Christian Church's attitude towards African women - are eloquent, direct and bitterly critical. There should be more of this kind of salty criticism of the Church's attitude towards women. The book's excess of pious acceptance leaves you feeling a bit cheated. Were some contributions excluded or toned down because they were too angry? The editors should have told us in the introduction how they chose the contributors In short the book, like the young woman on its cover, is a bit too coy.
Women in the World: an International Atlas
by Joni Seager and Ann Olson
(Pan with Pluto Press)
Who could resist an atlas which tells you how many women in the US have had cosmetic surgery in the last six years? Whether you like sublime or silly statistics, this book will cater to your taste. It is packed full of fascinating and surprising nuggets of information ranging from the percentage of people involved in finance, real estate and insurance in Barbados who are women (51.4 percent), to a map showing the sites of women's peace camps across the globe.
Almost 150 colour charts and maps give a clear idea of how women across the world live: their chances of being able to read and their life expectancy at birth. And in case anyone needs convincing that the male of the species gets a better deal, there are maps comparing the amount of work each sex does, or charts showing how much public spending goes on women, and how much on men. At the back of the book are country-by-country tables showing women's access to vital resources.
Like all the best fun books, this atlas has a serious point.
Never before has learning the awful truth about women's oppression been so easy.
Socially Responsible Investment
by Sue Ward
(Directory of Social Change)
Will socially responsible investment provide an outlet for all those who guiltily tuck any surplus away in the bank or building society? Or is it a slick marketing ploy by financial institutions who have discovered a crock of surplus gold?
The underdeveloped UK market does not yet provide the answer - the alternatives there could be covered by a small booklet. So Sue Ward has decided to produce a beginners guide to investment which bears ethical considerations in mind. There are two kinds of socially responsible investment - avoiding companies which invest in, for example, South Africa or the arms trade, by going to a financial institution with a panel of ethical advisors; or investing in an organization doing positive good but offering less lucrative returns.
But even here you can meet with problems - the major shareholder in the Stewardship Fund, the UK's largest ethical fund, is a company listed as doing animal experimentation. Those with neither the time nor the inclination to enter the world of finance may prefer to leave their money with the building society and channel their energies elsewhere.
Talking with the Taxman about Poetry
by Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg is so British that he almost demands to be described by British slang normally exiled from these pages in the interests of internationalism; awkward cuss, ex-punk, Cockney wide-boy shooting his mouth off, voice a cross between a heckler and a crooning brillo pad, cheapskate guitarist. Why bother to listen to records of a man like that (especially if you're not British)?
Some cosmic joker made this boy a poet, that's why. From the wistful honky tonk of 'Honey I'm a Big Boy Now' to the hard-edged 'Ideology' Bragg is blessed with the ability to convey raw but infinitely complex emotions through what is seen as the most trashy of art-forms; the three minute pop song. And he does so despite the curse of having to work with some of the world's least promising material. Bragg goes for the really ugly (mass unemployment, twisted and deadlocked relationships) or the stiflingly ordinary (trade unionism) and brings it alive with searing honesty, heart-rending moments of tenderness, humour, good tunes, lust and political awareness.
by Paul Simon
The title sounds harmless enough but Graceland has not found favour with some critics of apartheid. Paul Simon's ingenious fusion of South African and Western music may be a delight to listen to, inventive and chirpy, but should he have gone to South Africa at all?
Cultural boycottists believe not. Others, including Simon himself presumably, think he's done more good than harm by promoting this music - revealing another side of black South Africa, away from the bloodshed, in the music of artists like the Boyoyo Boys and Juluka.
But the most political word on the album cover is 'Soweto' used not to locate the flashpoint of conflict but to pinpoint a style of street jive music. Surely Simon's action would only have been defensible if he had situated the album in its proper political context. Instead the fulsome sleeve notes dwell on musicology, players and traditions with such single-mindedness that they come over as an earnest attempt to justify the record's political flab.
.being the book that is a monument to peasant culture
John Berger's short stories and poems in Pig Earth are all set in the French peasant community where he still lives. They were written over a period of four years, and in the early stories Berger writes from the point of view of an outsider, documenting brief episodes that he witnessed, noticing and describing every detail in a way that is typical of a stranger in a strange land.
As I was reading The Great Whiteness I felt that I was there with Helene as she led her goat to mate on a dark winter's evening. I could hear her boots making a 'scuffing noise in the leaves, which in places were covered with frost like grey salt'; I could hear her cursing the goat when it refused to follow; I could hear her calling to the he-goat and the he-goat's eventual reply 'which no voice could have imitated'; I could sense the darkness and the cold and the snow falling, sealing off Helene and the goats from the rest of the world.
Later in the book the stories take a different form and it is easy to imagine that this is the result of Berger's growing familiarity with the culture. He begins to write from the characters' own point of view and the stories span a longer period of time, moving back and forward between past, present and future. A comparison with documentary films come to mind: the early stories are in the fly-on-the-wall style; the later ones are drama documentaries - works of informed imagination.
The last and longest story. The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, is written in the voice of Jean, a man who was born and grew up in the village but who spent much of his life abroad. It tells the life of Lucie, a woman whom Jean realises in his old age, when it is too late, that he has always loved. Earlier, when he could have married her, he had recoiled from her; she was strange and wild, a social misfit, and so small she was almost a dwarf.
Lucie never married and when she fell out with her brothers she was banished from the family farm and became a kind of hermit living in the forest. One day the Madonna appeared to her in a dream and told her she must pick the produce of the forest as it ripened and take it across the boarder to sell. Eventually she grew rich and it is said she murdered for her money. The story is heavy with passion; for a woman, a place and a way of life.
When I finished reading these stories I felt I understood the community. I had a sense of what it means to be dependent on the land, the weather and the seasons. I knew something of the folklore, the sense of humour and the history. I shared a resentment at the intervention of the state, the taxes to be paid on liquor one distilled oneself. I recognized the importance of tradition - a cumulative body of experience to buttress against the vagaries of bad weather, crop failure and animal death - and its corollary of conservatism, the fear of change.
The final piece of writing in the book is a historical afterword. Whereas the stories are a subjective account of one particular peasant community, this postscript provides an objective analysis of peasant society both in France and worldwide.
The French experience has been as follows. In 1789 the population was 27 million, of which 22 million were rural. During the 19th century the mechanization and commercialization of agriculture gave rise to large-scale colonization of the land. The plots os land remaining to the peasantry were insufficient to support entire families and the result was mass exodus to the cities. By 1900 there were only eight million peasants left. Today 150,000 leave the land every year and European Community planners envisage the systematic elimination of the peasant by the end of the century, if not before.
Although the majority of the world's population are still peasants, it is conceivable that one day peasants throughout the world will cease to exist. Pig Earth stands as a monument to peasant culture. As Berger says, 'to continue to maintain, as has been maintained for centuries, that peasant experience is marginal to civilization, is to deny the value of too much history and too many lives. No line of exclusion can be drawn across history in that manner, as if it were a line across a closed account'.
Pig Earth by John Berger