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new internationalist
issue 180 - February 1988


Star rating system. Film reviews

Bringing it all Back Home
produced by Sheffield Film Co-op

Behind glass: a Sri Lankan worker from Bringing it all Back Home. The slinky strains of Sade's 'Smooth Operator' introduce US to Sheffield's affluent West End, where other smooth operators are discussing the layout of a glossy new magazine for glossy yuppies. Meanwhile the East End of the city looks like a polluted, litter-strewn beach after the tide has gone out: derelict, depressed, abandoned.

Bringing it all Back Home is about East and West; about the poor and the rich in the U K; about poor countries in East Asia and rich countries in Western Europe. And about the spider's web of international capital that links them all - rich and poor, East and West - together. The film's message is 'beware'. It argues, in no uncertain terms, that levels of exploitation undreamed of outside the sweatshops of the Third World are coming home to roost in the depressed urban ghettos of the West.

The 'beware' is aimed most urgently at women, the chosen workforce of the multinational corporations who have begun setting up shop in Western 'enterprise zones'. And the warning comes from other women - in countries like Sri Lanka and Malaysia - who have seen it all before in their own free-trade zones.

The logic is coherent and chilling. And the interviews with women - with a cleaner in Barking, an electronics factory worker in Fife, a Sri Lankan activist, an Indian sociologist - are inspired and inspiring. These are not just talking heads: their testimonies are a fascinating mix of anecdote and analysis that are a real credit to the film-makers' skills. What's more, this film was made in full consultation with its subjects. Buy it, hire it, borrow it

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Ground Zero
directed by Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles

Maralinga was the place in the Australian desert where the British tested nuclear weapons in the 1950s. It achieved a brief notoriety during the recent Royal Commission investigating the effects of the tests on the local people and the soldiers involved. But it looms large again in this compelling piece of cinema.

Ground Zero is a contemporary nuclear thriller, sharing the genre with Silkwood and The China Syndrome. It uses the Royal Commission's evidence to provide impetus for the plot and help the hero investigate the possible murder of his father at the time of the testing. As in other recent movies - The Whistle Blower, Defence of the Realm - effectively the theme is government conspiracy.

Bringing this before a large audience is of the utmost value. Maralinga is a clear case of nuclear deception and shatters the complacent Australian myth that sheer distance removes the country from the atomic threat. But the film also does not flinch from showing the colonial arrogance of the British in using Australia's outback as a nuclear test site, in the name of science and progress

Australians - and particularly Aborigines - were considered expendable. Racism was rife. The Aborigines contaminated or made homeless by the tests were treated as less than human: their testimony was overlooked because of their 'crude' language and 'unsophisticated' perceptions. Now Australia makes up for it by letting them sell their own uranium.

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Book reviews

The Making of Modern Tibet
by Tom Grunfeld
(Zed UK, ME Sharpe US)

In Exile from the Land Of Snows
by John Avedon

[image, unknown] There are two opposing views of Tibet. The one dominant in the West since the Chinese invasion of 1950 - and shared by the Western tourists who aided the recent revolt in Lhasa - holds that Tibet is an independent nation which has been conquered and viciously oppressed by the Communists. The other maintains that Tibet has never been, nor ever could be, truly independent, and that, while the Chinese have made mistakes, they have also made a necessary break with a feudal past to which there can be no return.

The Making of Modern Tibet belongs to the second school. It paints a graphic picture of Tibet as it used to be: not the Buddhist idyll, the peaceful Shangri-la of popular myth, but a feudal society similar to medieval Europe but subject to much harsher conditions. According to Grunfeld, venereal disease afflicted 90 per cent of the population and smallpox 30 per cent in the early part of this century.

Grunfeld is clear enough that the Chinese did enormous damage, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, but he is pretty scathing about the Dalai Lama and feels the conventional criticism of the Chinese is hysterical and unrealistic.

Which is doubtless how he would see in Exile from the Land of Snows, which tells the story of modern Tibet from the point of view of the current Dalai Lama, still an exile in India. From Avedon's perspective the issue is clear, the Chinese are oppressors who must be expelled and both the Dalai Lama and Buddhism fully restored.

Really the one needs to be read as a corrective to the other. Avedon is too lost in wonder for this reviewer's taste but Grunfeld's wish to think well of the Chinese wherever possible is also a bit transparent. It is difficult to see how Tibet could survive as an independent nation but any traveller outside Lhasa will testify that the Chinese have done little to relieve the bleak conditions suffered by one of the poorest peoples on earth.

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Gone to Soldiers
by Marge Piercy
(Michael Joseph)

Marge Piercy has always invested a popular format - the racily narrated blockbuster - with a radical message. Civil-rights activist, feminist, pacifist, since the mid-1960s she has steadily produced novels of anger and integrity that deal with contemporary issues. Gone to Soldiers however, is a book of dismaying sentimentality in which Piercy seems to have succumbed to enticing absolutes: heroism or cowardice; innocence or culpability. Beneath its denunciation of war and its apparent modernity there is the chauvinist roar of good and evil.

Despite its great length and Piercy's painstaking research, Gone to Soldiers fails to grapple in any intelligent way with its massive subject. A huge cast of characters - each of whom are given intermeshing chapters to narrate the US perspective on the mess and sacrifice of World War Two - is flung out all over the globe. One character is in the Resistance, another witnesses Hiroshima, another goes to a concentration camp, others stay at home. All suffer, showing the barbarism of the conflict.

But war is simply a dramatic backdrop to the novel, for the material of history is recycled into a mush of individual lives. The Second World War tore across this historically accelerating century, breaking up families, eroding class systems and challenging sexual mores, but at the same time marking the post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima age. It is painful, then, that someone like Marge Piercy can ignore the reverberations in our present age.

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Music reviews

Oh Africa
by Kofi Busia
(African Records/EMl Jetstar)

[image, unknown] This is probably the first concept album to attempt to encapsulate the whole history of Africa. In the romanticized beginning Africa lies beautiful and unexploited ('Lovers sleeping by the bush fire. Crocodiles upon the shore/ Golden princess in the moonlight'). By the end we have gone through war, slavery and colonialism and wound up with a young Ghanaian boy playing in a band called the Nelson Mandela Quintet.

That young Ghanaian has taken almost as long as Mandela has been in prison before making his first record, into which he has sunk much of his savings. Busia plays all the instruments himself and, though there is a hypnotic quality to some of the arrangements, this certainly has the feel of a do-it-yourself record - his voice is particularly weak But the lyrics are a brave attempt to tell an important story in a poetic, elliptical way foreign to most pop music.

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by the Communards

What do you do when your most distinctive feature is also your biggest drawback? Jimmy Somerville's falsetto voice first grabbed people by the lapels on Bronski Beat's excellent Smalltown Boy, which had the added virtue of being about the dilemma of a gay teenager. But when that voice was stretched over an LP it started to wear a bit thin. It is simply not extraordinary enough - not a miraculous vibrato instrument like that of Pavlov's Dog's David Surkamp. Instead it is too often reedy and has difficulty carrying assurance.

The Communards have done their best to offer added attractions: they put the politics farther upfront (songs here about AIDS victimization and Thatcher's election victory) and recruited a group of talented women string players. But Red is still not entirely satisfying. It's a compromise between the straight-ahead disco that guarantees a toehold in the charts - the retread of Never Can Say Goodbye is a rather cheap cash-in on the success of Don't Leave Me This Way - and the more varied explorations where their hearts probably lie.

Only on the stirring finale C Minor does everything come together; a quality song, beautifully played, with Somerville's anguished vocal adding rather than subtracting. They should follow their hearts.

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Reviews editor: Chris Brazier

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An Area Of Darkness
...being the book that looked into the heart of India.

Succumbing to the pressure of a labour recruiter, V S Naipaul's grandfather left his home village in India and went to work in a sugar factory in Trinidad. Born a Brahmin and trained as a pandit, he supplemented his income by performing priestly functions for other Indian labourers. The family became rich enough to send V S Naipaul to university in England.

An Area of Darkness is about his first trip to India. It is the story of his search for cultural and historical identity and is, in this sense, a personal exploration as well as a travel book. Throughout his journey Naipaul is preoccupied with India's poverty and how to come to terms with it. Seeing people 'diminished and deformed' so they 'begged and whined' his reactions range from hysteria and fear, to anger and contempt, then compassion and pity. But all of these, he realizes, degrade the poor; 'It is your gaze that violates them, your sense of outrage that outrages them'; and 'it (is) compassion like mine, so strenuously maintained, that denies humanity to many'.

But, according to Naipaul, the typical Indian reaction to the poverty of their country is worse. They glorify it: it's so sad that it's beautiful. It becomes the subject of innumerable short stories and songs, of films that reduce their audiences to tears. And this glamourization obliterates the social reality. People actually don't see the real poverty that surrounds them. So nothing is done.

Naipaul learns that the only positive reaction is acceptance; but in a whole year he doesn't achieve it. He is eventually overcome by a kind of fatigue which numbs his senses so that poverty is no longer all-pervasive. In this mood of comparative calm he is able to separate 'the pleasant from the unpleasant ... the ruins from the child defecating among them ... things from men'.

Maybe because this is a personal mission rather than travel for its own sake, Naipaul is equally honest and painstaking in his analysis of other Indian issues. The caste system, he says, will never be abolished by social reform or positive discrimination in favour of Untouchables. It will only change when the psychology behind it has changed, and this psychology is based on two die-hard principles which together constitute almost the last vestiges of his own Indian-ness. They are: a horror of the unclean; and the assurance (confirmed in the Bhagavad Gita) that people are born unequal So the Brahmin maintains his status by virtue of the Untouchable sweeper who cleans up after him. Gandhi was right: for the caste system to go everyone must clean latrines, and Untouchables must be seen as Harijans, Children of God.

In many ways An Area of Darkness pre-empts Naipaul's later work, India: A Wounded Civilization - about the devastation wrought by a thousand years of foreign rule. India, as a nation, has lost its confidence; this is reflected in its underlying defeatism and passivity, its confusion of identity. Accustomed to foreign rule, its own values and traditions, the vocabulary of its art and architecture, have all been destroyed. What is left is an infinite capacity for mimicry. In the past they imitated the Persian Moguls; in the future it will perhaps be the Russians or Americans; today it is the British.

But the British are responsible for a double humiliation. The England of the Raj was not even genuine - it was a fantasy-self, grandiose, magnificent, larger than life. England never interacted with India; it merely turned the country into a fairy-tale playground. In the light of this, it is not surprising that upper-class Indian mimicry of the British lifestyle - the clubs and golf courses, the social etiquette and refinement - now appears incongruous to the point of schizophrenia

Naipaul goes to Bombay, Delhi, Benares, Kashmir, Calcutta, Madras; he makes a pilgrimage in the Himalayas; and finally visits his grandfather's village in eastern Uttar Pradesh. But throughout his travels little strikes a chord with his own diminished Indian-ness. Only his sense of caste remains - it's 'in the blood' - and his personal detachment, stemming, perhaps, from the more general Indian pessimism.

This first trip to India affected Naipaul profoundly. On his return to England he wrote: 'It was a journey that ought not to have been made; it had broken my life in two.' The honesty and horror implicit in this statement suffuse the book: An Area of Darkness is a shatteringly powerful account.

Monica Connell
An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization
by V S Naipaul. Available as Penguin paperbacks.

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New Internationalist issue 180 magazine cover This article is from the February 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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