issue 186 - August 1988
The Milagro Beanfield War
directed by Robert Redford
Robert Redford hasn't exactly rushed into directing his second film - it's now eight years since Ordinary People swept Oscar's board. But the results are impressive: this is a political film that never loses its sense of playfulness.
Amid spectacular New Mexican hill country, big property developers run up against plucky Chicano farmer, Joe Mondragon, who has finally been pushed too far and starts illegally irrigating his parched beanfield. The character types are familiar enough: the scheming developer, the nasty 'fixer from the capital (played brilliantly by Christopher Walken), the angry Hispanic woman who owns the local garage, the radical lawyer-cum-journalist from LA who has come to the backwoods to avoid just this type of confrontation. And the confused local police chief caught between the power of the real estate lobby and his own sense of justice.
But what could have been an orthodox melodrama maintains a lightness of spirit that captures the cultural vitality of Meso-America. Joe's old neighbour, for instance, converses with his best friend and chess companion who has recently died and yet continues to play a prophetic role as events unfold. This blend of politics with the humour of the spirit reflects the original book's magical realism.
The film's light touch has led some to doubt its seriousness. Yet the 'food first' message is clear, as is the questioning of the 'progress' that outsiders are all too keen to bring to small communities, whether on the Cornish coast or a South Pacific island. While the readiness to entertain gives The Milagro Beanfield War an appeal that spreads way beyond the more ponderous products of political cinema.
It is an empowering film which should be seen. And if Redford's new production company can maintain this level of quality it might even chip away at the Rocky 15 formula that dominates the US movie industry.
directed by Werner Herzog
Adapted from Bruce Chatwin's novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, this is another in Herzog's familiar genre of crazed white man's adventures in the Third World. The crazed figure this time is Cobra Verde, played by the inevitable Klaus Kinski. This flowing blond-haired villain strides the screen as cattle dealer, bandit and finally slave trader.
Cobra's liking for money is only equalled by his liking for young girls. As slave overseer in Brazil he makes all three daughters of his employer pregnant and is banished to West Africa and apparently certain death at the hands of the mad king of Dahomey. Instead he becomes Viceroy of the country and fathers 62 children.
Most of the film is set in Africa, and its green, fertile land and white sandy beaches are in direct contrast to the initial shots of an inhospitable Brazilian landscape. This is a side of Africa rarely seen on our screens, except in holiday advertisements.
This film is worth seeing for its stunningly poetic images. But it is a pity that it concentrates less on the immorality of slavery than on that of Cobra Verde. The political points it makes are coincidental rather than direct. Herzog continues to use the Third World and its peoples only as colourful background for the male European quest. And in so doing he has only reiterated black stereotypes.
The Great U-Turn
by Edward Goldsmith
Subtitled De-industrializing Society, this collection of essays by the long-time editor of The Ecologist comes from the most extreme wing of green politics. Goldsmith believes that the whole process of industrialization has been a disaster and its imminent reversal is humanity's only hope. He envisages a return to a society made up of hundreds of thousands of small communities, each modelled on traditional 'stable societies' - those of indigenous peoples who live in harmony with nature instead of conquering it.
But the essays are also troubling. Goldsmith, for example, is even more implacable in his hostility to social welfare, to the 'Nanny State' than is Margaret Thatcher. He seems to see the modern poor as the equivalent of the decadent mob in Rome, demanding free bread and circuses as a right.
Thus he dismisses feminism in a curt couple of pages, claiming that it creates 'an increasingly large number of even more maladjusted women who are being forced by their education and other social pressures to wage an unequal struggle against their natural instincts'. Great U-Turns into a patriarchal Golden Age take us nowhere.
A Forest of Flowers
by Ken Saro-Wiwa
(Saros lnternational, Nigeria)
Ken Saro-Wiwa is a modern Nigerian story-writer in the de Maupassant league - that is, he is a natural. His collection of short stories A Forest of Flowers won him the runner-up prize in the Africa section of the 1987 Commonwealth Book Prize.
He leads you effortlessly into the heart of the matter. So we climb on to the battered truck with the student returning to her small home town and are engulfed in the welcome that awaits her. Once there, like her, we don't want to leave. And eight stories later we know Dukana intimately: the uneasy alliance of traditional powers and modern cynicism; the meals and drinks and pastimes; the poverty that is everywhere but doesn't oppress; the everyday tragedies and comedies; the weather; but above all, the marvellous humour.
Saro-Wiwa is an academic, politician and entrepreneur as well as a writer, and the stories in the second half speak of the other, urban Nigeria he knows just as well. His confidence and brilliance never falter. But in one story, The Stars Below, the pace changes and you feel you may be close to the author: an incorruptible but solitary bureaucrat stares out into the night and into the tragic landscapes of oil-boom Nigeria, contemplating the impossibility of his life.
Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm
by Joni Mitchell
by Tracy Chapman
One of the most encouraging things about Joni Mitchell's recent records has been her eagerness to address political themes. She always had a social conscience but pride of place in her work was given to an apparently endless search for a fulfilling relationship with a halfway-decent man. Middle age has brought greater personal happiness but also a refreshing readiness to look outwards.
On Dog Eat Dog she was fierce and plainspoken in her attack on 'hawk-right militants', on 'snakebite evangelists and racketeers and big-wig financiers', and linked the Ethiopian famine to our disregard for ecology. Here she comes up with a poignant hymn to the Lakota Sioux that could speak just as well for all the indigenous peoples who have been robbed of their sacred land. And there are sideswipes at militarism and rampant consumerism.
Her lyrical touch has never deserted her: the problem is more a musical one. Mitchell's drift in the 1970s from folk through pop towards jazz gave us a series of quite extraordinary albums reaching from Blue to Hejira. But since then she has lacked direction and here, again, while clever moments abound, too many of the melodies and structures are unconvincing.
Joni Mitchell's husband crops up as bassist on Tracy Chapman's debut album. The success of Suzanne Vega has encouraged a new breed of the long-scorned singer-songwriter and Chapman is certainly among the best of them. Chosen from five years' worth of material composed in the folk-club wilderness, these are clear, attractively simple songs carried by a voice reminiscent of Joan Armatrading's. The politics is heartfelt, whether detecting whispers of revolution in the welfare lines (if only it were true) or asking Why? ('Why are the missiles called peace-keepers when they're aimed to kill ... Love is hate, War is peace, No is yes, And we're all free'). It's so refreshing to hear radical sentiments expressed with such clarity and power. Tracy Chapman is a rare, uncompromising talent And the revival of the protest song starts here.
.being the book that put the 'Pox Britannica' under the microscope
George Orwell was one of the earliest British writers to grasp the idea of a so-called 'Third World'. In a 1939 essay, bluntly entitled Not Counting Niggers, he attacked those who advocated maintaining the system of 'dependencies' on 'democratic' states. With World War Two on the horizon, Orwell realized that one of the ways in which Western imperial nations were likely to try to ensure a free flow of raw materials was to deny self-government to their colonies. 'What we always forget,' he wrote, 'is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa. This is the system which we all live on and which we denounce when there seems to be no danger of its being altered.'
Orwell's own experience of British rule in India and South-East Asia permeated his understanding of colonial politics. He was born in India to English parents in 1903 - his father worked in the Opium Department of the Government of India and his mother had spent most of her life in Burma. The family returned to England in 1904 and Orwell went through a traditional public-school education. But in 1922 he joined the Imperial Indian Police and was sent to Burma, where he spent a guilt-ridden five years overseeing or witnessing 'natives' being variously arrested, beaten, flogged or hanged. 'For five years I had been part of an oppressive system,' he later remarked in The Road to Wigan Pier, 'and it had left me with a bad conscience. I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate.'
One way of unburdening himself was to write Burmese Days. The novel is set in 1926 and centres on a group of bored and corrupt English colonial officials, police and merchants in Kyauktada, a fictional town in Upper Burma. This group considers itself the racial aristocracy of the community and occupies the exclusive (but in fact rather sleazy) European Club. Most of the members are hysterically opposed to the British Government's suggestion that all clubs should open their doors to at least one 'native' member. In fact there are only two local candidates eager for admission: Dr Veraswami, the Civil Surgeon, and U Po Kyin, the Magistrate. Veraswami attempts to gain favour among the English by toadying to timber merchant John Flory; U PO Kyin, who is eventually successful, campaigns by stirring up intrigue and disorder which discredit everyone but himself. The upshot is that the local inhabitants - who have been used as pawns in such trivial games for years as well as being exploited by the British merchants and oppressed by the police - are the ones who suffer.
Burmese Days is an illustration and criticism of the determination to spread what Orwell indignantly calls the 'Pox Britannica'. British intransigence is summed up in the 'five chief beatitudes of the pukka sahib': Keeping up our prestige; The firm hand (without the velvet glove); We white men must hang together; Give them an inch and they'Il take an ell; Esprit de corps.
A constant theme of the novel is the sheer stupidity and gullibility of the British administration. U PO Kyin, for instance, manufactures an insurrection, convinces the Imperial Police that it is for real, and himself arrests the 'conspirators' before the police appear on the scene, thus adding immeasurably to his credit. Flory, a conscience-stricken Orwell figure who sympathizes with the 'natives' without ever actually siding with them, is driven to suicide when U PO Kyin arranges for his reputation to be destroyed. In this emphasis on British vulnerability, Burmese Days records the decay of a rotten and tottering despotism - it was in the inter-war years, remember, that the rising damp of British imperial decline really began.
Nonetheless, the book can be faulted for its somewhat complacent attack on British degeneracy. It is perhaps not enough to score moral points by exploding the myth of 'the white man's burden'. The real importance of the end of the novel, after all, is that the British are still securely in power and have lost no real ground. And this was to remain so until 1937, when Burma was separated from India and allowed a degree of self-government. Only in 1948 did the British finally leave the country.
However, the weaknesses of the novel are overshadowed by its strengths. Britain may no longer be an ascendant imperial power but big fish continue to swallow little ones, and as long as they do Burmese Days will address global injustice as firmly as Orwell's better-known later novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The fact that Orwell wrote this book is evidence that even those most deeply involved in perpetuating injustice can turn and fight it. We need more like him.
Burmese Days by George Orwell.