issue 188 - October 1988
A World Apart
directed by Chris Menges
What makes A World Apart so powerful is not the truth it tells about the injustices of apartheid. Those are now widely known and British director Chris Menges wisely chooses not to dwell on them. Instead he has put together a haunting personal story about loss of childhood innocence sketched against the backdrop of growing black activism in early 1960s South Africa.
The focus of the film is the strained relationship between a journalist and anti-apartheid activist (played with icy reserve by Barbara Hershey) and her 13-year-old daughter (beautifully played by newcomer Jodhi May). The woman's dedication to her political principles is almost compulsive: her daughter feels lonely and unloved, replaced in her mother's heart by the struggle against apartheid.
Written by Shawn Slovo, the film is strongly autobiographical. Slovo's parents were among a handful of white antiapartheid activists in the early 1960s. The family was exiled to Britain in 1964. Her father Joe is the head of the banned South African Communist Party and is today the only white executive member of the ANC. Her mother Ruth First, a lifelong campaigner, was assassinated in Mozambique in 1982 by a letter bomb suspected to be South African.
But the central character is the Shawn Slovo figure herself, Molly. It's Johannesburg in 1963 and South Africa is seething: her father has gone into hiding and her mother has been imprisoned. Molly is cared for by her grandmother and a black maid. She is shunned by her schoolmates (one calls her parents 'connumists') and wants desperately to win the love she feels her mother has denied her. This passion finally leads to a reconciliation as mother and daughter decide to go together to the funeral of an ANC friend.
It is a deceptively simple story but one filled with insight into the nature of political commitment. You deserve to have a mother; you do have one, just not the way you want her,' Diana tells Molly in one of the most compelling scenes. Molly comes to understand that her mother's love for her and her love for justice are one and the same.
Although he is an Oscar-winning cinematographer (The Killing Fields and The Mission), this is Chris Menges' first movie as a director. The result is a lean, lovingly filmed but intense drama: the camera never intrudes on some sparkling performances. It is a stunning debut.
directed by Tony Bill
It's 1964 and Martin Luther King is holding out his dream. A white college graduate tries to enlist in the civil rights cause and to live out the difficult code of nonviolence amid the simmering urban everyday of the Bronx. A delinquent he helped put into prison is released, boiling with aggression. The girl this offender once raped has to deal not just with his return but also with the damaged ego of her boyfriend, who still limps chronically from the effects of trying to defend her from the attack. Kids pursue their pill-popped highs through a joyride that lasts all night.
These ingredients needed sensitive handling to work. The movie could easily have tumbled into mindless thrillerism through the exploits of the dangerous psychotic. Instead this is beautifully written (by John Patrick Shanley), and the quality of the script is a pleasure throughout. Shanley draws cleverly from a variety of cinematic genres - teen humour, socially aware drama, violent cliffhanger - and weaves them together into an utterly convincing whole.
The young cast is led by Jodie Foster, though she is content to act as part of a largely unknown ensemble and not demand a star role. The period feel is impeccable: the black cause in the Deep South looms as a backdrop, investing events with the sense that the times they are a-changing. But the politics emerges as it should - not as a campaigning trumpet blast but out of the shifting currents of the lives of ordinary kids in an ordinary neighbourhood.
by Salif Keita
The West is witnessing a surge of interest in Third World popular music: partly a product of its own jaded palate having exhausted most things closer to home and partly because this music has more integrity. Hybrids are already being produced by the trend: exciting montages of tribal themes and electronic glitter.
Salif Keita's album Soro is a vibrant synthesis of old and new, mixed with a kaleidoscope of Afro polyrhythms. Reminiscent in parts of a brass big band, the record has the usual energetic percussion together with beautiful harmonies in the local tongue. English translations reveal that the lyrics speak of the solidarity needed if Africans - across the continent - are to overcome oppression.
The Third World musical bandwagon has thrown names such as Keita, Mory Kante (with his French Number One single) and Kassav' into the public eye. It's important not to jump on just for the sake of it but to look for quality. Soro provides it: cross-cultural dance music with (as the Jamaicans used to say) roots.
by Peter Marshall
Cuba is one of the Third World's longest-running test-beds of socialism and you always have the feeling that it has lessons to offer. But somehow they do not seem to have been widely shared. With Cuba Libre Peter Marshall has helped fill that void.
The central problem, of course, is that Cuba's experience, like that of any nation, is so coloured by its own circumstances that one never quite knows what to make of it all. On the one hand it has had direct military and economic aggression from the US (pretty typical). On the other hand it is kept financially afloat by the Soviet Union's purchase of large quantities of sugar for above the market price (not typical at all).
Cuba Libre manages, however, to bring the extraneous elements of Cuba's history into play and still keep the political ideas clear. And as for lessons, you could at least say that Cuba has raised lots of interesting questions, the answers to which will interest socialists everywhere.
Is it possible (as Guevara hoped) to abolish money and have people work for the sheer joy of it? No.
Can people be persuaded to put in many extra hours of unpaid labour on communal projects? Yes, it seems so.
Peter Marshall's standpoint is libertarian rather than straight socialist, so he is careful to document authoritarian excesses as well as the welfare successes. But overall his conclusion seems sympathetic. Anyone proposing to visit Cuba or just interested in its remarkable history needs to read this.
The Debt Squads
by Sue Branford and Bernardo Kucinski
The Debt Squads lays bare the truth behind what the West calls 'the debt crisis'. Radical and provocative, the book argues that it was born out of chronic unemployment and inflation in the West, alongside declining profits in the US. The leading characters in the drama were the international bankers and Latin American dictators. 'International bankers were perfectly willing by their loans to maintain dictators in power and to be party to the suppression of every natural right of citizens of South American republics.'
Today Latin America's debt is too large ever to be repaid. Instead it has become a mechanism for permanently extracting income for the private banks: an instrument of domination. Between 1981 and 1986 the area sent over $159 billion to banks in Western countries - 'the greatest transfer of money ever from a poor region to the industrialized world'.
Although the debt has been repaid many times over because of the stiff interest terms, like some appalling cancer it continues to grow. Development declines. Factories have closed, flinging millions out of work. Local production has been channelled away from the domestic market into exports. And inflation soars.
If Latin American countries are to free themselves from the debt burden, they should default, suggest the authors. And they are cautiously optimistic that this end is likely: 'Slowly, very slowly, popular pressure in Latin America for an end to debt exploitation is building up.'
La Condition Humaine
.being the book that gave life to the revolutionary novel
Many great novels about socialist revolution, such as Orwell's Animal Farm or Koestler's Darkness at Noon, can be politically uninspiring. Revolutionary intervention, they seem to warn us, will always end in corruption and abuse of human rights. On the other hand, to use fiction as straightforward propaganda for socialism, as many Soviet novelists did in the 1930s, is equally unconvincing. The human characters of such fiction seem not to have wills of their own, but are simply shuffled back and forth as pieces on the author's political chessboard. Fortunately some books about revolution have broken both moulds. André Malraux's La Condition Humaine is one of them.
The novel was a tremendous success on publication in 1933, partly because so little was then known in the West about the early Chinese revolution which it described. By the spring of 1927, the nationalist Kuomintang party had swept to power in much of the country and its army was poised to take over the key port and commercial centre of Shanghai. But its leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, had made clear his intention to suppress his Communist allies after the revolution. Effectively whichever faction won final control of Shanghai would be assured victory in the capital, Peking, and ultimate control of the country. As the nationalist troops marched towards the port, a small group of Communists decided that they must seize power from within the city. Against all odds, and with the help of a general strike, they were initially successful. La Condition Humaine (badly translated in English as 'Man's Estate') revolves around this Communist uprising - and its subsequent repression.
Malraux was not one of those novelists who turns up at the scene of a momentous event simply to observe and record it. When witnessing such a drama, he wanted to get in on the act. In the 1930s, for instance, he was to enlist on the side of the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and was wounded while in command of its entire air force. In the Second World War he was a colonel in charge of a brigade of the French Resistance, was again wounded and fell into the hands of the Gestapo. Malraux's ability to survive in such perilous circumstances had been fostered in the revolutionary climate of 1920s China.
But how had he got there? In 1923, as a 22-year-old archaeologist, he was imprisoned in French Indo-China for trying to spirit out a bas-relief from the jungle. Then he was forced to flee from Saigon for editing a newspaper critical of French rule in its colonies. He turned up in Canton in 1926, where he took up information and propaganda duties for the Communists without ever joining the Party. He was therefore well positioned to witness the events of April 1927.
The novel focuses on the dilemma of the Communist leaders. Katow argues the need to remain on the side of the Kuomintang and work patiently within it until socialism becomes a more realistic proposition. Chen feels this policy would be suicidal because it would allow the Kuomintang simply to eliminate the Communists. His own solution, however, is also suicidal: he attempts to murder Chiang Kai-Shek by throwing himself under the leader's car while clutching a bomb. Kyo is caught agonizingly between the two: defeat of the European financial interests which have subjugated Chinese workers for so long would come more quickly through supporting the Kuomintang; but the Kuomintang would not bring socialism and would replace foreign capitalist oppressors with homegrown ones.
Events rapidly overtake the Communists, not (Malraux is emphatic) because their cause or tactics are wrong, but on account of more powerful forces ranged against them. The novel's narrative viewpoint is constantly adjusted to show us the dealings of the French consortium which is instrumental in raising cash for Chiang Kai-Shek to pay his soldiers and rout the Communists. On the run from two challengers, nationalism and socialism, European big business sponsors the former against the latter in return for its own limited survival. The Communist revolution is not so much defeated as temporarily outbidden.
In later life André Malraux made a series of political compromises which eventually led to his accepting the position of Minister of State for Cultural Affairs in the French government of Charles de Gaulle. Many therefore assume that he simply went through a youthful socialist 'phase' and explain away the revolutionary sympathies of La Condition Humaine by equating it with gambling, obsessional sex and opium smoking - activities pursued relentlessly by other characters of the novel who wish to overcome the limitations of 'the human condition'. In fact it is clear Malraux believed these indulgences to be part of a human condition which people, by acting collectively, have the power to reject.
La Condition Humaine by André Malraux