issue 197 - July 1989
Running On Empty
directed by Sidney Lumet
Running On Empty is small in scope, quiet in manner. It is about political criminals on the run - yet there are no car crashes, no violence, no police. These are not stereotyped revolutionaries, not the crazed psychos of Patty Hearst. They are warm, real people leading a very difficult life as a consequence of their idealism and the film is in genuine sympathy with them - though it is as clear-eyed as they are in rejecting fatuous notions about armed struggle leading to revolution in the West. And as in Marge Piercy's brilliant novel Vida, which has a similar theme, you feel that there but for the grace of God go all of us who passionately oppose imperialism and war.
The Popes have been living underground for the 15 years since they blew up a laboratory making napalm to be used in Vietnam. They and their two sons have changed location and identity every few months, watching carefully for the first signs of suspicion, developing a sixth sense for the time to move on and change schools, hairstyles and names. Led to this half-life by their idealistic opposition to the values of mainstream America, they are forced to be more inconspicuous and ordinary in their lifestyle than the most mainstream of Americans. All they have been left with is their faith in and love for each other.
The drama as it emerges is an extreme version of one that faces all families: can children break away to find their own identity and can parents bring themselves to let go? Seventeen-year-old Danny not only falls in love but struggles desperately to articulate his own talent and needs in the face of the desperate imperative of the family's fugitive position. He is beautifully played by River Phoenix who himself bears a scar (or a blessing) of the 1960s counter-culture, being named by his parents after they'd read Herman Hesse's Siddartha.
The film is directed with sensitivity and skill by Sidney Lumet who, from Twelve Angry Men through to The Verdict, has spent a lifetime making understated movies that never trumpet liberal values but have them as a natural backdrop from which the human drama springs. Running On Empty is deeply felt and warmly recommended.
Ghosts of the Civil Dead
directed by John Hillcoat
This Australian movie has been praised in many quarters for its hard-hitting treatment of an important theme - the treatment of inmates in maximum-security prisons. But the praise is unjustified. Any message in the film is obscured by three things: the alienating, futuristic feel which defies you to connect this with the real-life prison regimes on which it is based; the incoherent conspiracy theory at the heart of the story; and most of all by the loving way the camera dwells on every piece of brutal violence. The last failing leaves the viewer more deeply offended by the film-makers' values than by the supposed villains of the piece, the prison authorities and, by the crudest of metaphors, the State itself.
Ghosts of the Civil Dead looks exactly like what it is: a self-indulgent, overblown rock video which could give political film-making a bad name.
No Child's Play
by Caesarina Kona Makhoere
Caesarina Makhoere was arrested as an agitator after the 1976 student riots in South Africa. No Child's Play journal, the tale of her six years in prison. And it may become a classic of prison literature.
Caesarina's father died soon after sentence had been passed on her, full of grief at having been forced to betray her to the police. But her own spirit is never broken; as she is moved from prison to prison she continues her protests against apartheid, the effects of which are evident every day in the poor food and oppressive conditions she has to live with.
The warders become a vital part of her universe, as they do for any prisoner. She notes with sadness that black police and warders are often more vicious than their white counterparts 'out of guilt'. And she likens the prison officers to the South African regime itself: 'when you talk soft, they don't listen'. But she never relinquishes her hope and echoes the words of other great freedom fighters of the past: 'the struggle is hard and long, but victory is certain'.
Moving Towards Home/Lyrical Campaigns
by June Jordan
June Jordan is one of the world's most articulate and essential radical voices. Like many other black US women who have returned fire and faith to modern writing she has a double identity as political essayist and as poet - and these collections make her prose and verse easily available outside the US for the first time.
Moving Towards Home offers snapshots from her committed life as activist and mother, teacher and writer, stretching from her bewildered participation in a Harlem riot in 1964 through personal struggles like the death of her mother, right up to her enthusiastic meditations on The Meaning of the Jesse Jackson Campaign in 1988. What is perhaps most striking about her writing in these 25 years is the courageous way she seeks to make connections: she is open about her own bisexuality, which has left her vulnerable to attack from all sides; she is fiercely angry about racism but even in the heat of her anger seems able to reach out her hand to white people; and she manages to bridge the gap between vernacular Black English (which she passionately promotes) and the heritage of white English literature in which she is also steeped. There is both fire and wisdom here in plenty.
Lyrical Campaigns, meanwhile, can speak for itself in the shape of a poem called A Case In Point.
A friend of mine who raised six daughters and / who never wrote what she regards as serious / until she / was fifty-three/ tells me there is no silence peculiar / to the female I have decided I have something to say / about female silence: so to speak / these are my 2 cents on the subject: /2 weeks ago I was raped for the second / time in my life the first occasion / being a whiteman and the most recent / situation being a blackman actually / head of the local NAACP*
Today is 2 weeks after the tact of that man straddling / his knees either side of my chest / his hairy arm and powerful left hand / forcing my arms and my hands over my head / flat to the pillow while he rammed / what he described as his quote big dick / unquote into my mouth / and shouted out: 'D'ya want to swallow / my big dick; well, doya?'
He was being rhetorical. / My silence was peculiar / to the female.
* National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Street Fighting Years
by Simple Minds
(Virgin UK / A&M US)
This is the album which is certain to propel Simple Minds - already fantastically popular - into the mega-league inhabited by the likes of U2 and Springsteen. And, like those two acts, this one wears its political heart on its sleeve: there are songs here about Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Belfast and the environment. The world is no longer a simpleminded question of chasing rock success: like Sting, singer Jim Kerr has discovered his conscience and quite rightly wants to use his stature and popularity to spread the word about injustice.
So far so good. And so too is the readiness to look beyond the stadium-rock bombast into which they were fast slipping and investigate the more contemplative pastures little seen since their best record, 1982's New Gold Dream.
But for all that Street Fighting Years is a touch disappointing. Trevor Horn's production has its usual epic scale and denisty but the songwriting is often too pallid to match it: Kerr's Mandela Day, for instance, suffers badly by comparison with Peter Gabriel's Biko, even in the rather anaemic clothes that song appears in here. There is feeling and there is form - but overall Simple Minds haven't quite come up with enough substance to stop them being marked down as an inferior U2.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
Lamas of the Western Heavens
.being the book that told of Tibetan-Chinese conflict well over a century ago
Tibet is a country of which I have always had a particularly vivid mental picture, compounded of Shangri-la, Amnesty International and Tintin in Tibet. Yet of this most romantically inaccessible of countries, most of us have almost no knowledge. Only the richest or most intrepid tourists ever get there. The rest of us read, shiver and imagine.
In 1950 the Chinese invaded Tibet and the young Dalai Lama fled. To most outsiders it seemed (and still seems) as though a brave but tiny enclave of Himalayan independence had been overwhelmed by a ruthless, bullying giant. The Chinese claimed that they were simply reasserting their sovereignty in a region that had always been part of China.
One hundred years earlier, two French missionaries heard the Chinese making very similar claims. Regis Evariste Hue arrived in China in 1839. It was a dangerous place to try and spread the word, and was made more so by the outbreak of the First Opium War. With British gunboats shelling Chinese cities, foreigners of any sort were unwelcome and Christians ran the risk of being murdered, more or less officially. in this tense atmosphere. Father Hue and a companion, Father Gabet, decided to try and reach the very heart of the Buddhist world, Lhasa.
It was an extraordinary, epic journey. In the whole of the nineteenth century only one other European made it. The Chinese, highly suspicious of British imperial intentions, had barred all access from India and so Huc and Gabet went the hard way, across several thousand miles of desert, ice, mountain slopes and gorges:
'The Tibetan wilderness is ... the most terrible place imaginable. Since the ground rose steadily, vegetation decreased as we advanced and the cold reached a frightening intensity. From then on, death hovered over the poor caravan ... For several days we had seemed to be passing through a vast graveyard where exhumed human bones and animal carcasses lay strewn everywhere, telling us that in this land of death and the unleashed forces of nature the caravans that preceded us had had no better fate than we.'
Men froze to death in the saddle. They saw a whole herd of wild bison frozen solid, caught in rapidly freezing water while trying to swim a river. They were nearly asphyxiated by sulphurous fumes on the mountains, constantly threatened by armies of bandits on the plains. That they ever reached Lhasa was a miracle.
Huc and Gabet were only in Tibet a matter of months but they saw a great deal. They saw how Chinese soldiers and lawyers dominated life in Lhasa, how goods and fashions from Peking were eagerly sought by upper-class Tibetans, but how resentment against Chinese power could produce sudden violence, even pogroms against the foreigners the Tibetans called the 'turnips'.
People in Lhasa spoke freely to the missionaries, telling them of centuries of Chinese interference in Tibetan affairs. The Tibetans distrusted the Chinese completely. 'Everyone realized that China was trying to extend the empire and dominate Tibet,' says Hue. He was told of a previous invasion in which 'the Chinese, as in almost all the wars they have fought against their neighbours, were beaten but won the peace'. Plus ça change...
The violence reported by Western tourists in Tibet this year was partly inspired by the crudely superior attitude towards Tibet shown by Chinese officials, who regard the posting as a chore and the people as there to be abused. Again, things were not much different in the 1840s: 'The Chinese living in Tibet were paid by the Peking government: they usually stayed for three years and were then replaced . Some took Tibetan wives (but) after some years ... they simply went back to China, leaving wives and children behind them.'
When the Dalai Lama visited Britain last year, the UK Tibet Support Committee held a public meeting. Tibetan exiles and their allies called for 'democracy to be restored to Tibet'. This, as some journalists pointed out, was a preposterous notion: before the Chinese invasion in 1950 Tibet had been ruled by autocratic monks. Huc and Gabet saw plenty of them. At New Year they witnessed what Huc calls 'an avalanche of lamas', carrying votive idols in mountains of butter. Reading of the present-day exiles' claims, and finding them so amply contradicted by Huc a century before, I realized that I had already known that Tibet was a country full of monks. Where can I have got that idea? Oh yes - Tintin in Tibet.
Lamas of the Western Heavens by Régis Evariste Hoc (1851). Now published by the Folio Society, London UK.