issue 209 - July 1990
Front Line Africa - the Right to a Future
by Susanna Smith
This book is timely - and surrounded by controversy. It forms the centrepiece of Oxfam's Front Line Africa campaign and has prompted an inquiry by the UK Charity Commissioners into the agency's political campaigning activity. It has also provoked a spate of anti-Oxfam stories in the British media.
Looking at the book one is tempted to ask what all the fuss is about. Its tone and contents are hardly revolutionary. Rather it is a calm, thoroughly documented and well-illustrated report drawn from Oxfam's 30 years experience of working in Southern Africa. Newspaper reports, photos and personal accounts intersperse the often somewhat dense copy. What emerges is a cool, comprehensive picture of how the evil machine of apartheid routinely devours lives and sabotages all hope of peace and development.
We have the personal testimony of the South African Oxfam partner detained and tortured by security forces before being forced into exile; the telex messages from Oxfam's Mozambique office saying that South African-backed rebels have just burst into a hospital full of women and children and massacred over 400; and the telex that tells the dreary tale of Oxfam emergency relief trucks blown up by the agents of apartheid.
What makes Front Line Africa controversial is also what makes it particularly useful - that a third of it is entirely devoted to the political and economic steps the rich world can and should take to hasten the end of apartheid. It is absurd that Western citizens should give money to help victims of apartheid in Mozambique and Angola, only to find their own elected governments undermining that work by continuing to trade with South Africa. Development agencies are well placed to make this point with the authority of people trying to get a job done. One can only hope that policy-makers (and knee-jerk media pundits) will take the trouble to read beyond the title.
1001 Ways to Save the Planet
by Bernadette Vallely
The trouble with book titles like this is that the optimism they inspire is fast eroded by the guilt-making subtitle; in this case 'How you can change your lifestyle now...'
We know we should, of course. We want to help, as tong as it doesn't take too much time or effort, or make us too obsessive and puritanical. And this book is the best possible help, managing to be both positive and non-preachy. It delivers just what it promises in the shape of 1001 short paragraphs, each containing a simple practical idea which might be put into practice in our daily lives. It avoids the pitfalls of other so-called green guides which might tell you which lead-free BMW to buy but which neglect to deliver the most essential message of all about consuming less.
Some examples: cut out paper towels and handkerchiefs - use washable fabric ones instead; reject chemical scourers in favour of the traditionally effective baking soda; and go back to wind-up watches and fountain pens to reduce the number of waste batteries and plastic pens. Often these have the flavour of turning back the clock but they are nearly always sensible.
The book also touches on problems such as cash-crop production in the Third World. On these more complicated issues the short-paragraph style is less satisfactory, leading to over-simplification, but at least it puts these concerns on the green consumer's agenda. Regular NI readers will be pleased to note that frogs' legs get a mention - our Briefly page has long campaigned against this gruesome trade.
1001 Ways to Save the Planet deserves to experience the irony of being consumed in vast quantities - and it's interesting that Penguin has been willing to launch it towards a mass readership sheathed in a determinedly dowdy recycled cover.
Work & Study in Developing Countries
by David Sheppard
We are often asked for guidance by idealistic readers seeking work in the Third World. This directory is aimed at people based in the UK, though it lists a substantial number of organizations in North America and Continental Europe as well. It focuses not just on voluntary work nor even on organizations whose interest in developing countries is primarily humanitarian. Thus the accountancy firm Price Waterhouse, which takes on a great deal of work in Africa, is listed alongside groups such as the Bangladesh Workcamps Association and the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. But that makes it all the more useful a guide.
Available from Vacation Work, 9 Park End St Oxford, OX1 IHJ, UK.
directed by Charles Lane
Filmed on the streets of New York in midwinter on a very low budget, this is an unusual and original film. Written by, directed by and starring the young black American film-maker Charles Lane, Sidewalk Stories is not only almost completely without dialogue, it's also shot in crisp black and white rather than the now-regulation colour.
The issue of homelessness is at the heart of the movie but Lane manages to integrate it within a storyline which could quite easily have walked out of a Charlie Chaplin film of 70 years ago. He plays a street artist, just one of many downtrodden but not downhearted characters getting by as best they can amid the urban squalor. Sharing his stretch of pavement with a juggler, a dancer and various other human flotsam, the Street Artist attempts the odd portrait for a paying customer but spends most of his time sitting around wistfully. Then one night in an alleyway he witnesses a murder and finds himself lumbered with the dead man's child. Our hero then has to cope not only with a lively two year old but also with his burgeoning infatuation for a woman quite a few rungs above him on the social ladder.
In the absence of speech - or even silent movies' traditional inter-titles - Lane succeeds in making the gently miming performances, the real locations and the expressive music soundtrack carry the burden of the film's meaning. To like this a lot you probably need to be able to handle silent movies -though dialogue suddenly breaks out in the final scene, powerfully underlining the film's more serious side. All in all, this is a bold and refreshing experiment and Lane is clearly a talent to watch.
Stanley and Iris
directed by Martin Ritt
Life on the factory production line isn't exactly the most popular subject for film-makers. Paul Schrader's Blue Collarin 1978 and Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1960 are probably the two most famous attempts to sincerely conjure the dull routines of the shop floor. Based very loosely on the Pat Barker novel Union Street - so loosely in fact that the Robert De Niro character Stanley doesn't exist in the original - Stanley and Iris manages for most of its length to say a great deal about struggling along just above the poverty line.
In the fictional New England town of Laurel, cosily decrepit and big on checked shirts and white fences, Iris (Jane Fonda) works at a big bakery piping icing onto assembly-line cakes. Stanley works in the factory canteen but then loses his job when his boss discovers he can't read - a revelation for which Iris is accidentally responsible.
From then on the film is a partially credible but increasingly fantastic documentation of the relationship between the two which develops as she teaches him to read during her spare time. De Niro is always worth watching and here the mixture of confusion and hurt pride he brings to his character's plight is very convincing. Fonda too delivers a persuasive, 'lived-in' blend of goodnaturedness and harassed routine.
The problem is that the movie is so desperate to make itself into a positive romance, ideal mutual learning process and an overall success story that finally it begins to resemble one of those correspondence-school ads on the back of US comics: get some knowledge, triple your income, rise rapidly in your chosen field. With Stanley turning out to be, in the best Ben Franklin tradition, an inventor and mechanical genius on the side, things get much more than a little too easy.
Still, Stanley and Iris is well worth catching for the sincerity of its performances and the at least partial originality of its subject matter.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
Son of the Revolution
.being the inside story of China's cultural Revolution
On the very first evening the Chinese student Liang Heng talked to the American teacher Judy Shapiro, who later became his wife and co-author of Son of the Revolution, he poured out the story of his troubles during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution. His mother was called a counter-revolutionary and his father was made to divorce her; his schooldays were postponed as cities all over China exploded into violence; his father was publicly denounced and sent to a reform camp; and Liang Heng and his sisters were sent to labour in the countryside. At the end of that evening, Judy said, she had learnt more about China than in her previous six months there.
Even under China's 'open door' policy a few years ago, young Chinese people were still reluctant to talk about the traumas of the Cultural Revolution. Who would dare tell a foreigner? Who would want to relive such a time of pain? And who could be sure that such secrets could be kept' from the spy network still strong in every dormitory and classroom? After two years living and working in China, this book still had a lot to tell me.
Son of the Revolution is a painful book to read, partly because its simple storytelling brings Liang Heng's childhood so vividly to life. If it can be called a childhood, that is: from the nursery where he learned to be 'Chairman Mao's Good Little Boy' onwards, his early life was racked by one political movement after another. The unrelentingness of each succeeding movement, and the thoroughgoing cruelty of former classmates and neighbours only concerned to save their own skins, shapes a nightmare world.
But the book is painful too simply because its figures try so hard to serve the system. The intensity of teenagers' love for Chairman Mao makes them rush to shake the hands of those who have just shaken the leader's hand, 'in hopes of transferring the sacred touch to our own hands... The joy of touching the hand that had touched the hand that had touched the hand was indescribable.'
Bullied, beaten, criticized, indoctrinated, sent to the countryside and sacked from the newspaper job he loved, Liang Heng's father goes on working for Communism even after his health is wrecked. It takes a lot of gratuitous cruelty perpetrated in the name of dogma to make him criticize the Party, as when the 'Attack the Evil Winds of Capitalism Team' tells the old peasant Guo Lao-da to kill the six 'capitalist' ducks he owns.
"What shall I do? My ducks have supported me my whole life. Do they want us to starve to death to fight Capitalism?"
"Hush," whispered Father. "They could blow out your brains for saying less." Then he spoke softly with him until the fire bumed down very low. I was already asleep in the kitchen when Guo Lao-da went out to kill the ducks.'
This book is the true story of a decade in which physical and mental torture became so common that the wonder is not that so many were killed or driven to kill themselves but that so many more survived. On the brink of suicide himself when imprisoned for writing to a friend who had been called a counter-revolutionary, Liang Heng wonders, 'Why should two good people like my parents be forced to divorce each other? Why should (my sister) Liang Fang raise a machine gun against her fellow teenagers? Why did the peasants fear the cadres so terribly if they were representatives of our great Communist Party?... Why had the Revolution given us all so little when we had sacrificed everything for it?' Small wonder that the genuine social achievements of the Revolution came to seem as naught from within this whirlwind.
The events of this book are two decades old now. Do they matter any more? When Liang Heng returned home after living in the US, as related in the sequel, Return to China, little had changed. And when he went on teaching practice, Liang Heng found himself transmitting the same old dogma: 'The blind obedience that made the Cultural Revolution possible was being fostered still. No-one was being taught how to think... There seemed to be no way to ensure that the same tragedy would not be replayed.'
Newspaper reports from China say that, after the demonstrations and massacre of Tiananmen Square, the tragedies of enforced self-criticism, betrayal and indoctrination are being replayed now. 'We've been used to this since the anti-Rightist movement in 1958,' observes an elderly economist of great distinction, trained in Germany in the 1930s. 'Our children had to do it in the Cultural Revolution ten years later. But now my grandson - it's really disgusting. He says to me when I'm helping him to leam this rubbish: "It's not true, is it Grandad?" And I say to him: "Shut up, memorize it, get a hundred marks and stay out of trouble".'
Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng and Judy Shapiro.