issue 210 - August 1990
directed by Shohei Imamura
Not to be confused with the Michael Douglas police thriller of the same name, this adaptation of the Masuji Ibuse novel is both clinical and compassionate in its gauging of the human cost of the 1945 Hiroshima atomic bomb. Shot in a stark, cold black and white and shifting in time between 1945 and 1950, the focus is on one family living and slowly dying in the aftermath of science-led Armageddon.
Middle-aged Shigematsu Kazou Kitamura and his young niece Yasuko (Yoskiko Tanaka) aren't caught in the direct nuclear blast but are contaminated by the 'black rain' of highly radioactive debris which follows it. Five years later he's vainly attempting to arrange a marriage for her - no potential husband will believe that she hasn't been tainted by the catastrophe.
What follows is a harrowing but also strangely lyrical testament to the irreversible after-effects of nuclear attack. Yasuko's hair comes out in her hands as she looks at herself in the mirror; Shigematsu stoically contemplates his own inevitable death while fishing by the river bank; a shell-shocked veteran of conventional warfare loudly imagines enemy tanks coming up the hill (perhaps the film's only uncertain note); and over the radio a news report tells of the US threat to use the Bomb again in the ongoing Korean conflict.
There are graphic scenes here showing petrified human charcoal and a city transformed into flaming matchwood. But the spectacular nature of the blast itself is not overstressed. Where Black Rain succeeds is rather in the deceptively calm intimacy of ifs expression of loss and lost innocence. The standard military and political conundrum -was Japan already on the brink of surrender? - is left to one side. Instead the emphasis is on the sheer physical truth of ruined lives, uncomprehending faces and dignity in the shadow of a lingering death.
Powerful, uncompromising and very persuasive.
Triumph of the Spirit
directed by Robert M Young
This is the true story of an Auschwitz concentration-camp inmate who managed to survive by boxing in a series of over 200 win-or-die contests laid on for the 'entertainment' of the camp's SS guards. As played by Willem Dafoe, the Greek-Jewish Salamo Arouch is a credibly gaunt, anguished figure and the tact that the film was actually shot on location at the real Auschwitz adds a further dimension of authenticity.
The methodical insanity of the camp ethos is also very capably expressed: a rigidly hierarchical system of slave labour and assembly-line murder where the barest scrap of food was a luxury, where overseer inmates known as Kapos were driven into enforcing discipline just as viciously as their Nazi masters and where making some kind of amoral accommodation with the authorities offered the only (albeit remote) prospect of survival.
So far so good. But the movie has serious flaws. Whenever it touches on Salamo's relationships with his also-imprisoned father and girlfriend, for example, the film shifts repeatedly into an emotionally manipulative and far too tidy TV mini-series mode. Perhaps it is impossible to convey adequately the horrors of the Nazi genocide in the inevitably sanitized form of a movie drama. But Triumph of the Spirit so emphatically wants to live up to the optimism of its title that the grotesque, degrading camp rituals often become mere background details to this one man's struggle to survive and protect his loved ones.
Hartmut Becker as the SS officer who organizes the boxing bouts is little more than a forbidding mannequin and no background context at all is given to Salamo's opponents whose 'spirits' are inevitably condemned to death by his 'triumph'.
It would be unfair to call this a concentration-camp Rocky. But with survival of the fittest as its literal theme and with such a strong individualist emphasis, an uneasy hint of that American fantasy remains.
Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth
by Jenny Pearce
(Latin America Bureau)
Colombia is supposedly the 'most democratic' of Latin American states. But Jenny Pearce's path through the labyrinth of recent history suggests that the country's sole democratic feature lies in the fact that its authorities allow elections.
The cover lends a hint of what we suspect will follow: tanks rolling in to end the siege of the Palace of Justice in November 1985 when the occupying guerillas, 12 judges and many civilians were killed. The word 'Colombia' walks across the top of the jacket in bright pink and blue collage letters, adding a note of surrealism to a work on the country whose history Gabriel Garcia Marquez claimed corresponded most closely to the magical realism of his writing.
We are taken through the political and social development of a country which the US regards as its gateway to South America - and we wind up in a situation little different from the past in which an elite group monopolized economic and political power. The authorities continue their suppression of political dissent by utilizing the trained assassin: the sicario. It is not uncommon to hear about the assassination of public figures in the streets of Bogota and even running in local elections can ensure a place on some death list. And the emergence of the cocaine barons has helped political bribery to flourish, though the old elites and the new mafia share an uneasy alliance.
Written in a terse, academic style that at times obstructs the true horror of her depictions of bloodshed and rebellion, Pearce offers an invaluable source of information, full of clearly laid out sections and chronological charts. It is a shame that our only access to the experiences of the Colombian people is via the odd journalistic collage, usually lifted from El Tiempo, one of the country's Liberal newspapers. The book is certainly authoritative but may well daunt the uncommitted reader by its relentlessly hard-nosed factuality.
Turn Things Upside Down
by The Happy End
In the great pop music scheme of things it is pretty difficult these days to come up with a new concept. Given that pop has pillaged everything from blues to blue-eyed soul, plundered local music from Trinidad to Tanzania, there are few stones (rolling or otherwise) left unturned.
Resuscitating the big-band format of the 1940s and applying it to modern agit-pop cannot technically be described as a new concept but it is strikingly bold and enterprising nonetheless. The Happy End is a modern wonder of the world, surviving on a small independent label splitting the cheques between 21 band-members (four trumpets, three trombones, eight saxes and assorted others) and still turning out records of rare thoughtfulness and charm.
Turn Things Upside Down is rich in both texture and text. On the title-track, for instance, the Glenn Miller smoothness to the brass is undercut both by Robert Wyatt's ever-plaintive, ever-plangent guest vocals and by a biting lyric from the 1890s that lambasts the idle rich and helards revolution: Plain living may be wholesome and wondrous virtues may/ Abound beneath ribs scant of flesh and pockets scant of pay/ And it may be poverty is best if rightly understood! But we'll turn things upside down because we don't want all the good'.
The whole album is rooted in and redolent of a struggling socialist past: there is a song that emerged from the Durham miners' strike of 1889; an intriguing version of The Red Flag that veers between elegaic lament and exuberance (the little-known Count Basie arrangement, they say); a characteristically spiky Brecht-Weill song from The Threepenny Opera.
But grafted onto that moving element of socialist history are the causes that most animate the internationalist radical of today. There is a song about the great Reagan-Thatcher love affair and 'their bastard love-child SDI'. There is a treatment of the ANC anthem Nkosi Sikelele Afrika which begins sounding pretty much as it will when South Africa wins its next Olympic medal but then jumps into cool jazz. And last but not least there is a Rhumba for Nicaragua which poses the most valid of questions. Q: is 42 per cent of the vote an enthusiastic endorsement or a devastating condemnation of a government? A: Depends on whether you live in Britain or Nicaragua (see the Classic review below for more on this).
Turn Things Upside Down is imaginative, intelligent and exuberant. Enjoy.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
Mi Venganza Personal
.being the poem that encapsulated the
spirit of the Sandinista revolution
NICARAGUA was the Western Left's greatest cause in the 1980s. Ground down by the politics of greed at home, our eyes turned for inspiration overseas to this tiny country where, for once, a revolution seemed genuinely to be working.
Nicaragua rekindled something of the spirit of the 1930s, a time when the issues were simpler (and more unthinking) for the Left. Just as idealistic volunteers from all over the world signed up then to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War, so the internacionalistasof the 1980s flew out to help defend Nicaragua against the US giant. It did a very short spell myself and will not deny the relish with which I found myself serving alongside a 'Brigada Che Guevara' from Mexico or the sense that I was at the international front line. Except that in these more peace-conscious days we were volunteering not to carry guns but to pick coffee, build schools or plant trees.
My personal revenge will be the right
Of our children in the schools and in the gardens
My personal revenge will be to give you
This song which has flourished without panic
My personal revenge will be to show you
The kindness in the eyes of my people
Who have always fought relentlessly in battle
And been generous and firm in victory
In the wake of the Sandinistas' defeat at the ballot box in February it has become fashionable to link that dramatic surprise with the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe. In truth the only similarity between the two is that Washington has got what it wanted. The majority vote against them has not suddenly turned the Sandinistas into the brutal totalitarian dictators that the US has always claimed them to be. Indeed the impeccably democratic way in which they have accepted the election result in some ways destroys Washington's image even more effectively than a second popular mandate would have done.
And it reminds us of the spirit of reconciliation which made the Sandinista revolution so unique. When Tomás Borge wrote Mi Venganza Personal it was in the wake of his own torture by the dictator Somoza's National Guard and the death of his wife at their hands.
My personal revenge will be to tell you good morning
On a street without beggars or homeless
When instead of jailing you I suggest
You shake away the sadness there that blinds you
And when you who have applied your hands in torture
Are unable to look up at what surrounds you
My personal revenge will be to give you
These hands that once you so mistreated
But have failed to take away their tenderness
After the Revolution Tomás Borge was to face the ultimate test of his own principles when he became Justice Minister and had to take responsibility for that very National Guard which had tortured him, his family and his comrades. One of the Sandinistas' first acts as a government was to abolish the death penalty; members of the National Guard were instead imprisoned. But they were not locked up in the same prison system over which they had presided but one that was eventually reformed absolutely. Prisoners began in secure jails but progressed through good behaviour into ever more open and humane environments until they ended up visiting their home at weekends and guarding themselves. The principle of rehabilitation which has been all but lost in the Western penal system here came back to life - the belief that for people to behave as humans they have to be treated as humans.
It was the people who hated you the most
When rage became the language of their song
And underneath the skin of this town today
Its heart has been scarred forevermore
And underneath the skin of this town today
Red and black, its heart's been scarred
Perhaps after the election result people's hearts could not be said to have been dyed the Sandinista colours of red and black. They understandably voted for the quickest possible end to the nightmare of austerity, conscription and economic blockade that war with the US's Contra pawns had brought about. But the book is not closed - and when a Sandinista government next wins power it will be via the ballot box in a way that no global powers-that-be can dispute. And then we have every reason to hope that this government of poets will exact its personal revenge on the US by building a society more just and more meaningfully democratic than any other in the Americas.
Mi Venganza Personal by Tomás Borge, translated into English by Jorge Calderón.