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new internationalist
issue 215 - January 1991


Star rating system.
Film reviews

Air America
directed by Roger Spottiswoode

Shoddy black comedy: wayward US heroes living it up in Laos. Back in the late 1960s the United States was fighting an secret war in Laos, Central to its clandestine operations was Air America; an airline financed and staffed by the CIA. This movie is a shoddy attempt to make a black comedy at the expense of an episode of real history. Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr are the two wayward individualists winging their way through a lot of hair-raising low-level flying while attempting to get the better of their too obviously foolish superiors and the local drug-running warlord.

With a much more incisive script Air America could have been another M*A*S*H. Unfortunately where Robert Altman's 1970 movie was filled to the brim with corrosive satire at the expense of government propaganda, military doublespeak and bureaucratic authority, this coy and politically timid film chooses a much more shallow route, offering itself as a kind of Good Morning Vietnam with aeroplanes.

Mel Gibson is no more crazy than he is in most of his films; the local population divides itself all too neatly into bar girls, cute little orphans and a corrupt general (inevitably Burt Kwouk from the Pink Panther movies); and in the final sequence there's room aboard Mel's plane for all the passive good folks to get out.

The spectacular aerial stunts constantly upstage the stars and overall this is formula Hollywood at its very worst. For context there are a few snippets of Richard Nixon and pop songs like The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter. For analysis there's Gibson laughing far too much at his own jokes ('If you can't laugh at war what's the use of fighting?')

Presenting the war in South East Asia as a kind of exploding theme park, Air America is one of the worst films on the subject since The Green Berets. At least John Wayne's film took a discernible point of view: the ideas on offer here wouldn't pass muster in a James Bond movie.

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The Fool
directed by Christine Edzard

From the director of Little Dorrit, The Fool is a vastly detailed recreation of the extremes of life in 1850s London. Wealth and poverty exist side by side in separate worlds but mediating between them is one inquisitive character who leads a double life. Derek Jacobi's Mr Frederick is a completely unassuming theatre clerk who goes about his menial business without attracting the slightest attention to himself. However, a change of clothes, a much more assured manner and a commanding tone of voice and he's transformed himself into Sir John, the life and soul of any exclusive social gathering and an apparently impeccable source of profitable financial advice.

Inspired by and drawing upon the researches of Henry Mayhew, The Fool harnesses his exhaustive documentation on the life of London's poor to a somewhat far-fetched but highly moral storyline. Wealth creation wilfully divorcing itself from social responsibility and the vast gulf separating the rich from the poor - 'a discrepancy unendurable' - are the issues which take over Mr Frederick's life. But the deeper he immerses himself in them, the more he is in danger of being seduced by the exhilaration of his charade.

The Fool is meticulous and vastly impressive in the way in which it conjures the two social extremes of 1850s London. Examples of deprivation, privilege and hypocrisy are amassed to such an extent that the film becomes an unwieldy if very attractive victim of its own success. Edzard is so keen to pack her movie with a weight of detail and characters (well over 150 speaking parts) that it much more often resembles a colourful tableau than a narrative.

This is a slow and somewhat repetitive experience but Jacobi's two performances are as accomplished as they are enjoyable, while throughout his accusing finger points tellingly as much at the business ethics of today as at those of a century ago.

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Book reviews

Poverty and the Planet
by Ben Jackson

'There is no such thing as a free lunch.' Africans, Asians and South Americans have been constantly reminded that they are indebted to the so-called First World for providing their initial free lunches - models of democracy, education and development that they were supposedly bequeathed along with their independence. They have been paying back the bills ever since.

In Poverty and the Planet, Ben Jackson launches into an analysis of why the world is as it is today. Subtitled A Question of Survival, one of his major concerns is that we are now at a crossroads: humanity has now got to choose between some form of regeneration of the world's natural resources or self-destruct. And where do the poor fit into this scenario?

Jackson sees the Third World as providing a catalyst for ecological action. For too long minority elites have been raking in the benefits from 'development programmes' and aid packages. The poor have been largely ignored by the official donors of international aid, who see industrialized development as more important than providing for a rural peasantry and urban poor. Governments are caught up in the myth that 'self-sufficiency' equals bigger technology-based schemes which are supposed to boost the economy. And ecological devastation is fuelled by economic dependence on the global network of demand and supply.

Jackson has a punchy journalistic style which keeps jargon to a minimum yet never loses sight of the fact that this book is a serious assessment of poverty and the ecological implications of global destitution. He has a real passion about his subject and yet knows how to make difficult economic and political concepts understandable without resorting to the simplistic. As a result this book stands out from the ever-richer harvest of development literature.

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Gaia Atlas of First Peoples
by Julian Burger
(Robertson McCarta)

[image, unknown] 1992 marks the 500th anniversary of Columbus' 'discovery' of the Americas. It will not be celebrated by the indigenous peoples of the New World whose forebears were marginalized and murdered. And for indigenous peoples the world over 1992 will be a time to reflect on past and present abuses - and on future strategies for dealing with them. Proud resistance in recent years has gathered pace.

There are over a quarter of a billion indigenous peoples in the world today, split into 5,000 cultural groups from Amazonia to Scandinavia, India to Aotearoa/New Zealand. They are in the front line of the ecological crisis. The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples is as complete an introduction to them as you could wish, all offered in a clear, bold graphic style, uncluttered and accessible.

Its first section looks at the indigenous way of life the world over: the close relationship with the land and its ecosystems, social structures based on co-operation not competition. Part Two is a disturbing account of the effects of 'progress'. And Alternative Visions concludes the analysis with a look at the continuing struggle for self-determination, legal rights to land and the preservation of the environment.

[image, unknown] Perhaps most importantly First Peoples focuses on the lessons we can learn from them. The more than five billion people on our planet cannot all live as hunter-gatherers but it is equally clear that we cannot pursue our present course of development. Indigenous peoples possess a collective wisdom drawn from experience which we forfeited long ago and which may be indispensable to our own survival.

Of his struggle to preserve the rainforests of Brazil (curtailed by an assassin's bullet) Chico Mendes said: 'At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.' And the demise of the first peoples will surely herald our own.

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Music reviews

Gula Gula
by Marl Boine Persen
(Real World)

As our concept of world music enlarges, so we begin to realize that it doesn't mean just African township jazz or Asian devotional pieces but also music from areas of the rich world unaccounted for in the Transatlantic rock'n'soul swamp. Man Boine Persen is a traditional singer from the Sámi people of 'the Arctic part of Europe, so far north it is often missing from the weather maps on television'.

The Sámi (derogatorily known as Lapps) are scattered through the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and have been ignored and oppressed for centuries. This is reflected in the bitter-sweet lyrics of Oppskrift for Herrefolk ('Recipe for a Master Race'), which reflects on Man's status as an 'inferior Lapp' woman in Norwegian society.

Sámi traditions loom large here but their ancient truths have a direct relevance to modern world problems: 'Hear the voices of the foremothers... They ask you why you let the earth become polluted, poisoned, exhausted'. These words are sung to Sámi drums and tuned percussion, mixed with more orthodox rock instrumentation to ghostly effect.

Inevitably her two most popular pieces in wider Europe so far have been those most akin to Western tastes: the title track and Du Lakkha, a melodramatic instrumental in which a breathy voice plays a major part. But the rest of the album is even more rousing with its emotive pitch and ritualistic chanting. It will be interesting to see if Man Boine Persen's future work is as extremely individual, as rooted in her Sámi background as Gula Gula.

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...being the book that exploded the myth of rustic romance

I persist in believing myself in better mental health in the English countryside than when working in London: the notion of a sane nature supporting a humane society is real to me. On the evidence of Emile Zola's Earth I have little grounds for this.

Zola had little doubt that peasants loved the land. 'Fouan... had worked so hard, his passion for the land had been so fierce that his body was now bent as though ready to return to the earth he coveted and possessed so violently.'

This was not the language in which nineteenth-century novelists normally considered agricultural relations. But Zola knew his subject. In the 1870s he toured throughout the Beauce - the rich agricultural lands surrounding Chartres - exploring the interdependence of French peasant society and the land supporting it. Earth, the story of families in a small Beauce village, was one of a series of 20 novels attempting a specimen cross-section, a 'natural and social history' of five generations, peasant and bourgeois.

Unlike so many family sagas, Zola's is entirely devoid of romance, uplift or any rhetoric of honest poverty. In this society property, and sex are entangled, the protagonists barely distinguishing between gaining a lover and gaining his/her land. And the rare instances of love as more than brute lust are soon decayed by the miserable waiting for majority and the property it might bring.

Zola's characters would readily kill their own parents before poverty got them first. The central figure, Buteau, suffocates his father and then burns him: it sorts out the inheritance. When another father dies of more natural causes, all attempts at filial affection or dutiful mourning are quite destroyed by a hailstorm. His daughter cries: "'Are the peas spoilt? Good God, what about the fruit and the lettuces?' She lifted her skirts and ran through the rain; the dead man was abandoned, lying in the empty kitchen.'

Human birth is but another form of husbandry; a woman goes into labour on a dark night just as, in the cowshed, the vet is aborting one calf and saving a second. For a brief moment there is joyous laughter - but the baby is a girl and that night the disgruntled father attempts to rape his wife's Sister. A sound reason for sibling solidarity, you might imagine, but the sisters are disputing an inheritance and at the end of the novel the wife connives at the repeated rape - successful this time - and the murder of hersister (for her land of course).

This is Arcadia turned nightmare, the rustic joys of the wine harvest peopled with drunken boors and forcedly pregnant women. Zola was obviously anything but a pastoral idealist. To the bourgeois reading public of nineteenth-century Britain and France, country life was something to romanticize, glorify and stay well clear of. When Earth was first published in France the sexual violence in it led to accusations that it could only have been written by a man who was himself impotent. Victorian England, more used to sweetly warbled ditties on rural themes by Poets Laureate, prosecuted the publisher for obscenity. It's not that the public couldn't face the idea of squalor in their midst - Charles Dickens had an enormous magazine following. But Dickensian villains were endlessly redeeming themselves with demonstrations of love and charity; Zola's never do, being driven only by primitive lust and greed.

Zola was a ferocious campaigner and polemicist whose pamphlet J'accuse launched the campaign to rehabilitate Captain Dreyfus and to counter anti-semitism in French public life. His many novels flay the industrialists, mineowners, lecherous aristocracy and other exploiters of the poor. Coming from such a writer, a country boy himself, Earth is particularly upsetting. He is uninterested in ascribing blame to people higher up the social hierarchy. Zola's characters see only the Earth itself as pertinent. The bourgeoisie seem like a faintly ridiculous irrelevance, a distant world of feeble pretension and respectable prostitutes.

How can such a history be readable? Well, for all their squalid villainy the characters are oddly sympathetic. They are alert, uncompromising and consistent. There is no hypocrisy about them; they become contemptible only when they sweet-talk each other. They are powerful, they meet their situations head on, the ferocity of their actions matching the harsh demands of agricultural survival. There is a perverse nobility about them.

And for all their faults I find them peculiarly preferable to the present-day landowners of the peasantless English countryside whose smug mastery of the land is no less profit-ridden than Buteau's, whose weekending tranquility is dependent on a fragile moneyed luck, not on any harmony with nature.

Jo Hugh-Jones

Earth by Emile Zola

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New Internationalist issue 215 magazine cover This article is from the January 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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