issue 237 - November 1992
A Week in the Real World
by various artists (Real World)
In 1982 Peter Gabriel and journalist Thomas Brooman got together to stage the first festival of the World Organization of Music and Dance (WOMAD) at Shepton Mallet in England. Artistically it was a success, financially a fiasco, and it looked as if WOMAD would go down in history as an inspired flash in the pan. Ten years later, though, the organization is still going strong, staging festivals worldwide (15 this year), and providing educational resources for schools.
WOMAD has been at the centre of the ongoing argument about the nature of that elusive field of activity known as world music'. More important, it has stimulated enough people and created enough activity to prove that fashion and marketability are not the only things that count. WOMAD has changed a lot of people's listening habits and set a few ripples going in the music business at large. And even if it hasn't yet shaken things to their core - it's still hard to get airtime for non-Anglo-American artists - it has moved mountains in terms of bringing different audiences and artists together worldwide.
Affiliated to WOMAD is Real World Records, based at Peter Gabriel's recording studio in Wiltshire. Last year the organization successfully staged an experiment in recording - a week in which musicians were invited to these extremely pleasant rural surroundings so as to network, jam and record together. Some musicians did their own work, others staged unlikely collaborations. Producers played an important part too - people more used to working in mainstream pop were suddenly faced with the challenge of recording, say, a Tasmanian dance troupe. The experience, in theory, was to be beneficial to everyone, an all-round eye-opener.
This record is the first of two compilations featuring miscellaneous work from the week. Among those playing are gospellers the Holmes Brothers, Columbian cumbia star Toto Ia Momposina, and St Petersburg's jokey balalaika virtuosi the Terem Quartet. But some of the more interesting tracks here are the collaborations - house-mix duo the Grid, for example, get together with bass maestro Jah Wobble, Spanish guitarist Juan Cañizares and Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota, on a dance mix that doesn't quite gel. Rather more successful is the Grid's nightclub funk track with Wendell Holmes offering a laid-back, rasping commentary. Former Clannad member Pol Brennan excels too in the company of Joji Hirota, Chinese female singer Liu Sola and flautist Guo Yue.
In general here the musicians are gravitating towards genuine kindred spirits; in this year's recording week (the fruits of which will be released later) rather more clashing cultural and musical combinations seemed to be emerging, with even more experimentation in the dance area - something that should help break Real World's reputation for being excessively sober and traditionalist. In the mean time A Week in the Real World is inevitably a mixed bag but gives a good impression of what it must have been like to be around for one of the most invigo-rating and barrier-breaking recording experiments in some time.
City of Joy
directed by Roland Jofte
When Hollywood attempts to deal with Third World scenarios there is no getting round the fact that there has to be a Western hero in the foreground. Sometimes the results are embarrassing, but occasionally a director finds enough leeway around the convention to handle it with sensitivity and intelligence.
City of Joy may be ham-strung by having to provide a show-off performance for Patrick Swayze, oozing concern. But the film indulges him only half-willingly; even if his blustery performance looks out of place, you can always ignore it and attend to the more interesting story at hand - that of a self-help school and dispensary in one of Calcutta's poorest quarters.
Swayze plays Max Lowe, an embittered American doctor who, after a failed operation, goes to Calcutta to find himself and loses his wallet instead. His arrival in town coincides with that of Hasari Pal (Om Pun) a man forced to leave his village to seek a living. Hasari arrives with his wife and children, and gets a job as a rickshaw driver in the employ of the area's all-powerful godfather. Everyone eventually winds up in the City of Joy centre run by Joan Bethel (Pauline Collins); Hasari and family discover that they too can belong in the city and Lowe overcomes his sulks to lend his medical talents to the cause. But before the centre can flourish, they have to deal with the menaces of the godfather's brutal son.
Joffe is one of the first Western directors to convey Indian life without stereotyping. The film manages to fulfil its commercial brief of providing romance in foreign places while managing to eschew exoticism - the horror and degradation of Calcutta's poverty are clear, but so is the stress on human resilience and hope suggested in the title. The theme of leprosy is treated rather with kid gloves - possibly because Joffe was aware of the risk of exploitation - and the eventual solution to Hasari's struggles is rather glib. But at least the film is aware of the key political questions of 'community' and 'self-determination'.
City of Joy is uneven but it milks the odd tear with more intelligence than most.
The Redundancy of Courage
by Timothy Mo (Vintage)
East Timor: A Western-Made Tragedy
by Mark Aarons and Robert Domm (Left Book Club)
Nearly a year after Indonesian troops murdered unarmed civilians in Dili, the event is still making headlines in Australian newspapers, if not in the rest of the West.
Unfortunately the massacre of 12 November only continued the bloody process which began when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 - a process documented by these very different books.
The Redundancy of Courage comes as close to a personal history of East Timor's resistance to Indonesia's invasion as a novel is likely to get: the setting is fictional but barely concealed. The novel is narrated by a Macau/Toronto-educated gay Chinese hotelier who befriends an over-educated, 'Marxist on a hill' elite in whose struggle for independence he becomes a significant player.
Mo's description of life with the resistance to the occupation is detailed; any more detailed and the book would be a combat manual. But while its cause is plainly just, the resistance isn't romanticized - its idealism and facade of democracy conceals an autocratic leadership which indulges in the politics of grudge, self-interest and survival.
Mo tells his tale with insight, acerbic wit and self-deprecation. And despite the terrible odds he signs off with a note of optimism. He has us remember the earlier words of a resistance leader: 'They can win in the short term, make things go on longer. In the medium term it might get harder for us. But nothing can stop the march of a people seeking their freedom. Nothing and noone.'
Aarons and Domm provide a more orthodox account. The Dili tragedy, they say, was a symptom of the political stalemate. 'Jakarta maintains its control over East Timor only by use of repression... The resistance lacks the military power to overthrow Jakarta, yet it enjoys immense popular support.'
That support has still not been garnered internationally. Words of reproof were all Indonesia received for the 1991 massacre, just as it easily weathered UN rebukes for the initial invasion. The invasion suited the US which wanted its submarines to use the straits on the northern side of the island. Along with the Australian Government, which by the late 1980s was negotiating with Jakarta about oil fields in the Timor Gap, Washington has worked against international efforts to ascertain the truth and take effective action.
One doesn't have to be a cynic to find A Western-Made Tragedy's conclusions unsurprising: US and Australian foreign policy is unprincipled and self-seeking. Their duplicity on East Timor has made them accomplices to a great tragedy.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
When John Steinbeck sold the film rights of his novel The Grapes of Wrath to Darryl F Zanuck's 20th Century Fox, he insisted upon an unusual clause being inserted in the contract to ensure that the resulting movie should 'fairly and reasonably retain the main action and social content of the said literary property'. As directed by John Ford, scripted by Nunnally Johnson and with Henry Fonda perfectly cast in the leading role as Tom Joad, the film admirably lived up to this difficult condition, presenting a starkly honest vision of a society viciously divided into the haves and the have-nots.
When I first saw The Grapes of Wrath as a child I can remember more than anything being astonished by its graphic depiction of poverty in the US. That people could actually die of starvation in the richest country on earth was, and indeed still is, an amazing idea to find in a main-stream Hollywood movie. Being a quite naive British kid raised on an unending TV diet of cheerily optimistic American imports, it was a revelation to see a film which quite calmly expressed the ideas that US society was savagely unjust, that labour was exploited as a matter of course, and that the police were often both corrupt and murderously inclined.
Watch the film again on video or TV in the 1990s and you'll find its clarity of vision is undiminished. The story, as streamlined for the screen, is starkly simple: a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers have been evicted off their 40 acres by the bank. Released from jail, eldest son Tom joins them just before they migrate to California aboard a rickety old truck. The grandfather and grandmother die during the journey; they encounter employers that refuse to pay even subsistence wages and a repressive police force that kills as a first resort. Tom kills a vigilante after the murder of his friend, the ex-preacher Casey (John Carradine). The family finally find some decent treatment at a transit camp run by the Federal Government but Tom is forced to leave because he's a wanted man...
Within the bare skeleton of this scenario, the film articulates a cohesive and compelling story which powerfully depicts society as it is while offering also a developing consciousness of how it should be. These two related levels of meaning are bound together by the way in which the film forces us to share the perspective of the Joad family. The movie is organized as a double journey of discovery - both for the Joad family and for us, the audience.
The Joads gradually have their illusions shattered about where they stand in relationship to society at large. California, which they at first think of as the 'land of milk and honey', good wages and full employment, soon turns out to be exactly the reverse of all of these things. If we had any illusions in the first place, they're quickly shattered by the increasing desperation of the Joads' plight and we're forced to face up to the real nature of a society that has casually discarded them and many others to struggle for survival on the very margins between life and death.
By sharing the family's point of view, we're made to see many seemingly obvious things in a new light: the several opulent roadside service stations, for instance where employees wear spotless white uniforms. Here bread can only be bought as sandwiches, not as a whole loaf (producing one of the most affecting scenes in the film), everything is shiny, clean and crucially out of reach of the Joads. They don't have any stake in this consumerist world and this freedom of the highways which so many other American movies - and ads for that matter - have glamorized into a myth. An exchange between two service-station employees indicates how far this society has turned its back on them: 'They ain't human, a human being wouldn't live the way they do. A human being couldn't stand to be so miserable.'
By the end of the film both the Joads and the audience have been drawn to a new consciousness about themselves and their relationship and responsibilities to the world around them. In Ma Joad's final uplifting speech, she's speaking for audience and family alike, drawn together finally and totally into a shared viewpoint: 'We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out, they can't lick us. We'll go on forever because we're the people!'
Both a film of its time and a film for all time, The Grapes of Wrath still has the power to move because it's still true - sadly in every respect.
The Grapes of Wrath directed by John Ford (1940).