issue 251 - January 1994
directed by Elaine Proctor
photo by METRO TARTAN
Two years ago South African director Elaine Proctor won acclaim – and a British Film Institute award – for her short film On the Wire. This bleak and claustrophobic chamber piece traced the breakdown of the marriage between an Afrikaner soldier and his wife after the terrible revelations about his work activities.
Friends is her first full-length feature. Set in Johannesburg and spanning the decade up to the release of Mandela, it tells the story of three women who share a house together. The friends represent different strands of South African life. Sophie (Kerry Fox) is the white upper-class girl who rebels against her privileged background by joining a militant organization; Aninka (Michele Burgers) is a mild-mannered Afrikaner who buries her head in her archaeological research, while Thoko (Dambisa Kente) is a teacher in the black townships. The testing point for the women comes when Sophie’s political affiliations lead her to plant a bomb at Jan Smuts Airport, causing the deaths of a soldier and a cleaner. Sophie begins to fall apart, distancing herself from the friends with whom she cannot share her secret.
Proctor may be forgiven for choosing such an obviously balanced group of characters around which to structure her drama. Perhaps she feels that she has to justify the story to everyone – which may be a burden that progressive South African filmmakers who have access to funding (Friends is an Anglo-French co-production) carry at the moment. And the film does seem to be more for an international than domestic audience since it spells out what must be explicit to those who live in the country. At the same time it obscures such important things as, for instance, what motivates Sophie, offering the most obvious of explanations: as a child she witnessed her family’s black maid, with whom she had a close bond, being dragged away by the police.
With so much taken on board the film loses out, having only a trace of the quiet control of On the Wire. That said, Proctor is a gifted filmmaker whose vision should be encouraged. The mood of Friends oscillates between the poetic and the documentary, with moments of intense symbolic meaning, and provides a gritty scrutiny of the fractured landscape which the characters inhabit.
Low intensity democracy
edited by Barry Gills, Joel Rocamora and Richard Wilson
(Pluto Press ISBN 00 7453 0536 9 pb)
The play on ‘low intensity warfare’ is apposite. This was the strategy adopted by US administrations during the 1980s to wage war against socialism in El Salvador and Nicaragua without making their own hands bloody. ‘Low intensity democracy’ has the same remote-control appeal. But it has the added attraction of incorporating that irresistible buzz word of the post-Cold War era: ‘democracy’. What exactly is meant by this ‘democracy’ and whom it benefits is rarely asked.
The contributors to this book, who include such big names as Noam Chomsky, André Gunder Frank and Samir Amin, are refreshingly ready to ask that kind of question. Why, for example, has democratization in countries like Argentina and the Philippines been followed, after the initial euphoria, by a profound political apathy? And why, in so many cases, are people in their daily lives no more free and actually poorer than they were before?
With a good mix of political theory and specific country case studies, this book explains how low intensity democracy operates by reinforcing conservatism in the interests of local élites and international capital. Meanwhile, the rest of the world swallows the line that parties and elections equals democracy and that two members of rival élite families competing for power in the Guatemalan elections somehow marks a major shift away from dictatorship.
There are genuinely democratic forces in the world today – but you are not likely to find them in the political parties. Rather, they are to be found in the social movements – the women’s, workers’, peasants’ and human-rights organizations. And their role is to destabilize the old order, not prop it up.
This is a provocative and timely book, clearly conceived, quite readable and definitely useful to anyone trying to make sense of the world today. But the bigger question remains unanswered: how can those genuinely democratic movements be heard above the monotonous, idiot bleating of proponents of the New World Order?
Born to Choose
by Various Artists
(Rykodisc RCD/RAC 10256)
photo by SUE COE
‘It’s time to say something!’ is the message of John Trudell’s song Rant and Roll – and of this extraordinary album as a whole. Born to Choose is a 12-song compilation featuring rare unreleased tracks from the likes of REM with Natalie Merchant, Tom Waits and the Cowboy Junkies. They all deal with a woman’s right to abortion and the proceeds from the album are earmarked for three pro-choice and women’s health organizations.
Benefit albums are nothing new. The unique qualities of Born to Choose lie elsewhere.
There’s the cause, for a start. As an excellent 20-page accompanying booklet makes clear, the battle for reproductive rights is far from won. In the US clinics are being firebombed by anti-choice campaigners, and 35 states prohibit abortion for under-18-year-olds.
Then there’s the music – some of it great, the contributions of REM and The Cowboy Junkies, superlative. REM and Natalie Merchant’s Photograph fuses a big guitar sound to the counterpoint between vocals; The Cowboy Junkies’ Lost my driving wheel is full of mysterious curves while Jeff Bird’s harmonica parts put the song into orbit. Matthew Sweet pops up with a version of Lennon and McCartney’s She said, she said; and Tom Waits uses Filipino fox spring hog as a foil for his characteristic lurching blues. Sugar, Pavement, Helmet, NRBQ, Soundgarden and Lucinda Williams all make original contributions, while the sparky post-punk Mekons contribute Born to Choose’s especially written title.
As veteran rock journalist Ellen Willis points out in her short essay, sex was always part of rock’s rebelliousness while music itself has a history that’s intertwined with the politics of liberation. And for a campaigning album, Born to Choose has a justifiably angry tenor.
films OF THE YEAR
It has been a good year for bringing the excluded and untold into the mainstream – or at least closer to it. The most obvious and successful example was Malcolm X directed by Spike Lee. While demolishing the white myth of Malcolm as a demagogue spreading race hatred, Lee avoided the opposite pitfall of mindless hero worship. And he managed to tell a gripping story too...
Another breakthrough was the documentary film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Although rated the ‘most important intellectual alive’ the mainstream media have consistently excluded the tireless activist. This film is the product of five years’ work by Canadian film-makers Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar and makes for compelling watching, whether you are new to Chomsky or an old hand. (Reviewed NI 241 and 242)
music OF THE YEAR
This past year has thrown up recordings that possess a fascinating political agenda. Bang by World Party was an end-of-the-world record that you could dance to. Decca kicked off its new series of Entartete Musik – ‘degenerate music’ banned by the Nazis – with operas from Korngold and Krenek. But for sheer nerve and immediacy – and that’s not even mentioning the music – nothing beats Born to Choose, a 12-tracker featuring REM, Natalie Merchant, The Cowboy Junkies and others. The album’s beneficiary is pro-choice and women’s health care. And the music? Sublime! (Reviewed in this issue)
book OF THE YEAR
Combine the raciness of a thriller with an intelligent, inside story of what is happening in the most populous and yet secretive country in the world today and you have Black Hands of Beijing. This tour de force by George Black and Robin Munro was the book that this year brought the politics of China alive, and provided a miraculously readable story of the democracy movement over the 13 years leading up to Tiananmen. The battle for democracy is bound to be renewed pretty soon, as the ailing gerontocracy loosens its grip on the nation. Reading Black Hands will give you the best background to any news coming out of China this year. (Reviewed in NI 246)
photo by JERRY BAUER
‘Waiting for Godot is like waiting for Clinton,’ ran the headline quotation in the British Guardian newspaper last August. Susan Sontag, the New York writer, pictured amid the rubble of a besieged Sarajevo, had gone there to direct a Bosnian production of Samuel Beckett’s well known drama. The story pricked my scepticism. Why was it that artistic activity in Bosnia was newsworthy only when a Western personality was involved? Wasn’t there something odd and objectionable about Sontag directing actors, for parts spoken in a language she did not understand, through interpreters?
‘I can’t think of a play as appropriate as Godot,’ she was quoted as saying. ‘It is about people who are weak and defenceless, abandoning hope of being saved by some arbitrary power.’ Didn’t that sound like the banal Americanization of an extreme social crisis? On the other hand, I reflected, wasn’t Sontag saying precisely that art is not a mere consumerist luxury, but something that must address the political circumstances in which people find themselves? Wasn’t her expression of solidarity in staging the play genuine, particularly in view of the personal danger for anyone in Sarajevo at the time?
The answers to some of these questions probably lie in Waiting for Godot itself, ‘a tragicomedy in two acts’ first produced in 1955. The play concerns Estragon and Vladimir, two rootless, occupationless but not entirely witless down-and-outs who discover (the first words of the play) ‘nothing to be done’. We find them on a country road, on which the only feature is a naked tree. They have seemingly only one purpose in life: to wait for a character called Godot. They cannot move on until Godot comes. Each day brings fresh hope that Godot will arrive, but this hope is each day disappointed. They thus survive in a state of suspenseful, all-consuming anxiety, punctuated by resignation in the face of their absurd condition.
Estragon and Vladimir repeatedly propose parting from one another or committing suicide by hanging themselves from the tree, but they reflect that the tree may not bear the weight of the second body, and each desperately fears the prospect of being left alone. They grasp at any spectacle which offers relief from the situation, such as the appearances of the sadistic madman Pozzo, who drives with a whip an abject slave ironically called Lucky. ‘That passed the time,’ Vladimir comments when Pozzo and Lucky have gone, which is all that can apparently be hoped for in the absence of any meaning or enlightenment. ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!’ exclaims Estragon, in what might be a description of the play itself.
The politics of this drama are far from self-evident. In the first place, the entire play is a clever joke played on its audiences, who wait in vain for ‘something to happen’ in the play much as the characters wait for Godot, only to find at the end that they have simply ‘passed the time’ viewing a spectacle. The usual attempt to ‘beef up’ Waiting for Godot into something more profound is to insist that it is an ‘existential’ parable about the absurdity of a world without God (it was, after all, written in Paris in the 1950s).
This is all very well, but like much existential writing, the play thus read encourages enormously conservative thinking: in a meaningless world, any purposive activity – politics especially – is ridiculous in the extreme. The more radical implications of a Godless world belong to socialist rather than existentialist thought: it is humans and only humans who make meaning; it is human interests and human activity in pursuit of those interests which create a sense of purpose in social life. Resignation and despair are only possible when a community renounces all prospect of relying on its own activity as a solution to its crises and dilemmas – in short, when it looks outside itself for salvation.
My problem with Waiting for Godot is that it seems to me to be ambiguously trapped between these conservative and radical positions. Beckett is as fascinated by dramatizing despair as he is aware of its utterly demoralizing power. My questions about Sontag’s production of the play stemmed from a sense that she too was politically compromised and compromising. ‘They feel humiliated by waiting,’ she is quoted as saying of the citizens of Sarajevo. ‘But they can only wait, hope or commit suicide. If that is not a description of the situation in Sarajevo, I know nothing.’
Despite the gravity of the situation in the city as she spoke, I remained deeply suspicious of the case for Western intervention which Sontag used Beckett’s play to promote. She failed to note that the civil war in the former Yugoslavia was in part precipitated by the West, and that military intervention would later be used as an excuse for Big Brotherly activity in future imperialist scenarios. To place faith in the West, in such circumstances, is like hugging a viper.
One thing Sontag did, however, prove: art, even the seemingly ‘empty’ art of Beckett, dramatizes politics. The important thing is always to work out what kind of politics is being dramatized.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (Faber, 1956).