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The Classic

new internationalist
issue 312 - May 1999


[image, unknown] Film

The Windhorse
directed by Paul Wagner

While Pema (top) protests Chinese oppression; Dolkar (right) sings to it. The Tibetan ‘windhorse’ is a winged creature believed to carry prayers along its back to spirits residing in lakes, mountains and trees. Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, however, says the narrator of this quietly impassioned film, the windhorses have gone.

The source of these words is the narrator’s deceased grandfather, killed by the Chinese authorities 18 years ago. Today his grandson, Dorje, lives with his family in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa – jobless, disillusioned with peaceful methods of agitation, and suppressing his frustrations in drink. His sister Dolkar (played by Tibetan American singer Dadon) has assimilated easily into Chinese culture. A singer in a nightclub, she is on the verge – thanks to her Chinese radio producer boyfriend – of launching a recording career. Cutting a deal with a record company boss, she is told to sing pop songs lavishly praising the authorities, a task she pitches into with alacrity while her brother looks on in disgust.

Both Dolkar and Dorje (Jampa Kelsang) have accommodated themselves to life under occupation with varying degrees of complacency. However – days after a 1997 ruling outlawing the display of posters of the Dalai Lama and even the right to speak of him – their cousin Pema, a nun, launches an impromptu protest against the decree. In the centre of Lhasa, she raises a fist and cries out for Tibet’s freedom. Thrown into prison, Pema is brutally tortured and only released into her family’s care in order to die.

The script may come across as a little stilted at times, but this hardly matters: the passion and commitment of the cast and crew, many new to film-making, is wholehearted. For the most part they belong to Tibet’s exiled community in Kathmandu and the incidents portrayed in the film, including Pema’s incarceration and torture, closely reflect life in Tibet today. The fact that many of the cast – including the delightfully animated grandmother and the dignified Pema herself – have refused to list their names in the credits for fear of reprisals, speaks volumes for the courage of the enterprise.

For all the strength of its message the film’s tone is predominantly lighthearted, humorous even, particularly when grandma is allowed to take centre-stage. Similarly, flashbacks to Pema’s torture in prison are especially effective for being portrayed with a spare elegance. All of which helps mitigate occasional lapses into didacticism.

Released to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Tibet’s occupation by China, The Windhorse is a reflective look at the society’s loss of spiritual and political independence. Given the way the story dovetails into so many real, everyday tragedies, it’s also a fitting tribute to a people still in considerable need of international support.

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Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and global order
by Noam Chomsky
(Seven Stories Press, ISBN 1 888363 82 7)

If you can walk you can dance
by Marion Molteno
(Shola Books, ISBN 0 9519752)

The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction
edited by Carolyn Choa and David Su Li-Qun
(Picador, ISBN 0 330 35264 4)

Daughter of the River: An autobiography
by Hong Ying
(Bloomsbury, ISBN 0 7475 3983 9)

Noam Chomsky, scourge of unaccountable power and shoddy reasoning, has been harrying our imperious masters and their supine media claque for over four decades. His latest book, a collection of recent articles and lectures, confirms his continuing relevance as a debunker of ‘free market’ myths. The book’s theme is the onward march of ‘Neoliberalism’, the doctrine of unfettered trade which uses the market to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the unelected few and inexorably drive down living standards for the abject many. This philosophy – ‘capitalism with the gloves off’ – sustains the gadarene dash towards globalism and the supremacy of the transnationals.

Chomsky brilliantly dissects neoliberalism’s morally and intellectually barren rationale. The operating principle of ‘state capitalism’, observed in Clinton’s US, Blair’s Britain and various other vassal states, is epitomized in Oliver Goldsmith’s phrase, ‘laws grind the poor and rich men make the law’. The danger for democracy lies in the overweening power of the police of the new world order – the IMF, The World Bank and so on. When the democratic process is reduced to ‘trivial debate over minor issues by parties that pursue the same pro-business policies’, voter apathy and alienation become the weary norm.

As Chomsky says, hypocrisy lies at the heart of this doctrine; socialism for the rich – in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and government bailouts of the corporate sector – and imposed free-market discipline for the poor.

This laser-sharp book is for everyone who has raged at our representatives’ craven surrender in the face of corporate rapacity – the latest example being the audacious attempt to privatize the world’s food chain via genetically modified food. It may not make comfortable reading but, as Chomsky says, the greatest fear of the aristocrats of the market is an informed and organized opposition where people act as citizens not consumers and recapture democracy as a tool of a global movement not a global market.

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If you can walk you can dance. It’s not an uncommon theme: a young South African woman is unwittingly caught up in the politics of the apartheid era and is forced to leave her country, friends and family to build a new life in exile. But in doing so the protagonist of If you can walk you can dance discovers an extraordinary passion for music – from the mesmerizing patterns of the African mbira or thumb-piano, to her own tentative attempts on the viola.

Marion Molteno’s novel sweeps through the 1970s, through rural Africa and a marriage of convenience, to shared households in London and exile in Zambia. The harmonies and rhythms of the music – sometimes harsh and jangling, sometimes smooth and beautiful, sometimes the steady beating of the heart – become part of a pattern the heroine Jenny has to recognize and integrate while at the same time trying to weave together the disparate threads of her life. It is this rhythm which informs the book as the reader is taken from Africa to England; then from London to Lusaka; and finally back to South Africa again. At times the English part of the narrative drags a little: Molteno’s heart, like her character’s, clearly lies in Africa, where the book comes to its moving finale.

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The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction Though extraordinarily varied, the stories in The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction seem rather old fashioned in that they have a moral. Several take the form of fables with a twist in the tail – though ‘The Lovesick Crow and Other Fables’ (Wang Meng) is a spellbindingly surreal offering. Often written in the first person, poignancy abounds, especially in ‘The Tall Woman and Her Short Husband’ (Feng Ji-cai). A chronicle of China before, during and after the Cultural Revolution, this book provides an intriguing variety of insights. A delightful collection, glowing with humour.

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By contrast, Daughter of the River is at times skin-tighteningly grim. It’s a mix of bizarre events and down-to-earth descriptions of growing up in Chongqing, a slum by the Yangtze River. A misfit with ‘hunger in her heart’, the author as child is forever bickering with her brothers and sisters; obsessed with rooting out the family secrets. She loathes her mother and is closest to her blind father. After the tragic deaths of her first lover and her baby, she escapes into dancing, drinking and parties until she’s finally rescued by writing. The Chinese saying ‘May you live in interesting times’ is meant as a curse. This book shows you why.

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Open Circle
by Kevin Locke
(Makoché MM0135D CD)

Spirit Song
by Owiakeyakao
(Makoché MC0110D CD)

Open circle If record shops ever invented a new category of ‘hard listening’ then it might be filled with works by artists such as Kevin Locke. And a good thing, too. That’s not to say Locke – or, to give him his Lakota Indian name, Tokeya Inajin – writes unlistenable music: far from it. His songs for Native American flute and percussion are extraordinary pieces that simultaneously express a sense of fluidity and strength – as his eleventh album Open Circle affirms. That such qualities shine through at all is testimony to Locke’s skillful art, for it’s long been acknowledged that Native American music – Hollywood-inspired chanting aside – is a ‘difficult’ sound for untuned ears. Formed out of ancient rhythmical ideas and cadences, the music’s structure and aim may not be at first obvious. In a culture where easy access equals survival, ‘difficult’ music defines itself in adversity. There have been various attempts to bridge the divide, ranging from the sublime (Sioux national John Trudell’s rock-tinged take on Native American music) to the ridiculous (all those New Age-inspired synth jobs). Indeed, that Open Circle’s sleevenotes state no synths were used in production has a significance beyond the studio. But it is an adventurous album, filled with strange and wonderful combinations of sounds: Siberian bullroarers, Aboriginal didgeridoos, African drums, whistles made from eagle bones and flutes, singers and dancers. The haunting rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ which opens the album offers something of the spirit that permeates the proceedings. One may not understand the words of traditional Lakota songs without reference to the sleevenotes but the sense of wonder, and of welcome to all races, is marked.

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The Lakota community that Locke’s music stems from is presented more explicitly on Spirit Song (‘B’u Hla Hó Zo’). An exuberant album of songs commemorating victories, memorials, horse-stealing, honour and even sobriety, it was recorded under the auspices of Standing Rock College, North Dakota where the 16-strong Owiakeyakao are based. Intended as a record of traditional music, it’s also an album that makes strong links to the present and future. From the first moments – a stirring and dignified ‘Song of Departure’ in which drums and voices in unison sing of transition – it is an unavoidably arresting album, as emotional as it is exciting. It’s simply produced – nothing extraneous to the mighty percussion and song is allowed to distract the listener’s attention. And there are few things as moving as that of the human voice raised.

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Reviewers: Esi Eshun, Peter Whittaker, Carole Baldock, Louise Gray, Nikki van der Gaag
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Central Station
...being the film leading a renaissance in Brazilian cinema.

There is an exquisite shot during Walter Salles’ award-winning Central Station when nine-year-old Josué – his mother dead, his father’s whereabouts unknown – steps out of a doorway and into the Brazilian noonday sun. The boy’s green shorts and clean shirt exactly mirror the tones of the desert landscape that surrounds him. His slight figure all but bleaches out into this vast nation. The impression of being lost in unfamiliar country, economically insecure and wholly reliant on one’s wits and the compassion of strangers, lies at the heart of Salles’ vision. The simple fable of Josué and Dora, the middle-aged letter-writer who reluctantly accompanies the child on his cross-country search for his father – and the love and respect that gradually blossoms between this odd couple – cleverly translates into an exploration of Salles’ homeland. As both writer and director he has, with subtle power and via the genre of the road movie, crafted an impression of Brazil that expresses its contemporary political, social and spiritual concerns.

Central Station
Josue, played by shoeshine boy Vinicius de Olivera, with his unlikely travelling companion, letter-writer Dora (Fernanda Montenegro)

‘Today, an important quest is surfacing: the desire to find another country, one that may be simpler and less glorious than previously announced, but aims to be more compassionate and human. A country where the possibility of a certain innocence still remains,’ the former documentary-maker has explained.

The making of Central Station is itself an example of a renaissance taking place within the Brazilian movie industry. According to Salles: ‘The latent desire to rediscover a country, to redefine ourselves, coincides with the necessity to continue a cinematic tradition that was brutally interrupted for polemical and economic reasons – perhaps because it depicted faithfully what took place in Brazil, in contrast to what was shown on television.’

To this end, the production mixes raw cinematic talent with seasoned professionals. The much-lauded top Brazilian film actors Fernanda Montenegro as Dora and Marilia Pêra as her glamorous neighbour Irene, complement shoeshine boy Vinicius de Olivera in his beguiling debut as the lost child. Making ends meet for his family at Rio de Janeiro Airport, the ten-year-old was himself a product of the heaving internal migration from Brazil’s rural northern states to the industrialized southern cities.

It was not just Vinicius’ natural acting talent that won him the role. When he was invited to audition he insisted that his shoeshining friends also be auditioned, which indicated to the producers that they had probably found the right child for the role. Now, rather than returning to his old job after filming was over – so often the fate of child movie actors from the South – Vinicius is enrolled in school.

Like Vinicius and his family, the illiterate commuters from Rio’s suburbs who flock to Dora’s desk at the city’s main railway station are mainly migrants from the North East; those who believed the promises of an economic miracle occurring in the urban south. Their letters tell of families, loved ones left behind, of the human fall-out of government policy. The legacy of this floating population – Central Station being the hub of so many of their travels – is deep insecurity.

Dora uses squabbles with Josué about what his father is really like to project her pain and disillusion with her own father. But this is also a metaphor for the betrayed hopes of millions of ordinary Brazilians in a land beset by greed and corruption in high places, and a vast, unending divide between rich and poor. Josué’s staunch and hopeful defence of a father he has never seen, however, suggests the vital need for optimism. His youthful, blunt questioning also reveals his craving for adults to be in stable relationships with each other – he is obsessed with marriage – though most of the people he actually meets live alone.

Life is cheap and fate is a lottery. Even Dora cannot be trusted actually to send all the letters in her charge. It’s a matter of chance, luck, which she will send, which she won’t. Simple religious faith acts as the cornerstone to many an impoverished, fractured life. But Salles’ treatment of this theme is not without humour and irony: as an evangelist boasts of the nation’s young people flocking to follow Jesus, a penniless Josué seizes the moment to stuff stolen biscuits under his shirt.

Catherine von Ruhland
Central Station, directed by Walter Salles, is distributed by Buena Vista.

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