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Click here to email the reviews editor, Vanessa Baird.

film and video reviews

Spirited Away
directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Spirited Away This is some achievement. An animation that doesn’t overdo the action, the jokes or the special effects. A gripping and philosophical adventure for everyone, except perhaps the very young. A film that’s grossed more than any other non-American film in history. Yet so conservative are distributors in the English-speaking world that it’s taken nearly three years to reach us, and then only after filling cinemas in France.

It’s not as if Spirited Away is culturally ‘alien’ or ‘difficult’. It has the simplicity and subtlety of classic Japanese prints, but it also recalls Tintin, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Yellow Submarine and countless monster movies and cartoons. It is subtitled, but there’s not a lot of dialogue. The pictures tell the story, and it’s beautifully and subtly done. People and animals metamorphose; facial changes, gestures and lighting convey feelings; grass, clouds and water ripple in the wind. Yet it never overdoes the action, the humour, the scary bits or the beautiful compositions.

The story is bizarre. Chihiro, a young girl, and her parents, driving to their new home, take a diversion to what seems to be a theme park. Her parents, eating greedily in a restaurant, turn into pigs. Chihiro discovers that all visitors are slaughtered and eaten. Like a prisoner in a slave camp, she can only survive through labour, by proving that she is useful.

Pouting, self-centred Chihiro changes. She learns to value human things and to be true to who she is. She learns understanding and respect for other people. If a film about love and wisdom sounds yucky, well this one isn’t. And it’s a delight to see an animation that doesn’t stereotype, sanitize or sentimentalize.

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music reviews

Paraiso di Gumbe Paraiso di Gumbe
by Manecas Costa
(Late Junction BBCLJ 3007-2 CD)

Sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea, the tiny West African state of Guinea-Bissau has been late in making its mark on the recording market. Decades of anti-colonial struggle and the 1998 rebellion and civil war have not helped the impoverished state build up much industry of any kind.

So credit is due to Manecas Costa who, now based in Lisbon, travelled back to his homeland to record Paraiso di Gumbe not in a studio – he’d have been hard pushed to find one – but in a beachside club. You’d never guess it, from the unfussy lightness that suffuses the music. Gumbe is a tricky rhythm to pin down. It owes something to the kora ripples of neighbouring Senegal, but is characterized by a hip-swaying motion. It sounds, thanks to Costa’s warm tenor voice and guitar, like something made for pleasure.

Which is not to say Paraiso di Gumbe (named after an old club) dodges the important issues. Next to love songs are laments of exile; ‘Djunda Djunda’ (‘Tug of War’) tells of government corruption. The lure of the songs lies in their insinuating harmonies – vocals, mandinka drums and highly tuned guitars. Costa makes music that may be firmly based in the social fabric of his homeland, but it’s also work that has far-reaching consequences.

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Live at Abbey Road
by London Community Gospel Choir
(Kingsway Music KM 2427, CD, MC, DVD)

Live at Abbey Road London’s interdenominational Community Gospel Choir is more familiar than most people realize. On stage with Tina Turner, Puff Daddy or Elton John? They’ve been there. The ones that make Madonna sound better? It’s them.

In Britain, at least, gospel music was the great gift of Caribbean immigrants who, arriving after 1945, found themselves if not actively then certainly tacitly excluded from the Church of England’s more sedate form of worship. In consequence, the new black churches forged a parallel path that was, more often than not, powered by an exuberant choral singing that affirmed faith and positivity. It was much needed. Set up in 1982 by Bazil Meade, Delroy Powell, Lawrence Johnson and John Francis (Live at Abbey Road is the choir’s 21st birthday present to itself), the LCGC was created in the wake of racial riots. The choir’s history can quietly boast the development of soul stars like Carleen Anderson and Sam Moore, both of whom return to this album to pay their dues.

That the soul orchestral style of Live at Abbey Road sounds so familiar is a measure of the LCGC’s extraordinary success.

Swelling harmonies and melismatic soloists are standard features of much current chart-orientated R’n’B and the sound is beautifully showcased in the paradise-or-bust versions of ‘Blessed be Your Name’ or ‘Some Day’. This album may not turn the atheist’s gaze heavenwards, but it’s music wonderful enough to make anyone believe in the community of the human voice.

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book reviews

Weapons of Mass Deception Weapons of Mass Deception
The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
(US: Tarcher/Penguin, ISBN 1 58542 276 2; UK: Constable & Robinson, ISBN 1 84119 837 4 )

In the lead-up to the first Gulf War a story about Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of hospital incubators played large with US public opinion and weighed heavily in the Senate debate on whether or not to approve military action. After the war the story was proven to be a complete fabrication and part of a multi-million dollar campaign by the PR company Hill & Knowlton.

This time the White House used think-tanks, PR groups and lobbyists to peddle a much bigger fabrication – that Iraq posed a clear and present danger due to its weapons capability – and to massage domestic public and political opinion paving the way for war. But while the American public largely swallowed the story, the case for war elsewhere was much harder to make. In a MORI poll in Britain, for example, the most popular reason given for the war on Iraq was oil.

Besides telling the story of the role that PR companies have played since 11 September 2001, Stauber and Rampton investigate the highly partisan and low-information coverage of 24-hour news channels such as Rupert Murdoch’s Fox and look at how the fear factor played a central role in engendering an emotional response able to bypass rational thinking.

As the case for war continues to unravel in Britain and spreads to the US, Stauber and Rampton’s well-referenced book will be pivotal in helping the American public penetrate the White House fog.

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A Problem from Hell A Problem from Hell
America and the age of genocide
by Samantha Power
(Flamingo ISBN 0 00 717299 0)

This a brilliant, deeply flawed book. As a definitive account of the ‘age of genocide’ – Armenia, the Nazis, Cambodia, the Kurds, Rwanda, Bosnia, the list goes on – there’s nothing to compare with it. Surely no-one, and certainly not this reviewer, can bear to read every page. How Samantha Power was able to write it is hard to imagine. No wonder most people would rather not know – and the messenger usually gets shot. Power, however, has received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

And in fact the world – or at least those who were running it at the time – did know and chose quite deliberately to do nothing. With the publication of this meticulous record, no-one will ever be able to say otherwise. However, as Power remarks: ‘It is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of non-intervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective.’

This is the central argument of the book – and where the whole thing falls apart. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect some kind of rational framework within which to comprehend why genocide happens. Perhaps it is wrong, on this matter, even to try to distinguish between explanation and justification. Perhaps there really is just one word that serves to describe humanity at its worst – evil.

But there is no reason at all to assume, as Power does, that if only America had intervened more often then events would have turned out a great deal better. The historical record of US interventions simply cannot sustain this assumption. And there is even less reason to suppose that things would be better still if the Pentagon were to act pre-emptively against ‘potential’ genocide, acquiring yet another pretext for its self-proclaimed imperial mission.

So, if it is ever possible to recommend as essential reading a book that is wrong, and dangerously so, this is it.

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Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore
by Ray Loriga
(Canongate, ISBN 1 84195 415 2)

Ray Loriga’s quixotic novel, a best-seller in his native Spain, is a dystopian fantasy set in the near future. The unnamed narrator is an agent peddling mind-altering drugs on behalf of a global organization known only as The Company. He travels from Arizona and Mexico to Thailand and Vietnam selling memory-erasing chemicals to those who wish to forget – wiping out anything from an embarrassing incident to a whole lifetime. Our stoned, emotionally numb narrator moves from hotel to hotel, selling drugs to – and indulging in affectionless sex with – the rootless and aimless people he meets. He searches half-heartedly for a wife he seems to have lost and receives enigmatic emails which say only ‘COME BACK’. Slowly we realize that this pusher is consuming ever-increasing quantities of his own product and both his memory and his personality are fragmenting under the chemical assault.

The clever conceit of a central character with repetitive memory-loss allows Loriga to explore a truly nightmarish world devoid of guilt or morality, where the very essence of what it is to be human is questioned. This is a future where the dead are digitally resurrected through computer interfaces, where ‘memory vigilantes’ cut the throats of Company agents, and where Thai children have their memories erased on a daily basis ‘to preserve the sexual innocence required by refined European sexual tourists.’

Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore is an ambitious and demanding novel which fuses a witty and scathing attack on consumerism with a meditation on the crucial role memory plays in raising us above bestial self-gratification.

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Rethinking Globalization
Teaching For Justice In An Unjust World
by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson
(Rethinking Schools Press)

This is simply the most inspiring educational book I’ve ever laid hands on. Put together by two teachers based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it needs to be at every teacher’s side when looking for print-based learning resources. It is of similar value to activists writing leaflets or preparing talks. The editors challenge what teachers’ roles are. ‘In a world where the very idea of “public” is being threatened, for educators to feign neutrality is irresponsible… The teacher who takes pride in never revealing his or her “opinions” to students models them for moral apathy.’

They distinguish between ‘globalization’ as a potential ‘global networking for a better world’ and its opposite ‘the quickening spread of the profit system as more and more of the globe are drawn into its orbit’. They illustrate this with reference to a US TV ad for MasterCard, showing an auctioneer offering his latest sale items: the letter ‘B’, the colour red, gravity. ‘The ad delights in a future where every aspect of life is commodified.’

They reject the culture of pity fostered by charity alone, in favour of a culture of student solidarity. All kids want to learn but why are so many working all their waking hours stitching carpets, trainers and footballs? In its 393 pages there are dozens of accounts, poems, stories, biographies, stats and photos, all classroom-tested, making an indispensable toolkit for resistance.

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New Internationalist issue 361 magazine cover This article is from the October 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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