Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist
Rated SR is the clever short name for the Socially Relevant Film Festival that will be held at the Quad Cinema in New York between March 14 and March 20. To my knowledge this is the first time such a festival has been held and based on the evidence of the six films I’ve seen, it would be very good if it became a permanent feature of New York’s rich cultural and political tapestry.
It might be obvious from my Counterpunch review of “From both sides of the Aegean” that the subject of ethnic cleansing in Turkey is very close to my heart. Despite my love of Turkish culture, I feel an even deeper connection to the people who have resisted forced assimilation.
That in essence is the subject of Hamshen Community at the Crossroads of Past and Present, a documentary directed by Lucine Sahakyan that takes us into the remote hinterlands near the Black Sea to meet Armenians who were Muslimicized and Turkified in the 16th century long before the genocide and expulsions of the 20th century. Since Turkey has historically regarded them as countrymen, they have managed to avoid the brutal treatment meted out to Christian Armenians and Kurds even though they speak an Armenian dialect that is on the decline. Even if the language disappears, it is doubtful that their traditions will as well since Hamshen identity is as powerful today as it was a half-millennium ago based on the evidence.
The film has a charmingly old-fashioned quality as the director narrates throughout the film in Armenian about all the good-hearted and lovely people she meets in a virtual travelogue. In some ways, the film transported me back to 1958 when feature films were often preceded by a 15-minute “short subject” with a title like “Along the Silk Road” or “Welcome to Wine Country”.
Although they number less than a million, the Hamshen are used to fighting above their weight. The film mentions that despite their Muslim affiliations, atheism and Marxism have also gained wide acceptance—explained perhaps by their proximity to the USSR in its infancy. Today you can see pictures of Che Guevara carried at their protest marches.
Although the film does not have a trailer, this performance by Hamshen musicians above should give you a good idea of the pleasures found in a documentary that includes lots of folk music and dance from this altogether appealing nationality. If Turkey ever found itself, it would do everything it could to preserve Hamshen ethnic identity along with that of the Kurds. That would be as much a contribution to their civilization as the Topkapi palace.
In Offside Trap, factory worker and HR manager fall in love despite class differences.
Offside Trap is a German narrative film obviously very much influenced by Lauren Cantet’s 1999 Human Resources that pits a yuppie son who works in HR against his dad who is an assembly-line worker in a plant that is facing cuts. The son has been told by the bosses to come up with a downsizing plan whose first victim will be his dad.
In Offside Trap the HR employee put in charge of slashing jobs in the German branch of a multinational that makes washing machines does not like the idea of eliminating people who have worked there for decades but her professional pride makes it somewhat easier. But when she meets and becomes infatuated with an assembly-line worker who is determined to fight the cuts, the same kind of tension shapes the plot. Oddly enough, it evokes the 1957Desk Set that starred Spencer Tracy as a computer expert whose plans to replace workers with machines outrages long-time employee Katherine Hepburn. Like Desk Set, Offside Trap verges on romantic comedy rather than the grimness of Human Resources. The title of the film refers to the company soccer team that is made up of men who are trying to build solidarity with workers in other factories owned by their bosses who operate out of the USA.
It is very topical, dealing with the blackmail that workers face nowadays in places such as Boeing and Volkswagen. Take cuts or else we shut you down—that’s the boss’s ultimatum. It is not surprising that a film tackling this conflict comes from Germany rather than the USA.
Coal Rush is a documentary that reminds us that corrupt and greedy energy producers can poison and kill us by dumping their waste products into water supplies other than through fracking. This is a story about Massey Energy using spent coalmines as a reservoir for slurry, the byproduct of treating coal with water and chemicals just before it is loaded into railroad cars that seeps out into the surrounding countryside.
People living in economically devastated Mingo County are enduring a virtual epidemic of cancer, serious skin diseases and organ damage from water that comes from their wells, often colored brown, foul-smelling, and impossible to drink.
The film is focused on a class-action lawsuit against Massey and interviews with the people who have suffered because of this giant corporation’s criminal behavior. It is galling to see their TV commercials throughout the documentary that—like BP’s—blather on about their commitment to Green values. The CEO of Massey is one of the nation’s biggest scumbags who would not even use water from a well on his own property because it was fouled by his slurry. Massey’s defense was that well water has never been safe to drink. In a just world, CEO Don Blankship would be put in prison for life and forced to drink the water from wells in Mingo County.
Penetrating through the policy debates about immigration heard on FOX, CNN or MSNBC, Stable Life introduces us to an undocumented Mexican husband and wife originally from the ravaged state of Puebla who work as grooms in a California race track stable and their three children. Although they are impoverished by American standards and are crowded into two rooms, they feel blessed to be on their own and doing work that gives them pleasure. The oldest son has begun racing horses and the two younger kids treat the stables like a playground while the two remaining children remain in Mexico until they can put together the funds to bring them into the USA “illegally”.
Throughout the film, La Migra remains a constant threat even though no American would dream of living in their conditions and working for such low pay. Despite the hardships, the family enjoys simple everyday pleasures like barbecues and birthday parties. The one person who should watch this film is the current occupant of the White House who has deported record numbers of “illegals”. Come to think of it, he should watch it from a cell next to Don Blankenship’s.
Ira McKinley is a well-known African-American video activist in Albany who is the subject of The Throwaways, a title that refers to how capitalist America treats people like him and those whose cause he takes up through his citizenship journalism. In many ways he is the counterpart of the people in Syria who have used Youtube to document Baathist brutality. For McKinley, it is the racist killer cops of Albany who need to be exposed.
When McKinley got out of prison in 2002 after serving 3 years for a drug violation, he found obstacles in his path everywhere to getting a job and becoming a normal functioning member of society. Determined not to go back to prison, he has cobbled together a decent existence even if a marginal one. His real ambition, however, is not to get rich but to serve as a “tribune of the people” as Lenin puts it in “What is to be Done”. He is a ubiquitous figure in Albany’s Black community using his camera to document police misbehavior.
This article from Albany’s Times-Union newspaper should give you a flavor for the kind of filmmaking made possible by digital cameras by the courage of men and women who understand the power of film to communicate themes of social relevance:
Ira McKinley, all 6 feet 4 and 270 pounds, lumbered across the hushed, carpeted vastness of the seventh floor of the State Library in baggy jean shorts, oversized T-shirt, unlaced white sneakers and L.A. Dodgers baseball cap flipped backward.
He moved past the reference desk and dropped into an upholstered swivel office chair at a cubicle in front of a computer terminal. He leaned back, charged a cellphone and started answering emails, just like he owned the place.
The State Library serves as a de facto office for the 49-year-old Air Force veteran, community activist, filmmaker, ex-convict and homeless man. He is a producer and creative force behind the documentary film “The Throwaways,” a narrative that traces McKinley’s troubled past and the larger struggle for economic and social justice in the city’s impoverished South End and beyond.
It’s an angry rant captured with handheld cameras, panning shots of abandoned buildings, closeups of clenched fists at local protests and interviews with frustrated inner-city residents and a hip-hop soundtrack. McKinley is well-read and articulate, his politics a mash-up of Malcolm X, Cornel West and Angela Davis.
“Ira got impatient with the traditional route for social change and decided to get vocal and to push back,” said Bhawin Suchak, the film’s co-director, producer, cinematographer and editor. “I hope people will be inspired by Ira’s story. He faced a lot of tough things and overcame them.”
Filmed with $10,000 raised through Kickstarter, a rough cut of “The Throwaways” was screened locally last winter. McKinley is trying to schedule showings around the state this fall in a bid to raise an additional $45,000 for post-production in the hope of landing a distributor.
“It’s a challenge,” he said, “but I don’t give up easily.”
To be quite candid, Forward 13: Waking Up The American Dream breaks no new ground in its jeremiad against America’s rich, prompted in large part by the director’s personal calamity in 2008 when both his business and home were lost like so many millions of other Americans. Since he was a producer by profession, he was in a better position to oversee the making of the film and lining up a financier—one Adam Bronfman who is the son of Edgar Bronfman Sr., the whiskey empire magnate and former President of the World Jewish Congress. The son has Huffington Post, Salon.com, the Nation Magazine type politics as opposed to his right-leaning father.
Pat Lovell, the director of the film, shares those politics so you can expect an hour-and-half of the sort of thing you can hear on MSNBC most days, with the Koch Brothers pilloried and laments about the erosion of American democracy. With the constant presence of Obama operative Van Jones throughout the film, you have no trouble figuring out the film’s viewpoint.
Despite all this, I found it fascinating—more from Pat Lovell’s personal experiences than his political analysis. He grew up in an oil family from Houston and enjoyed all the benefits of wealth and security. When the 2008 recession smacked him in the face like so many other Americans, he was determined to get to the bottom of things. He is still not there but hopefully his experiences will help to take the next step in consciousness, which is to make the leap into seeing that is the capitalist system rather than greedy individuals that threatens the planet.
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