Sunday, September 26, 2010

My Log 229: 3 documentaries throw a light on human behaviour, and misbehaviour

This weekend I have watched three documentaries that --- as documentaries are supposed to do --- collectively throw an extraordinary light on human beings, our capacities, frailties, achievements and failures.

The only thing to do is take them in sequence, beginning with the most hope-inducing, ending with the most despair-inducing:

Olmec Heads: part of the series Secrets of the Ancients

The Olmec culture that flourished in Mexico more than 3,000 years ago, is regarded as the mother culture of the Americas, predating the Mayan and Aztec cultures, and giving rise to one of the most remarkable artistic achievements in the history of man --- the creation of huge stone heads created 500 years before Rome was founded.

In those years the Olmecs were building great cities with pyramids and ball courts, but the mystery of how they created such exquisitely sensitive sculptures when they had available to them only stone carving tools is one that has never been solved by even the sophisticated brains of the modern scientist.

This film records that at a site called La Venta they created huge sculptures, some of them weighing up to 40 tonnes, of which the portraits in stone, supposedly of their leaders, are the most famous.

The mystery is added to by the fact that, although there are thousands of tonnes of stone sculptures at La Venta, there is no rock closer than the Tuxla mountains, more than 160 kilometres away, across land criss-crossed with massive rivers and swamps which would have made the transportation even more difficult. So how did the stones get to La Venta?

The film deals entirely with the efforts of various British experts to duplicate the Olmec success in, first, carving so beautifully in hard stone by using only the technology available to them, and second, by trying to move some of the enormous blocks of stone, using again only the Olmec technology.

A sculptor who has been working in stone for 40 years arrives from Britain with the intention of making the carving, but after the first day of fruitlessly chipping away, he said, “I may as well go home.” He persisted, and in the ten days he was allowed to do his carving he did manage to chip a sort of shallow channel across the face of the stone, but nothing more. It would have taken him, and his many helpers, years and years to have created anything resembling the Olmec heads.

Another team, also British, were divided between those who thought overland would have been the easier route for the Olmecs to move the stones, and others who preferred the idea of transporting them by water.

First, they had to build a platform of wooden tracks that would enable the stones to move across them when pulled by a big team of people. It took them five of their ten days even to get the stone on to the platform, and when they eventually did manage to get it moving forward slowly, their engineering skills let them down as the stone veered to one side and eventually fell off the platform.

The water route was no more successful. The engineers created a platform held up by the carved wooden boats contributed by local Mexicans, carefully insulated with a rubber cover, something that was available to the Olmecs. They did succeed in getting the stone on to this raft, but when they tried to launch it into the river, they discovered that the part that bore the weight had become stuck on the bottom, and refused to move.

The conclusion of this film was that the Olmecs evidently knew more about both carving, and transporting inert stones, than we could summon up in our modern imaginations, using the technology available 3,000 years ago. Is this encouraging, or discouraging about the capacities of human beings? Certainly no one has ever succeeded in creating more wonderful stone statues than these ancient works. That is for sure.

The Fence (La Barda), a film directed by Rory Kennedy.

This film is a critique of the immense project launched by George W. Bush in October 2006, to build a fence along the Mexican border, with three objectives: to defend the nation against terrorism, to control drug smuggling over the border, and to control illegal immigration.

Since it was launched it has not prevented a single terrorist from entering across the border (but of course no terrorists had entered by this route before it was built); the level of drugs entering the United States is exactly what it was before the fence was built, and 93 per cent of cocaine coming into the country still comes from Mexico; and the estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants who entered every year before the fence was built have not diminished by even one.

Meantime, the fence has cost $3 billion, has used up 120,000 tons of metal, employed 7,000 workers, and violated what everybody thought was an American value against, for example, the Berlin Wall.

In places the fence penetrates five to eight feet into the ground, and rises from five to eight feet above the ground, has created in some places a no man’s land that is neither Mexican nor American, and has been penetrated along most of its length by the ingenuity of the migrants, although the route is now less easy than it was before.

At least 150 bodies are picked up in the American deserts every year, and it is now estimated that one or two migrants die every day in their efforts to enter the United States.

The film says the wall was built as a result of an intensive campaign by a handful of radicals known as the Minutemen, who formed themselves into posses to control the border, and who apparently succeeded in shutting down the phones in the United States Senate.

The fence has set back more than 30 years of preservation of wildlife in specially established refuges along the border, and to get it approved, some 36 American laws had to be modified.

Looking forward 25 years, the film says 12,500 more migrants will die, and maintenance of the fence alone will cost the United States Treasury $49 billion.

War Don Don (The War is Over), an HBO film by Rebecca Richman Cohen

This is a film about the trial of Issa Sesay, who, after the capture of Foday Sankoh, became interim leader of the Revolutionary United Front, the extraordinarily brutal movement that created the civil war that devastated Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002.

This movement was notable for amputating the hands and legs of people who opposed it, and three of its leaders were convicted of a list of offences, including the enlisting of children into a guerrilla army, attacking peacekeepers, mutilation of civilians, raping women, and other crimes against humanity.

The trial by the Special Court for Sierra Leone lasted for five years, and Sesay was given sentences on 16 of the 18 counts against him ranging from 35 to 52 years in jail.

The argument of the defence counsel, Wayne Jordash, a young man from a working class background in England, was that the prosecution had demonized the RUF, and had failed to connect the leaders to any of the specific crimes of which they were accused, Sesay himself had been recruited to the movement by Sankoh, and had been one of the senior commanders of the army before taking over as interim leader, with the intention of bringing the war to an end, and disarming his followers. He had been warned by a supporter not to disarm while some 400 followers of Sankoh were imprisoned, because if he did this he would likely find himself powerless to resist being accused along with the others, which is what, in fact, happened,

Although the court admitted that Sesay had the mitigating circumstance of having brought the war to an end, he was still prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Jordash warned before the sentencing that the court, as it was behaving in this trial, could not do the job it had been set up to do.

But on the other hand, interviews with civilians who had been caught up in the struggle seemed unanimous, or nearly so, that the leaders bore the responsibility and were getting what they deserved.

The brutality of this war, which was led by Sankoh and Charles Taylor, whose forces invaded from Liberia, where he had conducted a similar war, is one of those events that makes one wonder what it is human beings will not do, if asked. Is there anything too terrible not to be done? The prosecutors argue in the film that the Sierra Leone civil war was unusual in that most wars are conducted for some political purpose, but this one was carried out by criminal thugs, for criminal purposes.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My Log 228: The height of eccentricity: a friend won’t watch any movie made before 1995

I have a friend who, as a matter of principle, refuses to watch any movie made before 1995. To me, this is the height of eccentricity, depriving oneself of countless wonders and treats. No Pagnol trilogy --- Marius, Fanny and Cesar --- from the 1930s, that superb series that illuminates so perfectly the between-the-wars life of Marseilles; no Rene Clair, whose Sous Les Toits de Paris, made in 1930, struck me when I saw it in the 1950s as being so fine it could possibly have been made the day before; no early Alain Resnais, no early Jean-Luc Godard; no Breathless with Belmondo and Jean Seberg, no Key Largo, no My Darling Clementine; no Treasure of Sierra Madre... And so, on and on.

This week I saw two movies starring young new actors, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. They were made in 1931, were about gangsters --- probably the first of many gangster movies starring these two great screen stars --- and the Cagney movie had an unforgettable final shot. Cagney’s character had been wounded in a gunfight, and had been in hospital with his head all bandaged up. His adoring mother and disapproving, non-criminal young brother, Mike, both attended him in the hospital, and it seemed that a reconciliation had occurred between the brother, and the gangster.

Back home, they received a telephone call to say Cagney had been discharged from hospital, and was on his way home. When the doorbell rang, Mike hurried to open the door, eager to greet his reformed brother. What confronted him when he opened the door was the trust-up, bound figure of his brother, who wavered back and forth before falling into the house, flat on his face, dead as a dodo. So, the message was clear, crime doesn’t pay.

One might as well put a prescription against reading any books written before 1995, as against movies. I have to confess, however, that sometimes on re-reading I have been disappointed in books that I have revered since first reading them as a youth. For example, I loved a book called Epitaph for a Small Winner by Machado de Assis. But in later years I have tried to get through it two or three times, without success. Similarly, for many years, since I first read them as a young man, I have revered the early satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh, and of them I think my favorite has always been Scoop, in which he mercilessly satirized the newspaper business. I re-read it this week, and, as has happened for me in regard to many other books whose memory I had carried with me affectionately for more than half my life, I was slightly disappointed.

The story is of a retiring, nature-loving fellow, William Boot, who has lived all his life deep in the English countryside, and contributed articles about the nature that surrounds him, and that he so much loves, to the Daily Beast, Lord Copper’s flagship. Unknown to him, a second-rate novelist called John Boot, an assiduous cultivator of the upper class, has applied to his high-bred friend Mrs. Stitch for some help in publicizing his new book. She promises to do something for him, and she mentions him to her friend Lord Copper who says he will do what he can. Lord Copper hands the problem over to one of his supernumeraries, Salter, with a request that he might find a spot for that fellow Boot. Coincidentally, Lord Copper is demanding they send someone to cover the upheaval in Ismaelia, on the boot of east Africa, and suggests maybe they could send that fellow Boot. So suddenly, Boot is assigned to go to Africa, although he has never been out of his village, and once he gets there he joins a phalanx of foreign correspondents who have all responded to the fact that the opposition is, for unclear reasons, sending their man there to cover the events, always supposing there are events.

Of course, it transpires that Ismaelia is a satrapy of a single family, the Jacksons, who have everything under control, except that one member of the family has recently kicked over the traces and established alternative consulates around the world. That has made it necessary for visitors to get stamps from competing embassies, and when the second embassy notices that the first one has already stamped the passport, he demands the correspondents get new passports so that his stamp of approval stands alone. On this kind of evidence, the press lords have concluded that a vicious civil war is underway.

Such ridiculous occurrences litter William Boot’s first days as a foreign correspondent. Eventually, through sheer luck, he hears from a woman staying in the same pension an unsubstantiated rumour of a Soviet arrival, and this story, just as Salter is about to fire Boot for inactivity, catapults the innocent fellow into the front rank of correspondents, among those who receive multiple congratulations by cable from home office.

All this is close enough to the reality of what happens in this kind of situation as to make the book occasionally very funny. The climax comes when Boot returns home, and Lord Copper insists on holding a banquet to celebrate his immense achievements, a banquet that Boot declines to attend. Part of the celebration was to have been for William’s knighthood that, unfortunately through another mixup, has been granted instead to John Boot. Salter is despatched to Boot's home to make sure he has not signed up with the opposition Daily Brute, and his adventures among these failed and failing gentry make some of the funniest passages in the book.

Much of this is so funny that from time to time I laughed out loud: but I confess it took a long time to set it all up, and I had a slightly sinking feeling that the book wasn’t as dazzling as I had remembered.

As to its fidelity to real life, I remember on one occasion, when I was assigned to cover the arrival of Canadian troops in Cyprus, how we used to sit around in the bar of the Ledra Palace hotel exchanging notes on the cables most of the reporters --- but not me --- received from headquarters, congratulating them on their work. These were worthy of Evelyn Waugh. One young reporter from a Toronto paper handed around his dispatch recording how “two heads, each head holding two red-rimmed eyes” had been spotted peering around a corner during a firefight. It caused immense hilarity --- but rather less so when the young reporter, apparently deeply humilated by everyone’s hearty laughter, suddenly disappeared, and was not heard of again in the newspaper business until resurfacing some years later.

One of the favorite stories about Cyprus --- also recalled by William Boot’s flirtation with a married German lady --- was that many British correspondents struck up friendships with passionate Greek Cypriot women, who, as the correspondent was leaving for home, had the habit of turning up at the airport to insist on accompanying him. This was unfortunate, since most of these correspondents were happily married men, with cheerful British families awaiting their return.

While I have been writing this a 1931 film called Friends and Lovers, starring Laurence Olivier and Adolph Menjou as French Foreign Legion officers, has been grinding away on the TV. It must have been one of the first films of Olivier, who was competing with Menjou for the favours of an actress called Lili Damita, whose main claim to fame later in life was to have been married for seven years to Errol Flynn. I wouldn't have known this valuable information if I had followed my friend's absurd 1995 rule.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Log 227: I catch up with a marvelous film, made six years ago, about the Rwandan genocide

Somehow or other both the Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, and his almost indescribable film Sometimes in April, about the Rwandan genocide, have escaped my notice, until last night, when the film, made in 2004, was again shown on HBO.

The subject of this genocide seems to be so harrowing, so inexplicable in its demonstration of the depths of insanity to which human beings can fall, as to almost be beyond the powers of anyone to say anything worthwhile about it.

Peck, who has in the past been criticized as a didact, seems to have been the ideal man to make this film, which is far and away better than any other of the several films that have attempted to make the genocide comprehensible. His family fled the Duvalier regime and took up residence in the newly-independent country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Peck was raised and educated, and where they stayed for 25 years. Later he had an intensive specialist education in European universities which made him into a skilled and practiced filmmaker, and at one point he even returned to Haiti and became for three years a minister in one of its failed governments.

With such a background of technical skill and political commitment, and with a record of having produced, directed and written many films of political interest, Peck undertook to try to tell what happened in Rwanda during those 100 days when some 800,000 people were mown down by a band of insane, raging extremists.

Peck based his film on stories he was told by Rwandans about their experiences. Unlike the well-regarded Hotel Rwanda, which dealt mainly with the heroics of a hotel owner who courageously saved many people, but which kept the actual killings at a distance, Peck plunges into the heart of the killings, and to lend perspective to his view, he alternates between the actual events, shown in their full horror, and the talk about them undertaken at the hearings ten years later by the Criminal Tribunal into the Rwandan genocide, that took place in Arusha, Tanzania.

Peck’s story concentrates on brothers who were on contending sides of the dispute: one a member of the radio station that encouraged all Hutus to rise and kill indiscriminately every Tutsi they could find, and the other an army officer, a Hutu, married to a Tutsi, who could not, and did not believe that such a thing could happen, until it was too late.

The first of these was put on trial by the tribunal. He begged his brother to visit him, which he did, reluctantly, thus opening the film audience to argument from the other side, to the pleas of innocence by the instigators of the genocide because they did not, themselves, for the most part, actually kill people.

Outside observers were completely helpless to influence events. Or at least they believed themselves to be, because the foreign powers who had set up the conflict years before did not want to be involved. Under President Clinton’s leadership, the Americans stayed out of it.The film has sequences of a troubled American diplomat played by Debra Winger, arguing with a colleague that since her nation had stood by and accepted the genocide, they bore moral responsibility, if nothing else, for it. Similarly, the Canadian-made film, Shake Hands with the Devil, concentrated on the dilemma of Romeo Dallaire, head of the small United Nations force, whose orders were said to prevent him from acting to put a stop to the events. (His helplessness in this situation apparently drove Dallaire into temporary insanity.)

The genocide is represented in Peck’s film by the intermittent heartless rattle of machine-guns mowing down mobs of helpless people, an ever-present background to many of the scenes on camera as people try to decide what to do to escape their coming deaths. One of the most harrowing scenes comes when a young teacher tells her class of girls that the men approaching will be separating them into Tutsis and Hutus. Slowly, the girls one by one say, “I will go,” until one girl says, “We are sisters, we will all go.” That is what they do, and the response is a horrendous massacre, as a soldier mows them all down without a sign of remorse.

Another terrible scene occurs when some wounded women are given shelter in a home, whose owner says, “You cannot stay here. My husband and son-in-law are out killing, if they come back, they will kill you, too.” So the women struggle to their feet and leave, going out to their certain deaths.

By the time the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi army led by the current president of Rwanda Paul Kagame, marches into the scene, hundreds of people are crouching in swamps, half buried by the fetid waters, awaiting their deaths. “You people in the swamps, you can come out,” shouts a soldier. “Do not be afraid. We are the RPF.”

So the genocide comes to an end. Peck concludes his film with a commentary: “Every year in April, the rains come. Every year in April a haunted emptiness descends on our hearts. Every year in April I remember how quickly life ends.”

The narrator adds that on April 12, 1994 “my wife was killed, my sons were killed, my friend was killed, my daughter was killed some time later.”

A young woman recites the Lord’s Prayer, “…deliver us from evil…”

Like the behaviour of the Germans under the leadership of the Nazis, like the behaviour of the Japanese during the Pacific war, at a lower scale like the behaviour of American soldiers who are recently revealed to have gone shooting people in Afghanistan for sport, these are events that defy our normal codes of morality, decency and possibility.

A few years ago the critic Amy Taubin wrote: “Shot on location in Rwanda, Sometimes in April employed thousands of locals as cast and crew. Much of the film's gravity and grace comes from the fact that the people onscreen are acting out their own national tragedy, they are showing us what happened and trying to make sense of it themselves before our eyes. No one could mistake anyone in this film for a mere extra. Some had experienced the genocide firsthand. Peck explains in an interview that they were always pushing him to go further, to do another take. They told him, ‘Don't worry, we have time to cry. But the rest of the world has to know this story.’ ”

Raoul Peck has made a wonderful effort to expose to us the reality of an event that we simply have to try, somehow, to understand.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Log 226 Sept 19 2010: NY Times writer confirms David Harvey’s Marxist analysis of the economic meltdown

It is kind of odd that the day after I made a link to the informative interview about the economic meltdown granted by urban geographer David Harvey to International Socialist Review, validation of his Marxist interpretation should come from an article
in the New York Times---which I suppose could be called an icon of capitalist media.

Harvey’s thesis, which those readers who have bothered to peruse his article will know, is that there are so many contradictions in capitalism that they inevitably lead to crises, one after the other. Each of them is addressed and corrected in its capitalist fashion, but, says Harvey, these corrections are never complete or permanent. Usually they succeed only in moving the crisis on to the next crisis. And this is what has happened in the handling of the economic meltdown, which has left Western society facing a crisis of unemployment.

Now comes an article by Bob Herbert in the NYT on this crisis of unemployment that has seized the United States. "The American economy is on its knees and the suffering has reached historic levels,” Herbert writes. “Nearly 44 million people were living in poverty last year, which is more than 14 percent of the population. That is an increase of 4 million over the previous year, the highest percentage in 15 years, and the highest number in more than a half-century of record-keeping. Millions more are teetering on the edge, poised to fall into poverty.

“More than a quarter of all blacks and a similar percentage of Hispanics are poor. More than 15 million children are poor.”

Herbert notes that the middle-class are in retreat, and writes: “I don’t know what it will take, maybe a full-blown depression, for policy makers to decide that they need to take extraordinary additional steps to cope with this drastic economic and employment emergency. Nothing currently on the table will turn things around in a meaningful way. We’re facing a jobs deficit of about 11 million, which is about how many new ones we’d have to create just to get our heads above water. It will take years — years — just to get employment back to where it was when the recession struck in December 2007.

“While working people are suffering the torments of joblessness, underemployment and dwindling compensation, corporate profits have rebounded and the financial sector is once again living the high life. This helps to keep the people at the top comfortably in denial about the extent of the carnage. Millions of struggling voters have no idea which way to turn…”

Okay, this is the situation in the United States, as described in the system’s most important newspaper, which says the governing elites are in a state of denial of the crises the society is confronting.

Now on to Harvey’s analysis. He writes that an important theme of his recent book, The Enigma of Capital is that capitalism doesn’t solve its crises, but moves them around:

“…we’ve sort of solved the banking crisis, but now we’ve
got a sovereign debt crisis of the finances of states. You see this of course in southern Europe, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. But internally in the Untied States we also have a fiscal crisis emerging with California for example, being one of the largest public budgets in the world, which is in serious difficulty. So we’ve shifted the locus of the crisis from the financial institutions to state finance.

“Then there is a big question of how that is going to be addressed and that is the big question that is on the agenda right now. Whereas this time last year it was how to stabilize the banks, it’s now how to stabilize state finances and this is a question that is not going away easily; it’s one we’re going to have to be concerned with over the next ten or fifteen years. Alongside of that, as they attempt to stabilize state finances through austerity they’re going to stabilize high unemployment. That is the question emerging now, they shifted it from the financial institutions, then to state finances, and then to the people in terms of austerity and unemployment. The big question then is how are the people going to respond?”

He suggests that in Britain, with Cameron’s massive cuts in services, and in New York state, with huge budget cuts and immense unemployment in the public sector, there will be a great struggle between the public sector unions and the State, a modern version of the class struggle, to which Harvey, incidentally, attributes much of the high standard of living achieved up to 1970.

To judge by the New York Times article, and other evidence slowly being produced about the coming crisis of unemployment in the US --- see for example, in a previous post the item on the millions of so-called “99ers”, those people who have run out of their unemployment insurance after 99 weeks, and are now facing immediate destitution, loss of their homes, status and everything else they had thought was permanent --- there is no room any longer to deny the prospect of a disastrous crisis developing around unemployment. Obama at the moment seems to embody the idea of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Log 225: Long past the time when we should have every political opinion represented in Parliament

A recent flurry of concern in the newspapers about the irrelevance for most Canadians of what happens in Parliament has brought the only possible response from Ed. Broadbent, former leader of the NDP.

He has pointed out that most of the time most of the voters in Canada have been disenfranchised by the workings of our antiquated and undemocratic electoral system. He says, for example, that in no other country could a party with 38 per cent of the votes trumpet itself as being representative of the majority, as Stephen Harper and his Conservatives do currently.

Ed. could have given more examples. Indeed, so many spring to mind that it is hardly necessary to research them. For instance, when Trudeau was in power his party had only one seat west of Manitoba. But still, they had something like 25 per cent of the votes, which meant, essentially, that one out of every four electors in that part of the country had no one to represent them or their political views.

Similarly, before the Parti Québecois was elected in Quebec it persistently won a good quarter of all votes cast, yet only five or six or seven seats, a mere fraction of what they were entitled to. And as Ed. points out, in the last election the Green party won a million votes without being rewarded by a single seat in Parliament.

This gives me a chance to trot out a story I have told many times, concerning Sweden. In 1964, Tage Erlander, Prime Minister of Sweden visited Britain to deliver a fraternal address to the annual conference of the newly-elected British Labour Party. Harold Wilson had won a majority of four in a House of Commons with more than 600 members. Erlander’s first words were, “I want to congratulate you on your immense majority.” For eighteen years he had been Prime Minister of Sweden, since 1946, and he had never once had a majority, he said.

That was one of the most interesting comments on Western democratic socialism, and on Western political systems that I ever heard. Because, although Erlander had governed with the sup;port of the Centre party during all those years, he had managed to use his time in power to create a left-leaning consensus that made Sweden one of the best-governed and most successful countries in the modern world.

The growing complexities during those years of the modern economy and society, for example, the urbanization and growth of cities, the entry of more women into the labour force, the changing economies in the home as it became necessary for most people to have two incomes, just to keep afloat, had thrown up many areas that needed state intervention, and in all of them Sweden pioneered, under Erlander’s leadership. The creation of this sophisticated welfare state relied on public support, which could only be garnered if the population was carried along by the political leaders (or to put it the other way, if the political leaders were carried along by the support of the people). In almost every field of social legislation --- for example, prison reform, family support, holidays, urban development, education --- as well as in the fields of culture, design, and the arts, Sweden was ahead of the world, and more than able to compete with anybody.

This depended on a strong sense among the people that their political views were represented in the nation’s political discourse. Only a system guaranteeing that every strand of political opinion has its place in the political discourse can create the kind of consensus needed for this kind of marvelous change. And only proportional representation can guarantee that result.

It is a mystery why Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States remain virtually the only countries on earth that have resisted proportional representation. We have surely had enough experience to know that our present system is unrepresentative and undemocratic at its base. And yet, the political leaders in office, when they have flirted with proportional systems, have put them to the people --- as they did recently in Ontario --- in a half-hearted and unconvincing fashion that has practically guaranteed their defeat.

There is now a large body of opinion in Canada favouring proportional representation in an organization called Fair Vote Canada, and I urge everyone who cares about the nature of our system to either join, or to follow this organization’s actions in future.

I have two other personal anecdotes to add to this: in the 1980s I went to Norway to shoot a film dealing with the aluminum industry. They have a smelter there that was once owned by Alcan, the Canadian multinational, but was bought back by the Norwegian state because they felt the private management was not achieving goals set by the government, such as full employment and so on. When we went to that cutoff, hidden little town at the base of one of the longest Norwegian fiords, the management of the company put us in the hands of the plant’s union, which became responsible for organizing our shooting schedule. I was astounded by this, since in Canada, filmmakers attempting to film in or around private companies usually find themselves confronted by private agents hired by the company with the intention of keeping the cameras as far away as possible, or at least keeping them always under surveillance.

This broadmindedness--- and its accompanying lack of fear --- came from the Norwegian consensus established by generations of democratic socialist government. At least that was the answer given me when, as I was flying out of Norway, I remarked to a young student of international law who was sitting next to me,
upon the phenomenon of the broad Norwegian political consensus, and how much it had impressed me. “I think it comes,” she said, “from a quarter century of socialist government.”

My second anecdote comes from New Zealand, where, at a very early stage after the end of the wars fought between the Maoris and the British troops, late in the nineteenth century, separate Maori constituencies were established giving the Maoris direct representation in Parliament. Nowadays it is common to hear that the condition of Maoris, and their acceptance within New Zealand society, is better than that of any other indigenous people in the world. If that is so it surely has much to do with the fact that the Maoris, politically speaking, were never allowed to become a forgotten remnant of New Zealand society as it developed, but were always right there in the centre of the political discourse, defending their rights and their points of view.

Just as, in our society, every point of view should be represented in Parliament according to its weight within society.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Log 224: Some great, highly educational stuff does get on to TV

Among the dross that is the regular staple of television programming is to be found a great deal of valuable, absorbing stuff of immense educational and even political value. In addition to the item I have already reported on in an earlier post, the story of Dr. Alfred Blalock and his black associate Vivien Thomas in the segregated city of Baltimore, I have in recent days been impressed by several excellent programmes, some of which I have watched not on TV but on my computer, although they were made for TV.

One of those I saw today was brilliantly made by a director called Mick Jackson, and dealt with a fascinating subject, the career of a girl called Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who triumphed over the debility of that strange disease to become a professor and a nationally recognized adviser to the cattle industry. The autistic girl was played with awe-inspiring fidelity by the actress Clare Danes, but the film was not a sensationalized account of the girl’s career so much as a measured view of the achievements that are possible for such people if only they can find one or two people to fight for them and insist that they get fair treatment.

Some other impressive films I have watched in recent days include:

Columbus: the Lost Journey, about the little-known fact that Christopher Columbus made not just three trans-Atlantic voyages, but a fourth, in which he hoped to both establish colonies among the native people who had begun to act towards these strange visitors in a hostile manner, as well as to snaffle for himself some of the untold riches that were to be found lying around, even in some of the West Indian islands. This voyage ruined Columbus, and he finished his life impoverished and in and out of prison as he lost the support the King and queen of Spain, who had supported his earlier journeys. An interesting fact I picked up from this film was that Columbus was not recognized widely for his ground-breaking voyages until many, many years after his death.

The Zen Mind: This was a fascinating but rather curious film in which the filmmaker tried to take his audience by simple steps into the essence of Zen, or zazen, as the experience was called. Not unexpectedly, it seems that the essence of Zen is full of contradictions, at once trying to empty the mind, and then admitting that it is impossible to empty the mind; and exchanging odd sayings that sound like simple statements of fact known to everybody, such as, if you have eyes, you see, if you have legs, you walk…. Like some of the people who commented on this film on the Web site, I am not much into mysticism, but this film did try fairly successfully to explain the simplicity of Zen clearly, and without making it sound really far out. An odd thing is that in the practice of picking up Zen, the climactic moment seems to come when the instructor raps the student sharply on the shoulders or back with a stick.

Lastly, I have seen two parts of two programmes on the recent economic meltdown. One of them was on the CBC this evening. It was a rather typical Terence McKenna show, fairly sensationalized, not particularly informative, but with good show biz qualities that keep one watching. A much better one was the second part of a show on PBS which concentrated on the fruitless experience of a woman, a Dr Born, I think her name was, who was in charge of a minor agency of the US federal government charged with oversight of economic and financial affairs, and who, for year after year, was warning the great panjandrums of the federal government that they were heading for a massive disaster. She had discovered what is called the “derivatives” market had expanded hugely, and out of sight of the federal government, totally unregulated, and left alone to such a degree that the government had no idea how large it was. She warned Greenspan, head of the responsible federal agency, and Larry Summers and one other man whose name I have forgotten, time after time: but repeatedly she was simply brushed aside, and eventually warned by Greenspan that if she insisted on calling this market to account she would do irreparable harm to the American economy. Eventually, frustrated by their attitude, she resigned. Of course, eventually everything she had prophesied came about exactly as she had described it: the great panjandrums, it turned out, didn’t know what they were doing, and Greenspan had to go before Congress, a shaken and beaten man, and admit that his idea of how the markets worked which he had followed for 20 years, was inadequate. Of course, Greenspan, this guru of economic affairs, had been a lifelong follower of the crackpot Ayn Rand, whose ludicrous attitude towards government had an army of equally crackpot followers. This program even said that when Dr Born urged Greenspan to take action against the evident likelihood of corporate fraud, he brushed her aside contemptuously, and said, “The market will take care of it.”
Wow, are we living in a strange world, or what?

Incidentally, for those interested, the site Top Documentaries contains hundreds of documentary films that can be whistled up at any time. Its address is:
Link of the Day (2): Sept 16 2010: Haaretz writer Amira Hass tells the bald truth about the “peace process” now under way with Obama’s oversight. In one of the most terrible paragraphs of modern journalism he writes: “Lieberman (Israeli Foreign Minister)…knows what he's talking about when he says no peace agreement will be signed, even in another generation. A peace agreement is not a business contract. It requires a change of values of a kind that does not exist within the vocabulary of the democratic Jewish state, which elevates the system of double standards to a level of virtuosity. The people of this state are incapable of imagining themselves departing from the privileges that this system confers. And who cares if the flip side of those privileges is dispossession, suppression of freedoms and the risk of regional conflagration?"
Link of the Day Sept 16 2010: London report provides bombshell for Western powers fighting in Afghanistan. The war is doing more harm than good, says the sober, respected International Institute for Strategic Studies. Eric Margolis tells a story that should scare the pants off Stephen Harper

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My Log 223: Something the Lord Made, superb US film on complex race relations and medical history

A really superb film that should be of interest to almost everybody has been running in the HBO rotation recently. It was made (for television) in 2004, and is called Something the Lord Made. It deals with the complex relationship between Dr. Alfred Blalock, who pioneered surgery of the heart at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and his lab technician Vivien Thomas, a black man whom Blalock hired as a janitor, but who turned out to be a genius in far more advanced affairs than scrubbing the laboratory floors.

This film is unusual among films about science and its achievements in that it also deals profoundly with the social situation in which these two pioneers worked in the segregated southern states of the pre-war years.

Vivien Thomas was trained as a carpenter, like his father, but he aspired to become a doctor, saved mightily for it, and lost all his savings in the depression of 1929. He took a job with Dr Blalock, a Georgian educated at Johns Hopkins University, who had wound up as a surgeon at Vanderbilt university in Nashville, Tennessee, and was making a name for himself for his work on traumatic shock. Dr. Blalock was intrigued to find his newly-hired janitor had unusually sensitive hands, and had already acquired a knowledge of the instruments that sat around in his lab. So he appointed him as a lab technician, and thus began a partnership that lasted for more than 30 years.

When Blalock was appointed head of surgery at Johns Hopkins University hospital in Baltimore he insisted that Thomas accompany him there, and introduced him as his assistant against the inclinations of the entrenched powers at the university, and against the rules enforced by segregation.

Thomas appears to have been Blalock’s intellectual equal, but Blalock was a somewhat arrogant, obsessed character, not as careful of the feelings of his associate as he could have been. Thomas found out, to his surprise, that he was classified as a low category employee, and was paid extremely poor wages, and when he protested to Blalock, the surgeon read him the riot act. Thomas immediately stripped off his white coat and walked out, forcing the repentant Blalock to run after him in the street and beg with him to return.

The problem of so-called “blue babies” was presented to Blalock, who realized it could only be approached by defying the universally held rule among doctors that the heart must be left alone. No one had ever dared to operate on the heart, but Thomas invented an instrument that made the operation possible, and Blalock carried out the first act of heart surgery ever in 1944.

Lionized by the very profession that had pooh-hooed his intention to operate on a baby’s heart, Blalock was recipient of immense publicity and honours delivered to him at a segregated Baltimore hotel to which Thomas was inadmissible. He was sneaked in, and from a position behind the potted plants he heard Blalock acknowledge the work of a number of doctors who had played a much lesser role in the operation, and ignore the work of Thomas himself.

The retiring, undemonstrative Thomas was not ready to take egregious insults, and there were plenty on offer: he walked out, resigned from Blalock’s team, and tried to make his way on the basis of his ground-breaking work with Blalock. A black university to which he applied told him he would have to start at the bottom as an undergraduate, and when he said that at the age of 35 he didn’t have time for that, he was rejected. He tried to sell pharmaceuticals to doctors, and when that failed he put his pride in his pocket and went back to Blalock. “I made a mistake,” he confessed. “I loved my work, and would like to return.” Blalock said: “But what will be different? I am still the same insensitive asshole I was before.”

Nevertheless they resumed their partnership, until Blalock, who had faced recurring bouts of tuberculosis, resigned, and died, in 1964. Before he died he told Thomas that a life was not fully lived unless it had experienced a lot to regret. But he believed they should remember what they had done, all the lives they saved, “and we saved a lot, didn’t we?”

After Blalock’s death Thomas was employed by the hospital to train surgeons, but the general public did not become aware of his central role in the development of heart surgery until one of the doctors he had trained told a journalist about him. It was her magazine article that brought his life’s work to notice. And eventually the hospital, a year or so before his death, awarded him an honorary doctorate, and the honour of having his picture put on the wall alongside other great pioneers of medical history.

Modestly, accepting the doctorate, Thomas said that when 40 years before, he had accepted the opportunity to work with a young surgeon, he had had no idea he would have been able to make a contribution to medicine that would have merited such recognition.

This film, sensitive in its handling of the explosive issue of race, does not, for all its low-key tone, softpedal or avoid the difficult issues presented by its true story. The film is notable for splendid acting performances by Alan Rickman as Dr Blalock, and by the hip-hop artist Mos Def, who gives a remarkable account of the unemphatic, modest Vivien Thomas.

This is a film of which HBO can be genuinely proud.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Log 222: Great performance by an old favourite, Walter Brennan, in a film from 66 years ago

Today I came across one of those cameo performances from an old favourite that are one of the pleasures of old age. It was by the American actor Walter Brennan, who I remember from my younger days in such films as My Darling Clementine, Red River, Rio Bravo, and others, most of them Westerns.

Today I saw him playing opposite Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, a loose version of a Hemingway story, in which Brennan gave his famous impersonation of a broken down, amusing, absent-minded drunk, always better for the next drink.

Gurgling his way through life, helpless before anyone who wanted to take advantage of him, he was protected by the tough boat owner, Bogart, who was involved (reluctantly, of course) in a plot to get some partisans of the Free French into Martinique in 1944 or thereabouts. Brennan was a delight every moment he was on the screen, a mixture of innocence and cunning, a man whose loyalty, when won, was unshakeable, an old fellow more or less useless in a fight or struggle with an adversary, but one whom Bogart valued and looked after.

The film itself was a piece of typically delicious Hollywood rubbish. It was Bacall’s very first film, she was 19 and had adopted a persona as a sort of sultry femme fatale, but one with a wit and a good stock of one-liners. She delivered a number of lines that became famous in movie lore, such as “You know how to whistle, Steve? You put your lips together and blow…” Or on another occasion when she came into Bogart’s hotel room and asked for a light. Reluctantly he gave her one. Then she said, “Now, a cigarette?” (In other words, she really just came in to see him, something she couldn't admit straight out.)

It was like a rehash of Casablanca, with the same setting, a café in a sort of internationalized resort (Fort de France), and a cast of baddies who gave creditable impersonations of Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

I doubt that anyone at that time would have given a nickel on Bacall’s chances of having a long acting career, but she was still performing this year, 66 years later, what might be called a creditable effort of her own.

Brennan, by the way, in addition to being a fierce political conservative who supported George C Wallace and Barry Goldwater in presidential races, won more Academy Awards than any other actor, equal with Jack Nicholson. I loved every moment of his performance in this movie….
Update to Link of the Day from yesterday: American money dictates Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, which is tricking Canadian natives into supporting it.

The "Canadian" Boreal Conservation Initiative (BCI) is funded by the American based Pew Foundation, which was established by Sun Oil Corporation, now known as Suncor Energy of Alberta Tar Sands fame. The BCI was one of the main architects of the Canda Boreal Forest Agreement signed between 9 ENGO's and dozens of loggin...g companies. While protecting Woodland Caribou habitat is used in the CBFA as a pretext for the CBFA, it appears that control of the carbon offsets & carbon trading for the Alberta Tar Sands and biomass, bioenergy are the real agenda, which is why Dave Porter of the BC First Nations Energy & Mining Council has taken over managing support for the CBFA from the BC First Nations Forestry Council.

In a major contradiction, the Carrier-Sekani Tribal Council who is opposing the shipping of Tar Sands crude through an Enbridge Pipeline across their territory, is accepting Pew Foundation money (Tar Sands/Suncor Energy) from the BCI to host a national meeting in BC this October to facilitate First Nations agreeing to work within the the CBFA.

Indigenous People better wake up to the global economic interests operating throughout our lands and resources. NO TO THE CANADIAN BOREAL FOREST AGREEMENT!

Link to Pew Foundation Boreal Campaign Info:

Link to Sun Oil Corporation, now Suncor Energy and the Alberta Tar Sands:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Log 221: shocking contrast: earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti, no death to the wealthy, 300,000 for the poor

There’s probably never been a more convincing demonstration of the debilitating effect of poverty on people, and on society, than the contrast between the effects of the Haitian and New Zealand earthquakes.

The earthquakes were of roughly the same intensity --- in fact, I believe the New Zealand quake was slightly more severe than the Haitian --- yet in New Zealand, a wealthy, ordered society, no one was killed, not one person. While in Haiti, probably the poorest country on earth, racked by corruption, violence, societal breakdown, exploited mercilessly for generations by the world’s wealth-owners, and by its own small, wealthy elite, more than 300,000 people were killed.

At its simplest, I suppose you could say the basic difference was between a society with strong regulations, leading to building codes and the like, which ensure that buildings are constructed to a minimum, high standard of safety; and a society almost without a serious government that has virtually no regulation, where anything is acceptable, including shoddy construction of homes, public buildings, and anything in between.

There are ironies, too, bitter ones: for in Christchurch, well-equipped hospitals were no doubt standing ready, geared up for an influx of wounded victims, which never arrived. While in Haiti, as the reports sent out to me by Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) make clear, most of the hospitals were powerless to cope, because of their shortage of trained personnel, amounting, in some cases to an entire lack of, drugs and supplies. This meant that volunteer organizations, most of them, I suppose, internationally inspired, like MSF, were called on to perform tens of thousands of operations and attend to hundreds of thousands of wounded victims.

Though there is a serious, and huge international discussion about the efficacy of aid, it has always been clear that the world’s impoverished people require an injection from the prosperous of some kind of resources to get them going towards a better life. It may be true that some aid, especially aid from the West which is designed to go more to the providers of the aid than to the oppressed victims of poverty, can do more harm than good, and there is no doubt that the provision of subsidized Western food can have the effect of undermining the very productive capacity of an impoverished country, the encouragement of which should be the first priority of an aid programme.

I have had some experiences that encourage me to add some qualifications to the above outline. In China in the 1970s I filmed in an impoverished village, the poorest I have ever seen in terms of income, where every child was in school, every family had a house, every worker a job, and the general level of health was about equivalent to our own. Of course, it was achieved by a political system much more authoritarian than our own, yet it did seem to have delivered the qualities that made its population happy (at least, they seemed very cheerful), productive, and full of hope, especially in comparison with comparable populations I had seen in Africa, India and South America. It was all done without any foreign aid, which was specifically forbidden from entering the country.

Yet I have to admit that system has broken down, admirable though it was, its economic assumptions having been replaced by capitalist assumptions, although the authoritarian aspects of its governance have apparently survived.

These are complicated problems, much more complicated than the automatic assumptions generally directed towards them by our Western leaders would have us believe.
Link of the Day: Sept 8 2010 What is at stake in the Israel-Palestine talks? Is there any hope of success? Honest brokerage is not going to be enough, writes Avi Shlaim, in an excellent article in The Guardian, London, outlining the realistic possibilities.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Log 220: Religious dominance of education, although a regressive tendency, appears to be spreading throughout the world

When I lived in Outremont, in Montreal in the seventies, I found myself caught in what I thought was a ridiculous situation, thanks to an education system divided up by religious faiths.

Our children at first went to an ordinary public school, effectively a school for English-speaking students, but under the name of the Protestant School Board.
The pupils at this school were mostly Greeks (53 per cent), Moroccan Jews (17 per cent), Chinese 14 per cent, and English-speaking a mere 10 per cent.

From the ethnic point of view, this was a great mixture. But from the point of view of education, it left much to be desired, because the Greek parents, who dominated the Parent-Teachers Assn, believed that an education was obtained by banging their kids over the head, and forcing knowledge into them.

However, that is not the subject of this piece. This is about religion, and the curious insistence of so many parents that their children are, as Richard Dawkins says in a recent documentary film he has made, the property of their parents, who have the unchallenged right to decide for their children what they should be taught to believe.

In our street, our next door neighbour’s kid went to a French-language Catholic school. Opposite us lived a Jewish family whose children went off somewhere every morning to a Jewish confessional school, and never seemed to return at any time that made it possible for them to play with neighbouring kids.

I remember thinking: this is a berserk way to educate our young, to shut them up with teachers whose purpose in life, basically, is to differentiate the kids from their neighbours, and teach them to stand aloof and have a suspicious and critical attitude towards the children next door. Catholic, Jew, Protestant --- these were the worst possible criteria, in my mind, for educating our children.

Unhappy with the Protestant system, my wife decided to teach our children at home for a year or so, and then, we tried to enroll them in the Catholic school, although they were neither French nor Catholic, believing this to be the best way to ensure they learned to speak French.

At first, they were rejected. Amazingly, for an educational institution, the Catholic school board wanted no part of English-speaking students. Indeed, they were so firmly opposed to educating anyone other than pur laine French Quebecers, that they had already rejected the large community of Moroccan Jews, even though their children were already French-speaking.

A year later, we tried again, and this time our children were accepted. Apart from another family of three English kids, ours were the only Anglophones in the entire student body.

Taught mostly by nuns, they were shoved at the back of the class and virtually ignored, but they did learn French, in the playground, from their fellow-students. They had rather a hard time of it especially the two whom we threw in, as it were, from the deep end, so that they found themselves in a totally alien environment with a language being babbled at them of which they knew not a single word.

My youngest son, at the age of six or seven, was taught by a tiny nun of about 4 ft 8 ins, and he would return home day after day snarling and cursing: “I hate that shrimpy fucking nun!”

Around about this time, the Quebecers realized that the world was passing them by, and they should open their schools to the foreigners among them. So eventually they set up remedial classes which required that my two youngest were sent to the east end to share a school with French students of the lower income groups. One of the features of French, Catholic education for my sons was that they had to undergo frequent fights picked with them by the locals. (Eventually, Quebec, in which the Catholic church had totally dominated education, rejected the confessional system, and established the country’s most determinedly non-confessional system.)

Dawkins in his documentary signals how far this situation has evolved in what I would consider the negative way in England, where, he says, now one of every three schools in the country is a “faith school” which is totally funded by the public purse.

I was brought up in New Zealand in an era when our education system, reformed by the Labour government, was becoming the admiration of the English-speaking world. Normally, children went to the public schools, managed by the national Department of Education and funded by the central government. People, like Catholics, who wanted their children educated in their faith, were free to do it, but had to pay for it themselves.

That is a system that I believe should prevail everywhere, but in recent years, as the populations of immigrants from different religions has expanded, greater pressure has been brought for state funding of this special educational choice.

This resulted last Ontario election in the proposal of the Conservative candidate to extend funding to other faiths besides the Catholic, to which funding, on ostensible constitutional grounds, was extended by Premier Bill Davis, some years ago. This was the issue on which the Tory candidate, John Tory, lost the election, his option for religious funding being rejected by the population at large.

This result confirms a point made by Dawkins in his film, “Faith Schools Menace?” It is commonly said that the population approves funding for faith schools, But Dawkins had an opinion poll done for his film by a reputable organization, who reported that 59 per cent believe taxpayer funding should be only for non-confessional schools.

The arguments made by Dawkins for his belief in denying funding for religious education will be well-known to most people reading this site. In England, the prevalence of confessional schools has in effect discriminated against children of non-religious families, many of whom have to travel long distances, past many confessional schools, to find a school that is open to them. He quotes parents who, in the hope of getting into what they think are the best schools, have faked being Catholics, and others who have actually converted to the faith to get their kids into the schools. He quotes authorities who say that education carried out independently of religion is a better education in every way. It grants children the freedom not to be indoctrinated, not have a fixed set of values shoved down their throats, allows them to learn with truly open minds. And certain research has been done that indicates that examination results are more dependent on the wealth or status of the family than on any other factor, religious or non-religious.

He studies the curricula of faith schools, and discovers that under the rubric of R.E. --- Religious Education --- are normally included many subjects that non-religious people would consider belong in the sciences or humanities, although in these schools their teaching is tinctured with the beliefs of the religion.

He has an interesting dialogue with the head of Catholic education in Northern Ireland, who kept asking him if he did or did not accept the right of parents to decide about the education of their children. His answer was that children are not the property of their parents, to be indoctrinated as the parents wish. They have the right to be educated to think and be critical. He asked the educator if he regarded the situation in Northern Ireland, in which the inculcation of tribal divisions begins in the nursery, and children in either of the faiths usually never have a chance to meet children of rival or contending faiths, as a desirable outcome of confessional schooling.

Similarly, he talked to a teacher of a Muslim school in Leicester, England, who claimed that their students were exposed to all information about controversial subjects, such as evolution. Yet it was clear from Dawkins’ conversation with her and her students, that these children were being inculcated with unscientific views of evolution, heavily dependent on Muslim attitudes.

Although the Ontario election result does give us some reason to hope, the evidence seems to be that the humanist cause has lost ground in recent years, and can be expected to continue losing ground.