Sunday, July 31, 2011

My Log 273: Award-winning Croatian film eloquent on the problems of the diaspora

Pula Film FestivalImage via Wikipedia

I saw a Croatian film last night that dealt in subjects that should be familiar to Canadians, including the agonies of people who become members of diasporas of whatever country, and of the problems of families that are divided by emigration. The name of the film was Kotlovina, a reference to some local dish that was being prepared for a monster family gathering when three sisters who had not seen each other for 35 years finally managed to get together. The director was Tomislav Radic.

This film only last week won the grand prize at the Pula film festival. Radic is a former head of production of Croatian TV, and in 2005 he made a widely praised film called What Iva Recorded, about a 14 year-old girl who was given a present of a video camera with which she began to record her family.

That probably gives a clue to Radic’s interests --- family dramas --- and this film was entirely about the whole family, the sisters, their husbands, their children, their neighbours, as they all set up for the party.

My knowledge of Yugoslav film is sketchy. I remember well the remarkable film W.R.: The Mysteries of the Organism, made in 1971 by the experimental Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev, which purported to be an examination of the work of William Reich, but actually was an examination of the role of sex in a Communist country. The film was a great success in the Western world,it came like a breath of fresh air, but it was banned in Yugoslavia and earned Makavejev exile from his home country.

During his exile he made a scandalous film called Sweet Movie, so sexually explicit that the Canadian actress Carole Laure quit it before it was finished in disgust at some of the actions called for by her character (she was making love on the Eiffel Tower when she was interrupted by a group of nuns, for example) and Laure’s resignation from the film prompted the director to shoot an entirely different sequence around a different actress. Later, Makevejev made a film in Australia called The Coca Cola Kid, starring the remarkable American actor Eric Roberts (brother to Julia), so it seems that the diaspora has never been far from the thoughts of Yugoslav directors.

I found the opening sequences of Kotlovina to be almost tiresomely slow, although they did succeed in delineating the characters. Two of the sisters were traveling by car to the home of the third, in these earlier sequences, and on the way the one sister, a 40-ish widow, who had returned from Australia, where she had been taken as a child of four, got involved in a sexual romp with the stepson of one of her sisters, a virile 20-year-old lad. During the course of her liaison she was bitten by some insect, and her bite required treatment. She had also lost her panties, which her sister found later in the young man’s overcoat. This led to a huge confrontation after the Australian returned from a visit to the hospital for a shot of anti-rabies vaccine.

The film ended with a really remarkable sequence of the family party, as all the participants became drunk, and started yelling at each other. A visitor (daughter of the woman doctor, who was invited to the feast, thus establishing the neighborliness of Croatians), began to yell her detestation of the diaspora, populated, as she claimed, by a group of people whose only objective in leaving their home country was to have a swimming pool. Finally, the visitor in her turn burst out her resentments with her unsatisfactory life in Australia: she had had no pool, she complained, all she had was a marriage to an older man who didn’t love her any more than she loved him.

The party almost broke up over these quarrels, and would have done if the doctor’s daughter had not flaked out entirely, having drunk far too much. Seeing to her, getting her home, occupied everybody’s attention, taking their minds off their quarrelling, and the film ended with the three sisters clutching each other affectionately, and laughing gently at their ridiculous quarrelling.

I don’t think this film is destined to do particularly well abroad. I can understand if it becomes a success in Croatia, but its slow beginning will prevent it from capturing the attention of foreign audiences.

What was interesting was to find a movie that dealt with such important subjects in such an intense, concentrated manner. After all, in a world rent with emigration, much of it designed simply to improve the conditions and standards of living of the emigrants, these resentments are bound to become more intense as time goes on.

I felt I could relate to it myself. I lived in Canada for 26 years before becoming a citizen, and for all of that time I never considered myself truly Canadian, although I felt I was qualified because I was performing work that was essential to the quality of Canadian life. At least I thought so.

After returning briefly to New Zealand, my home country, I realized I didn’t belong there, either. I could have complained, as the protagonist in this movie did, that I was neither one thing nor the other, neither a Kiwi nor a Canuck. But I figured I had been operating according to an outmoded set of beliefs about one’s personal roots. Your roots, I discovered are created by your friendships, acquaintances, working life, your beliefs and actions, the whole corpus of your life, not from some phony attachment to a particular place.

The Australian protagonist in this film announced her intention of going back to Australia. How many emigrants have done exactly this: gone home, discovered it is no longer your home, and returned to their new home, more contented for the experience.
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Friday, July 29, 2011

My Log 272: Quebec minister’s visits to Algonquin communities takes me down memory lane from 50 years ago

Boathouse on Lake Kipawa, at Laniel, Quebec, C...Image via Wikipedia
Lake Kipawa

Some news has come across my e-mail that the Wolf Lake Algonquin community in Quebec has been given a grant of some $200,000 by the Quebec government to rebuild a camp located on the shore of Lake Kipawa, which will be developed into a centre for ecotourism.

Wolf Lake is a small community of people who live in what used to be called the Hunter’s Point settlement, on an island in the middle of Lake Kipawa, and is one of nine Algonquin communities in Quebec, seven of which I visited over the years when I was more active.

I made a trip around these communities in 1969, when I first started writing about native communities as a reporter for The Montreal Star. My guide was the chief of Timiskaming band, Mike Mackenzie, who was interested in signing up as many of the Algonquin people as he could to become members of the Indians of Quebec association, in which he held some executive position. Mike had been for many years a worker in the paper mill in Temiskaming, and he took me not only by plane to the community of Hunter’s Point, but north along the course of the Ottawa river to Ville Marie, and then east by logging roads to the community of Winneway, today an Algonquin village of 461 people which is the site of the Long Point band.

Already as we moved on from one Algonquin community to the next I had become accustomed to the fact that none of them ever appeared on the maps of Quebec, and that their few people --- there are still, even today, only a total of some 6,000 people in the nine communities --- were existing on tiny reserves that had been carved out for them, usually without their participation or consent. I was surprised to find in these remote, hidden places that people were still speaking their Algonquin language, but there was a fairly common assumption in those days that the language was doomed.

Years later, in the late 1980s, when I became involved in the struggle of the Barriere Lake people to defend their traditional hunting territory, which was contiguous with La Verendrye wildlife reserve --- a highly ironic title, since the reserve was and is being clear-cut by loggers --- I discovered that the language was still in use, as it still is today: in short, the Algonquins of Quebec, hidden away for the most part in their nine remote communities, were expected by many Canadians to more or less disappear. But they have defied these somber predictions, and appear at the moment to be on the verge of a comeback.

One thing that struck me in the late 1960s was that almost everywhere we went, even when it was just by some rough logging road through the wilderness, when we would come to the site of an Algonquin community, we would always have to ask where the people lived --- and then we would find them living around some corner, hiding even from the small amount of traffic that passed through their settlement. I remember one such community, known as Rapide-7, where we discovered a beautiful young woman who had been out somewhere for schooling, but had returned to her home in this wilderness where she was doing --- well, what was she doing exactly?

The only two of these communities I have never visited are Grand Lac Victoria and Lac Simon, but I still remember running across some anthropologists or scientists of some kind who had just come from these villages, and who assured us if we wanted to see aboriginal life in its natural state, those were the places to go to.

On other occasions I have visited the Algonquin communities of Maniwaki (known as the River Desert band, or more recently as Kitigan Zibi), and Amos (now known more generally as Abitibiwinni or Pikogan First Nation, a sort of northern outlier on the Harricana river more in the region of Abitibi than the other reserves).

As a result of these travels I have discovered that the history of the few surviving Algonquins is a typically infuriating, tragic Canadian story, but one which lies at the very centre of Canadian history, although it is not mentioned very much in Canadian history books. As a tribe the Algonquins have been divided for many years between the few small commuities in Ontario, and those in Quebec. That is the result of the machinations of the white invaders who worked their way into the Algonquin territories along the Ottawa river as they began the intense logging industry on which white European prosperity in the region was based. First, they displaced the Algonquins whom they encountered living along the river in Ontario, but they had less success in dislodging the northern Algonquins, who lived in Quebec. The people fought persistently for their rights, but were always swept aside by the arrogant governments. Then the government/church tandem decided on the grand gesture of gathering all of the displaced people who had collected around the monastery at Oka into a big reserve at Maniwaki in Quebec. This was a decision of the priests and the government, but it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that its real purpose was to remove the Algonquins from the path of so-called European progress --- in other words, to get them the hell off the land so the Europeans could do what they wanted with the land and its resources.

In this they have not been altogether successful: the northern Quebec communities decided not to join the rush to Maniwaki, and when I asked about that once I was told that they did make a long canoe journey down to Maniwaki on one occasion, but a number of their paddlers fell ill by contracting one of the European diseases, and they then withdrew for good.

After that, the history of, for example, the Barriere Lake people has been a terrible one, a story of white arrogance and greed, and of church and state collaboration which has left the reserve today one of the most impoverished in the entire country, but one that is fighting like a tiger to defend its right not only to exist, but to have some control over the remaining resources from the land that they have always considered to be theirs, land that they have neither surrendered by treaty, nor lost through conquest.

In other words, these Algonquins who have received four visits from the Quebec minister, Geoffrey Kelley, are fighting for their lives. They deserve to be better treated than they have ever been before --- their historical treatment being a virtual template for how not to treat native people decently --- and with any luck, with support from non-native supporters, of whom there is a determined nucleus in Montreal, and with the sheer naked determination they have recently begun to show not to be any longer the doormats for European civilization and its acquisitive values, they will eventually win through to a better life.

Let’s hope so, anyway.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Log 271: Once again, I stray among the classicists, and am put off when they pander to my depraved tastes

Rector's palace in Dubrovnik (Croatia)Image via Wikipedia
The Rector's Palace, Dubrovnik

Last night I attended a concert by musicians whom I had reason to expect were among the best in Europe.

They were all members of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, playing together as a smaller group as Soloists of the Munich Philharmonic, founded in 1999 by a musician called Sreten Krstic, who previously had founded a group called the Munich Philharmonic String Sextet.

There were 12 of these musicians, playing in the open air patio, or atrium, of the Rector’s Palace, a beautiful building constructed in the mid-15th century, damaged later by an explosion, and rebuilt after a huge earthquake in 1667, with
Renaissance and baroque architectural elements. The building was the seat of government when Dubrovnik was a city-state, and a republic, and the Rector after which it was named was an official elected by the Great Council to represent the Republic for a month during which he wasn't allowed to leave the palace at anytime except on government business.

This was held to have fitted exactly the principle of the Dubrovnik republic that is inscribed in Latin over the door of the Great council hall, "Forget private and deal with public business" (a message that we could do with in our own capitalist-controlled times in most countries of the Western world.)

The Atrium is regarded as an ideal location for the chamber music concerts that are held frequently during the Dubrovnik summer festival: indeed, last night I noticed various members of the 12-person group of musicians looking around them in wonderment at their surroundings.

Well, that’s as may be: the musicians were clearly expert on their fiddles of various kinds, and the soloist, a woman cellist called Monika Leskover, was a wonderful artist.

Readers of this site will not be surprised, nevertheless, to know that this music left me more or less cold, since I have no knowledge of classical music, and would, to be perfectly honest, rather attend a concert by my son’s raucous rock and roll band, Grady, out of Austin, Texas. I was not surprised to read that she had been highly spoken of by such luminaries as Mstislav Rostropovich (whose master classes she had attended) and Yehudi Menuhin, but the information that she had performed with three “world famous conductors” (none of whom I have ever heard of), and with four of “the world’s leading musicians” (whose fame has also escaped me during my 83 years) kind of suggested I had strayed into an environment I should have avoided.

Okay, call me a slob. One thing I discovered last night is that classical musicians are at least as self-indulgent as rock musicians: it seemed that Ms Leskover went on and on with her piece from Haydn, which, to me sounded like she was repeating the same phrases over and over, and I came to the conclusion that her piece would have benefited from being cut to the length my rock and roll experience has made more familiar to me.

The group had previously played works from Handel,
Charles Avison, and a Croatian composer called Dubravko Detoni, who was present at the concert, and whose work I thought was the most interesting of the night. He has composed some 130 productions around musicals, books of poetry and radio and TV programmes, and they were, to me, more evocative than the more classical works.

But then, with all this completed, the group launched into a bizarre evocation of what I have always considered the tripe composed by the Beatles, whose rubbishy tunes were disguised (though barely) as baroque compositions. She Loves You, a Hard Day’s Night, Here Comes the Sun? As baroque compositions? Do me a favour, fellers, better that you stick to your last and don’t try to curry favour with slobs like me.

Maybe my uneasiness was caused by the fact that, with a standing room ticket, the only place I could find to perch was on the medieval stone staircase, on to which I was crowded with dozens of others, (who seemed just as uncomfortable as me).

I gotta admit, the audience was enthusiastic, as they should have been before these master musicians. But I was glad to escape with my sanity more or less intact, and my bum bruised, cold, but still functioning. I think.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My Log 270: Tribute to Merchant-Ivory film productions, whose work is at an end following Merchant’s death

Ismail MerchantImage via Wikipedia
The late Ismail Merchant

I have always loved the film productions of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, most of whose best work over forty years was written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Last night I went to one of their last productions, The White Countess, which was written not by Ms Jhabvala, but by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born, British-raised writer who became famous with his novel The Remains of the Day, that was translated into one of the most wonderful of the Merchant-Ivory productions, for which Ms. Jhabvala wrote the screenplay in 1985.

Part of the success of this trio surely must have come from the fact that they were such a mixed bag, Merchant being an Indian Moslem, Ivory an American Protestant, and Jhabvala a German Jew. Yet from 1965 when they burst on to the scene with Shakespeare Wallah, until the present day this team has produced one intelligent, thoughtful, inspiring film after another. Personally I can remember Heat and Dust, (1983), featuring one of the most delectable performances by the glorious Julie Christie, A Room With a View, (1985) an adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel, Howard’s End (1992) another Forster adaptation by Ms. Jhabvala, and the wonderful Remains of the Day (1993) that the team adapted from Ishiguro’s superb novel.

Merchant died in 2005, which has brought an end to this string of successes, and it seems that at the age of 84 Ms Jhabvala has laid down her pen, which gives me permission to say that The White Countess was the least successful Merchant-Ivory production I can remember, although it was crowded with distinguished and excellent actors.

Unfortunately Ishiguro’s screenplay moved too slowly to really grab one: and for that matter, for a story set in 1930s Shanghai, the tale was too convoluted and interiorized within its major characters. The Merchant-Ivory productions, although always about interesting personalities, also usually managed to lay out the socio-political background in which the major characters found themselves. In this respect, this movie was somewhat deficient, I felt, although it certainly tried hard to suggest the confusing politics of those years as the Japanese were preparing to invade China.

The main character was played by Ralph Fiennes, and was called Todd Jackson, a former American diplomat who had lost his wife and child, and himself become blinded, in an explosion. No longer active in politics, he wanted to open a high-class night club in which he could rub shoulders with the leaders of society. He made the acquaintance of a Russian émigré countess who was earning a living as a taxi dancer for herself, her daughter, and a family of hangers-on, all of them White Russian nobility, and, impressed, he asked her to join him in his enterprise, which he named The White Countess, after her. (In the cast were a parcel of Redgraves, Vanessa, Lynn, and Natasha Richardson, filling the roles of the White Russians.)

This was all clear enough, but one kept wondering when the real action was to start, and what form it would take. Great prominence was given to a mysterious Japanese who befriended Jackson, but against whom he had been warned, because he was said to be a man who turned up just before the Japanese walked into wherever he was. In other words, a dangerous man, as indeed he eventually turned out to be.

With the arrival of the brutal Japanese, the expatriate citizens of the French, British and European sections of Shanghai decided to decamp, and rushed for the boats that could take them to safety. The countess’s family had insisted on keeping from her young daughter knowledge of the disreputable work she did to keep them all alive, and decided they should leave her behind when they left. The denouement, as the blind diplomat, obviously now in love with the countess, struggled to find her in the crowd, and finally did so, was full of action and tension.

The acting of Fiennes and Natasha Richardson (who died from a head injury while on holiday in the north of Quebec) both gave beautiful performances in the featured roles, but these were hardly enough to rescue the somewhat somnolent pace of the movie, or the confusions of Ishiguro’s script.

This is probably the last we can hope to see of the great Merchant-Ivory productions, and I cannot let them go without expressing my appreciation for their wonderful work over the years and my regret that we will see no more of them. They have been an ornament to the craft of film-making, and no mistake.

The night before I saw an even more confusing Italian psychological thriller called The Double Door, which was about a couple who were attacked by robbers as they were guarding a palace full of precious works of art, which the robbers got away with. The man was supposed to have been killed, leaving the woman to undergo a series of remarkable events, all of which turned out to have been figments of her imagination while she was in a three-day coma. Rescued from her coma, she got together with the man who had been thought to be dead, but was very much alive. And the climax to the film came when the woman was discovered to have been involved in the robbery, after which she went off to South America with her lover, one of the robbers. A bit of a struggle to keep all these confusing strands straight in one’s mind. I am not so good at that as I used to be, I guess I have to admit. One of the penalties of age.
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Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Log 269: French and British: two versions of working class reality in two enjoyable films

Made in DagenhamImage via Wikipedia

On successive nights I have seen two interesting movies dealing with working class subjects, but movies very different in their approach. Both were set in the early 1960s, but one was French one English, and perhaps that was one of the major differences between them.

The French film was called The Women on the Sixth Floor, and it was a sort of domestic comedy contrasting the mores of a French bourgeois couple with those of the floor-full of upstairs maids who served them, without being seen by them in any real sense for many years.

The English film was Made in Dagenham, a hard-nosed political film about how a group of machinists working for Ford in Dagenham, east of London, decided to go on strike for equal pay for equal work. Both were full of humour, but the humour was quite different in each film, although both had what might be called a soft-core centre allowing good to triumph in the end. But I have to admit I preferred the English film, mainly for ideological reasons.

The French film, directed by Phillippe Le Guay, opens in one of those ancient Parisian apartment buildings that are normally presided over by a concierge past whom even an army would find it hard to penetrate, usually an aging battleaxe with her nose in everybody’s business. This was true in this apartment house, which appeared to be owned by a character expertly played by Fabrice Luchini, married to an idle rich woman who filled her days with trivia of one kind and another. Into Mr. Luchini’s life came a pretty young woman from Spain, come to join her aunt, who is one of the maids living upstairs. Mr. Luchini welcomes her, tells her her predecessor has left, that she earned 250 francs a week (or was that a month?) and he immediately finds a piece of steel behind her affable, smiling exterior.

“Four hundred,” she says firmly.

He pretends he didn’t understand what she was saying, and insisted the pay would be 250. “Four hundred,” she said again, still smiling affably. He promised to talk to his wife about it, and the next day, somewhat entranced by the pretty new maid, comes back with a solution. “You will be paid 400, but as far as the mistress is concerned, you will be getting 250 --- not a word about this arrangement to her,” says the brave bourgeois, and so the arrangement is made.

The predecessor had worked for the family all her life, but when the family’s mother died she could not adjust. Quarrelling with the master, she is given her cards. Monsieur explains her severe loss to the pretty new maid, telling her the old girl was like family. “Where is she now?” asks the new girl. Monsieur did not know. “And yet she was like family?” asks the impertinent one, setting a tone for the mores on show in this film.

The new maid is a model of modernity, she boils his morning egg exactly as he demands it (three and a half minutes, he explains, anything either softer or harder spoils his entire day), she keeps the dishes washed, the clothes ironed, everything turns upward in the household arrangements, and he finds himself attracted to the young woman in a way that seems rather strange to him.

Somehow or other she persuades him to go upstairs to meet the other Spanish women who have been living up there, unregarded, for years, and he finds their toilet is horribly blocked, and orders in a plumber to clear it out. Thus the film gets underway, and the comedy is broad among the working class women from Spain, who seem to have inherited a much more modern attitude to life than the hidebound French bourgeoisie, in spite of having been dragged up under the tyrannical Franco regime. At least these women stick together: one of them has only to send out a call from her window for help and the rest appear as if by magic to wash, dry, vacuum and the like. Eventually the master quarrels with his uptight wife, who doesn’t believe his story that he was invited to dine with the maids upstairs, and she kicks him out, expecting him to return any moment. He moves upstairs into a cubby hole, living with the maids, and suddenly finds himself happier than he could have ever imagined being, as he is alone for the first time in his life, and making his own decisions without any interference from mother, father, wife or anyone else.

Part of the solidarity of the maids comes from their adherence to the rituals of he church, which appear as a joyful inheritance, that rather turned me off, to tell the truth. But eventually monsieur’s beautiful young maid confesses she has an eight-year-old son born out of wedlock, and surrendered for adoption. When one of he maids her aunt says she knows where the boy is, the young woman decides she must return to Spain to be near him. And after surrendering briefly to the romantic advances of monsieur, she disappears, and he is left with no option but to return to his loveless marriage.

Three years pass: and I will aleve it to readers to guess what happens: it is all resolved with delicacy, and most happily.

Well, that’s the French version of a working class dilemma: the British version is rooted in the poverty of he Cockney workers at the Ford plant, women workers who are egged on to demand equal pay for equal work by their shop steward, in a beautiful performance by Bob Hoskins. He confronts the comfortable senior pooh-bahs of the union movement, who call in the striking women and tell them how they should go back to work, and leave it to them to negotiate an increase in wages. No, says the young woman who is discovering leadership qualities as she becomes the spokespeson for the women workers. No, we don’t accept these compromises. We are striking for equal pay for equal work. But that will ruin the Ford company, cry the bosses, echoed by the union pooh-bahs.

As the strike drags on, the plant runs out of the materials provided by these women, and the factory closes. Then the pressure comes on their husbands: will they support their wives? In a pig’s eye they will. They tell their wives to stop all this nonsense and get the factory working again so they can get some money into the house.

The film is excellent as it shows the intense pressures created by strike action. It also ha wicked portraits of the higher-ups who are forced to make decisions about this kind of industrial action: the company executives, under pressure from Detroit; the Labour government ministers, compromising all along the way since they got elected (“I wasn’t running the country then,” as Harold Wilson remarks when challenged by his active socialist minister Barbara Castle with a memory of his policies when in opposition). Anyway, this too has a happy ending. This strike apparently actually happened in 1968, and the victory of the women workers led to the passing of Equal Pay legislation that was quickly followed in other countries, and has helped to transform the situation of working women.

I liked this film very much: one seldom sees serious movies dealing with politics, and when one crops up, one is obliged to give it its due, recognizing that almost all of the media, including films, are biased overwhelmingly in favour of establishment attitudes and practices.
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Saturday, July 23, 2011

My Log 268: A trip to Mostar: monument to our modern capacity to carry out outrages as bad as any in the past

UN Peace keepers collecting bodies from Ahmići...Image via Wikipedia

I visited Mostar yesterday, and if I ever needed reinforcement in my view that war is berserk (I don’t need it, actually) I found it there.

Mostar is that beautiful little town, 150 kilometres from
Dubrovnik, in the heart of Bosnia, where, in an act of monstrous cruelty and cultural blindness that we all watched on television, the Croats destroyed a famous bridge that had spanned the river Neretva since 1566, and was regarded as one of the marvels of Ottoman architecture.

As The Guardian remarked in an article published in 2004 when the bridge was officially restored: “The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until a failed Croatian theatre director-turned militia leader, Slobodan Praljak, trained his artillery on the structure in November 1993, when his forces were driving Mostar's Muslim population into an east bank enclave.”

Along with others who collaborated with him in the destruction of Mostar, Mr. Praljak has been in custody in The Hague for some years, undergoing trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. This is the tribunal that issued indictments against 161 people for crimes against humanity and the like during this ridiculous war, and the last of these 161 people was arrested last week, 16 years after hostilities ceased. Some 64 of these people have been sentenced, 13 acquitted and 14 trials are still underway. (To plunge into the Web site of this tribunal is to take a voyage into the murky world of ethnic hatred, and to expose oneself to a recital of the follies and absurdities of which human beings are capable.)

The bombing of Dubrovnik is one crime that the tribunal has concerned itself with, and the destruction of Mostar is another. Mostar was said to be the most ethnically integrated population in the whole of Yugoslavia, but the war put a stop to that. At first the Croats fought with the Moslems against an attack by the Serbs, whose leaders had declared that they wanted to unite all Serbs in Yugoslavia under one government. But in the middle of this, the Croats turned on their allies, and began a vicious attack against the Moslems, driving them across the river into the east section of the town, and then bombing their houses mercilessly.

Today, Catholic Croats and Moslems still both inhabit the town, but they live separately, on opposite sides of the river. The Catholics have built a new church, complete with a huge tower that looms over the entire town, and along with the rebuilding of the bridge, the market areas around the bridge have been largely rebuilt too. But the Moslem side of town lags in redevelopment behind the Christian side, which, naturally, has been favored by Western world supporters. I believe the Serb population from before the war was driven out of town, and has not returned.

During the war the city was first attacked by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), essentially a Serbian outfit, which established control over the town. Within three months, forces of the newly-established republic of Croatia managed to force the Yugoslav Army out of the town. The JNA then shelled the town, destroying a Franciscan monastery, the Catholic cathedral and the bishop's palace (with a library of 50,000 books), a number of secular institutions as well as fourteen mosques.

In 1991 Croats living in the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina had proclaimed the existence of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, as a separate "political, cultural, economic and territorial whole," on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A result of this was that Mostar was divided into a Western part, which was dominated by the Croat forces and an Eastern part where the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was largely concentrated.

When the Yugoslav Army moved out fanatic Croat Catholics destroyed Orthodox monastries and cathedrals, and bombed the ancient bridge, for which their leaders are still on trial in The Hague.

We went on a bus tour to Mostar. It took more than five hours to travel the 150 kilometres from Dubrovnik, not because the roads are bad --- indeed, they are beautifully surfaced --- but mainly because the modern Yugoslavia-as-was is now divided into six independent nations which maintain border posts whose utility is beyond the understanding of a simple guy like myself. We passed these border posts six times on the way there and back: it was never clear whose nation controlled the post, and the personnel running the posts appeared to be dressed identically. By peering closely at the small notices posted up one could gather that this post might be Bosnian, this one Croat, but there is nothing like what one has become accustomed to at most border posts, a clearly demarked area between an exit post of one country and the entry post of the next. In fact, I noticed at one post that on the way to Mostar our bus pulled into a long line of buses which were facing in one direction, with a small low hut in front of us through a window of which the drivers had to produce some documentation or other, which had a tiny notice that it was Bosnian, but on the way back the buses pulled up in the same line, except it was facing in the opposite direction, and an identical window in an identical hut seemed to belong to the other nation: the two posts were together, in other words. If this is the only benefit they have received from their war, it can hardly have been said to be worth it.

Nevertheless, the journey was very much worth taking. On the way to Mostar we stoppd at a village that I can only describe as amazingly beautiful. This was Pocitelj, a tiny place on a hill beside the Neretva river (the same one that runs through Mostar) whose population before the Homeland war in 1991 was 900. But this village was founded in the fifteenth century, and came under Ottoman rule for four centuries, during which a walled town was built, testimony to its strategic importance as a defensive position. When the Ottoman rule was replaced by Austro-Hungarian rule the town lost its strategic importance, which fortuitously enabled it to maintain its unique architectural mix. But in the 1990s, once again, Croatian forces bombed and shelled it destroying Pocitelj's sixteenth-century master works of Islamic art and architecture and displacing most of the town’s Moslem population.

Since the war, outside experts in ancient monuments have expressed their concern over the fate of this exceptionally beautiful town and in 1996, thanks to work of the Universities of York and Sarajevo, it was named as one of the world’s 100 most culturally endangered heritage sites. A restoration program arising from that designation has brought about the rebuilding of damaged and destroyed buildings, the encouragement of the return of the refugees and displaced persons to their homes, and the long-term protection and revitalization of Pocitelj's historic urban area.

We enjoyed a luncheon in the Mostar market area, an old-time local dish known as “under the bell” --- meaning lamb cooked under a bell that is submerged in glowing embers, utterly delicious --- served by an old-time waiter in a modest café sitting above the river. Not far away the merchants were just wrapping up their morning at the market, and shops selling tourist trinkets, and for all I know, precious, locally-made artifacts, were crowded with tourists. I suppose it could be said that Mostar has returned to some kind of normalcy --- but the populations appear to be living still at dagger’s drawn, on either side of the river. Mostar is, if anything, a monument to the fact that our modern civilization, with all our knowledge, artistic sensitivity, and ethnic tolerance, is still capable of outrages that rival those of past centuries.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My Log 267: Immersed in a world of mass tourism, where mobs of people follow guides mindlessly around ancient monuments

7The southern coast of Hvar, west of Sveta Nedj...Image via Wikipedia
The island of Hvar

I remarked to someone the other day that after spending a few weeks in what used to be called Yugoslavia, there is one thing I can definitely say about it: in any group of what we used to call Yugoslavs, there will always be at least one, and probably many more, young women wearing the shortest possible shorts, below which are visible a pair of slim, beautiful legs, tanned to the nth degree. Where were such girls when I was a boy, I have asked myself.

The person to whom I made this remark protested that this was a somewhat superficial observation, but I am not so sure. It seems to indicate quite a lot about the changes that have overcome what was until recent decades a workers’ state, in which enterprises were owned by the workers, and the economy was run with the interests of the ordinary bloke uppermost in mind.
After a brutal internecine war that seemed to be designed to entrench capitalism in what once was a welfare state, what exists now, so far as I have seen (which admittedly isn’t a hell of a lot), seems to be a captive state completely given into the hands of tourism, both of the luxury, and of the mass varieties.

Of course, my judgment has been clouded, perhaps, by the fact that I have spent most of these weeks visiting a friend in Dubrovnik, which is today a very strange place of human habitation. It is an ancient town set at the tailend of a small state, Croatia, that, after having defended its independence staunchly through the ages, has finally surrendered to the god of tourism.

The town seems to have no function except to be looked at by gawking tourists, who emerge daily from one of those immense cruise ships that ply the Adriatic, calling from time to time at one or other of the ports they pass along the way. These people, who appear to come from all over the world, are ferried into the town by tenders, where they are attached to a local guide who stands there holding up a sign to identify her, and thereafter, they are obliged to follow this person around as she gabbles off her spiel, allocating to the maximum, half an hour for each medieval attraction. This is a holiday?

I have it on good authority (a trades union official in Dubrovnik), that Croatia, in this new dispensation, owns nothing. Foreign money has taken over, and the Croatians have been reduced, by and large, to being the waiters, cooks, and tourist guides to the new millenium. I have seen this before, in the West Indies, where an island like Antigua, once a prolific producer of sugar, closed all its sugar mills at a stroke, thereafter reducing the possibilities for its population to be waiters, taxi drivers, beach boys, or hookers.

So, as an economic engine in the modern state, Dubrovnik can be more or less discounted.

Okay, you might argue, Dubrovnik is an exception. It was bombed severely by the Serbs during what they call the Homeland war. This brings me perilously close to discussing the insanity of that war, a temptation I intend to resist.

I went this week to Hvar, a small town on a bleak, elongated Adriatic island. I had gathered the impression from what I had been told of Hvar that it was a rural kind of place: forget it, Hvar is a tourist trap, just like Dubrovnik, but with a few more signs of real life. Its beautiful harbour is crowded with boats, ostentatious boats of the super-rich, ugly boats of the nouveau-riche, bustling, companionable boats of the ferry service that takes people to and from the many islands that surround the city.

But Hvar, let there be no mistake, is a tourist city. It does have a splendid small market selling fresh fruit and vegetables, but otherwise it is, as someone once complained to me about Durbovnik, a town full of shops selling T-shirts made in China.

We had to catch a hydroplane at 6.30 am, and when we arrived at the dock at 6 am, we were confronted by boatloads of noisy young Europeans, some of them horribly drunk, others delirious with love, emerging after spending the entire night on one or other of the islands, where night clubs purvey their trade. A young Norwegian, intoxicated by all the heat and sun, told me one night club on one island has an Oslo Week, for which 300 young Norwegians have come south to participate. The very peak of modern-day tourism.

Where we were going on the hydroplane was to Split, and here I found something slightly different. Although this city of roughly half a million people is a centre for tourism, it does bear the marks of a real, functioning place. The immense harbour is crowded with huge ships, many of them designed for carrying cars back and forth around the islands, and others, more modest, for just simply taking people around.

The town itself is a wonder. The city centre exists inside what is known as Diocletian’s Palace, a place built by an Illyrian from these parts who became emperor of Rome around the third century AD, and decided to surrender his power voluntarily, apparently the only Roman emperor ever to do that. He came back home, built this huge palace, and today it is the centre of this amazing city, a veritable World Heritage Site within which ordinary people live and carry on their business from day to day, a place around whose every corner lurks a visual delight --- perhaps a broken down Roman wall, perhaps a building built in by later generations and very much still occupied, perhaps --- a delightful touch this --- a gallery of doorways built above the city square all of them giving on to a balcony, in which is situated a bar, run by a beautiful young woman who, unfortunately, appeared to be a chain smoker. (Never mind, although she left her butt smoking into our nostrils, after a few minutes she returned to stub it out completely.)

Split has a wonderful market that sells everything under the sun. I sat on a chair at a bar in this market, and was delighted by the arguments, yelling, laughing and crying of its inhabitants, who, so far as one could judge, were simply carrying out their functions of everyday life. They looked as though they spent every day in this same place.

Unfortunately Split had a major festival underway, so we weren’t able to get a room close enough in to make it worthwhile. So at about 3 pm we climbed aboard a bus, and embarked on the five hour drive south to Dubrovnik, along a landscape of the most forbidding character. Most of the houses along this highway appeared to be more or less new: one had the impression that many of them must have been holiday homes of the city bourgeoisie. The only touch of realism came from a place where, under Tito, they had filled in a swamp over an immense area, and turned it to productive fields. The houses there were mostly rather dreary apartment buildings built in the days when the government was serious about providing work and accommodation for its people.

I have never been a supporter of tourism, not even as an economic engine. I remember once being moved by the realization that all the people who, like me, were climbing around the Acropolis in Rome were diverse peoples from all over the world, and that in this activity they were paying some obeisance to the past, to the history and achievements of earlier civilizations.

Today, even that reassurance seems to have disappeared from these trailing mobs of tourists, following along after their guide, hoping for their half hour inside the cathedral or the medieval palace. What are they getting out of it, these people, could somebody tell me?
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Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Log 266: Beware of what you read: the guys with the facts don’t really want you to know them

Official Portrait of President Ronald ReaganImage via Wikipedia
Ronald Reagan, faker-in-chief

I remember when Ronald Reagan was President of the United States reading a story that said he had decided to cook the books --- in other words, in future new rules would be applied to how the U.S. calculated its unemployment figures. In future, the story said, the official unemploymentrate in the United States would be only about half of the real rate, because of some legerdemain with the way they calculated the figures.

I am reminded of this every time I read an article today about how much unemployment there is in the U.S. Officially, they have only 9.1 per cent of the work force unemployed. But, as so many dissentient economists keep saying, if the U.S. calculated unemployment the way every other nation does, they would be admitting that just on 20 per cent of their workforce are without work.

Ever since the Reagan change the mainstream media has gone along with the changes, reporting straight-facedly figures that they all know are barefaced lies.

An article someone has sent me today from Aljazeera, by Ted Rall the political cartoonist and author, indicates that not only the unemployment figures are cooked but so are most other indicators of economic well-being.

One of Rall’s points is that the bottom line --- that mythical point at which American corporations declare their profit or loss --- isn’t an entirely believeable account of the health even of a particular corporation, let alone of the economy overall. “For example,” he writes, “the Internet search giant Yahoo! saw revenues decline 12 percent in late 2010 yet doubled its profits. How'd they do it? They fired one percent of their workforce. If Yahoo! were to continue this trend, it would soon cease to exist.”

Rall calls in a quote from the Wall Street Journal in support. "While the US economy staggers through one of its slowest recoveries since the Great Recession," the paper wrote July 5th, "American companies are poised to report strong earnings for the second quarter --- exposing a dichotomy between corporate performance and the overall health of the economy."

Most modern economies depend up to two-thirds on consumer spending. But, writes Rall, Consumer confidence, the measure of people's willingness to part with cash to buy goods and services, is in the tank. When 60 percent of Americans rate the economy as poor, don't count on them to buy stuff. They're not.”

Obama’s response had been to transfer trillions of dollars to investment banks, insurance companies, airlines and automobile manufacturers. This was in accordance with pure Reagon voodoo economics (as George Bush senior once called it when contesting the presidency nomination with Reagan) the theory that wealth that is given to the rich will eventually “trickle-down” to the workers and middle class. This theory, a favorite of conservatives everywhere, has been exploded a gazillion times when actually put into operation.

Rall writes that just to keep pace with the growth of the population, it is necessary for the economy to add 1.2 million jobs a year, so when Obama boasted in January that the recovery was underway because 1.3 million jobs had been created in the previous year, he was as they say, whistling in Dixie. Since the so-called economic recovery began, in fact, some two to three million more jobs have been lost, to be piled on to the 8,000,000 jobs that had been lost when the economy collapsed originally. So when the Department of Labour boasts that 18,000 jobs were created in June of this year, they are actually disguising the fact that 82,000 jobs had been lost.

Another shattering fact revealed in this article (which quotes from a website called Shadow Government Statistics) is that if the United States calculated inflation as all other nations do, the real inflation of recent months would be admitted to be 11.2 per cent, which would account for the fact that the real gap between the wealthy and the workers is galloping along at a fine old rate.

At the core of the question when is a recovery not a recovery, writes
Rall, lies the question of vocabulary. Since the 1970s, he writes, American economics have defined a recession as being when the Gross Domestic Product falls in two succeeding fiscal quarters. By this definition, very often a recession is over before it is actually declared to have existed.

“This contributes to a strange reality gap: We are not in a recession until we are in a recovery. Effectively, then, it is rare for the American news media to state at any given time that the US economy is then in a recession. Naturally, this contributes to the perception that newspapers and TV stations lie, and that they do so on behalf of an uncaring regime.”

The message from all this should be: beware of what you read. The guys with the facts don’t want you, the average citizen, to know them.
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Sunday, July 3, 2011

My Log 265: I become a culture vulture and am exposed to the secret world of European opera and song

Fireworks to celebrate the launch of the Dubro...Image by Stuart Pinfold via Flickr
Fireworks celebrate the launch of the Dubrovnik summer festival

In the two weeks I have spent in Croatia I have become a culture vulture, for my host has dragged me to no fewer than six musical/entertainment events, only one of which I would have even considered had I been in Ottawa.

Last night’s event was particularly memorable, for it was held in the open courtyard of one of Dubrovnik’s most regal buildings during a heavy rainfall, the first they have had here in months, and both orchestra and audience were obliged to huddle under the verandahs surrounding the courtyard while the fiddlers fiddled on, and the seven singers gathered together from all over Europe, ran through a programme of favorite opera songs.

The orchestra was that of the Opera and Ballet of the Albanian National Theatre, and the singers were obliged to make themselves heard over the incessant rattle of the rain pouring down from the overhead spouting on to the stones of the courtyard. Two sopranos from Poland and one from Russia had to suffer the indignity of their long gowns getting wet around the hems, but they maintained their sangfroid admirably, and as far as I can tell their form was maintained to the satisfaction of the knowledgeable audience. They were aided in their programme of stuff from Puccini, Bizet, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Donizetti, by four tenors and baritones from Mexico, Columbia, Austria and Croatia, the whole thing conducted by an Albanian conductor and a local one who presides over this summer festival.

All of these performers were just names to me, unknown names, since there is probably no one less knowledgeable about classical music than me. They did provide most informative and complete programme notes, however, which led one into a whole world of European academies where these performers had studied (from the age of four some of them, poor little sods), because all of them had played in opera and concert halls in every small town and several major cities in Europe, it seemed. The whole ensemble presented to my innocent eyes and ears was of a huge underground of classical music that has been sawing away, regardless of whether the government was communist, nationalist, conservative or fascist: all of them seem to have eagerly supported these particular arts.

That got me going on one of my premiere hobby horses: that in all of these subsidized entities, the poor pay through their taxes, but the events are designed to be enjoyed only by the rich, for the poor could not possibly afford the ticket prices.

This is why I have always objected to paying for entrance to the museums and concert halls in Ottawa, when, after all, my taxes have already gone to establish these palaces of culture, and they should thereafter be available to me at no, or very minimal cost. This is not how it works: opera and ballet are the arts of a small elite. The only opera company I ever saw --- I have not seen many, I am sure readers will not be surprised to learn --- that I wholeheartedly approved was one in China whose job it was to take Peking opera around the communes of the particular county in which they operated. All performances were full, the halls packed with peasants in their sweatshirts, after a long day in the fields. The audiences paid close attention, reading the modern translations of the medieval Chinese language used in the operas, that was projected down the side of the stage. Oddly enough, these audiences never applauded, even when it was over, but just got up and left, although they seemed throughout the performance to enjoy it thoroughly.

Okay, that was last night, and part of the Dubrovnik summer festival, which has so far, in a mere two weeks, exposed me to the conducting talents of four separate conductors, None of them is household names (and even if they were, I probably would never have heard of them) so I will abstain from commenting, except to say that one of them, a Russian, seemed to be behind the beat most of the time, one of them, an Indonesian, who gave an energetic, rousing performance and pulled a remarkable variety of faces in the process, and the two last night were elderly men who were models of decorum and modesty in face of the orchestra hey commanded.

Most of the other performances were at an event called Le Petit Festival du Theatre, which took place also in an open air arena, the weather here usually being settled and warm enough to support these outside experiences.

There were two notable events at this festival. The first was a recital by a Yemini singer from Jerusalem who greeted each of us at the door as we filed into the arena, her purpose apparently being to establish some kind of rapport between herself and her audience. She had some obscure purposes, which were never adequately explained, but seemed to have to do with her wish that we should all shake off our outer snake skin and get down to the real us. To accomplish this she asked us to do all manner of things, such as touching the top of our head with our hands, shimmering and shaking so as to loosen that proverbial snake skin, thinking of a word, and, when asked, declaiming the word so everyone could hear. (I was sorely tempted to tell her my word: crap! But didn’t want to put a kibosh on the show).

I told myself, however, that when the moment came that she asked us to hold hands, I would be outa there. And that is exactly what happened when the request came. I headed for the door. I have a constitutional inability to lay myself open to any pseudo-religious revivalist who happens along, preferring to keep myself cautiously at a distance from all proselytizers, especially those who do not fully reveal their purposes.

However, the next night was a concert I thoroughly enjoyed, because, of course, it was the only one that came anywhere near my limited experience of music. A young woman from Paris named Laetitia de Fombelle performed a number of songs in English and/or French which enabled her to reflect upon life, love, its betrayal and fulfillment. This is the well-trodden territory of the French chanteuse, and when after the show I congratulated her on her performance and remarked that I was surprised that she sang a Jacque Brel song inEnglish, she said she was unable to sing it in French because it had become far too personal to her. Notable, to me, in this perfromance was the contrast between her effortless credibility and comfort when singing in French, and the somewhat strained, rather tense atmosphere when she sang in English. Her choice of songs was not hackneyed, and she got a rousing reception from a packed house. This sort of culture, feeding into my lifelong love of the French and American popular song, I could take every night of the week, if it was available.

So there it is: my cultural level is being heightened and improved to such an extent that I think I am about to embark on a protest, and refuse to be dragooned into anything else that I could classify as culture vulturism.

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