Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 29, 2007

Two documentaries of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

A couple of documentaries have come my way that are worth considering. The first of these is “Escape to Canada” courtesy of Disinformation, a left-of-center film distribution company based in Canada. The other is “Primo Levi’s Journey,” which begins a theatrical run at Quad Cinema on 8/17/2007.

“Escape to Canada” is a salute to the Great White North after the fashion of “Sicko” but concentrates on three of Canada’s other assets besides health care–namely gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana and providing a haven for GI deserters from the war in Iraq. Directed by Albert Nerenberg, it is mixes affirmation of 60s counter-culture and cutting-edge political issues. There is a tendency to flatter Canadian bourgeois politicians by comparing them favorably to George W. Bush that borders on Canadian nationalism, but all in all it demonstrates that things are a bit more civilized to the North. The film presents Canada as the ultimate Blue state, to use the political categories operative in the USA. You generally get the impression that the average Canadian shares the values of Madison, Wisconsin students and professors and there’s nothing wrong with that.

On July 20, 2005 Canada became the fourth country in the world to sanction gay marriage. The film profiles Michael Hendricks and René Leboeuf whose successful law suit knocked down existing homophobic institutions. They were married on 1 April 2004 and many USA’ers now go to Canada to become “legal”. That was around the same time that the state of Massachusetts and the cities of San Francisco legalized gay marriage as well. The White House went on a big campaign for “family values” that resulted in retreats across the board in this country. However, despite attempts to organize a “pro-family” movement in Canada, the legislation remained intact. It have been interesting to hear a deeper analysis of why Canada is less fertile ground for religious fundamentalism, but the documentary tends to shy away from such a thing. It is mainly content to tell a lively story in a humorous manner, which is all to the good.

Besides Hendricks and Leboeuf, the other major character dealt with in the film is Marc Emery, the publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine. Emery was a leader of the legalize marijuana movement in Canada that won a significant victory in 2004 but that was eventually reversed. The film makes it clear that the same kinds of forces that operated from south of the Canadian border to oppose gay marriage were at work to make the weed illegal as well. Emery was arrested on July 29, 2005 by the Canadian cops, who were acting on a request from the US DEA who claimed that he was selling marijuana seeds in the US. He now faces life in prison and has become a symbol of Canadian sovereignty. In keeping with its determination to tell lively stories about sympathetic characters, the film does not get into Emery’s libertarian politics. Emery was a founder of the Freedom Party in Ontario that describes itself as in the tradition of Ayn Rand. They oppose bans on drugs, pornography, prostitution, and etc. but advocates privatization of health care–something at odds with Michael Moore’s vision of a more civilized society.

* * * *

I was particularly interested to see “Primo Levi’s Journey” because I knew next to nothing about him except for the fact that he had been a prisoner at Auschwitz and wrote about his experience there in works like “The Periodic Table” and “The Drowned and the Saved.” The film, however, is connected to a lesser-known work–“The Truce”–that Levi wrote after WWII ended. It is a kind of journal that tracks his circuitous journey along with other Italian ex-concentration camp survivors across Eastern Europe, the USSR and eventually back to Italy under the auspices of the Red Army. Interspersing excerpts from Levi’s book, Director Davide Ferrario follows the route that Levi took and interviews a wide variety of people whose lives have been impacted by the end of socialism. Since Ferrario has been connected professionally with experimental directors ranging from Rainer Fassbinder to Poland’s Andrzej Wajda, it is not surprising that the film has a rather oblique quality. Although it is an artful work, it is really not the place where one will find a straightforward narrative of Levi’s life, nor an analysis of the changes that have taken place in the former USSR and the Eastern bloc.

Now that I have begun to get a better handle on Levi’s life and career (he died at the age of 68 in 1987 from a fall down the stairs at his house, probably an accident rather than suicide), I can understand why Ferrario was drawn to his life and work. Levi was very much the intellectual and the observer. His written work was a protest against man’s humanity to man, but it is not put forward as a “solution” to the Jewish question. Unlike other men and women who are associated with the “holocaust industry”, as Norman Finkelstein puts it, Levi was a secular Jew before and after Auschwitz. Moreover, he never saw Israel as a haven against Nazi-like violence–to the point that he signed a statement in 1969 with other well-known intellectuals. When his long-time supporters took exception to this, he stated “Everyone is somebody’s Jew,” and that the “Palestinians are Israel’s Jews.”

There is little doubt that Ferrario is appalled by the end of socialism, despite his refusal to editorialize. He allows Andrzej Wadja to hold forth on the evils of Communist Poland, but this is more than counter-balanced by the voices of ordinary peasants in Moldavia and Belarus who feel that they have been screwed. In the press notes, Ferrario is asked, “After making this film, what is your Idea of Europe?”

He answers, “Very contradictory. Where capitalism (and sometimes democracy) is setting its roots, all that has to do with the past is swept away. Globalization makes everything all the same everywhere.”

That is the message that “Primo Levi’s Journey” communicates, but without hitting you over the head with it.


  1. There’s nothing in La Strada di Levi that suggests its maker Davide Ferrario was, as you say, “appalled by the end of socialism”. At most he’s dismayed by rapid change in Eastern Europe. His lightweight docu, much too pretty for anything to do with Auschwitz, says almost nothing about Primo Levi. That’s why Ferrario had second thoughts and read some of Levi’s words voice-over. But you don’t review the film as a structure and spend your time looking for something that doesn’t contradict the ideology you brought to it. Your comment about “peasants feeling they were screwed” will make anyone laugh who has actually spoken to Eastern European “peasants”. They’ve felt hard done by for the last thousand years. Incidentally, the Italian authorities declared Levi’s death a suicide. His award-winning biographer Ian Thomson doesn’t question the verdict (“Levi had pitched himself three flights down the stairwell”). So why do you say “probably an accident rather than suicide”? Don’t people on the left ever commit suicide?

    Comment by Peter Byrne — July 29, 2007 @ 11:09 pm

  2. The most pressing question, however, is not why Levi committed suicide but whether he committed it at all—or if, instead, his death was accidental. The evidence, as we shall see, is not watertight. As far as we know there is no direct proof that Levi committed suicide—no witnesses, no note, no direct physical evidence. And this would not be the first time that a police inquiry reached a conclusion without an in-depth investigation. Levi’s biographers, Myriam Anyssimov and Ian Thomson, both believe he committed suicide. But neither has any compelling evidence. Indeed the hypothesis of an accident was never seriously examined.

    Primo Levi’s life-long friend, Nobel laureate Rita Levi Montalcini cast the first doubts on the suicide a few days after the event. If Levi wanted to kill himself he, a chemical engineer by profession, would have known better ways than jumping into a narrow stairwell with the risk of remaining paralyzed. “Did anyone see him jump over that banister?” she asked rhetorically. “Did anyone find a piece of paper announcing his intention to end his life? Suicide is a far too quick conclusion.”14 She expressed what probably many others, myself included, silently suspected.

    Indeed, the stairwell in the Turin building is a so narrow that Levi would have had to aim his fall just right to be successful. Horizontally, it is shaped like a cut-off pyramid. The elevator shaft is a square cage that runs vertically through the middle. The side of the elevator shaft extending into the stairwell is 3 feet, 7 inches. The maximum distance between the stairs and the elevator shaft is 5 feet, 7 inches; the minimum distance is just over 3 feet, 4 inches. This does not leave much room for the clean fall of a human body. Rather than killing himself, Levi could easily have hurt himself bouncing between the elevator cage and the railings of the lower floors. Moreover, had he wished to jump, he could have chosen the street or the courtyard, which were free of such constraints and easily accessible. Furthermore, Levi picked not just a hazardous but a messy and theatrical option that exposed his relatives to a gruesome sight—a gesture in sharp contrast, as Levi Montalcini also pointed out, with the writer’s sober and restrained style.

    full: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR24.3/gambetta.html

    Comment by louisproyect — July 29, 2007 @ 11:22 pm

  3. I watched this film on tv last night and i was hooked. this is probally one of the best films iv seen on canada . i have been watching alot about Marc Emery, i belive that he should not be able to be taken from here and brought to the states it makes me sick to think that the US has the right to reach into our counry and take our citizens.

    Comment by nicole chamberlin — March 3, 2008 @ 9:19 pm

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