Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 5, 2014

Purgatorio; Algorithms

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

“Purgatorio”, a documentary about the horrors of contemporary Mexico as the title would imply, opened on Friday night at the Cinema Village in NY (and opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on the 10th). Like last year’s “Narco Cultura” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/24/three-documentaries/), it is a deeply pessimistic but compelling work that emphasizes the POV of the average citizen rather than academic experts who might have insights on the intractable character of the Mexican drug war and the massive emigration to “El Norte”.

For example, one of the characters we meet in Rodrigo Reyes’s film is an eccentric Texan whose mission in life is to walk through the brush frequented by Mexicans headed toward the border in order to pick up their rubbish, like empty water bottles or articles of clothing. As Reyes follows him about on the well-beaten trail, the man reflects on “illegals”, saying at one point that with all the resources in Mexico (oil, gold, etc.), the country could enjoy prosperity. They should stay at home and clean up their country was his advice.

Reyes, a 31-year old who was born in Mexico City and who despite having a degree in International Relations, was not that interested in the specific international relations that Mexico has with the USA. One supposes that a filmmaker has to make a choice when he or she sets about to make such a film. One that is geared to socio-economic analysis might not deliver the punch that something like “Purgatorio” can, a film that like Dante’s masterpiece is intended to engage more with the heart than the brain.

Reyes’s strategy is to take us to the front lines of the drug war and the border crossings to show us what the actors on the ground face as they struggle to survive. One of the most gripping scenes takes place toward the end of the film as we watch a 45-year-old grandfather, who says that his life is about nothing but work, scales a 25 foot high fence as if he were in a high school gymnastics class, but only on the third attempt. For him, scaling the fence is not exactly a transition into Paradise but at least an exit from the Inferno.

In another memorable scene, we encounter a group of boys who mug in front of Reyes’s camera, each one taking turns naming and imitating the sounds of their favorite weapon: AK47, AR15, 9MM pistol, sniper’s rifle, etc. Most 12 year old boys are fascinated with guns but it is only in Mexico that in a few short years many will be making a living using them to kill.

There is no gainsaying Reyes’s ability to present gut-wrenching anecdotal material but we are still waiting for a film that explains how Mexico became such a “failed state”, one that also showed the potential for renewal and transformation as well. One that would introduce the audience to Zapata and Pancho Villa, the EZLN, and the insurgent electoral campaign of Mexico City’s mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

If I was much younger and more of a professional filmmaker than an amateur critic and videographer, I’d do something that explored Mexico’s radical traditions. This article on Mexico on the left would be a good place to start for someone with those kinds of qualifications: http://louisproyect.org/2013/06/07/mexico-and-the-left/.

Opening at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on October 17th and the Quad in New York on October 24th, “Algorithms” is a portrait of two young men from India who compete in international tournaments for blind chess players.

As someone with serious eye problems and a lifelong passion for chess, the film was one I naturally looked forward to screening. It has the same kind of rooting for the underdog quality as “Brooklyn Castle”, the 2012 documentary that followed kids from a working-class public school who compete with those from elite institutions but in “Algorithms” the competition is mainly with their own disabilities than with sighted competitors.

Since chess is such a visually oriented game (or sport, as some would argue), one wonders how a blind person can make any headway. The film shows how it is done. It is all done by touch, just like braille. The white pieces have a tiny nipple at the top and each space has an aperture in which each piece is placed. As two blind players compete, you see each one fondling the pieces before making a move.

Although the film does not deal with the question of blind-sighted competition, Charudatta Jadhav, a blind adult who serves as surrogate father and tutor to the boys, was a chess champion who did well in competition with sighted players.

Perhaps the film, which was shot in black-and-white for reasons not obvious to me, was more interested in exploring disabilities and their transcendence than the game of chess. Like “Brooklyn Castle”, you get absolutely no sense of the games the boys participated in. While it would obviously take up too much time to follow each move, it would have been of great interest to see the last four or five moves. That’s what made the Bobby Fischer documentary such a memorable film.

For those who follow chess, you probably are aware that there is a new world champion—Magnus Carlsen who defeated India’s Viswanathan Anand. India has a very ambitious chess training program, one that no doubt explains why it pays attention to the disabled player as well. The game originated in 3rd century AD India where it was called chaturaṅga. From there it emigrated to Persia, where it was called chatrang. When I studied Turkish, I learned that the word for chess was satranç, pronounced satranch.

Over the past 50 years or so since I have been playing chess, I am not much better than I was at when I began. But my passion for the game continues unabated. If you are one of those people who love the game like me, I recommend “Algorithms”. It is probably the kind of sport that will survive the abolition of capitalism. Unlike football that leaves you with brain damage, a life-long engagement with chess will sharpen your mind—unless you are me, of course.

1 Comment »

  1. You forgot to mention the Oaxaca uprising, perhaps the seminal event that finally scared the establishment to initiate a prolonged response: militarisation and fear. aka the narco wars.

    Comment by seaspan — October 5, 2014 @ 11:06 pm

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