Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 21, 2015

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

“Frame by Frame”, which opened at the IFC Center in New York today, is a portrait of Afghanistan’s photojournalists who take their life into their hands every time they go out into the streets to take pictures, especially when they show the human toll of suicide bombings since showing the consequences of Taliban terror might be a death sentence.

It was not just that the Taliban was opposed to showing their brutality. When they took power in 1996, all photography was banned including family portraits, wedding portraits, and art photography as well. When they were ousted in 2001, a media revolution broke out that created a real demand for those with photojournalistic skills, including the four subjects in the film:

Farzana Wahidi: a woman who despite being allowed to go to school when the Taliban ruled, managed to get one in Canada. A lot of her advocacy is involved with women’s rights. In one of the key scenes in “Frame by Frame”, we see her in the burn unit of a hospital in Heart, a city that has the highest incidence of self-immolation in the country much of it having to do with the despair of living in a country with such a grim outlook. After cajoling with a doctor to get permission to film, he remains resistant since the publication of photos from the ward would likely lead to the Taliban or its allies showing up to kill him.

Massoud Hossaini: Hossaini won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for the image of a girl crying in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing of an Ashura ritual in which Shi’ite men flagellate themselves to mourn the killing of Mohammad’s grandson in 680AD. It is a reminder of how insane the divisions are in the Muslim world when such a ritual can generate a massacre. Hossaini is seen photographing another self-flagellation a year later, a sign of progress in Afghanistan where few can be seen.

Najibullah Musafar: Trained as a painter, he took up photography to document Taliban atrocities. Becoming a partisan of the anti-Taliban resistance, he embedded with the Northern Alliance in 2000 to document what he saw as war of liberation. Perhaps the only flaw in this very revealing documentary is its failure to identify the factors that led to the Taliban reconstituting a new threat today.

Wakil Kohsar: Kohsar’s focus is on Afghanistan’s lower depths. He goes out each day to photograph drug addicts, beggars, and anybody else whose life has been destroyed by a war that has been going on for the better part of 35 years.

Co-directed by two young women Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, it is a testimony to the vitality of documentary filmmaking as an instrument of social change in the modern epoch. After looking at some raw footage of street life in Afghanistan in 2012, Bombach became “insatiably curious” about the country and resolved to make a film there. She sold her car and emptied her bank account to get the initial funding.

Their “crew” in Afghanistan consisted of the two women and a driver they hired to take them about. Considering the obstacles that the four subjects of the film have to face on a daily basis, it is a miracle that the film ever got made.

Highly recommended.

Also opening today is “Kingdom of Shadows”, another film made in a war zone, in this instance the drug war in Mexico with a focus on Monterrey, the capital city of Nuevo León that has become the site of more “disappearances” than either Pinochet’s Chile or Videla’s Argentina.

Ironically, the Zetas, one of the drug gangs running amok in Nuevo León, has a number of members who were former cops or soldiers  trained in the Schools of the Americas alongside Pinochet and Videla’s goons.

Like “Frame by Frame”, “Kingdom of Shadows” benefits from the “casting” of three subjects who illustrate different aspects of the drug wars and the disappearances epidemic. All three make for compelling story telling.

We meet a Texas rancher named Don Henry Ford Jr. who appears to be about my age and blogs as the Unrepentant Cowboy of all things. Facing unbearable economic pressures in the 1970s, including an $800,000 debt that he had no possibility of repaying, he began smuggling marijuana into Texas from Nuevo León. In those days, he says, nobody carried a weapon and everybody trusted each other, including a man who became a close friend. The friend, like many who became drug barons, had no way of making a living except by wholesaling drugs just as Ford had no way out of economic catastrophe except as a retailer. With an amiable manner reminiscent of Willie Nelson and a shrewd assessment of the insanity of imprisoning people for selling drugs (half the prisoners in the USA are guilty of nonviolent drug offenses), Ford draws you deeper and deeper into the film’s overall message every time he appears.

When you first see Oscar Hagelsieb, he is tooling down a highway on a Harley “hawg” with ape-hangers. Despite his heavily tattooed, outlaw appearance, he is an officer in the drug interdiction unit of the Homeland Security office in El Paso, Texas where he grew up as the son of undocumented immigrants. As is the case in Mexico, selling drugs was the best way of moving up the economic ladder. For Hagelsieb, becoming an undercover cop was an alternative to crime. It would seem that making drugs illegal has generated a boom industry in both crime and crime prevention. If there is anything that symbolizes the irrationality of capitalism, it would be hard to find anything that tops this exercise in futility.

Finally, there is Consuelo Morales, a Catholic nun based in Monterrey who organizes mothers to press for the return of their disappeared children, even if it is only their bones.

The film, which is playing at Cinema Village and also available on VOD, was directed by Bernardo Ruiz who is committed to making films about the dysfunctional relationship between Mexico, the birthplace of his father, and the USA, where his mother was born. He describes his goal in the press notes:

My perspective is that the people of Mexico can’t fix this problem entirely on their own. Like Oscar says in the film, we in the United States need to think about our responsibility in this conflict as consumers of narcotics. Don would say that the violence stems from the fact that narcotics are illegal. Either way, what we find in Mexico is a perfect storm where corruption, intimidation and this huge appetite for drugs in the United States come together. It’s really all those things, and it’s not as if all of this is happening thousands of miles away from the United States. It’s happening just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Also highly recommended.

Finally, and also highly recommended, is “Drone” that opened as well today at the AMC Empire 25 in New York.

As the title implies, this is about the new technology that is being used for a very old purpose, to kill the natives in distant lands with impunity. Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei, a young Norwegian woman, it combines interviews with a wide range of authorities including the Pakistani and British lawyers fighting to ban their use and to compensate the victims in North Waziristan who have been “collateral damage” of the war on terror. In one striking statistic cited in the film, there have been only 49 Al Qaeda “operatives” killed out of the more than 2,300 victims. Part of the problem is the unaccountability of the CIA program that does not require the spooks to name the men they have targeted–basically extrajudicial killings. As one expert points out, Obama was anxious to stop arresting terrorist suspects; instead he would use drones to kill them without the need for inconvenient trials. Basically we are dealing with what Clarence Thomas called hi-tech lynchings but in fact rather than his rightwing fiction.

The star of the film is Brandon Bryant, who operated behind the console of a drone targeting computer monitor at an air force base in Nevada and who was thoroughly traumatized by the experienced, even to the point of suffering PTSD. Bryant’s problem is that he had a shred of humanity something his commanding officer utterly lacked. Just as he was watching a missile blasting the “enemy” for the first time, the officer yelled “Kaboom” at the top of his lungs just for fun. What a depraved world we live in when advanced technology goes hand in hand with frat boy pranks and mass murder

Another compelling testimony comes from Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson who during a 31-year career in the US army served as chief of staff to US Secretary of State Colin Powell. In an Al Jazeera article dated May 6, 2013 Wilkerson began by referring to a book that I regard as essential for understanding the “war on terror” especially in a period when the air forces of four different nations are bombing in Iraq and Syria against “terrorists” with collateral damage to hospitals, schools, apartment buildings and god knows what else:

Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, should be required reading for American soldiers, citizens and, above all, every member of the Obama administration.

Written from the perspective of both an academic (Professor Ahmed is a leading anthropologist) and a government official (he was political agent to South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Area, and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland), as well as with the inestimable passion of a poet (in both written and visual verse), this book provides critical insights into how US Cold War tactics opposing communism have transmogrified into tactics opposing terrorists.

I quite agree with Wilkerson as should be obvious for my review of the book that appeared in Critical Muslim:

We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous rightwingers in the U.S., to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a “major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’”. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Baathist propaganda blaming “jihadists” for a “false flag” operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”, touted a Global Research “false flag” article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.

Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the “extremist” with his sharia courts, his “backwardness”, his violence, and his resistance to modernization. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal “extremism”, and as a trained anthropologist. Reading “The Thistle and the Drone” can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.



  1. […] two months ago, I reviewed “Kingdom of Shadows”, a personality-driven documentary that profiled a Texas rancher who smuggled marijuana when he wasa […]

    Pingback by Cartel Land | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 11, 2016 @ 7:00 pm

  2. While she claims the strength of her film is telling the “human story” from both sides of drone operations, Hessen Schei does a disservice by touting these two enlisted drone sensor operators as that story. She misses the mark and instead provides a fiction crafted from a young man, Brandon Bryant, has has a track record of contradicting himself frequently during media promotions of this film. His involvement alone, let alone being the poster child for the film, turns this would-be documentary into a work of pure fiction or activism, in my view.

    Comment by PickYourBattles — January 22, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

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