Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 25, 2020

Three political films on-demand

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

With very little coverage in either the capitalist or left media, “The Man Who Mends Women” is a wake-up call to what is one of the greatest assaults on human rights today, the assaults on women in the remote eastern hinterlands of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, once known as Zaire. The subject of the documentary is Doctor Denis Mukwege, who received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2014 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his struggle against sexual violence. He has provided free treatment to 46,000 sexually abused women in twenty years of professional practice.

Although the film does not take a political stance as such, it cannot but help point out that Hutu fighters and refugees fleeing the Tutsi reconquest of Rwanda have wreaked havoc in the peasant villages of South Kivu, a region in the DRC just west of Rwanda. Unlike the case of ISIS raping Yazidi women out of some warped commitment to Wahhabist beliefs, there is little evidence of Hutu depravity flowing from ideology. Instead, it simply appears that hatred of women motivates these soldiers to victimize women in the most sadistic fashion. Much of the film tracks Mukwege in the operating room where he is trying to surgically repair a young woman who had a bayonet stuck up her vagina.

Made in 2015 by a team of French filmmakers sympathetic to Denis Mukwege’s work, “The Man Who Mends Women” is not easy to take. Nonetheless, it is an important film to watch since it will give you some insights into the misery of a country that is potentially the richest in Africa. There is a fleeting reference to the extraction of cobalt that is essential to the manufacture of iPhones.

In a 2017 article, Vox pointed out the incestuous relationship between Apple and a Chinese company that suggests the spirit of King Leopold still hovers over the Congo:

Reports that major corporations such as Apple, Sony, and Samsung use cobalt sourced from so-called “artisanal” mines — small-scale mines where workers use the most basic tools — with little to no labor regulations in the DRC have come out for years. The Sky News investigation found children as young as 4 years old working in the mines, crippling health issues linked to fumes, and pay equivalent to around a dime for a day’s worth of backbreaking labor.

One of the most prominent players in the flow of cobalt from Africa to manufacturers in Asia is Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company. The Chinese company is the largest buyer of artisanal cobalt in the DRC and supplies most of the world’s biggest battery makers, including Apple.

While Doctor Mukwege sticks mostly to medicine and human rights, it is clear that he understands the economic plight of his nation. He refers to it as a jewelry store without any security guards.

The film can be rented from ArtMattan, its distributor.

In 1972, when the 60s radicalization was still going strong, 10,000 African-Americans met in Gary, Indiana for the National Black Political Convention. On hand for the event, the Black documentary filmmaker William Greaves made “NationTime” that until now was only available as a heavily-edited 60-minute version. The full 80-minute film is now available from Kino-Lorber and owes it existence to a serendipitously discovery in a warehouse in Gary in 2018.

Greaves made more than 200 documentary films in a long and distinguished career. In the 1960s, he was the executive producer of Black Journal, a PBS show that was far more radical than anything that can be seen there today. In his spare time, he made experimental films like “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” that NY Times critic Manohla Dargis called “highly entertaining and, at moments, revelatory about filmmaking as a site of creative tension between individual vision and collective endeavor”. The film can be seen for free on Youtube.

“NationTime” is done in cinéma vérité style. With his camera trained on men and women making speeches as well as participants networking in the lobby during breaks, you get a bare-bones introduction to one of the most promising political developments from my generation. There’s a fiery speech by Jesse Jackson basically calling for Blacks to get a bigger share of the pie but the most politically powerful one is by Mayor Richard Hatcher who in welcoming the throng made a powerful case for a Black political party. He said that the black vote could no longer be counted on and that a new party would not only serve black interests but those of left-out America, from Latinos to young white radicals.

It is tragic that nothing came of this. If you listen to the speeches carefully, especially Jackson’s, you’ll come away with the conclusion that the convention was meant to extract concessions and not much else. I recommend Lee Sustar’s article in Socialist Worker newspaper, where he writes:

The illusion of Black unity was destroyed at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., on March 10-12, 1972. Attended by over 8,000 people, the convention marked the first large-scale gathering of the various currents in Black politics: radical nationalists, cultural nationalists, socialists, Maoists and Black Democratic elected officials. The conference was hosted by Hatcher, one of the Black elected officials whose numbers had risen fourfold to 1,860 between 1967 and 1971.

The promises of continued support for the Democrats were not enough to stop a walkout by the convention’s Michigan delegation. These delegates, many of whom were NAACP leaders and trade union officials, were worried that any association with the National Black Political Agenda would damage their relationship to the Michigan Democratic Party.

Ironically, both the failure of the National Black Political Convention and the International Socialist Organization to sustain a long-term oppositional posture is a sign of how difficult it is to withstand pressures on the left in the most backward industrialized country in the world.

“The Radium Girls” is a narrative film about the young women who painted the dials on glow-in-the-dark wristwatches in the 1920s. Like “NationTime”, it can be rented from Kino-Lorber.

Set in New Jersey, its main characters are Italian-American sisters who worked for many such companies at that time, earning a penny a for each dial they painted. Bessie Cavallo (Joey King) is always getting bad job reviews because she doesn’t put a fine point on her brush by licking it. The foreman lectures her about the sloppy work. Meanwhile her sister Josephine (Abby Quinn) makes the grade because she, like most of the women, follows company rules. They had another sister named Marie who also worked at the plant until she died a couple of years earlier. The cause, according to a company doctor, was syphilis—the false diagnosis they used to avoid lawsuits.

After Josephine starts showing the same symptoms as Marie, Bessie looks for help. The only person willing to spend time and energy to find out what’s wrong with her sister is Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a Communist Party member who also has a romantic interest. Walt introduces her to a woman working for a nonprofit defending women’s rights on the job as well as social events thrown by the party. Bessie is anxious to get help from the leftists on how to make the company pay for its willful neglect but not so much about proletarian revolution.

The film is worth seeing but there are some artistic decisions that undercut its power. To start with, there is a saccharine film score that hardly meshes with the deadly subject matter. Just as wrong-headed was the decision to give the film a flowery, pastel-shaded look with costumes and homes looking like something out of Masterpiece Theater or Merchant-Ivory rather than the lives of women making a penny a product in a factory.

Other than that, the film is fairly faithful to the history. This is not the first film made about the grandmother of all occupational hazard stories. According to Wikipedia, there have been over twenty fictional accounts of the Radium Girls story, including one that is real eye-opener. Titled “Nothing Sacred”, this 1937 screwball comedy was written by Ben Hecht with input from Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jr., Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman.

“Nothing Sacred” is about a radium girl named Hazel Flagg who is supposed to be dying. A reporter goes to interview her. But when he tracks her down, she is distraught to have learned from her doctor that she is not dying. She despairs from the prospect that she might be stuck in Vermont for the rest of her life. Screwball comedy indeed. See for yourself on YouTube.

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