Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 8, 2018

Human Rights Film Festival 2018

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 8, 2018

In advance of the 2018 Human Rights Film Festival that opens on June 14th, I was able to preview three scheduled documentaries that would be of great interest to CounterPunch readers both for the subject matter and for their artistic merit. Given Hollywood’s indifference to character development as it pursues blockbuster ticket sales based on special effects and car chases, your only recourse is to watch films like “The Distant Barking of Dogs”, “Naila and the Uprising” and “The Silence of Others” that are deeply humanistic treatments of people living through the real dramas of our epoch, namely the struggle to live in a free and just society.

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August 1, 2017

The Western Left and the Russian Revolution: a reply to Diana Johnstone

Filed under: human rights,Stalinism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Yesterday an article by Diana Johnstone titled “The Western Left and the Russian Revolution” became available on the Monthly Review website. It was part of the magazine’s special issue on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. At one time I was great admirer of Johnstone for what I considered to be her keen insights into the Balkan wars but grew disaffected by her support for Russian intervention in Ukraine and Syria. I grew even more disaffected when she published an article in CounterPunch that defended Marine Le Pen’s “sovereignism”—ie, French nationalism—on the basis of these lofty words: “Le Pen insists that all French citizens deserve equal treatment regardless of their origins, race or religion.” What would you expect someone running for president to say? That they don’t deserve equal treatment?

To give credit to CounterPunch, they had no problems publishing an article by Gregory Barrett last Friday that applauded articles denouncing Green Party figure Caitlan Johnstone for urging a left-right alliance but also questioned why the other Johnstone got a pass. “I despise nationalism as much as I despise neoliberalism. But if anyone at CP has ever attacked Diana Johnstone for her position on the French election, or piled on those writers on the Left who believe that nationalism is where the anti-neoliberal action is at the moment, then I must have missed it.”

In the 25 years or so that I have been reading the 83-year old author’s articles in places as varied as In These Times and the New Left Review, I can’t remember her ever addressing what I call “the Russian question”, one that I define as off-limits to Marxmail. Nothing gets flame wars going faster than “what happened in the USSR?”, not that a print publication like Monthly Review really has to worry about such matters.

Speaking only for myself, I would never dream of drawing up a balance sheet on the Western left and the USSR in 3500 words. It opens you up to all sorts of reductionism that fly off the page in her very first paragraph

Lenin predicted that revolution in Russia would trigger communist revolution in Germany, which would spread from there throughout the Western industrialized world. This was the Bolshevik leader’s major error of appreciation. In reality, the Bolshevik Revolution marked the start of a century of counterrevolution in the West.

Johnstone should have said that the Russian revolution failed to trigger a successful communist revolution in Germany. To really understand what happened in Germany, you need to read Pierre Broué’s 980-page “The German Revolution, 1917-1923” that can be read on Libcom. While I am not in Broué’s league by any stretch of the imagination, it took me more than twice the amount of words in Johnstone’s entire article to explain why the German revolution failed.

In the next paragraph, her confusion deepens. She said that the Bolsheviks erred in conceptualizing the proletarian revolution as one that ends up with one class (the workers) overthrowing the old ruling class (the bourgeoisie) after the fashion of the bourgeois revolution overthrowing the feudal aristocracy. In attempting to clarify this, she once again compresses decades of history into a sentence or two: “The classic model was the bourgeois revolution that overthrew the nobility. This comparison was wishful thinking, if only because the so-called bourgeoisie throughout civilized history had always been a partner in the ruling class.” I suppose that this is a reference to revisionist historians like François Furet who argue that the revolution was led by aristocrats rather than capitalists but if so, it probably deserved a few words of clarification.

In any case, this leads her to make her next point: “Despite the momentary success of the soviets (councils), power was never seized by the proletariat, but by intellectuals acting in its name, mobilizing the working class to achieve rapid industrialization.” Once again we see the reductionism at work. In fact, Marxism has always had leaders who could be described as “intellectuals”, starting with Karl Marx and going down the line to John Bellamy Foster. The German socialists developed the idea of a vanguard party that would be necessary since workers on their own have difficulty transcending trade union consciousness. This insight was embraced by V.I. Lenin who put it this way in “What is to be Done”:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.

Certainly Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff would have understood such elementary points.

After sections on the conservative and fascist efforts to overthrow the USSR, Johnstone turns naturally enough to Trotskyism—a tendency that she clearly reviles, just as does her writing partner Jean Bricmont. Most people would regard her efforts to sum up the Stalin-Trotsky debate in 189 words as sheer folly but let’s at least try to extract some sense out of her arguments that likely reflect her strong orientation to the “axis of resistance” today. She writes:

In retrospect, one may say that both Stalin and Trotsky were wrong as to what was possible, but Stalin was, in his brutal way, the more realistic of the two. Despite their relative ideological conservatism, the Stalinist parties of the Third International had more success abroad than their Trotskyist rivals, both in promoting national liberation struggles in the third world and in winning social benefits in the West.

What’s missing from her comparison is any appreciation of the role of state power. Pro-Moscow CP’s could have much more “success” because they were able to leverage their connection to the Kremlin in a way that small propaganda groups could never do. For example, when I was on a consulting trip to the ANC in Zambia in 1990, nearly everybody I spoke to had been to a university in Moscow, all expenses paid. The ANC and the SACP were organically linked and had the allegiance of millions. How could a small Trotskyist group in South Africa ever compete with such “facts on the ground”? By the same token, it was this bloc of parties that failed to carry the revolution forward—stuck as they were in the “popular front” strategies that amounted to elevating a section of the Black population into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie while the poor were left behind in a state of economic apartheid.

The only other point worth making is that both Stalinism and Trotskyism are spent forces. Trotskyism was mainly a negative critique of Stalinism and once it disappeared, Trotskyism failed to capitalize on its absence. It was born as a sect and died as a sect, always making the “correct” analysis but failing to sink roots into the mass movement. Something else is needed and to some extent Monthly Review has been helpful by spreading ecosocialist ideas. It is unfortunate that they would consider Diana Johnstone’s article to be relevant to the class struggle today.

In the section headed “The ‘Failed Revolution’ Narrative”, Johnstone continues to beat “Trotskyism” about the head and shoulders. She is outraged that “The Trotskyist stance, criticizing the revolution for not being revolutionary enough, provided a radical leftist basis for the human rights ideology that has become a quasi-religion in the West”. Such ultraleftism supposedly led a section of the French ’68 “revolutionaries” to make a  stink about the Vietnamese “boat people”, thus serving to facilitate their successful careers in the media and academia, where they spread their disillusionment toward the revolutions they had once celebrated.

This is obviously a reference to the New Philosophers such as Alain Glucksmann who was indeed a major figure in publicizing the plight of the “boat people”. However, he had nothing to do with Trotskyism. Instead, he started off as a Maoist as did Christian Jambet and Guy Lardreau. All this is detailed in an article titled “Isle of Light: A Look Back at the Boat People and the European Left” by Vo Van Ai, a Vietnamese poet who worked closely with such people. He writes:

In the cafe that evening in 1978, a Vietnamese friend of mine and I argued that the people on the Hai Hong were not economic refugees, but people seeking freedom from totalitarianism, and that this exodus was unprecedented. Throughout our four-thousand-year history, even in the worst times of famine or war, we Vietnamese had never left the land of our ancestors. But now the boat people were voting with their feet in order to survive.

Among our group were Claudie and Jacques Broyelle, sinologists and former Maoists who had just returned from China, deeply disillusioned with the evolution of the Chinese regime; Alain Geismar, former leader of the 1968 student “revolution” that rocked the de Gaulle government in France; and André Glucksmann, a writer and acclaimed “new philosopher.” These friends were all passionate idealists, all from far left-wing backgrounds, but all with no illusions about life under communist regimes. Their decision was rapid and unanimous. We had to do something to save the boat people.

Continuing along with her five minutes of hate against Trotskyism, she takes on those whose “hostility toward Stalinism reached fever pitch in reaction to mistreatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, after their revolutionary ideal had shifted to Israel.” These were people who wanted the USA to punish the USSR for restricting educated Jewish emigration to Israel and in the process transformed themselves into “neoconservatives”. I have no idea who she is talking about. The neoconservatives who became ardent supporters of the Reagan administration had abandoned their youthful radical ideas long before people like Natan Sharansky became a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. Irving Kristol, for example, had begun writing for the anti-Communist Commentary magazine in 1947—that’s decades before Russian-Jewish immigration to Israel became an issue.

Toward the end of Johnstone’s dreary article, she takes potshots at groups like Human Rights Watch, which do in fact tend to reflect State Department perspectives, especially in places like Venezuela and Cuba. Demonstrating her nostalgia for the good old days when the USSR provided housing, education and healthcare to the masses even if you could be sent to prison for ten years for complaining about the secret police, she blames human rights advocates for diverting the left from pursuing economic equality. She adds that any social revolution will violate the established “rights” of the dominant classes, and thus human rights is a permanently counterrevolutionary doctrine.

Call me an unreconstructed Trotskyist but I believe that the defense of human rights is essential for the left. I am particularly appalled by governments that bomb hospitals and wholeheartedly support a universal standard of human rights in which such acts must be regarded as a war crime.

One such group that is involved in providing urgently needed care to hospital patients in war-torn regions is Doctors without Borders that was founded in 1971 by French doctors who had served in Biafra. Among the founders was Bernard Kouchner, a former member of the Communist Party who would fit Johnstone’s profile as an imperialist stooge for his support for Kosovo in the war in Yugoslavia and even for Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein. So do we automatically characterize Doctors without Borders as the enemy?

Things get complicated.

On August 15, 2016, Saudi jets bombed a Yemeni hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders that left 11 people dead and 19 injured. Among the people who were outraged by this attack was Assadist propagandist Ben Norton who wrote about such brutality in Salon (before he was fired for unspecified reasons):

Doctors Without Borders said six hospitals it supports in Yemen treated more than 400 wounded Yemenis after the attack. Four hospitals operated by Doctors Without Borders in Yemen have been bombed by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition.

Meanwhile, his writing partner Max Blumenthal virtually gives Assad the green light to bomb hospitals in rebel-controlled Idlib province.

Let me conclude with what I stated in the final paragraph of a CounterPunch survey on the films of Andrzej Wajda, a director who would be vilified as an anti-Communist defender of human rights by Johnstone:

Unless the left begins to support a universal standard of human rights irrespective of geopolitical considerations, it will not be capable of providing the leadership for a new world order based on the abolition of class society and its replacement by one that respects each human being as having inviolable rights including the right to live securely and in dignity. Whatever Andrzej Wadja’s ideological flaws, his films are a cri de coeur for the rights of the Polish people. Viewed as untermenschen by the Nazis and the butt of racist “Polish jokes” in the 1960s, Wajda’s films are a necessary corrective as well as some of the greatest filmmaking of the past half-century.

June 12, 2015

Human Rights Film Festival 2015

Filed under: Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 9:54 pm

Last night the Human Rights Watch Film Festival opened in New York. Judging by the four films I saw in advance, my recommendation is to look at the schedule (https://ff.hrw.org/) and buy tickets for some of the best political films being made today. Whatever you think of HRW, this is a project that puts it best foot forward whatever mischief it has been up to in Venezuela or elsewhere.

Additionally, I will be saying something about a documentary titled “Welcome to Leith” that is playing in Brooklyn tonight at 9pm, admittedly a little late in the game. However, even if you can’t make it to the screening, you should keep an eye out for the film that chronicles the attempt of neo-Nazis to take over a tiny village in North Dakota that was a virtual ghost town.

“3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets”

This is the definitive critique of “stand your ground” laws based on a white man’s killing of a Black teenager in Jacksonville, Florida not long after the Trayvon Martin killing. Jordan Davis was sitting in the back seat of an SUV with his friends in the parking lot of a strip mall listening to rap music while another friend was in a convenience store picking up some items. Just after Michael Dunn pulls up alongside them to allow his fiancée to pick up some wine in another shop, he asks them to turn down the music, which they do. Jordan Davis, however, takes offense and turns the radio up again. Words are exchanged at that point back and forth until Dunn takes a revolver out of his glove compartment and fires 10 bullets into their car, killing Davis. After his arrest, he offers an alibi that Davis was holding up a shotgun that he planned to use against him. So he was killed in self-defense.

The film consists mostly of filming in the courtroom and interviews with Jordan Davis’s parents and the friends who were with him that day. Director Marc Silver also had access to Michael Dunn’s fiancée whose testimony was critical to the outcome of the trial. At the risk of violating the usual spoiler alert strictures, I can say that she put morality above personal loyalty.

“No Land’s Song”

One of the results of the Islamic hijacking of the Iranian revolution in 1979 was the banning of female singers in public unless men accompanied them. Composer Sara Najafi was determined to challenge and overturn this sexist measure by organizing a concert in Tehran that brought together some of the country’s most talented female vocalists that would be backed by Iranian and French musicians who would travel there to show their solidarity.

The film is a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. When you hear the singers perform, you will be deeply moved by the Iranian style that deserves a wider audience both here and in the country where it originates. Due to the obstacles posed by American controls over artist visas since September 11th, we have been robbed of the opportunity to hear some glorious music.

The controls in Iran are just as baleful but driven by medieval attitudes rather than xenophobia. In some shocking scenes, we see Najafi making the case for female performances to a high-ranking mullah who babbles on about the danger of men being sexually aroused by the voice of a woman.

Ayat Najafi, the brother of Sara, directed the film. This is not the first film he has made about the oppression of women in Iran. Seven years ago he directed “Football Under Cover” about the first match of a female team in Iran with a visiting team from Germany. While some of the worst features of the Ahmadinejad regime are gone, the struggle continues to put men and women on an equal footing. For those who are inclined to support the “anti-imperialism” of the Ahmadinejad wing of the Iranian ruling class, the film should go a long way to clarifying the issues. As Emma Goldman once put it, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

“The Trials of Spring”

This is the definitive examination of the Egyptian political landscape in the aftermath of the Tahrir Square protests that gave the country so much hope. Both the men who gathered at the protests and the forces of law and order saw the degradation of women as key to maintaining the status quo.

The main subject of the film is Hend Nafea, a young feminist and revolutionary who was put on trial for her role in a peaceful demonstration that was attacked by al-Sisi’s goons. Nafea is a living symbol of the Egyptian revolution that was victimized for no other reason than demanding equal rights for women. Despite their differences over Islamic theology, the elites in Egypt and Iran share a belief that women are inferior to men.

The film will give you a strong sense of how Egyptian youth became confused over the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. While there is little doubt that the coup was a terrible blow to the nation’s hopes, there were ample signs that the Muslim Brotherhood had little commitment to women’s rights.

Gini Reticker has focused on women’s rights in previous films. Her “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” told the story of women who organized a peace demonstration in war-torn Liberia at great risk to their life and freedom. If you believe that women’s rights is inextricably linked to the overall struggle for human rights and social change, this film is a must-see.

“The Wanted 18”

In the first Intifada, the people of Beit Sahour in the West Bank decided that they would embark on a program of self-sufficiency that would be a kind of forerunner to the independent Palestinian state that they were struggling for.

This entailed the creation of a small-scale dairy farm that would be made possible by the purchase of 18 cows from an Israeli kibbutz that was less hostile to Palestinian aspirations than the Likudniks. The dairy was so successful that the IDF occupying forces was determined to shut it down since it was supposed to be a security threat. I know that this sounds like a Joseph Heller novel or MASH but this actually happened.

Codirected by Amer Shomali, a Palestinian artist, and Paul Cowan, a Canadian, the film reflects the absurdist element of what took place and uses Claymation to dramatize the cows’ reaction to the conflict that is taking place around them. The film also opens on June 19th in NY (Cinema Village) and LA (NoHo 7).

“Welcome to Leith”

This is showing tonight at 9pm at The Old American Can Factory on 232 Third Street. Leith is a tiny village of 24 residents not far from the booming gas fields of North Dakota. In 2012 Craig Cobb showed up with a plan to make Leith the epicenter of White Nationalism in the USA by buying up land and electing his allies to the Town Council. Despite the reputation of rural America as a backwater of racism and reaction, the village rejected him like a healthy body resisting a virus.

The film was co-directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, who raised $60,000 through Kickstarter to make it possible. It is just one of the more recent examples of how low-cost digital filmmaking funded through the Internet can serve as leading edge social commentary. While Hollywood withers on the vine, radical documentary is flourishing thanks to the computer revolution.

May 29, 2015

Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa

Filed under: Film,human rights,South Africa — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

On Sunday evening the Peabody Award will be presented to Abby Ginzberg for her documentary on Albie Sachs titled “Soft Vengeance”, a film based on his 2011 memoir of the same title. After having watched the film, I can recommend it without any hesitation despite the tendency to skirt over South Africa’s current troubles that some analysts on the left have described as economic apartheid.

Born into a Jewish and Communist family in 1935, Sachs became an activist at an early age. When he was seventeen he took part in an act of civil disobedience by sitting in the “Blacks only” section of a train station. Although prepared to be arrested and jailed, he was sent home because of his youth.

After getting trained as a constitutional lawyer, Sachs became one of the ANC’s chief legal representatives. The apartheid regime, as is the case with dictatorships everywhere, saw such lawyers as being as dangerous or even more dangerous than guerrilla fighters. In 1963 he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for 90 days, a punishment that broke his spirit to the extent that self-exile to Britain was the only way he could regain the spirit he needed to move forward again as an ANC activist.

Despite the prestigious academic career he was pursuing, he never felt at home in Britain and yearned to return home to Africa. On the suggestion of the ANC, he relocated to Mozambique shortly after its independence and plunged himself into drafting laws for the newly liberated state and continuing to provide legal advice to the ANC.

In 1988, as he opened the door of his car to take a trip to the beach, a bomb went off and cost him his right arm and the sight in his left eye. This was around the time that the South African government was embarked on a reign of terror that would cost the life of ANC leader Ruth Furst from a parcel bomb in Mozambique as well. Furst’s parents, like Sachs’s, were Jews and Communists.

The film is focused on Sachs’s life and career with a special emphasis on his efforts to foster a respect for constitutional rights in the new South Africa. He served as a Supreme Court justice in post-apartheid South Africa and helped to assemble the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that some critics fault for its overly generous concessions to the white war criminals and torturers. Sachs insists that South Africa would have been torn apart if vengeance had been sought. If the question is open to debate, it is very much hearing Sachs make the case since he is an eloquent defender of his views and obviously someone who knows from firsthand experience the costs of living in a lawless state.

When I receive word about the film’s screening to the general public, I will update you.

 

August 29, 2014

Deaths inspire calls for justice

Filed under: african-american,human rights — louisproyect @ 1:02 pm

This is an extraordinary article from my hometown newspaper in upstate NY, the Middletown Times Herald-Record. Ellenville is a sleepy little village about 10 miles from Woodridge, the hamlet I grew up in. The area was once a thriving resort area but now it is mostly home to failing farms and low-paying jobs at the local hospital, fast food restaurants, etc. In a recent CounterPunch article, my friend John Halle posed the question whether Ferguson is the American Spring. By the looks of this article, I’d say it was.

Deaths inspire calls for justice

Police culture cited during Ellenville rally
Top Photo
Pam Krimsky of Highland held a placard at an NAACP rally supporting civil rights Thursday night in Ellenville. About 80 people attended the rally, which was sparked by the recent deaths of two men who were killed during incidents with police officers.JIM SABASTIAN/For the Times Herald-Record

ELLENVILLE ­— Maude Bruce, in her yellow NAACP hat and T-shirt, walked in front of a crowd of about 80 people Thursday evening and spoke of the death of Eric Garner.

“Here we are again. Demanding justice,” Bruce said. “Whenever this happens, it touches me.”

Maude spoke from experience. About 27 years ago, her 20-year-old son Jimmy Lee Bruce was killed by a chokehold applied by a white, off-duty Middletown police officer.

Bruce, who is the head of Ellenville’s NAACP, led the rally at Ellenville Liberty Square. It came in the wake of the deaths of Garner, who died of a chokehold applied by a cop in Staten Island, and Michael Brown, an 18-year-old shot by a police officer in in Ferguson, Missouri.

Both men were black, both were unarmed and both incidents are under investigation.

The deaths of the two men have spurned nationwide anger over police tactics, racial profiling and the racial makeup of police forces.

 

Second march this month

The rally was at least the second locally this month. Two weeks ago about 50 people gathered in front of Kingston City Hall to chants of “hands up, don’t shoot” at a vigil for Brown organized by Citizen Action.

Eric Monroe took off his bucket cap, threw on his black beret, and got up in front of the crowd wearing his black shades.

“How many more deaths do we need before we realize we’re all in peril,” Monroe said.

Monroe, executive director of the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission, said an ingrained police culture is sometimes more to blame than race for abuses of authority. But he stressed police need to equally represent the people they police, too.

“The police department has to reflect the community,” Monroe said.

Wilbur Aldridge, regional director of the NAACP, told the crowd that police who abuse procedures need to to be held accountable. And scrutiny on those problems will increase.

“It’s our job to hold police to the fire,” Aldridge said. “It will no longer be the fireplace, it’s going to be the furnace as far as law enforcement and anyone doing anything they shouldn’t be doing.”

Eben Nettles-Abrams, 17, told the crowd that “a good society hears the cries of a community and responds” and that the death of Brown, just 18, sparked a nerve among him and his friends.

“It kind of scares us,” he said. “It seems like that’s the trend.”

A.J. Williams, SUNY New Paltz black studies professor, talked of blacks’ roles in history, work and war.

“We must take the bull by the horns. Black people must begin to own their history,” he said. “Our grandchildren cannot grow up thinking this is the way it has to be.”

 

June 10, 2014

Human Rights Film Festival 2014

Filed under: Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 12:44 am

Screen shot 2014-06-09 at 8.31.03 PM

Thanks to the growing use of Vimeo online screeners, it has become much easier to write articles in advance of film festival openings that relied in the past on DVD’s or special press screenings that usually occurred during the hours when I was at my desk at Columbia University.

That was one of the reasons I never made to the annual Human Rights Film Festival screenings in the past but this year I was able to view seven films that will be shown from June 12th to June 22nd. The festival is a project of Human Rights Watch, an outfit that has a mixed record to say the least. When it comes to nations that are on the State Department’s shit list, they can be quite reprehensible—their role in Venezuela has been most shameful. On the other hand, if I were a political prisoner being tortured somewhere whose cause that HRW had taken up, I’d be glad for their support. If your tendency is to reduce politics to a global chess game in which you have to play either White or Black, HRW will naturally be black. But reality contains 50 shades of grey, none of them having anything to do with sex I should add.

Furthermore, the young and often very far to the left documentary filmmakers whose works get shown at the festival are reliant on it for a screening since the commercial possibilities for a film about—for example, as you will see below—four lesbian women from Newark serving prison terms for attacking a homophobic bully in Greenwich Village are quite limited. On the other hand, that is exactly the kind of film that interests me as well as my readers.

Given the urgency of the Arab revolt, it is not surprising that a number of films dealt with it from a number of different perspectives. Let me start with them.

Because Cyprus is part of the EU, the Greek sector became a designated destination point for political refugees, including a preponderant number of Palestinians feeling sectarian violence in Iraq. Most are determined to make it to Europe and see Cyprus only as a way station. Despite being totally reliant on EU support and being prohibited from taking jobs in Cyprus for at least six months, a wave of xenophobia has swept the island after the fashion of Golden Dawn in Greece. When fascist threats fail to intimidate newly arrived refugees, there is the additional barrier represented by local immigration officials who put all sorts of obstacles in their path. The local branch of Golden Dawn in Cyprus is the ELAM, or the National Popular Front. As is the case with Greece, Cypriotes committed to human rights have mobilized against them. Their cause is taken up in “Evaporating Borders”.

“First to Fall” traces the steps of Hamid and Tarek, two young Libyans and close friends who live in Montreal and enjoy a peaceful and secure existence. When the revolt against Gaddafi erupts, they are riveted to news from their homeland and reports from Youtube and various websites. So inspired are they by the resistance to a 42-year-old dictatorship that they decide to return to Libya and become part of the armed struggle.

What strikes you almost immediately is that while the two young men are obviously motivated by political ideals (one lost family members during one of the waves of repression), they chatter about taking up the gun as if they were going to spring break in Florida.

Hamid, the older of the two, starts off as a videographer in Misrata but soon gets “promoted” to be a fighter after almost no training. In the bloody attempt to prevent the city from being overrun, he is hit by shrapnel and forced to undergo three surgeries to save his leg. In trying to deliver arms to combatants in Zawiya, the city of his birth, the 21-year-old Tarek is ambushed by Gaddafi’s troops and suffers wounds that leave him as a paraplegic.

Hamid stays in Libya to work in the Ministry of Defense. In the final moments of the film, that were recorded one year after the fall of Gaddafi, he describes himself as depressed by the government’s inability to move the country forward. For his part, Tarek, who has returned to Montreal, is preoccupied by his disability and cloudy future. Neither young man understood the full implications of going into battle against a well-armed professional military. Both would have been better off working for peaceful change inside Libya but Gaddafi made that impossible just as Bashar al-Assad is making it impossible in Syria. There are estimates of up to 15,000 casualties in the Libyan civil war, including Gaddafi’s soldiers. Proportionately, that would represent 750,000 dead in the US over an 8-month period. By any measure, this is one of the greatest bloodlettings in the Middle East and North Africa in recent memory. “First to Fall” is the definitive take on these events and should be of interest to anybody who has been following my articles on Libya, including to those who are violently opposed to my views. You owe it to yourself to see unmediated Libyan reality and not something filtered through the lens of Russian, Cuban or Venezuelan media.

As you probably know, “Return to Homs” depicts events that have been superseded by history. Largely because they were forced to confront tanks, helicopters and MIG’s with small arms, the young men defending Homs were forced to abandon the city. As Tacitus once said, “They make a desert and call it peace.” I reviewed the film a while back (http://louisproyect.org/2014/03/26/return-to-homs/) and urge you to see this most powerful film that will either remind you of the dedication and heroism of those who took arms against the Baathist dictatorship or perhaps convince you of why you were wrong to regard it as an instrument of American foreign policy.

To put it bluntly, “The Green Prince” is an Israeli propaganda film about Shin Bet’s recruitment of he son of a Hamas founder as an informer. Unlike the great feature film “Omar” that shows the brutal methods that made a Palestinian youth become a snitch, this documentary represents the informer as acting on higher beliefs—his newfound commitment to stop terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. If you get past the obvious propaganda intentions, the film is a fascinating look at Israeli strategy at creating divisions in the Palestinian movement after the fashion of the FBI’s decades-long operations. Fascinating in its own way, like looking at photographs of some debilitating disease.

Director Sara Ishaq was born to a Yemeni father and a Scottish mother who separated when she was young. After deciding that Yemeni society was too restrictive, she moved to Scotland to be with her mother.

“The Mulberry House” was made during one of her infrequent visits to Yemen that coincided with the version of the Arab Spring that was occurring there. It is both a family drama and a drama of Yemenite society as the household joins the movement opposed to the corrupt dictator Ali Saleh who resigned under pressure but left his deputy in charge. This solution has evaded Syria, where the Baathists and the military/corporate elite run the state like a mafia.

Overhearing the conversations in the forward-thinking Ishaq household over whether Sara is dressed “modestly” enough leads you to believe that Yemeni society is in need of a social revolution that drives a stake through the heart of the patriarchy. Indeed, the plaints heard throughout the household from the male members about the “damned” Yemenis who tolerate Saleh make you wonder if the patriarchy is a sine qua non for the ongoing corrupt and dictatorial rule.

Continuing with the themes of patriarchy and democracy, “The Supreme Price” focuses on the efforts of Hafsat Abiola, a Harvard educated Nigerian woman, to challenge the military dictatorship in her country as well as the current government that serves its interests as well as that of foreign oil companies interested in one thing and one thing only: a steady supply of crude oil.

Hafsat is the daughter of M.K.O. Abiola, who was elected president in 1993 but overthrown by a coup almost immediately. As one of Nigeria’s richest men, he was apparently too committed to redistributing the nation’s wealth and was removed. In some ways, he was Nigeria’s Thaksin Shinawatra. When his wife gave interviews and led protests about her husband’s removal and subsequent jailing, thugs hired by the coup leaders killed her. Shortly afterwards, her husband died in jail supposedly from a heart attack but more likely from poison.

The film is an excellent introduction to Nigerian history, all the more important given the rise of Muslim “extremists” in the North. After seeing the film, you will wonder why the entire country is not swept by terror against the elites. Sadly, the only target Boko Haram deems worthy of targeting is schoolgirls.

“Nelson Mandela: the myth and me” is to my knowledge the first documentary since “Dear Mandela” (http://louisproyect.org/2012/09/26/dear-mandela/) that reflects the disillusionment that has set in since the ANC’s neoliberal betrayal became too obvious to ignore.

To give you an idea of he road that director Khalo Matabane has traveled, he made “Story of a Beautiful Country” in 2004, a documentary described on IMDB as follows:

This is an interesting, upbeat documentary that presents a cross-section of South African society several years after the end of apartheid. Especially interesting are the comments of the white South African and the married couple, a black Soutt African, and his South-African American wife who looks white but in fact isn’t. These interviews give the impression of the country populated with wonderful people who have lots to say and live in a country that is worthy of respect. Apartheid is gone, a relic of the past. Today’s South Africa has moved forward. Judging by the tone and quality of the interviews, South Africa is moving in the right direction.

If the ANC has lost people like Khalo Matabane, its days are numbered.

Unlike most films shown at the festival, “Siddharth” is a narrative film about the search of an impoverished Indian father for his son who has gone missing after being sent off to work as a child laborer, an all-too-common fate in a country whose “economic miracle” is not enjoyed by the overwhelming majority. I reviewed it last December (http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/03/2013-south-asian-film-festival-in-n-y-not-to-be-missed/) and can recommend it as a neorealist critique of a society that will certainly go from bad to worse under a government that promises to go full speed ahead with neoliberal “reforms”.

Finally, there’s “Out in the Night”, a film I alluded to earlier in this article. As is the case with documentary films on the leading edge, it takes up the cause of society’s most marginal figures: a group of four young women who defended themselves against a Black male homophobe whose hatred of “deviants” was as toxic in its own way as George Zimmerman’s of Trayvon Martin. Loved and accepted by their friends and parents, the four women had to put up with plenty of harassment in “the hood”. They came to the Village as often as they could to be among same-sexers, after the fashion of generations that came before them as described in Paul Buhle and David Berger’s “The Bohemians”.

Director blair dorosh-walther, who “identifies as gender non-conforming and uses both male and female pronouns”, described her/his inspiration for the film:

Immediately following the arrest of seven young African American women on August 18th, 2006, I became interested in their case. I read the many salacious headlines like “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” “Gal Gang,” “I’m a man, lesbian growled” and on and on. However, it was the first of many New York Times articles that really gave me pause. The headline read: “Man is stabbed after admiring a stranger.” An admirer?? I really could not believe it. A man does not ‘admire’ teenage girls on the street at midnight. That is harassment. And I have never met a woman who hasn’t been harassed on the street at some point in her life, never mind in New York City where it is commonplace.

I don’t know about the “admiration” this creep had for the four teenagers, but my admiration for blair dorosh-walther is undying.

Go to http://ff.hrw.org/new-york for scheduling information on these and other films.

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