Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 6, 2018

The Heart of Nuba; Sweet Country

Filed under: Australia,Film,Sudan — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

“The Heart of Nuba” opens today at the Village East in New York. The heart refers to the saintly Dr. Tom Catena who serves the war-ravaged people of the Nuba mountains at the southern border of Sudan. You probably know that South Sudan became an independent country in 2011 after its mostly tribal and non-Islamic peoples were anticipated to finally be delivered from the barbaric rule of the Arabic and Muslim north. Shortly after independence, the new nation was plunged once again into savage warfare between rival clans, attributable to the “resource curse”.

Like the people of South Sudan, the Nuban population was considered to be an obstacle to the ambitious “development” plans of the dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Although undeveloped so far, the land close to the mountains are petroleum-rich and once again there is a fight to control the spoils between Khartoum and guerrillas and simultaneously between rival guerrilla groups. In other words, the “resource curse” of decades past persisted in the foothills of the Nuba mountains.

Tom Catena is a deeply religious Catholic who came to Nuba to serve the mostly peasant and pastoral peoples who had no stake in the fighting. Khartoum decided to ethnically cleanse the area in order to weaken the rebels and create new facts on the ground that would allow his petrostate to sink roots in the region. He leads a monastic existence in the village of Gidel as the sole surgeon in a hospital serving the needs of 750,000 people in an area about the size of Austria. Although trained as a surgeon, he was soon forced to become a jack of all trades as pediatrician, internist, obstetrician, gynecologist, and any other specialty on a contingent basis. As well as being on call 24/7. His financial reward? $350 per month. This not to speak of the benefits accrued such as malaria that often leaves him too sick to care for others.

Catena was defensive lineman on Brown University’s football team when he was an undergrad and director Kenneth Carlson, who was on the same team, includes footage of Catena tackling a quarterback.

Catena comes from a large, religiously observant family in upstate N.Y. and Carlson shows him on a family visit where his brother, a Catholic priest, describes how he came to the decision to choose such a monastic but humanitarian existence. Despite the expectation one might have that such a man would be unctuously spouting scripture, Catena is a modest, witty and altogether likeable character that deserved such a compelling documentary. Check the film’s website for screening information in your area and Catena’s hospital. Khartoum has banned all material aid to the hospital coming from the UN and NGOs so they need all the help they can get.

Finally, as you see children near the hospital jumping into foxholes to escape a regime bombing raid and the bloodied bodies of those who were not fortunate enough to be spared, you will realize that all aerial bombing is criminal. It is criminal when it was done by the USA in Vietnam and Iraq, and now being done by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It was also criminal being done by Russian jets in Chechnya and in Syria for the past 7 years. In 1921, an Italian air force officer named Giulio Douhet proposed that aerial bombardment could be an effective in times of war. The officer corps was so outraged by this proposal that he was court-martialed. And that was under Mussolini. How low we have sunk.

Generally, I only post negative reviews of films on Rotten Tomatoes if they are made in Hollywood. Foreign-language, art films, and documentaries get a bye since there is integrity behind them even if they are unsuccessful. This is one of the few times I am going to break my own rules and tell you why I had problems with “Sweet Country”, an Australian narrative film that opens today at the IFC.

Set in the Outback in 1929, it seeks to indict the racist white settlers who are tracking down an indigenous man who has shot a drunken and deranged white rancher in self-defense. Most of the film consists of a small posse led by an indigenous man with tracking skills. Like all indigenous characters in the film, the tracker is obsequious to the point of taking the side of white men even when they are demonstrably in the wrong. He continuously refers to them as “boss” and—quite frankly—reminds me of the servants in “Gone With the Wind”. You see the same traits in the man being tracked down who only picked up a rifle when it became clear that both he and his wife would be shot down in cold blood unless he acted.

The film is described as an Australian Western and if you’ve seen “The Searchers”, you’ll understand why. Most of the film consists of the hunt for the runaway in the visually striking Outback with few words exchanged and those that are exchanged to not come close to the intensity of Ford’s rather dubious classic.

The film concludes with an outdoor trial in the town’s dusty square with the indigenous man having turned himself in only because his pregnant wife, who had been raped by the man he killed, could not make it in the wilderness with him.

Much of the film is a commentary on the degraded state of indigenous people who have become passive subjects of the settlers. The only resistance to the racist colonizers comes when the posse strays into a tribal area that is considered hostile to whites. In a confrontation, one posse member is killed by a tribesman’s well-aimed stone. I only wish that director Warwick Thornton had made a film about them.

Thornton’s last film was “Samson and Delilah” that was also about degraded and hopeless native peoples, in this instance a couple of teens, a drug-addicted boy and a orphaned girl he loves. I thought this film was “fresh” but probably would have a different reaction if I saw it again today.

Thornton is of indigenous descent himself but apparently is not motivated to make a film about native resistance. To some extent this is the result of the colonizer’s immense control over the colonized. Granted that the outcome was not much different than the one that befell Nat Turner, wouldn’t it be a good thing if an Australian filmmaker, indigenous or not, made a film based on what took place in Caledon Bay in 1932?.


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