Viva Venezuela: Fighting for Socialism (2013)

Produced by: The Revolutionary Communist Group (UK)

VivaVen2Viva Venezuela: Fighting for Socialism is a documentary filmed during the last election of Hugo Chavez through his death in 2013. The film explores various aspects of the movement for socialism in Venezuela by interviewing activists, workers, and students in Venezuela as well as contrasting it with the struggle against austerity in the United Kingdom.

The film does not only attempt to follow the campaign of the PSUV and Chavez but rather focused on the rank and file of the movement in Venezuela. Very little time is devoted to Chavez or the leadership of the PSUV at all and instead we get a refreshing picture of what is going on in Venezuela by seeing those who are implementing the policies of Bolivarian socialism and the effects it has on the communities in question. This is quite a contrast to most documentaries about Venezuela which focus on Chavez as a figure rather than the overall social process of the movement for socialism in Venezuela.

While the film is mostly comprised of interviews of activists and workers, it also contains a sequence that shows the progress and characteristics of Venezuela’s “socialist city” Caribia.This particular project was considered one of Chavez’s “last projects” but the film demonstrates that it wasn’t just some initiative from above, but rather poor and working people are who make it run and plan how they want the city to work.

VivaVen3The British activists in the film make it clear that Venezuela is in a period of transitioning to socialism and is not there yet, pointing out that there are still rich capitalists there who want to stop this very transition. This is clear with continued battles between the government and opposition forces.

The film itself is a showcase of the process of transformation in Venezuela and serves as a good introductory piece to those who are not as familiar with what is taking place there. It can be a valuable resource for activists and educators looking to study the situation.

At the time of this post, the film can be viewed in its entirety online.

Jonah (2013)

This is a guest submission by Claire Smithson. Jonah is a short film that premiered at the most recent Sundance Film Festival about a small town which is transformed into a major tourist destination and the problems associated with that transformation. The film can presently be viewed online in its entirety.

Director: Kibwe Tavares

The beach before the transformation

The beach before the transformation

Excess and destruction seem to be the ongoing themes of conscientious fiction and film in recent years, ranging everywhere from totalitarian societies in series like The Hunger Games to consumerist culture, which becomes a living hell of disillusionment and chaos. Kibwe Tavares of Robots of Brixton fame explores the latter in his aesthetically dramatic short Jonah, an exploration of individual and social identity which undergoes devastating transformations under the onslaught of capitalism.

Visual Artistry

Visual poignancy is first and foremost in this Factory Fifteen and Film Four production, employing a series of techniques that switch from jarring first-person point of view to sweeping long-shots of a land which has been ravaged by riches. Blinding illuminations ascend into the skyline of a once peaceful and pristine landscape, threatening to topple the frail structures and foundations they reside on – an instant allusion to the statement that capitalistic excess has little substance to effectively sustain a society. The speed and seemingly “organic” metamorphosis from a quiet seaside town into a gaudy tourist mecca emphasize the rapidity and ease with which greed and consumerist culture can completely take over a society like a monstrous entity, and the director’s manipulation of the camera and how it pans through once happy side streets as they are turned into neon franchised sleaze-holes is deeply distressing. Tavares executes each scene with precision and bewilderment, careful to capture the shifting emotions of both town and people as they grow sick and exhausted from their deteriorating society. This plague is also echoed in the “originator” of this sickness, the mythological jumping fish, whose once vibrantly-colored exterior is smothered with hooks and tires and other tokens of destructive waste culture.

Loss of Identity

The city transformed into a tourist destination

The city transformed into a tourist destination

What is particularly striking is the sense of identity and its importance on both personal and public scales. The buoyant and happy exchanges between the two friends at the beginning of the film, laughing and casually taking photos from a stolen camera reveal a fascination with how they perceive one another, which is instantly changed with the emergence of the almost Biblical jumping fish which will come to define the protagonist and his home, initially fulfilling his desire to turn the sleepy village into an exciting metropolis with “Buckingham Palaces and Taj Mahals.” He rises into an iconic celebrity figure, hailed as the “Fish Man” who revels in the excess of brightly-lit bars and strip joints while his friend gradually grows distant and casts one last lost look before disappearing entirely.

As life continues to crumble, so does the stamina of the tourist industry itself – and the very excesses which once made it a flourishing hub of activity are now intimately tied to its demise and a faux sense of escape and healing. Bearing with it a strong post-colonial tone, destructive influences of fetishized sex, misogyny and alcohol lead to further misery and oppression as the culture turns into a binge-drinking hell hole, reflective of the poverty and mental/social disruption it plays, particularly in African nations. There is no redemption or way out which can offer empowerment and healing, and sex, drugs, or alcohol addiction recovery is non-existent – rather than intervention, or even a bold revelation, the immediate world is forced to stretch itself out to exhaustion and collapses in on itself. Decaying signs like “Fishbucks Coffee” and the ominous “Coming Soon” banner which raggedly hangs below a silhouette of the half-constructed “Raj Mahal” signifies a land of forgotten dreams which have rotted away into oblivion, mere shadows of their former idealistic glory. This is now a sordid place which has lost its true identity through the mass consumerist rush, whose citizens are left without a name in the shadows of a town whose capitalistic identity made it known world-wide.

Return to Origins

Consequences of the transformation

Consequences of the transformation

The protagonist’s identity in turn is distorted, and left a withered old man just like the landscape he has so dramatically transformed. His pursuit of the jumping fish resembles a lack of responsibility, a vengeful attempt at redemption and a bitter disposition towards his fate as the man who gained everything and lost it. His chaotic struggle and the rewinding of time which lead right into the ending credits suggest not a return to origins, but serve as a reminder of what has been lost in the name of greed and excess. William Blake once suggested that “The Path of Excess leads to the Tower of Wisdom”, but there is no tower – physical or symbolic – to restore the lost identity and appreciation for the simpler values of life, only a sorrowful diminishing of what was. Visually stunning and metaphorically sublime, Jonah is the modern myth which encapsulates the perfect cautionary tale, and resonates a changing tide which continues to sicken the world both on and off-screen.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director:  Francis Lawrence

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Katniss travels for her tour of the districts

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the sequel to the film Hunger Games and is the next adaptation of the Suzanne Collins novels of the same name. Like the first film, Catching Fire is primarily about oppression and resistance and ultimately, revolution.

This film picks up where the last left off, the main character Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is pressured to go on a tour of the entire country to placate the increasing revolutionary feeling of the people outside of the oppressive capital. During her tour it becomes clear to Kaniss that the entire event is an attempt to pacify the population and distract them from their real problems which is most evidenced by her first stop when the high level of security clearly represents the repressive nature of the capital. A sort of public relations struggle between her and the leader of the nation emerges as he puts increased pressure on her to do the will of the central government.

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Riots against the security forces

Eventually, the government announces that there will be a special “hunger games” (the event where each of the “districts” of the government has to contribute one “tribute” in a free for all battle to the death as punishment for a failed rebellion by the districts against the capital some time in the past) that will be comprised of past winners. This move is made to quell the popularity of Katniss and reduce the chances of her popularity as a symbol of resistance.

From this point in the film on, plot twists and developments reveal that a new rebellion by the districts is brewing and that the tributes in the new hunger games are conspiring to foment the uprising. Katniss throughout both films is a sort of reluctant hero of rebellion and remains so until the end of this film where she eventually destroys the very arena where the hunger games are being played in a defiant act which helps to spark a much broader uprising. The film ends with her learning that her home district has been destroyed by the capital and implies that she will seek revenge.

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The dictator gives a speech

One major contrast of this sequel to the first is the use of a more explicitly fascist aesthetic. This comes through most clearly during a scene in the capitol that is reminiscent of the first shots of Rome in the film Gladiator. The first Hunger Games relied on a much more subtle way of showing the repressive nature of the regime of the capitol. Besides the existence of the hunger games themselves which are the most obvious form of oppression, the first film showed the capital’s culture as similar to contemporary capitalism: joyous masses being distracted by superficial pastimes like obsessing over game shows with a very bright fashion sense. This is in contrast to more traditional depictions of authoritarian dystopian futures like in Nineteen Eighty Four where everything is dark and bleak. But in this sequel, we are shown more traditional dystopian aspects of a future society that come through as an anti-fascist commentary.

On top of painting a relatively detailed dystopian world, Catching Fire is also to a limited extent a call to revolution. Besides being a major plot point that is revealed towards the end, in both films the air of discontent by the masses of people is an important part of how the world the films operate. Donald Sutherland even recently went as far as to say the he wanted the film to “stir up a revolution” which goes to show that this interpretation of the film as a call to revolt is not incredibly far fetched.

Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Post submitted by Lamont Lilly.

Director: Jason Osder

LetFireBurn1On Friday, September 20th 2013, the Full Frame Theatre in Durham, NC hosted the premiere of a film called Let the Fire Burn by filmmaker and director, Jason Osder. It was supposed to premiere during the Full Frame Film Festival in April, but had to postpone its Durham debut until Full Frame’s Third Friday Free Film Series. It was a documentary about the bombing of an organization called MOVE and historical developments concerning the group’s political repression by the city of Philadelphia since 1978. Osder’s premiere of Let The Fire Burn was absolutely riveting.

Prior to the film’s core storyline of the 1985 bombing, Let The Fire Burn details the Philadelphia Police Department’s 1978 raid on MOVE’s Powelton Village home in West Philadelphia. It also shares the story of the MOVE 9, members of the organization who have currently been in prison for 35 years. Carefully cut, the footage is raw and very intense, penetrating the pores of struggle from the front row. As Let The Fire Burn journeys from one decade to the next, viewers never lose a beat.

On August 8th 1978, the Philadelphia Police Department raided MOVE’s communal residence in Powelton Village on grounds of “conspiracy and suspicious activity.” During the raid, Philadelphia police officer, James Ramp was somehow shot and killed. Ballistics and state evidence pointed to friendly fire. Yet, nine MOVE members were convicted of the murder of one cop and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in federal prison. The sentencing judge would later admit that he had no idea who fired the fatal bullet. The few guns that were seized from MOVE’s home were later found to be inoperative by state investigators. Two days later, their Powelton Village home was destroyed by city bulldozers as the group was forced to relocate.

Osder’s visual lens then takes you to the year 1985 to MOVE’s new address on 6221 Osage Ave. The group’s new location was in a quiet and cozy section of Philadelphia’s black working class district called Cobbs Creek. MOVE’s alternative lifestyle was a severe contrast to the neighborhood’s accepted norms and values. Complaints from neighbors reported profanity projected through loudspeakers, children exposed nude publicly, and vast amounts of unwanted varmints. Piles of compost and human waste also created disdain. In all fairness, MOVE members were also advocates of religious freedom, animal rights, gender equality and racial solidarity. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Police Department leveraged those concerns to wage war. Publicly, the decision to raid the group’s new location was to “clean up the building and arrest members who had outstanding warrants.” As Let The Fire Burn so vividly depicts, the Philadelphia Police Department’s assault on May 13th 1985, would mark an American tragedy.

That was the day over 200 Philadelphia police officers gathered outside of MOVE’s home on Osage Ave. That was the day over 10,000 rounds of police ammunition was used against unarmed citizens. Officers claimed they were fearful of MOVE’s massive collection of firearms and explosives. Yet, no automatic weapons were found in MOVE’s residence. Initially, officers deployed tear gas through broken windows. Then water, lots of it. One thousand gallons of water per minute were dispersed via the Philadelphia Fire Department from the roof and sides of the house.

LetFireBurn2All of a sudden a bomb was dropped on MOVE’s roof from a police helicopter. Four pounds of C4 explosives were dropped on a row house full of people. Minutes later, another bomb was dropped. When informed about the developments of this violent occurrence, Philadelphia’s African American Mayor, Wilson Goode consciously responded on live video to “Just let the fire burn.” The water hoses that were once pumping thousands of gallons of water per minute were turned off. A raging fire that had already killed 11 people was intentionally allowed to spread. In just a few brief hours, 61 homes had been completely destroyed—memories and life-savings leveled to worthless ashes. Mayor Goode watched the destruction from his office television at City Hall. Only two MOVE survivors exited the burning building – activist, Ramona Africa and a young boy named Birdie, whose testimony and childhood descriptions were documented throughout the film.

In 95 minutes, Osder’s documentary captures this entire saga, plus more. The fabric in which Osder weaves this story is absolutely surreal. Local news channels were covering the entire event live. Much of the film’s footage was cut and clipped from on-the-ground sources actually present that day. The use of archival video was pivotal in this piece. Nels Bangeter was the film’s chief editor, a role quite critical when considering there wasn’t much originally created or produced, here.

Let The Fire Burn took over 10 years to make. And that’s exactly how it looks, meticulous, time-consuming and well crafted. Osder’s eye sculpts the film seamlessly on a tightrope of truth without bias. During the post Q&A, he discussed how most media sources demonized the organization, referring to MOVE as terrorists. Yet, he saw them as human beings who had caught an “extremely raw deal of injustice.” Jason Osder grew up in Philadelphia, stating that “The timing of it dawned on my conscience even as a small child. It was the moment that cracked my childhood shell.”

As for MOVE, this film isn’t just a movie—it’s real lives that are painfully still playing out. Eight of the original MOVE 9 members have been in prison for 35 years now. Merle Africa died while incarcerated in 1998. In 1996, federal courts mandated the city of Philadelphia to pay out $1.5 million to one of the survivors and relatives of two members who were killed in the 1985 bombing. As Let The Fire Burn clearly illustrates, justice is still waiting in this case. Truth is still waiting to be unleashed.

Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace and organizer with Workers World Party. He resides in Durham, NC.

Elysium (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Earth in poverty

Earth in poverty

Elysium is a major blockbuster set in a dystopian future where the rich people of Earth have fled for a space station in orbit named Elysium. In this version of the future, Earth has deteriorated to such an extent that the rich no longer find it habitable and thus only make trips to the planet to manage corporations or oversee the oppressive legal system. There are various social issues that the film deals with that are of interest to the Left which has of course alarmed Fox News and right wing blogs. While there is more to the film than the political content, we will mostly focus on the politics of Elysium and what we should take away from it.

Matt Damon plays the films main character (named Max) struggling to make it by as a factory worker troubled by a criminal past. Max’s struggle in the film exposes the various social and political struggles that we can see prevalent today: class struggle, lack of health care, immigration, and to an extent the military industrial complex. The contradictions of the society are highlighted simply in a sequence where he is on his way to work: he leaves his home and is harassed and assaulted by the police (who have been replaced by androids instead of actual humans), has to speak with his robot parole officer who extends his parole because of the incident, arrives at work late to be told he is too injured to work but will be docked half a day’s pay instead, and then starts his job which is itself to produce more androids like the kind that injured him in the first place.

The automatic parole officer of the future

The automatic parole officer of the future

The major turning point for Max is when he is told by his supervisor to enter an unsafe situation which ultimately leads to an accident where he is exposed to radiation and is essentially left for dead by the company of which CEO just wants Max to leave the building (this of course wouldn’t happen if they had a union!) This leads to a set of events where Max works with a criminal organization that he had previously associated with to attempt to steal information from the rich CEO to make it easier for the organization to sneak people into Elysium.

While Max’s drama plays out, a plot to carry out a coup is being attempted on Elysium by Jodi Foster’s character who in some sense could be seen an analogy to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen. The coup plans fall into the hands of Max through their data heist of the CEO and they discover that they have the power to make all of Earth’s population citizens of Elysium. Through the typical twists and turns of a major action film, this is eventually carried out, making the struggle for legalization for all and access to health care (both of which were motivated by a reaction to unsafe working conditions) the major conclusions of the film. This of course is not typical for a Hollywood blockbuster, which led Vice to go as far as to claim that Hollywood was tricked into making a radical film.

Elysium

Elysium

The film itself is not without flaws. Evil bad guys like the main paramilitary man trying to capture Max are a bit shallow, and the action scenes were a bit cliche at times. But if we are to look at the less-than-subtle political message that comes through to an audience of millions, the film is praiseworthy. The cliche shortcomings and sometimes strange story developments aside, the film is also entertaining and stands out as a sci fi film on its own, although it would be hard not to be excited about a major film where providing healthcare to all citizens of Earth is the conclusion. Elysium has received mixed reviews, not for the political content which has been the focus by political commentators of course, but rather for the problems of the film itself. While the director apparently denied that the film was political, it would be quite difficult to ignore the fact that almost every major plot point in the film corresponds to a major social issue that the Left focuses on today.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Director: Ryan Coogler

fvstation2Fruitvale Station is a dramatization of the murder of Oscar Grant. While it doesn’t contain any explicit political overtones, its existence is politically significant. Usually dramatizations of people’s lives are reserved for artists, world “leaders” and the like rather than victims of police brutality. Yet this film is an attempt to put a human face on a prominent recent victim of such an incident.

For those who are not familiar with the case, Oscar Grant was murdered by police in Oakland, California in 2009. The subsequent trial of the officer who shot Grant resulted in a mere 2 year sentence, and only 11 months were served. These events led to riots and an intensification of the anti-police brutality movement in California and this film can, in a sense, be seen as part of that movement.

The film closely details the last day in Grant’s life, from his struggle to stop selling marijuana to his attempts of getting his job at a supermarket back, to the emotional (and adorable) interactions with his daughter. These sequences did not in themselves contain much politically significant content, but rather need to be situated as the “humanizing” of a victim of the state. Usually when the police kill someone, the media and entertainment industries either don’t pay attention or assume that it was the victim’s fault. This film turns that narrative on its head (and was able to because of the blatantly obvious case of wrong doing on the police’s behalf for this particular incident).

fvstation3Some reviews of the film so far have focused on this humanizing effort that the film engages in to criticize it. The AV club says that “[p]utting a human face on a public tragedy that already had a human face, Fruitvale Station plays like an uncomplicated eulogy, with little more to say on its subject than ‘what a shame this bad thing happened.’” Variety says that the film is guilty of promoting a “relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject.” While I would usually agree that over humanizing of politically significant events like the death of Oscar Grant cheapen and oversimplify these issues (which discourages political responses in favor of “case by case” dealings), I would say that the very nature of this film makes it a rare exception.

What sets this humanizing effort apart from other stories set in the United States can be made clear from the questions raised by AP writer Jesse Washington: “If Grant was a real person, what about all these other young black males rendered as cardboard cutouts by our merciless culture? What other humanity are we missing?”

The very project of humanizing the subject of a police murder is an attempt to bring light to not only his case, but effectively brings light to the issue of police violence in general. On top of the social and cultural role the film plays, it is also well done and should be watched on that merit alone.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Italian title: La battaglia di Algeri

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Ali looks on to the city

Ali looks on to the city

The Battle of Algiers is a notorious film of its time and has remained important in the context of the major geopolitical affairs of today. It presented a challenge to Western imperialism, and continues to play a provocative role. The most prominent example of  how it remains important decades after its release was its screening in the Pentagon after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where the State Department was quite clearly attempting to draw lessons from the French experience in Algeria to better understand how to fight anti-colonial struggles they predicted would arise in Iraq. The themes of the film, an occupying Western power trying to subdue a local population, saw striking similarities to contemporary Western adventures. Certain scenes of the film were censored in France for their depiction of the French military using torture.

The film portrays the events leading up to Algerian independence from the French and was released during the wave of independence movements across Africa. It was based on a book by an Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) fighter Saadi Yacef, who wrote the book while in prison during the conflict the film is based off of. While it attempts to “show all sides,” it’s quite clear from the style and narrative of the film that the French are acting as oppressors and occupiers trying to prevent a national liberation movement. It does not attempt to blindly cheer lead the FLN movement, and certain tactics (like targeting civilian populations) are called into question, the film cannot help but to be an expose of the horrors of colonial rule.

The film received renewed attention after it was screened by the Pentagon which prompted many to make the obvious comparisons between the French occupation of Algeria and the US invasion of Iraq (on top of the eerie fact that the Pentagon screening seemed to show that the US itself was drawing this connection). The torture scenes in the film (which were censored in France, along with the film itself having been banned for a period) in the context of the occupation of Iraq served as an example of the film as a predictive warning for what can come from a colonial occupation. With multiple accusations of the use of torture by the US during the so called “war on terror,” those who put on a screening at the Pentagon seem to have missed the films key points.

People of Algiers being kettled

People of Algiers being kettled

The liberation movement in the film is shown to engage in acts of terror,  but not in the way that contemporary Hollywood films depict the perpetrators. Rather in Battle they are highly contextualized and even placed within a broader movement for social justice (something that would be unthinkable even amongst progressive filmmakers today with few exceptions). While they aren’t exactly being justified, the broader movement for liberation from France itself takes on the role of the “main protagonist” even more than leading actor Brahim Hadjadj in some ways. In other words, it is not a story about a personal journey that various characters must engage, but rather about an important turning point for the history of Algeria and France.

The Battle of Algiers has been a film with much written about it since its release so no brief synopsis can do it justice, although perhaps this post can be a starting point an encourage more investigation into the film. It serves as an excellent example of the role that progressive narratives can play (even if under the veil of “not taking sides”) in film.