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.

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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.

​Children of Men​ (2006)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men is a science fiction film that paints a picture of a “hopeless future.” Like most dystopian fiction, the “purpose” of the film is social commentary. The premise of the film is that women have en masse become infertile and as a result, much of the world has “devolved” into chaos and war except for the United Kingdom which is supposedly the “only remaining” stable civilized society. This stable civil society is exposed throughout the film to be based on repression and organized violence against the victims of the worldwide troubles which leads the viewer to believe that this so called stable society is living in a state of denial.

Of course the concept of a chaotic violent world doesn’t require science fiction to showcase, yet as with most science fiction: painting it as an alternate reality or possible future to an extent gives room for commentary. So we see the British military kettling people from around the world, who have moved to the UK to find refuge from the tumult of their place of origin, into cages and camps while sending them off to a ghetto that is separated from the rest of society. We are lead to believe that this is a “possible world.” If the film had taken place in contemporary Afghanistan or Iraq, showing the same actions, the response to the film would be much different, even though the film itself is inspired directly by those very real events. In an interview, Cuarón says that “[e]verything has to have a reference to the state of our times,” which demonstrates the role that the style and particular depiction of this future plays.

There are many social issues dealt with the film, and the infertility question ends up to an extent merely being a plot device to explore these issues. For example, one of the main characters (who is the first pregnant woman in over a decade) is a refugee named Kee and is being escorted by a resistance group called the “fishers” who want to use her pregnancy as part of the resistance to the British state. While the theme of gender seems to be de-emphasized, this usage of the main character who is a woman to simply achieve the aims of political groups could be seen as an exposing the gendered nature of both oppression and resistance (one need not look far for feminist critiques of the Left). These issues playing the primary role in the film shows that the film is not about the future per sey, but rather our current social situation. For example, the director himself said that while making the film, they “didn’t want [the audience] to be distracted by the future. We didn’t want to transport the audience into another reality.”

This sense of not wanting the audience to be distracted by the future contrasts the film with a film like Blade Runner which is the sort of dystopia that focuses on the affects of technology on social change directly. Cuarón actually even said that Children of Men was “the anti-Blade Runner” in terms of the mise en scene (or art and visual standards of the film). This different take on the future offers contrasting visions of how social commentary and science fiction can play out, and Children of Men‘s attempt proves quite successful both politically and in terms of film making. It demonstrates the potential that science fiction has as a tool for exposing social relations of today and what film makers who understand this are capable of doing.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Director: Christopher Nolan

This review contains serious spoilers, don’t read if you haven’t seen the film or don’t want it to be spoiled

After seeing posters for The Dark Knight Rises all over town, I had been anticipating a film that contains serious commentary on social change and revolutionary struggle. One possibility that I had considered was that this was a marketing ploy to capitalize on the past year of protest and revolution to get folks to see the film, yet after seeing it Thursday morning: it certainly does take the subject seriously. The only problem of course is that The Dark Knight Rises is what could be described as an anti-revolutionary, anti-populist, conservative film. That may sound a bit off-putting, but if we analyze the film as a political intervention, or rather a film that seriously deals with politics, then a political analysis and response is appropriate.

So what are the politics of The Dark Knight Rises and why are they problematic from a left wing perspective? To answer this we should look at the major conflict in the film: Bane’s attempt to control, and ultimately destroy Gotham City. The film starts off with Batman/Bruce Wane ruined and depressed by the experiences of the previous film. What returns him to his suit is Bane’s arrival in Gotham, a villain who was trained by the same organization that Wane was, who has come to Gotham to “finish the job” of destroying it (which was the conflict of the first film). Bane likens his method of destroying Gotham to that of escaping the prison that he experienced: letting people see the light and giving them false hope before accepting total despair. In other words, Bane’s motivations for wrecking havoc on the city are to first manipulate the people of the city into thinking that they are being empowered, while at the same time secretly plotting to destroy them all (this particular motivation is partially explained in the first film: that the city has “become too corrupt at every level”). He is a classic “mastermind” in this sense, as he works both with the rich and the “common criminals” to fulfill his goals and raising populist consciousness, each being a pawn in his game. A series of events in the film lead to Bane essentially seizing power in Gotham and declaring that he is ruling on behalf of the people.

While this may sound like something that would excite the Left, his ascendance is based on the threat of unleashing a nuclear device that would destroy the city if anyone leaves or the if outside world interferes with their plans. Bane thus forces the people to be “free,” and instead of being a “man of the people” he is secretly a manipulator of the people which mirrors the dominant Western narratives of revolutions of the past (for example we are taught that folks like Lenin and Castro helped lead genuine revolutions but were really secretly motivated by their lust for power). One problem with this of course is that it is a portrayal of a populist anti-rich group that is motivated by “evil” or malevolence, and thus much of the audience will certainly be reminded of recent events in New York City (which is essentially what Gotham is) like Occupy Wall Street and their populist anti-elite messaging here. The association is similar to what other major media releases like the video game Call of Duty are doing in their attempts to paint populist movements as evil terrorists, as David Sirota pointed out in a recent Salon article that compared politics of the film to the game.

A more significant problem with the film is not just the motivations of the villains as they are used in the plot device, but rather how that plot itself plays out. The villains are not only populists who resemble Occupy Wall Street, but in the film they actually seize power and thus challenge the State, or in other words: they carry out a revolution in the heart of capitalism. Now of course this doesn’t quite play out in the same way it would if Sergei Eisenstein had written the film, but the seizing of power and the question of the state play a central role for the film: for example there is a scene where the recently freed police force goes up against the new army of Bane’s Gotham. One of the police officers even says something along the lines of “there can only be one police force,” this line alone could help launch us into an in depth analysis about the monopoly of violence, the State, and how these questions are ideologically present in cultural products like Batman. This seizure of state power isn’t depicted as a mass uprising, but is rather part of Bane and his organization’s devious plans. Thugs and criminals are the new State in Bane’s Gotham which even includes an absurd kangaroo court with the delusional Scarecrow character presiding over the show trials, unfairly sentencing people to death. So the revolution of The Dark Knight Rises is a far cry from Battleship Potemkin and is instead more of a cautionary tale against allowing such disturbances of the social structure to occur.

So in the context of this plot device, Batman’s character plays a fundamentally conservative role. His status as a wealthy capitalist who secretly protects all the people of Gotham translates into his being the guardian of the very structure that allows folks like himself to have such wealth. It may be a stretch to call him a “counter-revolutionary” in the context of The Dark Knight Rises, considering the revolution itself is portrayed from a right wing perspective. But it isn’t just the portrayal of the motives and the revolution itself that makes the film politically problematic for the left. The secret motive of the revolutionaries to destroy Gotham with a nuclear weapon is related to what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has said about major catastrophes in Hollywood films:”So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism” (from the documentary Zizek!). This film highlights this claim about ideology and culture perfectly: even the seizure of power by the people against the rich can really only be understood as the end of the world or as a disaster for all humanity rather than a mere rearranging of social relations. Batman is thus the hero of Gotham who saved it from being rearranged, which would have lead to total destruction for all, or in other words, the very attempt at rearranging those social relations was a threat to all of humanity (or at least the whole city in this case) that only someone like Batman could prevent. This ideological content of the film cannot just be seen as “being read into it” but rather is what the film revolves around.

There are many more things that could be said about the film form both a political and cinematic perspective. But those of us who identify to some extent with social movements like Occupy Wall Street should be taken aback when we see the year’s most anticipated Hollywood film try to equate messages of populism to either being easily manipulated or secretly motivated by “evil destructive ends.” The fact that the film even deals with themes of revolution and social change is an interesting development itself, but framing is important and this film engages in a seriously problematic framing of the popular movements to challenge inequality.

Documentary a Day: Cuba! Africa! Revolution! (2007)

Director: Jihan El Tahri’

Also known as “Cuba, an African Odyssey”

This documentary offers an excellent account of Cuban involvement in Africa.  The documentary accounts for a long period in this “Chapter of Cold War history” (thus is too much to sum up in one post here).  The documentary is in two parts and covers the time from when Che first went to Africa to help with the conflict in the Congo all the way until the fall of Apartheid.

(Image from Wikipedia)

The documentary also does an excellent job at contextualizing Cuba’s involvement as an anti-imperialist endeavor.  It is very sympathetic and honest about the fact that Cuba was instrumental in ending colonialism in Africa (especially via Cuba’s invovlement in Angola) .  It’s hard to explore this topic and not come to the conclusion that Cuba’s involvement in Africa was anything but liberating to the people of Africa.

The most interesting thing about the documentary is its account for the relationship between the USSR and Cuba in the context of involvement in Africa.  The documentary portrays the USSR as not really wanting to get too involved in Africa for various diplomatic reasons, yet Cuba was the driving force here.  Cuba was acting independently and even trying to use its relationship with the USSR to help liberate Africa from colonialism by playing cold war politics very intelligently.  This certainly dispells the myth of “all allies of the USSR just took dictates from Moscow” as Cuba, in this case, was the real driving force.

I highly recommend this documentary to those interested in Cuba and anti-imperialist struggles in general.

Further Reading:

Africans call for BBC to screen “Cuba! Africa! Revolution!”

(Edit: the original publishing of this I was under the impression that this was a BBC documentary, which it is not.  I have edited the post to reflect this)