The Mine Wars (2016)

Director: Randall MacLowry

Meeting of UMWA Local 4033

Meeting of UMWA Local

The Mine Wars is a documentary film that is a part of the PBS show American Experience. The film documents the various struggles between coal mine workers and the mine owners in southern West Virginia in the early 20th century. This piece of history has enjoyed a renewed interest because of the recent struggles against strip mining (or mountain top removal) in West Virginia where Blair Mountain was to be essentially destroyed after the state’s Historical Preservation Office refrained from adding the site to its register of historical sites. The struggles of the mine wars led to what would be the largest insurrection since the US Civil War at the Battle of Blair Mountain. The film also features an account of the violent struggle that was featured in the film Matewan.

The film is about the attempt by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and its supporters to unionize the largely non-union southern West Virginian coal mines. Most of the mines in the northern part of the state had been unionized by the turn of the century and those workers had been receiving better pay than their non-union counterparts in the south. In the non-union mines, workers faced more dangerous working conditions and no representation on the job and had for years tried to improve their awful working conditions. Their efforts to unionize were met with harsh repression by a mix of violent private agents hired by the mine owners (particularly the Baldwin Felts detective agency, who were quite similar to the Pinkertons), some local sheriff agencies, and the US Army.

State forces preparing for battle against miners

State forces preparing for battle against miners

Mother Jones is featured throughout the documentary for her support of the mine workers’ struggle, particularly early on when the UMWA first made attempts to organize the southern mines. Her role in the beginning of the struggle was crucial in rallying and mobilizing workers to the cause, but as the violence began escalating in the later years, she played a much more restraining role which highlights the conflict not only between the miners and the company but within the workers movement itself. Although it is made clear that she was simply trying to avoid a disastrous result, she ultimately played a demobilizing role as the the miners had begun to gain real momentum.

The film does an excellent job in analyzing the internal dynamics which led to perhaps the most militant action taken by workers in the United States in the 20th century. While explicit socialist politics didn’t play the driving factor in pushing the miners to directly confront both the state and the mining companies, a radical political orientation of the local leadership certainly helped to establish that compromise was not the best option. The efforts to use force to achieve their demands showed that the mine workers in that region had achieved a level of class consciousness that had not been seen in some time in the United States, and the fact that the US military itself intervened showed that even the most powerful in society were nervous about the potential of the situation to get “out of hand.”

Ultimately, the miners did not succeed in their efforts, and many of the miners who marched directly against the state were imprisoned which led to the union drive to largely be a failure. But some credit this action with laying the groundwork for an increased focus on labor rights and for setting the stage for the labor struggles of the 1930s.

The Mine Wars is a great contribution to labor documentaries and should be used as a resource for those looking to understand the history of militant labor struggle in the United States.


Citizenfour (2014)

This review originally appeared on Truthout. It is reposted here with permission from the author and the website. Review written and submitted by Dan Falcone.

Director: Laura Poitras


Citizenfour is about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s actions as well as the collective work of reporters, and whistleblowers Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, Jeremy Scahill and William Binney.

Laura Poitras produced My Country, My Country in 2006. In that film she explained life for Iraqis under American occupation. In 2010, she produced The Oath, which covered two Yemenis’ relation to Gitmo and the War on Terror. Poitras also produced The Program, which discusses the domestic surveillance enterprise in Bluffdale, Utah. As a result of this body of work, Poitras undergoes monitoring by the United States Government, and is harassed routinely by border patrol agents.

Laura Poitras is not shown in the film. She compares this to never seeing a writer in a book. For her, the work is about what is unfolding in front of her camera. She is the film’s narrator. Poitras obtained some 20 hours of Edward Snowden footage to make the film. The film is done in the style of “direct cinema,” originated by Jean Rouch. Citizenfour shows what happened, as it happened.

Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, skip to “Conclusion.”

Citizen Four’s Anonymous Emails to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald

In the film’s opening scene, Poitras’s voice can be heard as a car proceeds through a very dark tunnel showing only a light trail above. Citizen Four’s initial emails are read by Poitras to the audience. Poitras reads:

“Laura, at this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk … From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, … site you visit … subject line you type … is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. … In the end if you publish the source material, I will likely be immediately implicated. … I ask only that you ensure this information makes it home to the American public. … Thank you, and be careful. Citizen Four.”

The film's portrayal of the transfer of important digital files

The film’s portrayal of the transfer of important digital files

Snowden calls himself Citizen Four because he believes he is not the first person within the NSA to find the actions of the United States Government deplorable. He also insists that the story should not be about him but about his actions and the potential actions of others. Citizen Four contacts Poitras because he is aware of her involvement in reporting and film making, but most importantly, he knows how she is being victimized by the NSA’s far-reaching system at airports.

The film goes on to discuss Presidential Policy Directive 20, a 2012 strategy implemented by President Obama to broaden, enlarge and strengthen the existing Bush-era national security procedures.The film successfully reveals the erosion of judicial oversight when it comes to national security in the United States, especially in relation to matters where no national security is at stake. It suggests that the real goal of security is for the actions of power and privilege to be insulated from the public.

In a case involving Mark Stein and AT&T, a judge on close circuit television remarks to the attorney, “What role do Justices have, would you like us to just go away?”

Tech activist Jacob Appelbaum is seen at a conference describing the concept of “linkability.” Linkability is the concept of tracing citizens in order to know where they are at all times based on information and technology. To Appelbaum, this is very alarming.

Glenn Greenwald’s first Citizen Four-related story is on Verizon and is headlined worldwide. It is based on Citizen Four’s email:

“Publicly, we complain that things are going dark, but in fact, their accesses are improving. The truth is that the NSA in its history has never collected more than it does now. I know the location of most domestic interception points, and that the largest telecommunication companies in the US are betraying the trust of their customers, which I can prove.”

The Hong Kong Revelations

Greenwald and Poitras organize to meet with Citizen Four in the hotel lobby in Hong Kong. Snowden explains that he will be working on a Rubik’s cube. That is how they are to identify him:

“On timing, regarding meeting up in Hong Kong, the first rendezvous attempt will be at 10 A.M. local time on Monday. We will meet in the hallway outside of the restaurant in the Mira Hotel. I will be working on a Rubik’s cube so that you can identify me. Approach me and ask if I know the hours of the restaurant. I’ll respond by stating that I’m not sure and suggest you try the lounge instead. I’ll offer to show you where it is, and at that point we’re good. You simply need to follow naturally.”

In the hotel room in Hong Kong are Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill. They discuss the content of some of Citizen Four’s documents and Snowden lets them know his name, and how the NSA was spinning out of control. Snowden felt that NSA policy construction was reaching a point where it could never be meaningfully opposed by citizens.

Snowden reveals in the film that he was born in North Carolina and he goes by Ed. He comes from a military family in the section known as Elizabeth City in Pasquotank County. He then moved to Fort Meade, Maryland because his father worked near Washington DC. To this day, in DC, taxi drivers have stories about how they used to drive Snowden around the DMV area in the early 2000s. They comment that he looked the exact same way, and they collectively agree that Snowden was decent to drivers and tipped well to union members specifically.

The famous Honk Kong interview with Snowden

The famous Honk Kong interview with Snowden

Snowden added that some people involved in security state surveillance are extremely bright while also describing some as completely mediocre. In other words, the tools and capability for people to watch everyone were no longer specialized; there was a generic function and incredible possibilities for anybody to be watched at any time, routinely within the NSA. There is an expectation to be under the NSA gaze.

Snowden additionally commented on how at NSA you could log-on and watch a drone strike from any desk. The expectation was that all things were to be watched. Furthermore, he informed the reporters in his hotel room that all of the information coming in to be investigated was entering in real time.It was not being stored to be investigated at a later date.

Snowden then describes to the reporters GCHQ and its program called Tempora. GCHQ is The Government Communications Headquarters in Britain. This intelligence gathering facility supplies signals intelligence to the British military and government. He describes the meaning of a “full take” enterprise. This is a full sweeping collecting of data without any discrimination. Snowden is alarmed that there is collusion with a foreign government to network domestic watching. In other words, Snowden reveals that what happens in the GCHQ is illegal in the United States but the UK, according to one of Snowden’s emails, “let us query it all day long.”

Snowden it seems has so much knowledge of NSA capability that to the average citizen his concerns may appear to border on paranoia. In the hotel Snowden, explained to the reporters that the phone needed to be unplugged since there are devices inside phone receivers even when hung up. He knows this because he has been a part of efforts to make them. Snowden also has a ritual in the hotel room – he would always cover his head when typing in his password. This is someone fully aware of the consequences, and he knew the inevitability of having “a target on his back.”

Snowden lets the reporters know that at NSA, 1 billion telephones and internet sites could be watched simultaneously and that the Department of Defense has 20 sites set up working to equal 20 billion people being watched at once.

The Tempora story is reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian without mention of Edward Snowden. The reaction to the leaks was fast and furious. Here, the as-it-happened-style of the film is at its best. Snowden is seen in the film watching the story break before he is known to the world. Greenwald was a guest on CNN as he discussed the danger of neglecting court orders to conduct indiscriminate and sweeping collections of people’s personal data. He talked about how perilous it is for the government to eliminate the warrant requirement.

Journalists of the Hong Kong interview

Journalists of the Hong Kong interview

After Greenwald appeared on CNN, Snowden received a call in his hotel room that the NSA Human Resources director had shown up at his house. They just entered and broke in. No one knew where Snowden was, since he routinely disappeared for work for various projects and trips. Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s partner, explained that the rent checks were not being wired through properly and that the street where Snowden lived was lined with construction vehicles. This may have propelled him to go public sooner since it provided a crystal clear example that his identification was soon to come. Greenwald urges him to consider coming out and Snowden agrees. He does emphasize however, his worry that the story will become about him instead of an issue of public concern.

The Aftermath of Snowden Coming Out as the Leaker and Whistleblower

On June 10, 2013, Snowden had agreed to go public by allowing Greenwald to expose his identity. Snowden explained how he was an infrastructure analyst for the NSA with top secret classified information. When the story broke that Snowden was the leaker, his name and image were suddenly visible worldwide and the film illustrates the impact on Snowden of becoming an icon instantaneously. Producer Laura Poitras asked if he was okay. Seconds later, the phone rings and Snowden answers – it is the Wall Street Journal which had tracked him down in the hotel in Hong Kong just moments after the story broke. This is one of the more fascinating scenes in this cinema verité.

Moments after that call, other calls start to pour in and Snowden is in need of a Hong Kong human rights attorney to get him out of the hotel safely. In Poitras’s room he discusses with the human rights attorney asylum options and extradition for political speech. The Hong Kong attorney sets Snowden up with Robert Tibbo, another human rights lawyer. Snowden is subsequently charged with three felonies back home. They discuss taking Snowden to Iceland or Venezuela. He winds up in Moscow, Russia and is permitted to stay for one year.

A rather interesting clip is when the international lawyer meets to discuss the three felony charges under the Espionage Act, a US domestic law from WWI to eliminate in-country spies. WWI propaganda under Woodrow Wilson had similar forms of political repression with “big lies” while stifling and challenging dissent. Snowden was being placed in this WWI context. He was not however, a spy, but a whistleblower.

Snowden begins to pack his things and organize his stuff. On his bed is copy of Cory Doctorow’s, Homeland. This is a quite apropos novel since it includes two afterword essays by computer security researcher and hacker Jacob Appelbaum, and the late computer programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Near the end of the film, we learn that the FBI and the UK teamed up to find Snowden and that the UK Government ordered Guardian investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill to destroy all of his devices with content provided by Snowden. Apparently, the United States still has greater freedom of the press than the UK.

We also see the White House calling for Snowden to surrender and claim his due process rights before a court. President Obama does not think Snowden was a patriot; he thinks there was a “law-abiding” way for him to express concerns and dissent in “orderly” fashion.

We also see footage of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda being detained after a flight from Berlin to Heathrow. This was a clear jab at intimidation and reminder that national security is now gratuitous, far-reaching, intimidating to individual people and internationally orchestrated. It provides evidence of the NSA and GCHQ working in cahoots.

We are shown the “Dagger Complex” in Germany, a United States military base that tells of our collusion with Chancellor Merkel and our interest in running drone programs through Germany as cover. Additionally, reporter Jeremy Scahill is shown following up and investigating reports from a second anonymous whistle-blower. William Binney is also featured at the end of the film. The bookending of Binney is important for the film’s thesis. Snowden was not a disconnected isolated character. He wasn’t alone in wanting to come forward.

At the end of the film, Greenwald is in a hotel room with Snowden in Moscow. At this point, Greenwald must have believed Snowden’s fear that every conversation could be recorded. So Greenwald writes down names and facts in between generic phrases, like something from Mad Libs. He places everything on paper to show Snowden in the hotel room. In Moscow, Greenwald reveals to Snowden that the work of Jeremy Scahill (via another whistleblower) shows that the US was working with other nations and governments to collect data and use drone weaponry. For instance, drone strikes that were done through Germany were traced up to POTUS. Snowden was stunned to learn it. Then Greenwald reveals that “Citizen Five’s” (if you will) whistleblowing has helped the public to learn that POTUS has 1.2 million specific citizens on a watch list. Again, Snowden gasps.


Historian Lawrence Davidson has written of Edward Snowden:

“. . .Edward Snowden decided to release massive amounts of secret government data in order ‘to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark.’ However, what the historical record suggests is that, under most circumstances, only a minority of the general population will care. Thus, in the case of the United States, the effectiveness of whistleblowers may be more successfully tested in the law courts wherein meaningful judgment can be rendered on the behavior of the other branches of government, than in the court of public opinion. However, this judicial arena is also problematic because it depends on the changing mix of politics and ideology of those sitting in judgment rather than any consistent adherence to principles.  In 1971 judicial judgment went for Ellsberg. In 2013, men like Manning and Snowden [and Assange] probably do not have a snowball’s chance in hell.”

This astute observation is troubling yet reality-based. Snowden’s actions don’t seem to be admired by a majority of citizens and President Obama certainly knows this. Perhaps the film can help to relay more information to people and become more than just a political thriller. I think the film tried to emphasize the need for people to care about this issue. The results are yet to be seen. For Snowden and Greenwald and everyone else involved with this film, they had to act.

Snowden knew he had to act, gambled on his activism picking up speed, and needed to reveal classified information to make his statement. We know this because William Binney and Poitras, and a host of other reporters, producers, academics and activists, are continually marginalized and harassed at gun point.

In Rolling Stone, Greenwald had a traditional Voltaire-styled perspective on speech, “To me, it’s a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it … not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate.”

A possible defense for President Obama is that he inherited a dog’s dinner from the Bush Administration in the way of American Foreign Policy. A recent argument by Aaron David Miller, an elite liberal propagandist, follows this trajectory. He was left to maintain or heighten all provisions and engaged in a dangerous, perhaps unlawful, search for Osama bin Laden on sovereign Pakistani soil. President Obama pledged to take boots off the ground and vowed to only apply “smart power” to conflict zones and flashpoints. He tried, and has succeeded, in making high tech protection a populist positon accepted by the mainstream electorate. This is not a compliment.

Some detractors of Snowden maintain there is an unsettling racialized component within this story. It is argued that since some President Obama antagonists are white, and not all applied the same level of work when Bush was President for eight years, their work is illegitimate or at least suspect. This to me is false. Snowden had Bush disenchantment and there is no question that Greenwald (How Would a Patriot Act?) and Poitras did as well.

President Obama doubled down on Bush’s surveillance policies and enhanced them dramatically in forming his strange interdependent political platform. The President relentlessly tries to suppress the image at home that his foreign policy is disliked by the world. This effort is the main reason for the surveillance and hence the whistleblowing. I will defend President Obama from the lily white Tea-Party and GOP at large, but that should be everyone’s limit.

In accord with Snowden skepticism, I have read Sean Wilentz’s disturbing tales of Snowden in the New Republic. He states that Snowden:

“. . . became furious about Obama’s domestic policies on a variety of fronts . . . he was offended by the . . . [new president’s] ban on assault weapons. [Snowden remarked,] ‘. . . I’m goddamned glad for the second amendment,’ Snowden wrote, in another chat. ‘Me and all my lunatic, gun-toting NRA compatriots would be on the steps of Congress before the C-SPAN feed finished.’ Snowden also condemned Obama’s economic policies as . . . a . . . scheme “to devalue the currency absolutely as fast as theoretically possible.” (He favored Ron Paul’s call for the United States to return to the gold standard.) In another chat-room exchange, Snowden debated the merits of Social Security.”

Wilentz writes that, “Snowden’s disgruntlement with Obama, in other words, was fueled by a deep disdain for progressive policies.” And just recently in reaction to the film, The New Republic continued its anti-Snowden barrage. We learn that this cannot be pure whistleblowing since Glenn Greenwald has had “conservative” views on immigration and even litigated in protection of white supremacist clients. The New Republic sees Snowden et al as makeshift progressives who haven’t earned their progressive stripes. Maybe there is a point here: Snowden’s own previous history of political activism was disproportionate to the act of leaking the essence of the NSA’s secrets. Even this is irrelevant though, in my view.

I tend to reject the defense of the President on the grounds of comparing him to Bush domestically. Even as the ACA and the ARRA are important signature President Obama achievements, the spying and reactionary positions on civil liberties are just far too extreme. The film conveys this well and that is what makes this movie excellent. Snowden states, “If all ends well, perhaps the demonstration that our methods work will embolden more to come forward.” So far he is correct and the film is quite popular. Snowden hoped that the work he did was just a tiny part in what would lead to the Internet Hydra Principle, where the erasure of one would only ensure that three more would pop up.

Lastly, allow me to reiterate that Snowden should not be judged personally. It is possible he had unsavory political views, but people do change and evolve.  He is a young man. For those that consider Snowden correct in principle but illegal in practice, again consider that William Binney’s legal assertions and complaints were met with harassment and punishment.

Snowden and Greenwald have a unique political versatility. It seems at one point or another they have occupied and navigated the multiple realms of progressivism, libertarianism, and the moderate areas in between.

Ultimately, my final word is that Citizenfour was extremely well done. While it seems to irk liberals (aka non-progressives) that Snowden and Greenwald may be apolitical and amoral opportunists, I simply judge them by the merit of their conclusions, which are , in my view, heroic.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Dan Falcone has a master’s degree in Modern American History from LaSalle University in Philadelphia and currently teaches secondary education. He has interviewed Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Richard Falk, William Blum, Medea Benjamin and Lawrence Davidson. He resides in Washington, DC.

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.

South of the Border (2009)

Director: Oliver Stone

"The Bolivarians"

“The Bolivarians”

With the death of Hugo Chavez on Tuesday, an important film to revisit is Oliver Stone’s South of the Border. This documentary follows the rise of the Pink Tide in Latin America and the accomplishments that the various governments in question have made.

I first saw this film during a screening at the 2010 United States Social Forum in Detroit. The crowd’s optimism about the developments (that are still ongoing) in Latin America was quite clear: from cheering on in various scenes, to hissing when Stone claimed that he believed there could be a “benign capitalism.” The screening was followed by a Q and A with Venezuelan and Cuban representatives to ALBA to continue the optimistic appraisal.

Hugo Chavez plays a key role in this documentary, as well as in facilitating the rise of this so called Pink Tide. Almost all of the leaders that follow in a sense play as a footnote to his historic victory in the late 1990s. His Presidency is something they all (with the exception of Raul Castro of course) acknowledge an indebtedness to throughout the film.

Chavez and Stone

Chavez and Stone

Towards the end of the film, there is a great hope expressed for the Barack Obama’s administration taking a new path. As we now see the administration in its 5th year, it has demonstrated no significant signs of change toward Latin America (The Honduran Coup being the prime example, along with continued support for the Venezuelan opposition) and has instead remained mostly consistent with previous administrations. This previous feeling of hope could be met with plenty of “I told you so” by the Left. But it fits in with the overall positive tone of the film which saw one of the primary messages as simply debunking US media conceptions of leaders like Hugo Chavez.

Along with Chavez’s electoral victory, the film contextualizes the history of IMF imposed structural adjustment and mass movements in response that helped pave the way for left leaning parties to assume the helm of governing the various countries in question. Evo Morales, in discussing Tupac Katari’s quote about dying as one and returning as millions, proclaims at the end of the film that “now we are millions.” This is the underlying theme of the film: the populist movements of Latin America are something to be admired and praised, not demonized. The film is mostly successful in promoting this counter-narrative and on top of its positive political message is an achievement in documentary film making.

Repost: At Sundance Film Festival, Documentaries Shine Light on Overlooked Stories of Global Injustice

Democracy Now! aired a segment about documentaries via an interview with Cara Mertes at the Sundance Film Festival. The segment highlights the importance of film as a medium and the growing importance of documentary film making. This website often posts reviews of documentaries and how they can be useful for exposing issues as well as highlighting important under looked historical events.

From DN!’s transcript:

This year’s Sundance Film Festival includes 28 feature-length documentaries from the United States and around the world, covering subjects including the story of WikiLeaks, abortion, the Egyptian revolution, immigration, covert U.S. wars, and many more. All five of the films nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for best documentary have premiered at Sundance: “5 Broken Cameras,” “The Gatekeepers,” “How to Survive a Plague,” “The Invisible War” and “Searching for Sugar Man.” We’re joined by Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Sundance Documentary Fund. “We’re supporting a global, independent documentary movement,” Mertes says.

Dear Mandela (2011)

Directors: Dara Kell, Christopher Nizza

Dear Mandela is a documentary about the struggle for housing in post-apartheid South Africa. It follows a community organization called Abahlali BaseMjondolo (which means “people of the shacks”) in its fight for housing rights (which are supposed to be guaranteed in the constitution of South Africa). In the film, the ANC is portrayed as having “fallen from grace” to an extent in that they have failed to deliver in their promise to bring equality after apartheid.

The structure of the documentary is reminiscent of films like Harlan County, USA that follow a community through a significant amount of time during a specific struggle. In this case, Abahlali BaseMjondolo decides to take the fight for housing to a constitutional court, arguing that the demolition of shacks is unconstitutional considering that they are not being provided with adequate alternatives. They find that the ruling ANC is willing to use violence and coercion to prevent its victory in the courts, and there is even a moment when ANC supporters come and harass them while they’re outside of the courtroom. This exposes a serious contradiction in post-apartheid South Africa, as the ANC continues to command much respect for its role in bringing about the end of the apartheid regime. For example, one of the activists is in the midst of a community meeting and denounces all political parties, and when he denounced the ANC: the room grew silent. This contradiction in South Africa continues to be a significant political question as related to recent events like the massacre of 34 miners this year and the complex relationship between the ANC and the mining unions.

This difficult fight against the state in the courts is an example of what many have called the “new apartheid” or “economic apartheid” in South Africa. While the formal racist rule came to an end with the victory of the ANC, class inequality continues. This film sharply highlights this inequality, showing that many of the folks who live in these shacks are workers who just cannot afford to live in the cities in which they work.

Abahlali BaseMjondolo wins their court battle, which was an important victory. This victory was an important step in achieving real housing rights for South Africans, although there is still a long road ahead, as this documentary points out through its optimistic message.

At the screening of the film I attended (that was put on by the Center for Place Culture and Politics), the film makers were encouraging people to set up screenings of the film to help promote the film itself and raise awareness of the struggle in South Africa.

Harlan County, USA (1976)

Director: Barbara Kopple

This academy award winning documentary is itself an important contribution to the 20th century working class movement of the United States.  While it not only played an important role in documenting a violent struggle for unionization in Kentucky, the presence of the film crew was itself cited in helping achieve victory for the miners who were the subject of the film.

As with many cases of violent struggle with attempted unionization in coal mines, Harlan county was one where company thugs, workers, and police all played an all too cliche role. Thugs and police helped (with the interesting exception of the complex role of the Sheriff) maintain the company’s power while the workers had to face legal challenges, attempted murders, and intimidation to form their union. This familiar narrative is not only the result of the same struggle taking on a similar form various times throughout American history, but the film itself inspired other films, for example Matewan. (John Sayles on Harlan County)

The most striking thing about the case of Harlan County is how similar the film’s structure is to that of the various other films/narratives about unionizing efforts in other coal mining areas that date back to the late 19th century. The exception in this case, however, is a demonstration of some serious corruption at the union level. While the story of the drive itself is familiar, one significant difference is that this was not the beginning of the United Mine Workers of America but rather that there had been decades of development for that organization. There is even a case where a rank-and-file candidate runs for the presidency of the union and is murdered by folks connected to what is perceived as the corrupt leadership.

These struggles demonstrate the real problems that go into organizing that is not simply a romanticized version of “the workers vs the bosses” but rather demonstrate the complexities. The “labor aristocracy” is shown to be quite clear in this film and the future of the union is questioned even with the optimistic overtones towards the end of the film and victory of the particular drive. Some of the members remain quite unsatisfied with the contract that they won, for example.

Further reading:

Woman Rebel (2010)

Director: Kiran Deol


Woman Rebel is a short documentary that aired on HBO in 2010 that follows a woman named Uma Bhujel during her times as a Maoist rebel in Nepal. Throughout the film Bhujel (whose codename in the military is “Silu”) describes the various aspects of the experience of fighting the war. Early on, while being introduced to her family, we learn that her brother had joined the Royal Army. This framework makes her story a sad “classic case” of civil conflict splitting a family. Although unlike the cliche “brother vs brother” notion, Nepal’s Maoist rebels are composed of 40% women and are trying to fight gender inequality in Nepal and this departure from the cliche represents how important gender is not only for the conflict’s impact on Uma’s family, but for Nepali society.

The rebellion itself is not shown as the result of an ideological battle (although this is implied to an extent in the Maoists calling for and end to the class inequality). Rather, the conflict is shown in the backdrop of a deeply unequal and unjust society where people are rising up, for example a story of a woman who committed suicide after her husband’s family (in which the marriage was prearranged) treated her poorly is used to highlight the gendered inequality that exists in Nepali society. There are none of the anti-Communist declarations or cautions that we would find if this were to appear as a history channel show which makes the film a refreshing look at a contentious issue.

A Maoist fighter and her child

The director of the film claims that she wants the viewer to “see a portrait” of a fighter in a complex struggle. She also claims that the film is meant to “focus on agents of change instead of victims of circumstance.” This intention is quite important, as it portrays those living in the Global South not as helpless victims that are just in need of help from Western NGO’s and “freedoms” but rather that those very impoverished people have the ability to mobilize and get what they want directly.

Overall, the film is an interesting look into the conflict that is not covered often in Western media which ended the long standing monarchy of Nepal and established a republic. There have been continued issues with the pace and nature of social change in the country (of which are out of the scope of this film review), but the most important part of this film is that it shows the conflict through the lens of a fighter who sees her struggle as part of a movement for social justice. The structure of the short film keeps it interesting the whole way through, with stock footage of the conflict going back to the 1990s to the contemporary countryside. It serves as an excellent introduction to those unfamiliar with the conflict, and for those familiar it is a way to promote education and discussion about the issue.

Maestra (2010)

The Cuban literacy campaign began 51 years ago this month.  This was an important moment for the Cuban revolution that would help set Cuba apart from the rest of the Caribbean.  This is a review of a documentary about that campaign.

The following is re-posted with the permission from the author and originally appeared here

Freedom Through a Pencil: The 1961 Literacy Campaign in Cuba

by Sujatha Fernandes

The high rate of literacy in Cuba is one of the proud and much touted accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution. Beginning half a century ago, in 1961, the literacy campaign mobilized more than 1 million Cubans as teachers or students. In that same year, 707,000 Cubans learned how to read or write. Maestra tells the story of that inspiring campaign through the memories of the women who served as literacy teachers—the maestras themselves.

The filmmaker, Catherine Murphy, lived in Cuba in the 1990s and earned a master’s degree at the University of Havana. She is the founder and director of a multimedia project known as the Literacy Project, which focuses on gathering oral histories of volunteer teachers from the literacy campaign. For Maestra, the first documentary to arise from the project, she interviewed more than 50 women and 13 men who were involved in the campaign. Many of them are now in their seventies. She also carried out five years of research in the Cuban national film archives.

Documentary footage shows the energy and enthusiasm of the young women who traveled on trains into the small towns and countryside of Cuba to live among the people and teach them how to read and write. But the challenges they faced were extreme. These women often faced opposition from their families, and many left against their parents’ wishes. They lived with poor rural families, sleeping in hammocks at night. During the day they would work in the fields alongside the peasants, and in the few hours they had in the evening, they would prepare lessons and conduct classes.

The hardships and poverty they encountered were not always conducive to learning how to read and write. Literacy teacher Diana Balboa recounts the story of a 47-year-old palm tree cutter: “His hands were swollen and deformed by such a violent job. He was unable to hold a pencil. I helped him hold the pencil but it fell out of his hands.” The man learned to read a bit, but he was never able to write.

In the midst of the literacy campaign, Cuban exiles launched the CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion. Although it was discovered and thwarted by the Cuban armed forces, escaped mercenaries combed the countryside, harassing the peasants and their literacy teachers.

In a country where the urban and rural poor had long been denied access to education, literacy was empowerment. For the counter-revolutionaries who wanted to see Cuba return to the status quo, teaching literacy to the poor was an affront to the class order. One teacher recounts the threats to her host family from gunmen who pounded on their door, demanding, “Bring out the literacy teachers!” But this family, like others across the country, put their lives on the line to protect the teachers. Sadly, they were not always able to escape these threats, and one teacher, Manuel Ascunce, was killed by insurgents.

As the literacy teachers recount, the campaign broke taboos, particularly around gender. Young women in general were subject to the norms of patriarchy. They were not expected to excel at their studies. They were confined to the house, and their futures were limited to what their parents decided for them. Being part of the literacy campaign helped these young women break away from parental constraints. For Norma Guillard, going on the campaign at the age of 15 was an adventure. It was her first time away from home, and it gave her a feeling of freedom and independence.

The film shows how the literacy campaign not only promoted literacy, but also profoundly changed the lives of the maestras themselves. Upon returning from the campaign, they were given scholarships to continue their studies. Guillard signed up immediately. As she recounts, “I had become used to moving around and being independent.” She eventually trained as a psychologist. Another maestra became a mathematics teacher. These professions were rare for women in the pre-revolutionary order.

In the documentary, we are reminded of the major milestone that Cuba achieved in such a short time. One of the most touching moments is the footage of a man who writes his name on a blackboard in slow, deliberate cursive strokes while a teacher watches from the side. When he finishes he stands in front of his completed name: Pablo Benitez. He has a quiet, proud smile on his face.

The literacy campaign is vitally important to revisit today, given the global challenges of illiteracy. We often think of illiteracy, particularly in Western nations, as a problem eradicated years ago, along with smallpox. But according to UNESCO, about 1 billion people—or 26% of the world’s adult population—remain non-literate. While developing countries have the highest rates of illiteracy, Western developed nations also have surprisingly high rates. A study carried out in 1998 by the National Institute for Literacy estimated that 47% of adults in Detroit and 36% in New York City were Level 1 readers and writers, meaning that they “could perform many tasks involving simple texts and documents,” such as signing their names or totaling a bank deposit entry, but could not read well enough to, “fill out an application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child.”

Maestra is a compelling and beautifully filmed reconstruction of one of the most significant campaigns in Cuba’s history. Fifty years on, the film clearly demonstrates the impact that it had on the lives of all those who took part.

Opening in Moscow (1959)

Director: D.A. Pennebaker

Opening in Moscow is about the 1959 American Exhibition in the USSR.  The event was meant to spread the US capitalist perspective in the Soviet Union, but the documentary provides some interesting insight into the response by some of the attendees of the exhibition.  The reactions of the attendees, as well as focusing on contrasting the exhibition itself with normal life in Moscow are the focus of the film.

The every day shots of Moscow are interesting by themselves, as they serve as a simple portrayal of the late 1950s USSR in a way that is not trying to demonize it.  This normalcy that is demonstrated is perhaps meant to be a shock to the American audience, a sort of “look how the Soviet citizens actually have lives apart from political repression” kind of attitude.  Of course, the idea that this should come as a shock is itself problematic and demonstrates a level of propaganda and misconception about the Soviet Union, especially during the period this documentary was made.

Overall the documentary is an interesting inquiry into the differences between the USSR and USA.