Woman Rebel (2010)

Director: Kiran Deol

Nepal

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.

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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.

Guerrilla Girl (2005)

Director: Frank Poulsen

Isabel discusses isses with a FARC commander

This documentary details the decision by a young woman named Isabel to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  Isabel comes from a university background and decided to join the FARC because of what she felt was increased political repression in the city.  She comes from what is clearly a more privileged background than many of the fighters in the FARC and that privilege shows up throughout various points in the documentary (for example, she seems for a while unable to limit her bathing time to what is supposed to be allocated for everyone).  Although she comes from a more comfortable background, it is made clear that her father has been involved in Left wing politics, and that she was also involved when she was in the university.

The film is not necessarily a political take on the FARC but instead aims to focus on the “up close and personal” details of new recruits to the militant group.  There are some minor jabs at the group, for example there is text in the documentary that talks about how joining the FARC is a life time commitment, meant to make it a sort of scary notion.  But for the most part, the way the more controversial aspects of the FARC are dealt with in the film are through a dialogue between Isabel and some of the commanders/teachers in her unit.  For example, she brings up the conceptions of the FARC’s involvement in drug trade, to which the FARC commander denies, and later in the film points to the fact that the FARC has been trying to encourage other crop growth based on food, not coca.  These are issues that James J. Brittain addresses in his book Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The origin and direction of the FARC-EP.

Class of new recruits

On top of the interestingly “neutral” or “non-political” take on the FARC and the war in Colombia, the film has excellent cinematography.  This more artistic take on the subject is an excellent way to shed light on an issue that many folks don’t know much about, and documentaries and news stories on the subject tend to be static and “uninteresting” to those not already interested in the content.

The film is of interest because it shows what it’s really like to join a self described Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, and one of the more notorious ones of Latin America.  It doesn’t quite address, through statistics and arguments, the conceptions and criticisms that many on the Left have of the group directly.  But as was mentioned earlier, seeing the group through the eyes of a new recruit does shed some light on the organization.

The Weight of Chains (2010)

Director: Boris Malagurski

Kosovo Rebels Thanking NATO

The Weight of Chains is a documentary about the breakup of Yugoslavia and the direction that the former Yugoslav Republics went in the aftermath.  Much of the focus of the film is on NATO’s intervention in the violent conflicts that ensued, as well as the West’s role in promoting such conflict.  It is quite a relevant documentary for today as NATO continues to engage in “humanitarian interventions” in the developing world.

The documentary primarily covers the period from the late 80s up to the independence of Kosovo.  It offers a refreshing look at the conflict, not through the eyes of the West stepping in to do a humanitarian good, but instead demonstrates the problems of NATO intervention and that their role was that of “colonization” instead of mere intervention.

While the narrative of the documentary is refreshing and takes an “anti-imperialist” stance to a degree, it isn’t without some problems.  For example, the way that ethnic tensions are portrayed in the film is almost suggesting that they were merely the result of Western manipulation and intervention, although the film does not suggest a sort of grand conspiracy involved in the Alex Jones sense.  Yugoslavia’s ethnic tensions predate the socialist period (as the film does point out) and the institutions and divisions of the country that existed to decrease ethnic tensions under Tito did give an opportunity for them to be exploited during the deep crisis.  This discussion opens up an important part of the overall Marxist stance on national self determination.   These contradictions within Yugoslavia’s socialist period were not taken seriously or explored in the documentary: there is even a portion where tensions between Albanians and Serbs during the socialist period is pointed to, which runs a bit counter to the narrative of Western manipulation of ethnic tension.

The crisis tore Yugoslavia apart

Also, some of the atrocities that surely took place were not explored or essentially brushed off.  While this was perhaps not the intention of the filmmaker, this could be interpreted as ignoring an important part of the conflicts that ensued.  There likely was anticipation of the criticism, however, by the filmmaker who likely decided instead to reject the obligatory focus on those things that were used to justify NATO intervention: as atrocities happened on all sides.

Another point that wasn’t really explored was the market model of Yugoslav socialism.  During the segment explaining how Yugoslavia was independent,  this model was just assumed to be the “better socialism” yet that model’s features were only briefly dealt with.  Perhaps this was outside of the scope of the film, as it was geared more towards the explaining of the breakup, but more exploration of this issue would have been beneficial to the film.

While there were indeed shortcomings of the film, it is important that documentaries like it exist.  They challenge the accepted argument of “humanitarian intervention” that even some Leftists attempt to appeal to, which is quite unfortunate.

For more information visit the official website of the film: http://www.weightofchains.com/

Documentary a Day: Chevolution (2008)

Directors: Luis Lopez, Trisha Ziff

Chevolution is a documentary about the most reproduced image in the history of photography: the Guerrillero Heroico image taken by Korda (and is one of three about the image)  The film is an in depth look at the origins of the iconic  photo and of Che himself.  The image is contextualized from the event that it was taken all the way to the broader discourse on its subsequent commercialization (for example there are a republican and a libertarian wearing Che shirts to “demonstrate how the shirts are made possible by capitalism).

The image was not initially even printed in Cuban news papers, but was first widely circulated by Feltrinelli and later made into a more pop-art style by Fitzpatrick.  Its mass appearance coincided with events like May 68′ amongst other uprisings that were going on in the time around the world.

There are some problems with the documentary, for example there is a long segment about how people don’t realize the “violent nature” of Che, or how his ideas lead to a “totalitarian dogmatic state” without an adequate counter-argument by people who appear in the documentary who clearly sympathize with Che.  Those more sympathetic with the potential of Che are more portrayed as idealists instead of Marxists, although perhaps that is implied by their sympathies.

The co-optation of rebellion, a popular topic amongst the more cultural Leftist theory, is dealt with throughout the film (even with a reference to Marcuse).  The interesting thing here is that the “culture industry” theories of the Frankfurt school seem to apply even to the Leftist reproduction of Che’s image.  What I mean by that is that the original mass production of the famous image were almost the reverse of the co-optation  that we subsequently saw with the commercialization of Che’s image.

The film does an excellent job at examining the origins and meaning of the image from various different perspectives, and takes it very seriously.

Documentary a Day: The Take (2004)

Director: Avi Lewis

The Take is a documentary that follows the phenomenon of worker takeovers of factories in Argentina towards the beginning of the 2000s.  The film goes through the historical conditions that lead to crisis in Argentina and how Neo-Liberal market reforms totally devastated the country long before the economic crisis that would eventually come home by the end of the decade.  The response by many workers in Argentina was to “fire the boss” and run factories and resume production as collectives, not organized along capitalist lines.  Not only is the class consciousness of the workers themselves in Argentina demonstrated in a very positive light here, but the communities in which factories like the one featured in the film tend to fully back the workers efforts.

Argentina at the time was in a political uproar, and in the midst of a Presidential election that resulted in a social democratic government that remains today.  The workers movement, as documented in this film, began to respond to the crisis by fighting back and taking matters into their own hands.  They were more than willing to fight back police attempts to retake the factory, and interviews with the factory owner reminded me of a scene in Godard’s Tout Va Bien where the boss tries to justify capitalism and property against a worker uprising (which resulted in the boss being kidnapped in that film).

The documentary does take a “libertarian socialist” stance on the phenomenon, claiming that it is an example of how spontaneous actions by workers are preferable to organizations like Communist parties, which of course Leninist would not agree with.  But all Leftists alike can acknowledge that the film does have a very optimistic tone about workers’ power.