Night Catches Us (2010)

Director: Tanya Hamilton

Night Catches Us is a film about the mood of the late 70s and the decline of the Civil Rights movement and the mood of that era.  The film focuses on a character named Marcus who was recently released from jail after having been involved with the Black Panther Party.  He faces a host of problems once he returns: the most serious of which being that he is accused of snitching on his former comrades.

As the film focuses on his reintegration into his community, a host of characters and their personal plights are highlighted very well. On top of well done focus of the film, the style of the film is an intimate one with excellent character development and beautiful cinematography, not to mention the great score by The Roots.  The style is important, as it is an attempt to capture the mood of the era.  The film opens with an optimistic speech given by Jimmy Carter who was at that time about to be the incoming President.

The contrast of Carter’s speech and reality is felt throughout the film.  One of the main characters is Iris, a 10 year old girl who is the daughter of Marcus’ comrade from before he was in prison.  Her role in the film is to essentially bring to life the “guilt” of the mistakes of the past.  This is shown by the constant need for Marcus and Patricia (Iris’s mother) to have to explain their past to her, and in an uncomfortable way that echos the mood and theme of the entire film.

The film takes a very honest approach towards the Panthers and indirectly addresses one of the main internal contradictions they faced: paranoia in the face of very real repression.  In this case, the personal relationships and how they were affect is what is being examined, which is an important aspect to these struggles: they were about real people.  That is not to say that the politics of the era took a backseat to personal problems.  Nor is it to say that the film presents a sort of “being involved with radical violent groups has consequences” message.  While the characters are fully aware of the mistakes of the past, a cheesy denouncement of their previously idealistic selves is absent from the film which is quite refreshing compared to many more mainstream narratives about radical movements of the time.

Often when films that deal with “far left” themes are sought out, they can be mediocre or not well done.  Night Catches US is far from that, wining awards and being critically acclaimed while also dealing with an issue far too underrepresented in the media.  It is an important addition to the stock of films that deals with questions that the Left is concerned with, as well as a great addition to film in general.

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¡Vampiros en La Habana! (1985)

Director: Juan Padrón
English Title: Vampires in Havana

Vampires in Havana is an animated film released in Cuba in the mid 1980s. The film is about a vampire (related to Count Dracula himself) who invented a potion that can allow vampires to walk around in the daytime. It takes place in Havana, Cuba in the environment of a growing rebel movement against the dictator “General Machado” (who clearly represents Batista in the film). The main character is part of this revolutionary movement when he later discovers that he is a vampire, and then becomes caught up in a struggle between Chicago “Mobster vampires” and wealthy European vampires.

European Vampire

The plot beings to focus on the formula and the battle to get the formula by the different vampire sects. Von Dracula in the film wanted the formula to be given for free to the world, while the Chicago “mobsters” wanted it destroyed (because it would harm their real estate plans) and the Europeans wanted to make a profit. The idea of giving it to the world for free could be seen as an analogy for how medicine ought to be from a Cuban perspective in this film: instead of major companies trying to make a profit off of drugs that people need, health should be socialized. And in this film, those who want to make that profit are essentially portrayed as mob bosses. (Granted that portrayal is just as much a commentary on pre-revolutionary Cuba, but the analogy to medicine should be seen as a valid one as well).

The end of the film reveals that the main character (the son of the nephew of Dracula) does not even like blood.  Thus after a lifetime of using the formula, he essentially ceases to be a vampire or at least a long time of taking that formula makes him significantly less of a vampire.  Karl Marx often compared capitalists to vampires, and it’s certainly possible that the write of this film was also trying to make a statement that linked vampires to a regressive force in society.  Whether the writer intended that or not, the film does have certain messages that are not seen in the average animated film in a country like the United States.

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: Herbert’s Hippopotamus (1996)

Director Paul Alexander Juutilainen

Herbert’s Hippopotamus is a film about the New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse.  The film details his coming to the USA and his experiences while he was teaching a UC San Diego in California.  Marcuse reached a high level of fame in California and around the world for his role in the student and radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s (although his involvement as a Marxist theorist goes all the way back to the German Revolution towards the end of WWI).  His most notable student was Angela Davis, who is featured throughout the film quite often, recounting her experiences with Marcuse.  His celebrity-like status would remind a contemporary viewer of Slajov Zizek, although Marcuse was much more active in social movements even though he remained an intellectual the whole time.

In the film and and subsequent reviews, he is often accused of being a Communist, although it’s “cleared up” that he never joined the Party, although he did remain a Marxist and employed a Marxist analysis of his critique of industrial society (including the USSR).  His politics made him have enemies in high places, including the American Legion (which already has a bad history with the Left), and Ronald Reagan: who was for removing Marcuse from his position.

The film is an interesting account of a radical thinker of the 1960s who had a complicated relationship with the college he worked at, and capitalist society at large: of which he was a major critic.

At the time of this posting, the film can be viewed in its entirety on Google Video or YouTube:

Google Video

Further viewing:

A lecture by the co-editor of Marcuse’s selected writings – YouTube

Documentary a Day: Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986)

Director: Anne Lewis

This short (around half an hour) documentary is about a strike by West Virginian coal miners that got violent in the early 1980s.  It should be of interest today as some of the main players of the strike continue to make national news headlines: Richard Trumpka, who is now the president of the AFL-CIO, and Don Blankenship, Massey Energy CEO who got national headlines when a mine operated by Massey exploded a few years ago, killing many workers inside.  Massey Energy also engages in a lot of “mountain top removal” which has become quite a contentious issue in West Virginia, for workers, environmentalists and the coal industry.

This documentary accounts for a strike that got violent and was a very important event for the union movement of West Virginia (the unions have consistently been busted since).  Interviews with striking workers, and scabs that were brought in either from other states or interestingly were local police before the strike, are contrasted throughout the film.  The class consciousness of the striking workers is quite high, the violent history of West Virginia’s labor disputes remains an important lesson for them throughout these interviews.  It’s also interesting to note that a high level of solidarity with South African workers is kept with the striking workers who are well aware that Massey is exploiting workers on an international scale and that solidarity is important if they wanted to have a fighting chance.

Another interesting part of the documentary are the interviews with Don Blankenship and the scab workers.  Blankenship makes similar arguments as a boss of a profit-making corporation that the fictional boss in Godard’s Tout Va Bien makes to not only justify his company’s position against the workers, but to defend capitalism itself.  The scabbing workers often either are visibly uncomfortable about the backlash by the community and striking workers and are very open about the fact that they regret what they’re doing, or their excuses rest on relatively empty notions of “freedom” and the “right to work.”

This short film demonstrates the aspect of coal mining that is all too often left out of the current debate on moutain top removal, and reminds me of a Monthly Review article titled “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism” that links these two important subjects.

The documentary can be viewed in its entirety here: http://appalshop.org/film/minewar/stream.html

Links of interest:

Monthly Review Article – on strikes in West Virginia which includes the one this documentary is about

Ambush at Keystone – An account by Maoist Mike Ely about his invovlement in a wildcat strike in West Virginia in the 1970s

Matewan – A late 1980s film about earlier labor disputes in West Virginia.

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)