Someone Sit Obama Down and Make him Watch ‘Boogieman’!

boogiemanI had the pleasure this morning of interviewing Stefan Forbes on my radio program, Uprising, about his new documentary, Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story. I had only heard vague mentions of the name Lee Atwater but really had no idea how influential to American political campaigning he was, until I watched the film. This young Republican upstart from South Carolina, wrote the script-book for today’s GOP election tactics. Not surprisingly he was Karl Rove’s mentor.

Coming of political age in the College Republicans, Atwater learned early in life that he enjoyed engineering political wins rather than winning himself. He compared politics to war and decided that winning at all costs was worth it. In that spirit, Atwater spread rumors about people’s personal lives, played to the racism of white working-class Americans, manipulated the media, and even planted lies. All, in order to win an election.

Atwater helped Reagan win election, earning a place in the White House while only in his thirties. Eventually he came to be George H W Bush’s chief campaign strategist, a role that marked the zenith of his career. Engineering a win for an unpopular candidate meant discrediting rival Democrat Michael Dukakis using any means necessary. Including the racist Willie Horton ads.

Eventually his disgraceful behavior and extremely high stress caught up with him. In 1991 Lee Atwater was diagnosed with brain cancer and in the last years of his life was thought to have apologized to his political victims. According to Boogieman film maker Stefan Forbes, this is debatable and in fact Atwater was spinning lies all the way to his grave for political effect.

But think about it for one moment. If the Republican Party needs to resort to such low-down dirty tricks in order to get candidates elected, it follows that they would lose election after election if Americans started to see through them. The party’s platform is so unpopular among ordinary Americans, that they have to be driven by their basest fears into voting Republican. What does this say about so-called Republican values?

Still, Republican strategists like Atwater and Rove would never be able to pull off what they do, without such an easily manipulated and lazy media. The smears only gain traction because they are reported uncritically. When they are retracted it is often too late to matter.

Atwater may be dead but his ugly legacy lives on. Think Florida 2000, Ohio 2004, Valarie Plame, Swiftboat Veterans, and on and on. Even John McCain himself has been a victim of the type of disgusting underhanded political campaigning that Atwater exemplified. During his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, Karl Rove started a rumor that McCain fathered an illegitimate bi-racial daughter – a stain that contributed to his loss in favor of George W Bush. In fact that dark-skinned daughter was adopted by McCain and his wife from Bangladesh. Despite McCain’s vow never to resort to that type of negative political campaigning himself, once his poll numbers started sinking in this year’s election, he shamefully hired a man named Tucker Eskew, a close friend of Atwater who was interviewed extensively in Boogieman, to prepare his running mate Palin for prime-time.

The ghost of Lee Atwater lives on in this year’s presidential election. His colleagues and apprentices have managed to turn the Black, deeply Christian candidate with middle class roots and a background in community organizing, into an elite professorial type who is out of touch with the middle and working classes. Oh, and he’s a closet Muslim too. And he plays the “race-card.” Meanwhile, McCain has been transformed into a God-fearing man of the people, despite his lack of devoutness, despite losing count of the vast number of houses and cars he owns, despite being married to one of America’s wealthiest women who flies around in her own private jet. Shockingly, it is McCain who is portrayed as having become the victim of Obama’s reverse racism.

Near the end of the film Boogieman, a contrite Michael Dukakis reveals the major lesson of his political life – when mud starts slinging, don’t just stay silent and weather the storm: fight back. Trying to “rise above it” as he tried to do during the 1988 race against George H W Bush, Dukakis remained tainted by Atwater’s ghastly smears and lost the election.

Quick, before its too late, someone sit Obama down and force him or his aides to watch Boogieman.

‘Take Out’ Proves Movie Making On a Dime

The newest indie film, Take Out, about an undocumented Chinese worker and his struggle to make ends meet, is proof positive that telling a good story is far more crucial to the success of a film than props, set design, or even quality of film used. Shot entirely on a digital hand-held camera, writers and directors Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou have made Take Out‘ a winning combination of perfectly sparse writing and powerful acting.

ming dingRelatively new to the US, Ming Ding, a delivery boy for a divey New York Chinese restaurant, owes a loan shark a lot of money. He borrowed it to send back home to the family he left behind so they could pay back the debt they incurred in paying his way to the US. The shark deploys thugs to demand $800 toward the debt by nightfall or else the debt will be doubled. Ming Ding goes to work bruised from a beating and depressed. His jovial friend Young, played by Jeng-Hua Yu, who it seems has been smarter about getting into dicey debts, offers to help him with some cash and his share of the deliveries on a very rainy day the Big Apple.

The deliveries that Ming makes, and the various customers’ reactions are just as interesting as the story itself. On full display is New York’s racial and class diversity, complete with a smattering of racist behavior toward the stoic and monosyllabic Chinese immigrant who hides well his desperation for the tips he’s counting on. What actor Charles Jang, who plays Ming, does not say in words, is made tangible by the slump of his shoulders, and the grim set of his jaws. When a customer fails to tip, the viewer can’t help but take it personally.

This day in the life of Ming Ding captured in Take Out exposes how little most of us think of the daily travails and struggles of migrant labor. What makes Take Out exceptionally powerful is the quiet determination of Ming, who refuses to expose his dilemma except to his close friend, and even then he does it reluctantly. The more experienced immigrant workers in the restaurant’s kitchen pitch in to help their brother – they know full well the pain, fear, and desperation he is going through.

youngDespite the clearly depressing premise, Take Out has its moments of humor, particularly from Ming’s friend Young, who appears nonchalant about the kindness he has bestowed on his friend. Young loiters in the kitchen of the grimy restaurant – a setting as real as most of the actors and even customers – and ribs his fellow employees. He plans to own a restaurant in six years, like the owner of the one he works at – a middle aged Chinese woman known only as “Big Sister.”

Take Out’s only real downside is the severe motion sickness it can provoke in some theater-goers (like me), whose brains respond negatively to a constantly jerking camera (think “Blair Witch Project” set in the daytime rainy bustle of New York).

While Take Out ultimately falls prey to a cliched twist near the end, it defies the temptation to perpetuate the myth that in the US, the hard work and perseverance of immigrant workers is always rewarded with a slice of the American dream. Ming says he sometimes wonders why he had come to the US at all. Seeing how his hard labor is exploited to uphold an American lifestyle that includes cheap Chinese food delivery on whim, we wonder why immigrants endure such a life. And then, perhaps, we take them less for granted.

More information about the film at: www.takeoutthefilm.com.

Go See Persepolis!

PersepolisI didn’t think Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age-in-Iran memoir could be much improved by animating it, but having just seen the Oscar-nominated film Persepolis, I realize I was wrong. I described it to a friend interested in viewing it thus: a black-and-white, animated film in French with English subtitles about a young girl growing up in revolutionary Iran. That description sets up a number of obstacles to a mainstream American audience. But Persepolis is absolutely worth watching. About 10 minutes into the film, you forget it’s black and white, you forget it’s animated, and you forget it’s in French. Satrapi’s story is honest and authentic, personal and political, all at once.

The type of story Marjane Satrapi’s weaves about her life is too often told by Western storytellers who can’t help but exoticize, trivialize, and patronize readers in the telling. So many things about her experience reminded me of my own: figuring out how to be a “normal” kid in a fundamentalist culture, grappling with the alienation of being a foreigner, suffering the pain of separation from one’s family at a young age. So, when I first came across part 1 of Satrapi’s deeply moving graphic novel about her early years, I read it in one sitting. I read part 2 in the book store before I could even finish paying for it.

The women in Persepolis, like the storyteller, are strong-willed, real women who struggle for their rights heroically. Satrapi’s relationship with her smart-talking grandmother is central to the film. Her grandmother teaches her to believe in herself, scolds her when she is selfish, and reminds her to take a principled stand in all things. It’s an image of Iranian women we rarely see in Western media.

The simple lines of her pen convey volumes about family, society, war, and religion and are a testament to her artistry, both as a story teller, and a graphic artist. It would almost have been too easy to make a traditional film based on her books, complete with actors and location shoots. In translating her graphic novels into an animated film, she chooses to keep her story in a realm that is one step away from reality: just like our own memories.

Enemies of Happiness (Film Review)

Enemies of HappinessEnemies of Happiness is not The Beauty Academy of Kabul. It is not about a Western woman traveling to a war-torn country to save brown women. It is about an Afghan woman, Malalai Joya, who has chosen to risk her life to fight for her own people.

Eva Mulvad’s award-winning film opens with footage of Joya’s dramatic public denunciation of the criminal warlords who dominated the 2004 loya jirga (constitutional convention) in Afghanistan. This was the fateful moment when ordinary Afghans discovered their most dedicated spokesperson—a twenty-six-year-old woman who was willing to risk her life to give voice to her people. It was also the moment that cast Joya into international fame, and into the crosshairs of the most notorious Afghan criminals—the “enemies of happiness.”

The loya jirga incident was the impetus for Joya’s bid for a parliamentary seat, and her election campaign is the focus of the rest of the film. It is Joya’s unconventional method of winning over the voters of rural Farah Province that makes this film utterly fascinating.

Joya does give an inspiring campaign speech or two to women who have never voted and cannot read or write. But the poor residents of Farah are more impressed by her dedication to solving the myriad social and political problems that plague their society. A drug addict who abuses his wife and threatens to leave his family receives a stern lecture from Joya. A warlord who is intent on forcibly marrying a young girl is reported by the girl’s family to the police at Joya’s urging.

Enemies of HappinessAnother reason why her people love and trust her is that she is quite literally one of them. Eva Mulvad’s skillful and unobtrusive camera work captures the impoverished lifestyle that is unfamiliar to Joya’s Western supporters. We see her cooking a modest meal, squatting on her haunches as she washes her clothes, and sleeping within a ramshackle hut. Mulvad’s decision to forgo a narrator gives the film a rare intimacy and authenticity. Malalai and other Afghans speak for themselves, allowing the film to avoid the paternalism that affects most Western-made documentaries about “Third World” nations.

Throughout the campaign Joya remains stoic, knowing that if elected, her intent to expose the warlords will bring her even closer to death. Many Afghans have been brutally murdered for doing and saying far less. But in one meeting with a close friend, the immense gravity of her actions becomes apparent and she breaks down, begging Mulvad to turn the camera off.

Enemies of Happiness leaves off where Malalai Joya’s contentious career in Parliament begins. The film’s only flaw is that its triumphant ending obscures the greater danger that lies ahead: in May 2007, Joya was suspended for “insulting” her fellow MPs and ordered to face a court of law.

Still, this remarkable story of how one woman has risked everything for her people is devastatingly compelling. It is a lesson in deep democracy that elected representatives in the United States could stand to learn.

—Sonali Kolhatkar

This article was originally published in the spring/summer 2007-08 issue of make/shift magazine (www.makeshiftmag.com).

Find out more about the film at www.enemiesofhappiness.com, and about Malalai Joya at www.malalaijoya.com

Battling for Truth

Battle of Algiers DVD

Film Review: The Battle of Algiers Criterion Collection DVD

Any time you’re in somebody else’s land, in their country, and they don’t want you there, you weren’t invited: I think that you can just look at The Battle of Algiers and see what you’re in store for.-Spike Lee

I spent from about 6PM to midnight Saturday evening watching the 3 DVDs in the Criterion Collection release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers. I had never seen the movie before, so the whole set was a new experience. Outside of having seen a film on Frantz Fanon’s life and work about 10 years ago[1] I am ignorant of Algerian history and the struggle against French occupation. So the DVD set was somewhat of an education for me.

There are two broad kinds of political film. The first is overt propaganda, the second is fictionalized storytelling with a political message. I am as much a fan as the next person of well-made politically astute propaganda (Robert Greenwald’s valuable Wal-Mart is a recent example[2] ). In my opinion, the purpose of such pieces is to build a strong emotional response to injustice, gather supporting arguments, and to marshall forces. The Battle of Algiers, however, falls into the second category. The director Gillo Pontecorvo obviously supports the anti-imperialist Algerian resistance, but the film’s sympathetic treatment of the French occupiers, who like many in such circumstances, have an interlocking set of rationalizations and justifications for their behavior (albeit false and morally unjustifiable at their core), gives the film a breadth and sense of reality that it would not have if it were solely a propaganda tract. The price to pay for this is, however, the fact that people of different political stripes will draw different lessons from watching it. This is not in my opinion a bad thing. Any movement for social change worth its salt must acknowledge the humanity of those it is up against, understand their motivations and probable tactics, and not sugarcoat the tactics of resistance, both violent and non-violent. Criterion’s The Battle of Algiers set does this well.

Pontecorvo wanted to impose a “dictatorship of the truth” on audiences, so he attempted to make his film appear as real as possible. The realism of the film is heightened by the newsreel-style black and white cinematography and the use of nonprofessional actors in almost all roles. The scenes of rioting in Algiers were filmed only a few years after the real demonstrations, and many of the extras who made up the crowd were probably involved in the original events, thus bringing real emotions and sensibilities to their work. It was like interviewing all the Arab residents of Algiers, all at once. More realism comes from the fact that the The Battle of Algiers is based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef (now member of the Algerian parliament), the head of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in the Casbah, who plays himself in the film. Pontecorvo’s experience as a communist leader of the Italian anti-Fascist resistance in his own country in World War II surely informed the film as well.

Since its release in 1966, The Battle of Algiers has been referred to by both the left and the right to justify, instruct, and inspire various colonial and anti-colonial projects. This is the paradox of the film’s success over the years, I suppose. The documentaries that accompany the film perhaps deliberately follow this “balanced” approach: there is a piece produced in the early 1990s by Tariq Ali and narrated by Edward Said which comments among other things on the relevance of the film to today’s struggles against occupation, notably the Palestinian intifadah; and there is an interview with former US “counterterrorism” officials Richard Clarke and Michael Sheehan discussing the French “mistakes” and what the US should do differently in its war against Al Qaeda.

The Clarke/Sheehan interview is truly surreal. In an otherwise anti-colonialist DVD set, you have two “anti-terrorism” pundits in the Clinton and Bush administrations discussing “what the French could have done,” and remarking how torture and heavy-handed strikes are not tactically correct for an occupying power which should be trying to deligitimize it’s enemy. Since this is the only real entry in the set that deals with current US policy in the light of the Battle of Algiers, there is little to suggest that the US current project in the Middle East is just as wrong as the French occupation of Algeria. Thus George Will could easily write last April,

The differences between the Algerian insurgency and today’s Iraqi insurgency are, of course, profound. In the former, North Africans were rising in the name of self-determination against rule by Europeans. Since the Jan. 30 elections, Iraqi insurgents have been fighting an Iraqi government, albeit an embryonic one with a dangerously protracted gestation period. [3]

I’m sure the French colonists were just as incapable of seeing the Algerian insurgents as fighters for a worthy cause, and justified their suppression of the NLF by saying those fighting the French-imposed system were against their own people, who after all were French nationals who could even become citizens.

The Criterion set includes an interview with 5 of today’s well-known directors influenced by The Battle of Algiers: Mira Nair, Spike Lee, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone. Nair, who has done some good socially-conscious films, praised Pontecorvo’s film as the film she wish she had directed. Personally I’m glad she hasn’t tried to direct such a film, especially given last year’s disengaging costume drama Vanity Fair, whose hands-off approach to British imperialism bordered on overt orientalism (according to her this was a subtle comment on orientalism, but I didn’t get it). (Ironically, Vanity Fair was dedicated to the late Edward Said, who was a friend of Nair’s). Her statements about political filmmaking were to the effect that she hopes someone will do it, but it won’t be her. Equally disappointing was Soderbergh, who lamented the fact that he started making movies after the era of great political films like The Battle of Algiers and Costa-Gavras’s Z. As if Pontecorvo decided to make his film because he thought it was a good time to make a political film, and there were few risks. Schnabel, the only director who I wasn’t familiar with, made a rare comment that the kind of struggles the film depicted were still going on today.

It looks like if you saw the news in Iraq and you had a black and white television set, it looks like you could have seen this film right now. It’s the same thing, and there’s something very disturbing about that.

Lee said, correctly, that the Algerians were right to fight their oppressors. Stone praised the technical aspects of The Battle of Algiers, but remarked that people complained to him that the film was a little too biased in favor of the Algerians.

If anything, Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers took more than the necessary pains to give the French occupation the benefit of the doubt. The historical context of the film is pretty much left out, poorly motivating the need for violent resistance. Today’s audiences benefit from the excellent historical material that is on the companion disks, in which we learn that The Battle of Algiers was only a piece of the 1954-1962 Algerian war for independence, the part fought in the capital city Algiers, where most of the French colonists lived. The French had occupied Algeria since 1830, but the invasion was immediately resisted by Abdel Kadir. A nationalist struggle for self-determination was always a part of the Algerian milieu. In particular, the violent suppression of Algerian demonstrations in 1945, leading to the massacres of 6-8,000 villagers near Setif, set the stage for the final freedom struggle that led to independence. The NLF movement was already active for years in the countryside before the 1954-1957 events in the capital that are the focus of Pontecorvo’s film. Little of this history was provided by the film, perhaps allowing today’s audiences to think that the French settlers were helpless victims of Algerian terrorists in the same way as the Algerian civilians were victims of the French military. The film does show that in Algiers, the first attacks on civilians were carried out by clandestine French terrorist groups made up of police officials and settlers. Only after the French terrorism did violent attacks by the NLF on French civilians begin.

The French had participated in the crime of occupation with the full benefit of the French military to enforce it violently, with all the tools of terror and torture at its disposal, and a supposedly blind legal system, which was racist in practice, backing it up. (Compare with the similar situation in Palestine, or in the American occupations of native lands, or in today’s current US projects in Muslim lands.) The French were reaping the logical consequences of their actions. As Oliver Stone noted in the companion disk (and as has been said by other commentators regarding the 9/11 atrocities), the French chickens were coming home to roost.