The Death of Stalin: history as tragedy *and* farce

October 22, 2017 at 2:02 pm (anti-semitism, apologists and collaborators, cinema, comedy, film, Jim D, murder, parasites, stalinism, terror, thuggery, tragedy, truth, USSR)

Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is, therefore, the return of man himself as a social, ie really human being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development. Communism as fully-developed naturalism is humanism and as a fully-developed humanism is naturalism” – Marx, Third Economic and Philosophical Manuscript, 1844 (Marx’s own emphases).

Stalinism, that murderous negation of Marx’s humanism and the emancipatory ideals of October 1917, seems to be making a minor comeback in British politics. It’s no secret that at least two of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest advisers are dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists and (I’m told) cod-Stalinist iconography and rhetoric is worryingly prevalent within Young Labour. That semi-official mouthpiece of middle class liberalism, the Guardian, recently published a letter defending the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, the alliance between Stalin and Hitler that set off the Second World War.

Since most present-day Stalinists and would-be Stalinists are (in my experience) not particularly interested in either Marxist theory or serious history, perhaps farce is the best way to begin to educate them. The Death of Stalin bills itself as “loosely based on a true story” and it’s certainly the case that director Amando Iannucci has taken plenty of liberties with the facts surrounding the death of the mass-murdering tyrant in March 1953: as historian Richard Overy has pointed out, Vyacheslav Molotov was not foreign minister when Stalin died; Marshal Zukov did not command the Red Army at the time, having been exiled to the provinces; Krushchev, not Malenkov chaired the meeting to re-organise the government; and Beria had ceased to be head of security in 1946.

But all this is really beside the point: the film is a caricature, and like all the best caricatures, it tells a fundamental truth: that the dance macabre of these apparatchiks as they jostled for position following the monster’s death was as grotesque, absurd and cynical as anything Iannuncci has previously satirised in his depictions of contemporary bourgeois politics (The Thick of It / In the Loop and Veep), but more deadly. And, of course, it is all a million miles from the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution that these gargoyles had strangled.

The scenes immediately following the apparent ‘death’ (and brief, terrifying revival, before real death) contain at least two real truths: that the apparatchiks dithered over whether to call a doctor for several interconnected reasons: fear of  being seen as disloyal, the wish to see Stalin gone in order to succeed him, and secondly, the fact that many doctors  had been murdered, imprisoned or ceased practicing as a result of the so-called Doctors’ Plot, an antisemitic campaign in which senior medics were accused, preposterously, of belonging to a “Zionist terror gang” (today’s leftist “anti-Zionists” take note).

Is this a suitable subject for comedy – even comedy as consciously dark as this? Mr Overy thinks not, complaining that whereas “the audience reaction to Downfall was serious reflection about the Hitler dictatorship … The Death of Stalin suggests Soviet politics can be treated as opera buffa”.

Again, I beg to differ: though the film is genuinely very funny, the laughs are frequently brought to a sudden end with the sounds of pistol-shots as prisoners are summarily dispatched, a body rolls down the stairs as a torture session is briefly revealed, and the sadist, mass murderer and rapist Lavrentiy Beria (brilliantly portrayed by Simon Russell Beale) casually orders a soldier to “shoot her before him – but make sure he sees it.”

The diabolical figure of Beria dominates the film like a monstrous, manipulative, poisonous toad whose eventual cum-uppance (another historical inaccuracy, by the way; he wasn’t executed until December 1953, months after the period covered by the film) had me silently cheering – and then feeling ashamed: had Beria, from beyond the grave, degraded my humanity to the degree that I was entertained by a brutal killing?

In fact, it is Beale’s extraordinary performance as Beria that is, simultaneously, the film’s greatest strength and its central weakness: so satanically malevolent is he, that the other apparatchiks seem almost likeable – or, at least, pitiable. Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) comes over as a nervous, failed stand-up comedian, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor – Hank from The Larry Sanders Show) is weak, vain and pathetic, while Molotov (Michael Palin) is simply a tragic, broken man, not least when Beria tricks him into denouncing his own wife, in her presence.

So this is not definitive history, and makes no pretence of being so. But it tells a real truth: that Stalin and his courtiers were at least as venal and corrupt as the very worst bourgeois politician, and a thousand times more murderous (OK: Trump may yet cause me to reassess that judgement). They, and the regime they created out of the ruins of the October revolution, had nothing to do with socialism or communism – not, that is, if like Marx, you believe that communism must be “fully-developed naturalism [and] humanism.” It’s a tragedy that a new generation of would-be socialists (some not even born when the workers of Eastern Europe overthrew Stalinism in 1989-90) are going to have to learn this lesson from scratch. Let us hope that Iannucci’s darkly comic and horrifically wise film sets at least some young comrades on a journey to the truth.

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I Called Him Morgan

July 28, 2017 at 5:11 pm (cinema, film, humanism, jazz, mental health, music, posted by JD, tragedy)

Although released in the US last year, Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan comes to UK screens for the first time this week. Jordan Hoffman in today’s Guardian gives it five stars and writes, “I Called Him Morgan isn’t just the greatest jazz documentary since Let’s Get Lost, it’s a documentary-as-jazz. Spell-binding, mercurial, hallucinatory, exuberant, tragic … aw hell, man, those are a lot of heavy words, but have you heard Lee Morgan’s music? More importantly, do you know the story of his life?”

Other reviews:

Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan accomplishes the impossible. It renders the story as a Greek tragedy, in which everyone not only has reasons, but spells them out: Morgan, his wife, and the “other woman,” accompanied by a chorus of witnesses like Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin. This is one of the most unconventional, spellbinding music-related documentaries ever made.

— Gary Giddins (jazz & film critic, USA)

Kasper Collin’s excellent documentary “I Called Him Morgan,” a sleek, sorrowful elegy for the prodigiously gifted, tragically slain bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, is as much a visual and textural triumph as it is a gripping feat of reportage. Binding its charismatic gallery of talking heads with woozy, moody evocations of Morgan’s New York City — courtesy of ravishing 16mm lensing by the ingenious cinematographer Bradford Young — Collin’s film is most moving when it delves past the expected struggles with fame, creation and addiction to etch the unusual, affectionate and finally fatal relationship between Morgan and his common-law wife Helen.

— Guy Lodge, VARIETY

Modern music was scarred by the death, at thirty-three, of the trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot in a Lower East Side jazz club in 1972 by his common-law wife, Helen Morgan. The Swedish director Kasper Collin’s documentary “I Called Him Morgan” is anchored by the sole recorded interview that she granted, in 1996, shortly before her death. Collin reveals the vast historical range of her story, starting with her move, in the nineteen-forties, from her native North Carolina to New York, where she confronted the limited employment opportunities for black women and built a sort of freestyle artistic salon. Interviews with Morgan’s great musical cohorts, such as Wayne Shorter and Albert (Tootie) Heath, reveal the jazz circuit’s high-risk behind-the-scenes energies, involving fast cars, sexual adventures, and—in Morgan’s case—drugs. From the story of one complex relationship, Collin builds a resonant portrait of an enduringly influential scene and era.

— Richard Brody, THE NEW YORKER

While it’s technically correct to call “I Called Him Morgan” a documentary, Kasper Collin ’s brilliant film plays like first-rate drama as it tells the tragic story of Lee Morgan. He’s the bop trumpet prodigy who died of wounds after his common-law wife, Helen More, shot him on a snowy night in 1972 in a jazz club in New York’s East Village. The tragedy was shared; Helen, as the movie makes clear, was a compelling figure in her own right, a woman of depth and passion who rose from rural poverty in North Carolina.

— Joe Morgenstern, WALL STREET JOURNAL

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Review: ‘Denial’ in the age of post-factual politics

February 10, 2017 at 7:09 pm (anti-semitism, apologists and collaborators, cinema, conspiracy theories, fascism, film, history, law, posted by JD, relativism, Trump, truth)

Ann Field reviews Denial, now on general release:

Denial is a dramatisation of the libel case brought by Holocaust denier and Hitler apologist David Irving against the American academic Deborah Lipstadt (author of Denying the Holocaust, in which Irving featured prominently) and Penguin Books (which published her book).

The film has received mixed reviews. Some critics have described it as “hammy”, “stuffy and repetitive”, and “a standard issue legal drama”. The character of Lipstadt has also been criticised as “so predictable” and “an impassioned mouthpiece with no internal life.” And given the well-known result of the real-life trial — in 2000 a High Court judge found that Irving had knowingly distorted history and ruled in favour of Lipstadt and Penguin Books — the eventual outcome of the trial is not a source of tension in the film.

But the film is well worth seeing. Irving is such a truly repulsive character, and the contrast between him and Lipstadt so absolute, that the audience can only enjoy the wait for Irving’s eventual defeat in court, and then relish the moment of his demise Irving does not look at people. He leers and scowls at them. When he speaks, his face twists into a grimace. He is full of his own bloated self-importance, but fawning and sycophantic towards the judge in court.

During the film Lipstadt and her legal team watch clips of Irving addressing neo-Nazi rallies, making racist “jokes”, and denying the genocide of the Holocaust. The cheap and grainy quality of the clips helps emphasise the tawdry and seedy nature of the character they show. Irving also excels in a poisonous anti-semitism-by-innuendo. “Who pays you to write your books?” asks Irvine when he “ambushes” Lipstadt in a lecture at the start of the film.

According to his libel claim, Lipstadt is “part of a world conspiracy to destroy his reputation.” And in one of the court scenes he refers to “those who funded her (Lipstadt) and guided her hand.” But, for all his bravado, Irving is also a pathetic figure. As Lipstadt’s barrister points out, Irving wants to be seen as a great writer and historian and hankers after respect — “England is a club and he wants to be a member of it.” That makes Irving’s defeat all the more complete and all the more enjoyable when it arrives.

He loses the trial, he is exposed as a charlatan rather than a historian, and when he tries to shake the hand of Lipstadt’s barrister — as if the trial had been a public school sixth form debate — the latter abruptly turns his back on him. Lipstadt, on the other hand, is built up into a champion of the oppressed. Her name, Deborah, she explains, means leader and defender of her people. She is a woman and a Jew, which is one reason why Irving is so intent on pursuing her. And she has no interest in negotiating, compromising or reaching an out-of-court settlement with Irving.

She also spells out the importance of the case in which she is the central figure: if Irving wins, then Holocaust denial receives a judicial stamp of approval as a legitimate opinion. There is no face-to-face confrontation between Lipstadt and Irving in the film. But there is a succession of dramatic confrontations between Lipstadt and her legal team.

Lipstadt wants to give evidence at the trial. Lipstadt wants Holocaust survivors to give evidence at the trial. Lipstadt promises a Holocaust survivor that the voices of those who did not survive will be heard at the trial. But her legal team will have none of this.

Almost to the point of caricature, they are hardheaded legal professionals who base their strategy solely on what is most likely to achieve victory in court. When Lipstadt objects that if she does not testify in court people will call her a coward and that she would have to live with that for the rest of her life, her barrister responds: “That’s the price to pay for winning.”

Not that her barrister is portrayed unsympathetically: he seems to live off red wine (preferably drunk out of a plastic beaker rather than a glass), sandwiches and cigarettes. There is the same element of caricature about the High Court judge: apparently unaware of the invention of the computer, he writes his judgements with a fountain pen while drinking freshly made tea. And, without the assistance of a butler, he would surely never manage to put his wig on straight.

Although Denial was completed before Trump’s election victory, the film’s scriptwriter, David Hare, has emphasised that the film also has a more contemporary element: it takes a dig at Trump’s brand of post-factual politics: “[In this internet age] it is necessary to remind people that there are facts, there is scientific evidence and there is such a thing as proof. That was true with this court case and it’s important to say it now. [Trump’s politics] is a non-evidence-based approach to politics, what you might call Trumpery. It’s terribly dangerous.”

Cinema-goers whose idea of a good film is a five-hour-long adaptation of a novel by Proust, directed by Wim Wenders, and full of lengthy shots of dreary Swedish coastlines punctuated by endless internal monologues should steer well clear of Denial. But for those who like a film where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, Denial is a must-see.

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Loach honoured at Cannes: a critical appreciation

May 23, 2016 at 2:49 pm (Andrew Coates, AWL, cinema, Clive Bradley, culture, film, From the archives, posted by JD, socialism, television)


Comrade Coatesy celebrates Ken Loach’s success at the Cannes Film Festival, but is not uncritical of Loach’s politics:

Ken Loach has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake.

“Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old joiner in the North-East of England who falls ill and requires state assistance for disability from the Employment and Support Allowance. While he endeavours to overcome the red tape involved in getting this assistance, he meets single mother Katie who, in order to escape a homeless persons’ hostel, must take up residence in a flat 300 miles (480 km) away.”

France 24 reports,

The 79-year-old Briton attacked the “dangerous project of austerity” as he accepted the festival’s top prize from actor Mel Gibson and Mad Max creator George Miller, who headed this year’s jury. “The world we live in is at a dangerous point right now. We are in the grip of a dangerous project of austerity driven by ideas that we call neo-liberalism that have brought us to near catastrophe,” Loach said, adding: “We must give a message of hope, we must say another world is possible.”

And, he continued, “Necessary”.

Le Monde’s review noted that ‘welfare reform’ forms the heart of the film. That in the UK there is a veritable ‘crusade’ against the disabled, to root out those feigning illness (“la chasse aux tire-au-flanc a pris les allures d’une croisade) in a “néo-victorienne” Britain.

Moi, Daniel Blake n’est pas une satire d’un système absurde. Ken Loach n’est pas un humoriste, c’est un homme en colère, et le parcours de l’ouvrier privé de travail et de ressources est filmé avec une rage d’autant plus impatiente qu’elle est impuissante.

I, Daniel Blake, is not a satire about an absurd system. Ken Loach is not a humourist, he’s full of anger, and the progress a worker without a job, and without assets, is filmed with an indignation that is as exasperated  as it is impotent.

This Blog is not an uncritical admirer of Ken Loach. He is against austerity and for social rights, the cause of the left.  But his more specific politics, which include a lengthy membership of Respect and support for the cultural Boycott of Israel, as well as no known activity against Islamist genociders, or support for the Kurdish people in their fight for dear life against ISIS,  are not always the same as ours.

Nor are all of Loach’s films, for all of their skill and intensity, always as deep as they set out to be.
(Read Coatesy’s full article here).

In the light of this well-deserved award to an avowedly Marxist film-maker, now seems a good moment to republish Clive Bradley’s insightful article. As the piece was written in 1997, it doesn’t deal with Loach’s more recent work, but nevertheless raises important issues about the difficulties of reconciling ‘art’ and ‘propaganda’, and the extent to which Loach succeeds (and fails) in doing this, by examining three of his films. The author stated at the outset: “throughout this article, I am using the word “propaganda” in its neutral  sense, to mean politically educative material”.

_________________________________________________________________________

Art versus Propaganda: the films of Ken Loach

By Clive Bradley (Workers Liberty 39, April 1997)

What does it mean to make socialist films in contemporary Britain? What is the relationship between art and propaganda in modern cinema?

The work of Ken Loach, one of  Britain’s leading film-makers, hinges around these questions. The  tension between art and propaganda, drama and politics, runs  through his films.

Loach is unusual not so much in that he is a socialist — indeed a Marxist, indeed some kind of Trotskyist — who makes films; there have been a fair number of film-makers who are or were Marxists of some description. He is unusual because he frequently attempts, to make films about politics with a capital ‘P’, to put the class struggle on the screen. His politics inform his choice of subject matter  to a degree which is. as far as 1 am aware, unique in contemporary film.

Loach made Iris name in the 1960s with a seminal TV drama, Cathy Come Home, about homelessness. Days of Hope, a TV series written by Jim Allen, traced the British class struggle from the First World War to the General Strike. Fatherland is about an East German who moves to the West and discovers capitalism is as bad as Stalinism, Hidden Agenda about the shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland, Land and Freedom the Spanish Civil War, and the recently-released Carla’s Song is about Nicaragua.

Even his films which deal with less ‘big’ political issues have political themes. Riff Raff is about a group of building workers. Raining Stones about two unemployed men in the north of England struggling to survive; one of them needs the money to buy his daughter a communion dress, and gets into trouble with a loan shark. Ladybird, Ladybird is about a woman’s fight against social services to keep custody of her children.

Added to this are a number of documentaries, for example on the often treacherous role of the trade union leadership, and the current Liverpool dockers’ strike.

There have been very few films in recent years which deal with such issues, and no film-makers who try to do so with such consistency. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Loach is a vitally important director for socialists. We should be glad someone is making such films: the world would be a poorer place without them.

The question remains whether Loach has successfully resolved the tension between art and propaganda, and what his work might tell us more generally about it. I want to argue that he has not, and that this raises an interesting question for any project of socialist film-making. Put bluntly: is such a thing possible?

This article looks at the question by focusing on just three of Loach’s films — Land and Freedom and Carla’s Song, his two most recent, which are among his most strongly political, and Kes — an early film which is probably the least political in his career. Read the rest of this entry »

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Todd Drezner’s open letter to the distributors of the fraudulent anti-vaccine film ‘Vaxxed’

April 19, 2016 at 1:31 pm (children, conspiracy theories, film, posted by JD, science, truth, United States)


Above: the trailer for Vaxxed, promoting the discredited claims of a quack

Robert De Niro’s support for the fraudulent quack Andrew Wakefield, struck off by the GMC in 2010 for “callous disregard for the distress and pain of children” has raised fears that American parents will be unwilling to give their children the MMR -measles mumps and rubella – jab, needlessly putting thousands of children at risk.

Although De Niro has withdrawn Wakefield’s film Vaxxed from the Tribeca Film Festival, De Niro has continued to back Wakefield and told the Today show: “I think the movie is something people should see … There is a link [between the MMR jab and autism] and they are saying there isn’t and there are … other things there.”

In this age of conspiracy theories (especially prevalent, it seems, in the US), the very fact of the film being withdrawn in response to an outcry against it by the scientific and medical “establishment” may well only serve to give publicity and credibility to the dangerous, dishonest fraud and quack Wakefield and his discredited claims of a link between the MMR jab and autism.

Below is an open letter by film director Todd Drezner, who is himself (like De Niro) the father of a boy with autism, to the distributors of Vaxxed. It was first published at left brain right brain:

Dear Cinema Libre,

I’m writing to explain why I’m so disappointed in your decision to distribute “Vaxxed.” I have three main objections:

1) Perhaps of most relevance to Cinema Libre is that Andrew Wakefield has assembled his film using unethical and dishonest editing techniques. As documented here, the “Vaxxed” trailer splices excerpts from two different phone calls together and then inserts a narrator giving an interpretation of those calls that is not supported by the facts. And this is merely one example from a brief trailer. Who knows how many misleading edits Wakefield has made in the full film?

Given Cinema Libre’s commitment to the idea that documentaries can make a social impact, I would think you would want to be associated with filmmakers who follow ethical practices and journalistic standards when making documentaries. When a dishonest filmmaker like Wakefield receives distribution and a theatrical release, it undermines all documentary filmmakers. We depend on the trust of our audiences. Your decision to support a dishonest film like “Vaxxed” destroys that trust. Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane outlines these issues nicely here.

2) Cinema Libre’s blog post about “Vaxxed” refers to “the suppression of medical data by a governmental agency that may well be contributing to a significant health crisis.” This is, I’m sorry to say, no more than a fever dream. First, as you will remember from watching “Loving Lampposts,” the autism “epidemic” can be explained by a combination of changing diagnostic criteria, increasing awareness of autism, and the benefits of receiving a diagnosis (in terms of the access to services and support the diagnosis provides).

Secondly, the CDC “whistleblower” around whom the trailer (and I assume the film) revolves did not reveal anything nearly as sinister as the trailer suggests. It is true that William Thompson of the CDC revealed to Dr. Brian Hooker that a 2004 study of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism supposedly found an association between the vaccine and autism in African American males.

Before I say anything about that finding, let’s note what that finding rules out: any association between the MMR vaccine and any other group besides African American males. Even if Thompson’s assertion were true (it’s not), it still doesn’t support the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism in the many people who are not African American males.

But what about the supposed link between the vaccine and African American males? It’s nothing. Basically, the original study of the association between the vaccine and autism did not leave out African Americans on purpose. Rather, it did so to eliminate “confounders” — that is, any factor other than the vaccine that could have been associated with autism. The authors of the study wanted to be sure that any effect they saw was caused by the MMR and not something else. Dr. Hooker’s “re-analysis” of the study does not account for confounders properly and even if it did, the population of African American males in the study is too small to support any broad conclusions. And one more time, even if the supposed link between African American males and the MMR vaccine were significant, it still rules out any link between the vaccine and all other groups. You can read about these issues in much more detail here and here.

It’s well known that Andrew Wakefield’s research into the MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. His film is based on equally poor science.

3) Despite Richard Castro’s statement on your blog that the Tribeca Film Festival succumbed to “pressure to censor” “Vaxxed,” there was no censorship. As I’m sure you’re aware, the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech prohibits the government from restricting speech. The Tribeca Film Festival is not government. It is a private organization that is free to screen, or not screen, any film it chooses for any reason. Indeed, Tribeca rejects the work of thousands of filmmakers every year. I’m sure Cinema Libre rejects many filmmakers as well. Are they being censored? Of course not.

On the “Vaxxed” website, Andrew Wakefield and Producer Del Bigtree claim that they were “denied due process” when Tribeca decided not to screen “Vaxxed.” This is absurd. There is no such thing as due process when it comes to the decisions of a film festival selection committee. Nor should there be. If such a thing existed, every prestigious film festival would spend all its time sifting through complaints from unhappy filmmakers. There will always be unhappy filmmakers who are denied admission to film festivals. Andrew Wakefield is now one of them. But he is not a censored filmmaker.

On a personal note, I was and remain grateful for the work Cinema Libre did to promote “Loving Lampposts” when it was released. You got the film screened at venues I could not have and publicized it through news coverage I did not have access to. I hoped and believed that along the way, you came to appreciate the film’s message that autistic people can thrive when they are accepted and when they receive the support they need to function in a world not built for them. Apparently, and much to my dismay, this message did not sink in.

By releasing “Vaxxed,” Cinema Libre is actively harming thousands of autistic people. While we should be discussing ways to best support autistic people and help them lead fulfilling lives, you would instead have us follow a discredited scientist and dishonest filmmaker down a rabbit hole that leads only to long debunked conspiracy theories. I am profoundly disappointed.

I don’t expect that Cinema Libre will change its decision. But given our long business relationship, I felt I owed you this explanation of where I stand. I hope that sometime in the future you may find ways to undo the damage you are about to cause.

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Les Salafistes and the horrors of Daesh

February 1, 2016 at 10:03 am (Andrew Coates, fascism, film, France, iraq, islamism, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", Syria, terror, Uncategorized)

Reblogged from Tendance Coatesy
Ce documentaire montre de façon brute et sans voix off l’idéologie, le quotidien et la violence des djihadistes d’Aqmi. Certains lui reprochent son manque de décryptage de l’image.

Image from «Salafistes» Libération.

By Andrew Coates

In France the film, Les Salafistes, has created intense controversy. At one point it seemed as if it might be banned. Now the documentary has been released, with a certificate than denies cinema entry to under-18s. In Saturday’s Guardian Natalie Nougayréde discusses the picture, which includes videos from Daesh (Islamic State – IS, also ISIS) and al-Qaida au Maghreb islamique (AQMI), with interviews with Salafists (rigorist Islamists) and jihadi leaders (Les Salafistes is gruelling viewing – but it can help us understand terror.)

She states, “The most gruelling moment comes when an Isis propaganda films shows a line of captured men walking towards the banks of a river; jihadi militants then shoot them in the head, one by one. The waters of the river start flowing with blood. And we see the pleading, panic-stricken faces of Isis’s victims, filmed close-up just before they are killed.”

Nougayréde considers that Les Salafistes “opens our eyes to a fanatical world”, that we “need to understand that ideology, however twisted and repulsive” Claude Lanzmann – the director the monumental film on the Holocaust, Shoah, she notes, has defended the film and asked for the age limit to be withdrawn. The screen shows better than any book the reality of the most fanatical form of Islamism. Lemine Ould M. Salem et François Margolin, have created a “chef d’oeuvre”. Its formal beauty brings into sharp relief the brutality of the Islamists, and “everyday life under the Sharia in Timbuktu, Mauritania, in Mali, Tunisia (in areas which have been under AQMI occupation or influence), and in Iraq. The age restriction on entry should go.  (Fleur Pellerin, ne privez pas les jeunes du film, Salafistes! Le Monde 29.1.16.)

Lanzmann also argues (which the Guardian columnist does not cite) that Les Salafistes shows that “any hope of change, any improvement, any understanding” with the violent Islamists it portrays, is “futile and illusory”.

In yesterday’s Le Monde (30. 1.16) there is a fuller account of Les Salafistes and the controversies surrounding it, as well as on Made in France a thriller that imagined a jihadist cell preparing an attack on Paris. With a planned release in November, as the Paris slaughters took place, it was withdrawn and now will be available only on VOD (View on Demand).

Timbuktu not les Salafistes.

Saturday’s Le Monde Editorial recommends seeing the 2014 fiction Timbuktu rather than Les Salafistes. The Islamic State has already paraded its murders and tortures before the world. Its “exhibitionnisme de l’horreur” poses a serious challenge to societies that value freedom of expression. In the past crimes against humanity, by Stain, Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Pol Pot or Pinochet, were carried out in secret. The Nazis or the Khmer Rouge’s propaganda was designed to hide the reality of genocide; Daesh’s videos are explicit and open,  produced to terrorise their enemies and to rouse the spirits of their supporters. Margolin and Salem’s film does not, the Editorial argues, offer a sufficiently clear critical approach for a non-specialist audience. The victims only speak under the eyes of their butchers. The drama Timbuktu, where ordinary people in the city of that name are shown grappling with the everyday despotism of AQIM occupation – the rigorous application of the Islamists’ version of the Sharia, is a better way of thinking through the phenomenon of Jihadism. Its quiet and subversive message, the simple acts of playing prohibited music and smoking (banned), many would agree, unravels the absurdity and cruelty – the callous stoning of an ‘adulterous’ couple – of Islamism on a human scale.

Le Monde’s account of the controversy (La Terreur passe mal sur grand ecran) also observes that books about the Islamic State have reached a wide audience. They offer a better way, less influenced by the emotions that the cinema screen arouses, to understand Jihadism. It is equally the case that, through the Web, a substantial number of people have already seen the kind of horrific scenes Les Salafistes brings to the big screen.

The Empire of Fear.

Empire of Fear. Inside the Islamic State (2015) by the BBC correspondent Andrew Hosken is one of many accessible studies that have reached a wide audience. It is a thorough account of Daesh’s origins in the Al-Qaeda milieu and how it came to – separate – prominence in the aftermath of the US-led Coalition’s invasion of Iraq. Hosken has an eye for detail, tracing out the careers of key Daesh figures such as Zarqawi and Baghdadi. He challenges for example the widely claim that Islamic State leader Baghadadi and ‘Caliph’ was “radicalised” in a US prison in Southern Iraq in 2004. In fact “hardening evidence” indicates, “Baghdadi may have started his career as a jihadist fighter in Afghanistan and may even have known Zarqawi there.” (Page 126)

The failure of the occupation to establish a viable state in Iraq, the absence – to say the least – of the rule of law, and the importance of Shia mass sectarian killings of Sunnis in the Islamic State’s appearance. The inability of the Iraqi army to confront them, culminating in the fall of Mosul, were conditions for its spreading power, consolidation in the Caliphate, in both Iraq AND Syria, and international appeal.

Empire of Fear is valuable not only as history. Hosken states that by 2014 it was estimated that there were between five to seven million people living under Islamic State rule. “The caliphate has not delivered security, human dignity, happiness and the promise of eventual pace, let alone basic serves, but it has produced piles of corpses and promise to produce piles more.” (Page 200) He states that the “violent Islam-based takfirism” – the practice of declaring opponents ‘apostates’ worthy of death – has taken its methods from former Ba’athist recruits, always ready to slaughter opponents.

The suffering of those under the rule of Daesh is immense. “Men and children have been crucified and beheaded, homosexuals thrown to their deaths from high building and women stoned to death in main squares.” (Page 228) The Lion Cubs of the Khalfia, an army of children, are trained for battle. Even some Salafists initially allied with Daesh – with counterparts in Europe still offering succour to the dreams of returning to the golden days of the prophet, have begun to recoil. Hosken observes “..they have ended up with Baghdadi and his vision of an Islamic state with its systemic rapes, its slaves and concubines, child soldiers, murder, torture and genocide.” (Page 236)

Totalitarian Islamism.

The Islamic States efforts to capture more territory and people will continue with or without Baghadadi. The film title Salafistes reminds us that the Islamic State’s totalitarian Islamism is not isolated. It is connected to a broader collection of groups preaching rigorist – Salafist – Islamism, not all users of extreme violence, still less the public glorification of murder. The creation of all-embracing State disciplinary machines to mould their subjects to Islamic observance is a common objective of political Islam, from the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia to Daesh’s mortal enemies in Iran. The religious cleansing of religious minorities, Yazidis and Middle Eastern Christians continues under a variety of Islamic forces. Yet the degree of oppression and genocide marks the Islamic State out.

The recent Channel Four Documentary The Jihadis Next Door indicated that there is a European audience, however small, for Daesh’s genocidal propaganda. In Britain alone up to 700 people have been attracted enough by Islamic State death videos to go and join their ranks. One can imagine that amongst them some will be capable of watching Les Salfistes in a spirit far from the critical intentions of the film’s directors. It is to be doubted that they would have been reached by the scorn for Islamist rule and the resilience of humanity displayed in Timbuktu.

Hosken concludes, the “group may end up destroying itself or being destroyed by its many enemies. However, whatever happens, its virulent ideology looks likely to survive in a Middle East now riven by sectarian division, injustice, war and authoritarianism,” (Page 257)

The British left, with no government at its command, is not in a position to negotiate in efforts that try to bring “security, justice dignity and peace to a deeply troubled region”. We have little leverage over Bashar Assad’s own despotism in Syria. But we may be able to help Syrian democrats, and those fighting the Islamic State, to give our support to those fighting for dear life for freedom – from the Kurds to Arab and Turkish democrats – by ensuring that there is no quarter given to Daesh’s Salafist allies in Europe and totalitarian Islamists of any kind, independently and against those who see the Syrian Ba’athists as an ultimate rampart against IS.

To defend human rights we need to align with the staunchest adversaries of all forms of oppression, the secularists, the humanists, the democratic left, and, above all, our Kurdish and Arab sisters and brothers who, with great courage, face Daesh every day on the battle field.

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A fine serious actor; and the greatest pantomime villain of them all

January 14, 2016 at 7:20 pm (film, funny, good people, Jim D, literature, poetry, theatre)

I know that the great Alan Rickman deserves to be remembered as the superb serious actor he was:

H/t Ruth Cashman

… but I can’t resist him as the pantomime villain, and as far as I’m concerned it’s no disrespect at all to remember him as a wonderful, OTT ham

Also, by all accounts, a good guy (an active member of the Labour Party and supporter of many worthy causes).

RIP Alan Rickman.

Guardian obit here

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On May Day: The Communist Manifestoon

May 1, 2015 at 7:46 am (class, film, Jim D, Marxism)

We’ve put this on Shiraz several times before, but it’s so good I just can’t resist another showing. And today seems the appropriate day:

Enjoy – and learn (or re-learn) the basics, comrades!

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“There’s no real difference between Labour and the Tories…”

March 2, 2015 at 8:39 pm (class, comedy, film, history, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, Socialist Party)

David Osland writes:

There’s no real difference between Labour and the Tories. Apart from 25 hours free child care, £8 minimum wage, abolishing the bedroom tax and the NHS Act, a freeze on energy bills, a million new homes, a job guarantee for NEETs, £3000 reduction in tuition fees, the introduction of a national care service, reduced GP appointment and cancer test waiting times, thousands of extra nurses and doctors, mansion tax, a ban on MPs taking second jobs, an end to the Free School programme, bankers’ bonus tax and 50p top rate for the rich. But other than that, there’s no real difference between Labour and the Tories.

JD adds: Socialist Party members and (the few) others involved in the rather pathetic ‘T.U.S.C”, should take note.

And as someone in the pub after last Saturday’s Unite The Union United Left meeting (at which the SP/T.U.S.C received a well-deserved hammering), noted, listening to the SP on the subject of the Labour Party, you can’t help thinking of this:

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Louis Armstrong at Mardi Gras: ‘Jubilee’

February 16, 2015 at 9:49 pm (film, jerk, Jim D, music, New Orleans, Sheer joy)

Tuesday February 17 is Mardi Gras and here’s some appropriate music to honour New Orleans (which deserves honouring as it heroically recovers from Katrina):

Louis Armstrong plays Hoagy Carmichael’s tune ‘Jubilee’, first of all at the head of a parade (admittedly, not a New Orleans parade) in the 1937 Mae West film Every Day’s A Holiday:

… and then on the famous January 1938 recording:

This also gives me an excuse to bring you the late Richard M. Sudhalter’s marvellous, descriptive, jazz writing (from his 2003 book Stardust Melody: The Life of Hoagy Carmichael):

Armstrong recorded “Jubilee” for Decca on January 12, 1938, backed by Luis Russell’s orchestra, and his performance stands out for a great jazzman’s ability to ennoble an otherwise pedestrian song through majesty of conception and execution. After making short (if enjoyable) work of Adams’s generic “let’s all have a good time” lyric, Louis points his Selmer trumpet to the heavens and, lofted atop Paul Barbarin’s drumming, rides “Jubilee” into high orbit.

He spends one chorus paraphrasing the melody over band riffs, then intones complementary replies as Russell’s horns punch out the melody in the second. Taking over at the bridge, he works into a final soaring, transcendent high concert F. The balance and wisdom of these seventy-four bars defy explanation or analysis: what divine intuition dictated that he hold the concert G in bar 26 of the final chorus (corresponding to the word “of” in the phrase “carnival of joy”) for three and one half beats, rather than the gone-in-a-blink eighth note assigned to it by the lyric, before landing emphatically on the F for “joy”? Only a peerless aesthetic sense could have understood the effect of that move, one among many, on the emotional density of its phrase. The word “genius”, so devalued in this age of inflated superlatives, surely finds its rightful application in such details.”  

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