Barely discussed in this post: 7 Books (The Mush Hole, On the Natural History of Destruction, The Silent Angel, Satantango, The Failure of Nonviolence, They Chose Life, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen), 5 Movies (The Love Witch, Moon, Goodbye to Language, Get Out, and The Tribe); and 5 Documentaries (Just Do It, The Sorrow and the Pity, The Eagle Huntress, I Am Not Your Negro, and The Russian Woodpecker).
1. The Mush Hole: Life at Two Indian Residential Schools compiled by Elizabeth Graham.
This book is both a primary and secondary source for information regarding the Mohawk Institute – Canada’s oldest and longest running Indian Residential School, commonly called “the Mush Hole” due to the shit food they fed the children day after day, year after year – and another IRS, Mount Elgin. The book is divided into three parts. First, Graham provides her overview of the history of the institutions. In part two, she provides a lot of primary source material – correspondences between administrators and government officials, budgets, newspaper articles, and so on ( this is essentially a selection from the content available in the public archives in Ottawa). In part three, she presents the narratives of many different survivors. It’s a very significant work (and one that Canadian publishers weren’t keen to pick up; it was self-published and is now probably the leading source on the subject of these schools). It’s also a difficult work to read. I do recommend it to my fellow Canadians.
2. On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald.
In these essays – a lecture series that was revised and expanded – Sebald looks at how Germans survived in cities bombed into oblivion during WWII. He explores how little is recorded of that time and those experiences and, as he always does with themes of memory and devastation, tries to look at something that may be unseeable. I very much enjoyed these essays. However, I won’t say much else because, as I was thinking about this book, I came across this review and I think it says what should be said in just the right way.
3. The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll.
I picked up this book because Sebald, after speaking quite critically of most literature that dealt with the experience of Germans in bombed-out cities after WWII, spoke highly of this story by Böll. It’s a quick read and feels like a shorter story that was expanded into a novel—which, in fact, it is (I suspect that this explains some of the curious and not too smooth breaks and transitions – I was debating with myself if this was done deliberately but I couldn’t think of any purpose it might have served). I think Sebald spoke about it better than it speaks itself. It did surprise me that Böll won the Nobel for literature… I think that may have more to do with what he was willing to write about at the time that he was writing, than it has to do with the quality of the writing itself.
4. Satantango by Lázló Krasznahorkai.
I very nearly gave up on this book. It is quite different than Krasznahorkai’s later writings. It reminded me more of Joyce or Faulkner than Sebald. It also felt very much like an Eastern European film – It’s Hard to be a God, Andrei Rublev, and On the Silver Globe all come to mind, so it’s no surprise that Belá Tarr made a 7.5 hour long film adaptation of this story (in black and white, naturally). All the mud and the yelling and the drinking and the mud and the discontent and the flowery speeches about nothing and the intensity of the bitterness (or the bitterness of the intensity?) and the mud and the hopelessness and the feeling that everything, reality itself, is warped or even perverse and the mud seem like common features. The first one hundred pages were a rough go but I hit my stride with it after that. I heard there was quite a surprising ending and there is a twist but it felt dated (Satantango was published in Hungary in 1985 but Umberto Eco had already dropped In the Name of the Rose in 1980, Barthes had put out La mort de l’auteur in ’67, and Borges’ stories had been around since the ‘40s[!]). It makes sense that the book would have such an impact at the time it was published – when a lot of so-called “postmodern” themes and techniques were moving into the mainstream – but having traversed that terrain for quite some time the ending, for me, didn’t make the whole thing worthwhile. I’ll still be looking to read Krasznahorkai but I’m going to be looking at his more recent works and moving back from there.
5. The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy by Peter Gelderloos.
Once upon a time, I was a zealous pacifist, firmly committed to nonviolent actions. This was primarily for moral and ideological reasons but it was also because I had bought into the dominant narratives (fed to us by the Church as much as by the State and reaffirmed by Liberals and Conservatives, social workers and police officers) that nonviolence is the most effective way to go about trying to bring about change (just don’t ask the State to disband the army or the police to lay down their guns or the churches to take the locks of their doors or the social workers not to call the police).
Thus, my pacifism was not very historically informed. As I began to read the histories of various movements (anarchists in Spain and Greece, communists in Cuba, socialists in Venezuela, the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army in the USofA, Sonderkommandos rising up at Auschwitz, The Weather Underground, long histories of Indigenous resistance on Turtle Island, the Haitian revolt, the Zapatistas, the Narodnaya Volya and the various precursors to the Russian Revolution, the Wobblies, and so on), I began to question what I believed about nonviolence. I then started to read books dedicated to exploring the topic from a perspective different than my own – Pacifism as Pathology, How Nonviolence Supports the State, The Wretched of the Earth, The Black Jacobins, and This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed (not to mention liberation theologians who did not embrace nonviolence but supported armed resistance). It impacted me greatly which, along with my own efforts to try and act in solidarity with people experiencing oppression in my own context (the DTES of Vancouver for much of this journey), caused me to change my mind. I am no longer a pacifist and I no longer believe in the moral or tactical superiority of nonviolence.
However, pacifists or nonviolent activists who have done a bit of reading on the matter tend to refer especially to the work of Gene Sharp, who is probably considered the leading scholar of nonviolence and who is the one making the biggest claims about the tactical and historical superiority of nonviolence. Chris Hedges (the Left-policing white Christian saviour who thinks he doesn’t need to listen to people in order to talk for them) may also get mentioned, If they’ve dug even deeper, the pacifists or nonviolent activists may also mention Rebecca Solnit or Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (and it’s usually only when we get to the last three names that we get to a pacifism or nonviolence that is more thoughtful and may also be coming from experiences of direct actions). Consequently, I was very interested to see Gelderloos dedicating a book to engaging these writers and their claims about nonviolence and what it has or has not achieved. I believe that he presents a very compelling case to support his conclusion that:
At best, nonviolence can oblige power to change its masks, to put a new political party on the throne and possibly expand the social sectors that are represented in the elite, without changing the fundamental fact that there is a elite that rules and benefits from the exploitation of everybody else. And if we look at all the major rebellions of the last two decades, since the end of the Cold War, it seems that nonviolence can only effect this cosmetic change if it has the support of a broad part of the elite—usually the media, the wealthy, and at least a part of the military, because nonviolent resistance has never been able to resist the full force of the State.
Gelderloos’ criticisms of Sharp, the granddaddy of ‘em all, are particularly damning (that Sharp’s research was partially funded by the US Defense Department and that his institution receives funding from parties like the Ford Foundation should probably cause even the most devoted pacifist to feel a bit anxious about him). Sharp lies about events in order to support his theory and to claim his theory was more influential than it was. Not only that but there is nothing really revolutionary at all about what Sharp is trying to do. Essentially, what his theory has been good for is causing regime changes so that anti-Western governments can be replaced by pro-Western (pro-USA and pro-Capital) regimes that continue to just as effectively fuck over the people whom they rule as the rulers who came before them.
My main point of criticism is that I feel Gelderloos sometimes overplays the significance of violence. Just as he charges Chenowith and Stephan with rigging their system in order to produce the results that they desire, I feel he might do the same when talking about the efficacy of moments of violent revolution. Because, for all of its many positive contributions to the struggle, there is also a failure of violence that must be faced (looking at Syria, especially in light of the We Are The Giant documentary I watched last month, seems to highlight the failure of both violence and nonviolence… and what, then, is to be done??).
That said, I think this is a very important book. I encourage anyone trying to understand how we might participate in the struggle for Life and against Death to read it.
6. They Chose Life: Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust by Yehuda Bauer.
I picked up this very short booklet after Gelderloos praised it in The Failure of Nonviolence. It seeks to establish the case that the Jewish people did not simply act as meek lambs let to the slaughter during the Holocaust but, in fact, often showed great courage and strength as they resisted the Germans and their allies in various ways. I was hoping for something a little more substantial that looked in greater detail at events like, for example, the Sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but this overview was simply too brief. It was interesting to learn more about the day-to-day organizing (and remarkable courage shown even by very young children) in various ghettoes. I didn’t know too much about that.
7. The Evidence of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin.
Between 1979 and 1981, a large number of black children in Atlanta were going missing and then showing up murdered. Baldwin is asked to write about this but writes a much more sweeping indictment of racism in America without ever losing his focus upon the details of the case involving the black man accused of murdering the children (although, as Baldwin makes clear, the man is actually accused of murdering two men but then the City concludes he must have also killed all the kids and does not bother to prosecute most of those cases). Baldwin writes with love and rage and brilliance in his distinctly Baldwinian way. The following passage about integration versus desegregation is worth quoting in full:
…it is the false question of integration that, not at all paradoxically, has set the White and Black communities more than ever at a division and raised to so dangerous a pressure the real price, and meaning, of the history responsible for this division.
Let us backtrack, and, trying to be fair, remember that the Black demand was not for integration. Integration, as we could all testify, simply by looking at the colors of our skins, had, long ago, been accomplished. (As an old Black woman said to me, standing on her porch, in Alabama: “White people don’t hate Black people–if they did, we’d all be Black.”)
The Black demand was for desegregation, which is a legal, public, and social matter: a demand that one be treated as a human being and not like a mule, or a dog. It was not even a direct demand for social justice: desegregation was a necessary first step in the Black journey toward that goal. It had absolutely nothing to do with the hope of becoming White…
White Americans, however, bless their generous little hearts, are quite unable to imagine that there can be anyone, anywhere, who does not wish to be White… The Americans decided that desegregation meant integration, and, with this one word, smashed every Black institution in this country, with the single exception of the Black church.
I think this quote is also worth considering in the national Indigenous territories occupied by Canada, only use the word “reconciliation” instead of “integration” and “decolonization” instead of “desegregation.” Baldwin is fantastic. I look forward to reading more of him.
1. The Love Witch (2016) directed by Anna Biller.
I’ve really gone back and forth on my thoughts about this film since I watched it. On the one hand, it’s a total labour of (perhaps obsessive??) love. Every set, every article of clothing, every painting, every wall, every dish has been carefully chosen and placed in just the right way (the director was also the producer and set designer, and costume maker, and painter, and composed the score… hence the blurring of love and obsession…). It’s an obvious shout-out to some of the ‘70s whatever-ploitation films as well as classic Italian Giallo films (I think there are hints of Dario Argento here). It’s very campy but also very fun. And smart. Biller puts a twist on these genres and pushes for a feminist reinterpretation. Patriarchal gender roles and expectations are explicitly discussed and are a prominent plot theme plus, you know, it’s men who are being killed here – not women – and it’s a woman doing the killing. Oh, and there’s a pretty hilarious scene involving a tampon but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Reviewers tended to really love all of this and proclaim it to be a “spellbinding feminist delight” and so on. I’ve gone back and forth in my thinking about this because, although general witch-ceremony-related nudity tends to be balanced between men and women with different ages and body types there are many scenes where conventionally attractive women are dancing mostly nude in either the foreground or the background. Now, I know, I know, much of this is done to highlight gender roles, or in an illustrative or ironic way, or even humourously, but this is where I get all hung up on McLuhan’s point about how media and messages and how a person may intend a certain message but certain media can take that message and change it into something else regardless of everyone’s intentions. When I first watched the movie I thought perhaps this was the case here. Now, I’m actually leaning towards thinking my first reaction was wrong. While I’ve not always been sure that performing in a way desired by the (patriarchal, heteronormative) male gaze works as a tool for the deconstruction of that gaze (the whole “Nicki Manaj in Anaconda as an empowering model for women” argument) what I think I was missing, especially in relation to this movie (and I’m a bit embarrassed to mention it now because it seems so obvious) is that this is not a movie intended for that gaze. In other words, if there is a problem here, it is not with the film but with me.
2. Moon (2009) directed by Duncan Jones.
I’ve decided to try out a few reputable but lesser known sci-fi movies and Moon was the movie I picked for March. I thought it was a well told story (a man is working a three year solo shift on an energy station on the dark side of the moon and, as the end of his shift is approaching, unusual things begin to take place) and felt that the actor who carried the film played his part(s) very well. I like that, once the plot twist is revealed, people don’t start acting in more stereotypical movie ways but seem to act in a very human way. Don’t get me wrong – this is not a sentimental film and the performances aren’t dripping with pathos. It’s more the simple, understated, and perhaps unsentimental things that take place that really create this ambiance. This isn’t the most mind-blowing film you’ll ever see but it’s a very solid and well put together piece and I enjoyed it.
3. Goodbye to Language (2014) by Jean-Luc Godard.
Well, from old Godard (I watched Contempt last month) to new Godard (Goodbye to Language), I’ve decided I’m no fan of Godard. Those who love him are welcome to him but, apart from one or two well worded quotes (I believe all the dialogue in this film is taken from other sources), this movie did nothing for me. I’m not even interested in trying to make sense of it. And I distrust what Godard does with the bodies of women (the scenes of the man taking a shit on a toilet and waxing philosophical while a naked woman stands in front of him seem to pretty much summarize Godard on this point). I probably won’t be bothering with him again.
4. Get Out (2017) directed by Jordan Peele.
While reading The Evidence of Things Not Seen, I was struck by the following passage from the opening:
And, after all, what I remembered–or imagined myself to remember–of my life in America (before I left home!) was terror. And what I am trying to suggest by what *one imagines oneself to be able to remember* is that terror cannot be remembered. One blots it out. The organism–the human being–blots it out. One invents, or creates, a personality or a *persona.* Beneath this accumulation (rock of ages!) sleeps or hopes to sleep, that terror which the memory repudiates.
Yet it never sleeps–that terror, which is not the terror of death (which cannot be imagined) but the terror of being destroyed.
*Sometimes I think,* one child in Atlanta said to me, *that I’ll be coming home from* (baseball or football) *practice and somebody’s car will come behind me and I’ll be thrown into the trunk of the car and it will be dark and he’ll drive the car away and I’ll never be found again.*
*Never to be found again*: that terror is far more vivid than the fear of death. When the child said that to me I tried to imagine the tom-tom silence of the trunk of the car, the darkness, the silence, the speed, the corkscrew road. I tried, that is, to imagine this as something happening to the child. My memory refused to accommodate that child as myself.
But that child *was* myself.
I wonder if Peele was reading Baldwin when he created Get Out. Because, I think, this speaks directly to Peele’s film and the specific kind of horror he invokes – “not the terror of death… but the terror of being destroyed.” The movie even opens with a car pulling up behind a young black man and the man being thrown into the trunk and driven away, never to be found again (although, as we learn, this young black man is destroyed without being killed). Now this kind of action, as Peele (along with Baldwin) reveals, is fundamental to the project of America. America was built upon the destruction and disappearance of black people (who were also killed but the death of black people was not the ultimate object of the American dream – to accomplish the American dream, black people had to exist as though they did not, they had to be destroyed and disappeared… so that they could continue to pick cotton, do the laundry, wait on tables, and only die (or be killed) after their usefulness as beings (whose being is premised upon the proclamation that they are not) has been exhausted. Peele reveals (apocalypses) all of this brilliantly in Get Out. White supremacy of this sort is not ancient history. It did not end with slavery or the March on Washington. It is just as alive and well and terrifying today. I thought this was a great movie. My only quibble with it was the ending. I did some research on it and discovered that the original final scene was very different (and, in fact, the scene that I had anticipated) but that scene was altered after test audiences didn’t react well to it.
5. The Tribe (2014) directed by Myroslav Slaboshpitsky.
Once I know I want to watch a movie, I try to learn as little as possible about that movie before I watch it. Sometimes that ends up backfiring on me. For example, I heard about a Ukrainian movie shot entirely in sign-language that did not use subtitles and that used deaf teens (not professional actors) to tell the story of their experiences at a boarding school for deaf people, and I knew that I wanted to watch this film. I assumed the Director was flipping the table on those of us who can hear (at least for now) and putting us into a world where we had to try and figure out what was being said without being able to “hear” the signs. Unfortunately, it seems like the whole thing is a gimmick and doesn’t really serve any broader purpose within the film which, instead, is oriented around showing a considerable amount of violence. Unlike The Love Witch (which draws on exploitation genres in a way that is entirely not exploitative), The Tribe feels entirely exploitative, presenting violence and sex strictly (as far as I can tell) for the sake of presenting violence and sex. Reviewers compare it to Kids but the movie (and Director) I thought of was Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé. It plays like Noé decided to remake Dead Poets Society. Given Noé’s status at Cannes, I’m sure Slaboshpitsky doesn’t mind the comparison but I hated that film and suspect Noé and Slaboshpitsky hate everyone and, to quote Fight Club, simply desire to destroy beautiful things (along with any kind of faith in something like Beauty). It’s not so much the nihilism that I object to here as the feeling that Slaboshpitsky, whether filming a back alley abortion scene or some other act of violence, is really getting off not only on the product but also on what the product might do to the viewer.
1. Just Do It: A Tale of Modern Outlaws (2011) directed by Emily James.
This documentary was a lot of fun and made me nostalgic for the time I spent more engaged in actions like these (even if I now question their efficacy more than I used to do). I just haven’t really figured out how to maintain that kind of involvement as a single parent with a joint custody agreement. Still, it was nice to see the playfulness, patience, humour, compassion, and dedication with which these activists and anarchists fought against various mechanisms, machines, institutions, and laws that operate in the service of Death. I did find the filming to be a bit questionable (I think certain things were shown that were unhelpful from a strategic perspective) and I thought the call-out at the end was a bit unusual which, taken together, made me wonder who was actually invested in this film project and what their objectives were… but, yeah, still good fun. May it inspire others to just get out there, in their own communities, in their own ways, in whatever capacity they can, and try to affirm Life and resist Death.
2. The Sorrow and the Pity: chronicle of a French city under the occupation (1969) directed by Marcel Ophuls.
I find it difficult to write about The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’ four hour documentary about the French city of Clermont-Ferrand and its citizens during WWII (when it was occupied by the Germans and the Vichy collaborators) and then afterwards. It is difficult to write about it because I don’t think I can capture the significance of the film, the glimpse it gives us into the diversity of human nature, especially during times of crisis, the timeless warning it provides to us, and also the hope that it inspires despite the loss, the betrayals, the refusal of some to confront the past meaningfully, and so on. It’s an absolutely brilliant look at life lived in the context of oppression and the whole spectrum of responses people have to that context. I highly recommend it. I think Ophuls may be a genius. He’ll be showing up again on my reviews.
3. The Eagle Huntress (2016) directed by Otto Bell.
This movie tells the story of a thirteen year old Mongolian girl, Aisholpan, who wants to follow in her dad’s footsteps as an Eagle Hunter (i.e. someone who goes out into the mountains and uses an eagle to hunt foxes and other animals). This kind of role goes back for hundreds of years in Mongolian society but it is traditionally performed by men. The documentary really plays up the girl power aspect of things – and Aisholpan really is an amazing person. Strong, dedicated, and wise, she is a natural talent and ends up winning the national competition held between Eagle Hunters. However, upon doing further research, it appears that Otto Bell, the Director, was slightly dishonest about how groundbreaking Aisholpan is. Female Eagle Hunters, although a rarity, had existed before her and were contemporary with her. So, she was not the first as Bell claimed – which is too bad because the claim seems unnecessary and the exposing of the claim risks detracting from Aisholpan, how incredible she is, and that she still has to struggle in a patriarchal context even if she is not the first to do so in this way.
Apart from the plot, the movie, from start to finish, is a delight to watch because every scene is packed with beauty. The mountains, the eagles, the traditional clothing, the hunts, the yurts, the tapestries—it’s a vision into an entirely different world, and a world that is increasingly rare in the context of globalization (the annual competition between Eagle Hunters is become an international tourist attraction, leading some to speculate Aisholpan won to please the foreigners… however, there is no arguing against the speed record she and her eagle set that day). I recommend this film. It’s a beautiful feel good movie from another world. In this regard, it reminded me of My Love Don’t Cross That River.
4. I Am Not Your Negro (2017) directed by Raoul Peck.
James Baldwin was asked to create a film about three men he believed were at the core of Black struggles related to solidarity, resistance, and liberation: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin never made it too far into his script but Peck picked it up and, focusing on Baldwin’s relationships with the three men (as well as with America as a Black man) created an astounding documentary that ties the struggles of Baldwin, Evers, X, and MLK with the current experiences of Black people in the USofA. I found it hard not to weep at times and walked away wondering if I’ve gone about living in all the wrong ways. My people, after all, are the enemy and I am and remain one of my people. Discomfort, grief, anger, great admiration, but especially discomfort – feeling these feelings is important if one is to try and contribute to a struggle against oppression.
The only disappointing element of the film was that Peck paid no attention to Baldwin’s sexuality. For Baldwin, the struggles of race and sexuality were deeply entwined and he spoke boldly and daringly about both (Giovanni’s Room, which was the first book I read by him, was published in 1956 and is about a romantic, sexual relationship between two men). Baldwin faced persecutions from both the establishment (JFK called him “Martin Luther Queen”) and radicals, like Eldridge Cleaver (whose memoirs, while historically significant, were quickly criticized by other members of the Black Panthers for being pro-patriarchy and misogynistic so it’s no surprise to see him also queer bashing). I would have liked to see Peck spend some time on this matter.
5. The Russian Woodpecker (2015) directed by Chad Gracia.
Another Ukrainian film, this documentary tries, not entirely successfully, to weave together three things: a biopic of a brilliant and eccentric Ukrainian artist, Fedor Alexandrovich, the exploration of the theory that a high ranking member of the Soviet party created the explosion at Chernobyl in order to cover up a failed military experiment that was incredibly expensive and which could cost him his life (if the failure was discovered), and a bit of an exploration of ongoing Russian involvement in Ukraine, notably around the events in Maidan in 2014. The central focus, however, is on Chernobyl and what was called “The Russian Woodpecker,” a seven billion ruble radar installation that tried to spy on launch sites around the world and interfere with Western governments modes of communication by pinging a signal off the ionosphere in order to get around the curvature of the earth (and which produced a tapping sound [ten beats per second] that could be heard on radio frequencies around the world). Ultimately, the radar failed (due to the northern lights!) and the week before it was due to be evaluated by the high command (those in charge of the project already knew it was doomed), the reactor at Chernobyl exploded, causing the evacuation of the area and the abandonment of the project. Alexandrovich is the person responsible for developing and pursuing this theory and he also participates at Maidan as he fears the return of the Soviet Union and the onset of WWIII.
It all seems like a plausible theory, even if solid evidence is entirely lacking. Reviewers at The Guardian, Sundance, the New York Times, and Roger Ebert, all seem to find it fairly compelling which makes me wonder how much Soviet Russia being the villain here facilitates belief (especially given that those who make arguments like this about American or Western acts of genocide tend to be treated as conspiracy theorists and whackjobs, even when they have far more evidence than this). However, it’s a fun and fascinating piece – blending performance art with real events, people, and places… but it’s precisely this blend that problematizes some of the content for me. Specifically, Alexandrovich’s reported visit from the Secret Police along with his subsequent flight and desire to abandon or modify the film out of fear for his son’s life, and his conversation about this which was supposedly recorded on a hidden camera brought by one of his crew, is presented as factual but could easily be part of his performance. Further, it is this conversation that reveals that the disclaimer we read at the beginning of the film was only put there because the Secret Police said that this disclaimer was needed – which calls into question the entire content of the film. Again, one wonders how much an anti-Russian bias influences how we engage with this film (that bias also comes through pretty strongly in how things in Maidan are presented… because I remember that being way more messy and complicated with America and the EU fighting just as dirty as Russia and all parties being equally unconcerned about the lives of Ukrainians as they fought to see who was going to be able to exploit them the most). Regardless, I enjoyed the film and would like to see what gets turned up if others pursue Alexandrovich’s theory further.