Daily Archives: Saturday, December 8, 2007

  • It’s A Free World …, dir. Ken Loach (2007)

    Trading In Desperation, by Tom Jennings.
    Television review of ‘It’s A Free World …’, directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty, Channel 4, September 24th 2007,
    Trading In Desperation by Tom Jennings

    [television review of It’s A Free World …, directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty, Channel 4, September 24th 2007, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 21, November 2007]

    Ken Loach’s new television drama (released for cinema abroad) tackles the theme of entrepreneurship as career option in New Labour’s neoliberal dystopia, focusing on the efforts of Londoners Angie and her flatmate Rose to rise above soul-destroying low-level dead-end admin work. Sick and tired of being shat on by bosses at foreign workers employment agencies, Angie resolves to start up herself and do it properly to get a better deal for everyone concerned (especially her family; though her solid old-school proletarian dad is appalled). At first the ambition to be ‘fair’ and still make a decent living seems promising, and direct interaction with the hardships and tragedies of those fleeing Eastern Europe and the Middle-East for ‘better lives’ gives them some insight and humility. However, the pair soon find themselves ducking and diving around the brutal logic of the concrete business jungle, where comprehensively sacrificing the interests of their employees is the inevitable price of staying afloat …

    Contriving these Eastender (anti-)heroes as strong working-class women (one a white single mother, the other Black; both, sadly, with rather superficial personalities) allows interesting twists on treating humans as objects – whether of paper-thin sympathy, patronisation, even sexual domination. It’s a Free World … also successfully conveys the invidious positions of both ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ immigrant workers, at the mercy of unscrupulous agencies and corrupt employers cynically squeezing every conceivable source of profit from their vulnerability – enhanced by official neglect and worsened by State persecution and the erosion of welfare and labour rights, all reinforced by mainstream media and party-political marginalisation and stigmatisation.
    Their violent fightback here effectively glosses the recourse to criminality among the most oppressed – though it’s surprising that Polish workers, given their recent history, didn’t try other tactics first. Or maybe they did, but this story of the gangmistresses’ moral dilemmas couldn’t accommodate it – Loach’s intention being “to challenge the prevailing wisdom that ruthless entrepreneurship is the way that this society should develop … It seeks out exploitation. It produces monsters”. So, unable to secure legit viability, Angie and Rose embark on even shadier ventures preying on the weak. Unfortunately, without the ethical or physical nous and ‘muscle’ to back up their bravado, they’re completely unconvincing – despite the cod-Hobbesian spiv ‘realism’ about the ways of the contemporary world fitting the zeitgeist. Yet again, social-realist melodrama suffocates its narrative by ticking so many right-on boxes and exemplifying manifold ‘issues’ in its central characters – perhaps mirroring the disastrous fetish for elite leadership in the command socialism which inspires its makers.




  • The War On Democracy, dirs. John Pilger & Chris Martin, 2007

    Naming and Shaming the Backyard Bully, by Tom Jennings.
    Film review of The War On Democracy, directed by John Pilger & Chris Martin, 2007, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 22, November 2007
    Naming and Shaming the Backyard Bully by Tom Jennings

    [film review of The War On Democracy, directed by John Pilger & Chris Martin, 2007, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 22, November 2007]

    John Pilger’s new documentary spoils a concise exposé of US foreign policy with uncritical pandering to Latin America’s latest charismatic nationalists, finds Tom Jennings

    The cinema release of veteran journalist John Pilger’s The War On Democracy (co-directed with Chris Martin) permits more wide-ranging thematics than his usual scrupulous but relatively narrow television coverage of specific historical outrages (most famously in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua and East Timor). Summarising Washington’s installation of brutal regimes in Central and South America over five decades, he wanted to analyse ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as spun by Western governments: “revealing through vivid testimony, the story of great power behind its venerable myths … [in order] to understand the true nature of the so-called war on terror”. The replacement of social democratic formations with rule by death squad throughout the region is then contrasted with Venezeuela and Bolivia, where Presidents Chavez and Morales have recently been elected vowing to derail the rich and foreign elite gravy train in the interests of the dispossessed.
    The experience in Chile – where Pinochet’s fascists seized power on 9/11 1974 with extensive CIA support – is contrasted with the 2002 right-wing coup in Caracas which failed purportedly due to street protests by the urban masses. Despite local and US media saturation denouncing Chavez’ project as evil communist insanity, ordinary Venezuelans clearly rejected the certain misery of unfettered neoliberal dictatorship – the film counterposes footage from 2002 with visits to shanty towns and a millionaire’s mansion, succinctly conveying the social bases of political polarisation in the country. Similarly, the litany of slaughter and repression under American tutelage precedes a chat with Duane Clarridge, ex-CIA chief in Chile, reiterating the continuing utter contempt for human rights. Pilger then interviews Hugo Chavez, showing his personal integrity, humility, and a warmth for the common people reciprocated in the barrios – cementing the populist appeal of promises of a basic welfare state now capturing imaginations across the continent.

    Of course memories of the ravages of military regimes weigh heavily across the region. But two decades of the wholesale looting of resources by multinationals and local lapdogs (IMF and World Bank conditions for ‘democracy’ to return) – destroying subsistence economies with the concomitant growth of vast slums around cities – doubtless also inflect the motivation to vote for marginally lesser evils. Actually, a relative waning of Washington’s directly malevolent intervention (with its attention elsewhere) has coincided with very diverse developments in South American political spheres crucial to understanding what is happening now. However, framed only in terms of earlier US foreign policy, The War On Democracy ignores the crucial integration into global trade (and subsequent bankrupting) of entire nations – which that historic policy facilitated rather than caused. Thus the far-reaching political convulsions in Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador are ignored, and the significance (beyond boosting national budgets) of natural resource extraction by American coorporations – quite irrespective of Dubya’s posturing – is missed.*
    The rise of so-called Bolivarian social-democracy in Venezuela and comparable state-capitalist compromises elsewhere are better seen as strategic nationalist defences against emerging lower-class social movements which have threatened to coalesce in much more radical directions. For example, Evo Morales has co-opted impressive grass-roots mobilisations of shanty-neighbourhood and indigenous groups (detailed by Forrest Hylton in New Left Review, 35 & 37, 2005/6) amid large-scale industrial unrest in Bolivia into a shaky electoral alliance, appealing to the military and local and international capital that revolution can be pre-empted. In ‘Is Latin America Really Turning Left?’ (reprinted on the libcom website), James Petras explains the contortions of the new parliamentary socialists negotiating corporate demands for super-profits while retaining popular support with negligible redistributive trickle-down from oil and gas bonanzas.
    Both phenomena are clear in Venezuela, which has the largest heavy crude reserves in the world and hence room to manoeuvre in buying off popular discontent. After the 1989 Caracazo uprising, unprecedented social movements mushroomed in the country, while an abortive 1992 military coup attempt saw Chavez and other junior officers involved jailed. Later in the decade his alternative, parliamentary, organisation, and carefully-designed personality cult catapulted him to the Presidency and a world record number of election victories since with manifestoes stressing health, education, housing and job-creation. Sadly the grass-roots networks have been taken over and reconstituted merely as electoral groups and self-aggrandising militarised client bureaucracies dispensing favours, while precious few welfare benefits have materialised. Dissatisfaction at unmet promises is escalating, with any opposition dismissed as ‘counter-revolutionary’ and encountering increasingly repressive policing. Most seriously, the government’s economic strategy is to sell off the whole of the natural environment for pillage by multinationals (to their great satisfaction) demanding less than the going international rent in return and with absolutely no regard for devastating consequences for the rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants or global climate ramifications.** And we’re supposed to applaud a brave and honest desire to improve the lives of the poor …

    Packing so much in, it’s understandable that The War On Democracy neglects historical and contemporary complexities in Venezuela. Unfortunately, the results reinforce prejudices about lower-class susceptibility to charismatic leadership while demonstrating little inkling of the real characteristics of the Bolivarian state, the prospects for its modest socialism, or the social, environmental or economic impacts of its national development programme. Just as parachuting reporters into warzones with no independent sources inevitably yields subservient conclusions, embedding perspective within the Chavista circus here obscures its real contradictions and conflicts. True, Pilger has consistently broken through the media’s role as poodle to power, permitted only sporadic fractional deviations from official dishonesty masquerading as serious journalism. But despite a welcome demystification of US machinations, this film reproduces the liberal-left’s fatal inability to transcend the us-and-them oversimplifications it derides in the mainstream. The need for simultaneous critique of imperialism and nationalism – of the interwoven structures of capitalism and the state – remains.

    * George Caffentzis enlarges on the wider context in ‘Apocalypse and/or Business as Usual? The Energy Debate after the 2004 Presidential Elections’, in Mute magazine, May 2007 (www.metamute.org)

    ** Comprehensive analysis is provided by the Venezuelan affinity group Comision de Relaciones Anarquistas (CRA) in their excellent magazine El Libertario (with translations at www.nodo50/org/ellibertario/english/). See also Hanna Dahlstrom’s report on the CRA-initiated Alternative Social Forum, coinciding with the February 2006 tame corporate-liberal World Social Forum in Caracas, at www.upsidedownworld.org.

    The War on Democracy will be released on DVD in 2008. Unlike Pilger’s previous work, it has not been shown on ITV.




  • Sherrybaby, dir. Laurie Collyer (2007)

    The Substance of Abuse. Film review of Sherrybaby, directed by Laurie Collyer, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 22, November 2007.

    The Substance of Abuse by Tom Jennings

    [film review of Sherrybaby, directed by Laurie Collyer, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 22, November 2007]

    In parts resembling by-the-numbers issue-led TV docudrama and quirky low-budget indie feature, Sherrybaby exceeds the limits of these genres thanks to the honesty and subtlety of its narrative and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s magnificent immersion in the role of Sherry – a 22 year-old New Jersey junkie fresh out of prison trying to turn her life around and resume motherhood of a young daughter looked after by her brother and sister-in-law. Gyllenhaal exudes worldy-wise determination, vulnerability, sass and naivete, yet this is no naff redemptive melodrama puppeteering its audience’s emotions and pimping its characters. Instead, shameless manipulation and sentimentality are located firmly in Sherry’s behavioural repertoire and are consistently marked as self-destructive, inappropriate and/or abject – but also intelligible responses to the arbitrary, corrupt environment in which she struggles in childlike desperation to negotiate friendship, family and official relationships.
    Former documentary-maker Collyer based the story on a close friend’s life and her own experiences as social work assistant. So the details of halfway house, probation routine and rehab groups ring completely true – where those she encounters exhibit occasional goodwill but, in this soul-crushing system, more often hover between cynical, hostile and downright pathological. Sherry strides cluelessly into the morass fortified by the Bible and simple-minded personal growth slogans, freely deploying her open sexuality and self-obsession to open doors always threatening to slam shut. The excellent supporting cast flesh out Gyllenhaal’s convincing naturalistic depiction of conflictuality: unpredictably sympathetic, alienating, victimised, brave and foolish. A powerfully poignant realism allows her wholly unrealistic (and potentially catastrophic) personal mythology – caring for a child in actuality rather than fantasy – to crumble as she backslides towards addictive oblivion.

    Collyer’s riskiest tactic was to contextualise Sherry’s conduct in the dysfunctional emotional quagmire of her parental home, prompting familiar reductive cliches of preoccupied distant mother and premature sexualisation via paternal abuse as precursors to a promiscuous infantile inability to maintain boundaries and sustain mature mutuality. These issues are not fudged, but creditably faced head-on – as they should be. Better still, the pitfalls are sidestepped by sketching the possibility of progress only with collective generosity and shared effort, the recognition of weakness and give and take among equals, and due respect given for following one’s desires. The flashes of genuine passionate connection between Sherry, her friends and family thus signal chances for a fruitful future as well as the very definite prospect of reproducing the cycle of damage – neither tragedy nor triumph being logically foreclosed or morally judged. And if you generalise the reference points of addiction, narcissism and objectification to the contemporary stranglehold of sociopathic consumerism – then that’s an unusually intelligent and worthwhile message to find on a cinema screen.