Tuesday, 9 July 2019

On Language Learning and the Many Meanings of a Quenelle

There are always different ways to learn a foreign language, and sometimes quite interesting ways of developing a deeper cultural understanding of a place than watching online tutorials or sitting in lecture halls.
Take French, for example. I have retained a very small amount of French from secondary school, which I have expanded slightly through a combination of personal study and multiple visits to France itself.
However, things like slang terms, colloquialisms, and often uniquely French insults, can often remain closed off to the student and tourist alike, so other sources must be found to develop a deeper understanding of the culture and sub-cultures of the country you are getting to know.
You might be able to deduce a few of these from perusing the pages of satirical newspapers and magazines like Charlie Hebdo or l'Echo des Savanes. Of course, mass movements can be a tremendous education too. The content of banners and placards must be short and punchy, which also makes them easier to key into an online translation website. The current Gilets Jaunes are no exception.
For example, in one video posted online I noticed a protestor with the words "Macron la sens-tu la quenelle?" written on the back of his yellow vest. Online translation tools can help with most of this sentence, but offer no alternative or explanation for that last word.
Roughly, it means something like "Macron do you feel the quenelle?"


With the abundance of information available on the Internet it is not hard to work out that a quenelle is a dish consisting primarily of elongated fish balls.
It gets better. Or worse, depending on your appetite.
Some people have likened the shape of the quenelle to that of a suppository, which explains the phrase "glisser une quenelle" (which means something like "to slide the quenelle").
To top things off, around 2005 the controversial comedian and political activist Dieudonne used the word to popularise a hand gesture some people see as a kind of inverted Nazi salute which has become quite popular in France as a gesture of protest, solidarity etc. Others argue that it is primarily an "up yours" (a British term) to the establishment, although I am still trying to understand if the accusations of racism are genuine or part of a smear campaign similar to the one currently engulfing the British Labour Party. Anti-semitism is real and needs to be challenged, but it would be foolish to ignore the weaponisation of anti-semitism in recent years as a tool to smear those who dare to criticise atrocities committed by the state of Israel.
Islamophobia in France is of course built on the foundations of that countries' unresolved colonial history, particularly in relation to those countries like Algeria that fought bitter struggles against their colonial masters.
Dieudonne, the son of a French mother and father from Cameroon, whose comedy in the 1990s had been defined by a sharp anti-racist sensibility, was an early victim of the extreme political situation in the early years of the War on Terror.
In a style that could be seen as somewhat quintessentially French, when faced with prosecution for alleged anti-semitism, and many of his performances banned, Dieudonne refused to back down or compromise the provocative nature of his comedy. Today he is a vocal supporter of the Gilets Jaunes, and any passing foray into French language social media channels (like his own) that are supportive of the movement reveals just how prevalent the term "quenelle" has become as a kind of rallying cry for its supporters.
I wanted to share these thoughts in relation to my own language learning because such linguistic terms as these will likely be completely lost on people who only follow English language coverage of the Yellow Vests.
It would seem that sometimes learning a foreign language really does promote greater inter-cultural understanding.

Monday, 18 March 2019

An Introduction to Venezuelan Cinema

In attempting to write an article about the recent history of Venezuelan Cinema one thing that becomes apparent very early on is just how difficult it is to find Venezuelan films translated for the English-speaking market. 
Location is one reason. Like film-makers from other parts of the Global South, Latin American film-makers often struggle to reach western, and especially English-speaking, audiences. 
Politics may be another. The last few years has seen Venezuela subject to quite severe economic sanctions imposed by its rich neighbour to the north, so this would undoubtedly affect the countries' film distribution.
By way of an introduction, I will try to provide here a very brief overview of what I see as some of the highlights of Venezuelan cinema over the last three or four decades. I hope that this gives film buffs in the west a better understanding of Venezuelan film-making not just before the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, but before the uprisings of the early 1990s, right up until the present day Maduro years of collapsing oil prices, economic sanctions and allegations of internal mismanagement.

El cine soy yo (The Moving Picture Man) (dir. Luis Armando Roche; 1977)
This drama starring Juliet Berto was Venezuela's entry into the 10th Moscow International Film Festival. It tells the story of a moving man who becomes a film projectionist, and who shares his movies from a van disguised as a red whale!

Bolivar, a Tropical Symphony (dir. Diego Risquez; 1981)
This art house film from painter and film-maker Risquez became the first Super 8 film to be selected for the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. It could be loosely described as a biographical drama. It forms part of the directors' ambitious 'American Trilogy' which took as its subject the history and mythology of Latin America.
You can view a clip here:

Orinoko, New World (dir. Diego Risquez; 1984)
Part of the same trilogy, this anthropological drama uses simple sounds, devoid of any dialogue, to recreate what the Americas would have been like before Spanish colonialism. We see indigenous people engaged in activities such as art and fishing, celebrating rituals, dances and local indigenous beliefs. 
You can watch a short clip here:

Amerika, Terra Incognita (dir. Diego Risquez; 1988)
This is the final part of the directors' art house trilogy, although I can find almost nothing about it online.

La Casa de Agua (The House of Water) (dir. Jacobo Penzo; 1983)

This was the Venezuelan entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, although like Terra Incognita I have been unable to find detailed information about it.

Oriana (dir. Fina Torres; 1985)

Set in a hacienda or ranch, this drama tells the story of a lady named Maria, who returns to the house where she spent time as a child in order to uncover the secrets of her aunt, the Oriana of the title, who has left the property to her in her will. 
This film won the Camera d'Or Prize at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, and if you are lucky enough to own an American region DVD player you should be able to buy a copy online.

Jericho (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 1991)
This historical drama is set during the early 16th century. It concerns a priest named Santiago who joins a Spanish expedition in order to bring Christianity to the natives. Once there the expedition discover there is fierce resistance from the native peoples, and the entire expedition is murdered, with the priest being the only person spared. Santiago initially attempts to continue his mission of religious conversion before he decides to join the natives in their own way of life...until another expedition of Spaniards arrive.

Amanecio de Golpe (The Coup Awakened) (dir. Carlos Azpurua; 1998)
Historical drama about the 1992 attempted coup (the last one conducted by leftist elements in Venezuela, subsequent attempts having come from the right-wing opposition). The film was produced with international support from film companies in Canada, Cuba and Spain, which appears to be a not uncommon feature of Latin American film finance, and perhaps one reason why, after Chavez finally won power democratically in 1998 he set about creating the Ville del Cine film studios and Amazonia Films distribution company, launched in 2006 as a means of promoting local film-makers.
You can watch the trailer (again, in Spanish) here:

Punto y Raya (A Dot and A Line) (dir. Elia Schneider; 2004)
Taking its name from the anti-war song by Soledad Bravo, this action drama starring Edgar Ramirez is about Cheito, a street-wise Venezuelan conscript, who is thrown together with Pedro, a straight-arrow volunteer in the Colombian army, when the latter deserts his company and the other survives an ambush. They survive guerrillas, drug producers, corrupt narcotics officers, not to mention each other, as they make their way through the jungle. From being enemies they become allies, and finally friends, although their loyalties are tested along the way by women and politics. 
This film was a joint production with production companies in Chile, Spain and Uruguay, and won four international awards including the Special Jury Prize at Havana. It is also available on European region DVD!

Secuestro Express (Express Kidnapping) (dir. Jonathan Jakubowicz; 2005)

This crime drama is one of the few Venezuelan films to be picked up for distribution in the Anglophone world. It was made by a Venezuelan expat who lives in Los Angeles.

El Caracazo (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2005)

This historical drama, which recounts the uprisings of 1989 and their violent suppression, walked away with awards at film festivals in Havana and Trieste.

Mi Vida por Sharon, o que te pasa a ti? (dir. Carlos Azpurua; 2006)
In a departure from earlier films like Amanecio de Golpe, this comedy concerns the attempts of Carlitos Lopez to recover a stolen car named Sharon, even if it risks his relationships with his ex-wife, girlfriend and family. 
Here is a clip:

Postales de Leningrado (dir. Mariana Rondon; 2007)
This is an award-winning coming of age drama about kids growing up in the left-wing insurgency of 1960s Venezuela. The director loosely based it on her own experiences as the daughter of FALN guerrillas. You can also find it on DVD. Yayyy!

La Clase (dir. Jose Antonio Varela; 2007)
This romantic drama from Ville de Cine is based on the novel by Farruco Sesto, which contrasts the different ways of life of different social classes in Venezuela. The film walked away with awards from the Merida and Malaga film festivals. You can view the trailer here:

El Enemigo (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2008)
Drama, in which two people from very different worlds are brought together in the corridors of a Caracas hospital. Here's the trailer:

Macuro (dir. Hernan Jabes; 2008)
Drama. Sadly this is another film I can find almost no information about online in English. Anyone who has seen it is welcome to leave a brief review in the comments section of this article.

Zamora: Tierra y hombres libres (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2009)
Historical drama about Ezequiel Zamora, who led a struggle in Venezuela during the late nineteenth century for land rights, a key factor in the entrenched inequalities of the nation at that time.
Here's the trailer:

Libertador Morales (dir. Efterpi Charalambidis; 2009)
Comedy-drama about a motorcycle taxi driver who assumes the alter ego El Justiciero in order to fight the criminal gangs in Caracas.
Here's the trailer:

Taita Boves (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2010)
Historical drama. From the directors' summary on IMDB: “TAITA BOVES chronicles a thirst for revenge that devastated a country. It tells the true story of Jose Tomás Boves, a cruel man who became a legend during the Venezuelan War of Independence, the most violent in the Americas. He went from seafarer to pirate, horse smuggler to prosperous merchant, prisoner to military chief. Spanish by birth, he spearheaded a grass roots troop of slaves, mulattoes, Indians and mestizos that crushed Simón Bolívar and his patriot army. Respectfully referred to as "Taita" by them, he fought for the underprivileged and the poorest of the poor, and curtailed three centuries of order in this colonial region. This film is about his passions and power, his loves and misadventures, and a bloody saga that rocked Venezuela.”
Here's the trailer (in Spanish):

Habana Eva (dir. Fina Torres; 2010)
This romantic comedy from the director of Oriana was filmed in Havana, and walked away with an award at the New York International Latino Film Festival.

Dias de poder (Days of Power) (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2011)
Drama concerning Caracas society during the 1960s, times of struggle and change. After the fall of the Perezjimenist dictatorship, Fernando Quintero, a revolutionary leader, ascends to power in the new administration, thus betraying his ideals to become an accomplice to the repression that he had previously fought. His son Efraín, holding to his old convictions, generates contradictions that make him an active adversary of the government and of his own father, leading to a tormented and instructive end.

Azul y no tan rosa (Blue and Not So Pink, released in the US as: My Straight Son) (dir. Miguel Ferrari; 2012)
A joint-production with Spain, this became the first Venezuelan film to win the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film.

Tiempos de Dictadura Tiempos de Marcos Perez Jimenez (dir. Carlos Oteyza; 2012)
Documentary about both the human rights abuses and infrastructure development of the twentieth century Venezuelan dictator.

Piedra, Papelo, Tijera (Rock, Paper, Scissors) (dir. Hernan Jabes; 2012)
Drama, in which a mistaken kidnapping sets in motion a delicate chain of tragic events.

Azu: Alma de princesa (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2013)
Adventure drama, set in 1780. A group of slaves flee from a sugarcane plantation, looking for a cumbe. They are pursued by Don Manuel Aguirre, an obsessed landowner who has fixed his eyes on Azú, the beautiful slave who has an ancestral destiny. This story combines action, mysticism and the struggle for freedom and dignity in an environment filled with magic and the richness of the jungle.
Here's the trailer (in Spanish):

Bolivar, Man of Difficulties (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2013)
Biographical drama starring Roque Valero, focusing on the period in Simon Bolivar's life (from May 1815 until 1816) when he was exiled in Jamaica. The film, produced in collaboration with other international film companies including Cuba's ICAIC studio, explores the experience of the human being behind the heroic myth of the Latin American independence hero.

Desde Alla (From Afar) (dir. Lorenzo Vigas; 2015)
Armando, a wealthy middle-aged man, becomes involved with Elder, a young man from a street gang.

El Amparo (dir. Rober Calzadilla; 2016)
Historical drama, made as a Venezuelan-Colombian joint production, which won awards in Sydney and Sao Paulo. At the end of the 80's, by the creeks of the Arauca river, near the Colombian-Venezuelan border, two men survived the brutality of a shooting in which 14 of their mates were killed. They claimed to be mere fishermen, but the Venezuelan army accused them to be guerrilla fighters, intimidating them in every possible way and even attempting to remove them from the cell where they were guarded by a policeman. Their neighbours prevented their transfer, but the pressure they faced to give in and submit the official version was overwhelming.
Here's the trailer (with English subtitles):

La Planta Insolente (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2017)
Historical drama. The film rescues, in an hour and forty minutes, the historic moment when Cipriano Castro, then president of Venezuela, proclaimed: "The insolent plant of the foreigner has profaned the sacred soil of the country!", at a time when the coasts of the country were invaded by imperial forces in 1902.

La Familia (dir. Gustavo Rondon Cordova; 2017)

Social realist drama, produced with Chilean and Norwegian assistance, set in the barrios of Caracas about a father and his son.

This article aims to give a brief overview of some of the highlights of Venezuelan cinema from the 1970s up until the present day. It is by no means exhaustive, and I hope to be able to write more extensively about this subject as I learn more. 

It often seems that when Venezuelan popular culture like film is discussed at all in English language media it is often seen through the somewhat distorted lens of western mainstream media, which of course all too frequently reflect the unquestioned political biases of the dominant culture. 
Anyone reading this who wants to see more articles in English about Venezuelan films from a more independent perspective, and thinks there are any important films I have missed out from this list is welcome to leave a comment below. 

Sunday, 27 January 2019

The Popular Music of Venezuela

El Cantor del Pueblo (The People's Singer)

By pushing the sun,
the dawn gets closer.
- 'Sombrero Azul' by Ali Primera

Ali Primera was born on October 31 1942, in the small coastal town of Coro, Falcon State, in the north of Venezuela. During his tragically short lifetime he became one of the leading lights of the Venezuelan Nueva Cancion ("new song"), a movement that inspired musicians across Latin America during the 1960s, 70s and into the 80s, by combining both the instruments and rhythms of traditional indigenous folk music of the region with the politically-engaged themes of North American protest singers like Dylan and Seeger.
The songs of Primera were a cry of condemnation against exploitation and repression, which at that time was afflicting the hemisphere in the form of a seemingly endless cycle of CIA-backed military dictatorships, under which an extreme form of capitalism was unleashed upon the countries of south and central America and the Caribbean. But his songs were also a celebration of popular resistance.
He first began to write songs as a student in the 1960s, when he studied at the Central University of Venezuela, initially as a hobby. It was only when his songs 'Humanidad' and 'No basta rezar' were presented at the Festival of Protest Songs in 1967 to some success that he found himself propelled into the spotlight and began to take songwriting more seriously.
Even the most moderate progressives in Latin America at this time were liable to be targeted for disappearance, so with little to lose and potentially a world to gain, Primera accepted a scholarship from the Communist Party of Venezuela to continue his studies in Europe - Romania, to be precise -  where he lived and studied between 1969 and 1973. His first album Gente de mi tierra was recorded in Germany around this time. More albums were soon to follow, and he returned to South America a star.
Sadly, on February 16 1985 he became involved in a fatal car accident on the Autopista Valle-Coche in Caracas. He was just 42.
The album he had been working on at the time of his untimely death had only 4 songs completed, so his brother, the musician Jose Montecano, stepped in to record the remaining songs. They included familiar themes of social justice and peace, alongside what was for Primera new musical styles like 'gaita' - a musical form native to Zulia state, to the west of Lake Maracaibo. The resulting LP Por si no lo sabia (If you didn't know) was a success, even receiving some television promotion, which had eluded Primera during his lifetime.
It is possible to find a little video footage of Primera's performances online, notably from the 1983 Concert for Peace in Nicaragua. It was here that he performed his song 'Sombrero Azul', a message of solidarity to the people of El Salvador, which I quoted a part of at the start of this piece.
Today, a monument to Primera stands in Caujarao, close to the town of his birth in Falcon state. It was unveiled in 2005 by the new socialist Bolivarian government, which declared the music of Ali Primera a national heritage.

Soledad Bravo

Born in the Spanish town of Logrono, La Rioja on January 1 1943 and raised in Venezuela, Soledad Bravo has been one of the other great leading lights of the Venezuelan Nueva Cancion. Although equally proficient at singing traditional folk melodies as she has been at pop songs, Bravo made her greatest impact as a protest singer. Billboard declared that "her voice is an exceptional instrument," and the Madrid-based newspaper Diario described how "her voice captivates you, the range is so wide and its strength is amazing."
Bravo's left-wing political convictions seem natural when we consider that her father was a Spanish republican during the civil war of 1936-39. The family left Spain (then under fascist dictatorship) and emigrated to Venezuela when Soledad was just seven, and it was here that she attended school, and where she first began singing with a group. 
She continued to sing while studying at the Central University of Venezuela. Shortly after her graduation in 1967, Bravo was hired to perform daily on the morning television show 'Buenos Dias', which she appeared on for many years. 
Her debut album, Soledad Bravo Canta, released in 1968, included her interpretation of the Cuban troubadour Carlos Puebla's tribute to the recently murdered Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevera, 'Hasta Siempre.' 
The title comes from Guevara's well-known saying “Hasta la victoria siempre!” (“Until victory, always!”) and was the first and best known of many cover versions over the years.

Between 1969 and 1976, Bravo focused on popularising both the traditional and radical protest songs of Latin America, releasing three commercially successful albums - Soledad (1969), Soledad Bravo Vol. 3 (1970) and Soledad Bravo Vol. 4 (1973) - touring throughout other Latin American countries like Peru, Argentina, Chile and Mexico. 
Politically engaged folk music has always been a way of preserving and disseminating stories of popular struggle, of the successes and failures of popular movements, and just as British musicians like Ewan MacColl and Chumbawumba have sought out and recorded their own versions of traditional ballads and anthems of revolutionary movements of the British radical past, so too have the musicians of Latin America. Her 1972 double-album, En Vivo, featured songs of the Spanish Civil war, and she also released Cantos de la Nueva Trova Cubana in 1974, Nueva Trova being the Cuban version of the Nueva Cancion which was initiated after the revolution by artists like Carlos Puebla. 
When Bravo was invited to perform in Spain an appearance on Spanish television, in which she was accompanied by flamenco guitarist Manolo Sanlucar, helped bring her national recognition in that country. 
During the four years that she remained in Spain she recorded several albums, including one with Spanish poet Rafael Alberti in 1977, and a collection of songs of the Spanish Jews, Cantos Sefardies (1980), that received a Grand Prix Du Disque award in France. 
From Spain she next traveled to New York, USA, where she adopted a more tropical repertoire, working with salsa musician Willie Colon on the album Caribe (1982). Four years later, she recorded a self-titled album with accompaniment by Eddie Gomez, Airto Moreira, Paquito D'Rivera, Jorge Dalto, Ray Barreto, Yomo Toro and Spyro Gyra.”

Folk music can often be seen as sombre, despite moments of stunning tenderness and sweet simplicity, such as we hear in a peace song like 'Punto y Raya' (Dots and Lines), a song of such gentle subversiveness against war you almost don't notice it at first (especially if Spanish is not your first language). But we must not forget that the Venezuelan musical scene has always been quite broad and diverse. If, for example, you just want to get down in a mosh pit then the energetic ska beats of Desorden Publico may be more to your taste.

In contrast to the Nueva Cancion folk singers like Primera and Bravo, the group Los Amigos Invisibles sound like music from another era, which of course they are. Much like the "Bolivarian Revolution" they emerged during the 1990s, and English-speakers may find their humorous lyrics and cheeky music videos more reminiscent of bands like Madness (from the UK) or the B-52s (from the US).

It is anyone's guess how the country's present challenges will impact its cultural output. If the US-installed President takes root, then a lifting of the economic sanctions that have been strangling the economy for the last few years could make it easier for Venezuelans to export their culture to the world once more. If the international support the Maduro government has received enables it to resist foreign interference, it is anyone's guess what music such resistance could inspire.

Hopefully this briefest of overviews of some of the shining lights of Venezuelan popular music over the last half century shows that, where Venezuela is concerned, any outcome will likely inspire music with a unique richness and variety.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Punitive economic sanctions no barrier to a rich cinematic culture

(This article follows on naturally from my last post and the two can and I believe should be read in conjunction with each other.)

Many people who have grown up in English-speaking societies are completely oblivious to the rich cinematic heritage of countries deemed "official enemies" by the logic of the Cold War. I certainly was for many years.

Thanks to the Internet it is now easier than ever to find out about this history, although to do so may still require dedicated time spent trawling through the pages of IMDB and Wikipedia to find sparsely written articles about films which may, or may not, be available on DVD, and which even then may be untranslated for the English-speaking world. Rarely are they available through corporate 'on demand' services like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Those that aren't readily available in this format may have been posted (in some form) on video sharing sites like YouTube or The Daily Motion, but even then may not necessarily have subtitles.

What I'm getting at is that exploring the full wealth of world cinema can be challenging. But it can be rewarding too when a world opens up to you that you had previously been unaware of.

How interesting it is, for example, to compare Francis Ford Coppola's epic 1979 Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now with a Vietnamese war movie such as Hong Sen's Canh Dong Hoang (in English: The Wild, or Abandoned, Field), released in the same year. How eye-opening, as a westerner, to see the Vietnamese people (the people, remember, who the United States government claimed to be trying to liberate) depicted as more than one-dimensional characters. In fact represented as ordinary people, often ordinary families, struggling bravely and resolutely in extraordinary circumstances to free their country from yet another foreign invasion.
Perhaps the most striking comparison to make between the two films is in their depictions of the enemy. A US war plane shot down towards the end of Canh Dong Hoang reveals a pilot with a photo of his family back home, effectively making the point that the US draftees have been dragged from their families just as the Vietnamese have been dragged from theirs. This regard for "the other" is not something we are used to seeing in the more imperialistic narratives of US film-makers, which often confine their criticism to depicting the mental degeneration of war on the personalities of ordinary draftees.

Another Vietnamese film I enjoyed is Em Ba Ha Noi (Little Girl of Hanoi) (1974), which is touching if somewhat implausible. One of the reasons why it is so interesting is because it was filmed in the closing days of the American War, against a backdrop of the genuine war-torn landscape around Hanoi, and perhaps for this reason there are elements that are also more openly propagandistic (curiously, more in the service of Vietnamese nationalism, rather than socialist internationalism). It makes for an interesting compliment to films like The Green Berets (1967), which are also propagandistic (in the service of US imperialism) but for some reason rarely recognised as such by western reviewers.

The cinematic heritage of Cuba, another small country which successfully defied the will of US power throughout the twentieth century, is also interesting to explore. Some Cuban films made in the 1960s, like those of Santiago Alvarez, are deliberately and overtly propagandistic (far more so than anything I have seen produced by the Vietnamese), and combine this with a searing satire that must have played well when imported by art house theatres in the US frequented by members of the burgeoning counter culture. As someone who has grown up with the products of the US counter culture of the 1960s and 70s (especially its music and underground comix), I find this aspect of Cuban films from this time weirdly familiar.
The Alvarez film NOW! (1966) remains a punchy short film against racist police violence in the USA. All of 6 minutes in length, this proto-music video is set to a stunning song by Lena Horne. Other films by Alvarez from the 1960s, such as his tribute to the recently deceased Vietnamese nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh - 79 Primaveras (79 Springtimes; 1969) - are poignant and poetic, whilst maintaining the same kind of remarkable 60s rock n' roll soundtrack as NOW! and some of his other films.
There are other Cuban films from this period that go deeper into the history and identity of a people whose national independence, much like those of the Vietnamese, has been hard won. Humberto Solas' 1969 film Lucia is one of these, telling the story of different stages in Cuban history through the eyes of a different woman, each named Lucia.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

True to the spirit of internationalism that has driven Cuba to deploy its doctors around the world in much the same way as its northern neighbour uses its military, over the years the Cuban ICAIC film company has collaborated with film producers in other Latin American nations on various joint productions. The 1982 Nicaraguan film Alsino y el Condor (Alsino and the Condor) is a notable example.

As a sometime cartoonist the realisation that Cuba has its own distinct animators also came as a surprise. One notable example from the 1970s and 80s are the films starring Juan Padron's Elpidio Valdes, an Asterix-like character who lives at the time of the independence war against Spain at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Many film-makers in Hollywood seem intent on going back and remaking old, and sometimes not so old, films of their own country, so that a new generation can watch young actors playing characters they have probably already seen on television or streaming Internet services. This strikes me as such a waste, partly because it makes the studios look very risk averse, unwilling to take a chance on scripts by young, unknown writers, but also because of this wealth of global cinema that if spread more widely could do so much to promote a truly internationalist mindset.

How many people reading this, I wonder, can name a single English-speaking remake of a classic movie from the socialist world? Feel free to respond in the comments section...

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

How I reached adulthood without ever seeing a Vietnamese film

When Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's documentary series The Vietnam War was aired by PBS in the U.S. in the autumn of 2017 (it was released on DVD in the UK) it was met with mixed reviews. Oliver North wrote for Fox News, decrying the depiction of “the heroic” American GI's as a bunch of pot smokers, and also complaining about the exclusion of interviews with figures like Henry Kissinger. In fact, the film-makers appear to have made a deliberate decision to avoid interviewing any big and potentially divisive names, opting instead for a centrist approach in which the stories of ordinary people take precedence.
Many on the left have also been critical of the ongoing failure of American film-makers to think beyond the established parameters, such as the persistent assumption that this was a noble intervention pursued with good intentions that the United States could have won if they had just been more determined, or had the press been more subservient perhaps. Independent journalists, Vietnam veterans and peace activists such as John Pilger, S. Brian Willson and others are more keen to challenge film-makers like Burns and Novick to confront the harsh but arguably necessary reality that a key reason why the United States lost the Vietnam War was because they had as much right being there as the Soviet Union did of being in Hungary or Czechoslovakia.
The release of this new documentary and the various critiques surrounding it made me think about just how much my own perceptions of that conflict have been shaped almost entirely by American films and television shows. Despite the fact that I grew up in a country – England – which had the cautious mindset under Prime Minister Harold Wilson to refuse to commit troops to the war (although Wilson also refused to join the Prime Ministers of Sweden and – eventually – Australia in openly criticizing the U.S. aggression), my perception of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people was for many years shaped by a western-made lens.
This perception contributes to an all too frequently one-dimensional and at times insulting perception of the Vietnamese as support actors in an American story, as enemies in their own land, which persists in large sections of western society.
While Burns and Novick have done a service to the historical record by seeking out the stories of North and South Vietnamese people for their series, they will still be seen in the context of a U.S.-produced and financed documentary series, ultimately made for a U.S. audience. There is also a concern that this may fuel further failures of cross-cultural understanding and an unwillingness to confront the hard truths that might prevent such imperial aggression in the future.
This is a phenomenon that is not unique to the States, but which pervades much of western culture, my own country included. It is actually conveyed remarkably well by the central character in British author Alex Garland's debut novel The Beach (1996). Whether this was intentional or not I have no idea. If you have read the book you will recall that it recounts the first-person narrative of a young traveller from London named Richard who is drawn to south east Asia on a gap year, more for the warm weather and cheap drugs than any meaningful desire to understand and connect with the people (in this instance those of Thailand) and their culture.
The self delusion of Richard's first person narration is illustrated with startling clarity by his desire to draw a clear distinction between what he describes as “travellers” and “tourists”, with Richard classing himself as a traveller. This is a distinction sadly not borne out by his own behaviour. Even though the story is set in Bangkok and the gulf of Thailand, we witness Richard tripping out on fantasies derived from a youth spent watching U.S. television shows like The A Team and films like Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now (1979).
The ensuing tragedy stands as a dramatic warning of what can happen when affluent westerners see an economically underdeveloped region merely as a playground for their own Hollywood-shaped fantasies. Apocalypse Now, of course, merely used Vietnam as a convenient contemporary backdrop for a retelling of Joseph Conrad's Second World War novel Heart of Darkness, which takes place in the Congo, in much the same way as Garland’s protagonist and his friends use the islands of the Gulf as a backdrop for their own hedonistic adventures.

The journey that American feature film and documentary film-makers have taken over the last half a century appears to have been a process of slowly coming to accept the humanity of the Vietnamese people and the legitimacy of their struggle for national independence. Yes, they were and still are officially a Marxist-Leninist one party state, but only because the 1917 revolution in Russia seemed to offer both a workable model and willing ally at that time for economically underdeveloped countries seeking to industrialise in a very short space of time. 
Let's not forget that Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues based the 1945 Vietnamese declaration of independence was on the United States' own declaration of independence. Who can say how things could have unfolded had the US not made the tragic decision to supplant French colonial interests rather than support Vietnamese national independence, or seen its foreign policy warped and subverted by the logic of Cold War realpolitics? But I digress...
This perspective is something to be welcomed, even if a deeper understanding of their countries’ role in the world often remains excluded from much mainstream American discourse.
In 1968 for example, the year of the My Lai massacre, Hollywood was still producing fairly traditional propaganda like the John Wayne film The Green Berets. By the 1970s, when it had become clear that the U.S. had lost the war, American film-makers turned to making fraught dramas, character studies of the tortured psyches of individual veterans such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Michael Cimono’s The Deer Hunter (1978), both movies that helped launch Robert de Niro’s acting career.
This theme was developed and refined during the 1980s with increasing reference to the lived experience of real (white, western) people from that period. From the U.S. forces disc jockey portrayed by Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam (1988), and his slow awakening that the story he had been sold by his government was really a lie, to Ron Kovic, whose journey from idealistic young patriot to outspoken peace activist is depicted by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989).
Meanwhile, as the US exported its cultural output to the rest of the world, and even as the Vietnamese government of the late 1980s implemented market-friendly, economic "renovation" policies that removed many of its leading socialist policies, most people in the west remained effectively blind to Vietnamese voices and perspectives.
Occasionally you might find a depiction in these American films of the Vietnamese as more than one dimensional characters in an American story, but no recognition of the fact that, despite its underdevelopment, Vietnam nevertheless managed to invest in its own homegrown film industry, where Vietnamese characters take centre stage in their own stories. The Vietnam Film Studio was established in Hanoi shortly after partition in the 1950s. The U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam had its own film industry too based in Saigon, and they remained separate entities until reunification in the 1970s.
Yet today anyone in this age of globalisation who searches the Internet for classic Vietnamese films will find precious little available on DVD or on streaming video services for English-speaking viewers, in contrast to the diversity of films from Japan, South Korea and even China that are widely available for English-speaking audiences. 
Those genuinely interested in finding Vietnamese perspectives on “the American War” (as it is known in Vietnam) must rely on occasional specialist film festivals or fall back on random postings to video-sharing websites where, if they are lucky, they may find a version with subtitles.
This article therefore is deliberately designed to fill the vacuum that exists in the minds of many westerners with regards to Vietnamese culture, and particularly Vietnamese cinema.

Perhaps the best Vietnamese film for English speakers to begin with is Tran Van Thuy's 1998 documentary Tieng vi cam o My Lai (The Sound of the Violin at My Lai), which is only half an hour long. It is particularly good for anyone who enjoyed Born on the Fourth of July as it focuses on other U.S. veterans turned peace activists, in this instance Hugh Thompson and Larry Colborn, who witnessed the massacre by their fellow soldiers and bravely intervened to stop it. The Vietnamese film crew record Thompson and Colborn's return to the village three decades later to meet survivors, and the result is a heartfelt, touching and ultimately hopeful film about the importance of memory and the human yearning for peace and reconciliation.
In contrast Dinh Hac Bui's feature film Ha Noi 12 ngay dem (Hanoi 12 Days and Nights) (2002) is a fairly typical war movie, but still interesting to watch to better appreciate the Vietnamese perspective. The film is about the bombing of Hanoi by U.S. B-52 bombers which took place over 12 days and nights in the lead up to Christmas 1972, before peace talks were due to begin in Paris. These attacks drew condemnation not just from natural allies like China and the Soviet Union but also the governments of western nations, some allied to the U.S. like the government of Gough Whitlam in Australia (whose people had already suffered much for its support of the Americans), others steadfastly non-aligned such as that of Olof Palme in Sweden.
Perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences of watching this film as a westerner is not simply the novelty of watching a Vietnam war film made from the point of view of the North Vietnamese, but the opportunity to see actors of European-descent playing small supporting roles in a Vietnamese story, as opposed to the reverse that we are so used to. Another contrast is the more central focus on the experience of female characters one sees in a number of Vietnamese films about the war (Mua gio chu'o'ng, or Season of the Whirlwind in English (1978), Canh dong hoang, or The Abandoned Field (1979) and Bao gio cho den thang mu'o'i or When the Tenth Month Comes (1984) being quite good examples), in sharp distinction from the depiction of women in many US-made films about the same conflict. 
In the Vietnamese films you see women not just as wives and mothers, but also as important participants in the war effort, while in US films (Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket being one notorious example) Vietnamese women are more likely to be depicted as prostitutes.
A criticism of Hanoi 12 Days and Nights from a purely artistic angle is that some of the acting is a little stilted. This is offset by a much more triumphant ending than we are used to seeing in most U.S. films about this particular war, a reminder that for the Vietnamese people the war ended with a triumphant victory against yet another foreign invader, and the reunification of their country.
A much earlier and artistically more impressive film, with a more ambiguous ending, is Hai Ninh's moving drama Em be Ha Noi (Girl from Hanoi) (1974), which is set (and indeed was produced) during the immediate aftermath of the same U.S. bombing campaign of December 1972. The film used real bombsites as locations to tell the story of a young girl, Ngoc Ha, who is desperately searching for her family, violin in hand, who have been missing following the bombing of her city. For me, the similarities to the German Luftwaffe bombing of London are palpable.

Following reunification the Vietnamese were subjected to punishing economic sanctions, and these clearly difficult years are reflected in the production values of their films, most of which were still being made in black and white well into the 1980s. One of the films mentioned above, Dang Nhat Minh's film Bao gio cho den tháng Muoi (When the Tenth Month Comes) (1984), is no different in this respect. Despite these setbacks however the director utilizes stunning cinematography to tell the heart-wrenching story of a young woman struggling to continue life as normal in a war-ravaged land, unable to tell her father and young son that her husband has been killed.
While it remains difficult to find examples in the west of the Vietnamese framing their own perspectives on the war, except in the context of interviews by western documentary film-makers, in recent years there has nevertheless been a concerted effort to bring more contemporary Vietnamese films to screens in the English-speaking world.
For example, every two years the Vietnamese-American Arts and Letters Association organises a Vietnamese Film Festival, which in 2016 was hosted by the Village Cinema Sunshine complex in Melbourne, Australia, where it screened recent work by Vietnamese film-makers from various countries around the world. Included were the comedy Taxi, Em Ten Gi, (Taxi Driver, What's Your Name?), the action film Lat Mat (Face Off), Trot Yeu (Love) and Tuyen Quang Nguyen's Cau Vong Khong Sac (Rainbow Without Colours). In that same year the 60th BFI Festival in London, England screened nine films, including the multi-award winning Tôi thay hoa vàng trên co xanh (Yellow Flowers on Green Grass) (2015), Victor Vu's story of two young brothers set in the 1980s. All these films, and there are many more, demonstrate how far the Vietnamese film industry has come from the old, black and white days of hardship and deprivation that defined their lives and cinematic output in the difficult years of peace that followed victory and reunification.
Many of these films that are only available to people in the west through social media video-sharing websites receive thousands of views. If you are lucky enough to live in an area with a large Vietnamese expat population you may find a local library well stocked with Vietnamese film and television shows on DVD, as I did one time while visiting the Melbourne suburb of Flemington not very long ago. 
I hope we can look forward to a time when far more of these classic films, alongside more contemporary fare, can be remastered for the western television and streaming Internet market, or to buy on DVD, so we can better understand each other. When this happens a world of true understanding and peace, rather than a mere cessation of hostilities, may become possible.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Rich World of Bulgarian Electro

I know precious little about Bulgaria or Bulgarian culture, but that is slowly changing.

Up until recently the image I had of Bulgaria was defined by a cartoon by R. Crumb, published in the US satirical magazine Help back in the 1960s. The caption reads: “A wide variety of home appliances have been made available to the Bulgarian housewife,” while the image depicts sturdy women perusing old fashioned stoves and even a mangel! 

This sarcastic perception of Bulgaria says more about western prejudices about eastern Europe. It also conceals the fact that, during the period when the country was aligned to the USSR, Bulgaria maintained a fairly high standard of industrial production, exporting to many countries in Europe and Africa.

This trend continues under a more democratic system. The only difference being that now Bulgarian manufacturers are contracted more by western corporations than the Russian state. For example, we bought some glassware from the Swedish-owned chain IKEA once which have “Made in Bulgaria” stamped on the bottom.

Yet all I hear about this country seems to be negative.

There is, of course, much more to the country than perceptions of industrial backwardness. It has a culture of its own. Take the phenomenon of Bulgarian electro music, which spans the country's recent history as both democracy and Marxist-Leninist one party state.

According to the Continuo blog:

Simo Lazarov, real name Simon Leon Lazar (b.1948), is the most important electro-acoustic music composer in Bulgaria. In 1973, he founded the Studio for Electronic Music at Bulgarian National Radio. During the 1980s, he pioneered home-studio techniques and the use of personal computers for composers in Bulgaria. Since 1996, he has been Computer Music teacher at the New Bulgarian University, and has also been lecturing during summer courses in US universities (Ann Arbor U. and Michigan U.) … He released 9 LPs, 26 CDs and a 30 CD-set was published in 2003, spanning his entire career. His first records were released on the state label Balkanton and are said to offer a choice of more accessible tracks compared to his experimental work. His first LP, The City, came out in 1984, while Nature-Electronic Music  was released 1988, possibly his 3rd LP. It’s basically 2 side-long mixes of various electronic tracks, interwoven with environmental recordings (river, children playing, storm). The music is entirely composed on synthesizers and sequencers, and the style reminds early Bulgarian progressive rock band FSB (for Formation Studio Balkanton), particularly the all-synthesizer 1978 II LP...”

The band FSB, cited above, was formed by three musicians in Sofia in the mid-1970s as a primarily studio-based outfit. They released their debut album Non-Stop in 1978. More funk-oriented than musicians like Lazarov, they would later tour widely throughout eastern Europe, making a notable collaboration with Jose Feliciano in 1990, before disbanding in 1996 after making two more albums. Ten years later they reformed and are still performing today, an eponymous album appearing in 2010. Their music is not difficult to find online either, being available through Apple Music. Yet the perception of Bulgaria painted by the more explicitly racist sections of the British mass media tend to paint the country exclusively as a source of marauding gypsy gangs. 

So, I look forward to sharing a more detailed post about the Bulgarian arts and music scene as I find out more.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Art in El Salvador

I have to confess to a quite extensive ignorance, until very recently, of the rich artistic culture of the tiny Central American country of El Salvador. Above the main entrance of Westminster Abbey, here in London, there stands a rendition in stone of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated on March 24 1980 by a CIA-backed death squad while saying mass, in the early stages of what would become a horrific, decade-long civil war.

So my abiding impression of this tiny country was one of darkness and pain.

What a delightful surprise it was, therefore, to discover the work of an artist like Fernando Llort, a Salvadoran artist who died only this year. Llort, described by some cultural institutions in the country as El Salvador's National Artist, produced bright, colourful, joyous paintings and murals, as well as a range of handicrafts. They have been described by some as reminiscent of the playfulness of Joan Miro.

Llort originally studied architecture before moving to Europe to continue his studies in theology in France and then Belgium, before settling on art while in the USA. To escape the tense political situation in the cities and large towns of his home country, Llort and a group of other artists moved to the town of La Palma, in the mountains up in the north of El Salvador, quite close to the border with Honduras.

Here they led a simple life, getting to know the landscape and people of the town well, and where Llort began to paint in the simple, two-dimensional primary colours he would later become synonymous with, where nature blends with day-to-day rural life. They carved handicrafts out of wood and sold them from their own Semilla de Dios (Seed of God) workshop, inspiring a local handicrafts movement, with many more cooperative workshops soon opening up in the local area.

Llort maintained his connections with the local handicrafts movement around La Palma even after he was forced to return to San Salvador.

You can see the work of Fernando Llort on his official website: