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Kenya Submits Film to Oscars

half-life1Kenya has made its first entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the 85th Academy Awards. “Nairobi Half Life,” directed by David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga, is the story of the criminal underworld of Nairobi.

Nairobi is famous for suffering from a deep seated problem of petty and organized crime. Carjackings, pickpockets and cel-phone grabs are common. Gitonga set out to make a film about these criminals, who often come from the villages, seeking opportunities in the city.

The addition of a Kenyan film to the Oscar rolls is momentous. To date, few countries have ever submitted. Most of the submissions come either from northern Africa or South Africa, though there have been submissions from Cameroon and Senegal.

Nigeria’s film industry is massive, but the low quality and disposable nature of production doesn’t produce Oscar material. Kenya has struggled to carve out a cinematic space for itself. Notable is the Kenyan International Film Festival, which has been bringing films to Kenya and showcasing Kenyan made films since 2006.

From the trailer, “Nairobi Half Life” looks great. I can’t wait to see the whole thing. Josephy Warimu, the star, has already won the award for best actor at the 33rd Durban International Film Festival.

James Bond and Economics: Shaken and Stirred

James Bond, closet Keynsian

Over my nearly 40 years of watching James Bond movies, it wasn’t until recently that I picked up on what it all meant.

James Bond, a talented 00 agent in MI6, gets sent the world over to thwart the nefarious plans of mad geniuses hell bent on world domination, all the while bagging beautiful women and downing martini after martini. That much is clear.

What was not clear to me, was the deep economic and political significance of the series. The Economist recently ran a blog post on 2006’s Casino Royale as an allegory for the financial meltdown, despite the fact that it appeared two years before.

Le Chiffre, a opportunistic genius who finances international terrorism for profit comes up with an infallible plan to short sell rapidly rising stocks in a airline company, destroy a highly anticipated prototype, then profit off the subsequent crash in stock prices. He does this by investing money that is not his own. The plan, of course, fails, and the “genius” plans to win it all back through a poker game.

This could have been pulled from the playbook of every alcoholic and gambling addict out there. Genius, indeed, but little different from the irresponsible and desperate behavior of market players as the American economic bubble was crashing.

Interestingly, Bond himself, through a couple of poorly planned strategies loses everything and appeals to the Treasury of the United Kingdom (taxpayers) to bail him out. The Treasury rightly refuses, unlike the Government of the United States. Instead of saying no, the US bailed out some of the worst offenders in the banking crisis, effectively rewarding them for gambling stupidly.

Of course, Bond has little to fear. The $50 million dollars that Bond needs is secretly offered up by the Americans as long as they are able to take the credit for the win. This exchange underlines the complex relationship between the UK and the US. Britain, once the largest power in the world, now relies on bailouts from the former colony when it makes stupid mistakes. Amazing.

The villains of the bond world distinguish themselves by not being power-hungry-insecure-would-be-despots (such as the Asgardian Loki in the recent movie the Avengers), but rather as shrewd financial schemers, who wish to manipulate the market to securely enrich themselves.

In this manner, they are no different than food speculators on Wall Street (the gold manipulation scheme in Goldfinger), and not out of step with the ever more obvious trend of the mass privatization of that which should be a public good (see the water scheme in Quantum of Solace).

Of course, not all of these villains are supply siders like the plan to control the worlds solar energy in The Man with the Golden Gun (of course, this ignores the possibility someone else might redevelop the technology and enter the market). Dr. Kananga in Live and Let Die sought to create market demand for his product by getting restaurant patrons hooked on heroin.

The economic depth of 007 was certainly lost of me until I started digging. Truthfully, I really didn’t know what a stock short sale was, but now I do. Perhaps instead of reading wordy economic tomes, we might just make students rewatch Bond movies? It would certainly be more entertaining.

The Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories

Today, I’m sitting in on the Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories symposium, a research dissemination event bringing film scholars working in the field of East Asian cinema.

While I don’t speak the same academic language as many of the presenters, it’s enjoyable to be here and see so many people working diligently on a subject as obscure as East Asian cinematic history. It is fascinating to sit and listen to discussions of Japanese colonial cinema, the philosophy of Maeda Ai, and Chinese literary giant Lu Xun’s “amateur” analysis of an obscure Japanese writer’s 1941 work on Democracy and cinema. Wow.

As always, I am struck as the paucity of discussions of modern cinematic and artistic history. I remember when I was an undergrad, studying German literature and cinema, being frustrated by the seeming reluctance of academics to work with current literatures and cinemas. While it is certainly safe to work in spaces where philosophies and criticisms are recorded, accepted and preciously interpreted, academic thought cannot progress by resting forever on the laurels of Foucault, Derrida and what academic libraries are willing to provide shelf space for. Admittedly, this impression is entirely based on the limited number of presentations I have seen to this point and likely not fair to those whose work I am not so familiar with, but this impression is what sticks.

Orignally, I had intended to go to graduate school in the humanities, specifically in Japanese film studies. Life, of course, got in the way and things turned out differently. I am most satisfied with the ways things turned out, but I am happy to have a background in the humanities. I often question to utility of segregating academics into the disciplines, the borders between which are often artificial and created for reasons other than academics. I find that we have much to offer one another, though little opportunity to interact. For someone as intellectually schizophrenic (if that can be considered a positive) as myself, I think that’s a shame.

Tonight, Ozu’s Tokyo no Yado, a Japanese silent, will be shown to live musical accompaniment and dialogue performed by a practicing benshi. Before talkies, silent films in Japan were narrated live. Often the narrators (benshi) were more popular than the movies themselves. Kataoka Ichirou is one of 15 practicing benshi in Japan and is visiting Ann Arbor for the next six months. I had the opportunity to speak with him briefly last night. Hopefully I will be able to interview him before he leaves.

Movie of the Week: “Viva Riva” (Democratic Rep. of Congo, 2010)

In “Viva Riva” Congolese director Djo Munga presents a gritty tale of stolen gasoline, African international organized crime and a society in chaos. Riva is a petty criminal who has appropriated a truckload of gasoline from an Angolan crime group. The DRC, like most African countries, is in the midst of a fuel crisis, not having enough foreign exchange with which to buy fuel, poor transportation infrastructure with which to ship it, and a corrupt political system which fails to address the underlying problems which contribute to both. Consequently, gasoline brought in on the black market can fetch more than $10 a liter and fuels (no pun intended) a deep culture of criminal activity.

Munga follows Riva as he gavalants through Kinshasa, visiting the deepest slums, crumbling mansions occupied by Congolese crime lords, families ravaged by the male pursuit of money and status, corrupt but well meaning government officers straddling a knife’s blade of professional and family obligations, desperate women who sell their bodies for survival, the shifting priorities of morality and money and the ubiquitous violence which plagues this vast country.

Viva Riva is an honest though stylistic portrait of a troubled country, shot, unfortunately, not with cell phones (as in his previous “Congo in Four Acts“) but with expensive digicam equipment. The big budget (by African standards) production values unfortunately work against this film’s gritty message, giving it a look that is more appropriate for straight to DVD exploitation features. Despite this, it is clear that Munga seeks to make a political statement while creating a piece that will satisfy viewers looking for gobs of sex and violent action. The most effectively shot scenes of the movie are the candid documentary style depictions of long lines of cars waiting for fuel and shots from cars while driving through Kinshasa at night. The actors in the foreground, unfortunately, take away from this reality.

Movie of the Week: “Touki Bouki” (1973)

I’m short on time recently, so, rather than not post at all, I’ll revive my long neglected “Movie of the Week” feature (that died due to being widely ignored) and present one of my now favorite movies. “Touki Bouki” is a avant garde production from Senegalese director and writer Djibril Diop Mambéty. Made for less than $30,000 in 1973, Mambety tells the story of Mory and Anta, a pair of lovers seeking to escape Senegal for a romanticised France.

The film is less of a story, and more of a surreal patchwork of pictures of life in Senegal and insight into the complicated hopes and dreams of a colonized people. France represents a mythical place of prosperity and freedom, though life in Senegal is portrayed as frighteningly real. Mory is a petty criminal who rides around his hometown on a motorcycle decorated with the horns of a bull, and it universally hated and respected by everyone around him. He attempts to get the money to leave Senegal by robbing a gay politician, buys some clothes, steals his car and wins the admiration of the community by throwing money around.

Despite having little experience with film, Mambety’s cinematography is strikingly vivid, a collection of seemingly disconnected scenes shot in full vibrant color, possibly representing the confused and disjointed nature of Senegalese identity post colonialism.

I’m a great fan of African cinema, and this has to be among the best.

Food Week Post 3: Subsidies, Sugar and Slavery

Sugar costs money. In fact, everything that’s bad for you in the American diet is heavily subsidized by the United States Government. A few large scale producers of sugars, oils, grains and other commodity crops receive huge payouts from the federal government to produce what they do.

Proponents of subsidies point to issues of food security, the protection of rural economies, and broader benefits of the low cost of food in the United States as justification for spending nearly half of one percent of the entire federal budget on direct payouts to American farmers. The truth is that the United States is one of the most food secure areas of the planet, that urban economies receive the largest benefit from food subsidies and that subsidies really work to keep producers of BAD food like Frito-Lay and McDonalds financially well fed.

Source: USDA Economic Research Service

While the proponents of subsidies, who often have deep interests in large agri-business, point to the poor, struggling American farmer as justification for continued subsidies, the truth is that the economy of agriculture couldn’t be healthier. The mean income of a farming operation was close to $90,000 last year, far beyond the national average/ Overall revenues from farming at an historical high. The farming sector is expected to pull in more than $100 billion in revenue this year, $31 billion more than 2010. A 24% increase!

Most family owned small farms are struggling and actually lose money on their farming operations. However, the bulk of farming is now done by large agricultural conglomerates, beholden not to Grandma and Grandpa but to urban elites and global stock-holders. These groups have a vested interest in continuing subsidy payments because it increases the health of it’s stock holdings. However, they don’t like to spread the subsidies around to people like my local struggling organic vegetable farm.

These subsidies have global implications. While right-wing blowhards in the US tout neo-classical ideas of “free-markets,” “small government” and “open competition,” the US government’s massive subsidies of agricultural commodities actually do what said blowhards say is a bad idea. The subsidies artificially depresses world commodity prices, giving the United States a competitive advantage on the world market.

The small country of Benin depends on cotton for 80% of its exports, which amount to a little over a billion dollars. A modest one percent decrease in the world price of cotton barely registers on the American economy. A one percent decrease in world cotton price has disastrous implications for a country like Benin, whose tiny GDP is only $6.4 billion or $1500 per capita. It has been estimated that US farm subsidies cost small cotton producing West African countries more than $250 million every year, $250 million dollars that could have been invested in schools, health care, power and communication infrastructure, and domestic industries. In essense, developing countries pay, in both lost revenues and human health, to beef up the stock portfolios of investors in big-Ag.

This isn’t even the worst of it. The sugar industry of Florida notoriously imports labor from Jamaica to assist in the grueling annual sugar cane harvest. For the privelege of cutting sugar cane all day, workers are rewarded a little as $2 per hour and must suffer under prison like conditions. These were most famously document in the fantastic 1990 documentary work of Stephanie Black, “H2 Worker.” Conditions may or may not have improved, to my knowledge they may have not. How could a business model used for the past 500 years change overnight? Slavery and the sugar industry built the United States; we won’t let go of it so easily.

The health of this criminal industry depends on massive subsidies from the US Government, who will happily turn a blind eye to the reprehensible conditions that workers slave under. Worse yet, as in interview with the late progressive Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley reveals, these subsidies prevent Jamaica (or even Haiti) from successfully developing its own sugar industry, thereby robbing a struggling country of a chance to lift itself out of poverty.

All of the large agricultural conglomerates that have headquarters in the United States such as Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto and Archer Daniels, and the beneficiaries of continued agricultural subsidy programs are internationally owned conglomerates that operate throughout the globe. Thus, in addition to the massive negative worldwide implications of commodity subsidies I just mentioned, the question of political sovereignty must also be addressed. Lost in neo-liberal right wing discussions is the role of international bodies in determining United States domestic policy. To me, the very idea of sovereign states in the 21st century is but an illusion and passports really just serve as protectionist labor schemes. Worse yet, democracy itself is called into question, when the money of the worldwide elite are able to shape US policy to serve its own narrow goals.

Movie of the Week: “Democracy in Dakar” (2009)

Apparently, Senegal is number 3 in the world for rap and hip hop. I’m pretty sure I know who number 1 is, though I’m sketchy on who number 2 is. I hope it’s not Germany.

Senegal, after 40 years of suffering under an inefficient and corrupt socialist government, moved to a market based capitalist democracy in the year 2001. Aging Abdoulaye Wade was elected by popular vote in 2001, much to the excitement of the Senegalese. Part of what made his ascendancy possible, was the broad support he received from local hip hop and rap artists. Wade ran on a populist platform promising expanded power, water, schools and jobs.

Wade has yet to provide any of those. In fact, the economy of Senegal has only become worse. Wade is increasingly autocratic, the government is filled with corruption and an increasing population is straining already scarce resrouces. Worse yet, those who speak out against decaying conditions are threatened, arrested and sometimes beaten by government supporters. Ironically, the very people that put Wade into power are the ones suffering most under his increasingly despotic regime.

Young Senegalese are fleeing Senegal in droves, often embarking on makeshift fishing boats bound for Spain or France. There, low wage jobs await in agriculture, manufacturing or the service industry. A single Senegalese living overseas can support his immediate and extended family for a lifetime. The trip is dangerous, and many die along the way.

In fact, many of the interviews with the members of the Senegalese music scene are expats. Some of the major players are actually living in Washington, DC, and some in Europe. Others live in hiding in their own country, the victims of violent threats to themselves and their families.

The directors of “Democracy in Dakar” follow more than one hundred members of the Dakar hip hop scene. It is perhaps the most comprehensive portrait of a developing country urban music scene that I’ve ever seen. The credit for the depth and lucidity of the interviews goes as much to the directors as to the Senegal itself. All of the artists take their craft as seriously as they do their politics and are more than aware of their importance both as artists and as a political voice for the people of Senegal.

Plus, the music is just fantastic. It reminds me of the early Jamaican reggae and ska scenes, though without the excessive commodificiation that eventually killed it. I normally dislike hip hop. In fact, I find the American hip hop scene to be an insipid, materialistic and plastic version of what it began as, divorced from the politics of marginalization and slave to the mighty dollar and corporate exploitation. I admit this characterization is most likely not fair; I probably need an education on US hip hop. However, If I am to take “Democracy in Dakar” as representative of the Senegalese hip hop scene, then I am officially a fan.

Movie of the Week: “The Reporter”

New York Times Nicholas Kristof has always been a hero of mine and partially why I have continued this blog, despite poor writing skills and a lack of good ideas (thank you for continuing to read… all 10 of you).

A fantasy of mine would be to go on one of Mr. Kristof’s “Win A Trip” trips, where he takes one student and one teacher to some of the most troubled places on earth. Unfortunately, I was disqualified from this contest about 2 years ago, when I stepped onto the tarmac of Chileka Airport in Blantyre, Malawi, an event which would forever change my life (like all life changing events).

In “The Reporter,” Kristof travels to the DRC, a anarchic hellhole of warfare, systematic rape and violence to show the winners of his “Win a Trip” contest the horrifying effects of of civil war on the civilian populace. Most, notably, he interviews and subsequently has dinner with warlord and war criminal Laurent Nkunda, a charismatic, university educated sociopath who has managed to assemble one of the largest and best equipped military rebellions in Africa (he has since been arrested).

To me, the most important revelations from Kristof’s journey is a chance meeting with a dying woman, Yohanita Nyiahabimama. Once a school teacher, she now weighed 60 pounds, having eaten nothing but bananas for the past 6 months. Yohanita’s death is not notable. Thousands of people like Yohanita die all over the world in a similar manner every single day. The conditions which lead to an individual like Yohanita dying from starvation in one of the most fertile areas on the planet, however, are quite notable.

Paul Farmer, a physician/anthropologist from Harvard, wrote a magnificent book “Pathologies of Power” in which he explored the idea of “structural violence,” a term originally coined by peace advocate John Galtung. Farmer posits that poor health outcomes and the suffering of the poor are not natural nor inherent states of being for humanity, but rather the result of designed structural factors which deny access to services and benefits which may empower them. Basically, the factors which generate affluence are the same factors which create conditions of poverty.

The DRC is one of the most resource rich areas of the world. The DRC is, by no accident, one of the poorest countries on the planet. A combination of a miserable colonial past, US support of the despot Mobuto (due to his resistance to communism), resource exploitation, systematic indifference and unwillingness to intervene have kept the DRC in a perpetual state of warfare and anarchy.

Yohanita dies because the peculiarities of US electoral politics prevent it from getting involved. Sending troops and sacrificing lives to root out a small group of stateless terrorists continually for nearly a decade is an acceptable response to the killing of 3000 people in NYC, but the loss of even a few troops to halt the killing of more than 5,000,000 black people in poor Africa is unacceptable to the American voter.

Connecting the dots between the plight of the poor in the DRC and affluent countries such as the United States is a difficult leap for many, and reasonably so. The connections between localized wealth and global poverty are insidious and often invisible and vastly complex, yet very, very real.

US/European/East Asian demand for cheap resources keeps rebel groups in business, by creating sources of income with which to buy arms, notably a source of vast profit for Israel, whose extensive weapons industry maintains close ties to the United States. Keeping resources cheap and unhindered by export taxes benefits producers of American consumer goods and discourages efforts to create stable, functioning governments. Most importantly, American consumers demand cheap goods and very rarely question where they come from. Essential in this dynamic and fluid network of affluence and poverty, is the role of indifference in creating the conditions of structural violence which kill millions and the systematic manner. Everything about life in affluent countries, through politics, media, education and cultural mores, work together to cover them up.

Kristof clearly hesitates intervene in Yohanita’s plight. The student member of his group also appears conflicted in her role as whether to be a physician or an observer/reporter, yet the clear and present suffering of an individual and the ability to assist demand that they do something to help Yohanita. In the same way, we as members of some of the most wealthiest societies on earth are naturally obligated to act. By not acting, or acting in a manner which merely throws crumbs at the poor in order to placate the complaints of others in the international community, we are all complicit in the suffering of the poor.

Movie of the Week: “Fairytale of Kathmandu” (Ireland, 2007)

When I am in Malawi, I am well conscious of the incredible baggage associated with being a citizen of European descent in an impoverished country. People will single you out on the street and smile widely, you will be asked to attend numerous important events despite little connections to anyone such as weddings, funerals and baptism ceremonies. Certain people will happily take you out in public, hoping to be seen and thereby associated with everything white people are thought to be. Worse yet, are the constant appeals for money from the desperate and the often heartbreaking stories that go along with them.

To me, as a person raised on the lower end of the social ladder, it is a confusing mix of not knowing how to react, sympathy for the disadvantaged and worse yet, resentment towards economic dependence. Now, being wiser, I pick and choose who I wish to speak with, and work to maintain a level of mutual respect, just as I would with people in countries of economic advantage. I find that, a little respect can go a long way in just about any corner of the globe.

It is easy to become drunk on the power associated with having a few dollars in a country where most people have none. In areas where people live on less than a dollar a day, people happily will do just about anything you ask for even the most paltry of sums.

This explains much of the missionary phenomena that occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Unable to convert the masses in the United States, representatives of even the most insignificant of religious denominations will find that they have incredible power over the impoverished. It is not surprising that everywhere you go in Africa, you run into some of the creepiest representatives of Christianity that you will ever meet.

Some intend to help, but the potential for abuse is incredible as is exemplified in “Fairytale of Kathmandu.” Director Neasa Ní Chianáin set out to make a documentary on the life of Cathal Ó Searcaigh, an openly gay, Irish language poet who travels frequently to Nepal. For years, he has supported the life and education of scores of young men in Nepal, even informally adopting one man and sponsoring his family.

Neasa Ní Chianáin weaves her documentary is such a fashion as to suggest that something is amiss in Ó Searcaigh’s relationship with Nepal, though it is initially unclear as to whether this relationship is one of charity or self interest. Over the course of the documentary, we gradually begin to see that Ó Searcaigh’s intentions are not selfless, but rather coated with a frightening dynamic of western wealth, and abusive sexual exploitation of scores of Nepalese boys.

Ó Searcaigh appears in denial that his conduct, which includes giving money and gifts to Nepalese boys from the countryside and having them sleep in his room, could be in any way unethical. Really, he exemplifies the worst of sexual predation, a man drunk on new found power, but unable to see how his actions could in any way cause permanent harm to those without the power to choose otherwise. Most importantly, he represents the worst of the wealthy western tourist, taking what he wishes from an impoverished country, and leaving a few pennies in return.

It is clear throughout the film that Ó Searcaigh powerfully attempts to manipulate all aspects of Ní Chianáin’s documentary, just as he likely manipulates those around him to ignore his crimes, even while waving them plainly for all to see. To me, it was frightening to see this man. He is much like my late step-father; he masterfully twists the perceptions of everyone around his to prevent them from speaking out against that which they can plainly see.

A telling point of the film, is when Ní Chianáin admits that she was “no longer under his spell” and takes the initiative to expose Ó Searcaigh for what he is. She confronts him in his home, interestingly incensing Ó Searcaigh so much, that he breaks out of Irish and defends himself angrily in English, as if the beauty of his native Irish language were just another tool with which to hide his sinister intentions.

Movie of the Week: “Blood in the Face” (1991)

There are people who would have you believe that racism does not exist in the United States anymore, that the Civil Rights movement eliminated the capacity for racial and ethnic hatred in America by Americans. Given, racism in 2011 has taken on insidious and less obvious forms, most notably in the form of “English Only” rhetoric and heavy handed legislation intended to single out undocumented workers, not due in the least to decades of denial by racists and Americans who choose not to see it.

In the late 80’s, I heard about the book “Blood in the Face” from Michigan racists, who took it as an affirmation of their hate based faith. “Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, the Rise of a New White Culture” by James Ridgeway dissects the then growing trend of white power groups throughout the United States. It was a terrible time, coming on the heels of the end of America’s manufacturing era, and I feel very unfortunate to have ever crossed paths with these morons.

Ridgeway, an investigative journalist, traveled to the bowels of an insignificant township in Livingston County, Michigan to attend a sparesely attended KKK convention. Tagging along was lefty idol Michael Moore (back when I liked him), who engaged members of these groups in pointed interviews. Some of these groups state their message of hate clearly, A buffoon in a pseudo SS uniform stupidly calls for a reservation style, “whites only” takeover of Idaho.

Others, including the girlfriend of racist murderer Bruce Pierce, attempt to dress it up in guises of “cultural pride” and skirt away from the true issues of violence, hatred and exclusion. This, despite that her boyfriend clearly and savagely murdered a Jewish radio announcer, Alan Berg, simply because of his particular religious and political affiliation.

Telling are interviews with the largely aged “movement leaders” who apparently have nothing better to do than sit idle all day watching television. One laments increasing appearances of minorities on television comedy shows, of course neglecting to mention decades of systematic exclusion in Hollywood. Another believes that “Wheel of Fortune” should stop asking questions about the Holocaust.

Most bizarre, are interviews with a so-called pastor of “Christian Identity,” whose racist theology is based solely on the Hebrew meaning of “Adam.” The Biblical knowledge of everyone in this film is suspect; they constantly grab at straws for even the most basic of Biblical parables. Supposedly, “Adam” means to become red in the face. Redneck logic attempts to imply that since Caucasian people, more precisely defined as those above Milano, Italy, are the only people that can blush, Adam must have been white. I guess he’s never been out drinking with Japanese people.

The movie is laughable, and supporters may say that these groups have been misrepresented. I don’t see, however, that it is possible to skirt around the issues of race based violence among these groups, nor around the greater issues of race, ethnicity and exclusion that dominate every facet of life in the United States.

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