Reviews From The 2020 United Nations Association Film Festival

by on October 27, 2020

From film "Our Flag Will Never Be Red"

Rita Hargrave and Reginald D. Brown’s documentary “The Last Mambo” offers a wonderful toe-tapping, skirt-twirling historical overview of the San Francisco Bay Area Latinx music scene.  It gives plenty of shoutouts to the various types of Latinx music genres available, going from mambo to charonga.  Venues which helped spread the music get their due, from the sadly defunct Sweet’s Ballroom and Jimbo’s Bop City to the still vibrant La Pena Cultural Center.  For those who want to track down the works of Latin music artists for their collections, a cornucopia of names get thrown out over the course of the film.  They include Celia Cruz, Benny Velarde, The Panamanians, Cal Tjader, Conjunto Cespedes, and Pete Escovedo.  History fans will enjoy learning about the role of the tardeadas in spreading the popularity of Latin music. These fans will also love hearing why Oakland became the epicenter for the influx of Africans and Latinx coming to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1940s.  All these tunes, facts, and old images are delivered in the film in a nicely punchy style.  Add in plenty of footage of people over the years enjoying dancing to the Latinx music beat, and it’s hard to deny the film is an entertaining introduction to a vital cultural scene.

As a caveat, the political aspects of the Latinx music scene get insufficiently developed in  “The Last Mambo.”  Integrated dance floors admittedly cheese off the racists.  Yet the film leaves hanging what else Latinx music means outside of the genre’s infectious rhythms.  Does the music symbolize an emotional strength not broken by slavery or other socially unjust arrangements?  Does the music offer a subversive message that’s slipped under the awareness of social oppressors?  “The Last Mambo” remains silent about such considerations to its detriment.  If Latinx music does indeed offer something more than catchy dance rhythms, it’s not unreasonable to ask for help to clue in the average viewer.

Also left up in the air by the film’s end is whether there will still be a Latinx music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area’s future.  On one hand, gentrification has led to the closure of such beloved San Francisco Latinx music mainstays as the Elbo Room and Jelly’s on Pier 50.  On the other hand, since Latinx music draws its roots from oral traditions, dedicated teachers can help pass the music to interested students.  Percussionist Orestes Vilato would add that the techniques for playing the music can be passed on.  Possessing the right degree of passion to play Latinx music, on the other hand, comes from the musicians themselves.

***

Ben Rekhi’s documentary “The Reunited States” takes its cue from the Mark Gerzon book of the same name.  It travels across the United States to visit four different attempts to bridge the political divide that has turned America into pockets of partisanship.   Whether these efforts are exercises in hope or naivete becomes one of the film’s big questions.

The four projects featured in the film balances private personal efforts and political movements.  Representing the private sphere are two efforts: David and Erin Leaverton’s Undivided Nation and Susan Bro’s Heather Heyer Foundation.  In the public political realm, musician Steven Olihara founds the Millennial Action Project while Greg Orman pursues the governorship of Kansas as an independent political candidate.  Rekhi switches back and forth among these various efforts for the bulk of the film.

Rekhi has chosen some good subjects who bring passion to their political reunification projects.  Bro regularly reaches across America’s racial and political divides to build personal connections that may prevent future mothers from suffering the traumatic experience of having their children precede them in death.  Olihara’s organization brings together young (and young at heart) elected politicians from across both the aisles and the country who believe in working together to solve America’s biggest problems.

The Leavertons wind up gettng much of the film’s attention.  David Leaverton used to be a GOP strategist who was quite effective at getting his party’s candidates elected.  Erin Leaverton admits she voted for the Orange Skull in 2016.  But seeing footage of a MAGA hat wearer deliberately struck by someone wielding a sackful of rocks told the Leavertons that something was seriously wrong in America.  So the couple sold their home and headed out to visit all 50 states, listen to the stories of people different from themselves (the Leavertons are upper middle class whites), and then find ways to share these stories with others.

Of the four portraits presented, Olihara’s Millennial Action Project offers the most hope for America’s political future.  It’s building the concept of bipartisan problem solving among its young, often state level members.  From what’s seen in the film, Olihara’s idea is steadily gaining in popularity among that cohort.  This approach offers a political 180-degree turn from Newt Gingrich’s infamous equating of bipartisanship with date rape.

Bro comes across as the most relatively level-headed of the subjects.  She’s aware that public attention has focused on her thanks to her daughter Heather Heyer being a murdered white woman.  Rekhi captures Heyer’s mother’s intelligent use of her platform.

Orman’s campaign, though well-intentioned, comes across as suffering from terminal naivete.  He attributes voters’ reluctance to consider his candidacy to fear.  Yet political pragmatism just as likely influences such reluctance.  Orman never addresses how supporting his candidacy will not lead to the undesirable result of electing the odious Kris Kobach to the governor’s seat.  Perhaps if a Ranked Choice Voting system was in place in Kansas…

“The Reunited States” also displays its naivete in other areas.  The big one is its attitude that the partisan divisions in America resulted from political disagreements gone toxic.  Yet these divisions are actually the deliberate product of choices made by the GOP to obtain and retain political power at any cost.  Also re-establishing the Fairness Doctrine, which would ensure that multiple political points of view get dealt with fairly in public discussion rather than displaying bias towards one side or another, would help.

But it is the well-intentioned Leavertons who come across as the most naive.  Learning the story of a Democrat’s hardships isn’t about converting people like the Leavertons to the side of the donkey.  It’s about ending the other-ing and contempt of Democrats that’s a huge part of modern GOP political culture.  Also, the Undivided Nation founders don’t show how their ideas of hearing stories could effectively reach a QAnon supporter or somebody who parrots Faux News.

Yet “The Reunited States” shouldn’t be dismissed as a naive waste of time.  The film’s subjects deserve respect for taking actions that they hope will heal America’s political and social divisions.  If a viewer of the film has a better solution than the film’s subjects, trying to implement that solution is far better than being another person who sits back and lets America politically collapse.

***

The point of the German educational system’s lessons about the Holocaust should be to teach the next generation to avoid a recurrence of that genocidal event.   Yet as Elena Horn’s quietly damning short documentary “The Lesson” shows, the reactions of students in these Nazi history classes range from indifference to sympathy for Hitler’s aims if not his methods.

As the film shows, the students Horn follows at a rural West German village school begin promisingly with wondering why the Germans were the ones who actively exterminated the Jews.  Yet the classes shown in the film don’t truly wrestle with the social and psychological factors that made extermination seem reasonable to the Germans.  Instead, one class treats concentration camp design as an exercise in aesthetics.  Even a class visit to a preserved extermination camp feels more like a pointless ritual rather than a moment for sad reflection on murdered lives.  Heller, one of the teachers seen in the film, feels that looking at the emotional appeal of Nazism needs to be part of the school’s lessons on the Holocaust.  Sadly, his viewpoint appears to be a minority opinion.

Rather than impress students with the gravity of the events of 1933-1945, the lessons on the Holocaust seem to have been lost or derided.  One student says her soccer teammates and coaches take such views as “Hitler wasn’t that bad” or that the history books are lying about the Holocaust’s occurrence.  The Borussia Dortmund soccer team and indeed the town of Dortmund has become a magnet for neo-Nazis.

What makes the failure of Germany’s educational system truly chilling is seeing how successfully the Nazis indoctrinated high school students in their ideology.  Thanks to local photographer Ludwig Muller’s films of his daughter Irmgard’s life at a 1930s German high school, the footage shows the methods by which such students got trained to become future cogs of the Nazi military machine.  Lessons in genetics, fire prevention, and even shorthand were twisted into ways of ultimately serving the Nazi cause.  More humanistic subjects like art and literature were de-emphasized in favor of more pragmatic subjects such as learning to shoot firearms.

By the end of “The Lesson,” it feels frustrating that the German educational system has not found a way to find similarities between the rise of Nazism and the current unfortunate popularity of Alternative for Germany (AfD).  Certainly the Nazis and AfD’s supporters have common ground in hating on Jews and foreigners.

***

The 2018 United Nations Association Film Festival showed a documentary called  “Dollar Heroes.”   The titular slang term referred to North Koreans working overseas as virtual slave labor.  The money such forced workers earned went back to North Korea to keep the Kim regime and favored party officials rolling in luxury goods and even military weapons.

But as Sebastian Weis’ documentary “Bureau 39: Kim’s Cash Machine” sickeningly shows, the dollar heroes program is part of a far bigger North Korean government operation.  The titular secretive if powerful government bureau has been operating since the 1970s.  Its aim is to keep pumping into North Korea the foreign currency that keeps the Kim government afloat.  Means both fair and foul are considered appropriate avenues for accomplishing this general remit.  The film mentions the Bureau’s involvement in (among other things) insurance fraud involving old Russian military helicopters, altering U.S. currency for counterfeiting purposes, and profitable tourist restaurants serving deliberately overpriced food.

A viewer can hardly argue with Bureau 39’s success in aiding the Kim regime.  Despite the number of UN sanctions imposed on it, North Korea still possesses the world’s fourth largest army.  Perhaps that’s why economist (and North Korean government spokesperson) Kyun-Chul Seong can afford on camera to be openly smug about the ineffectiveness of U.N. sanctions.

Hugh Griffiths, head of the U.N. office monitoring North Korean sanction implementation, certainly says nothing that effectively rebuts Seong’s smugness.  The only U.N. success mentioned in stopping North Korea involved a dodgy shipment of tiles used to help the production of chemical weapons.  Griffiths doesn’t think Bureau 39 even exists.  Similarities between Griffiths and the foolish Hans Brix from “Team America: World Police” may flash through a viewer’s mind.

Fortunately, Leyden University’s Remco Breuker, a professor of Korea studies, has been patiently unraveling the secrets of Bureau 39 and the Kim government.  Breuker, who previously appeared in “Dollar Heroes,” walks viewers through what he’s learned.  One major takeaway the Korea expert gives viewers is that the North Korean government should be seen not as a failing socialist state, but as a thriving capitalist business.

In that light, the ingenuity and success of Bureau 39 in keeping a lot of money flowing to the Kim regime earns a viewer’s grudging respect.  The “diplomats” at North Korean embassies around the world both sell exports to generate capital for the government and use diplomatic immunity to get their literal bags of money back to Pyongyang.

The complicity of various countries around the world in indirectly propping up the Kim regime cannot be overstated.  Poland and Russia have few qualms about employing North Korean slave labor in construction and other industries benefiting from cheap labor.  Warm relations between North Korea and Cambodia leads to a sweetheart deal involving distribution of proceeds from a major Cambodian tourist attraction constructed by North Korea.  Vent D’Est, one of China’s major suppliers of clothing for some very well known fashion brands, uses North Korean labor to assemble its exported clothing.

Despite all the public blustering by world leaders, the film suggests it’s unlikely that Bureau 39 (and by extension the Kim regime) will be shuttering operations any time soon.

***

A new working rule of thumb is that proper understanding of events in Brazil means not taking that country’s mainstream media as a primary news source.  In other words, if the Brazilian news source a reader or viewer encounters is an outlet such as TV Globo or Folha de Sao Paulo, what they say about an event should be taken with a high degree of skepticism.  Pablo Lopez Guelli’s stunning documentary “Our Flag Will Never Be Red” explains why this is an eminently rational attitude.

As explained in Guelli’s film, power in Brazilian society comes from owning one of three things:  wealth, land, or media.  Now imagine how much power accrues to someone who owns two or more of these things, such as wealth and media.  That’s the problem with Brazilian mainstream media.  Six incredibly wealthy families, nicknamed the “six Berlusconis,” control the news outlets that reach 90% of the Brazilian population.

That control translates in practice into two disturbing consequences.  One is that the type of journalist who “likes to throw rocks at the halls of power,” particularly the oligarchs, find their media employment opportunities extremely limited.  The more unsettling consequence, and the focus of Guelli’s film, is seeing a concentrated news media ecosystem primarily dedicated to protecting the interests of its wealthy owners.

To the outside world, the political fall of Brazilian presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff came about through “political corruption.”  But as Guelli’s film shows, the Brazilian mainstream media orchestrated the fall not only of Lula and Rousseff but also the sliming of the left-wing PT party that the two ex-presidents represented.  Thanks to deeply biased news  coverage from March to June 2013, Rouseff’s popularity of 70% fell three months later to 30%.

Why did Brazilian mainstream media’s wealthy owners engage in this campaign?  It was a reaction to the PT party’s effectiveness in advancing the social welfare of poorer Brazilians.  As interviewee Noam Chomsky notes, it’s the familiar story of concentrated elite pushback against any serious improvement in social welfare.

Facets of that campaign included vague claims of corruption and using Venezuela’s government as a negative example of what Brazil’s government should not become.  Military intervention, despite Brazil’s years as a military dictatorship, was encouraged as a welcome alternative to the PT’s “communism.”

But the moment that precipitated the fall of the Rousseff government was TV Globo’s coverage of a street protest.  The Rio de Janeiro-based protest originally concerned public transportation fare hikes plus other general grumblings about Rousseff’s government.  Guelli’s film damningly shows in a montage how TV Globo’s coverage turned that minor and vaguely motivated protest into attacks on alleged Rousseff government corruption.  Oddly enough, when the same type of corruption got performed by governments more to TV Globo’s owners’ liking, that outlet became strangely silent.

The Brazilian MSM’s behavior, “Our Flag Will Never Be Red” argues, is less an aberration than a reflection of the historical Brazilian social fallback position.  Brazil’s major news outlets have taken on the old slaveholder “power to decide and tell others what to do while others work.”  The mainstream press in Brazil has historically been hostile to democracy and maintains close ties to the powerful.   The Folha de Sao Paulo, for example, practically served as the old ruling military dictatorship’s media arm.  Current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism unsurprisingly finds favor with the Brazilian MSM.

Guelli refuses to treat the state of Brazilian journalism as an unfortunately hopeless situation.  Independent alternative journalists such as Lucio Flavio Piseto of Jornal Pessoal and Laura Capriglione of Free Journalists are shown carrying on journalism’s best “discomforting the powerful” tradition.  Still, it is embarrassing to this viewer to hear several interviewees’ praise for American media regulation as a check on media abuse.  America’s media regulators unfortunately seem more interested currently in allowing the likes of Sinclair Broadcasting to slowly become a Berlusconi-like empire.

“Our Flag Will Never Be Red” offers several important lessons for American viewers.  One is to give the side eye to any news report which leans into branding protesters as vandals.  But the more important point is to see Brazil’s mainstream news media landscape as a horrifying object lesson in the perils of unfettered media consolidation.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

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