San Francisco International Film Festival 2005—Part 3

There is no shortage of subjects

By David Walsh
14 May 2005

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This is the third in a series of articles about the recent San Francisco film festival, held April 21-May 5

Facing the Dead, a 52-minute documentary made for television and directed by Gabrielle Pfeiffer, tackles a huge question in a short span of time: the falsification of the historical record carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR from the mid-1930s onward as it set out to eradicate the entire generation of socialists who prepared and led the October Revolution.

Pfeiffer’s film is inspired by the work of David King—artist, designer, editor, photohistorian and archivist—who has spent decades collecting images (photos, paintings, posters) from the Soviet era. King’s collection is the largest of its kind in the Western world, containing more than a quarter of a million items. Posters from the collection are on display in a gallery of their own, Soviet Graphics, at London’s Tate Modern. Most significantly, as one critic notes, “King has always intended that the collection should present alternatives to a Stalinist reading of Russian history.”

King began his work in the heady days of the early 1970s, at a time when interest in Trotsky and Trotskyism surged, particularly in Britain. With journalist Francis Wyndham, King produced the groundbreaking Trotsky: a documentary (1972), which was distributed in tens of thousands of copies. In 1986, King’s Trotsky: A Photographic Biography, the most complete photographic record of the Russian revolutionary, was published. With a  text by Isaac Deutscher (from the 1960s), King designed The Great Purges (1984), an illustrated account of the Stalinist terror.

In Ordinary Citizens: the victims of Stalin (2003), King organized a selection of photographs taken by the Stalinist secret police (OGPU and NKVD) of their victims. A commentator noted: “The images are full-face portraits, and their subjects look at the camera with expressions ranging from the apparently terrified to the apparently amused; the majority are blank, unreadable. The simple text that accompanies each photograph, recording the name, date and place of birth, occupation, whether the subject was a member of the Communist Party, the charge, the sentence, and, in many cases, the date of ‘rehabilitation,’ is eloquent in its repetitions.”

King (born in 1943), art editor of the Sunday Times [of London] Magazine from 1965-75, has also collaborated on a pictorial biography of boxer Muhammad Ali; designed an album dedicated to the work of constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko; co-authored a work on caricatures from the 1905 Russian revolution; designed and co-edited the notebooks and photographs of travel writer Bruce Chatwin; designed works on early Soviet photographers, the poetry of Mayakovsky, the Mexican revolution and the Soviet war effort. He is one of the more remarkable artistic-intellectual personalities of our time.

Pfeiffer’s film is loosely based on King’s The Commissar Vanishes: The falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia, which appeared in 1997. The book also served as the basis for an art exhibition. (See Exposing Stalin’s “retouching”—The Commissar Vanishes: The falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia, an exhibition based on documents from the Collection of David King [29 December 1998], as well as the accompanying WSWS interview with King.)

Four “case studies” are presented in Facing the Dead, with King serving as the guide. Children of Stalin’s “enemies of the people” explain how their parents were taken away, never to be seen again. Not to be seen in person and not to be seen in images either. Photographs of these “enemies” were also destroyed; to possess such an image was itself punishable by death. The children cherish the snapshots they or others managed to hide, or whatever has subsequently turned up. In many cases, only police mug shots remained. As King notes sardonically, the KGB (or whatever acronym it was known by at the time) did some of the best photographic work of the period.

One of those interviewed—and King’s influence is clearly present in the choice—is Valeri Borisovich Bronstein, the grandson of Leon Trotsky’s brother. Bronstein is one of the few surviving members of the family. His father, aunts and uncles were all murdered by Stalin. A far weaker connection to Trotsky would have been a death warrant. His father, Boris, was arrested in October 1937. Valeri, 13 at the time, was young enough to escape the death penalty. Instead he spent years in the gulag.

Bronstein was among those who spoke at the September 1998 funeral of historian and sociologist Vadim Rogovin, author of a voluminous history of socialist opposition to Stalin. At the time Bronstein explained: “Although discussions were permitted at the time of Khrushchev’s ‘thaw,’ the 1950s generation only heard about Trotsky and the Left Opposition as enemies of socialism. My father was rehabilitated [posthumously] at that time and I became a party member, despite having spent many years in banishment in Kolyma. My mother was also in the camp there for 17 years, as the wife of an ‘enemy of the people.’”

According to the American-born Pfeiffer, at a press screening, “Trotsky is his [Bronstein’s] hero.”

The film, although brief, includes fascinating and moving material. King explains at one point that he first visited the apartment or studio that had belonged to Rodchenko in 1984; the artist’s relatives still lived there. It was virtually unchanged since Rodchenko’s death in 1956 and he discovered a treasure trove of material. One of the works found there was a volume dedicated to 10 years of Soviet Uzbekistan, designed by Rodchenko in the early 1930s. The faces of those who had been “disappeared” and murdered by Stalin were carefully blacked out. It took King 12 years to track down the photograph of each of the effaced.

Another extraordinary sequence involves a visit to the former KGB archives. The faces of victims, including some of those that appear in King’s Ordinary Citizens, fill up the screen. It is so telling. If one were in doubt, the faces would clear up the issue: these are the not the visages of the privileged, these so-called “enemies of the people”; they are revolutionists, intellectuals and educated workers for the most part, the victims of Stalin’s anti-socialist genocide.

US forces in Iraq

Another documentary screened in San Francisco was fascinating in a quite different fashion. Off to War follows members of a National Guard unit from the town of Clarkesville, Arkansas (population 7,700) in 2003 as they prepare for and eventually find themselves in the middle of the Iraq war. Three thousand National Guard personnel from the state have been deployed in Iraq.

One of the most striking features of the film is the obvious fact that were there a serious political opposition to the Bush administration’s policy in Clarkesville, it would receive considerable support. The first person we hear from, a small farmer, the father of one of the 18-year-olds from the town being sent off, says simply, “I don’t want them to go. I don’t think they should go. They won’t accomplish anything. We have no business over there.” That theme is sounded by a number of townspeople, including other family members.

However, in the absence of such an opposition, many of these same people can be seen at the wretched “Support the troops” rally sponsored by the town, waving their little American flags.

Some of the young white men on their way to Iraq console themselves with tough talk: “I love to fight,” and repeat the media’s disinformation—“They [the Iraqis] did attack us on 9/11.... They killed a lot of people.” A carload of black kids from the same unit, by this time in training at Fort Hood in Texas, is more perceptive and more cynical. “Saddam Hussein never did anything to me,” says one. “I want to go home,” says another. A third sings, War—what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”

Once in Iraq, however, the white youth change their tune, too. The lack of equipment, the conditions, the hostility of the Iraqis, the general horrors of the situation, all this prompts the same young man who earlier told us how he “loved to fight” to address the camera: “Don’t join the army! Don’t be like me!” The National Guardsmen express sympathy for the Iraqis, and imagine how they would feel if an occupying army were operating in Arkansas.

The hardships facing families left at home surface in the film. One woman finds herself virtually single-handedly in charge of a large turkey farm. She is obviously overwhelmed. A marriage is threatened by the absence. A 15-year-old girl delivers a premature baby, affected by the stress.

The film informs us that four members of the Clarkesville unit have been killed, 39 wounded.

Social devastation, political upheavals

A Social Genocide (Memoria del saqueo—literally, memory of the plunder—in Spanish), directed by veteran Argentine filmmaker Fernando Solanas, is an indictment of global capitalism and the Argentine bourgeoisie for the economic rape and pillage of that country over the past two-and-a-half decades. The film begins and ends with scenes of the mass uprising of December 2001, which brought down the government—in fact, several governments.

Solanas, who first made a name for himself in the late 1960s, with The Hour of the Furnaces, a fervent plea for Guevarist, guerrilla warfare, explains: “The consequences of the neo-liberal plan have today proved so disastrous that, once again, I am forced to bear witness to memories and testimonies by composing a living fresco based on what we have borne and endured over the past 25 years, from [Gen. Jorge] Videla’s [military] dictatorship to today. It is in this manner that I wish to contribute to the urgent debate that Argentina, Latin America and the world at large are conducting—with, as its driving force, the certainty that, faced with dehumanized globalisation, ‘another world is possible.’”

In 10 chapters the film attempts to explain Argentina’s economic plight, tracing it in particular to the role of foreign debt and the “treachery” of the Argentine ruling elite in selling out the country to foreign interests. Solanas reserves his particular venom for the regime of Peronist Carlos Menem (1989-99), under whose administration the country was looted of tens of billions of dollars by a parasitical nouveau riche who also sold off (“privatized”) public utilities and natural resources to foreign capitalists for a song. Solanas terms the Argentine elite, including its complicit trade union bureaucracy, a “mafiocracy.”

The film details the conditions of unemployment and poverty afflicting wide layers of the Argentine population. A doctor who deals with the poor is asked how to cure malnutrition. He answers calmly that this is a social problem and all that people need are jobs.

Solanas concludes, “It may appear that the reality can’t be changed, that the plunderers won the day, and we are the losers. It’s closer to the opposite: neither the dictatorship, nor Menem, nor [former President Fernando] de la Rua brought their projects to fruition, and the wealth they gave away isn’t lost forever.... It all led to the great December 2001 uprising—as on October 17, 1945 [when a popular movement freed Juan Peron from prison], and in Córdoba in 1969 [the uprising of workers and students known as the Cordobazo], Argentinean history was changed.”

The director is a left nationalist, but he is neither a charlatan nor a hack. He is a serious figure (he was shot six times in the legs when he denounced Menem’s dismantling of Argentina’s nationally owned oil company, YPF). The horrifying conditions for broad masses of the Argentine population are a reality; the filmmaker’s outrage is legitimate. To concentrate one’s efforts, however, on exhorting the national elite to adopt a more populist and patriotic course is a futile enterprise. Tied to world imperialism by a thousand strings, terrified above all by the population beneath it, the Argentine ruling class “can do no other,” no matter how much pressure is applied to it.

The Fall of Fujimori follows the peculiar and brutal reign of Alberto Fujimori in Peru (1991-2000). The son of Japanese parents and a little-known economist, Fujimori won the 1990 presidential elections in an upset promising economic reform and a clean-up of corruption. In fact, massive human rights violations (in the name of the “war on terror”), rigged elections and wholesale corruption characterized his regime.

Under his regime, the Peruvian security forces were unleashed in a brutal campaign against the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla movement. Democratic rights were thrown out the window; accused terrorists were tried in military tribunals presided over by judges in hoods. Fujimori’s government carried out sweeping privatizations, which made investments in Peru extremely profitable, while reducing more than 50 percent of the population to dire poverty.

The new documentary, directed by Ellen Perry, forthrightly details Fujimori’s crimes and those committed by his shadowy right-hand man, Vladimir Montesinos, the de facto head of the National Intelligence Service. Montesinos “did all the dirty work,” organizing death squads who executed “terrorists” and carried out massacres of political opponents, particularly following Fujimori’s “self coup” in 1992, when the president closed down Congress and assumed emergency powers.

Fujimori comes across as an unlikely political leader, the product of a ruling elite at the end of its rope. In 1995 his wife Susana came out in open opposition to his policies and threatened to run for president against him. At the time, they were still sharing the presidential palace and dining together!

Fujimori’s downfall was immediately precipitated by the broadcast on national television of a videotape showing Montesinos offering an opposition legislator $15,000 in exchange for his agreement to switch political allegiance. (Thousands of similar tapes eventually turned up.) Then came Montesinos’ disappearance and his bizarre pursuit, led personally by Fujimori with the media in tow.

Perry’s film does not probe Fujimori’s downfall to its most profound causes, including a weakening of support in Washington, but the film is valuable for its portrait of Peruvian political life. Today Fujimori, wanted by Interpol for corruption, kidnapping and murder, lives in Japan, out of reach of Peruvian authorities, where he is regularly feted by right-wing Japanese political circles. He intends to run in the 2006 Peruvian presidential election.

Mitterrand, fictionalized

Robert Guédiguian, the director of numerous films about working class life in Marseille (Marius and Jeanette, The Town is Quiet, My Father is an Engineer), has turned his attention to French history and national politics in The Last Mitterrand (Le promeneur du Champ de Mars). The film treats, in a fictional form, the last months in the life of two-time French President François Mitterrand (1981-95, died 1996).

At first glance, one is tempted to say the director’s change of focus is all for the better. From a Stalinist background, Guédiguian has always offered a rather contrived and condescending view of the French working class. In attempting to build a picture “from the ground up,” “without preconceptions,” he has inevitably fallen victim to superficial impressions and evaded the most vexing problems. His films have become increasingly gloomy and pessimistic, even morbidly so.

Michel Bouquet turns in an impressive performance as the “president of the Republic” (no names are ever mentioned). Jalil Lespert plays his authorized young biographer, Moreau (based on real-life biographer Georges-Marc Benamou). Mitterrand makes his feelings known from the outset. He declares himself to be “the last of the great [French] presidents.” Globalization, Europeanization will make certain of that. “Only accountants will come after me,” the president tells Moreau.

Moreau, for his part, obsesses about the president’s role during World War II, his alleged collaboration with the Vichy regime in the early days of German occupation. The fictional Mitterrand will not address the question directly. He flares up when the subject is mentioned. Moreau’s investigation of the issue continues throughout the film.

In regard to contemporary politics, the president sneers at Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and the other “ex-Trotskyists.” He pronounces himself for a Socialist presidency rather than a Socialist program, whatever that might mean. Some of Moreau’s leftist associates do their own sneering. “If he’s a socialist, then I’m the Pope,” says one.

Mitterrand’s musings on France, the political Right, illness (he has a terminal disease) and old age, actresses and so forth are not without interest. No doubt he was a man of considerable culture and intelligence. One can hardly imagine George Bush reciting the poetry of Charles Péguy (or his American equivalent) or discussing literary history. Nonetheless, Mitterrand was an articulate and capable defender of the French bourgeoisie, not an ambivalent or misguided “man of the Left.” Those who think he “set back the Left” by his policies only reveal their own ignorance, self-deception or extraordinary naiveté.

Mitterrand’s role in World War II may be politically revealing, but it was his attacks on the working class in the interests of big business, as well as the thorough-going corruption associated with his years in office, that opened the door to the present right-wing regime. The actual deplorable record of his terms in office and its consequences never enter into the dialogue, or the role of those, like the Communist Party, who propped him up. In this film too, in the end, Guédiguian side-steps the more troubling and complex issues. Whatever the filmmaker’s intentions, one feels that ultimately he was rather overawed and intimidated, like much of the French “left,” by the late president.

From Denmark, King’s Game (Nikolaj Arcel) is a political thriller with its heart in the right place. A journalist, the son of a former cabinet minister, stumbles on a stunning piece of information concerning the husband of a major political figure and rushes it into print. He soon realizes he has been used to wreck this woman’s chances of becoming party leader, thereby facilitating the rise of a predatory, right-wing type. The journalist sets out to rectify his mistake, with the aid of a cynical ex-radical. They succeed, although the film makes clear that the ambitious politician has hardly been ruined.

The King’s Game is fine as far as it goes, which is not very far, and one also realizes that this relatively tepid piece, which at least exposes the hidden agenda of a demagogic social type, would be far beyond the pale as far as the American film studios are concerned.

The subject of Edgar G. Ulmer—The Man Off Screen, the Czech-born director (The Black Cat, Bluebeard, Detour, The Naked Dawn), is a fascinating one. Ulmer remains something of a mystery; he apparently misled people about his own place and date of birth. He remained a nomad, a figure displaced by the historical tragedies of the last century (Nazism), an émigré.

A director of great skill, generally saddled in Hollywood (after his move there in the early 1930s) with terrible scripts—critic Andrew Sarris once noted that the scenario for his Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) was “so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll”—Ulmer is one of the “minor glories of the cinema” (Sarris again). His doomed projects convey a deep sensitivity and romanticism.

Sadly, Austrian-born director Michael Palm’s documentary sheds relatively little light on the more profound and intriguing issues of twentieth century cinema bound up with his life and difficulties. John Landis and Peter Bogdanovich are organically incapable of contributing any genuine understanding, and Wim Wenders is at his weakest and most complacent here. One would still do better to turn to the films themselves.

Series concluded