Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Persepolis (12A)

Directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Based on graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi

With top US, Israeli and French politicians threatening to obliterate Iran, and Iranians often being portrayed in the media as being a bunch of fanatical barbarians, this honest, charming and amusing animation is a pleasant antidote to all the nastiness. Ultimately, however, it fails to fully convince, and the second part drifts off into dangerous waters.

Persepolis (taking its name from the capital of the old Persian empire), is an animated version of Iranian exile Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels. It tells the story of Satrapi's life, from her very early years as an innocent child with big ideas, up to her decision to become a writer in France as an adult.

The first hour of the film is sometimes joyful, sometimes sad, but always enthralling. Through playful Marjane's young eyes we experience events such as the overthrow of the western backed Shah, and the war with neighbouring Iraq. Her family, who lived relatively comfortable lives, nevertheless risked everything by joining the Moscow-backed Communist Party. As the Shah's regime was toppled, the Communists threw their weight behind the Islamicists, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Sadly, this spelled the end for many of Marjane's left-wing relatives and friends, as they were rounded up and either imprisoned or executed.

A traumatised but still rebellious Marjane could not live under the strict new regime (never has buying an Abba record seemed this daring), so her surviving family sent her away to Austria. There, she had some fun with the 'underground' scene, but found many people to be pretentious and empty. In fact the individualism of 1980s western society almost killed her, as she ended up nearly overdosing and choking to death.

However, it is at the point when Marjane returned to Iran that the film becomes much less absorbing. She found some solace in familiar faces, especially that of her grandmother, but with revolution not on the horizon, she retreated into herself. Whereas this is perfectly understandable, it doesn't make for great cinema. After all, 'what is the point of my life?' has been done many times before. For Satrapi, the answer was Paris.

Towards the end, the film gets mired in excessive sentimentality, and leaves the current situation in Iran practically untouched. While Khomeini's followers are still in power, there are massive divisions within the ruling elite, who are all deeply unpopular amongst the general public. None of this appears in Persepolis though, because it seems that Iranian politics since the late 1980s has passed Satrapi by. This creates a general impression of hopelessness that the people of Iran can change their way of life, and unintentionally feeds into the pro-war drive in the United States and elsewhere.

With the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy apparently signed up to supporting any new aggression against Iran, it is no surprise to see this film getting a lot of support from the French establishment.

Monday, April 28, 2008

May Day On Merseyside

This week, people on Merseyside and around the world will be celebrating International Workers' Day - or May Day - an event that has been held every year since 1890. It was originally established as a strike day, commemorating the 'Haymarket martyrs', who were framed and then killed by the state of Illinois for their part in the struggle for the eight hour working day.

On Thursday, 1st May, there will be a march and rally organised by Merseyside TUC, where Communication Workers Union general secretary Billy Hayes and others will address marchers.This will be followed by a party at the Next To Nowhere social centre on Bold Street, organised by the Liverpool Social Forum, including music, food, and the unveiling of a special May Day exhibition.

On Saturday, 3rd May, the LSF have also planned a mass stall on Church Street. It is anticipated that many different political groups will band together and show their solidarity against growing police repression of activists.

Previous Mersey May Days on Indymedia
: 2007 | 2006 | 2005

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Some People

Written by John Dillon
Vauxy Theatre company
Unity Theatre (17th - 19th April 2008)

So we're well into 2008 now, and Liverpool people are officially living in the European Capital Of Culture. It's supposed to be all glitz and glamour, though anyone who's walked through the city, and especially beyond the centre, knows that it's anything but. A play presenting the reality behind the banners therefore has to do more than present us with what is already staring us in the face.

Some People followed an evening in the life of three people from Liverpool's street-bound underclass, as they try to keep warm, get fed, and while away the endless hours. Irish intellectual Danny (Michael Christopher) eloquently pronounced on poetry and the inequities of life. Frazer (Danny Williamson) was bigoted and belligerent, but had a perfectly functioning bullshit detector. Marie (Laura Holden) was a drug addicted prostitute who brings some meagre comfort (and stolen supplies) to her two friends.

There is a lot to recommend this play. All three actors performed superbly, and were completely convincing, at least as far as the script would allow. And there were plenty of darkly humorous laughs to be had, often when Frazer verbally punctured either Danny's sentimentality or society's hypocrisy with his biting wit. But for a play that was nearly two and a half hours long, it had very little of any value to say about people existing on the very edge of society.

This quickly became apparent after the interval, when the trio took turns to tell their life stories. In each case, there was a yawning gap between a traumatic but isolated event in the character's personal history, and the fact of their homelessness. Frazer's wife had died, Danny had been sexually assaulted by a priest at the age of nine, and Marie's baby had been taken off her when she was fourteen. Sure, all these could be links in the chain, but they couldn't be the chain itself, or even the main part of it.

Similarly, apart from the accents and the distant celebratory fireworks, there was nothing to suggest that this was Liverpool in the here and now. It is a place where there are thousands of newly built flats lying empty, where people are getting thrown out of their homes to make way for the wealthy, and where poverty and a lack of social housing has created a housing list twenty thousand names long. Not to even allude to this is a glaring omission in a play about homelessness, and one that helps to trap us in the current unhappy circumstances.

Outside the theatre, a woman explained that she had been homeless, and that she had found the production cathartic. That's great for her, but it doesn't put a roof over anyone's head.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky (15)

Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Screening at FACT from 18th April 2008

As someone who can't stand anything more frivolous than the news or Grumpy Old whoever it is this week, perhaps I'm not the best person to write about such a chirpy character as Poppy (Sally Hawkins). But then, maybe that makes me perfect to do it. You see, it isn't about whether the glass is half full or half empty; it's about filling the damned drink receptacle. And then emptying it.

The woman in question is a primary school teacher, and despite the rigours of the national curriculum, SATs and league tables, takes a great joy in her work (perhaps because none of those things seem to exist in the Happy-Go-Lucky universe). Her personal life is similarly carefree; she has a very close friendship with her flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), and her sister is pregnant with her first child. When Poppy's bike gets stolen, she doesn't get upset, she merely regrets - for a fleeting moment - not getting to "say goodbye", and arranges some driving lessons.

It is this which puts her in contact with straitlaced instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan), whose worldview couldn't be more different to that of his breezy protegee. Lonely, angry and paranoid, he clutches at religion like a drowning person grasping the air, and uses obscure demonical references as memory aids. But even this doesn't particularly trouble Poppy, she makes a joke out of his "dark" mutterings, and tells him to "Cheer up, it might never happen". Clearly, for Scott, it already has.

Entrenched, systematic problems exist in our society - like the homelessness Poppy briefly encounters - which have causes and effects. Isolated individuals, whether they smile or frown, joke or moan, cannot change these structures. In the film's final scene, Poppy tells Zoe that people "make their own luck". While of course it is true that hard work is sometimes rewarded, this brand of kooky self-help individualism could never be a solution for most people, or even for anyone in the long term, once they get mugged by reality. Does Leigh seriously mean to tell us the homeless man - and by extension all homeless people - is/are just lazy? Or too down in the mouth?

I usually don't have this trouble with Mike Leigh stuff. Normally his films - falling within that genre dubbed 'social realism' - have at least attempted to portray the struggles of working class life. So yes, that often means a lot of sadness and messed-up people, but you can only begin to overcome problems if you acknowledge their existence. His 1950s backstreet abortionist Vera Drake (2004) faced many obstacles, and did her best for people, though she sometimes cried. There's nothing wrong with that, but there's something terribly wrong with her 2008 equivalent: she's too happy-go-lucky.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

1989: Boycott of Sun newspaper begins after it vilifies Liverpool fans at Hillsborough stadium tragedy

On 19th April 1989, an unofficial Liverpool-wide boycott of The Sun newspaper began, after Rupert Murdoch's newspaper - which had long railed against the 'Socialist Republic of Liverpool' - published a series of lies about Liverpool fans' behaviour during the Hillsborough disaster, under the banner headline 'The Truth'.

The previous Saturday, 15th April, Liverpool had been playing Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough stadium, in an FA Cup Semi Final. The match was abandoned six minutes into the first half, as fans began climbing over the steel fencing and onto the pitch. Due to overcrowding and a police decision to open a set of gates without turnstiles, fans were being crushed to death at the front of the terraces. The pitch began to fill with people trying to escape the mayhem, and receive medical treatment.

Ninety-four fans died on the day, and 766 were injured. By the Wednesday, the death toll was ninety-five, following the death of fourteen-year-old Lee Nicol (Tony Bland would die in 1993, having never woken from a coma).

The disaster was highly embarrassing for the Thatcherite establishment, at a time of heightened social tensions, especially since it was becoming clear from witness statements that the police bore a heavy responsibility. In conjunction with David Duckenfield, Chief Superintendent in charge on the day, then Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie responded by trying to shift the blame onto Liverpudlians, who the front page claimed had 'picked pockets of victims', 'urinated on the brave cops' and 'beat up PC giving kiss of life'.

This backfired massively. MacKenzie's allegations were shown to be fictional by the Taylor Inquiry, which investigated the causes and aftermath of the disaster. In Liverpool, furious crowds stole and burned thousands of copies of the paper. From that day onwards, many local shops refused to stock The Sun, a boycott that still holds in many parts of the city.

The Hillsborough Justice Campaign still works extensively within Liverpool and around the world. On January 6th 2007, fans organised a 'Truth Day' event to coincide with the televised FA Cup tie against Arsenal at Anfield. This was to protest against the BBC hiring Kelvin MacKenzie as a presenter.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Kirkby Nan's Planning War!

Which plan do you prefer?

Option One: Kirkby grandmother and retired laundry worker Dot Reid plus loads of her neighbours get chucked out of their homes, which are then demolished to make way for yet another Tesco, some more shops, and a new stadium for Everton FC.

Option Two: Tesco CEO and scouser when it suits him Sir Terry Leahy gets slung out of his luxury home in Hertfordshire, which is then demolished to make way for a community garden with water features and a kiosk for pensioners.

Well both these planning applications are officially being considered by local authorities at the moment - the first by Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, and the second by Welwyn Hatfield Council.

Dot Reid submitted her application a week ago, retaliating against Tesco's campaign to make her homeless. She told the Daily Post that “I do not want my home knocking down for a superstore and a football stadium, but that is what will happen if the plans get passed.

“I thought how would Sir Terry and his family feel if their home was being threatened? That is why I put in an application to knock his house down.

“I am appalled our homes are under threat. It would mean the break-up of a happy community.

“I have not had any proper consultation over these plans and if I was asked, the answer would be: ‘I am not moving and you are not knocking down my home’.”

Tesco have contemptuously dismissed Mrs Reid’s application as a “publicity stunt”. They can do that because they know the legal process is loaded against working class people, and that big business can use its financial muscle and political connections to get its way.

The destruction of working class Merseyside homes in the name of 'regeneration' is not unique to Kirkby. Similar fights are also going on in Toxteth and Edge Lane and Kensington. In fact they're going on all over the world. These struggles need to link up not only with each other, but everyone fighting against the effects of the profit system, if they are to succeed in the long term.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

2005: Train drivers refuse to cross picket line, bringing Merseyrail to a halt on Aintree weekend

On 9th April 2005, one hundred and seventy Merseyrail guards from the RMT union held the second day of their two-day strike, coinciding with the Grand National horse race at Aintree. In solidarity, train drivers refused to cross the picket lines, and no Merseyside trains ran on either the Friday or the Saturday.

The Aintree week action was estimated to have cost Merseyrail's operators hundreds of thousands of pounds, since the festival traditionally brings more passengers onto the network than any other event in the calendar.

Charles Barnett, Managing Director of Aintree Racecourse, described the situation as "jolly inconvenient", while his counterpart at Merseyrail expressed his disappointment that the guards had refused an offer when he was seeking "the long-term benefit of our staff", and that the strikers were causing "severe damage to the much improved image of Merseyrail and Merseyside generally".

The reality of the situation was very different. The guards had been offered a 35 hour working week (down from 36), in line with their demands. However, they had been expected to pay for this with more restrictive rostering, an attack on sick pay, and a loss of compensation for rest days. The local media did not publicise these conditions, preferring to portray management as innocent victims.

The dispute lasted into August, when RMT members voted to accept a slightly improved offer by the narrow margin of 70 to 61. The union's executive had suspended strikes in June, when Merseyrail agreed to talks.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

1987: First Mutual Aid Centre opens in Victoria Street

On 1st April 1987, at a time of massive unemployment in Liverpool, a group of fifteen unemployed people and a couple of students set up a squatted social centre in what is now Millennium House, on the corner of Whitechapel and Victoria Street. They established an advice centre, a vegan cafe, and a space for film screenings. While the press where screaming about lazy dole 'scroungers', these activists fought bailiffs, the 'socialist' council, and fascists, proving they were anything but lazy. Eventually they were successfully evicted, but a second centre was set up at 45 Seel Street.

For the full story, click here.

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