Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Class (15)

Directed by Laurent Cantet

Written by François Bégaudeau (novel and screenplay), Robin Campillo and Laurent Cantet

Screening at FACT from 27th February 2009

It all came flooding back, as I watched this innovative Palme D'Or-winning film. All the noise, conflict, and chaos of a secondary school classroom. The standing for teachers, the ‘insolent’ banter, the wondering what the hell the lesson had to do with our lives other than going towards another qualification. Yes, The Class does an excellent job of recreating the kind of school life I remember, and conjured a bizarre sense of horrific nostalgia within me.

François Bégaudeau wrote the original 2006 autobiographical novel, based on his experience as a somewhat liberal literature teacher in an inner city, multi-ethnic Paris school, of the sort normally called ‘tough’ by politicians and the media. Director Laurent Cantet – whose own parents were teachers – then cast Bégaudeau to play the lead role in this film adaptation. The sense of realism is rounded out by real life teachers playing teachers, real life students playing students, and some excellently shot footage of often-improvised workshops. In a sense, no-one is acting.

Bégaudeau’s character is caring and committed, but this is not one of those silly films where that’s enough to gradually coax reluctant children into being conscientious model pupils. Though he genuinely wants to know and understand his charges, François can’t do anything about the fact that he is meant to be an authority figure, and attempts to subvert that authority must not be tolerated. The defiance of two particularly insubordinate girls – Khoumba and Esmerelda – plus Malian immigrant lad Souleymane, ultimately brings about an explosive conflict that casts doubt on the futures of François and Souleymane.

Though undoubtedly realistic as far as it goes, a weakness of The Class is exposed at this point. Advocates of more traditionally authoritarian teaching styles could easily seize on these scenes, and claim they prove that by ‘sparing the rod’ – François has, as the Bible has it – ‘spoiled the child’. This is unfortunate, particularly since it can’t have been the author’s intention. There is not enough questioning of why a child would apparently not want to learn, or co-operate in class. There are few hints at the social problems in the world beyond the school, and no exploration of the idea that the teacher-pupil relationship itself may be limited. Teaching people who don’t want to be taught is often described as an ‘impossible job’. Could this literally be the case?

The system of schooling that is currently widespread around the globe originated in the Britain of the eighteenth century, when the industrial revolution took a strong hold. Industrialists quickly realised that they needed the children of farm labourers to be taught factory discipline, so they would become obedient and productive workers when the industrial machine needed fresh blood. There have been many changes since then - both in the economy and schooling - but the fundamental structure remains the same. It doesn’t matter whether a student enjoys their lessons – in some ways it is better if they don’t – so long as they learn to obey the hierarchy of the system, and move from bell to bell, whistle to whistle.

As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire noted in his study Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which criticised the ‘banking concept’ of schooling, "It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education."

In other words, school sucks because work sucks, so don’t let either interfere with your education.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Religulous (15)

Written by Bill Maher
Directed by Larry Charles
Screening at FACT from 3rd April 2009

The overwhelming majority of people on this planet claim to have a religious faith. The very essence of faith is of course that it can not be proved, or even tested by science. In that sense, it is a belief in something 'just because it's true'. When you think of it like that, religion seems ridiculous (or even 'religulous'), and there is absurd humour in many religious practices and beliefs.

Religulous sees American comedian Bill Maher and Borat director Larry Charles tour sites of major religious significance, as well as paying a visit to some of the quirkier isolated eccentrics who claim they are the reincarnation of Jesus, or have a church of marijuana, or whatever. In each location, Maher points out the preposterous nature of these claims, either with cogent logical arguments, or 'comedic' pieces that are often just rude and disrespectful. There is excellent camerawork in these one on ones, perfectly capturing the exact moments when each interviewee pauses and realises they have hung themselves on the rope Maher has handed them. However, I'm almost certain that none of these people went home, had a think about everything and decided to be a cynical atheist comedian.

The central thesis of the film is that religion is somehow the root of all evil ("The plain fact is that religion must die for mankind to live"), but what Maher fails to grasp is that religious belief has a very different function for George W Bush say (or Barack Obama for that matter) than it does for the 'person on the street'. Whereas it provided Bush with a means for gaining votes, gaining support for wars, and the knowledge that 'faith-based' voluntary groups would fill some gaps when he slashed social programmes, the person on the street often finds in religion solace from a society full of war, social inequality and generalised uncertainty about the future (reflected in 'End Times' ideas and Rapture Indexes).

Maher's lack of a deeper basis for his atheism than mere incredulity leads him into very murky waters. In the section devoted to attacking Islam, he interviews Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who uses anti-Islamic rhetoric to whip up race hatred and anti-immigrant feeling. Since the whole point of the interview is to discuss a hatred of Islam, Maher does not challenge Wilders' racism, offering him a platform for his agenda.

It is funny when Maher pulls the rug out from under the feet of someone who is clearly making money or gaining power out of deceit. It is much less funny when he points and laughs at those who are handing over the cash, or following the political-religious leaders to their own oblivion. Religious ideas may be ridiculous when analysed enough, but they provide a comfort blanket that many billions clutch in a world organised contrary to their interests. Religion is not the root of all evil, because religious belief can only be truly understood in terms of the social circumstances that create it. Religion will only disappear when those desperate conditions do.

The plain fact is that 'mankind' must truly live for religion to die.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Che: Part Two (15)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Written by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (diary), Peter Buchman, Benjamin A. van der Veen (screenplay)

Screening at FACT from 21st February 2009

From the opening scenes of this film, it is clear that Steven Soderbergh has taken a very different approach in the second part of his Che Guevara biopic. We see Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir), reading aloud Che's last letter, explaining why he has left his position in Cuba and is seeking to train and fight with guerilla movements in other countries, to overthrow their US-backed regimes. Why? Because "in a revolution one wins or dies". Guevara sensed an isolated victory in Cuba was not enough. Soderbergh is providing the sense of motivation he neglected in Part One.

A year on, and Benicio Del Toro's Che (or rather 'Ramón') arrives undercover in Bolivia. His attempts at revolution in Congo had already failed spectacularly, yet he believed he would have more success struggling against the government of René Barrientos.

Anyone who saw the first instalment might expect that they'd be in for another two hours of carefully re-enacted battle scenes, but this is not the case. Though the film progresses at a snail's pace, this turns out to be a great strength. Whereas, scene to scene, it may seem like very little is happening, small but significant events are taking place - a tired glance here, a raised word there - like pressure building up, which will explode onto the 'surface' of the plot.

The end result is a much fuller picture of what it must have been like to be involved, and a much deeper representation of the social context in which it all took place. Soderbergh makes excellent use of dilemmas that characters are confronted with. In real life, these were pivotal moments in the struggle, where people made key decisions based on ideas of material strength and weakness. Should the peasant support the guerillas who promise him better social conditions, or the government who threaten violence against him and his family? Should the Communist Party leader defy Moscow and back Guevara? Should the President call a state of emergency and announce that Guevara is leading the revolt, and risk losing popular support?

Ultimately, Guevara's army was defeated, he was executed, and his theory that a small, dedicated group of men could lead a guerilla revolution without waiting for revolutionary conditions amongst the mass of the population was dealt a deathblow. Still - even marketed by the profit system as a heroic, miraculous, Christ-like individual - Guevara continues to inspire millions around the world, who long to fight back against oppression here and now, without waiting another moment.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Empire of Dirt

S. Mark Gubb
Ceri Hand Gallery, Cotton Street (16th January - 28th February 2009, Wed-Sat 10am-6pm)

As I turned down Cotton Street - part of what was once a busy industrial area opposite Liverpool's Trafalgar Dock - Mille Petrozza barked the words "Hordes of chaos; everyone against everyone" down my ear, via my iPod. "Everyone against everyone", he insisted, "against everyone against everyone against everyone against everyone against everyone against everyone". I got quite excited, which was appropriate, considering what I was about to see.

It wasn't appropriate because me, or the singer of German thrash metal band Kreator, or S. Mark Gubb argue for Social Darwinism (we certainly don't), but because to a large extent it's what we all experience in modern society - even though people talk of 'morals' and 'ethics' - and sometimes it's great when music seems to say, 'Hey! I feel like that too!'

Gubb's love of heavy metal and alternative rock informs much of his work, and the title for this exhibition comes from a line in Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt' - one of the ultimate hymns to alienation, isolation and self-destruction. But the 'shotgun shack' in the centre of the space makes it clear that Gubb also has a more global empire in mind: the one run by the United States of America.

The shack consists of three tiny adjoined rooms, the first made out of scavenged materials, just like huts in Brazilian favelas (or shantytowns). This room is only two metres square, and the promotional material claims this is the amount of space we would each have if the British Isles were divided equally amongst its population (though by my reckoning 315,134 km2 divided by 64.3 million is 4.9m2).

The second room is a reconstruction of the cages that kidnapped 'enemy combatants' suffer in Guantánamo Bay, and other overseas US prisons. Gubb has clearly been affected by the calculatedly cruel aesthetics of George Bush's 'war on terror', which looks set to continue under Obama, albeit with a few cosmetic changes. Room three represents an open grave, and refers back to the exhibition title. All the rooms provoke thoughts of solitude and confinement. Okay, so we may well be put alone in a hole in the ground when we die, but why should we be literally and symbolically like that whilst we are alive? Is this what a world of everyone against everyone brings?

Many colourful posters designed by Gubb are on show along the white painted brick walls of the space. This inevitably creates a more communal vibe, since in real life posters are designed by someone to give a specific message to a group of people; they are stationary messengers. The colour schemes and slogans suggest they are political, but political posters generally promote a sense of solidarity amongst one faction, identify another as the enemy, and propose some sort of joint action. These slogans are deliberately ambiguous, and require a deeper level of analysis. 'Do it' urges one, invoking the Nike advertising slogan, but also a phrase which can apparently be heard if you play Judas Priest's 'Better By You, Better Than Me' backwards. Bizarrely, this almost landed the band in a heap of trouble when two young men attempted suicide! 'Usted Sufre, Pero Por Que?' asks another, which is the title and lyrics of the shortest recorded song ever, just translated into Spanish using the internet. Needless to say, most of these allusions would be lost on the average gallerygoer without the complementary notes, and perhaps this is a self-indulgent weakness of Gubb's work.

Gubb's old school desk is displayed in a section to one side, complete with an intricately drawn picture of Eddie, the mascot of Iron Maiden. Though he is meant to symbolise the rebellious spirit of heavy metal, he is seen enchained in a padded cell. It's easy to see the appeal this image must have had for the young student; chained to his school desk and longing to be free.

Like the greatest art, this exhibition looks at the world, finds it nowhere fucking near good enough, and raises questions. In the immortal words of Napalm Death's 1.316-second song: you suffer, but why?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Wirral Council Votes To Slash Services: What Now?

When Wirral Council finally voted to go ahead with the Cabinet's proposed slashing of local services on 9th February, it caused anguish to the hundreds of people who have been campaigning for the last few months. Council employees are now set to lose their jobs at the worst possible time, as a global recession bites. Service users have lost access to libraries, leisure centres, and cultural venues. This terrible attack on ordinary people has shown the limitations of protests, letter-writing campaigns, and pinning hopes on politicians. The need for a new strategy has been highlighted.

Anger has been rising since last November, when Council leader Steve Foulkes and Chief Executive Steve Maddox published a 'Strategic Asset Review', which recommended a mass closure of facilities and investment in "better but fewer" buildings, with the overall aim of saving £3.1 million from the Council budget. The plans have been changed since then, but eleven Wirral libraries still face the axe, along with many other venues. Several set-piece protests and marches have been organised, with the stated aim of putting pressure on the ruling Labour/Lib Dem coalition, but the Council has voted to press on with its closures.

Throughout this dispute, local Conservatives have positioned themselves as opponents of the cuts. They have voted against them, attended protests, and organised internet campaigns. However, trusting Tories to protect public services is like trusting vampires to run a blood bank, because Conservatives have long believed in the sell-off and closure of services which do not make a profit. Many of the local Tories reached political maturity at a time when Margaret Thatcher was doing just that, setting the policy agenda which Major, Blair and Brown have followed. Nationally, David Cameron has pledged to "shrink" public services if he wins power, and we can assume that the Wirral party would do the same if they got overall control of the Council in 2010.

Trade unions aren't any help either. Their 'ten point plan' amounts to a plea for more protests and consultations. They are also considering standing candidates in the local elections next year. This is far too little, much too late.

As the profit system coughs and splutters and throws millions of workers on the scrapheap, some are starting to fight back. There have been big one day strikes here and there, but these rarely achieve anything other than letting off steam, and it might be a poor strategy here when Wirral Council wants buildings closed permanently. However, there have been worker occupations of workplaces in countries such as the USA, Turkey and Germany, and also at the Waterford Crystal plant in Ireland.

When workers occupy their workplace, they take it over in their own interests and often the interests of the community as well. If they get enough support, they can even be 'recovered' - taken over permanently by their workers. Thousands of people on Facebook groups, hundreds at protests and 'consultations' and many, many letters written to local media demonstrates that Wirral council workers would have huge support if they took over the running of their workplaces.

Almost everyone on Wirral seems to want excellent public services for all. If we let a few politicians and bureaucrats decide we can't have them, what does 'democracy' really mean? We must support Wirral council workers in their struggle for their jobs and our services!

Join the 'Support Wirral Council Workers' Fight For Their Jobs And Our Services' Facebook group here!

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