The Boston Review has a very interesting article on its website by Susie Linfield of NYU, entitled “Letter from Israel: Leftists on Zionism’s Past, Present, and Future.” Among the left-wing Zionist intellectuals Linfield interviewed are Zeev Sternhell, Gershom Gorenberg, Ilan Greilsammer, and Shlomo Sand (whose views expressed here will likely disappoint some of his admirers outside Israel who have uncritically bought into the controversial arguments of his recent books). Needless to say, this is the part of the Israeli intellectual-political spectrum I would find myself in if I were a citizen of that country. The piece, at some 5,500 words, is long but well worth the read.
As the death of Nelson Mandela has been dominating the news the past two days, I should mention this fascinating 1½-hour documentary that opened 2½ weeks ago in two Paris cinemas (and that I saw in the nick of time, as it’s already gone; it wasn’t a box office hit, needless to say). It tells an “untold story” of how the apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end, the story being the indefatigable, behind-the-scenes effort of a French businessman and adventurer, Jean-Yves Ollivier, to broker an agreement to end the South African cross-border war in Angola. The effort achieved fruition in 1988, resulting in the mutual withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from that country, which set in motion the process that led to the independence of Namibia the following year and, in 1990, the freeing of Mandela. Here’s the synopsis from the film’s website
THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND HISTORY, a well-kept secret behind the world-wide icon: Nelson Mandela’s release was a Plot for Peace. For the first time, heads of state, generals, diplomats, master spies and anti-apartheid fighters reveal how Africa’s front line states helped end apartheid. The improbable key to Mandela’s prison cell was a mysterious French businessman, dubbed “Monsieur Jacques” in classified correspondence. His trade secret was trust.
In the mid-1980s, township violence raged in South Africa and one of the Cold War’s most vicious proxy conflicts devastated Angola. “Total onslaught” was writ large across the horizon. It was then that a foreign commodity trader with connections to all stakeholders in the region became the lifeline for top-secret contacts. To build trust, he organized a vast prisoners’ exchange. A year later, in 1988, South Africa’s forces and 50,000 Cuban troops began withdrawing from Angola.
In John LeCarré style, the land of apartheid and the front line states come out of the Cold War long before the Berlin Wall crumbles. Within fourteen months, Mandela walks out of jail – a free man and, soon, South Africa’s first democratically elected President.
For the first time, the protagonists of this high-risk venture – African heads of state, battle-tested generals, international diplomats, secret service operatives, and anti-apartheid icons such as Winnie Mandela and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki – recount the true story of how the front line states put paid to apartheid.
“Monsieur Jacques” leads this action-packed documentary through a rugged landscape of moral dilemmas. To some, such as Thabo Mbeki and militants for transparency, he was a sanctions buster, a secret go-between, a French spy. For others, such as Winnie Mandela and Mozambique’s former President Joaquim Chissano, he is a trusted friend and a man of bold vision. “I shake the hand I cannot sever”, says Jean-Yves Ollivier. As a matter of fact, he was bestowed upon highest honours by both the last impenitent stalwart of apartheid, P.W. Botha, and the first President of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
As with most people not intimately connected with this aspect of the story, I knew nothing about Jean-Yves Ollivier. When I saw in the opening credits that the documentary’s historical consultant and scriptwriter was Stephen Smith—whose reporting and writing on Africa I’ve been following for the past 25 years—, I knew that it would be good. Jean-Yves Ollivier’s story is gripping. He was intrepid, knew Africa like the back of his hand, and had an ample carnet d’adresses—on the continent and in Paris, Washington, and other capitals. He is also a Pied-Noir from Algiers and in 1962, at age 17, spent five months in a French prison for politically related activities; he doesn’t detail these in the film but one may surmise that he had been in the OAS and had done things he may not wish to talk about. He recounts his first visit to South Africa in 1981, of the isolation of the country—both physically and as an international pariah—and how cut off the white population was from the rest of the world. He viscerally identified with the whites but knew that apartheid was untenable, that the system was doomed. As a Pied-Noir he felt it was imperative that South Africa not experience what Algeria had two decades earlier—with the calamitous demise of Algérie française—, that a transition to majority rule had to be negotiated and which would not result in an exodus of the white population. So he took it upon himself to persuade whites at the elite level and use his numerous contacts in the African frontline states to initiate a process of negotiation. The larger context was the Cold War and with Angola the principal regional theater. One of the leitmotifs in the discourse of white South Africans was the dread fear of communism, of what they saw as Soviet expansionism and their conviction that the ANC was part and parcel of this. This was also, of course, the view of the Reagan administration, and which Chester Crocker affirms in the film.
The interviews in the film—with the major actors on all sides—are exceptional, as is the narrative of the geopolitics of the region in the 1980s. An impressive job by directors Mandy Jacobson and Carlos Agulló, not to mention Stephen Smith. So if one is at all interested in the subject and has the opportunity to see the documentary, do so. The trailer, on the film’s website, is here.
BTW, Stephen Smith has an LRB blog post here on Nelson Mandela’s death. And here’s an assessment of Mandela’s legacy by Harvard anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, published on the Harvard Gazette website.
[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]
I just learned of his death. He was truly un grand homme, what else to say? I first learned about him in the 1960s—before my teen years—, no doubt from my parents, who instilled in me a precocious indignation toward apartheid South Africa. And I most certainly mentioned his name in my first exercise at public speaking, at an all-day teach-in on South Africa at my high school—the organization of which I initiated—, on the 14th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. I was living in Algiers in Feb. ’90 when Mandela was released from prison; as I didn’t have a television I went over to my neighbors’ to watch the event live. Couldn’t miss that one. And three months later, on precisely May 17th, I saw him speak, at the Coupole du 5 Juillet on the outskirts of Algiers. As tiersmondiste Algeria had been in the international vanguard of the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela had received brief military training there in 1962, just before his arrest and incarceration, he made Algiers one of the first stops on his triumphal world tour following his prison release. I went with my friend Philip Shehadi, the Reuters bureau chief (who was murdered in Algiers nine months later, in circumstances having nothing to do with politics), so got to see Mandela speak from the press section right up front. The arena was packed with some 10,000 mostly young people—the event was formally sponsored by the FLN’s youth organization, the UNJA, though few of those present likely had ties to the party or empty shell UNJA—, with the government officials and other big shots—including Abdelhamid Mehri and Sid-Ahmed Ghozali—in the tribune behind the podium. Mandela, who naturally received a rapturous welcome when he arrived, spoke in English and with no interpretation; as the English language was not understood by maybe 98% of those present, including the big shots and (Algerian) journalists covering the event—I noticed exactly one who was taking notes during the speech—, hardly anyone knew what he was saying, mais peu importe. The crowd cheered deliriously each time Mandela mentioned the word Algeria, even in passing.
Amusing detail: when recounting his 1962 Algeria visit Mandela evoked his fond memories of Krim Belkacem and Mohamed Khider, FLN chefs historiques and members of the immediate post-independence regime, but who later went into dissidence and exile, were assassinated by regime agents, and whose names were still publicly taboo in Algeria in 1990; silence from the youthful crowd—most likely not recognizing the names—and gêne visible from the VIP tribune. Another amusing detail: when FLN Secretary-General Mehri got up to introduce Mandela the crowd booed loudly—booing Mehri and the FLN, and with some chanting the name of FIS leader Abassi Madani; the VIP tribune collectively cringed, with Mehri shouting “uskut!” (silence!) to the crowd and Mandela looking bemused; someone leaned over to say something to him, likely to the effect of “uh, we have a little political problem in Algeria at the moment…”
Anyway, it was great to be able to see him en chair et en os. He was impressive, as could have been expected.
The mark of Mandela’s greatness was, of course, his role in presiding over the orderly, peaceful transition to majority rule, reaching out to the white minority, and his utter lack of rancor over his 28 years of incarceration. But while the transition was peaceful, it is not as if the preceding years were so. In addition to the ordinary, daily violence of the apartheid system, there was the added violence and repression of the minority regime against the majority as the contestation increased from the mid ’80s onward. And though the ANC—to its great credit—eschewed terrorism as a strategy, it did engage in it on occasion. The level of political violence was high in the final years of the apartheid regime. And the orderly transition was no sure thing even with Mandela leading it. In his book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes of the hostility of the Afrikaner rejectionists, led by General Constand Viljoen, to President F.W. de Klerk’s negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. The rejectionists, heavily armed, were ready to launch an OAS-style terror campaign in 1994, which, had it come to pass, would have plunged South Africa into a heretofore unheard of level of violence, brought about a bloodbath, and upended the transition, resulting in a who-knows-what outcome but that would have most certainly been catastrophic. But as Polakow-Suransky recounts, Mandela, just prior to the ’94 election, invited Viljoen and associates to his Johannesburg villa and, speaking to them in Afrikaans (which he had learned on Robben Island), assured them that the white minority would have its full place in the new South Africa and that there would be no retribution or vengeance. With that, Viljoen & Co were disarmed, both figuratively and literally. They dropped their plans for a terror campaign and agreed to participate in the transition. If Mandela’s gesture was not the mark of greatness, then I don’t know what greatness is.
Too bad we haven’t had any Mandelas in the Middle East these past decades. Oh well.
UPDATE: Raphael Ahren, diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel, has an interesting and detailed examination of Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Jews, Israel, and Palestine. The lede: “Late South African leader had strong friendships with many in the Jewish world, but never forgot his allegiance to the PLO — or Israel’s support for the apartheid regime.”
2nd UPDATE: The Algerian website Chouf Chouf has a post on “Nelson Mandela et l’Algérie.”
3rd UPDATE: NYT columnist Bill Keller has a good commentary on historian Stephen Ellis’s revelation—if one can call it that—that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s, a “revelation” that US right-wingers are using as a gotcha to defend their own support of the apartheid regime. Keller suggests—though he could have driven home the point—that the engagement of Mandela and the ANC with the SACP was irrelevant as a guide to their eventual behavior in power. To say the least. Anyone who has spent time with African or Arab communists will note that their communist convictions rarely go beyond mouthing slogans. And, as recent history has demonstrated, communists can become capitalists on a dime if the circumstances are right. (December 8)
4th UPDATE: On American right-wing attitudes toward Nelson Mandela—present and past (and it’s always useful to recall past views one so ardently asserted)—, on how GOPers despised and disdained him—and with many in the GOP base still despising and disdaining him—, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Liberals are naturally having a field day with this one, though in the interests of fairness and balance here’s one reasonable conservative commentary on Mandela’s passing.
5th UPDATE: Giving credit where credit is due in regard to American right-wingers and Mandela, here is Newt Gingrich’s response to the racists in his camp who got on his case for his eulogy. Gingrich may crazy on a lot of things but on this, he is reasonable and principled.
6th UPDATE: On Mandela having supposedly been a communist in the 1960s, here is what John Comaroff says in the interview I linked to in the following post:
It was [Mandela], for example, who, against the rather different position of the black power movement, argued most forcefully [in favor of] a … post-racial South Africa, a unified nation founded on the sovereignty of the people rather than sovereignty of the party. In that sense, he was a profoundly liberal thinker, in spite of the efforts of the Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher regimes to construe him as a raving communist. He was never that at all, he was always a very considered — if anything, a Christian — democrat.
7th UPDATE: An informative Algeria blog has a post on “Mandela et l’Algérie: cinq mensonges et une révélation,” which corrects some of the errors or misconceptions regarding Mandela’s relationship with Algeria. One of them—a factual error I made myself above—concerns his 1962 visit, which was, in fact, to an ALN base camp just over the Moroccan border, not to Algeria itself, a country he only set foot in for the first time in 1990.
This is a beautiful, wonderful four-hour, black-and-white German film—split into two parts—I saw last month (on separate days). It’s a prequel to director Edgar Reitz’s 53½-hour, three-part ‘Heimat’ saga, that aired on German television in 1984, 1993, and 2004. The series—which, for some reason, was unknown to me—followed the life of a family in a fictional village in the Rhineland from the end of World War I to the new millennium (Timothy Garton Ash reviewed the first ‘Heimat’ episodes in the Dec. 19 1985 NYRB). The present film—the first in the series to have a cinematic release, so far as I know—focuses on the family’s ancestors in the village between 1842 and 1844, and specifically on the village blacksmith’s early 20s younger son, Jakob (actor Jan Dieter Schneider), who’s an intellectually brilliant autodidact and a dreamer, and who would rather read books—any he can get his hands on—then do a stitch of work. The characters in the movie are all very well-developed. The acting is first-rate. And the film is set in a specific social and historical context: the grinding poverty of rural Germany at the time and pauperization of a part of its population, the social class stratification and political despotism of the Prussian aristocracy, and with emigration to the New World the only escape. Emigration—to Brazil—is one the film’s leitmotifs, with hundreds of families in that small corner of Germany making the voyage in those two years alone. Emigrating to Brazil—leaving Germany for good and starting anew—was Jakob’s obsession. But he didn’t seek to leave for economic reasons. He wanted to be free. And freedom—liberty—is another leitmotif of the film, with the ideals of the French Revolution very much alive for those old enough to have lived through the Napoleonic wars earlier in the century. Though the film ends in 1844, it anticipates the revolutionary upheavals that ensued four years later.
Put off by the length, I had originally not planned on seeing the film and despite the stellar reviews in the Paris press (here and here), but was convinced by an academic colleague who gushed over it for at least five full minutes. She was right. The film is mesmerizing. After the first part, I couldn’t wait to see the second. And my sentiments were entirely shared by an American academic friend who saw it during a visit to Paris last month (the word-of-mouth on the film is clearly very good across the board, as it’s still showing at ten theaters in Paris and environs six weeks after its release). So it’s a must see. Period. Reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.
For the record, I will mention another black-and-white German film I saw earlier in the summer, ‘Oh Boy’, which has nothing whatever to do with the ‘Heimat’ prequel, in subject matter or anything else. This one, which is short of 90 minutes in length, is set in contemporary Berlin, with its subject a single day in the life of a mid 20s slacker named Niko (actor Tom Schilling), who is flat broke—though hails from a rich family—, has dropped out of law school, hasn’t told his father, and isn’t doing a damned thing with his life (come to think of it, he does bear some resemblance to Jakob in the Heimat prequel, who was also a slacker of sorts—and certainly in the eyes of his father; but Jakob was far more intellectually engaged than is Niko). It’s not a bad film for what it is (and won all sorts of awards in Germany this year). Review is here, French reviews—mostly good to very good—are here, trailer is here.
For those who missed it, the September 26th NYRB—which I read a couple of months late—had a very interesting review essay by Nicholas Lemann, of Columbia University political scientist Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. Here’s a description of the book via the publisher’s website
A work that “deeply reconceptualizes the New Deal and raises countless provocative questions” (David Kennedy), Fear Itself changes the ground rules for our understanding of this pivotal era in American history. Ira Katznelson examines the New Deal through the lens of a pervasive, almost existential fear that gripped a world defined by the collapse of capitalism and the rise of competing dictatorships, as well as a fear created by the ruinous racial divisions in American society. Katznelson argues that American democracy was both saved and distorted by a Faustian collaboration that guarded racial segregation as it built a new national state to manage capitalism and assert global power. Fear Itself charts the creation of the modern American state and “how a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security”
A Faustian collaboration with the Jim Crow South, which saw its national political power increase during the Roosevelt administration. The South was, of course, not a democracy: it was a reactionary authoritarian order—and that ruled by terror over a sizable portion of its population. But there were also authoritarian impulses among members of northern elites, as Lemann writes: an attraction to Mussolini and, with WWII, an indulgence toward Stalin and the Soviet Union (and to which one may add a certain benevolence toward Hitler and Nazism during the 1930s; on the American romance, as it were, with Mussolini, see also John Patrick Diggins’s Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America). The 1930s and ’40s were lousy decades in the history of the world. At least democracy was saved in America and (northern) Europe.
Reading Lemann’s essay on Katznelson’s book reminded me of the latter’s When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, which was the subject of a review essay by George Fredrickson in the November 17 2005 NYRB, “Still separate & unequal” (which may be viewed by non-NYRB subscribers here). Katznelson is a brilliant social scientist. I took a course with him at Chicago back in ’81, in which I read his City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States; a book that changed the way I thought about American politics. In other words, I learned something from it.
Saw this last night. It’s a futuristic, post-apocalyptic sci-fi pic (set in 2031), a genre I normally avoid with my life. But the reviews in the Paris press are tops—and with Allociné spectateurs also largely giving it the thumbs up—and one of my smart cinephile friends praised it to the heavens, so I decided I had to check it out. And Korean director Bong Joon-ho is a reference: e.g. his ‘Mother’ was very good, ‘The Host’ original and not bad, and reviews of ‘Memories of Murder’, which I haven’t seen, were positive. The local word-of-mouth on this one—the film is in English, BTW—has manifestly been good, as the salle where I saw it—one of the bigger ones at the UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles multiplex—was packed, and a full month after its release. Here’s a description of the story—which is based on a French cult comic series from the 1980s, totally unknown to me until yesterday, called Le Transperceneige—from one (positive) review
The film posits that in the near future [in 2014], the governments of the world, keen to curb global warming, release a substance called CW7 into the atmosphere, designed to lower temperatures. It works, but too well, reducing the planet to a frozen, uninhabitable wasteland. The only survivors are those on board a train [designed as a closed, complete ecosystem] built by eccentric, reclusive transport magnate Wilford [Ed Harris]. The higher-ups live in luxury, while those with second-class tickets languish in squalor at the back, in fear of Wilford’s soldiers, living off daily rations of grim, gelatinous protein bars of questionable origin. Previous revolts have always been quashed, but the one that Curtis (Chris Evans), a stoic rebel with a dark past, his second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell) and wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt) have been cooking up is different: because they’ve found out the location of Namgoong Minsu (Bong favourite Song Kang-ho), the incarcerated, drug-addled security expert who designed the doors of the train.
Unsurprisingly for a film set on a train that never stops, this is a movie of almost constant momentum. Things kick off in the tail section, the revolution’s underway before the end of the first reel, and Curtis and co. (whose ranks also include Octavia Spencer and Ewan Bremner as parents in search of their kidnapped children) keep on pushing to the front without catching a breath. Bong’s screenplay…is structured almost like a video game, with each carriage presenting a different world or challenge, complete with end-of-level bosses like Tilda Swinton’s glorious Victoria-Wood-as-Margaret-Thatcher higher-up Minister Monroe, Alison Pill’s demented, heavily pregnant schoolmarm, and the enigmatic Wilford waiting at the end…
The Hollywood press reviews (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, etc) of the pic are all stellar. The above one (IndieWire) indeed calls it the best science fiction film in at least seven years (trailer is here). I wouldn’t know, as I don’t see too many science fiction films. The main thing I can say about this one is that I hated it. It is the most preposterous, ridiculous, ludicrous, absurd, stupid, inane film I’ve seen this year, and then some. It is also despicable, detestable, and reprehensible, as the film is full of violence, gratuitous torture, and sadism, and with one of the darkest views of human society I’ve seen on the screen in I don’t know how long. I know that one has to suspend belief when it comes to science fiction but here it’s just too much. E.g. the train’s damnés de la terre—who look like 19th century coal miners who haven’t showered in an eternity—in the rear wagons (which are somewhat less comfortable than the sleeping quarters at Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen): How did they occupy themselves for the past 17 years on the train, and without suffering muscular atrophy or descending into collective psychosis? Where did they go to the toilet? How is it that they’re not all dead following some kind of pandemic? Little questions that nagged me. And then there’s the larger society on the train, which, one supposes, is to be taken as a mirror image of today’s winner-take-all, finance capitalist order, with the 1% vs. the 99. This is no doubt how many are interpreting the film’s message (or “message”), though this really doesn’t make sense, as not only was the original story written three decades ago, when France was dirigiste, but the ideological world-view of the train’s ruling order is decidedly pre-capitalist, even pre-feudal. And the entrepreneur who invented the train and drives it—the evil genius Wilford—resembles more Ramesses II, or maybe Moulay Ismail, than any crazy leader our current capitalist system could produce. I’m sorry but the whole thing is just so stupid, and from beginning to end. And the ending: oh groan, GMAB. Numerous critics have praised the film’s acting. Oh come on, it’s not that good. Ed Harris is right for his role and Tilda Swinton (who—spoiler alert—is happily killed off halfway through) puts on a good act, but that’s as much as I’ll say for this side of it. I am frankly miffed at the thumbs up from critics and vox populi alike; so I find refuge with the 20% of Allociné spectateurs who labeled it très mauvais or nul.
The film reminds me of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 ‘Brazil’, which rubbed me the same wrong way (and that I dragged my parents to see back then; my father never let me live it down). ‘Snowpiercer’ will likely be the last futuristic, post-apocalyptic sci-fi film I’ll see for a while.
I am, however, not entirely hostile to films of this general genre. E.g. I saw ‘Gravity’ a couple of weeks ago, which I generally enjoyed. But while this one has the science fiction label, it does strive for realism and respect for the laws of physics, taking only a few liberties with the latter and for dramatic effect. That fact that astronauts (e.g. Buzz Aldrin) and other scientists liked it is sufficient recommendation for me. The interest of the film is, of course, visual. It’s really quite impressive on this level (and obviously has to be seen in 3-D). J. Hoberman, writing in the NYR Blog, recommends seeing it on an IMAX screen. I’ve never seen anything on an IMAX screen. I don’t even know what IMAX is (I suppose I could Google it and find out). It seems that there are only two in the Paris area, neither of which are in the city (and one is at Disneyland, which is way out). If it shows somewhere convenient on IMAX, I’ll willingly see it again.
The Coen brothers’ latest, which is out in France (US release date is December 6th). I’ll see anything by the Coen brothers, most of which gets my thumbs up (or way way up: ‘Fargo’ is one of the greatest films in the history of cinema). This one is about a down-and-out folk singer in New York City, in precisely 1961, named Llewyn Davis (actor Oscar Isaac), who has talent—I thought he was good—and wants to make a living with his music—it’s his passion and the only thing that interests him—but can’t, and who is unwilling to make the kinds of compromises that would enable him to have half a chance of succeeding in a musical career. He’s also a mooch and a jerk, who manages to piss off or alienate just about everyone he knows, friends and family included. The guy’s a loser, and who almost revels in his loser-ness. It’s not an upbeat, feel good film, that’s for sure (the friend with whom I saw it found it “depressing”). The film is engaging, though, and very well done. It’s a character study and with excellent acting all around (the Coen brothers are brilliant when it comes to casting and drawing personalities, even in bit parts). The music is also good—and I’m not a fan of folk—as is the delineation of the time period and the milieu of Greenwich Village musicians. But I don’t know what the point of the movie is, of why the Coen bros made it. My friend plus my wife, who saw it a few days earlier, had the same reaction. French reviews are stellar, as are those of Anglo-American critics who saw it at Cannes (where it won the Grand Prix). Certain critics have even called it the Coen brothers’ best film ever. No, it’s not. It’s objectively a good movie but is not a masterpiece. It should, however, be seen by anyone who likes the Coen bros’ œuvre, plus maybe those who are into folk music. So: recommended.