March 2- 8, 2006
Three documentaries buck the isolationist trend.
Antonio Negri: A Revolt That Never Ends, which opens the series Thursday night, is a dry, dense recitation of the career of the radical Italian philosopher who was jailed for allegedly inspiring the kidnapping and murder of Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro by a Red Brigade faction in 1976 (a crime which, incidentally, is the subject of Marco Bellocchio's lyrical, complex Good Morning, Nighta Wellspring release never given a Philadelphia play date). Those who already know Negri's name will no doubt find their interest piqued, but Alexandra Weltz and Andreas Pichler do a poor job of bringing newbies on board, and fail to break Negri's ideas down for a nonacademic audience.
Hubert Sauper's Darwin's Nightmare, screening Friday night, opens up a more global perspective, even though the camera never leaves Tanzania. Instead, the world comes to them, in the form of massive cargo jets that daily remove 500 tons of fish to European markets. Lake Victoria, it seems, is teeming with a fish known as the Nile Perchand, as it turns out, not much else, since the fish is a ravenous predator, introduced for the benefit of European consumers, that in less than half a century has decimated almost all of the species native to the world's second-largest freshwater lake. The ramifications are ominous and far-reaching: A factory manager says that the people who live along the lake's shores have "jobs totally dependent on fish," but the jobs Sauper shows us are hardly the kind that lift people out of poverty. A prostitute sells her evenings to European visitors, including the Russian cargo-jet pilots, for $10 a night, while outside an institute where scientists research different types of fish, a man stands guard with a bow and poisoned arrows for a dollar a night. These are people subsisting on the scraps off Europe's tableliterally, in the case of those who scavenge the discarded fish heads and guts the planes don't carry away. The film grows even darker when Sauper reveals that the cargo planes are not only carrying away Africa's bounty, but shipping in guns to fuel civil wars in Congo and Angola.
Darwin's Nightmare is as pertinent as documentaries get, but I must admit I've found it a chore to get through both times I've tried. Sauper's attempt to tell his story vérité-style leaves too many questions unanswered, presenting ambiguous facts as self-explanatory. He's fond of filling half the screen with some unfortunate's face and the other with evidence of their misery, but while such facile juxtapositions generate outrage, they do nothing to illuminate the situation. I have yet to see the movie in a theater, and Sauper's screen-filling close-ups may pack a bigger whomp on the big screen.
The small screen, however, does no harm to Adam Curtis' brilliant The Century of the Self, a four-hour miniseries shown in two parts on Saturday afternoon. Despite its length, Century is a breeze to sit through, using interviews, archival clips and snarky stock footage to illuminate a tricky but critical subject: the influence of Freudian thought on the 20th century. In Curtis' view, the most influential Freud may not have been Sigmund but his nephew, Edward Bernays, who invented the profession of public relations. Exploiting uncle Siggy's insights into the unconscious, Bernays urged American businesses to create products that filled desires, not needs. Rather than buy a stove or a house that lasts a lifetime, consumers learned to regard purchases as a means of self-expression, inaugurating an endless, bottomless process of acquisitive self-realization.
Century reaches its devastating pinnacle in its second half, when Bernays' methods worm their way into the political process. In the fourth episode, "Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering," Curtis details how both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair secured their power by swapping traditional broad-based initiatives for focus-group-driven micro-policies: Bye-bye health care reform, hello cell phones for school bus drivers. Both apparently convinced themselves that focus groups were merely a more efficient form of democracy, but as ex-Clintonite Robert Reich points out, governing by people's whims is not the same as heeding the will of the people. Like his uncle, Bernays believed that humans were essentially savage and needed to be repressed; focus groups were a way of giving people choice without giving them freedom. That they now shape and control our political discourse is a sobering thought, one that brings to mind the title of Curtis' next movie: The Power of Nightmares.
Views of a Changing World Thu.-Sat., March 2-4, International House