Sterilizing the City

yuppenterrasbaarsjes

In explaining people’s apathy in Northern European countries, many make the argument of how the ‘objective conditions’ are not ripe yet for massive protests, how things are simply not bad enough at the moment. This is bullshit. In the past there have been massive uprisings while things were objectively getting better. ’68 happened in a time of annual wage increases of 5-8% with new consumer goods that became affordable for the masses. Looking at the Netherlands, the ‘objective conditions’ are worse than in the ’80s. It has the most flexibilized labour market of continental Europe and unemployment rates are almost as bad as the worst in the ’80s. Besides that, being unemployed nowadays is a lot worse than in the past (getting benefits is a lot harder) and back then young people could decide to study an extra couple of years without being indebted for the rest of their lives.

But people have to know it. The average person doesn’t ‘feel’ the unemployment rate and the most flexibilized labour market. It has to be told. And it has to be told that it is really fucked up and that action has to be taken. Otherwise the average person will blame himself for being un(der)employed or will simply think of their part-time contract as normal. They will deal with their frustration individually rather than collectively. And that is exactly the problem currently. People turn to medication and self-help books rather than setting up action-committees.

There are many reasons for this individualization of collective problems. A major problem is that people simply are not being told. And when trade unions and leftist parties fail in producing a counter-hegemonic discourse of how fucked up things are and how things can be different through action, then it is up to the extra-parliamentary leftists to fulfill that task. And for a marginalized small group of people that is not backed by money or powerful connections, the easiest way to get your message across to a wider audience is by putting up posters and graffiti on the streets. But this is exactly something that is more and more repressed in many modern developed nations.

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Idealisme en de nieuwe generatie (Dutch)

De afgelopen decenia is er een beeld gecreerd van onze generatie als de eerste echte post-ideologische generatie. Tot voor kort leefden we zogenaamd in Fukuyama’s  ‘end of history’, een wereld waar het kapitalisme gewonnen had, met onze liberale democratie als eindpunt, waar geen plek was voor de grote collectieve ideologien. Verder zijn we apatisch, opgegroeid met tv, vooral met onszelf bezig in onze comfortabele consumenten leventjes, en te ´realistich´ voor het ‘naïeve’ idealisme van onze ouders’ generatie. Wij vormen de zogenaamde ‘ik-generatie’, individualistisch en extreem narcistisch, waar alles buiten onze directe leefomgeving er niet zoveel toe doet. Dit beeld van de nieuwe generatie is grotendeels onzin. Er zijn genoeg jongeren die vol zitten met idealisme,die nieuwsgierig zijn naar hoe de wereld in elkaar steekt, die vol zitten met empathie voor minder bedeelden, en die zich wel degelijk zorgen maken over bijvoorbeeld klimaatverandering en de apocalyptische proporties van rampen die ons daarmee te wachten staat. Het idealisme is er wel. Het probleem is echter dat de energie van dit idealisme in de verkeerde plekken gestoken wordt.

Nou laat ik mensen die hun idealisme omzetten in het consumeren van de juiste producten (van Max Havelaar producten tot een Toyota Prius) even buiten beschouwing. Ik wil het bijvoorbeeld meer hebben over de jongeren die na hun studie (of tijdens), vol idealisme, aan een slecht betaalde (of onbetaalde) stage beginnen bij een non-profit, waar ze terecht komen in een geprofessionaliseerde werkomgeving, met 9-tot-5 kantoorwerk, waar het probleem van fundraising een centrale rol inneemt, en waar marketing (wat nog altijd niet veel meer is dan het manipuleren van mensen) vaak een nog grotere rol speelt dan voor een multinational. De afhankelijkheid van private en publieke donors voor financiering en de wil om maar toegang te blijven houden tot multinationals, regeringen en hun conferenties leidt tot een politiek van compromis. Bovendien zijn het in deze geprofessionaliseerde organizaties vaak ook nog de carriére-mensen die omhoog klimmen en het voor het zeggen hebben of krijgen. NGOs richten zich vaak op allerlei belangrijke (maar niet fundamentale) side-issues, die allemaal binnen de logica van de ‘vrije’ markt (en het systeem) worden behandeld. Eén van de gebruikelijke bezigheden is het promoten van bijvoorbeeld ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR), terwijl het  doel van een multinational vrijwel altijd het maximalizeren van winst voor aandeelhouders zal zijn (een legale verplichting zelfs), waardoor CSR nooit veel meer dan een marketing gimmick zal zijn (of een excuus om broodnodige overheids regulatie te vermijden). Kortom, non-profits zijn over het algemeen volledig gecoöpteerd door de dominante politiek-economische structuren. Het zijn plekken met geen enkele vorm van systeem kritiek, waar al het idealisme uit je gezogen wordt. Het is dan ook niet gek, maar wel typerend, dat zelfs ‘gewone werkende’ (en tot voor kort ‘post-ideologosiche’) Amerikanen in de recente Occupy protesten al snel uitkomen op wereldperspectieven en slogans die in radicalisme veel verder gaan dan die van de grote meerderheid van NGOs.

Een andere vorm van activisme waarin veel jongeren hun idealisme in steken is microkrediet. Het probleem is hier niet alleen dat zelfs het populaire Kiva.org ordinaire for-profit “field partners” heeft die woeker-rentes eisen van gemiddeld 35%, maar vooral ook dat er simpelweg voor de arme entrepeneurs maar een beperkt aantal mogelijkheden zijn om succesvol hun geleende begin kapitaal om te zetten naar iets groters. De claim van de Nobelprijs winnende econoom Muhammad Yunnus, stichter van de microkrediet beweging,  dat globale armoede door middel van microkrediet weggevaagd gaat worden worden is ondenkbaar en utopisch. Naast microkrediet zijn enkele vrienden van mij ook helemaal weg van ‘social entrepeneurship’, binnen de logica van de markt, dictactuur en ongelijkheid bestrijden, vaak door middel van allerlei irritante social media strategiën, maar natuurlijk zonder de onderliggende politiek-economische structuren an sich te bedreigen.

Nu wil ik niet het talloze goede werk van de Oxfam Novibs, Greenpeaces, Amnesty Internationals, enzovoort ontkennen.  Er zijn ook honderden voorbeelden van social entrepreneurship waar mensen groot profijt van hebben. En ook niet elke vorm van micro krediet verlening aan armen leidt tot gigantische schuldenlasten waaruit slachtoffers geen andere uitweg dan zelfmoord weten. Natuurlijk, er zit niks kwaads in al dit goed bedoelde idealisme. Maar de overeenkomst in al deze populaire vormen van idealisme is alleen wel dat er geen potentie in zit voor het soort sociale verandering dat wel daadwerkelijk nodig is. Er zit geen enkele bedreiging in voor de status quo en elke vorm van systeem kritiek ontbreekt. Overal komt het neer op individuele verantwoordelijkheid, dat iedereen maar voor zichzelf moet zorgen, maar dan wel binnen de logica van de markt die buiten discussie staat, en om vooral ook niet publieke diensten te ‘misbruiken’ (aangezien anderen daar dan weer voor opdraaien). Het is strikt individualistisch en sluit aan op een wereld waar alles in economische termen wordt gezien, en waar alles in kosten en baten wordt berekend. Als we deze logica te ver doordenken kunnen we wat mij betreft net zo goed ook wel meteen collectief zelfmoord doen als menselijkheid.

Maar het is wel duidelijk hoe dominant deze logica is voor jongeren tegenwoordig. Zelfs veel van de meer idealistische jongeren nu willen van jongs af aan carriére proberen te maken. Een duidelijk voorbeeld is ook de studiekeuze van jongeren. Kijk naar de populariteit van MBA studies, die een 20 jaar geleden nog amper studenten kon trekken buiten ‘dat over-de-top kapitalistische’ Amerika. Onder het motto van individuele verantwoordelijkheid wordt het je nu afgeraden om een studie als Filosofie te kiezen, want ‘eigen schuld’ als je na je studie geen baan kan vinden. Beter doe je één van die studies die er voornamelijk zijn om studenten te verkleinen tot een zo effectief mogelijk scharnier in de machine van het systeem. In plaats van het oude Bildungsideaal, waarin studie tot verlichting en zelf ontplooiing dient, worden we als robots klaargestoomd voor het bedrijfsleven. Aan filosofie doe je maar in je ‘vrije tijd’.

Al het opgenoemde idealisme; van politiek consumeren, het merendeel van het non-profit werk, microkrediet en social entrepeneurship, valt binnen de neoliberale logica van individuele verantwoordelijkheid en markt-denken. Maar het is juist deze neoliberale logica waar tegen jonge idealisten zich tegen moeten keren. Makkelijker gezegd dan gedaan natuurlijk. Maar een begin zit zich in een terugkeer van een protest cultuur. Er moet een eind komen aan wat je de ‘geenstijlificatie’ van protest zou kunnen noemen, het in de zeik nemen van alle radicalere vormen van idealisme. Een Geenstijl vermaakt de verveelde massa van mensen die in hun saaie 9-5 kantoorbanen de doelloze leegte van hun bestaan weg moeten ‘reaguren’ op het internet. Dit bittere cynisme dat zich als ‘realisme’ verschuilt voedt een misplaatst superioriteitsgevoel boven de mensen die wel inzien dat radicale verandering nodig en daarvoor in actie komen. Het is tijd om over de sociale druk tot apathisch conformisme heen te stappen en om weer de straten in te nemen voor onze idealen.

Four Reigns (สี่แผ่นดิน)

This book is a classic in Thailand and has been turned in several theatre-plays, movies and tv-series. The Thai monarchy is constantly in the background throughout the book with Four Reigns referring to the reigns of four different Kings.  As the monarchy is a very sensitive topic here and impossible to criticize due to the strictest lese majeste laws in the world, I already knew that the book would probably be propaganda for the royalty. But this in itself could make for an interesting read; seeing how the Thai history is written down in novel form in the way the Thai establishment wants you to understand it. Especially when it includes the death of King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), who died as an 18-year old in an “accident” with a gun-shot in his head. This death has never been clarified, although this didn’t stop three servants from being executed on charges of conspiracy to kill the King. This incident becomes even more interesting when you take into account that the author, Kukrit Pramoj, was an important politician himself at the time. His brother Seni Pramoj, who basically became the first Thai Prime-Minister after WW2 just a few years earlier, played a prominent role in the aftermath of the King’s death. He accused the then current Prime-Minister Pridi Banomyong (a socialist) for being responsible for the King’s assassination, which was by all accounts extremely implausible. The Pramoj brothers, royal descendents of Rama II and part of the then newly founded Democrat Party, cooperated a year later in a military coup to oust the government, which saw Seni Pramoj rewarded with a high position in the cabinet of the new government (that ironically was ousted by yet another military coup 112 days later).

With this background the book gets another dimension. It is not just a novel for entertainment, but it also promotes an ideology that corresponds with the political viewpoints (and interests) of the author, who was Prime-Minister himself for year in the turbulent Thai mid 70s. It’s the ideology of royalists and reactionary conservatives, that talk of freedom and democracy, but will gladly support a coup against an elected government when it threatens the established establishment (be it the socialist threats of the past or today’s Shinawatra family), yet carefully balancing between leftist populist sentiment from the people and the visible and less visible hands that interfere in Thai democracy to this day. The short Prime-Minister terms of both the Pramoj brothers in the 70s are most illustrative of this, particularly Seni Pramoj’s last term as Prime-Minister in 1976, in which he was ousted (again) a day after the Thammasat Massacre. Since Thailand became ‘democratic’ in 1932 it has seen 17 different constitutions and over 20 mostly bloodless coup d’états, with more than once the military doing a self-coup against its own government.

Thammasat University Massacre 6 October 1976. Pro-democracy students were massacred by paramilitary forces that received support from the monarchy. None of the perpetrators have ever been brought to justice. Modern Thai history books skip the event or play it down as a “misunderstanding” between the two sides.

This book explains how Thai people are meant to see the world. If Ayn Rand´s “Atlas Shrugged” defines an ideology that explains modern America with all its ruthless profiteering, then “Four Reigns” should be seen as the book that defines mainstream Thai ideology or “Thainess” as they call it. The basic tenets of this “Thainess” can be summarized as loyalty to the Nation, Religion, and the Monarchy. In 1981, Kukrit Pramoj writes in the preface of this English version of the original Thai book from 1953 that he hopes that those friends of Thailand who do not read Thai, will now “gain a little more understanding towards us”, implying that farang can never truly understand “Thainess”, which is also the common argument from many Thais when you are critically discussing the elephants in the room of Thai politics (even when you’re Thai). And indeed, the book puts out a defense of the Thai ideology that you regularly run into when you live here. While it explains many specific details that were new to me, in general terms it confirmed more what I had already suspected. Rather that changing my outlook towards Thai society, it strengthened some of the more negative thoughts I already had.

The characters can be seen as caricatures, outlining the values that Kukrit Pramoj wants to either promote or put in a negative light. That is not to say that all the characters are flat and one-dimensional, at least not more so than characters in novels usually are, but the characters do tend to be the perfect stereotypes of their times and the values they hold. Some of the characters are extremely sympathetic, like the main-character Phloi for example. The story follows her life, as she is put into the Grand Palace as a 10 year old girl and later lives with together her high-society husband. The book basically explains Thai history in that period through Phloi’s eyes, mostly based on her relationships with the people around her.

Phloi portrays the ‘ideal’ Thai woman; she is perfect, beautiful and completely flawless throughout the book. At times the book almost reads as a guide on how to be a proper Thai woman, which of course comes down to fully sacrificing yourself to your husband at all costs: being there for him at all times; being a good cook; taking care of the kids all by your own; never holding your own opinion against him, keep it for yourself when you disagree with what he says; don’t even dare to be insulted when he fathered a child without ever telling you; and to suggest him, when he feels depressed, to have more than one wife (or extra-marital affairs and massage parlor visits as it would be in modern Thailand); and did your potential partner cheat on you? Fully forgive him in the sweetest of words (all these examples are from the book). Although things have thankfully changed quite a bit in Thailand, you can still recognize much of it. Some feminist emancipation is still drastically needed in this country.

Just as Phloi is written down as the ideal Thai woman of her times, she is also portrayed by Pramoj as extremely likeable. This trick of making all the characters that support Pramoj’s ideology pleasant and those opposing not-so-perfect is used throughout the book. All the royalists in the book are virtuous, while the bureaucrats that take control after the absolute monarchy is dissolved are all clumsy, self-interested and greedy. The characters of royal blood however, from the Kings (that are always at a distance) to a minor princess like Sadet, who adopts the young Phloi in the Grand Palace, are described as absolutely perfect and virtuous, devoid of any negative characteristics. They are all handsome, well-behaved, treating everyone with affection and being perfect dutiful servants towards their subjects. From time to time, one can overhear conversations of the King or Queen talking to commoners, knowing about all their personal issues. The Queen knowing the name of this peasant she had met many years ago, the King talking with this old farmer without teeth as if they were friends, “nothing too big or small for his wisdom and compassion”. It’s the classic propaganda that we in the West often ridicule, think of Kim Yung-il’s fieldtrips and the corresponding photo-ops. Thailand is however filled with similar photos and videos of King making fieldtrips to all corners of the country, inspecting the thousands of royal development projects, for which public accountability and assessment of success are of course completely out of question.

It’s the basic outline of the Thai ideology in which all the politicians are seen as greedy and bad, while the royals are ‘above politics’ and keep the country on track. The King is the source of all that is good; he’s selfless, never smiling or enjoying earthly pleasure, but dedicating his life to improving the Thai nation. The (current) King is portrayed as a brilliant scientist telling politicians what to do, as one who is (literally, I kid you not) capable of providing rain for the crops, and as a bringer of justice (with the annual royal pardons). Politicians however can do no good and are the source of all misery. In history classes Thai children will learn of all the good things done by the royals, but young Thais are unlikely to know much of statesmen as Pridi Banomyong or Puey Ungpakorn.

Puey Ungpakorn (left) and Pridi Banomyong (right) in London together. Both had to flee Thailand.

Of course we also get the revisionist history of the Thai monarchs as true democrats. The role of Rama VII in the three years after the revolution is mostly ignored. In reality he stifled the democratization process by co-opting the military side of the Promoters (in opposition to Pridi and others), and attempting to create a limited monarchy rather than giving up his executive and legislative powers as in Europe’s constitutional monarchies1. In Thai ideology however, the king is ‘above politics’ and would never intervene for its own interests, so the focus instead is on how the new bureaucrats in power (including Phloi’s son An 2) immediately start constricting freedom of speech (which did happen, but as if there was such thing as freedom of speech under absolute monarchy?). Rama VII is portrayed as being as democratic “as any of them [in the government], if not more” (496). When Rama VII finally decides to abdicate in 1935 after 3 years of uneasy cooperation with the government, Ot (the most agreeable son) tells her mother “Democracy hasn’t been with us for very long, and now we’ve lost one of its staunchest champions”.

Besides the revisionist fairy-tale of Thai monarchs as true democrats, another major element in the ideology of “Thainess” is spirituality and religion. While nowhere becoming super-natural or turning into downright fantasy, throughout the book the Thai’s superstition is quietly supported. The rituals and amulets always seem to help, at least nowhere future events contradict expectations raised by their practice and usage. Many of the future events, especially the dying of characters close to Phloi, are in some way predicted by signs or feelings. The end of the four reigns in particular is always preceded by major signs, especially the death of King Chulalongkorn. The appearance of the Halley’s Comet in 1910 worries Phloi as it must be a bad sign, she is then calmed by her husband some days later, telling her that it had nothing to do with them at all, as the comet must have signaled the death King Edward VII who must have accumulated much, much, much merit, so that even they in Thailand could see it (sure enough it is always good to prop up foreign monarchies a bit, in support of your own3). But of course, less than one page later it is announced that Rama V unexpectedly died, even though he died all the way in October, five months after the death of King Edward VII and the appearance of the comet. Unsurprisingly, during Rama V´s cremation the sky darkened, thunder struck and rain came pouring down (280-284). But at least this cliché however could really have happened considering it took place in Thailand’s rain season.

Then there are the prophecies, we are reminded how the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 coincides with the supposed Rama I’s deathbed prediction that the Chakri dynasty would last no longer than 150 years. Karma is also a constant concept that is referred to. It is believed that making merit, either in your previous life or through your current life, will lead to a good life. Whenever something bad happens in your current life, it must be because of something you have done in your previous life. Buddhism here is always in support of the status quo and the establishment. If you are born into lower-class, it must be your own fault and you can make merit by suffering your way through it rather than rebelling, so you will be better off in the next life. The King however must be the highest of reincarnations, having accumulated enormous amounts of virtue in previous lives, and should therefore not be put into question.

Thailand’s Buddhism is deeply connected to the monarchy. In every wat (temple) one can find portraits of King Bhumibol and yellow flags of the monarchy. The concept of Divine Kingship originates both from Hindu Brahmanical cults of the devaraja and deification of the kings, and Buddhist-based ideology of the dhammaraja monarch whose status is a product of his unmatched virtue. To put the importance of this in perspective, it is instructive to go back to the writings of H.G. Quaritch Wales. He was a British anthropologist that worked in Lord Chamberlain’s Department in the Court of Siam as an adviser to Rama VI and Rama VII, and who published a study on the functional value of Divine Kingship in 1932. He was warning against the breakdown of customs and rituals together with the spread of Western education and modern skepticism, as this combination would threaten the social integrity of the state. His book explains in detail the importance of symbolism and religious ceremonies in strengthening the monarchy. He (1932: 192) writes about the great sociological value of prostration (which was banned by King Chulalongkorn), arguing that the lack of customs and rituals displaying reverence to the monarchy leaves the door open to “… the dark teachings of communism, or whatever doctrines may chance to catch the ear of the masses, to step in and hasten the work of social destruction” (1932: 7).

The monarchy, as an institution, has therefore been central in maintaining Thailand’s strict hierarchical system. Bolstering the divine aspects of the monarch has worked as a great counter towards ‘dangerous ideas’ of social equality. It is then also no coincidence that prostration, even though banned in 1873 by King Chulalongkorn, has actually been encouraged and returned in the current reign (see popular talkshow host Woody interviewing Princess Chulabhorn and sharing her pet dog’s food). It also no surprise that when Thailand became the United States’ most important ally in fighting communism in South East Asia, the “American information officials in Bangkok […] concluded that USIS funds could not be better employed than in spreading the likeness of His Majesty”.

King Bhumibol on the cover of Time Magazine as a fighter for freedom

For the ruling classes, the Thai ideology espoused in Four Reigns has been an incredibly successful answer to any call for social justice and equality. Putting it in a historic context, this book has been Kukrit Pramoj’s counter to the appeal of Pridi’s more socialist ideas. Hierarchy, for instance, is not questioned anywhere in the book. Throughout the book it is suggested to treat the servants and everyone lower in the social hierarchy properly, but the existence of this hierarchy in itself and unfairness of it isn’t acknowledged anywhere. Instead we have the most likable characters criticizing how there is too much freedom after the end of the absolute monarchy, too much freedom to stage a revolution against everything and everybody, with our likable main-character Phloi being appalled to hear stories of pupils staging revolution against their teachers and temple boys against their monks (484). All the characters in the book just accept hierarchy as a natural given fact of life, with all those lower in caste carrying on accordingly. Phloi for instance starts out in the book as a 10 year old girl of low importance, but despite this, she still has her own loyal and obedient maid Phlit that faithfully follows her around without questioning anything until the day she dies. The high society is sometimes portrayed as fashion-crazed, spending money on unnecessary things, but generally as virtuous and enlightened. And at least they know how to carry themselves around, unlike those darned bureaucrats and businessmen that worked themselves up from their lowly simple backgrounds after absolute monarchy ended, they are greedy and always behave frustratingly socially awkward when they are at a party or a ceremony, not knowing the social mores and the contemporary hi-so etiquette. At least, that is essentially the contemptful portrayal they receive from Kukrit Pramoj in Four Reigns.

The exploitation on which wealth of the royalty and upper classes is built is nowhere explored. Instead we hear commoners mourning the downfall of the expensive villas that turn into ruin, after its royal residents flee the country after 1932. Interestingly, traces of sufficiency theory can be found a couple of times. Commoners leading simple lives without complaining are celebrated throughout the book. Particularly noteworthy is the conversation of the difference in poverty between England and Thailand when Phloi´s son Ot comes back from his overseas education. According to him, the rich in England are colossally rich and a large fortune in Thailand would be considered laughable over there. The poor in Thailand on the other hand are much more fortunate than the poor in Europe, as they don’t risk freezing to death in the winter, and the food is easy to come by with plenty of fish, fruit and vegetables growing. This rather contrived dialogue then continues on to ridicule England’s upper-class’ hobby of fox hunting (431).

In Thailand 2012 it is shocking to see how little has changed, the affluent classes still take the obedience of those lower on the social ladder for granted, and are infuriated whenever those dark-skinned “uneducated” peasants start to assert themselves. If you exclude the red shirt rallies in recent years however, it is bizarre how the Thai’s social hierarchy is still strictly adhered to, with society’s lower parts politely serving and looking up to those above them, quietly accepting the injustice of it all and suffering through their lives as proper Buddhists4.

So what to make of all this? Four Reigns is a propaganda book outlining the ideology of “Thainess” that has continued to serve the upper-classes of Bangkok for decades. It reinforces the strict social hierarchy, promotes the deification of the royalty and the revisionist history of the Chakri monarchs as enlightened democrats with the myth of them being ‘above politics’, it prescribes the gender roles of Thailand’s patriarchal society, and quietly supports Thai´s superstition, and so on. It is filled with contrived and manufactured dialogue in support of “Thainess”. Characters are used as devices, whether they are successful or unsuccessful, likeable or less likeable, depends on the moralistic message for which the author uses them. Of course, this is not unique to Four Reigns. No book is immune to ideology; it is implicit in every human expression. But this book is intentionally written by Kukrit Pramoj in order to convince the Thai population of his idea of “Thainess”. For me, as a reader with rather different political ideas, it then becomes confusing to judge or even enjoy the book in a normal way.

I made the analogy before, but I can imagine that it is a similar when you read “Atlas Shrugged”, as a reader you become sort of attached to the character John Galt, while simultaneously despising the values and politics he espouses. There is a similar duality with the main characters in this book; the most pleasant characters are devoted to their monarchs to an extreme that borders insanity. Should you do what Kukrit Pramoj wants you to do and just enjoy the book by buying into its characters, or keep dissenting and resisting the craziness? Personally I found my enjoyment in reading between the lines. What we can do however is to commend Kukrit Pramoj on his accomplishment. “Four Reigns” is a much better written book than “Atlas Shrugged” for one. And while the values espoused in his book served him and his friends politically, there is no doubt that he was also inspired by a sincere love for his country for whatever that is worth.

1 See http://khikwai.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/PRAPOKKLAO.pdf

2 Phloi has four children in the book, all of them caricatures to explain the changes in Thai history in that time. On is the royalist soldier, banished to prison for a decade after participating in the Borawat rebellion. Praphai is the beautiful daughter who exemplifies the changes for women in the modernizing Thailand with her taste for modern fashion and hi-so parties. An and Ot are however among the first upper-class Thais to go abroad for an overseas education. An is the overly ambitious son, is a participant in the 1932 coup and becomes a powerful bureaucrat, who then slowly becomes disillusioned by the new government and regrets his past actions. Ot is the easy-going and most sympathetic son, who is less ambitious than An, but much wiser and constantly in support of the royalty. It’s worth pointing out that An went to study in France like most of the coup plotters including Pridi, while Ot went to study in England like the Pramoj brothers did. I doubt that this is purely coincidental.

3 It might be because I am more perceptive to it here, but it seems I see about the same amount of pictures of the Dutch monarchy as I do back in the Netherlands. The celebrity magazines in Thailand are all about news on European monarchies. The official pictures of the Thai monarchy often include visiting foreign monarchs. And during the British royal wedding madness last year I (and any other Caucasian in Thailand at that time) was hailed several times by Thais sharing their excitement with me, as if care.

4 On a personal note, Phloi’s maid Phlit reminded me a lot of the maid in our own condominium, who works tirelessly from 8am to 11pm, always carrying a smile on her face, and is a similar chatterbox as well.

International Documentary Film Festival 2010

I really should post more on this blog. I have the intention to do so. My previous post was more than a year ago about the IDFA 2009. Funnily enough this post is going to be about the IDFA 2010. I guess it would be quite sad if the next post on this blog will be on the IDFA 2011. Hah.

Anyway. I volunteered at the IDFA this year and as a volunteer you can see documentaries for free next to the shifts you make. It’s good fun and I watched an awful lot of documentaries. To avoid completely forgetting the things I see it’s a good idea to briefly write my thoughts on them down. The festival is more than a month ago now, but I didn’t get to finish writing my short reviews, now I finally have.

Budrus *****

Documentary about a small Palestinian village close to the Wall. There are lots of documentaries about Palestina and I expected the usual depressing story about an issue you hear plenty about in the media already. But this was less depressing than expected. It follows the start of a non-violent social movement against the wall and interviews the Isreali soldiers that were protecting the bulldozing of olive-trees to enable construction of the wall as well. It shows the disagreements between Fatah and Hamas and how to approach the issue, with local people’s attempts to resolve these. At first you only see (predominantly male) villagers joining the protests, then the women joining in. After early successes in postponing the bulldozing more and more people join. Western activists join. And then Isreali peace activist join, leading to huge dilemma’s of the IDF soldiers that are not allowed to beat up Jews. Heartwarming to see a math teacher and Hamas member crying of happiness when he lets in Isreali Jewish peace activists in his house, not believing he would ever fight side-by-side with them. Really good documentary, and the protests at this village ultimately led to a wider protest movement all over Palestina and the relocation of the Wall’s border. Still heavy stuff, but a lot less depressing than I expected at first.

Inside Job *****

One of the bigger budget documentaries at the IDFA this year with matt Damon as narrator (who’s actually doing an alright job). It’s about the financial crisis and argues that it is basically one big inside job of the big Wall Street banks. It explains the whole story of deregulation and what lead to the crisis in a comprehensible way. It actually surprised me that I didn’t hear more about this documentary yet on reddit, as it is out in the US already for a few months and it’s basically one big call-to-action for the American people with also some harsh critique on the Obama administration. Best part are the interviews. Some of the biggest neoliberal professors and academics of Harvard, Berkely and Oxford get completely humiliated. For this reason alone it’s a must see. I’m sure this docu has wrecked some careers.

Client-9: The Rise & Fall of Elliot Spitzer ****

Quite a long documentary and also mostly about the financial crisis and the power of Wall Street. It’s a portrait of Elliot Spitzer and basically shows how dirty and Machiavellian American politics are. It reminded me of people like Clay Davis and Carcetti in the Wire, but then even more dirty and actually real. Pretty damn cool.

The Pipe *****

Movie about the conflict between a local community and Shell that wants to construct a pipeline at the West coast of Ireland. I loved it. Beautiful scenery and characters. Shows how close and tight these communities are, but also shows the problems in maintaining unity (happens when a big multinational tries to buy people out with thousands of euros). Plus heroic resistance of a local fisherman that made me all teary. Crazy to see the power of a big multinational in a developed country like Ireland so bluntly.

Cultures of Resistance **

There’s basically no subject that interests me more than the link between culture, politics and resistance. But this must be the worst documentary I’ve seen at the IDFA so far this year. Gives a panorama view of conflicts and social resistance in the third world by explaining these particular conflicts in 5 minutes. Bleh. 5 minutes Brazil, 5 minutes Rwanda, 5 minutes Palestina, 5 minutes Congo. Nice footage, sure, but it remains rather shallow. Some girls next to me thought it was brilliant, but I intentionally went to sleep to speed up the time a bit. Perhaps more interesting if you’ve never heard of these conflicts?

Search and Destroy: Iggy Pop’s Raw Power

I like the album and it’s a decent documentary about how this album was underappreciated for decades, it includes interviews with Henry Rollins, Mike Watt and Iggy himself. Basically your average music documentary and a must-see for Iggy Pop fans I guess.

Revolutions

Another music documentary, but now about Cuban hip-hop band Los Aldeanos. Very activist hiphop, DIY and political in a country where such a thing is somewhat dangerous. It’s really aggressive hiphop and I really like this sort of thing. Interesting stuff even if you don’t like hiphop.

The Other Chelsea – Shaktar Donetsk ****

Documentary about how football meets politics in Ukraine. As I’ve been there myself I recognize the sort of people and environment and therefore I really loved it. Lots of stuff on miners that are huge fans of Shaktar, but somewhat at unease with a man like Akhmetov spending millions on a club while public services remain utter crap. It also follows a young man that starts out in the city council of Donetsk and shows how being a politician in Ukraine is more like being a businessman.

Armadillo *****

Probably the documentary that is having most political impact on West-Europe right now. A Danish documentary maker was allowed to stay with a Danish unit for 5 months in the British/Danish base Armadillo in Afghanistan, unlike the embedded journalists we’ve seen so much of, this is the real deal. Basically shows better what war is like and what it does to people than anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s not the most enjoyable film, but if you want to understand Afghanistan and modern war you should not miss out on this. The blood rush and excitement of Danish soldiers that finally get to shoot some Taliban fighters from close by is sickening, but also understandable. The debriefing where the killers laughingly say they had liquidated them as humanly possible while the bodies had over 50 bullets in it caused a political shit-storm in Denmark. The morphine eyes of a Danish soldier that just got shot in his soldier is one of unforgettable images of Aghanistan for me. Trailer

The Green Wave ***

Stories from the Iran elections and aftermath in 2009. Uses cartoons to explain stories that are obviously well-made and mixes those with the cell-phone footage we can all find on youtube. It’s not bad, but I personally thought it was a bit boring. This might also be the result of me being a bit tired (happens with these festivals), but I didn’t like it too much. I had already seen most of the footage as well, as I followed it closely on the internet a year ago. 3/5

iThemba ****

Probably the funniest documentary on the IDFA. It’s about a group of handicapped Zimbadwean children that make music together and end up touring the US as well. Story sounds a bit like a cliché, but all the kids are brilliant and some of them are a bunch of stand-up comedians shooting witty one-liner after one-liner, also about the political situation in Zimbadwe. 4/5

You don’t like the truth – 4 days of Guantanamo ****

You think you sort of know already how bad Guantanamo is, but then the details of story still shock the hell out of you. It pisses me off that this stuff is still going on. And it’s not just the Americans, but Canada and most European countries are just as complicit. It’s one of these things that is just too outrageous to understand. More: http://www.youdontlikethetruth.com/

The Prosecutor *****

Another serious story, but now more uplifting in my perspective. Documentary maker followed the prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of the International Criminal Court for 1-2 years in probably the most eventful period of the Court’s brief history. It’s not one-sided, but also covers eloquent critics of the ICC and mister Moreno-Ocampo. Luis Moreno-Ocampo is brilliant, charming, but also makes you cringe a bit at times. The ICC, despite the many obvious flaws, is one of most uplifting trends that is currently going on and many people are completely clueless about it. I hope this documentary will make people understand and appreciate the ICC a bit more. Go see it if you can.

Mushrooms of concrete ****

Short documentary about the 750k bunkers that were made in the times of Enver Hoxha. I had never heard of this crazy story before and was pretty amazed. Because of Hoxha’s paranoia and fear for a Greek invasion he had the plan to construct a bunker for anyone that could handle a gun. The result was a huge construction effort in an incredibly poor country and now in 2010 the country is still filled with these concrete mushrooms all over the landscape. It’s pretty fucking crazy and the documentary shows how some of these old bunkers are being re-used for all sorts of purposes. Cool.

Lobotomy ***

The most anti-Russia documentary I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s a very very subjective documentary by the Belarusian director Khashchavatski. Somewhat entertaining, but a bit too pushy for my taste. Tears apart much of the propaganda that comes from the Kremlin. It’s a bit amateuristic as well and looks like your average youtube documentary. Still, if you’re interested in the Georgia war and Putin’s Russia, this might be thought-provoking. 3/5

An African election *****

About the elections in Ghana. The rallies and African enthusiasm is completely crazy. Thousands and thousands of people listening, shouting and dancing. Complete chaos at times and the election results end up being a tie with even more chaos and a threat of violence. The violence however thankfully doesn’t end up happening. It’s a beautiful documentary about the optimistic chaos of an election in Africa, it does not really go into how democracy in these places is a bit of a farce with foreign multinationals looting its natural resources while they people remain poor with their leaders being a bunch of kleptocrats. But that is okay. It focuses on the optimistic chaos of democracy instead, shows a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff and follows all the candidates personally and it’s awesome. Beautifully filmed as well.

The furious force of rhymes *****

Another hiphop documentary and this might just be one of the best music documentaries ever. It shows socially critical hiphop scenes in the US, Paris, Ost-Berlin, Palestina and Senegal. American Blacks, East German Skinheads, Israeli Jews, Palestinians, African Feminists and French Banlieusards. They all sound fucking amazing too. Really fucking good, I’m going to update my playlist with the artists featured in this doc. Also worth watching if you aren’t into hiphop too much, this might just change your mind on that.

Pushing the elephant ****

Follows the Congolese activist Rose Mepanda, who fled to the US in 2000 and is a mother of 10 children. One of her daughters remained and this documentary is about their reunion. The daughter is obviously rather traumatized and struggles in the US. The family as a whole and the mother are really amazing though. Nice portrait.

Last train home ****

About the world’s biggest yearly human migration of millions of Chinese workers that leave their factories to back to their rural families for Chinese New Year. A really nice unpretentious documentary where a family is followed for a few years. Mother and father work in the factory and grandmother takes care of the children. The parents work so their children can go to school and have a better life than they had, the children are thus on immense pressure to study hard. Once a year the mother sees her children again and every time the first thing she asks her children is to show their school reports. The oldest daughter cannot really take it anymore and rebels against the parents. I liked it a lot. 4/5

Blood in the mobile ****

Documentary maker investigates how the global consumption of mobile phones fuels the war and exploitation in Congo and tries to find out how Nokia, reported as the most ethically minded company in the mobile phone industry, deals with the issue. And he has guts, he travels to one of the mines in Congo where the rare minerals are extracted, which is basically hell-on-earth and very very dangerous. The docu doesn’t really unearth any new facts (at least not for me, a person who’s interested in the issue), but does give images of what is going on. The mining camp operation is fucked-up insane. The mine is surrounded by fences and a rebel group that dominates the area demands money to everyone that wants to enter or leave the mining camp and the mine attracts people looking to make money from all over the region. Inside the mining camp the prices for food and drinks are insanely high (a beer for 8 dollars…). People going in often aren’t able to get out of the camp and are in a way slave workers. The documentary maker actually enters one of the extremely dangerous mines and the images from that are rather scary. After the trip he goes back to the Nokia HQ to ask how they deal with it and it’s clear that they have no clue on what is truly going on in those mines and don’t have an interest in finding out. Actually, the way the Nokia employees at first respond to the documentary maker is really shocking. As he stated in the Q&A, you can view the movie as a guide for multinationals of how not to do PR. Anyway, this documentary is certainly worth watching.

All for the good of the world and nosovice ***

Movie about how Hyundai constructs a gigantic factory on former farm grounds in a small Czech town named Nosovice and how the villagers respond to it in different ways. Shows the conflict and how big money splits a community. It’s basically a big dilemma, a lot of villagers preferred the old days where they farmed the land together, others are sad about it but considered the change to be inevitable and are happy about the economic opportunities. It does not get really exciting anywhere, but it’s still interesting to see how these processes (similar dilemmas can be found all over the world) play out.

A screening of tastry ***

Short movie of a beginning film academy student that still has to graduate. About a Polish man with his own cinema, without any passion for movies, that struggles to keep the place going. He’s basically a man that grew up in communism and struggles to adapt to modern Poland. Rather funny.

The gamester *

Movie about the Belarusian president Lukashenko. Highly subjective and ‘pushy’. I find the subject very interesting, but it’s simply not a very good movie and people that do not know much about Belarus (which includes me I guess) it’s not too enlightening. 1/5

My heart of darkness **

A white South African confronts his past in the South African special services during apartheid and his operations in Angola. He basically does his own heart of darkness trip by finding one person of the other two sides of the conflict, travel with them by boat over the river and reflect on their experiences in the war. Didn’t find it too interesting. Felt a bit awkward too at times.

The devil operation ***

Movie on the mine industry in Peru and the resistance against it. A local priest tries to mediate between the mining company and the angry indigenous farmers and eco activists. It’s a rather shocking story, involving private security hired by the American and British mining companies that intimidate, spy, torture and even murder one of the eco activists. It’s the typical David vs Goliath tale. Not as good as something as Budrus (or last year’s Crude on oil companies in Ecuador), but the story and footage definitely make an interesting viewing.

The world according to Ion. B. *****

Brilliant movie about the alcoholic bum Ion Barladeaunu, who on his own secretly made hundreds of the most brilliant art collages on the political situation in Romania in the last three decades. As the son of a loyal Stalinist local organizer, he left his home village to work in Bucharest. And after he was put into prison by the Ceausescu for working in the private sector…. as a grave digger. If his collages would’ve been discovered in those times, they would have had him killed, so he always kept them to himself. The art brilliant, it has bits of pop art, Dada, Warhol and Hieronymus Bosch (looks a bit like some Crass album covers as well for example), but he has never heard of any of them. An incredibly unlikely story. In 2008 he’s finally discovered and has his first exhibition in Bucharest, and afterwards to the most esteemed art galleries all over the world. You see him struggle with his recent fame and the awkwardness he feels when he, a formerly alcoholic Romanian bum that does not speak a word English, stands between the most fashionable art gallery visitors. A portrait of an amazingly charming and amusing artist. The final movie I saw of the festival and probably my favorite. Info and art: http://www.theworldaccordingtoionb.com

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam

The yearly IDFA festival is always around this time of the year, which is supposedly the world’s biggest documentary festival. It’s a pretty cool thing. There are so many documentaries running and so much extra stuff (debates, masterclasses, presentations etc), that it’s actually impossible to see everything even if you take 10 days off. The problem is that it is really hard to make a choice on what you actually want to see and some of the stuff you really want to see is quickly sold out. This time I actually booked tickets in advance and ended up seeing quite a lot of documentaries. I felt like shortly writing about the stuff I’ve seen:

The Red Chapel ***
I first went to see the Red Chapel, a Danish tv-serie turned into a movie, which is about a bunch of Danish comedians going to North Korea to play a comedy show and to make fun of the regime. As all stuff is censored (you got to hand in your cameras at night and then they delete the footage they don’t like before giving it back in the morning) and as the N-K regime is likely to have Danish interpreters, they took a Danish-Korean spastic with them as spastic Danish is probably impossible to comprehend for the North-Korean interpreters. In short, it’s a hilarious but also scary documentary. From time to time you burst out laughing while watching, at the same time North Korea is so unreal and frightening that it never gets really funny. The Danish documentary maker (/leader of the small group) constantly pushes for the limit, trying to find the footage that shows the evilness of the regime, and he is clearly uncomfortable at times, questioning his own consciousness; was it a good decision to come here? Am I not misusing the young spastic guy? Do I put people at risk? And those questions kind of remain unanswered when the docu finishes, I couldn’t help but wonder if this sort of documentary has consequences for the North-Korean woman who guided them during their stay.

Oil City Confidential ***
Documentary by Julian Temple about an old R&B band Dr Feelgood, who had some success in the UK charts in the 70s. I didn’t even know the band, it is seen as a sort of missing link towards the punk years (It inspired Joe Strummer to buy a guitar for example) and underrated in music history. Even while I didn’t know the band I kind of enjoyed it. Wilko Johnson is constantly being interviewed and he hyper-actively walks and jokes around all the time. Plus he’s even more amazing live as a guitar-player, watch this. After he and the singer couldn’t get along anymore he left and Dr Feelgood never really got popular anymore.

The Most Dangerous Man In America *****
The title refers to the words Henry Kissinger used to describe Daniel Ellsberg. I had never heard of the man and his story before, making the movie even more mindblowing for me. Daniel Ellsberg worked for the Pentagon as a military analyst during the Vietnam war, in 1971 he leaked a top-secret 7000 paper document about background and run-up of the Vietnam war to the NYT and to several other newspapers which showed how 5 succeeding US Presidents lied to the public and much more. After this he was declared public enemy nr 1, he was hiding in a hotel, even giving interviews to TV, while the FBI was looking for him. For 2 weeks the news broadcasts constantly opened with new tidbits of the story. Nixon was so mad he used his political power against Ellsberg personally, which also lead to the Watergate being discovered. It’s a fascinating story of a brave man, who spend the rest of his life as a peace-activist, but it also had a huge effect on the relation between the government and media. It’s well-structured, full of archival footage and makes a call for people in the government to leak revealing papers that might for example reveal the government deception about the Iraq and Afghanistan war (you could argue that the docu came out 6 years too late, something on which the documakers concurred in the Q&A afterwards), but the docu also makes an argument in favor of the anti-war protest-movements and the docu works kind of activating.

A hilarious, but scary, element of the documentary are the soundbites of President Nixon (as Nixon recorded everything between ‘ 71 and ‘ 73). It brilliantly shows the ‘other side’ of Ellsberg’s narrative, we hear Nixon and Kissinger madly talk about Ellsberg and the NYT. We also hear soundbites of Nixon suggesting to use nuclear weapons on North-Vietnam  and how he not gives a damn about civilians, with Kissinger being against that and diplomatically responding “I also do not care about civilians, sir, I just do not want the rest of the world… to think of you as some kind of butcher” and then Nixon “but Henry, we have to think big for-christ-sakes”. It’s rather mindblowing. Personally I do not believe in some Biblistic (or Star-Wars like) good and evil or any of that nonsense, which is why I’m always kind of amazed when real people make themselves look so much like real villains. In a weird way I’ve got mad-respect for people like Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney.

Sadly people like Kissinger and McNamara aren’t interviewed for the documentary, they were asked but rejected according to the makers in the Q&A.

The Yes Men Fix The World *****
I had heard of these two guys for the first time a year ago or so when I read about one of their pranks. I was a fan of it immediately, but somehow didn’t watch the previous Yes Men documentary (that is supposedly not so good as this one). These guys create fake websites of international organizations (as the WTO) and corporations (like DOW Chemical) and then get invited for conferences via these websites, there they show up and impersonate spokesmen and give a speech in which they tell the brutally honest truth (their truth) and pull off some hilarious stunts. It’s an original way of protesting against the big powers in our capitalist world.

I was a bit worried about the actual documentary, would it not get a bit boring and their pranks a bit childish? Thankfully it didn’t. I’ve seen them being described as the political alter-globalist version of Sacha Baron Cohen and I think it’s a good description. It’s probably the funniest documentary I’ve ever seen, I was entertained throughout the full 90 minutes. As for the political side, it’s not very deep or anything but it shortly explains the the economic neo-liberal ideology and takes aim at Milton Friedman and his followers (Milton Friedman as the guru of greed with his own cult in their words). Nothing new, but enough for people not acquainted with this critique to understand it and why the Yes Men do what they do. Especially funny is how they viciously ridicule the corporate-funded think-tanks spokesmen and tear apart their bullshit.

It also takes balls to do this. Not just standing there and giving a fake speech, but also the consequences when you’re busted. The big problem is whether you’re actually right, do you speak truth? I mean, corporations aren’t evil, the people who work for them are usually full of good intentions, so are the people organizing the conferences. It must be rather uncomfortable to come up and be so mean towards them. Is what you’re doing actually justified? That to me seems the hardest part of the whole thing. The pranks featured in the documentary however all made perfect sense to me, with the background info provided in the docu, they all seemed to be perfectly justified.

Anyway, it is a hilarious documentary. It works kind of activating, just like The Most Dangerous Man In America, with a positive portrayal of the protest movement and an ending with a call to action; if two guys can pull off all this there is no excuse to not take at least some action ourselves. It’s also a good introductory docu for for people not acquainted with the neo-liberal critique and the whole alter-globalist movement. When the movie ended people gave the longest ovation (with people standing) I’ve ever seen in a cinema and the Q&A with both Yes Men (one via web-cam) was also rather funny. It does seem the Yes Men are becoming ‘bigger’, they also spread sign-up lists for people to join and help out with their actions. I’m curious if they’ll be pulling off something at Copenhagen.

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country ****
Saw this movie after the Yes Men and it’s completely different. Not much jokes in this one. It’s a movie that was also at IDFA last year and mostly focuses around the mass demonstrations in autumn 2007, when the monks joined the protests and received international mass-media coverage. This is about the people who made the coverage possible; a Burmese organization that secretly video-tapes demonstrations and spreads them via satellite internet or smuggles them out of the country. And jesus christ, these guys are brave. Filming riot-police from a couple of meters distance, even filming the time their secret hide-out got busted and some of their members get arrested. Insane. I think the footage cannot leave anyone cold. The documentary also tells the story of the makers and their hopes when the monks joined the protests, Aung San Suu Kyi showed her face in public for the first time in years, and the country saw the biggest mass-demonstrations in Burma since 1988 when thousands of people got killed on the streets. It all ends badly and nothing has really changed so far. This movie probably leaves nobody cold.

The Shock Doctrine ***
Documentary on Naomi Klein’s best-selling book, which tells an alternative narrative on free-market economics of what happened in the world in the previous decades. I haven’t read the book, but I knew the argument it tries to make and was looking forward to the documentary. I didn’t really like the documentary, the American style voice-over annoys the hell out of me. It’s the same with those PBS documentaries; great stuff and freely available online with lots of info, but I just can’t stand the voice-over. The music is also overly dramatic from time to time. The footage however is interesting and so is the argument of course. The alternative narrative is convincing and quite ehm.. shocking; from Pinochet’s economic shock theory to Yeltsin to New Orleans to Iraq being sold out to private corporations and the army being increasingly privatized in Iraq. It’s interesting, the link between torture-shock treatments and the economic neo-liberal shocks seems a bit exaggerated to me though. While it’s not a good documentary, the mix of footage and lectures of Naomi Klein also feels a bit off, I guess it’s a good introduction to Naomi Klein’s argument for people who are too lazy to read the book.

Crude *****
Documentary about a lawsuit against Chevron for polluting the Ecuadorian Amazon, where kids swim and drink the water and where lots of people died of all sorts of diseases; the “Amazon Chernobyl”. It sounds like one of these many documentaries where against big corporations, you usually think you already know what is going to be the message before you start to watch, but this one is beautiful. It takes a rather objective approach in which both sides are interviewed, but after a while it’s for you as a viewer not hard to back up the young Ecuadorian lawyer that takes it up against the 5th biggest corporation of the world. It shows Chevron employees, like an environmental scientist, doing their work and seeming completely convinced that Chevron is doing the right thing, I couldn’t help but think that it shows how humans are capable of rationalizing the most horrible behavior.

To briefly explain, it’s a lawsuit against Texaco of over 20 years ago when they polluted the area there in order to cut down costs (Texaco merged with Chevron, so Chevron takes over the lawsuit). Texaco sold its stuff to PetroEcuador in the early 90s and basically bribed officials to get away with the behavior. The documentary is there at the right time as the case is opened up for field inspections in which the judge and attorneys of both sides move through the jungle to proceed the lawsuit. Everything is in it, the negatives of both sides are shown and the whole dubious system around these cases is explored. Chevron gets away with it by slowing things down in court while the Amazon continues to be polluted by the oil pools they’ve left behind, they have hundreds of millions in legal costs, but that’s nothing compared to the possible 28$bn fine. So they basically make use of their deep pockets and as long as they don’t have to pay they have more than enough interest on that 28$bn to cover the legal expenses. The other side however has lower legal expenses, but have still spend over 12$mln so far. They money they get is from a dubious sue-firm in the US that would get a big share of a possible ruling. This whole legal part is however not what could be really scary for Chevron, as the case is basically completely ignored by the corporate media and American public, what can however get really scary is when celebrities get involved like Sting’s wife who gets involved, starts speaking about the injustice in interviews and starts seriously hurting Chevron’s public image. It’s a sad world, although if you consider the fact that the most marginalized people of the world are now in a position to seriously hurt one of the world’s most powerful corporations you could say we’ve come a long way. Also interesting is how Chevron uses Web 2.0 for their propaganda on this case, they just started their own fucking youtube channel to explain how sympathetic Chevron is to the plight of the Ecuadorian citizens. I wonder if this new documentary has something to do with it…..

Anyway, highly recommended.

Eyes Wide Open **
The final movie I saw and probably the worst, although I still enjoyed watching it. It’s about a tour through Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Brazil; all countries that got new elected leaders that finally stand up for their own people, are able to stand up against American corporations and improve public health, education and other services. I’m very interested in what is going on there, how it’ll continue and it could very well be end up as some sort of model for the rest of the world. While I don’t live there and follow it all that closely, I got a lot of respect for people like Evo Morales and Rafael Correa. The latter is the president of Ecuador and also played a very positive role in the Crude documentary. So this documentary should be very interesting for me, but it was a bit disappointing. The maker doesn’t try to really assess the situation, but basically gives his own subjective one-sided narrative on the situation and interviews ‘unimportant’ people in all these countries, shows footage of the leaders and interviews Eduardo Galeano (the writer of the classic Open Veins in Latin-America, the book Hugo Chavez gave to Barack Obama). Some of the footage is really interesting, a highlight is seeing Diego Maradona and Chavez sharing the stage during an antisummit against G.W. Bush, in which they both jump around and sing together with the massive audience and tell Bush to fuck off.

The problem for me with the documentary is that it is completely uncritical towards for example Hugo Chavez, even while the maker himself said in the Q&A that there are indeed some serious problems. The maker claims it is his own narrative and that he does not attempt to be objective, that’s all fine for me, the problem with this completely uncritical narrative is that you do injustice to reality and basically make a propaganda movie in favor of people like Chavez. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Hugo Chavez is often also incorrectly portrayed in Western media. The man does a lot of good things there, the situation for the poor drastically improved; improved health care, education, housing, jobs etc etc. But the man is also rather dangerous and I’m afraid for increasing dictatorial tendencies in the future. I would’ve preffered a more objective assessment of what is going on, the interviews with ‘common people’ also seem a bit too much for me, it’s not always all that interesting.

ardo Galeano