Tag Archives: class war

La Zona (2007)

“When my son grows up , how will I explain why we live behind a wall?”

Transport a Shirley Jackson story to modern-day Mexico and you have La Zona, a 2007 film from director Rodrigo Plá. The film opens in the beautiful clean streets of an affluent community as neatly dressed, uniformed school children march off to a private school. The camera pans through the immaculate streets and across the enormous homes and well-manicured lawns. A veritable paradise? And then the camera pans to huge walls topped with barbed wire and security cameras. Beyond the walls we see a vast sea of poverty and squalor–dilapidated, ramshackle homes and mountains of trash. These opening scenes of this  affluent, secured housing are powerfully constructed and yet at the same time, nothing is overdone.

Those living inside La Zona appear to share common concerns and similar values, and they have the money to buy the sort of lifestyle they want in order to raise their children and live securely. La Zona is protected–not just by walls, barbed wire and security cameras–but also by a team of security officers led by Gerardo (Carlos Bardem). La Zona, set in Mexico City, screams segregation with the lucky few on one side of the wall with the much less fortunate on the other, and with such a striking contrast in material comfort within just a few feet, of course, the inevitable happens, and one night during a freak storm, a billboard collapses and three young men climb into La Zona to steal….

The next day, Comandate Rigoberto (Mario Zaragoza) arrives at the gates of La Zona after complaints of gunshots. His questions are met with disdain and an offer of “50 pesos” to away. Enraged and humiliated, Rigoberto is determined to continue the investigation–even though he gets signals to let it drop. As events play out, the residents of La Zona are defiant and in blatant violation of legal and moral law. Meanwhile Rigoberto ploughs ahead with his investigation even though he butts heads with his ‘superiors.’ 

The rest of the film concerns what happened the night of the break-in, but also, and much more significantly how the residents react. Following the break-in, rumours explode and paranoia reigns, and the servants of La Zona families are subject to extra scrutiny. One scene shows an ad-hoc posse of teenage boys within the gated community hunting for a crook. Armed with golf clubs and even a harpoon gun, the boys swarm over the beautiful golf course and into a wooded gully. There’s so much space, and again off in the distance, outside of the walls, we see a hillside crowded with shacks–no space, nothing green–just squalor and poverty. Holding special emergency committee meetings in which the majority rule, the more aggressive members of La Zona dominate over those who are ambivalent or unwilling to take a moral stand. Ultimately, we see a series of moral mis-steps with either people too weak to stand up and voice their opinion, or people barreled over in a system so corrupt that everything can be bought for a price.

One of the main characters is teenager Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), the film’s moral centre, and in one scene, Alejandro’s father, Daniel (Daniel Giménez Cacho) explains to his son why he chose to live in La Zona and how he lost his faith in the Mexican justice system. Exactly why Alejandro choses to defy his father (and his values) and stand apart from his peers is unclear. In spite of this slight flaw, the film works very well indeed, and the final result is a film that asks some important questions about the right to security, the ability of the rich and powerful to command special dispensations, and once those dispensations are granted, just how far should they extend?

Director Matt Ehling made a short documentary film a few years ago about gated communities called Forbidden City, and one of the points the film makes is that gated communities are a sign of “increasing polarisation” between the rich and the poor. Mexico has the largest number of gated communities in the world, and some, like La Zona, are completely autonomous with their own electricity and water systems. Crime will always be one major argument for gated communities. With kidnappings on the rise in Mexico, at least one company offers sub-dermal transmitter implantation. Wealthy families are, of course, targets, and so it’s probably logical that the wealthy band together and pool resources in order to establish a safe environment. (I’ll add here that it’s not just the wealthy who are kidnapped–I read one case of a child of a shepherd who was killed by injected bleach when his parents failed to come up with the ransom).  The plethora of gated communities springing up worldwide is a symptom of a malfunctioning society, the ever-expanding gaps between the very rich and the very poor,  and the failure of state mechanisms which are, in theory, supposed to provide protection. In La Zona, we see a group of wealthy people attempting to establish a utopian community–a community which is occupied by people with similar social positions, values and wealth. Having established the community they desire, they operate it with a manual of by-laws, and when a showdown occurs, they feel justified in exacting punishment. It’s at this point that some residents reject La Zona (in their evaluation, it’s no longer a utopian community), and others return happily to the established status quo.

La Zona is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s Foreign Film Festival.

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The Admirable Crichton aka Paradise Lagoon (1957)

The Admirable Crichton aka Paradise Lagoon from director Lewis Gilbert is a wonderful film which skewers the British class system, and if you’re a fan of classic British film, The Admirable Crichton most definitely deserves a look.

The film is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Suffragettes are on the march in England, and Lord Loam (Cecil Parker), the aristocrat who owns a lavish country estate has definite ideas about equality. He does, however, draw the line at the idea of equal rights for women. Lord Loam is a bit of an eccentric, and when the film begins, we see a typical day in the Loam household. The house is basically run by the butler, Crichton (Kenneth More), but he runs the place so smoothly and tactfully that Lord Loam is left with the illusion that he’s the one really in charge.

Lord Loam decides to put his notions of  class equality to the test by inviting (in reality ordering) all the domestic servants to participate in tea with the family members. This is an occasion of embarrassment and awkwardness for the servants, and disgruntlement for Lord Loam’s two daughters, Lady Mary (Sally Ann Howes) and her younger sister Lady Catherine (Mercy Haystead). Lady Mary is particularly annoyed by the forced social engagement with the servants as she is about to become engaged to the horribly snobbish and strait-laced Lord Brocklehurst (Peter Graves)–a man whose horribly domineering mother, Lady Brocklehurst (Martita Hunt) does not approve of equality on any level whatsoever. She believes that the ‘lower’ classes should be kept in their place and that to contemplate otherwise is a very dangerous thing. 

 The youngest daughter, Lady Agatha (Miranda Connell) goes to London to watch a suffragette march with her fiancé Ernest Wolley (Gerald Harper). She’s supposed to be there observing only, but she gets mixed up in the protest and causes a family scandal. As a result of this event, Lord Loam, at Crichton’s suggestion, takes his daughters and a few indispensable servants on a cruise aboard his yacht. Things go horribly wrong, however, when the yacht is caught in a storm….

The Admirable Crichton explores exactly what happens when rigid class rules are transposed to a desert island. One of the most important characters in the film is Tweeny (Diane Cilento)–Tweeny (which basically means that she is a maid who works [between] several floors) discovers that her currency soars when beauty and culinary skills are valued more than bloodlines.

This film is essentially a comedy about hypocrisy, and we see that Lord Loam may have ‘enlightened’ views about equality with his fellow man, but these are just intellectual ideas that he really has no intention of actually altering his his lifestyle for. The first notion of hypocrisy comes in the film when Lord Loam mouths his beliefs about equality with the servants but then refuses to countenance the notion that women are equal to men. While Lord Loam may experiment with a tentative tea which he controls in his own household, he is ill prepared for a full-scale upheaval. On the desert island, there are no innate privileges, and instead survival skills become the most valuable skills of all. Just what happens when members of the upper class are forced to cohabit with their servants makes for great entertainment.

One of the notions here is that the class system may be enforced legally and socially, but it is also absorbed by all those involved. Thus we see Crichton as the ultimate snob with the other servants and a pragmatist when it comes to realising his humble position.

The Admirable Crichton is based on a play by J.M. Barrie , and here Barrie creates a very different alternate world from the fantasy world he created with Peter Pan, but it’s a viable alternate world, nonetheless.

There are two other film versions of this play: We’re Not Dressing (1934) and Male and Female (1919).

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A Song of Innocence (2005)

“One day, they’ll be no more masters and servants.”

Set in nineteenth century France, A Song of Innocence (La Ravisseuse) begins with the arrival of a wet nurse to a large country mansion. The wet nurse, a young girl named Angele-Marie (Isild Le Besco) has left her baby boy behind in order to take the job as a wet nurse for the baby of a wealthy young couple, Charlotte (Emilie Dequenne) and her austere architect husband, Julien (Gregoire Colin). Angele-Marie has been selected from dozens of similarly lactating women, and she’s been chosen by Julien.

song of innocenceAngele-Marie is a good wet nurse, and she gets right to the task considered too “lowly” for her young mistress. While Angele-Marie nurses the baby and takes care of her morning, noon and night, Julien hopes that this will free up his wife for the bedroom once again. But with Julien distracted by work and refurbishing a new, splendid apartment in Paris, Charlotte forms a tentative relationship with Angele-Marie. At first the relationship forms as a sort of  “sisterhood.” The convent-raised Charlotte is shocked to discover that her wet nurse has a baby of her own who’s been farmed out somewhere else in the country while her mother earns a living by selling her breast milk. A less sexually naive woman wouldn’t need to have all this spelled out for her, but Charlotte is so innocent, she doesn’t seem to grasp that breast milk means that there was a baby somewhere….

The two young women do have a great deal in common, but while Angele-Marie considers her relationship with Charlotte to be friendship, Charlotte treats Angele-Marie like a pet, and dressing her up as a nursemaid, she becomes a sort of fashion accessory. Angele-Marie  loves to make up stories and she and Charlotte even engage in the occasional daydream, but Angele-Marie, as a peasant, can’t afford imagination.

Meanwhile Angele-Marie and Charlotte find some pleasure in each other’s company, but everyone else in the household is either threatened or annoyed about it. Leonce (Anemone), the housekeeper is jealous of the wet nurse’s relationship with the young mistress. After all, by becoming Charlotte’s pet, Angele-Marie is elevated over the other servants. Julien, sexually unsatisfied by his wife, begins sneaking around the house for glimpses of Angele-Marie’s breasts, but like a typically-repressed person, he begins to loathe the object of his lust. Even Julien and Charlotte’s bourgeois relatives are appalled by the wet nurse’s elevated position.

Flashbacks reveal exactly how Julien and the family doctor selected Angele-Marie for the wet nurse job. One scene depicts women baring their breasts to their potential employer and both the sexual aspects and the objectification of women is clear as the would-be wet nurses ply their wares like women on display in a brothel.

Set in 1877, A Song of Innocence contains shades of class discontent, mainly voiced by the servants who after all must still remember the debacle of the 1871 Paris Commune. During the late 18th century in France, it was the ‘done’ thing for a bourgeois family to employ a wet nurse for the exclusive use of their baby while the wet nurse’s baby was fostered out to face certain death in the country. Peasant wet nurses were known to nurse up to five babies at a time for a pittance, and the morality rate was not good. Scenes with Julien and the doctor acknowledge the attitude that it’s a very reasonable thing for them to ‘rent’ Angele-Marie while condemning her baby to certain death. Of course, this attitude simply reinforces the societal hierarchy of one bourgeois baby being equal to an infinite number of peasant babies.

Angele-Marie and Charlotte’s friendship at first seems to be based in sisterhood and the commonalities they share as women viewed by society as the chattels of men, but any notion of sisterhood is eventually overridden by the powerful pull of class loyalties. The film includes some clever camera shots that emphasize Julien’s growing sexual obsession with Angele-Marie, and an aura of mystery and impending dread runs through the film. From director Antoine Santana.

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The Navigators (2001)

 “Unfortunately, the days of a job for life are gone.”

In The Navigators, director Ken Loach explores the collapse and privatization of British Rail through the personal lives of a handful of workers.It’s Britain in 1995, and the workers at a British Rail station in South Yorkshire are informed that British Rail is dead and gone, and that they now work for East Midlands Infrastructure. A manager tells the men that work is no longer guaranteed, but instead the company must compete to “win contracts.” Apparently, “just doing the job is not good enough.” Some of the workers decide to take a lump sum severance pay and retire. Other workers decide to stay on imagining that sticking with the new company will guarantee security. Most of the men have spent their entire working lives employed by British Rail, and they can’t imagine doing anything else. Plus the fact that there’s a different name on the sign doesn’t really mean that much to them. As far as they are concerned, life goes on as usual.

navigators1Unfortunately over time, the men who remain with the new company learn that things have indeed changed, and the good old days are long gone. Some of the men, fed up with the new management changes at East Midland (which is promptly bought out heralding yet another change of ownership) work as independent contractors for the new rail system companies. At first, the wages sound good, but the men learn that they no longer have 40 hours a week guaranteed. Instead they are called in for piecework when and if they are needed. There’s no more pension, no more holiday pay, no more sick pay. Those lucrative-sounding wages shrink quickly when measured against the steady employment of the past.

 

The workers learn that shrinking wages are not the only thing they face. Competing for contracts whittles manpower down to hazardous work conditions, and woe betide the worker who tries to speak out. Ken Loach’s characters just aren’t types here. We see how the privatization of British Rail alters the lives of the families who depended on those jobs. Comfortable lives shrink down to hand-to-mouth existences as families struggle to make their bills. And ultimately workers are reduced to the lowest common denominator–demeaning work where they are underpaid units of production. One of the best scenes in the film takes place when former British Rail employees share a job site with a couple of inexperienced men who’ve driven all the way from London to make a day’s wage. This is a sobering reality for the former British Rail workers as they are brought face-to-face with the shrinkage of their value as experienced workers.
 

 

 

 The British railway system was nationalized in 1948, but privatized in stages during the years 1994-1997. This privatization occurred during the conservative government of John Majors, and it was just a continuation of Thatcher’s privatization of publicly owned utilities. And lest you imagine that privatization of the rail system stopped government subsidies (i.e. the privatized system is more efficient, blah blah) think again. Before privatization, subsidies to British Rail were around 1 billion pounds a year. After privatization, it was thought that 1.8 billion pounds a year would cover it (with this amount to decline 2-3 million pounds a year). In 2006, the total subsidy to the private companies that now run the former British Rail reached 6.3 BILLION POUNDS. Will the Royal Mail be next?

 
 
 

 

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A Propos de Nice (1930)

Jean Vigo’s first film A Propos de Nice begins with a blast of fireworks and then an aerial view of Nice. Made in 1930, it’s a subtly subversive silent film about 25 minutes long. Vigo’s camera moves very quickly as it captures various sights of this resort city maintained for the leisure time of the filthy rich. The film gives the impression that it captures a day at Nice beginning in the wee hours as various working class people prepare the holiday areas for the wealthy, and ending as dusk begins to arrive. We see waiters cleaning tables, street sweepers cleaning the streets, and then the wealthy begin to sally forth. The beribboned dogs of the wealthy taken for a walk along the promenade are in contrast to the shots of the cat sitting in a gutter full of rubbish. 

A Propos de Nice is a very clever film, and Vigo manages to make some strong statements with his camera somehow revealing the revolting superficial layers of a sick society full of stark contrasts. First there’s a stark contrast between the wealthy and the working class. We see women scrubbing clothing while the rich are at play. While some rich visitors lounge in deck chairs, others are dedicated to various pursuits such as tennis, and bowls, and yachts glide gracefully in the harbour as their white sails pick up the breeze. Still other members of the wealthy set zoom around in racecars, or alight from their chauffeur driven cars, decked in furs. These shots are in contrast to the glimpses of the working class, boys that play hand games, and one impoverished boy who appears to have a diseased face. 

Another emphasis in the film is the frivolity on hand. Some of the shots record a carnival as festive floats make their way through the streets of Nice. While these floats are supposed to be attractive, Vigo includes some grotesque shots and also captures the almost desperate gaiety of a handful of dancing girls. Another point Vigo makes is the transitory nature of life. At one point a shoe shiner polishes a shoe of one of his customers, but the shoe disappears. Another man lounging in a deck chair appears to burn to death under the rays of the sun. Another shot shows a man sporting a chest full of medals, and then we see a graveyard…. 

 

 

Vigo’s camera shows the viewer that there are two faces of Nice. One side of Nice is experienced by the privileged and the wealthy, whereas the other side—the real side of Nice—is experienced and endured by those who remain in poverty, serving their “masters.”

 

 

 

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The Take (2004)

 “Occupy. Resist. Produce.”

takeThe documentary The Take examines the fallout of the 2001 Argentine economic crisis with a focus on unemployed factory workers. There’s solid background here–the IMF’s role in the crisis, $40 billion cash exiting the country overnight, and President Menem’s decision to close the banks. When Argentineans discovered that they could not withdraw their hard-earned savings from the banks–and that foreign loans were paid with their money, understandably people were more than a bit P.O’d. There’s some great footage conveying the rage of the people as they storm the banks and lay siege to institutions in which Argentineans had placed their trust.

The fallout from the economic collapse was devastating. Factories closed–and bosses simply vanished overnight–leaving thousands of unpaid workers in the dust. Without work, and no hope of getting employment, workers spontaneously formed cooperatives and “reclaimed” (occupied) workplaces. Previously abandoned workplaces became productive once again, and this raises several ethical and legal questions. In the middle of this controversy, director Avi Lewis and writer Naomi Klein follow the stories of several of those workplaces including some of the more famous names–Zanon Ceramics and the one that started it all–the Brukman Suit factory–now a collective of 58 seamstresses.

Included here are many interviews with various workers as they attempt to seek the legal right to occupy–and work in–the factories. I’m not sure that the film made it perfectly clear that these workplaces were occupied by employees who were owed back wages, and consequently this gave them the ‘right’ for legal redress. The film also covers the critical issues collective members must face, and the Menem vs. Kirchner political campaign. Menem’s “Messianic” comeback marketing campaign is almost funny when one considers exactly what really took place in Argentina under his watch, but then politicians are particularly practiced at denying reality. One of the most interesting–and unexpected–elements to the film is that many Argentineans apparently look back to Peron’s rule as the golden age of Argentine. That’s sad, but I suppose this is a relative evil approach. Many of those interviewed, however, express intense distrust and dislike of all politicians, and this has led to a refusal to participate in elections–for participation is seen as tacit endorsement of a corrupt system. There’s also some great footage here of the riots that took place as the Argentineans expressed their absolute fury and disgust for their government. Excellent stuff, and if you enjoy this film, I also recommend the book Horizontalism edited and translated by Marina Sitrin.

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Life and Debt (2001)

“Anything that led to the more self-reliance was discouraged.”

Jamaica is touted as a glorious, relaxing exotic holiday destination–a veritable paradise on earth, but the documentary Life and Debt takes a look at the devastating effects of globalization on the economy of Jamaica, and paints a different picture. According to the film, thanks to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The World Band and ‘Free’ Trade, Jamaica’s agriculture and industry are virtually destroyed.

Jamaica was once one of the many jewels of the British Empire, but when Britain dropped Jamaica from its colonialist agenda and Jamaica became politically independent, a struggle for financial health began. Burdened with debt, Jamaica’s politicians approached the IMF for a loan, and a loan they got–along with a whooping 25% interest, and some stringent rules and regulations about ‘Free’ Trade. The agreement–in essence–stripped Jamaica of the right to regulate trade or tax imports. That may not sound particularly devastating, but the film shows the results, and argues Jamaican industries were “targeted for infiltration and destruction.”

Jamaica is a terribly poor country, but in spite of this fact, we see dairy farmers pouring 100s of gallons of perfectly good milk down the drain as there is no one to buy it. Jamaican milk is now–thanks to ‘Free’ Trade–more expensive than imported American subsidized dry milk. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the Jamaican banana industry is being squashed, agriculture is dying, and slowly but surely, Jamaica is becoming MORE dependent on imports and LESS able to produce their own products. It’s a bit bizarre to see this beautiful island with its gorgeous climate not able to produce a substantial portion of its own food.

And if that’s not ugly enough, then there’s Kingston’s “Free Zone”–a geographical area that’s set up for foreign businesses–well, sweat shops really, factories in which poor Jamaicans may or may not get paid, their cheques–if they ever get them–will be looted for false taxes and tariffs–and meanwhile the global multinationals who make huge profits aren’t subject to Jamaica’s taxes because the “Free Zone” isn’t actually seen as part of Jamaica. To top it off, if the workers go on strike or protest, Chinese workers are shipped in and the Jamaicans are sacked.

The film’s voice-over written by Jamaica Kincaid is mainly directed towards Jamaica’s many tourists: “You see natives. You marvel at the things they can do with their hair.” There’s more than an edge of blame and guilt directed at the tourists who visit Jamaica, and have a great time–or so it seems from all the beer drinking, dances and eating contests we see the tourists engage in–seemingly oblivious to the squalor and poverty-stricken life of the average Jamaican. The tourists don’t exactly come off well in the film, and the voice-over’s note of accusatory blame creates a bitter edge to the film. I, for one, have never been to Jamaica, and never intended to go–even before seeing the documentary’s explanation of the untreated sewage that bilges into that beautiful blue and aqua ocean.

It’s unfortunate that the film didn’t include more information on the tourist industry. It would be interesting to know where all that money goes and who benefits. There are some juicy interviews with Stanley Fischer from the IMF, Michael Manley, the former president of Jamaica, and even a clip from Bill Clinton as he delivers the coup de grace on Jamaica’s banana industry. As one worker sadly but sagely notes, “Chiquita and Dole” dominate “95% of the world’s banana crop” but they apparently want it all. And the end result is an economy with “no national food security.” The film, directed by Stephanie Black, strongly argues that Globalization has finally achieved a plantation culture and economy that the American pre-Civil War South would have envied. If you’re interested in the subject of Jamaica’s banana industry, I recommend the book Banana Wars: The Price of Free Trade by Gordon Myers.

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