Tag Archives: guerillas

Bolivar Is Me (2002)

“He’s woven a dangerous thread between fiction and reality.”

Jorge Alí Triana’s Columbian film Bolívar Is Me (Bolívar Soy Yo!) is ostensibly a comedy that looks at exactly what happens when an actor loses his grip on reality. But under the surface of the film’s humour, there’s a serious political satire with a message about the inevitable demise of idealism within the political structure.

When the film begins, popular telenovela actor Santiago Miranda (Robinson Díaz) who is playing the role of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador in the television series The Loves of the Liberator, prepares for the concluding scene by reading Don Quixote. In real life, Bolívar died in bed from TB (although theories have recently floated that he was poisoned). The producer doesn’t think this sort of ending helps the ratings, and so the series has been rewritten to show Bolívar executed by firing squad. Everyone on the set is aware the Miranda has become a little too involved with his role, and even his real-life lover, Alejandra (Amparo Grisales) who plays Bolívar’s lover, Manuelita in the series can’t tell if Santiago loves her or the role she plays. Consequently Alejandro has dumped Santiago during the filming of the series and he’s suffered a breakdown. Today, Santiago, who in his role of Bolívar, is about to face the firing squad and the end of the show, goes berserk and storms off the set. He argues that since the show has re-written history to suit the ratings, there’s no reason why he can’t rewrite history too, and so in full dress uniform, he escapes to the airport and heads for Bogata. The director (Santiago Bejarano) and a psychiatrist (Gustavo Angarita), in hot pursuit of Santiago, intend to put the troubled actor into a strait jacket, lock him up and control his behaviour with medication: “something like a lobotomy but with drugs.” Alejandra believes that Santiago is so out of touch with reality that only she–as Manuelita–Bolívar’s trusted lover who once saved him from an assassination attempt–can bring him back safely. She’s told to avoid using the words “no,” and “death,” and so in a strangely twisted reality-mirrors-fiction way, she heads out to save Santiago.

Santiago’s misadventures are really very funny. Since he’s an actor, people accept that he’s stepping into a role, and it seems perfectly normal for him to show up at the President’s office in costume or riding on his horse, Paloma. He’s the star at a National Independence day parade, but the problems begin when Santiago opens his mouth at an important political summit meeting and begins talking about Bolívar’s  Gran Columbia–the countries Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, and Bolivia, united.

Since the historical figure of Bolívar is symbolic, various factions want to co-opt his popular image. First the government wants to harness Santiago’s mass appeal–both as a telenovella actor and also as the symbol of Bolívar, but once Santiago breaks out into the countryside, guerillas, the Simon Bolívar Bolcehevique Front/Simon Bolívar Popular Revolutionary Army also see the value of this modern-day Bolívar.

Bolivar is Me is really a clever film. On one level, it’s about an actor who loses touch with reality and becomes his role. That’s the funny part, but it’s also the story of a man who has an ethical problem with playing a character whose historic mission has been co-opted, re-written and diluted into meaningless. We never quite know whether or not Santiago is completely off his rocker or whether he’s fully or partially aware that he isn’t Bolívar. In several speeches, Santiago lays out his discontent with the political system and his annoyance at the way Bolívar’s name has been used to decorate various shabby buildings. Santiago says that Quixote is “man as he should be,” and yet at the same time he states that “the three greatest dummies in history have been Jesus Christ, Don Quixote, and me.” Of course, at this point, Santiago appears to be speaking of himself as Bolívar.

One of the cleverest aspects of the film is the way it shows how casually history is rewritten until the truth is obscured by time, myth, and political expediency. Santiago is appalled to see what Bolívar has become:

Now I understand what a symbol is–to be a statue of bronze so that pigeons can shit on you.

The film also shows real footage of the M-19 Palace of Justice siege on 6th of November, 1985–an incident in which M-19 Guerillas (19th of April Movement) took over the building and held hundreds hostage. There are various versions about what happened, so who knows what the truth is anymore.  The 19th of April Movement removed Bolívar’s sword from a museum, and in Bolívar Is Me, we see the guerillas returning the sword to Santiago. By the film’s conclusion, we see the Society of the Spectacle–authentic life replaced with its representation. According to Guy Debord:  

“The Spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

And by the film’s conclusion, it’s easy to see that history is about to be rewritten again….

Bolivar is Me is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

Some of the scenes take place at the Quinta de Bolívar Museum.

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Salvador (1986)

 “It’s like Baltimore, or something.”

Salvador, from director Oliver Stone, takes a look at the war in El Salvador during 1980-1981 through the eyes of a renegade photographer. The film, critical of American support of the right wing Revolutionary Government Junta and its death squads illustrates the country’s messy political, domestic and military situation. The result is a hodge podge blend of spot-on political acuity mixed with the usual ridiculous Hollywoodisms (yes, I made up the word, but it fits).

salvadorWhen dumped by his wife in San Francisco, seasoned war photographer Richard Boyle (James Woods) decides to head for the war action in El Salvador, and he takes along DJ Doctor Rock (James Belushi) mainly for the use of his car. Doctor Rock thinks they’re heading for a resort, and he’s shocked when they arrive in El Salvador. A few minutes inside the border confirm Rock’s worst fears about the country.

Boyle’s other motive for returning to El Salvador, as it turns out, is to rescue a young El Salvadorian woman, Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) and her baby. As events in El Salvador spiral out of control, Boyle and Maria’s escape becomes problematic. This is complicated by Boyle’s adversarial relationship with right wing military leader Major Max, and Boyle’s intentions to capture some photographic evidence of the massacres taking place in the country.

The film does a good job of illustrating events as they unfold–the murder of Archbishop Romero, the rape and murder of three young nuns and a popular lay worker, and the fact that America is stirring a very ugly conflict. While American “Advisors” hang out in a lush resort hotel and largely avoid the realities of what is taking place, the countryside is littered with rotting human carcasses. The massacre of civilians is blamed on left-wing death squads, but Boyle quickly realizes that the country is in the hands of a right wing government who are slaughtering thousands and trying to stick the blame on the FMLN guerillas. The film also illustrates, quite well, American paranoia when it comes to excusing involvement in El Salvador in order to head off ludicrous fears regarding Castro’s supposed intentions to invade America. There’s one excellent scene in which Boyle faces off some fellow Americans. He’s disliked because he’s a leftie, and he tries, valiantly, to explain his moral problem with America’s involvement and support of the murderous right wing: “I’m left wing, but I’m not a communist. You guys never seem to be able to tell the difference.”

The film however, slides into absurd Hollywoodisms. For a start, just on a plot level, since when did Boyle suddenly decide that Maria was the love of his life? According to the film she didn’t seem to exist until Boyle’s wife leaves him, and then it suddenly becomes an imperative to travel down to El Salvador. Furthermore the film continually perpetuates stereotypes by trivializing, idealizing and simplifying. The trivializing images: The villains of the piece (Major Max and a few crass American officials) are simply stock characters–not real people. There are the idealized images: Maria–who incidentally lives in a hut on the beach–is portrayed as fancifully swinging naked in a hammock with Boyle, allowing herself to be photographed by her brother. The simplified images: Boyle is periodically portrayed as some sort of American action hero–a most unfortunate tendency that is repeated ad nauseam in Hollywood films. Salvador is a film that is supposedly outside of the mainstream, and yet it continually projects innate American superiority in the film’s images. So, it’s a mixed bag–some good–some bad.

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Filed under (Anti) War, Political/social films

Burn (1969)

 “The guerilla fights for an idea.”

burnBURN director Gillo Pontecorvo’s scathing critique of colonialism is set against backdrop of the exploitative sugar trade of the 19th century. If you get over the problem of Marlon Brando playing a blond Englishman with a terrible accent, then this really is a marvelous film. To Brando’s credit, this was the film he was the proudest of in his long career.

The story is set in the 19th century, and begins when Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) is sent by the British government to a small Caribbean island. The Portuguese, who now run the island, slaughtered the native Indian population and then imported slaves from Africa. The slaves work the lucrative sugar plantations, and the British seek to usurp the Portuguese as masters of the sugar trade.

When Walker, the British government’s agent arrives, a slave revolt is brutally squashed and its leader garroted. Walker was supposed to fuel this revolt and ensure its successful conclusion, so he casts around for a new rebel leader, seeking someone who has “nothing to lose.” Walker finds what he’s looking for in charismatic slave Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez). By persuading Dolores to rob the Bank of the Holy Spirit, Walker manipulates circumstances in which the slaves must defend themselves against reprisals. Walker supplies arms, and soon a slave revolt takes place.

This is a volatile period for those on the island. The sugar is rotting in the plantation fields, and somehow, the black slaves must be persuaded to stop the uprising, and get back to work accepting the yoke once more under the guise of employment. Walker is all too aware of Haiti as an example of a revolution “carried to [their] extreme consequences.” It may be useful to ignite a revolution, but it’s harder to stop it once it’s already in motion. One great scene depicts Delores–now a self-appointed general of the revolution as he enters a huge mansion to negotiate with the whites. The mansion is manned with black footmen, complete with powdered wigs. The slaves are ‘freed’ and the British take over the sugar trade on the island. But, of course, the slaves aren’t really free; they’ve just exchanged masters.

One scene depicts Walker advising the local landowners on the merits of paying the former slaves for work, and he compares the situation of owning slaves vs. paying plantation workers to maintaining a wife vs. paying a prostitute for an hour. He asks “which do you prefer? Or should I say which do you find more convenient? A wife or one of these mulatto girls?” Then he proceeds to lecture about the salient characteristics of each situation based on economic factors: “what is the cost of the product? What does the product yield?” And in this manner, he breaks down human beings into units of production. It’s all simply a matter of economics for him.

The film analyzes the nature of freedom and empire through the slave revolts. Both the Portuguese and the British fail to grasp the notion that: “If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something that you must take.” As Delores says: “If a man works for another, even if he’s called a worker, he remains a slave. And it will always be the same since there are those who own the plantations and those who own the machete to cut cane of the owners.” Delores grasps the fact that the whites need black labour: “they may know how to sell sugar, but we are the ones who know how to cut the cane.” Soon, the Royal Sugar Company has exclusive “rights of exploitation” and this ‘right’ effectively controls the island’s entire economy. Thus corporations run politics and people are no more than troublesome commodities.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is the relationship between Walker and Delores. To Walker, achieving his goals is sport. This is not an emotional campaign for him, and he approaches his goals unemotionally, logically, and with a dispassionate analysis. To the wealthy white landowners he says that they will defeat Delores “not because we’re better than he is or that we’re braver than he is, but simply because we have more arms and more men than he has.”

The film feels a little cheesy at first. Many of the actors are dubbed in English, so the result is poor. However, if you loved The Battle of Algiers, Burn is an excellent companion piece. By the half way point, it’s clear that we are privy to something truly extraordinary, for the story expands and presents some great universal truths through the difficult relationship between Walker and Delores.

Walker is a wonderfully amoral character–he could have sprung right from a Conrad novel, but there are also shades of Graham Greene here. He makes friends with the slave population, but he only uses them to achieve his goal, and he’s not interested in their fate beyond that. The film portrays, quite brilliantly, the nature of a guerilla uprising and the continuation of the revolutionary flame. Walker seems all too aware of the danger of a popular uprising, when he cautions the white rulers “the guerilla has nothing to lose.” And that in killing a hero of the people, the hero “becomes a martyr, and the martyr becomes a myth. A myth is more dangerous than a man because you can’t kill a myth.” Similarly, “a hero who betrays is soon forgotten.”

Some of the best scenes take place as Walker ponders moral questions. There is much to be learned from this film concerning warfare, empire, and human nature, and developing a conscience can be hazardous to one’s health when dealing with corporations, empires and colonialism. For as Walker says “that’s the nature of Profit. One builds to make money, and to go on making it, to make more, sometimes it’s necessary to destroy. Yes, I think perhaps it’s inevitable.” Burn is a great political film with a memorable musical score from Ennio Morricone.

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Filed under Political/social films, Pontecorvo

Silencio Roto (2001)

“Strangers fight for a short time–families for a lifetime.”

The Spanish film, Silencio Roto begins in 1944 when Lucia (Lucia Jimenez) arrives in a remote mountainous village. Lucia left the village as a child, and she’s returning to work in her aunt and uncle’s bar. Franco now rules Spain, but the village is a hotbed of activity by the Maquis–Republican guerillas in the mountains who continue to fight after the collapse of the Spanish Civil War.

Soldiers garrisoned at the village maintain a tight atmosphere of fear over the residents. Soldiers publicly humiliate villagers, and relatives of known guerillas are ordered to the garrison for sessions of questioning and torture. In spite of the fact that the villagers, are in many ways kept hostage by the army presence, some of them still find time to aid the rebels. Lucia forms a relationship with the young blacksmith, Manuel (Juan Diego Botto) until he too is forced to take to the mountains and hide out with the guerillas.

As rebel activity increases, reprisals against the villagers occur in the form of crackdowns and punishments. With informers everywhere, it soon becomes impossible for anyone to remain neutral, and Lucia’s involvement with the guerillas becomes increasingly dangerous.

Silencio Roto is highly romantic–and the fate of these star-crossed lovers–Lucia and Manuel is set against the national discord in Spain. The film illustrates that the Spanish Civil War–although conveniently forgotten by the rest of the world–still raged in parts of Spain long after the end of WWII. The film examines the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and the point is made that it just wasn’t possible to lay down one’s arms and return home. The length of the conflict ensured the involvement of several generations of family members, and this idea is well conveyed in this sad, and yet beautiful film. From the Basque director Montxo Armendaria, the film is in Spanish with English subtitles, and it joins the growing ranks of Spanish films that are now announce and examine the atrocities of Franco’s Spain.

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La Sierra (2005)

Left, right and caught in the middle.

In the documentary La Sierra filmmakers Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez travel to Medellin, Colombia to record the lives of several of those connected to the violent turf wars taking place in one poverty-stricken barrio. In a civil conflict that has left over 30,000 people dead, a battle rages between left-wing guerrillas, the government and right-wing paramilitary groups. The town of La Sierra is divided between left wing guerillas and right wing paramilitaries. Neighbourhoods on the boundaries become battlegrounds as each side fights for control. The film concentrates on the lives of three young people who are connected to the right-wing paramilitary groups in La Sierra.

The three young people are: Edison, 22 who’s the paramilitary leader, 19-year-old Jesus–one of Edison’s followers, and 17-year-old Cielo whose brother and father were murdered by left-wing guerillas. Edison is the first to admit that there’s a certain glory to being a paramilitary leader, and he enjoys the status of some sort of rock star with the local girls, racking up lovers and leaving a trail of babies in his wake. Jesus, who lost a hand while making a grenade, doesn’t share Edison’s status, and there’s a sense of fatalism when he talks about the future. While he’d like to see his son grow up, the chances seem slim that this will happen. Cielo, who at 17 is a widow and a mother, scrambles to make a living so that she can visit her boyfriend in jail.

The filmmakers record events as Edison, Jesus, and Cielo navigate their way through police raids, gun battles, and death. The viewer should be warned that there are a couple of very graphic scenes–obviously this goes with the territory. Edison’s followers casually walk through the streets, openly carrying and shooting guns. The police occasionally raid La Sierra, but lookouts alert paramilitary forces, so that they have time to hide. Edison sees the police as thoroughly corrupt–people who “sell themselves to the highest bidder.” Meanwhile the older residents of the town express a range of feelings about the paramilitaries. One older man observes “we are in the hands of kids with guns,” while one woman expresses gratitude for the security the paramilitaries provide. As a social commentary, the film makes an excellent point regarding the global meltdown of society for the poor and disenfranchised.

One of the lingering questions I have about the film is where does the money come from? Edison and his followers have weapons, cell phones, walkie-talkies, and he even has a motorbike (not to mention the ample flow of white substance that disappears up nostrils). These material possessions stick out in the midst of the crushing poverty of the barrio. It’s not clear where the goodies come from, but the implication is that the narcotics trade funds these activities. But apart from that question, La Sierra provides some amazing footage, and the filmmakers really took some risks to create this film. In Spanish with subtitles.

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The Brooklyn Connection: How to Build a Guerilla Army (2005)

“When you sell a weapon, you don’t know where it’s going to.”

The Brooklyn Connection: How to Build a Guerrilla Army directed by Klaartje Quirijins and based on the book Be Not Afraid, For You Have Sons in America by Stacy Sullivan examines exactly how Brooklyn roofing contractor, Albanian immigrant Florin Krasniqi manages to arm a guerrilla army in Kosovo. This short documentary is surprisingly powerful, and without being heavy-handed, it manages to make a strong statement on several issues–including gun control, the situation on Kosovo, and by extension, the viability of peacekeeping attempts in a society with intricate extended tribal loyalties.

The film begins with an overview of the political situation in the region noting that while the political future of Kosovo is decided, a substantial NATO peacekeeping force remains in Kosovo to ensure further ethnic violence does not occur. Then the film moves to a scene which shows Florin in Albania unloading weapons out of the back of his vehicle. Florin, married with children, and the owner/operator of a successful roofing business says that he became committed to the effort to supply arms to the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) after his cousin was killed while attacking a Serb police station. Florin has a video of the funeral and visits his cousin’s grave whenever he returns to Albania.

So how does Florin–who’s just a regular person–not an arms-dealer–manage to snap up enough weapons to supply a guerrilla army? Well, according to him, it’s rather simple. The film shows Florin buying weapons at various locations–huge warehouses and small gun shops. In one of the best scenes in the film, Florin tells a gun shop owner that he needs a huge 50mm gun for “elephant hunting.” It’s clear the gun shop owner doesn’t believe a word of it, but this is a system where questions may be asked, and tongue-in-cheek answers are acceptable. Florin also explains the logistics of flying with weapons. At one point, he takes a commercial flight with this HUGE gun in tow, and at another point, he explains matter-of-factly that once he had so many weapons, he just rented a plane and flew over to Albania with his cargo. And according to Florin, buying enough weapons to arm a small guerrilla army is a piece of cake. If you want a particular weapon: “You can order it over the internet and have it shipped to your home.”

At several points the filmmaker intercedes to ask why Florin has this mission, whether or not he has killed, and the morality of his actions. Florin explains that he feels morally connected to the fate of Albanian people–“Family extends to clan, and clan extends to tribe.” While the film doesn’t dig into where the 30 million dollars for these weapons comes from, there’s an implication that funds are raised in the large, clannish ex-pat community. One scene depicts Florin on a roofing job, and he introduces his workers–Albanians, former soldiers, some with wounds and scars and some with prosthetic limbs.

The film includes clips of a fundraiser for John Kerry, and we see Florin writing a $1,000 cheque towards Kerry’s election campaign while he rubs shoulders with Richard Holbrooke and Wesley Clark. There are also several interviews with NATO personnel who explain their mission–and its difficulties–in Kosovo. At 57 minutes, the documentary is short. However, there are quite a few worthwhile extras: deleted scenes, a filmmaker biography, a filmmaker interview, and an update on Florin Krasniqi. Amazing stuff.

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