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November 30, 2011

A movie on trade union emotions (on a strike day)

I am back to the UK, just in time for today's national strike in defence of pension entitlements (I was at the big rally in Birmingham), which makes it the appropriate day to review a movie I saw last week in Paris. The economic crisis has already been the opportunity for a few good movies, documentaries and not, but this is the first, to my knowledge, with a trade unionist as hero.

Michel, a grandfather in his fifties, is a CGT délégué syndical in Marseille docks, a romantic speaker who likes to quote Jaurés and speak at length. The limits of his working class solidarity ideals are put to the test twice when the crisis hits, and he negotiates a redundancy deal. First, when the names of the twenty redundant workers are to be drawn, should he add his own name in the draw, despite being protected from dismissal on the ground of his union function? He does, and he draws his own name, landing into unemployment. But the bigger test comes when he and his wife are violently burgled – the thieves are after the collection made for them by work colleagues, which would have made their life dream possible, a holiday at the Kilimandjaro (Les neiges du Kilimandjaro is a 1970s French pop song). Michel discovers soon that the burglar is a young workmate, made himself redundant, only carer of his two younger siblings. Should he tell the police? Or would that make him a petit bourgeois and a class traitor?

The movie is beautifully acted and is carefully directed by Robert Guédiguian, who knows Marseille intimately. He may not know, or pretend not to know, the French social system equally well: the draw as a system to select redundant workers is unheard of; social benefits do not work that way in France, not to speak of the care system for children. But it does not matter: I have to accept that this is not a movie on the regulation of employment relations, but a movie on trade union emotions. The inspiration of it is not a real story, but a poem by Victor Hugo, Les pauvres gens.

As researchers we often forget the poetry of unionism and its emotional side. There are some exceptions, like a few studies on solidarity (e.g. Rick Fantasia) and the studies of the ‘politics of anger’ (see the excellent analysis of Solidarity by David Ost). Indeed, today in Birmingham anger was the dominant feeling: how else to react when pensions of cleaners, nurses and teachers are cut, while bankers’ bonuses taxes are removed and business jets taxes postponed? But I would say that an increasingly broader range of emotions are at play nowadays. In fact, the social movement of 2011 in the western world, the one I had witnessed emerging in Madrid, is even defined by a feeling: indignation. Indignation is different from anger: it is not a reaction to a personal affront, but (according to Spinoza’s Ethics) ‘hatred towards one that has injured the other’ (not me!). It is a disinterested feeling, not easily explainable rationally, as in the case of 93-year old Stéphane Hessel.

The movie by Guédiguain is a poetic and touching portrayal of a whole range of emotions that affect a worker's and a unionist’s life. At times it reminds even of Ladri di biciclette. Maybe a bit sentimentalist: le Monde has written that the grace of Guédiguian's cinema is 'tirer de la fracture du monde ouvrier un outil qui fracture le cœur des bourgeois'. But there is art in this way of breaking middle class hearts with the broken working class. The movie won this year’s edition of the LUX prize, on which I commented last year and which is one of the few things the EU does well right now.


November 27, 2011

Westwind: on two Germanies, twentytwo years later

Movie image
Title:
Westwind
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

I saw this beautiful German film in Paris, at the opening of the German film festival, which requires two preliminary notes.

Paris, while having a very strong (not necessarily positive) self-identity, has more open eyes on the rest of the world than any other city. Berlin is more European, but with very little attention to other continents. London may be more cosmopolitan, but you struggle to find any movie, books or music that is not Angloamerican.

In Paris, they are everywhere. Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Théatre d’Europe at the Odéon, with a rotating direction by different directors from different countries (the first was the unforgettable Milanese Giorgio Strehler). At the Odéon, a beautiful monument that was occupied for years after 1968, and which by the way is just out of my window, two years ago I saw an exhilarating German Swiss Hamlet directed by Mathias Langhoff, half in French and half in English, and this year I saw a reading of Toni Negri’s last play, Prometeo (a rant on alienation and multitude, as you would expect, but at least with some humour). Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Bouffes du Nord, directed for decades by Peter Brook (he just left and I was lucky to see a few of his shows recently) in an amazing essential setting and offering the most universally cosmopolitan programs. Some of this may be due to the large expatriate population in Paris, like the Americans romanticised by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and to the millions of tourists, which explains the unbelievable success of a stand-up comedy like ‘How to become Parisian in an hour’ by Olivier Giraud at the Theatre de la Main D’Or (very funny, but very basic - or in other words, for Americans). But it goes a bit deeper than just expatriates and tourists. My experience of Paris may be biased towards the Quartier Latin, but I have the feeling that nowhere else people know about other places as much as here.

In particular, there is a deep mutual understanding with Germany, which has historical reasons and should be remembered when assessing the current Merkozy phenomenon. French and Germans do not often agree - but they understand each other. See the interest in the last issue of Esprit, ‘La France vue de Berlin’ (which is actually more a ‘Berlin vu de France’). Or the success, every year, of the festival of German cinema, at the Arlequin cinema. It is sad that very little more than the most commercial German films (e.g. Goodbye Lenin, Downfall, Baader Meinhof Complex) nowadays make it to foreign cinemas, and fortunately here in Paris they have a stronger following – not just by the many Germans in Paris.

Westwind, by Robert Thalheim, opened this year’s festival and it is an appropriate German celebration. It tells the story of two sisters from the DDR (specifically, from a small unknown town near Leipzig) on a summer camp on the Hungarian Balaton lake in 1988, meeting (something absolutely forbidden) boys from Western Germany (Hamburg, for maximum contrast), one falling in love, and facing the crucial dilemma of whether to escape to the West with them... 1988 was the last summer the two Germanies were clearly split: the following summer, the human flow to the West via Hungary will have started, and by the autumn the wall will have fallen. I spent in Eastern Europe (Poland, with a stop in divided Berlin) the 1989 summer, and this film catches very well the atmosphere of the end of an era, with good irony on DDR absurdities but also on western mentality. It does not work much as a romantic comedy: the west German boys look so stupid that one wonders what the girls could see in them – but maybe this actually strengthens the topic of the ‘wind from the west’, which was stronger than the attractiveness or not of individual westerners. The film is more successful as a classic ‘escape’ film – even though it seems to underestimate the consequences of escape for eastern Germans. German ‘Ostalgia’, besides some trite celebration and tourist exploitation, continues to be artistically productive.


November 01, 2011

A great book and a good movie on the Spanish failed golpe of 30 years ago

anatomia de un instanteReview of:

Javier Cercas, Anatomía de un instante (Random House Mondadori 2009)

and

El 23-F, film directed by Chema de la Peña (2011)

World’s literature is full of historical novels as well as of literary historical accounts – Herodotus, Caesar, Dumas, Tolstoy, Orwell, Lussu, etc etc. Yet Anatomía de un instante (English translation The Anatomy of a Moment, Blumsbury 2011), rewarded with the premio Nacional de Narrativa of 2010 is unique. It represents a genre of its own, a novel/essay/reportage hybrid that seems to have been invented to match my taste with perfection: literary skill, historical rigour, journalist inquisitiveness, political sensitivity and human depth. All in 450 pages which were a fantastic companion during my summer holiday, and to which I get back now having watched its cinema counterpart, El 23-F (17 Hours).

Anatomia de un instante is about the failed golpe of the 23rd February 1981. It is a very detailed historical account, but instead of starting from a historical problem (such as the origins of the golpe, the emergence of Spanish democracy...), it starts from a literary question on a specific instant, known to all Spanish people from the TV footage of the military storming of the Parliament: why did prime minister Adolfo Suárez stay seated at his place, while the soldiers shouted ‘to the floor’ and their bullets whistled around him? Was it a heroic act, mere political posturing, a form of atonement? Historians may be good at answering the big questions, but only an accomplished novelist can answer such intimate ones.

The book is built around six characters. The event of the golpe is described each time again, from the eyes, and the mind, of a different protagonist. The six characters are on one side the three members of parliament who did not obey the golpist orders: Suárez, the deputy Prime Minister General Gutiérrez Mellado, who had himself taken part in Franco’s golpe forty-five years earlier, and communist leader Santiago Carrillo. And on the other side the three protagonists on the golpe: the lieutenant colonel Tejero, whom Cercas, importantly, refuses to treat as an isolated nutter as popular accounts do, and the generals Milans del Bosch and Armada. Of the six characters, though, the one Cercas is most interested in is Suárez, and with good reason: it is an ideal type of the ‘pure politician’ and therefore a universal character for a novelist, but also the core protagonist of Spanish democratisation, and therefore a prime object for historical inquiry. And if you read the book until the end, you will discover a much more personal, intimate reason why Cercas, who in his youth politically despised Suárez, came to be so fascinated by his figure... and why understanding Suárez is so important in order to understand today’s Spain.

The attention to characters comes at the cost of neglect for the context: both the international one (the roles of the USA and the Vatican, for instance) and the social ones (we are repeatedly told of social unrest, but what was it about?). This would be a problem academically, but it isn’t literarily. The description is in incredible detail and with such skill, that even if you obviously know the end, you get stuck in the suspense of the events, six times over (in fact, some recent research shows that books are more gripping when you know the ending: spoilers do not exist). Moreover, the style is beautiful, in particular through the multi-level discussion, in single long sentences, of multiple counterfactuals when investigating different possible interpretations of the event. It makes you love the most difficult bit of Spanish grammar, the intensive use of the subjunctive, much more precise than in Italian and especially French, and more faithful to Latin. I wonder how the English translator could cope with such multiple 'if', 'if only', ‘as if’, 'even if’ with different subjective degrees of probability...

El 23-FThe movie El 23-F tells the same story, but rather than in 450 pages of novel/essay, in 90 minutes of political thriller. The context which is just in the background in Cercas’ novel, here totally disappears, except short opening sequences of historical footage on the Spanish transition. The set is great: real tanks on the streets, and action in the real building of the Congreso de los Diputados (where the bullets holes are still visible). The movie is just on the 17 hours of the golpe, from Tejero’s storming in the Congress at 6pm to his surrender at 1pm the day after. And the focus is just on three characters: Tejero, Armada, and the king. The first two are fantastic Shakesperean characters, combinations of Richard III and Macbeth, evil conspirators but also tragically tormented by internal conflicts and occasionally ridiculous. By contrast, the king is here presented in a hagiographic way: he just does the right thing defending democracy, and he appears at the same time a hero and as a nice bloke. Shame that, as Cercas convincingly shows in his book, the behaviour of the king was actually unsteady, with major faults and if eventually crucially redeeming, only because of his secretary Fernandéz Campo’s interposition. At the Warsaw Film Festival, director de la Peña said that he showed the events ‘simply as they happened in reality’. I could not resist asking him why then we can’t see General Cortina (the head of the intelligence, whose ambiguous role is discussed from all angles by Cercas, and is still disputed in Spain). He answered ‘buena pregunta’, before making the point that the role of Cortina, if there was any, was before the golpe, and therefore outside the time frame of the movie. A good answer cinematographically, but a bad one historically. I don't trust who pretends to tell history ‘just as it happened in reality’.

The thirtieth anniversary of Tejero’s exploit has shown how literarily and cinematographically inspiring the drama of a failed coup can be. 2011 is also the thirtieth anniversary of the ‘self-golpe’ by Jaruzelski in Poland and the twentieth anniversary of the failed coup in the Soviet Union, while next year will be the tenth anniversary of the failed golpe against Chavez in Venezuela. I am looking forward to Polish, Russian and Venezuelan writers and directors taking up this tremendous genre.


October 30, 2011

Do zobaczenia Warszawo

Polish autumnAt the end of a month in Warsaw, it’s time for putting down some impressions as I had done for Berlin and more fragmentarily for Madrid and Barcelona. Unlike those previous stops of my investigation, Warsaw is not, and probably will never be, a prime tourist destination. Which alone makes it an interesting and exciting place to my eyes. University library - best contemporary building in town

Warsaw is a very young city – architecturally and demographically. Levelled to the ground by German dynamite after the 1944 insurrection, it was rebuilt (including the Old Town) in a hurry and cheaply, but at least with some good ideas and a lot of green space by the communist regimes. The transition to capitalism was the opportunity for another wave of hurried and cheap wave of construction – this time of skyscrapers, shopping malls and pretentious villas for the rich. The urban tissue has suffered for it, as described on the Za Żelazną Bramą estate, but now, with increasing wealth, also some interesting, more ambitious architecture makes its mark. Warsaw will probably have the highest European skyscraper soon, the University library, with its façade with different alphabets and its roof gardens is one of the most beautiful library buildings I have ever seen, the High Court is extremely elegant... and Warsaw keeps growing and surprising.Supreme Court & Krasinskich Palace Public transport is also improving, but slowly: the first line of the tube was completed a few years ago - after a few decades works. The second line, which connects to the new national stadium on the other side of the river, will spectacularly miss the planned opening date of next year: Euro 2012 fans should expect inconvenient transport, and residents a month of extra traffic jams.

Demographically, first the loss of over a third of the population during the war, then high birth rate and the huge baby boom of the early 1980s (martial law: a year of curfew, nothing interesting on TV and shortage of contraceptives), and finally strong internal migration (Warsaw’s unemployment is three times lower, and pay level twice as high as in the rest of the country) and some good universities give Warsaw a much younger look than most western capitals. The result is a fast changing place where things happen and nightlife is as vibrant as anywhere.

Even if the cultural capital of Poland is still considered to be Kraków, Warsaw has a much more cutting-edge scene. Warsaw is now full of klubokawiarnie, intellectual cafés for the most disparate tastes where young people discuss books, politics, travel, try new tunes on the guitar.... I have already written a blog on the leftist ‘New Brave World’ café, but there are plenty more, especially near the University, but also hidden in the various neighbourhoods. Concerts (very strong jazz and classic traditions, open to innovation) and especially theatres are first-class. Polish stages are marked by experimental and absurd streams (Kantor, Lupa, Grotowski, Mrożek, Gombrowicz) and thanks to a tradition of generous subventions are particularly popular. The most famous Polish cinema actors who appeared in Wajda and Kieslowski’s films are above all theatre actors, and give their best live – actually, if they can be criticised, it is for being too theatrical on film. Among the recent novelties there is Teatr Polonia, a new independent theatre set up by the most famous Polish actress, Krystyna Janda, who has played 700 times her pièce de résistancemonologue, Shirley Valentine. A live transmission of a comedy from Polonia had some 3million viewers last Monday, more than most Polish national team matches (and deservedly so).

During my stay I sadly did not find the time or the tickets to go to her theatre, nor to see the best plays in town (Mrożek’s Tango at the neoclassic National Theatre and the Dostoyevsky-adapted Idiot at the Studio Theatre in Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science). I went instead to some more cutting edge shows. Wyzwolenie (Liberation), at the Teatr na Woli, is a re-adaptation of the neoromantic play by Stanisław Wyspiański, who already one-hundred years ago offered a smart sardonic view of Polish nationalism (my favourite Wyspianski poem/play is Wesele, the Wedding, a satire of the unconsummated marriage between peasantry and revolutionary intellectuals – you can see the film transposition by Wajda if you can’t go to theatre in Poland). In this adaptation, director Piotr Jędrzejas brings the action to our days, and the satire is of current rightwing nationalism, including the use of the Cross, in an absurd set reminding of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: actors repeat Wyspiański’s verses but don’t know what to do with them. Besides the provocative aim (some rightwing journalists asked to stop the show and incriminate the director) and the good (but short) performance of Jerzy Trela, the play was a bit unconvincing, to most of the audience and especially to somebody like me who has not read the original Wyspiański’s text. For this reason I was in a position to enjoy more fully, at the Teatr Powszechny,“jesteś piękne... mówię życiu’ (You are bueatiful... I say to life), based on the poems by Wisława Szymborska, Nobel Prize 2006 and one of my favourite poets. Unlike Wyspiański and much of the Polish literature, Szymborska does not deal with big historical issues, but with intimate everyday experiences – which are not necessarily less political. The play, in which three women around a table tell each other their life impressions through Szymborska’s words, is a triumph for both the fragmented, ironic short poems, and the art of reading of them.

Warsaw is also a city of cinema. The setting of Kieslowski's masterpiece Dekalog, and host of an incredible varieties of cinemas for the most cosmopolitan programming. Besides the new multiscreen, 3-D complexes, a handful of splendid or intimate vintage cinemas, like Muranow. I went to a new cinema, KC Kino, opened in the projection room of the monumental building that used to host the communist party's Central Committee (KC stands for Komitet Centralny), and in a sign of the times in 1990 was turned into the stock exchange. I watched there Czerwony Czwartek (Black Thursday) by Krauze, a film on the December 1970 worker rebellion in the Polish costal cities, which was brutally repressed by the army killing 41 demostrators. The movie is clearly inspired to 'Bloody Sunday' by Greengrass, and it avoids the heavy nationalist rhetoric of most Polish historical movies, although the whole second half is filled by typically Polish martirology, i.e. the portrait of families' grief and victims' funerals - which are not historically irrelevant though: to avoid demonstrations, the funerals took place in the middle of the night, with families given only 30 minutes advance notice. Anyway, the interesting experience was that the movie presents many scenes of Gomulka deciding the repression in the Central Committee, exactly one floor above where I was watching the film...

With so much food for the soul, what about food for the body? When I spent a few years here in the mid Nineties, there were just a handful of acceptable restaurants: the pseudo-Jewish Pod Sansonem in the old town, the pseudo-Japanese Tokyo, the new creative Kuchnia Artystyczna in the Ujazdowski castle, and a couple of communist-era places with extremely slow and bureaucratic service (Lotos, Mozajka – happily for gastronomic archaeologists they still exist and they have not changed). Now, Warsaw’s wealth and curiosity for the world have filled the city with all kinds of restaurants, from revisits of Polish traditions to all corners of the world. The restaurant critic of the main newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (still one of the best newspapers in the world, and the best for information on the eastern part of Europe), Macjej Nowak, for many years wrote nearly exclusively caustic reviews: eating out in Warsaw looked more like a masochistic adventure than a pleasure. But recently, he asked in a column if Warsaw has become the food capital of Europe. The answer is no, but just the fact that the question can be raised tells about the progress made: and in terms of value for money ratio, there are really not many places in Europe where eating out is so enjoyable. Try for instance Przy Trakcie or Papu for smart Polish cuisine, Zgoda for unpretentious traditional Polish food, Izumi Sushi for spectacular Japanese, R20 for very good French, and, especially for desserts, the very feminine Słodki i słony of Magda Gessler. From next week, while in Paris, I will miss Warsaw prices and friendly service.


May 06, 2011

National questions, 2011

While in Québec two years ago, I watched the documentary movie Questions Nationales, comparing three ‘failed’ independent nations: Québec, Cataluña and Scotland (I confess sympathy for all three – and my wife is half-Scottish). It was clear in the public and among my Quebecer friends that the odd one among the three was Scotland: it was not serious enough. Scotland, unlike Québec and Cataluña, is not distinguished by that most important social divide that is language. It hasn’t been independent, nor fought for it, for centuries (now: Québec has never been independent, but at least it was separate 250 years ago – and it had space for some terrorist independentists in the 1970s; Cataluña was virtually independent at some stage in the violent 1930s). Paradoxically, Scotland was the only one with quite clear a constitutional right to independence – but that just proved that it was not serious: they are allowed to split because everybody knows they would never do it.

Robert The BruceFast forward to 2011. Last month, in an informal referendum on independence, just 21% of Catalans bothered to vote (91% voted yes). A couple of months earlier, in the Cataluña elections, the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya had seen its vote halved, to the advantage of the more moderate CiU and of fringe parties. Last Monday, the separatist Bloc Québécois was all but wiped out in the Canadian Federal elections: down from 47 to 4 seats. By contrast, yesterday, the Scottish National Party, won a surprising absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. This opens the way for them to call a referendum, for 2014 or 2015, on independence. So Scotland is actually proving more serious on the independence route than the other two.

In truth, Scottish independence sounds less dramatic and attracts more smiles than anger, mostly because, economically, they are the poorer bit (the oil is running out and it is even disputed whether it will fall into the Scottish national waters once a border is drawn). It reminds of Slovakia, whose independence was fomented by the Czechs more than by the Slovaks themselves.

What is striking in all these cases is the volatility of separatist vote. OK, vote for separatist parties is not the same as vote in an actual independence referendum (in the last Québec one, in 1995, the Yes reached 49%). But still, only two months ago the SNP was seen as secure loser: after all, its main message for years had been that independence would allow Scotland to achieve the same economic results as Ireland and Iceland – not a clever thing to say right now. Two months later, people voted for them, just in order to protest against all Westminster parties. If on separatism people can change opinion with the weather (particularly changeable in Scotland...), then this is clearly no longer the serious, life or death issue it was for Garibaldi – or for Croats and Slovenians a couple of years ago. In today’s world, and especially in the EU, national independence matters little and it can depend on the mood. People can switch between multiple allegiances. The best example was Barcelona, last 11th of July. In the morning a million people demonstrated for independence. In the evening, a million people (who knows if the same or not) celebrated Spain’s World Cup victory. Which actually could suggest a good compromise: a time-share independence - Catalans during the day, and Spaniards at night.Pick your own

In such a state, the real fomenters of separatism are those who take it too seriously and provoke it, such as the conservative Constitutional Court of Spain rejecting parts of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, otherwise approved by 95% of Catalans in a referendum. Yesterday, the same Court very narrowly (a 5-6 vote split) resisted the temptation of banning from local elections the Basque independentist Bildu, a decision which would have only radicalised independentists there and closed the political channels (it would be similar tooutlawing Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland).

As proof of how unserious independence has become, there is the debate on what name the UK should take if Scotland left (Canada and Spain have the same problem: their current names would make no sense anymore, and there are no easy substitutes). “Disunited Kingdom” and “Little Britain” look like the best options...


March 23, 2011

Route Irish

Movie image
Title:
Route Irish
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Two weeks ago I went to pre-screening of Route Irish, followed by a Question & Answer meeting with the Director, Ken Loach. Ken Loach is more popular in Italy and France than he is in the UK: apparently in Nuneaton, the town near Coventry where he comes from, they don’t even know who he is. A movie like The Navigators was a ticket box success in Italy, but wasn’t even screened in cinemas in the UK. If Ken Loach turned up at a cinema in Italy I can imagine the crowds – but at the Arts Centre the cinema wasn’t even full...

With 'Route Irish' Loach goes back to serious, heavy and very political themes, after the 'Looking for Eric' football comedy. In this case, the theme is the War in Iraq. If the sort of theme is not surprising, the genre is: this is Ken Loach’s first thriller. It may not have the best screenwriting and the most surprising plot, but it is a good effort nonetheless. It’s the story of Fergus, an Iraq veteran, himself disturbed by the experience (echoes of the Dear Hunter and even of Rambo), trying to explain and avenge (successfully) the death in Baghdad of his best friend Frankie, and come to terms with it (unsuccessfully). Loach’s style is evident in the careful neorealist directing: all actors from Liverpool, and not told about the plot in advance, so that they experience it ‘in real time’. Except some scenes filmed in Jordan (for Baghdad), the story is played in Liverpool, which is a good thing. Loach’s neorealism is perfect on the Britain he knows intimately, but is distorted by ideological idealization as soon as he chooses a foreign subject, whether Nicaragua (Carla’s Song), Spain (‘Land and Freedom’) or even Ireland (‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’); even immigrants tend to be idealised (Bread & Roses; It's A Free World). So I went to the cinema expecting an idealisation of Iraq, but fortunately there is little of it, even though the few Iraqi characters are all, predictably, ‘goodies’. The movie is indeed well researched, based on a number of interviews with Iraq veterans (interesting documentation is in included in the film’s book).

It’s the political content of Route Irish which is most important. The movie is mostly about the privatization of war, whereby corporations, and in particular private security companies, make huge profits on the bodies of the local populations and of working-class lads with no other employment opportunities. An important sub-theme is torture, dealt with in the most gripping, and technically most difficult, scene. This portrays, for the first time in a fiction movie, waterboarding – a torture used by US forces in Iraq, and still defended by Dick Cheney. Let’s just say that even if on 'Route Irish's stage waterboarding was obviously partial, very short and not coercive, the actor suffered panic attacks for weeks later. The scene is cleverly introduced into the plot, with the effect of condemning torture in an absolute way, even when it is the ‘good’ side to use it.

‘Route Irish’ ends without a ‘way out’: the system is all corrupt. In the debate after the screening, asked if he expects his movies to change people, Loach replied “oh, no way films can change people: if they did, we would have all become cow-boys.’ He was also questioned about Libya, and he expressed predictable scepticism at a possible intervention (it was before the UN Resolution), which would have been in the interest, again, of oil corporations. At this point Loach may be frankly be too simplistic.

To an Italian, and to me in particular, this movie has a strong echo. Frankie is killed, under unclear circumstances, on ‘Route Irish’, the ‘most dangerous road on earth’, leading to Baghdad Airport. Exactly on that road, on the 4th of March 2005, Nicola Calipari, Italian intelligence officer, was shot dead by American soldiers. He was heading to the airport with the journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who had been released only 20 minutes earlier after 4 weeks as hostage of Iraqi fighters. The circumstances of the killing have never been explained: under heavy pressure from the Pentagon, especially via foreign minister Fini, the Italian prosecutors had to drop the case. Giuliana worked for Il manifesto, with which I collaborated myself at the time, and the weeks of her kidnapping and then Calipari’s death were for me an unbelievable anguish. She told her story in detail in her 'Fuoco Amico' (Friendly fire) book. There is no mention of the Sgrena-Calipari case in the film’s book, but Loach knew the case of course, and given his popularity in Italy, I can’t believe the reference is accidental. Yet I did not have the time to ask about its meaning during the debate: so let’s wait until the movie reaches the Italian cinemas.

On a lighter note: Ken Loach supports the idea of his football club, Bath City, to offer 80%-discounted tickets to Polish fans. Some Bath City fans have complained against this ‘preferential treatment’ of foreigners, not understanding that introductory offers make perfect economic sense. Even if Polish football is at quite a dire level, I wonder how many Poles will really take the offer: Bath City play in something like the Sixth league, and Poles in the UK are more likely to go to see Speedway (I have seen many Poles at Coventry Bees’ matches, without the need for special offers). But if they do, Ken Loach should take the camera to the terraces and document what happens.


November 25, 2010

The European Parliament's film prize: great art, worrying politics

In Berlin, like in all EU capitals, three movies were shown to the public last week: the finalists of the European Parliament’s LUX film prize(you can see the trailers on the website). What does the European Parliament have to do with cinema? Not much, but cinema is very important in European culture, and it is a “good” that cannot be left to the market, as the trade liberalisation would like. No European country can compete, in terms of market size, with American producers: languages are natural barriers. This is why we would need, for a level playing ground, quotas on the number of American movies on TV, or at least, strong public support to European cinema. And the best way to do it is to create synergies among the different European countries, increasing mutual interest.

The European Parliament’s prize privileges, in particular, films about multicultural dialogue that are to some extent multilingual, to get the public more used to hearing different speaks in the cinema – just as it happens now in European streets, after all. It will also produce 27 versions of the three shortlisted films, with the subtitles for each EU language. Indeed multilinguism can be very powerful in cinema, even more than in novels. I loved the recent idea by Godard to present a multilingual movie (“Film socialisme”) with unintelligible subtitles at the last Cannes, for the anger of monolingual Anglophone reporters – a very good point, but in the meanwhile subtitles are already one step further than dubbing, monolinguism and English domination.

This year, the festival’s topic was particularly interesting for this blog: migration. The three finalists were the Belgian Illégal (by Masset-Depasse), the Greek “Akadimia Platonos” (by Tsitos) and the German “Die Fremde” (by Aladag). No space for three reviews here, but let’s just say that they are three masterpieces, making full justice on one clear superiority of European cinema above the American: the capacity to be about real life, instead of mere evasion from it. The three stories are very different and deserve to be summarised.

“Illégal” is about a Russian woman living illegally in Belgium with her 10-yo son. One day is she found without documents and interned. To avoid expulsion, she refuses to reveal her identity and origin, knowing that after six months they will have to release her, and she will be able to reunite with her son. But life in a detention centre alongside other similarly desperate souls proves much more inhuman than she expects – can she endure what amounts to psychological torture for so long? Those who appreciate, and can stomach, tough claustrophobic movies about prisons (for instance two recent worthy European additions to the genre: “Hunger” by Steve McQueen, on Northern Ireland, and “Un prophète” by Jacques Audiard, on France), this is for you. I personally found the choice of a well-educated educated Russian as victim slightly over-the-top: if her desperate refusal to return to Russia is not totally implausible (she wants the son to stay, and the son will need her), it feels like a trick to get the viewers’ sympathy, as if more “average” illegal immigrants were less deserving. But indeed it is another powerful denunciation of the inhumane treatment of “illegal” immigrants.akadimia_platonos.jpg

The second movie is, instead, extremely funny. It portrays the middle-aged Stevros, spending day after day sitting outside his kiosk with his three friends on a little Athene’s square, drinking coffee (the picture of the four make a perfect image of the state of the Greek economy and of Greek gender relations). With no much else to do, a privileged discussion topic is commenting on the Albanian and Chinese workers (who of them works more? why do they do it?), and rewarding their “Patriot” dog for barking at any Albanian passing by. But one day, Stevros’s old mother, who sits equally motionless nearby, stands up and hugs an Albanian worker, speaking to him in Albanian and calling him her son. It appears that she had left him behind in Albania, when fleeing with newborn Stevros… Poor Stevros tries to minimise the event and to confirm, first of all to himself, his Hellenicity ("ok, my mother speaks Albanian, but it's because she had a heart attack"), but his friends start doubting he is still one of them… The first hour makes unstoppable laughing. After then, the joke starts running out, and some sentimentalism creeps him, but overall the film is a very good way for Europe to laugh at itself (not just Greeks; Italians too saw the Albanians as the source of all evils in the 1990s, but now that Albanians have integrated so well into Italy, they shifted their target to the Romanians; to some extent, all other European countries have their favourite targets, be it Moroccans, Pakistanis, Turks or Russians: there could be 26 EU remakes of this movie).

The final movie, “Die Fremde” (The stranger), tells of a Turkish young woman from Berlin, escaping with her little son from her violent husband in Turkey, searching refuge with her family in Berlin, but being then rejected by them too for bring shame on the house. In terms of structure, it is the most coherent and accomplished of the three, and the Kreuzberg district is very well portrayed. It dramatically says what I have heard often in Berlin: "I am not German for the Germans, I am not Turkish for the Turks".

The European Parliament chose the winner this week. As MEPs do not know anything about cinema (and some do not know anything about anything, as the UKIP Godfrey Bloom who yesterday was ejected for shouting “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer"), I expected their choice to be not on artistic merit, but on political calculation. Leftwingers should prefer the social denunciation of “Illégal”; liberals should like the ridiculing of the bigot masses in “Akadimia Platonos”; and the populist Right would fall for the topic of Muslim honour killing in “Die Fremde”. But the Christian- and social-democrats, i.e. the largest groups? Eventually, “Die Fremde” won, which is a sad political sign about the feelings in the European Parliament. For MEPs, honour killing is a more urgent problem than the human treatment of undocumented migrants and of xenophobia - and probably just because for honour killing they can blame somebody else. I wish "Die Fremde"  had won the artistic prize it deserves, instead of a political one.


October 25, 2010

"Forced labour", "Hitler & the Germans": controversial exhibitions in Berlin

Berlin , an ever-evolving history exhibition in itself, is hosting two historically significant history exhibitions: “Zwangsarbeit” (Forced labour) in the Jewish Musuem, and “Hitler und die Deutschen – Volksgemeinschaft und Verbrechen” (vaguely translatable as Hitler & the Germans – national community and crime – but the English never had a Volksgemeinschaft, thanksfully) in the German Historical Musuem. Significant, if not for other reasons, because they are the first exhibitions on forced labour and on Hitler in Germany ever – however strange this may sound at first.

The Jewish Musuem is a difficult place to host an exhibition in. Built in 1998 in Kreuzberg by Daniel Libeskind, it is such an astonishing building – with its broken geometry and its “voids” - that it attracted more visitors in the first three years, when it was empty, than since 2001, when the Museum was inaugurated – and still many say the museum was better when there was no museum. Temporary exhibitions, however, are in the old building so at least they don’t have the empty corridors as hard (impossible) act to follow. “Forced labour” in Nazi Germany has been, until now, overshadowed by the bigger and unique crime of the Shoah. In the after-war processes, it was not treated as a crime against humanity in itself – only individual (and hard to proof) cases of inhumane treatment were persecuted. It had, however, a huge importance: it involved millions of victims and was an inherent part of the Nazi economic and military machine. It is therefore significant that this exhibition comes from the Jewish Museum, certainly the last institution wanting to downplay the Shoah. Not only: this exhibition is not Jewish specific, and it pays equal space, from the beginning, to non-Jewish victims, from German opponents, to Gypsies, to Poles, and eventually the inhabitants of all occupied countries and 600,000 Italian soldiers after Italy's surrender (by the way, my grandfather escaped forced labour by pretending to be German – this family story explains why I started to learn languages very early).

The exhibition contains telling documents and images of conditions in labour camps. For instance, official inspection reports checking prisoners’ conditions and concluding “the food is insufficient to survive – no action required”. I found most telling the letters from forced labourers in agriculture, mostly Poles. Forced labourers constituted half the wartime agricultural workforce of the Third Reich (in other words, half of Germans’ food came from slaves' work), but within Germany they were mostly kept separated: one per farm. They therefore suffered from extreme isolation and although some were treated humanly, the letters show how inhumane the farmer could be. And if each German farmer had a forced labourer, how does the story that the German population didn’t know hold?

What however lacks in the exhibition – and again I speak from a professionally distorted point of view – is the context and nature of forced labour. Unpaid labour was essential for the German economy (already since 1933) – but how essential? Occasional employers are named or portrayed, but which large companies used forced labour most? And, crucially, how? Which forms of constraint could guarantee a decent productivity? What were the relations, if any, between forced and "normal" labourers? And which survival (literally) strategies could workers use? Sorry if these questions sound cynical, but I don’t think we can grasp the phenomenon without answering them. In the exhibition there is a striking lack of data, figures, company names, and work schedules. It is still worth seeing, but is not enough. All the more that – something which is never mentioned – slavery has not disappeared and there are millions of forced labourers around the world.

The German History Museum is in amazing building too. The Zeughaus is the best baroque building in Berlin, on Unter den Linden, besides the Dom. And it has not been elegantly enlarged by I. M. Pei, in Louvre’s style (Kohl ‘s timid answer to Mitterrand). But in this case, the crowd comes for the exhibition: for Hitler? No Nazi in the long, at least half-foreign queue, of course, but it is still quite shocking. In post-war Germany – where a Nazi salute still lands you in jail, unlike in Italy – nobody had dared devoting an exhibition to Hitler before. This first attempt has very clearly avoided any celebratory style. There are no “relics” (which are anyway kept safe in Moscow) apart from a couple of autographic sketches and notes, and no monumental portrayal. Moreover, all propaganda material is directly counterbalanced by critical comment and images on the criminal dimension behind it – footage from the 1937 Hitler–Mussolini summit being followed by Chaplin's caricature of the same meeting, for instance). And the exhibition is not on Hitler. It is on Hitler and the Germans. Germans, the curators say, have tended in both East and West to unload all guilt on Hitler and not thought enough about what relations they had had with him. Movies such as "The Downfall" have gone in the same direction of isolating the individual from the context.

This is the proclaimed reason for this exhibition: Hitler’s problem is still open, and each generation has to find its own answers. This is an understatement: of course the Hitler problem is not closed. A book is coming out ("Das Amt und die Vergangenheit”, by E. Conze, N. Frei, P. Hayes, M. Zimmermann), as a result of a historians’ commission called by then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, on the role of the German Foreign Office in the Thirld Reich. And it found that, against the received myth of their non-co-operation and even conspiracy, German diplomats actively participated in Nazi crimes. Believed innocent, they mostly remained in their posts after the war, but it now emerges that, when in the Fifties they all looked good Europeans, they were also secretly assisting Nazi criminals in foreign hiding. So sure, the story is not over and there are new questions to be asked all the time.

But does this exhibition ask the questions? The understandable concern with “the context” made the curators fall into the opposite mistake than those of the one on forced labour. The context is overwhelming, and the visit turns into an intensive crush course on the history of the Third Reich. Some details do indeed shed some light on the relation between Hitler and its Volk. Some Nazi posters and the huge variety of little souvenirs are impressive (and one poster was a reminder that the issue is not closed: a racist graph showing what will happen to Germany if “low-quality” people make have more children than “high-quality” people; it looks, apart from the racist pictures, as taken directly from the bestselling book by Sarrazin that is dividing Germany right now, and on which I will comment in another blog). Some information is interesting, for instance employers’ reports, on one side grateful to the regime for keeping wages so low, but on the other side moaning about all symbolic practices they had to introduce to pretend they were comrades with the workers. I found most interesting the number of letters and cards sent to Hitler on his 43rd birthday, by adoring men, women and children, with poems, prayers and drawings. I would have made an exhibition just out of that material – although obviously counterbalanced by epistolary materials from Hitler’s victims. Instead, the curators overburdened the ten rooms with all sort of historical material about all that happened in Hitler’s political life. People’s perception of Hitler, and Hitler’s manipulation of it, which should have been the focus, is therefore lost under a mountain of contextual and unoriginal information, which might have been better visually separated. If you want to know about resistance, for instance, you need to wait for a multimedia computer at the end. Tourists seemed to enjoy the exhibit, but I doubt the new German generations will find their answers, or even their questions, in it.

More answers are provided by the film retrospective associated to the exhibition. Besides a few fiction movies, the highlights were Leni Riesenthal’s films (Der Sieg des Glaubens; Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht; Triumph des Willens). This again is significant because these films, which were seen (willingly or not) by one third of the Reich's population, can only be shown in today’s Germany within a cultural event and with an expert’s introduction and guidance, so they are hardly known directly, a strange fate for what are considered by some as the most important works in cinema’s history. When queuing with H for the screening of Der Sieg des Glaubens we even felt a moment of uneasiness, as if doing something not so licit. The historian Jeanpaul Goergen did his best to make sure the spirit of the German constitution was respected with his very erudite but also quite boring 45min introduction, that would have screened away any non culturally-motivated spectator – but there was no need for it (an interesting bit of information, though, was that it is the Riesenthal’s fake re-enactment propaganda images, not the historic ones, which are still unawarily used in history books, and even on the website of the German parliament, to illustrate the 30th of January 1933). It’s especially the second of the Nüremberg movies that portrays a symbolic “marriage” between a marching Volk and a Führer arriving from the sky, who find each other in a symphony of images and unite at night. The effect of such images in the 1930s is hard to underestimate, although it can't have been the only factor.

The significance of these two controversial exhibition is apparent in the contrast with a third, uncontroversial one. One floor above the crowded Hitler’s exhibition there is another one, included in the same ticket. It is devoted to Reunification. It was near-empty, and so was the cinema during its own film retrospective (at one screening we were three in total: they kept the museum open for us). As I had written in my previous blog, that topic has become so boring in just 20 years. Other topics have not, after 70 years.


September 16, 2010

The Eastern European migrant as a fiction hero

This is a sociologist’s eye critique of two successful award-winning British novels, and a couple of films, on Eastern European migrant workers:

- Rosemary Tremain, The Road Home (2007)

- Marina Lewycka, Two Caravans (2007) (US title: Strawberry Fields)

These two novels’ merits are twofold: humanising the Eastern European workers who have “flooded” the British labour market since 2004, and to give us, in the reflection of their eyes, a different perspective on British society. Yet as a sociologist, even respecting the licence fiction writers have, it is impossible not to notice the number of mistakes and distortions. When noticing them, I initially thought I was being pedantic, but then started to wonder where this specific form of migrant idealisation comes from.

Tremain’s book has met the best critics’ reception, and it is the most inaccurate. The author, it has to be said, has cleverly avoided the problem of historical accuracy by explicitly de-contextualising the hero, Lev, by not saying from which country he comes from. He is just from an imaginary Eastern European country, which seems to combine the worst bits of Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria in one, quite depressing, place. It may be unfair to criticise a fantasy for inaccuracy, but the problem is that from this dystopia follows an idealisation of the migrant’s path.

The best side of the book is the representation of Lev’s lonely, because not understood by any British person around, nostalgia for his village and in particular his daughter. Only his drunk Irish lodger, who is being himself alienated from society and from his own daughter, shows some understanding. The book has indeed poetic appeal and portrays some of the ‘hidden suffering’ of migrant workers well analysed by French-Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad. Nostalgia is a rich theme, but its portrayal in the book is not convincing - it is much better accounted in a different recent novel, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (2008), who manages to combine historical accuracy (post-9/11 New York) with existential depth. By contrast, Lev’s situation in Tremain’s book is so absurd that it evoked anger rather than sympathy. For instance, Lev is able only very rarely to communicate with his daughter and mother, because they don’t have a landline at home, and because Lev can’t afford calling their neighbour friend from his British mobile phone. Now, it is plausible (if unlikely) that a family may still not have a landline in Eastern Europe in 2005. But which migrant worker in London calls home directly from his mobile phone? Tremain probably has never put foot in Eastern Europe, but has she at least been out in London? How could she not notice the number of phone shops or cheap call cards with which you can call Easter Europe from about 1p a minute? This is not a pedantic detail: broken communication lines are a fundamental theme in the book, and their absurdity makes the rest fall apart.

Yet from a sociologist’s of work perspective, it is Lev’s career that is laughable [attention: spoiler follows]. A 42-year old male with only previous work in state-owned wood industry, followed by long employment, starts cleaning dishes in a top restaurant in London, and by simply occasionally turning his head from the sink to look at what the chef does, within a few months he has learnt all his techniques and when an unexpected opportunity arises, he establishes himself as a successful chef, and then, in another few months, accumulates enough money to go back home and open his own restaurant. Now, other people may be faster than me at learning new cooking techniques. But this trajectory is so ridiculous that it can only be accepted as a subtle irony of London celebrity chefs: as Lenin famously said that under communism the government can be run by a kitchen aid, is Tremain arguing that in capitalist London a celebrity restaurant can be run by a dishwasher? Not so sure. This is the American Dream inflated and revisited in a soppy English sauce, and the opening quote to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, rather than putting this book in the same tradition, just manifests what Tremain has failed to do: observing economic migrant lives.

One of the few credible pages in The Road Home are the interlude in which Lev works as an asparagus picker in a farm: indeed, from the book’s acknowledgments, migrants’ farm work seems to be the only reality the author has observed and researched. But if you are into migrant labour in agriculture than look at the second novel, Two Caravans. This is a comic novel, following the success of Lewycka’s debut ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’. Humour writers enjoy even more licence, but Lewycka actually knows her topic much better than Tremain does. Herself the daughter of Ukrainian refugees, she has a particular sensitivity for Ukrainians, but also for all other foreigners. And indeed all characters in this Babel Tower of a novel are well described and extremely well placed in their backgrounds: the Poles, the Kosovar, the Moldovian, the Malawi, the Chinese and even the Malaysian Chinese.

Stylistically, the most remarkable, and ambitious, feature of the novel is that it is written in multiple voices: each scene told by a different character, in a different style. Lewycka attempts at portraying the way the speak, and each makes characteristic mistakes in English – often very funny, nearly like those I make in my lectures, only to keep students awake of course. And she goes even further, in trying to give a specific sound to the heroes when they speak to each other in their own native language (e.g. Polish): in that case, of course, the vocabulary becomes suddenly rich, but the style is still peculiar, for instance with the missing articles that characterise Slavic languages. I think this is as far as you can get in portraying multilinguism in a text written in one language. Not all is successful, though. First, the style is not always consistent. Second, I felt the author went one step too far when adding, among the first-person narrators, the dog, who writes not only in bad English, but also in Comic fonts. Finally, and most importantly, she got the language of the main hero wrong. The ambiguous tension between Andriy, miner from Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, and Irina, student from Kiev in the West, is a main theme in the book and has interesting political tones, Irina being a supporter of the Orange Revolution and Andriy an opponent. But while the narration reminds frequently that they dislike each other’s accent, it is most strange that they speak the same language at all, for in Donbas the large majority are Russophone. Sorry if I sound pedantic, but language is actually a crucial political, cultural and social divide in the Ukraine – maybe my Canadian and Belgian friends know what I mean. Currently, the Ukraine has both president and prime minister Russophone, and the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, even struggles in Ukrainian (I don’t know of any other prime minister who is not fluent in the official language of his country). The current government proposal to de facto equalise the use of Russian and Ukrainian is threatening to break the country apart. Yet, in the novel, Andriy speaks Ukrainian happily.

I would still strongly recommend Two Tractors as both funny and instructive. There are limits, naturally as I think that it is impossible to write an entirely funny comic novel: you physically can’t keep laughing for 300 pages. It may be criticised that Lewycka used humour on terrible topics such as human trafficking: but the book has a very strong moral dimension. Some scenes are more shocking and convincing than press reports, for instance when some characters end up working in graphically described horrific chicken processing factory. I liked how the Pole Tomasz, who speaks little English but plays the guitar and loves the Beatles and Bob Dylan, eventually leads a worker revolts, jumps up and shouts ‘How many years must these persons exist before they learns to be free?’. And after they all lose their chicken-processing jobs, the Pole Yola says to her niece Marta and their Ukrainian and Malawi colleagues: ‘Now we are in Europe marketing we can earn good money here. I will be teacher. Tomek will be government bureaucrat. Marta... what will you be?’. ‘I will be a vegetarian’. ‘One day Ukraina will be also in Europe marketing. And Africa too.’

Put together, these two novels also tell us something about Britain. This is a new form of Orientalism, a fascination with the ‘other’, but also its undermining as ‘naive’. Tremain’s Lev and Lewycka’s Andriy are quite similar in their difference from the dominant models of modern Britain: honest, hard-working, uninterested in celebrities, and – typical stereotype on ethnic minorities – very heterosexual. Their Eastern European additional specificity is a leaning towards melancholy. At the same time, they bring a very sad look at the state of the West, and a little hope for the future.

Eastern Europeans are slowly making success as heroes in literature and cinema throughout Europe: it is an interesting development as it may affect the popular perception of a macroscopic demographic change that is taking place. In Italy, for instance, Gianfranco Bettin (better famous as Venetian environmentalist politician) wrote ‘Nebulosa del Boomerang’ (2004), where the heroin is a Polish prostitute. Now, the poor prostitute saved from a nasty pimp by a good man was a trite plot already at the time of Titus Maccius Plautus, but Bettin’s novel is very original, not least for the female taxi driver character. The same cannot be said about some movies on the same topic, e.g. the soppy ‘Vesna va veloce’ (1996) by Carlo Mazzaccurati, on a Czech prostitute. More ad hoc in terms of topic, but equally soppy, is 'Mar Nero' by Bondi (2009), on a Romanian domestic worker. Even in the otherwise excellent Austrian ‘Revanche’ (2008) by Spielmann whe weakest character is the Ukrainian prostitute-heroin. In the case of films, I would say that it is better if they stay away from that topic. Most smartly, this is done in another Austrian movie, ‘Import – Export’ by Seidl (2007), which follows the parallel paths of Paul, an Austrian young unemployed with a criminal stepfather going East, and Olga, an Ukrainian nurse going West and ending up in a geriatric hospital. The scenes of the geriatric hospital and those of the Roma ghettoes in Slovakia are extremely realistic (Seidl’s background’s is in documentary movies), and Olga’s trajectory challenges all stereotypes: she moves West to escape, not to embrace sex work. In the UK, Ken Loach too avoids prostitution in ‘It’s a Free World’ (2007), but like in all other Loach’s movies, the perspicacity on British characters and British society is not matched by a comparable understanding of non-British characters. The same had happened for the Spanish, Nicaraguan, Mexican or Irish heroes of his previous works: the Poles are idealised, and if the intention may be good, the effect is not convincing, at least for someone like me already devoting a lot of time to ‘real’ Polish migrant workers. Interestingly, the Polish own representation of their emigrants is more critical, as in the popular TV series ‘Londonczycy’ ('the Londoners'). And already well before EU integration, Polish director Skolimowski (who has just won the Venice jury special prize for the intriguing ‘Essential Killing’, on a Al-Qaida prisoner fleeing a secret CIA prison) had produced the outstanding ‘Moonlighting’ (1982), on Polish builders working illegally in London at the times of Solidarnosc. But then, Skolimowski is an emigrant himself. He knows better.


July 21, 2010

Final meditations on Göteborg

Gothenburg, as a post-industrial harbour city, tells a similar story of gentrification, tourism, private services to East London, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Barcelona - and one that Gdanks, Napoli or Genova would like to tell too. It's a glossy, triumphalistic story of getting ever cleaner - but which has its dark side of exclusion and removal. The Haga ex-working class district, for instance, is an Islington in miniature and a near-pure ideal type of post-industrial gentrification + tourism.gentrified Haga

The book "(re)searching Gothenburg", written by 37 Gothenburg sociologists (edited by H Holgersson, C Thörn, H. Thörn and M. Wahlström) for the World Sociological Congress to challenge the dominant narrative, tells this story very well, and adds some interesting idiosyncratic specificities.

The 'Gothenburg's spirit' of trade, business and private donation for culture and philantropy has combined for a while with Swedish social democracy, into a particularly pragmatic, and outward looking, version of it. The ambitious public housing programs of the 1960s, in particular, destroyed the long-existing working class solidarities by dis- and re-placing the population.

Volvo, with its large factory in the North of the city, is one important influence, sponsoring for instance the film festival. The 'strong man of Gothenburg' Göran Johansson, socialdemocrat former unionist at SKF and for four decades mayor or otherwise prominent politician, is another one. Together, they have combined in a particularly moderate version of the Saltsjöbad spirit (the 1938 'founding' compromise between unions and employers). 'Budget dinners' between socialdemocrats administrators and business people in expensive restaurants exemplified this local version of 'corporatism'.

Also, Gothenburg is particular in its particularly ruthless revision of the Saltsjöbad spirit since the 1990s. The success of Gothenburg as an 'entrepreneurial city', 'event area' and 'knowledge centre' has also involved increased segregation and inequality - particularly visible in the case of ethnic minorities, but with also an increasingly visible class dimension. Gothenburg is not just the place of big sport events, concerts and congresses. It is also where, on the 30th of October 1998, 63 young people from the suburbs and mostly with immigrant background died in a fire during a party in an immigration association's venue. In 2009, for the first time, there have been ethnic riots - if incomparably smaller than the French ones. Also the apparently consensual environment issue actually has a deepening conflictual side, with acts of resistance and mobilisation including sabotage of SUV (nice idea if you ask me, but I imagine the difficulty of building alliances with Volvo workers).

So Gothenburg is very Swedish and socialdemocratic - but more so, for good and evil. Scandinavian countries are actually those, in Europe, with the biggest social relative disadvantage for immigrants, youth, disabled (although, in absolute terms, these groups are better off in Scandinavia than in most other EU countries - but then, they are more likely to compare themselves to the locals, than to their peers somewhere else). The frequently mentioned reason is skills (or lack thereof), ever more important in the knowledge economy. Yet skills don't fall from the sky and are themselves the product of a social system, which can include and exclude.

Gothenburg now attracts business, trade and Ryanair tourists. And Sweden is now referred to as a model not by the Left, but by the Right: the Tories keep referring to Sweden with regard to how to cut the deficit fast (Sweden did it rather safely in the 1990s, but starting from a much richer welfare state and therefore without so much pain: it had the luxury to ring-fence expenditure on higher education and research, instead of health), and to the free schools (but even in Sweden, these increased segregation, without overall improvement in standards, according to research by Susanne Wilborg of the Institute of Education).

Kitchen Stories

Everlasting Moments

Let's finish with movie images of Sweden. With regard to society and social history, two movies taught me a lot about Sweden (OK, I have not watched many more, even if Nordic cinema is among the very best). "Kitchen Stories" is actually a Norwegian movie (Salmer Fra Kjokkenet, by Bent Hamer, 2003), but it describes an amazing research program of the Swedish Home Research Institute's scientists in the 1950s: introducing ergonomy into private kitchens, starting from sending dozen of observers into a sample of bachelors' houses, to sit on high chairs in the corner of their kitchen to collect statistics on their physical movements - on the assumption that men must be more efficient than housewives. In the name of positivist science, the observers were forbidden to interact or even speak to the observed, while staying in their kitchen for weeks on. On this 'objectively' exhilarating base, Hamer builds a comedy drama at typically Nordic slow pace, which offers lots of reflection material not just on state control, but also on researcher-researched relations. Btw, IKEA is the side effect of that very research program.

The second movie is "Everlasting Moments" (Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick, by Jan Troell, 2008), a biopic of Swedish female photographer Maria Larssons in the 1910s-20s. In its structure, the movie is just a traditional linear historical movie, rather didascalic. But it adds original insights on the power of photography and of choosing images through a lens (it reminds at times Kieslowski's masterpiece Camera Buff [Amator]), as well as reflection on the Swedish working class, Swedish women and Swedish religious morality before socialdemocratic emancipation - which with all its limits, let's admit it, was still a pretty good thing.


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