On October 6 Brazilian voters propelled Workers' Party candidate Luiz
Inácio da Silva, or "Lula," as he is known, one step closer to
the presidency of the second-most-populous country in
When Tony Blair rose to address a packed House of Commons on Saddam
Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, Albert Finney had just won an
Emmy for his performance as Winston Churchill in The
(With apologies to Eddy Howard, and anybody who becomes collateral damage)
A recent anniversary passed by without receiving much notice in
the mainstream media.
During the two-day opera buffa that was the on-again, off-again military coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice played a brief but memorable role. Throughout the long day and night that the democratically elected Chávez was sequestered and the military's handpicked provisional president, Pedro Carmona, dissolved all constitutional institutions--the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office and the national electoral commission--Rice and the rest of the Administration remained approvingly silent while sending spokesman Ari Fleischer out to say in effect that it was Chávez's own fault. Only after the elected president was rightfully restored to office did Rice take to the boards to scoldingly tell Chávez that he, not the coup-makers, should "respect constitutional processes."
Although the coup was denounced by nineteen Latin American heads of state as a violation of democratic principles, the Bush Administration publicly countenanced the military takeover. Not only did Washington demonstrate a radically selective view of the rule of law; it left itself starkly isolated in a hemisphere that has been subject to endless US lecturing on democracy. As Senator Christopher Dodd has noted, "To stand silent while the illegal ouster of a government is occurring is deeply troubling and will have profound implications for hemispheric democracy."
The leading US papers of record so shamelessly parroted the White House in their initial editorials that the New York Times had to apologize. By midweek, Chávez back in power, the Times recanted: "Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how bad he may be, is never something to cheer."
There can be little doubt the Bushies were crestfallen that Chávez didn't get the permanent hook. Venezuela supplies the United States with nearly as much oil as Saudi Arabia. And Chávez has gleefully thumbed his nose at Americans by befriending Castro, warming to Qaddafi and Saddam and playing footsie with the Colombian guerrillas. Indeed, Chávez--a former army paratrooper--rode to power as the embodiment of open challenge to the so-called Washington Consensus of hemispheric free-market economics in 1998. And he has gone out of his way ever since to enrage both the Venezuelan economic oligarchs and the US State Department with regular blasts of red-hot populist rhetoric.
That Washington wanted to get rid of Chávez is undeniable. Prior to the attempted coup US officials met with Carmona and other leaders of the coalition that ousted Chávez; and Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, the Pentagon official responsible for Latin America, met with Gen. Lucas Rincon Romero, chief of Venezuela's military high command in December. Later, during Carmona's brief reign, according to a State Department official quoted by the Times, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich phoned Carmona--ostensibly to urge him not to dissolve the National Assembly. The Organization of American States panel now investigating in Caracas should probe the precise scope of any US role in the failed coup.
Whoever masterminded the ousting of Chávez badly miscalculated. The majority of Venezuelan combat unit commanders remained loyal and forced Chávez's return to power. The political alliance that spearheaded the coup--the upper and middle classes supported by the trade union movement--was also short-lived. After the military picked Carmona, a prominent leader of the business class, to run the provisional government, labor--literally overnight--withdrew its support. Within hours of taking over, Carmona found himself isolated, and his house of cards collapsed.
That said, no one should confuse Hugo Chávez with Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Chilean president overthrown thirty years ago by a similar US-supported alliance of the economic upper class and the military. Chávez has failed to produce much of the radical change he promised. He showed little of the respect that Allende did for authentic democratic institutions. Unlike Allende, whose public support increased before his overthrow, Chávez has seen his original 80 percent support drop to just over 30 percent. And Allende never turned police and armed supporters against peaceful protesters as Chávez did, provoking a shootout that injured scores and killed more than a dozen.
Allende spoke to his nation as a professor; Chávez, who staged his own failed coup in 1992, often as a thug. Chávez's undeniable charisma flirts with megalomania, his denunciations of all opposition borders on the paranoiac and his antidote to the hollower forms of democracy is often ham-fisted demagogy. Corruption within his regime, an increasingly autocratic style and an inability to make much of a dent in poverty have swollen Chávez's opposition far beyond the ranks of the pro-American economic elite.
After winning by a landslide in 1998, Chávez moved aggressively to dismantle the old system. The two traditional parties were pushed to the margins, the discredited congress was replaced by a unicameral house, corruption was exposed and punished. Vowing to lift up the two-thirds of the population earning less than $2 a day, and infuriating the economic oligarchy, Chávez issued a series of decrees increasing state intervention in the economy and beginning much-needed land reform. But Chávez's authoritarian ways and his failure to make good on deep reform suggest that consensus-winning alternatives championing social justice and authentic democracy are still works in progress.
Chávez presides over a fractured and volatile Venezuela. The military split is perilous. The class divide has been ripped wide open. Now is the time for Chávez to talk a whole lot less and do a whole lot more. When Gabriel García Márquez met with Chávez earlier in his tenure, the Colombian writer was "overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country; the other, an illusionist who could pass into the history books as just another despot." And just as it seemed Chávez was succumbing to the latter fate, almost magically he has been granted another chance to achieve the former.
The National Endowment for Democracy has been busy--and far from
In reiterating his vision for the Middle East--two states living side by
side in peace and security--George W. Bush failed to lay out a viable
path for reaching this essential goal. Israeli commentators agreed that
Bush's long-delayed speech, in which his support for a provisional
Palestinian state was so hedged as to be nearly meaningless, could have
been written by Ariel Sharon. David Landau wrote in Ha'aretz:
"Yasser Arafat, the seemingly immortal leader of the Palestinian
national movement, was politically assassinated" by the US President.
Thus, Bush brushed aside a democratically elected leader while calling
for more democracy, simplistically made Arafat the problem and his
removal the condition for a solution, and opened a rift with US allies.
The plan--favored by the pro-Sharon hard-liners in the Administration,
led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld--is a victory for political
expediency, but it does nothing to disempower the extremists on both
sides. To have any chance of damping down terrorist violence, Washington
had to offer the Palestinian people some hope of statehood, of control
over their collective future. But Bush failed to call for an immediate
withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and gave Sharon a green
light for reoccupation, thereby endorsing the continuation of a failed
policy. For Israel's military incursions do not stop, and indeed foment,
suicide bombers' atrocities, as Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin
Ben-Eliezer pointed out. And if, as seems likely, the latest operation
also fails, it will breed more violence and drain not only the
devastated Palestinian economy but Israel's--itself nearing collapse.
While Bush was right to call for the withdrawal of Israeli forces to
pre-intifada lines and for a halt in settlement building, he left those
actions to be accomplished in some vague middle distance after violence
is ended--meaning whenever Israel decides to de-occupy. For the long
term, Bush urged an end to the cruel occupation and the creation of a
democratic Palestinian state. But the vision he offered is so
conditioned, set so far in the future and so vulnerable to American and
Israeli interpretations that it offers little incentive for moderate
Palestinians--such as the more than fifty intellectuals who recently
called for a halt to suicide bombings--to risk their lives trying to
curb the radical elements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Arafat's leadership has been corrupt and autocratic; democratic reforms
in the Palestinian Authority are needed. But what hope can those
Palestinians committed to reform have when Israeli tanks are rumbling in
their streets, their institutions and infrastructure are shattered,
their compatriots under house arrest?
Bush did not even mention the international conference the Saudis and
other nations requested to spur final-status talks. He said nothing
about how the international community is to be mobilized to help the
Palestinians achieve reforms. If he had made the bold gesture history
demanded of him, he would have set a clear timeline for Palestinian
statehood and called for an end to the Israeli invasion, dismantling of
settlements, insertion of international forces and a firm US and
international financial commitment to Palestinian nation-building and
reform, including efforts to insure that the elections now set for
January are free and fair. Instead, he temporized, and so, more Israelis
and Palestinians will die.
Politics were never far from anyone's mind at this year's fifty-fifth
Cannes International Film Festival, which unfolded in a France still
reeling from the shock of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's
victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the first
round of presidential elections in April. Over 30 percent of Cannes residents (including a substantial number of its elderly poodle lovers) gave their vote to Le Pen in the election's second round. Few among the 34,000 industry types, stars, publicists and journalists from ninety-three countries who annually
invade this quiet seaside retirement community may have noticed the
offices of Le Pen's party, the Front National, a mere block away from
the congested, glittering Palais des Festivals. But the shadow of
Europe's rightward shift did make itself felt obscurely.
Le Pen's cultural program (less abstract art, more nature paintings)
contained little mention of cinema. But it's doubtful that this
resolutely cosmopolite media spectacle, with its requisite scandal--this
time, bad boy French director Gaspard Noë's
Irréversible, a skillful but ultimately sophomoric
meditation on time and violence, in which the beautiful Monica Bellucci
is forcibly sodomized for about nine minutes--fits Le Pen's definition
of a wholesome art "that respects our national identity and the values
of our civilization."
In fact, the idea of a film festival in the south of France was first
conceived in 1939 as an alternative to Venice, then under the sway of
Mussolini. (Eerily enough in these unstable times, the current
organizers included a selection of films that had been slated for
competition at that first Cannes festival, an event annulled by the
outbreak of war.) And the twenty-two films in competition this year, as
well as the hundreds of others screening in parallel sections and in two
simultaneous independent festivals, the Directors' Fortnight and
Critics' Week, offered a heteroclite and truly global definition of
cinema. In a single afternoon, one might take in nonagenarian Portuguese
auteur Manoel de Oliveira's latest recondite opus or a crowd-pleasing
sex farce by French director Catherine Breillat, beside films by fresh
or unknown talents from Thailand, Chad and Tajikistan.
The festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or, went to Roman Polanski's
The Pianist, a cumbersome and uneven but oddly fascinating work
of memory. Polanski, the son of Polish Jews living in France who
returned home two years before the onset of World War II, drew upon
childhood recollections of a shattered Krakow for this adaptation of the
memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (played by Adrien Brody)
who survived the Warsaw ghetto and spent the rest of the war in hiding.
What begins as a very conventional Holocaust drama gathers strength from
an accumulation of detail drawn from the ghetto's microhistory, and then
shifts registers into a horror film, as it follows Szpilman's solitary
transformation into a hirsute and famished specter.
At the film's press conference, someone asked Polanski if his hero's
voyeurism and enforced passivity--Szpilman witnesses the Warsaw ghetto
uprising from the window of his apartment hideout--reflected his own
choice of filmmaking as a profession. "That's one of those questions
you'd need to ask my psychiatrist, if I had one," the director quipped
acerbically. No one asked line producer Lew Rywin (who also worked on
Schindler's List and Aimée & Jaguar) why
big-budget Holocaust features seem inevitably to highlight stories of
Germans saving Jewish lives, and thus to flout the grain of history.
Less hullabaloo surrounded documentarian Frederick Wiseman's brilliant
fiction debut, The Last Letter, a one-hour feature screening
out-of-competition. Filmed in rich black-and-white, Catherine Samie, an
actress from the Comédie Française, performs a text drawn
from Russian author Vasily Grossman's novel, Life and Fate--a
chapter consisting of the last letter that a Russian Jewish doctor in
German-occupied Ukraine writes to her son, who is behind the frontlines
in safety. Visuals reminiscent of German Expressionist film--the
actress's physiognomy and the shadows surrounding her figure--combine
with the pure power of language to conjure up the lost world of the
ghetto (the poor patients who pay her with potatoes, the neighbor in an
elegant linen suit, wearing his yellow star like a camellia). Using
these subtle and minimalist means, Wiseman's film builds to an
emotionally devastating conclusion.
But that's Cannes, where the purest cinematic pleasures coexist beside a
rare degree of hype and glamour. Where else would a jury including
surrealists (president David Lynch and fellow director Raoul Ruiz) and
powerful babes (actresses Sharon Stone and Michelle Yeoh) assemble to
judge the fate of world cinema? They gave this year's critical favorite,
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past,
the Grand Jury Prize, while its star, Kati Outinen, took the award for
Best Actress. A tender and whimsical portrait of a man who, having lost
his memory after a beating by street thugs, finds himself reborn into a
world of homeless people living in industrial containers by an abandoned
Helsinki port, The Man Without a Past seemed to distill Europe's
hope for redemption from a turbulent past and uncertain present with
lyricism, gentleness and beauty.
In the Official Selection, refugees and genocides were everywhere: from
the boat filled with survivors of the Shoah heading toward the shores of
Palestine in 1948 during the mesmerizing opensequences of Kedma,
Israeli director Amos Gitaï's alternately moving and unwieldy
existential drama about the first days of Israel's founding amid the
confusion of war between British, Arab and Jewish forces; to the hordes
of Armenians fleeing Turkish forces in Atom Egoyan's Ararat, an
overly intellectualized evocation of Turkey's 1915 extermination of its
Armenian population (which came complete with a condemnation by that
government); to the Kurds massed along the boundary between Iraq and
Iran in Bahman Ghobadi's Songs from My Mother's Country, a letter
from an ongoing genocide; to the largely unseen immigrants heading
secretly north across the border in Chantal Akerman's From the Other
Side, a bracingly experimental (if ill-paced) documentary
exploration of the frontier between the United States and Mexico.
Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami provided a triumph of minimalist style
in Ten, a film shot in digital, in which a divorced woman driving
hectically through the streets of Teheran picks up a series of
passengers--including an elderly peasant, a prostitute and her own young
son--whose conversations illuminate her own condition in Iranian
society. At the film's emotional climax, she stops her car to talk, and
we suddenly feel the losses that have propelled her relentless forward
motion. In an Official Selection routinely dominated by male directors,
Ten was one of a mere handful of films to address women's
It was a good year for gallows humor and dark comedies. Nebraskan
satirist Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (an adaptation of the
novel by Louis Begley) was notable both for its mordant wit and for Jack
Nicholson's restrained performance as a retired insurance executive
suddenly confronted with the meaninglessness of existence. A far wackier
vision of America emerged from Michael Moore's Bowling for
Columbine, the first documentary to screen in competition at Cannes
in forty-six years, which received a special prize from the jury. At
times hilarious and biting, Moore's film ropes together the 1999 high
school shootings in Colorado, the Oklahoma City bombing and an incident
that occurred near Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, where one
6-year-old shot another, to raise the question, Why is gun violence
endemic in America? Officials of the Lockheed Corporation, members of
the Michigan Militia and Timothy McVeigh's brother James (a gun-toting
tofu farmer) weigh in with their suggestions. There are a few surprises
(a sheriff, for example, who thinks workfare should be abolished), but
as an interviewer Moore is overly fond of the rhetorical question, and
his film founders when it encapsulates the history of American foreign
policy as a unique series of bloody coups and massacres. (Even the
liberal French daily Libération took issue with Moore's
anti-Americanism, which it deemed too much in the spirit of France
today.) And so we're left to wonder, is it something in our water or in
Alas, even a cursory glimpse at the festival's other selections showed
violence to be far from an American exception. There was Brazilian
director Fernando Meirelles's fast-paced favela epic, City of
God, in which trigger-happy children devastate the slums of Rio. And
there was Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's Divine
Intervention, a comedy set (miraculously) on the West Bank and in
the town of Nazareth, where he was born. Playing E.S., a figure like
himself, Suleiman melds Buster Keaton's melancholy and Jacques Tati's
precision into a film whose plot revolves around a father's death and
Palestinian lovers who meet at a checkpoint between Ramallah and
Jerusalem. But this slim story is merely a thread upon which to hang a
series of inane gags--a discarded apricot pit that blows up a tank, a
Santa Claus stabbed by a knife--that poetically encapsulate the
absurdity, paralysis and rage-filled fantasies underpinning contemporary
Palestinian life. Suleiman finished his script two years ago, just
before the West Bank exploded. Though he considers himself a pacifist,
at least a few of the dreams of his character have since become
realities. During the festival's closing ceremony, in which winners
evoked a variety of political causes--from the plight of Belgian actors
to that of the people of Mexico--Suleiman (whose film took the Jury
Prize) made a short speech noteworthy for its absence of polemic. He
thanked his French producer.
Two offerings from different parts of the globe suggested that the best
course for artists is to steer clear of politics. Italian auteur Marco
Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile is a psychological thriller about
a middle-aged painter, an atheist and a leftist, who suddenly realizes
with horror that his deceased mother is being considered for
canonization. ("Wouldn't it be useful for our son's future career to
have a saint for a grandmother?" his estranged wife asks him, with what
certainly appears to be an excess of calculation.) The film seemed a
visionary nightmare, from a member of the generation of '68, about the
state of contemporary Italian society.
And from Korea, Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseon provided a lusty and
inspired portrait of the legendary painter Ohwon Jang Seung-Ub, who
sprang from common roots to dominate nineteenth-century Korean art.
Ohwon (who apparently incorporated the worst qualities of both Van Gogh
and Pollock) was never sober for a day, and kept a constantly changing
series of mistresses filling his cups; he negotiated the intricacies of
chaotic Chosun Dynasty politics with the proverbial delicacy of a bull
in a china shop; yet his precise and remarkably vivid scrolls and
screens filled with fog-covered mountains, wild beasts and flowers
seemed to surge forth endlessly from some hidden well of creation. The
66-year-old Im (who shared the directing prize with American
Wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson for his Punch-Drunk Love)
is perhaps the most prolific filmmaker on the planet, with some
ninety-eight features to his credit, including dozens of studio genre
pictures from his salad days as a hack, before his conversion to high
culture. "In art," he said in an interview, "there is no completion, but
only the interminable struggle toward it."
Yasser Arafat should step aside.
The pervasive assumption among nearly all of Oslo's proponents was that the undemocratic nature of Yasser Arafat's regime, far from being an obstacle to peace, was actually a strategic asset.