New Internationalist


June 1986

new internationalist
issue 160 - June 1986


Star rating system. Film reviews

Anne Devlin
directed by Pat Murphy

Not just a rebel's lover - Brid Brennan as Anne Devlin. This is a movie, which, though set two hundred or so years ago, has clear parallels with Ireland today - the relationship between Britain and Ireland never seems to grow any less painful.

Robert Emmet hatched a conspiracy against the English colonial army in Dublin 1803. Anne Devlin was his housekeeper - and, according to the history books at least, she was deeply in love with him.

The coup failed. The idea was that a small vanguard group would take Dublin Castle and then call on the masses to rise up. The masses were not, however, too sure about what was going on.

Pat Murphy's film is based on the journals Anne Devlin kept throughout the planning and the ignominious defeat - and through her subsequent imprisonment and torture.

The movie is elliptical and slow to the point of staginess (there is much close-up use of leading actress Brid Brennan's pure, impassive features) but it deserves much more than the mere art-house pigeon-holing it is likely to get.

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The Taste of Water
directed by Orlow Seunke

This classic Dutch study is not for everybody. An uncompromising film, it explores the relationship between a hardened social worker and a wild child' whom he meets because of a multiple slaying involving the child's parents. Anna is filthy, lives in a cupboard, and shows signs of having been systematically brutalized. The balding social worker Hes becomes obsessed with trying to make human contact with her. He moves into her tenement apartment, endangering both his job and his marriage.

The Taste of Water uses a grainy rigour to give a victim's-eye-view of the grey interiors of the welfare offices and slums of urban Holland. And Seunke has created a ruthlessly honest film about people and institutions.

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The Song of the Spear
directed by Barry Feinberg

A film about the role of culture in the process of South African liberation, The Song of the Spear focuses on 'Amandla', the ANC-affiliated cultural group which travels the world conveying the vitality of the South African resistance movement.

The irony is that they cannot perform in their home country. Shots of their live shows are interspersed with newsreel footage of the black townships - the brutality of the police set against the energy and resolution of the resistance. Barbara Masakela and Thabo Mbeki of the ANC make telling points about how culture in South Africa is necessarily subversive and thus must be suppressed. And perhaps the dearth of indigenous white culture is an indicator of that society's complacent dishonesty.

The film is a pleasure to watch. The only regret is that it couldn't show performances staged in the townships - for that film we'll have to wait a few years yet.

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Music reviews

WOMAD Talking Book
by various artists

[image, unknown] This is a collection of traditional and contemporary African music, part of a series introducing world music produced by the World of Music, Art and Dance (WOMAD) educational foundation.

The album includes arousing track from Zimbabwean star Thomas Mapfumo, drum and thumb-piano pieces and some Soweto township music. It's hard to sit still while listening, but when you've danced enough you can be revived by a tinkling guitar solo from Zaire's Jean Bosco Mwenda. Or find out more about the players, their countries and music from the record sleeve, which doubles as a 20-page magazine.

Trying to shoe-horn Africa's wealth of music into 12 tracks is ambitious, as is trying to give its cultural context But the format works. The musical tasters give an introduction to new sounds, and the discography can be used to track down the music you want to hear more of.

Available for £6 or US$9 from WOMAD,3rd Floor 85 Park St, Bristol BS1 5JN UK

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Lives in the Balance
by Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne's first four albums were perhaps the best to emerge from the singer-songwriter tradition of the early 1970s They were particularly mature and perceptive for the way they dealt with relationships, and Late For The Sky still stands up as one of the finest records rock music has produced.

Times changed and Jackson Browne won a bigger crowd in the Stateside stadia but lost his focus in the process. Lives in the Balance, though, sees him back in touch with a different, altogether grimmer, reality. The lives in question are Nicaraguan, while in America he lambasts Rambo Reaganism and charts the course of his own politicisation:

And from the comfort of a dreamer's bed/And the safety of my own head/I went on speaking of the future/ While other people fought and bled

The music is not as evocative as his early work but it stands a much better chance of reaching the mass of Americans who need to hear this message.

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Book reviews

God dies by the Nile
By Nawal el Saadawi
( Zed Press)

God dies by the nile It has taken a long time for more of the novels of the Egyptian author Nawal el Saadawi to follow the scorching Woman at Point Zero into English. Now we have God dies by the Nile and it is almost as harrowing.

The novel is about a small town on the Nile and the havoc wrought in the life of a peasant family by its mayor. This is a nightmare world in which ordinary people, and women in particular, are at the mercy of the arbitrary power of men. And the back-breaking business of coaxing life from the soul is overlaid by a spirit-breaking vulnerability to the whims of local authority.

The omnipotent mayor, the chief of police, the local Islamic leader - these are mean, irredeemably vicious men, pumped up with their own importance. Yet they are also ordinary enough to be credible characters. And the worst nightmare of all is that this can be an everyday reality in small communities all over the world.

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The Field Directors' Handbook
by Oxfam
(Oxford University Press)

Oxfam has learnt a lot about relief and development since the 1940s when, as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, it sent aid to Greece, then still occupied by Nazi Germany. A readily-accessible distillation of what the aid charity has learnt is brought together in this new edition of their handbook

There is a new section on women and an expanded section on disasters - both signs of the times in their different ways. The editors stress small-scale, inexpensive options which can be implemented by Third World communities themselves

The manual will be dipped into by often isolated voluntary workers 'often obliged to make decisions based on the minimum of information'. It is packed with information about essential drugs, how to dig a latrine, the dilemmas of birth control and child labour, as well as checklists of key questions

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The Wheat Trap
by Gunilla Andrae and Bjorn Beckman

The subtitle says it better: 'Bread and underdevelopment in Nigeria'. Africa's most populous country (94 million people) has been importing one and a half million tons of wheat a year, most of it from the US. Bread has become the cheapest staple food, and Andrae and Beckman look at the economic and political logic behind this 'wheat trap'. The whole chain is examined from a tough neo-Marxist perspective. Flour mills establish a bridgehead Then a mass of small local entrepreneurs and bakers, with their mud ovens and appropriate technology, ensure that bread is eaten in the smallest of villages

There is lots of juicy factual information as well as anecdotes; all bolstering the 'development of underdevelopment' thesis

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Pornography and Silence
.being the book that shed light on a dark underworld

I was 14 when I first saw pornographic magazines. I remember the occasion very clearly: I was at a party, trying to be sophisticated and feeling horribly nervous and self-conscious. And I remember too my reactions when these magazines were passed round the tittering circle of young teenagers who were attempting to be 'adults'. I was terrified. I wanted to be at home with my family, eating scrambled egg round the television set, and not in a room with the lights turned low, giggling (choking) over grotesque images.

Years later, I was again reading pornographic literature, but this time in the British Museum Reading Room. Its courteous daylight was reassuring if somewhat incongruous, and I sat at the specially allocated 'Pornographic Table' with fellow perusers of porn, our hands on the table-top (as instructed). The cataloguing of pornography was, to say the least, bizarre - bland and dated books on menstruation alongside the expected de Sade, for example. Although by now more sexually confident and politically aware, I was shocked and shaken by what I read and saw; still felt soiled. And this time I was also uncomfortably alert to the titillation.

It was with relief and great gratitude that I read Susan Griffin's Pornography and Silence. I read it eagerly and without discrimination, for it gave me a way in which to think about pornography without that sense of shrinking shame, and it dared to admit to the stained seduction it offers. There is courage in such an approach.

For several years now the feminist debate on pornography has made clear its centrality as an issue. Andrea Dworkin says 'we will know that we are free when pornography ceases to exist' because pornography is both a manifestation and index of women's oppression. This is certainly Susan Griffin's stance. She exposes the horror of pornography (and this makes devastating reading - there are passages in the book that I will never read again; once is enough) and she then looks at the conditions thrown up by the splits within our society; between spirit and matter, man and woman, black and white.

Analysing the pornographic/racist mind, Susan Griffin exposes a culture in which woman is a blank screen. The nature of her real being is erased, as if her cultural image had been carefully prepared for a clear projection of an image, and she comes to represent all that man would deny in himself: man is striving to rid himself of his dread of women by objectifying it. Griffin explores the old and familiar duality in which body and soul are represented by the virgin and the whore. The virgin is 'pure' and her soul can be loved precisely because her body has not been touched: she is without sexual knowledge. But the whore, who does possess sexual knowledge, is defiled. Her spirit has been destroyed by the same act which soiled her body. And yet, in the pornographic mind, all along the virgin is the whore: for 'woman' is a figment of the pornographic imagination. Over and over again, the pornographer reverses his own humiliation, enslavement and terror. Fearing the woman's real presence, he makes her into an object and then fearing the object, he destroys it. The real intention of the pornographic mind is to sever the connections between mind and body - and it is precisely because the severance is unnatural that it must be violent and terrifying.

Pornography and Silence is a deeply disturbing book, questioning as it does the hospitality of the soul, the meaning of humanity. Griffin acts as both philosopher and poet and she brings to light things that have grown bloated, mutant, gross in the dark underworld of pornography. But, but, but .. . There is a large absence at the heart of her book, for I am left asking where the dividing line between pornography and eroticism lies. The sexual aggression of the 'post feminist' women, who believe we should practice whatever is enjoyable and sexually exciting/liberating for us, opposes the greater puritanism of women who feel that by making free of their bodies, indulging even in sadomasochism if they want, women simply continue and exacerbate oppression. Both divided feminist groups risk perpetuating the old duality implicit in pornography: by being predatory and almost 'macho', women are in danger of associating themselves with pornographers; by seeing heterosexual sex as an oppressive and brutal act, women are in danger of becoming the guardians of a moral code which places them still in the position of the celibate and the censor. Opposing pornography, we need not, surely, oppose eroticism. But, you see, I still don't really know what these two words mean..

Nicci Gerrard
Pornography and Silence by Susan Griffin. Women's Press (1981)

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This feature was published in the June 1986 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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