By Uli Schmetzer
September 12, 2009

VENICE – The film industry’s foremost social critic, Michael Moore, did not win the Golden Lion at the 66th Venice Film Festival but his documentary ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ was the torch bearer of a blunt new cinematographic realism exposing our ailing societies, our lopsided economies and the reason for poverty in many parts of the world, including the United States.
While Moore’s meticulously researched ‘I accuse’ left no doubts American capitalism has turned into a kind of highway robbery by official bandits posing as Robin Hoods, Oliver Stone’s documentary ‘South of the Border’ leaves little doubt the greatest barrier to social and economic progress is the mass media – the often ignorant but always gullible serfs of corporate and official interests.
The two men launched an attack on the twin towers of our capitalist system. Stone assaulted the media’s demonizing of Latin American leaders like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. Both these leaders stood up to American hegemonic ambitions on their oil and gas resources and were vilified for it. Moore dismantled a system that is making the few richer, the majority poorer and he illustrated with interviews how capitalism is now firmly in the hands of Wall Street and the banks with a complacent Congress rubberstamping their needs rather then the needs of the people.
These two documentaries spearheaded a memorable Film Fest overflowing with realistic exposes of the world around us, from the slums of Latin America and Asia where people live on hand-outs, on their wits, the generosity of other poor and the mercy of loan sharks to the outrageous male chauvinism to which Moslem women are still subjected. There were inside reflections on the massacres of Tiananmen in 1989 and the stolen election in Teheran last year, to homophobia, a subject highlighted once again by news of more gay bashings in xenophobic Italy while the films still ran on the screen in Venice.
As usual political expediency triumphed over merit and the coveted Golden Lion award went to an Israeli film ‘Lebanon’ by director Samuel Maoz. The film had virtually nothing to do with Israel’s bloody and periodic incursions into Lebanon but was entirely shot inside an Israeli tank, marooned on the Lebanese side of the border. The story tells the reaction of its unruly and panicky crew.
‘Lebanon’ is a fine film, ingeniously shot in the cage-like confines of a tank which poses the question why Israelis tend to isolate themselves, either in their settlement or in their tanks. Lebanon carries no message, takes no sides, accuses no one but leaves the viewers with what they already know – that war is evil and young soldiers really don’t want to die.
From the start of this year’s festival it was obvious the rightwing government of premier Silvio Berlusconi would go bananas if a ‘leftwing’ film walked off with the prize at an international Film Fest that had already been ‘persuaded’ to include a record 22 Italian films among the 80 global entries accepted and had to look on powerless as builders cut down a venerable old pine grove on its doorstep – to be replaced by concrete structures in some future.
The true color of the powers ruling Italy today emerged when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez appeared with Oliver Stone at the premier of ‘South of the Border’ in which Stone illustrates, with excerpts from US television, how officials and commentators vilified the democratically (twice) elected Chavez as another Hitler, a despot, a tyrant while they cruelly and ignorantly dismissed Bolivia’s Evo Morales as a drug addict, hate campaigns far more vitriolic and contrived then anything the state-run media of the former Soviet Union ever produced.
In Venice festival crowds gave a tumultuous welcome to the populist Chavez whose style may not be everyone’s cup of tea but who has bridged the gap between poor and rich in his oil-rich nation, a president who brought education and health care to the barrios and rural areas of Venezuela and who survived a CIA-orchestrated military coup of the kind that killed another democratically elected Latin American, Salvador Allende, in 1973.
The Berlusconi government completely ignored the presence of Chavez, claiming it was a private visit. The Festival committee would not even introduce him at the beginning of the film premier until the crowd shouted ‘Chavez! Chavez! Then the Venezuelan stood up to be acknowledged. Earlier he had gone on a walk-about to shake hands with common people and to be photographed with them.
This popular enthusiasm outraged the Berlusconi media which controls 90 per cent of the Italian press and TV outlets. On its front pages next day it labeled the audiences in Venice ‘a mob of communists’ for cheering Chavez. (The label ‘communist’ is attached today to anyone critical of Berlusconi, perhaps a throwback to the nostalgic old fascist days of Il Duce.)
Easily the most impressive film was Moore’s. With gusto and some characteristic clowning he cobbled together facts and figures illustrating how the few, mainly in America, are living in Olympian luxury while the multitude have their houses repossessed, their jobs lost, their savings gobbled up by medical bills and lack of pensions. A year before his death, so the film points out, President Roosevelt had planned to add to the U.S. constitution a national health scheme and workers’ rights clauses, innovations never taken off the drawing board.
The president died but after the war Roosevelt officials wrote the new constitutions for the conquered Axis nations, Germany, Italy and Japan and added to these constitutions Roosevelt’s ideas, the reason why social welfare schemes like health care, pensions and workers rights now function in those countries – unlike the United States.
But ruling cliques, whether capitalist or theocratic, cling to their power by subverting the ideals and practices of democracy for their own ends. This was admirably illustrated in the haunting Iranian film by Hanna Makhmalbaf ‘Green Days.’ The dramatized documentary dissects the bloody protests in Teheran following the presidential election last year and shows the eventual winner, incumbent president Ahmadinejad, came only third in ‘true voting’ but was imposed on the country by its omnipotent theocracy.
At a time of recession and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the films shown in Venice did not aim - with a few exceptions - for big box office returns but were intend on offering a message of things gone wrong or providing food for thought about where we are and where we are going.
Whether it is Corporate Fraud (The Informant by Steven Sonderbergh) or the leftovers of the Cold War, like the harebrain scheme to train soldiers to kill by staring (The Men who stare at Goats by Grant Heslov) or child trafficking (Tehroun by Takmil Homayoun Nader) the desire was not to just tell a pretty story but a realistic reflection of current life.
Perhaps the most avant-garde are the Germans whose new crop of films not only have that amazing mixture of multi-ethnicity that characterizes modern German society today, especially Berlin where East and Wets merge, but whose new directors are not afraid to exploit fresh ways of presenting cinematographic art in a kind of neo-surrealism reminiscent of happy-go-lucky clowns prancing across Alexanderplatz.
One of the best was Soul Kitchen by Fatih Akin, a happy-go-lucky, feisty tale of a young Greek running a restaurant amid an ever changing Berlin and ever changing values. In contrast Italian films, and there were 22 of them out of 80, remain spectacular but riveted to that durable theme of fascism versus communism that has divided and still divides Italy. Perhaps the best of the second week’s Italian crop was Michele Placido’s ‘The Great Dream’ his own experience of a the 1968 world-wide student rebellion when he was a riot policeman clubbing and informing on the students before a love affair, not any conviction, made him desert to the other side.
Tom Ford’s ‘A Single Man’ is the tender and sensitive story of a gay couple, broken up when one dies in a car accident and the other now has to face a world in which he can not openly mourn, is not invited to the funeral and feels ostracized. He explains to a young student that homophobia is no more then fear of those who are different.
At a time when Europe tries to keep out the wave of immigrants from Africa and the war-torn Middle East the story of super-model Waris Dirie gives the audiences a glimpse of what these immigrants have to suffer to escape not only abject misery, wars and abuses but to find a foothold in our privileged society determined today to keep them out.
‘Desert Flower’ by Sherry Hormann is Waris’ biography in all its horror and humanity. A Somalian nomad girl in a family of 13, she was subjected to infibulation at the age of three when a Muslim woman’s genital organs, the clitoris and the labia are cut away with instruments like kitchen knives so the women will not experience any pleasure in adult life. The wound is then sown up and the stitches are only removed by the future husband who cuts open her private parts with a knife or scissors before ‘taking possession’ of her.
The haunting true story of how she escaped to Mogadishu and then as an illiterate maid to London details many of the horrors to which immigrants in Europe are now subjected under draconian immigration laws. Waris teaches herself at night school, enters a marriage of convenience to stay in Britain, becomes a super-model and ends up addressing the U.N. assembly in New York on the graphic horror of infibulation, a ritual, though outlawed, which is still practiced on an estimated 6,000 girls a day.
For those who like a little tenderness there is ‘Barking Water’ by young American director Sterling Harjo, the sweet love story of an elderly couple -going home. “I thought not only young people but old people too have love stories. And I thought it should be told.” Said Harjo, a member of the Seminole and Creek Nation.
Perhaps in that one phrase ‘it should be told’ he summed up the Venice Film Festival this year.