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The Arts Voyager, 10-19: Witness
Occupying the Media with Woody Guthrie and Oliver Laxe
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

What do a demonstration in Paris, a performance in Fort Worth, a prisoner exchange in Israel and Palestine, and a documentary filmed in Morocco opening tonight in New York have in common? Taken together, they confirm the importance of the artist as witness.

You wouldn't know it from reading the French newspapers, but on Monday, under the banner "Here, we drown Algerians," demonstrators in Paris marched from the Grand Boulevards in the 9th arrondissement to the St. Michel bridge to commemorate the day 50 years earlier when the bodies of up to 300 French Algerians -- holding a peaceful march to protest a curfew imposed upon them by Maurice Papon, the prefect of Paris who would later be convicted of committing war crimes during the Occupation -- were dumped into the Seine after they were beaten to or near death by police acting under Papon's orders. If France has apologized for deporting its Jews during World War II -- albeit more than 50 years after the fact -- it has never apologized for the October 17, 1961 massacre. Just this week, its interior minister said "France doesn't owe any excuses." (For a complete accounting of the events of October 17, 1961, in French, check the four programs devoted to the subject by Daniel Mermet's crucial radio program La Bas Si J'y Suis on the French national radio chain France Inter.)

French newspapers gave much more ink to the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, also a French citizen, by the Palestinian group Hamas, which had captured him in 2006 on the Gaza-Israel border. What's pertinent here is that relatively little attention was given to the 477 Palestinian prisoners initially released by Israel in exchange; never mind that some of these were government officials kidnapped from their homes (for the crime of having been chosen in Democratic elections to govern Palestine) in what the Israelis would describe as autonomous Palestinian territory. As opposed to the white European Jewish person, the Palestinian Arabs weren't worth naming.

What's my point, as it pertains to this subject? As Noam Chomsky put it in a talk last week in New York analyzing this prisoner exchange, Arabs aren't people. They are not accorded that dignity. If their bodies were dumped in the Seine by police operating under orders of the State, this is no big deal -- they're just Arabs. If the imprisonment of one French Israeli Jewish soldier is vaunted to the point where he becomes a cause celebre, the thousands imprisoned by Israel don't merit reporting because, after all, they're just Arabs. Actually let's say it: Dirty Arabs.

When I went to Israel in high school as part of a national student delegation sponsored by the State Department and funded in large part by the America Israel Public Affairs Committee -- largely responsible for the jaundiced picture we get of this conflict in the United States -- a group of fellow students and I cavorting in a town plaza thought it would be funny to put towels on our heads and make like Arabs trying to stab each other. Even growing up in San Francisco, this was the image I had of Arabs.

In a scene from Oliver Laxe's "You are all captains" from Zeitun Films, the young collaborators express their doubts over the film-maker. Image courtesy Zeitun Films and Anthology Film Archives..

In this context -- a context in which, be it in Europe or North America, Arabs are treated as less than human -- Oliver Laxe's docu-fiction hybrid "You are all Captains," a French-Spanish-Moroccan production filmed near Tangiers and getting its U.S. premiere tonight at Anthology Film archives, where it plays through October 25 -- is a crucial effort to re-humanize an Arab population by portraying a group of them in their infancy, the age of innocence.

Laxe starts us out on a false trail, the film at first seeming like the story of his attempt to teach the pre-adolescents at an urban boys' shelter how to make a film. But the children, supported by two other teachers, quickly rebel. By 'film' they were expecting to make a story, and Laxe seems more interested in a sort of contrived cinema verite, the European outsider -- while he's dark-complexioned, he appears by his attitude and allure to come from Spain or France -- imposing an account of his own teaching the poor Third World kids how to make a movie. In their rebellion, the children are asserting their own dignity and autonomy. They are not pawns to be used to fill out the European's own pre-conception. When the shelter's director consents to fire Laxe (although not really; he's evidently still behind the camera in following what happens afterwards), the kids welcome his replacement's suggestion to take a trip to the country. There, contradictorily, and notwithstanding the boys' professed desire to make a real story... even more of nothing happens. The distance between the replacement teacher, Shakhib Ben Omar, and his charges narrows, as he seems more excited and animated by the expedition than them. They march in a field, cool off in a river (where, directed by Ben Omar, who tells them "You are all captains," they pick up stones to fire as artillery), march along a highway, and ascend to a distant house in a vague quest for a hundred-year-old olive tree.

In other words, they behave and look just like any other kids.

As a film exercise, "You are all captains" is not so easy to peg. The PR makes comparisons to Francois Truffaut, but an analogy to the late French cineaste's New Wave counterpart Jean-Luc Godard is probably more accurate. Laxe's children are not so clever as the bored kids of the former's "Les enfants s'ennuient le dimanche" (Chldren get bored on Sunday), and his story seems secondary; the more interesting questions he raises have to do with the role of the film-maker himself in his relation to his subjects. Is he relinquishing the director's power to manipulate his native actors and his audience, itself motivated by a misguided attempt to assure authenticity? Or, considering that he is still behind the camera and that ultimately he has made the cinema verite he wanted and ignored the kids' desire to make a real story, is he still manipulating them and us? But in doing so, has he assured an authentic portrait that does them justice, even in denying them the story they wanted? Regardless, in programming the film, Anthology has succeeded once again in upping the ante, presenting not just a film, but a film which makes us think about film, even to questioning the authority of the director and the trust he does or might not merit.

Nearly 100 years after his birth, one might think that there is nothing left to re-consider about Woody Guthrie; much as it might be truer than ever today as, among other things, the obvious anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement, "This Land is your Land" might seem to be so over-played it has become as banal and anodyne as, well, Francis Scott Keys's "The Star-Spangled Banner." In Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," however, presented Saturday at Arts Fifth Avenue in Fort Worth, guitarist and singer Bruce Williams has succeeded in re-contextualizing Guthrie. Collaborating with actors Peggy Bott Kirby (with whom, full disclosure, I work very part-time at Arts Fifth Avenue) and Jimmy Joe Steenbergen and musician Kathleen Jackson, Williams reminds us of Guthrie's role as advocacy journalist, reporting from the scene the plight of the working and farming class in the United States in the '30s and '40s. Using illustrations (including cartoons by Guthrie), journal entries, and most movingly extracts from John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" describing the onset of the Dust bowl, Williams and crew shine the spotlight not just on Guthrie, and in a new way, but also on what he was shining the spotlight of his rhetorical gifts on, the struggles of these downtrodden, in effect humanizing and memorializing them in songs like "Roll On Columbia," "1913 Massacre," and "Deportee." But most of all, and giving due credit to the actors (although Steenbergen diluted the powerful effect of his own gravelly voice reciting Guthrie's journal entries at times by seeming to lose his place) and the tonal color added by Jackson's soprano, Williams achieved this with his own approach to delivering Guthrie's lyrics, a sort of hypnotic narrative singing, which, without being over-wrought, conveyed the impression that the singer was really suffering from the travails of those whose stories he was recounting alongside them. It's an empathy that contrasts sharply with the detached reporting by the mainstream media on the growing Occupy Wall Street movement, or at least their repeated obsessing with the false notions that the protesters haven't articulated any demands. The demand is for equity in the American dream, a struggle which, Guthrie and his resuscitation by Williams reminds us, is ongoing and demands persistence and which, even if they keep moving the goal line, produces its share of temporal heroes.

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