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Socialism Today 96 - November 2005

Time for yesterday’s news

World in Action (Volume 1)

Network DVD

Running time: 300 minutes


Release date: 31 October 2005

Reviewed by Manny Thain

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TWELVE EPISODES of World in Action, Granada Television’s documentary series, are on this double DVD. Subjects range from Mick Jagger in 1967 to the Birmingham Six in 1991, released after 16 years in jail for IRA bombings they did not commit. There are reports from around the world.

End of a Revolution? (11 December 1967) starts with the death of Che Guevara at the hands of CIA trained Bolivian army rangers. Then the focus swings to Bolivia itself, illustrating the grinding poverty – three quarters of the population scratch a living off the land. It shows life for the tin miners, working seven days a week in terrible conditions – 24,000 miners and their families in ramshackle huts in a mining camp. The military regime halved their wages in May 1965. All the mines struck. In the repression which followed, 500 miners were killed.

The film states that over the previous 142 years there had been 180 revolutions in Bolivia. Che had some links with the miners, who set up training camps underground. Instead of using these links to fortify the organised workers’ movement, however, the opposite was true – 40 of the most militant miners joined Che’s rural guerrilla forces.

There’s footage of the 53-day show trial of French Marxist intellectual, Regis Debray, captured by Bolivian troops just before Che’s death. He was sentenced to 30 years. (Released in 1970, he became an advisor to French president, François Mitterrand, from 1981-85.)

The film answers its own question: If poverty is not tackled, Bolivia could face its 181st revolution.

The Quiet Mutiny (28 September 1970) is a report by John Pilger on the demoralisation of US troops in Vietnam. Pilger is on an army base eight miles from Cambodia, deep in North Vietnamese Army country. He says that he has come "back for the final act. No blood, no atrocities, just the rejection of the war by those sent here to fight it. Just the quiet mutiny of the greatest army in history". It would take another five years, however.

At the time, there were 400,000 US troops in Vietnam. Of those, 80,000 were on the frontline, mostly ‘grunts’, drafted from the US working class. They are rebellious, growing their hair, wearing peace signs, smoking dope. Polar opposite to the grunts are the ‘lifers’, the career officers in air-conditioned rooms giving out orders.

This is a study in the breakdown of order. A gun turret is painted, ‘Mission Impossible’. Grunts do all they can to avoid combat, including disobeying orders. Unpopular officers get shot – in the back.

This is familiar history, now. But this excellent report brings home the futility of the war once again, and the impotence of the ruling class when the tide turns against it: "The war is ending because the grunt is taking no more bullshit", says Pilger.

Death of a Revolutionary (27 September 1971) features the funeral of George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party, shot dead on 21 August while allegedly trying to escape from San Quentin prison, California. This is the story of fierce resistance in the face of vicious, racist, state repression.

On 12 January 1960, 19-year-old Jackson was sentenced to ‘one to 100 years’ for stealing $72 from a gas station. He had been refused parole eight times and spent seven years in solitary confinement. In January 1970, he was charged with the murder of a prison guard.

Jackson’s prison writings were very influential in the militant black movement: "There’s no turning back from awareness. If I were to alter myself now I would always hate myself. I would grow old feeling that I failed an obligation and duty that is ours once we become aware. I would die as most of us blacks have died over the last few centuries without having lived".

Eighteen months before he was killed he joined the Black Panthers, a revolutionary party which organised armed self-defence of black communities. The funeral was a political event. Thousands of people lined the route of the motorcade, a defiant demonstration of black power.

The chairman of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, denounces the prison authorities and state governor, Ronald Reagan. Black Panther ‘minister of defence’, Huey P Newton, is interviewed: "We have to either knock down or crush the wall of exploitation and oppression". The last words are Jackson’s: "If I’m guilty of one thing it’s not leaning on them enough. War without terms".

The Life and Death of Steve Biko (3 October 1977) goes back to brutal apartheid in South Africa and the struggle to oppose it. It starts with his funeral on 25 September. Biko was the leader of the Black People’s Convention, set up in 1972, and was a recognised leader of the black consciousness movement. He had organised one of the first black South African student unions, funds for political prisoners, medical clinics, and campaigns for black education.

Biko was the 20th to die in police custody in a year. Twenty thousand attended his funeral rally, many more were prevented from getting there. The focus on one individual often masks the scale of social movements, reducing the ‘masses’ to passive onlookers. But here we are witnessing a people in revolt. It is etched on the faces of young black men and women as they raise their fists in salute to the camera, shouting and cheering: a force which is, ultimately, unstoppable.

Prisoner of Terrorism (10 July 1978) is based around an interview in prison with Horst Mahler, one of the leaders of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF – Red Army Faction, more generally known as the Baader-Meinhof group) in Germany. He was sentenced to 14 years after a series of terrorist attacks. The RAF claimed to have socialist aims. Its activity was exclusively individual terrorist attacks against selected representatives of West German capitalism, especially those with a fascist past.

In the 1960s, German youth were in revolt against the perceived acquiescence of the older generation to Nazism and that many still in the top echelons of society had been part of Hitler’s regime, the Vietnam war, etc.

Mahler, a lawyer, made his name defending students in court and became active himself, championing left-wing causes. RAF emerged from the splits in the student movement in the face of the state’s extremely harsh repression. But its tactics reinforced the state they were designed to weaken. Mahler says that RAF received no support from workers because they had been corrupted by the welfare state into sympathy with the system. The strategy, he says, was borne of despair: they had tried to protest peacefully, but got nowhere.

The Birmingham Six: Their Own Story (18 March 1991) tells the story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British history. Twenty-one people died in the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. Hugh Callaghan, Paddy Hill, Gerry Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, Billy Power and John Walker were made to pay.

On arrest they were tortured: mock executions, threatened with dogs, severely beaten, humiliated. Four of the six signed confessions. Remanded at Winston Green prison, Birmingham, they received further battering, had their teeth kicked in, were held under water containing the blood and ripped out hair of their co-accused. The prison officers were acquitted of assault.

They were stunned when the judge spoke of the "clearest and most overwhelming evidence I’ve ever heard" to commit. Each got 21 life sentences. Their families started campaigning for justice. It took years of bitter struggle before the appeal court in 1991 found that police notes had been fabricated and the forensic evidence was discredited.

This is a heart-rending personal account, a harsh reminder of the fundamental brutality of the British state. It shows how hatred and fear can be whipped up and used to push repressive legislation – the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974 – applicable to today’s ‘war on terror’.

The other episodes include: Mick Jagger, questioned by four pillars of the establishment (31 July 1967); The Demonstration, about the anti-Vietnam war protest outside the US embassy, London (18 March 1968); The Man Who Stole Uganda, on Idi Amin’s coup (5 April 1971); The Siege of Kontum, on the ‘Montagnards’, pre-modern tribal people caught up in the Vietnam war (5 June 1972); Banged Up, a grim day in the life of Strangeways prison, Manchester (2 April 1979); Killing for a Cure, on the Animal Liberation Front (16 February 1981).

It’s a mixed bag, but most of the films are very good, covering historical events and social issues which raise important questions today. These documentaries, each a very accessible 25-minutes, could be used, for example, as part of debates at political meetings and discussion groups.


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