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A worldwide view

A three-month UK tour of international documentary film is being launched at London’s National Film Theatre 2-5 February. Organised by the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, subjects range from the second Palestinian intifada to a film about whistling. Also included in the programme is a short film about the Tower Colliery cooperative in South Wales, the Chechnyan conflict, Oona King’s defeat in the general election by George Galloway, and much else besides. Socialism Today previews three of the films.


Directed by Mariana Arruti

Argentina (2004)

95 mins

Reviewed by Bob Severn

TRELEW IS about political prisoners – revolutionary guerrilla fighters and trade unionists imprisoned by Argentina’s military dictatorship – attempting to escape from Rawson prison in August 1972.

The film is named after the airport from which the prisoners planned to hijack a plane to Chile, then under the presidency of left populist leader, Salvador Allende. People involved from both sides of the prison gates tell the history of the attempted escape.

The escape was planned by guerrilla groups both in and outside the prison, and involved over 100 prisoners. Not seeing the conditional call for elections in March 1973 as a real end to the dictatorship, the guerrillas aimed to return to armed combat after the jailbreak.

The attempted escape involved the growing organised support for the prisoners in the outside world, including local residents. On 15 August, dressed and armed like Argentinean soldiers, guerrillas took control of the prison in order to ‘escort’ the prisoners to freedom. The freed prisoners were to be transported in military-style trucks to Trelew airport, board a scheduled plane and reroute it to Chile.

The first six prisoners outside the prison got into the first vehicle, but no more trucks appeared. Another 19 prisoners hijacked three taxis, as recalled by two of the taxi drivers. Other prisoners, once realising they had no transport, turned back before the gates. The truck arrived at Trelew airport in time to hijack the commercial plane. The taxi passengers arrived too late to get on board so, instead, occupied the airport.

The six who made it to Chile were protected by Allende from Argentina’s request for them to be sent back. The airport occupation was short-lived, and the 19 men and women were transferred to a navy base. All but three were shot dead a week later. This was followed by an army clampdown, with many relatives and friends of the escapees murdered, as were members of the local community for their part in aiding the prisoners. The remaining three were killed in clampdowns in later years.

The Trelew massacre caused public uproar. The funeral of the 16, though heavily guarded by the military, was attended by hundreds of people. Many carried political banners with Ché Guevara pictures and socialist slogans.

This film mainly consists of interviews with surviving prisoners, family members, guerrillas, trade unionists, and prison, military and airport staff, presenting the escape in chronological order. Photos and news coverage from the time, plus video shots of the prison and airport, help to break up the film. But the lack of narration makes the film difficult to follow, although it could be argued that not having a narrator means that the events are retold only by those who were there, without being dramatised.

Trelew is definitely worth watching to learn of an almost forgotten piece of political history. While guerrilla tactics ultimately failed, the film demonstrates the courage and solidarity of working-class and poor people in struggle, possible even under a military dictatorship.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Directed by Alex Gibney

USA (2004)

110 mins

Reviewed by Ben Robinson

AS THE director points out: "There is bitter irony, humour and unconscious honesty in Enron’s advertising slogan, ‘Ask Why’." Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, documents the rise and fall of one of the biggest energy companies in recent times. A clip from The Simpsons shows the ‘Enron Ride’, where a group of executives climb higher and higher up the track, getting increasingly excited, at one point screaming, "We’re all going to be rich!", before descending into the poor house.

The scandal at Enron hit hard. The scale of corruption, backhanders and the attitude towards people’s lives shocked many Americans, and revealed a glimpse of the true nature of capitalism to millions. The film ends on a question about the level of involvement of other companies (accountants, lawyers, governors and other US state officials, etc), but no answer is suggested.

Watching this film initially feels like being on The Simpson’s rollercoaster, with fact after fact hitting you in the face about the ways in which they siphoned off cash from the company into their own bank accounts. The history of Enron’s dodgy dealings dates back to its origins in the mid-eighties. However, the ride did not really begin in earnest until 30 January 1992, when the Securities and Exchange Commission (a US government watchdog for business) approved ‘mark-to-market’ accounting, where the profits that Enron published were linked to analysts’ projections of profits, rather than actual turnover. This completely false way of bookkeeping meant that Enron CEOs were able to push up stock prices and cash-in on their shares when the time came. One executive got away with $200 million.

The film shows this in great detail, together with the way they milked the deregulated US infrastructure for even more money, shifting energy supplies around to create imaginary deficits, causing state-wide blackouts on and off for a year in California. The kind of thinking that puts creating profits before the health and well-being of millions of people is something that I find impossible to imagine.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room shows how the deregulated economy really works, with big backhanders for the board, nothing (not even electricity) for anyone else. But this is as far as the film goes. It is interesting viewing, giving a lot of information about Enron’s rise and fall. It does not discuss why, however, nor does it raise the root causes, which lie in the capitalist system we live under.

El Inmortal

Directed by Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez

Nicaragua, Mexico, Spain (2005)

78 mins

Reviewed by Manny Thain

THIS IS a powerful personal account of the civil war which raged in Nicaragua after the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) overthrew the military dictatorship of Anastasio Samoza in 1979. Ranged against them were the US-backed Contras. This war cost the lives of 50,000 people.

The film tells the story of the Rivera family. On 3 April 1983, their mountain town, Waslala, was caught in the crossfire of bullets and mortars. The Contras raided, taking away children to serve in their army. The twins, José Antonio and Juan Antonio Rivera, were twelve. José, the eldest daughter, Reina, and another brother, Emilio (who died in combat) ended up fighting for the Contras. Reina was 15 and had a 18-month child, Rosita, who was left behind. Juan later joined the Sandinistas.

We glimpse life in the town: dirt roads, shacks, beasts of burden, poverty. The Catholic church exploits the chaos and despair. The preacher commands: "Submit to the authorities whoever they may be". Even the lush vegetation and landscape contribute to the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere, accentuated by discordant, jarring sound effects.

Footage of cock-fighting has a voiceover by José, explaining the Contra training: "And it’s lousy, miserable, that they train you just for death, just to die there on the frontline. It’s the same with these cocks… That’s how they trained us in the war". Child soldiers, brutalised. Reina describes life as a woman in the Contras: "When they recruited a woman, the commander would take her if he liked her… then he’d give her to someone in another unit. He’d hand her on, like you’d hand someone a towel".

María, now an evangelical Christian after years of heavy drinking, reveals that her husband was tortured to death by the Contras, his body punctured with holes, an X gauged into his back as a warning to all Sandinista supporters.

Reina sums up the situation: "Everything that’s going on now is the result of that war. There isn’t a family in Nicaragua that hasn’t a wound of this kind". Although not explicitly stated, this is a film about the consequences of a revolutionary movement which did not succeed in implementing socialism, and radically and permanently improve conditions for the workers and poor.

The film ends with images of graves, birds of prey, penetrating gazes. The credits roll with an optimistic song about Central American revolution. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is meant as bitter irony, a pessimistic end to a moving, provocative and uncompromising film.


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