Friday, March 19, 2010

Layer 267 . . . Devastation . . . Return to Gaza . . . and Detroit

Dispatches: Children of Gaza (Channel 4)

I had an idea a while ago to make a documentary about education that would use children speaking to camera about their experiences of school to tell the truth about the way in which schools have become results factories that have nothing to do with 'learning how to learn' and everything to do with using children in a despicable and cynical effort to achieve government-set targets for test and exam passes.

You would need to find some reasonably articulate kids who could speak from the heart about how much they hate being subjected to a form of schooling that has nothing to do with their own need to enjoy learning for its own sake, and nothing at all to do with enabling them to become self-directing independent learners, which is something we all aspire to, if we have any spirit left in us.

I'm saying here that my documentary would "use" children in this way, but what I really want to do is give children who care about this misuse of their childhood an opportunity to speak out in their own voices about what is clearly a form of abuse.

[Incidentally, I also want to make a film about the opposite case - children who were subjected to an extreme version of "child-centred" schooling that allowed them to drift through the Primary school phase and avoid any engagement with literacy and numeracy if they "didn't feel like it". The interviewees would be adults who, in living memory, attended a school where the headteacher and her hand-picked staff held the view that children "naturally" choose to learn how to read, write or do mathematics "when they're ready for it".

I've met some of these children and they rightly resent enormously the failure of their teachers to find ways to interest and engage them in forms of learning that usually require considerable effort and application - just to satisfy their "child-centred" philosophy. It's the reverse side of the coin that has on its other side the Blunkets and Blairs of this world saying that children have to be made to sit down, shut up, concentrate on the teacher, do hours of pointless homework and do nothing that 'gets in the way' of getting the highest possible marks in tests.]

The reason I'd want to use children (and ex-pupils) to tell these stories is that they'd speak from the heart in ways that would be impossible to coach or direct into professional actors even. When a child speaks with passion and conviction about serious matters that affect them you KNOW they're telling the truth, and not just parroting someone else's lines or points of view.

This week there was a documentary on Channel 4 about the children of Gaza, which allowed the children to speak in their own voices about what they've been through, and are still going through. It made me so angry and sick that at one point I had to stop watching it, which is something I've never experienced before. The children themselves were calm and reasonable as they spoke about the sheer horror and vileness that was inflicted on them and their families by the Israeli army and airforce. They also spoke about what it's like to be still living amidst the rubble of their destroyed communities, which the Israelis refuse to let them rebuild.

I remember very well writing my Oxzen pieces about the attack on Gaza at the time it was happening, and the disgust and loathing I felt about the sheer bloody brutality and evil that was being carried out in the name of revenge for a few largely ineffectual rocket attacks that caused very few Israeli casualties. Needless to say, the children of Gaza were not responsible for those attacks, and neither were most, if any, of their parents. The real reason the destruction of Gaza took place, of course, was punishment for the Palestinians for voting for Hamas in their elections, and in order to kill as many of the Hamas leadership and militia as possible, regardless of how many homes, schools, hospitals, etc (and also 'civilians') were destroyed in the process. In fact, the more the better, it seems.

As well as featuring children telling their stories this documentary also showed parents talking about their children that had been killed or injured in the attacks. For all of them, the experience can only have created even more hatred for their oppressors and attackers, and an understandable desire for revenge. Which of us wouldn't hate those who had done these things to us, after making us refugees in the first place by destroying our family homes and appropriating our family's land?

On the other hand, Sam Wollaston, in his Guardian review of the programme, focused pretty much exclusively on the hatred felt by the Gazans for the Israelis, rather than the reasons for the hatred. He seems to have found the programme "deeply disturbing and depressing" because of the desire of some Gazans to carry out revenge attacks, rather than the fact that thousands of innocent men, women and children have had their lives devastated by murderous attacks by an over-mighty Israeli military machine.

In December 2008, the Israeli Defence Force unleashed a campaign to destroy the ability of Hamas to launch rockets and mortars into Israel. Around 300 children were among the 1,300 Palestinians that were killed.

After the ceasefire, BAFTA-winning filmmaker Jezza Neumann arrived in Gaza to follow the lives of three children over a year.

Surrounded by the remnants of the demolished Gaza Strip and increasingly isolated by the blockade that prevents anyone from rebuilding their homes and their lives, Children of Gaza is a shocking, touching and uniquely intimate reflection on extraordinary courage in the face of great adversity.


International Solidarity Movement in Palestine
This is well worth a read - Brian Logan's article on the efforts of Ivor Dembina to support (through his political comedy and theatre) the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine.

Six years in development, the show is a labour of love for Dembina. It addresses his Hendon childhood, his rejection of his parents' politics, and his work with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine, where he witnesses Israeli tanks bulldoze the house of a suicide bomber. "That's a family's home," Dembina tells a soldier. "Not any more, it isn't," the soldier wisecracks back. That remark represents a watershed moment for Dembina, a disciple of Jewish comedy who suddenly realises that Jewish comedy isn't very Jewish any more.

"Jewish comedy," he explains, "is part of our identity. But now it's stuck. Traditionally, Jewish comedy is warm-hearted, full of truth and intellectualism. But now, most people's perception of Jews relates to Israel, and Israel means tough. It's shoot first and ask questions later. And what's that got to do with vulnerability, with love of humanity? So Jewish comedy becomes just some dislocated tradition, like Scottish people tossing the caber." Dembina fills up. "I feel really sad. I really feel this loss."

Since volunteering in Palestine, and more so since making the show, Dembina has received letters branding him a "traitor" and a "self-hating Jew". But he's adamant that "I'm one of the growing number of Jewish people who want to speak out." He was invited to perform the show in Israel, where there is – contrary to many people's monolithic image of the country – a thriving peace movement. He also performed the show in the Occupied Territories, where audiences "were amazed that there should be Jewish peace volunteers", he says. "They found that very difficult to get to grips with."

Veteran Labour dissenter Marshall-Andrews visited Palestine, too – Gaza, in his case – on a recent parliamentary delegation. He thinks it's "enormously important" that anti-Zionist Jewish voices make themselves heard, because it "demonstrates that what Israel is doing is not done in the name of all Jews". But is comedy an appropriate way to make that point? Absolutely, says Marshall-Andrews. "There is humour in everything in life, however dire. I found that the Palestinians, although deeply oppressed, maintain precisely the humorous spirit that people often do in those circumstances. That side of the conflict needs to be shown."

Dembina goes further: jokes, he says, can change the world.

"I've always believed that comedy should be about things you care about and that affect you," he says. "But writing a standup show about this subject, I struggled with it for years." The invitation to parliament is a kind of vindication. "I just wanted to show that, if you give quality, serious-minded work to an audience, they will listen." And as for his new audience, "MPs and peers are no different from anybody else," says Dembina. "It's important for them to know that some Jewish people are deeply uncomfortable with Israel's behaviour. They need to be told."

This Is Not a Subject for Comedy is at the Houses of Parliament on 22 March.


Requiem for Detroit

America, the country that supplies many of the armaments and war machines that were used in the attack on Gaza, has its own devastated and derelict cities and suffering people. Detroit, for example.

Requiem for Detroit? (BBC2, Saturday)

One Shot!

This is a brilliant film, with incredible use of images and sound. When you watch stuff like this, when you really concentrate on it with the sound turned up, you understand the anger that drives guys like Eminem to make the kind of music they do. And as Dr Angelou says, "If you're not angry . . . you're either a stone or you're too sick to be angry."

John Crace wrote this review in the Guardian:

Julien Temple has form as a self-styled auteur, but for once he kept his more irritating filmic tics in check, and his talent became all the more apparent for it.

Temple kept his camera within an area of a few square miles, yet managed to make a film about the entire history of the western world in the last 100 years. Through a collage of modern landscape, archive film and talking heads, Temple started with Henry Ford and the Model T, and took us on a journey of mass consumerism that embraced unionisation, race riots and segregation, and ended in the autophagism of the automobile. The very thing on which Detroit's wealth had been built came to destroy it – not just with the economic recession, but in the way communities were ripped apart to make space for more and more freeways.

There was little romance here: Motown, so often treated to the rose-tinted gloss of memory by music writers, was merely a pit-stop in the city's decline; 47% of Detroit's population is illiterate; schools are closing; and interviewees flinched as gunshots echoed.

Despite this, there was an out-of-time beauty to the vast expanses of Detroit that have been left derelict – they could pass off as the set for Blade Runner. Street after street of deserted houses; lot after lot of burned-out cars; acre after acre of abandoned car plants; the morning rush hour that isn't – no one is going anywhere. But there is hope among the people who have decided to work this land as nature reclaims it. Slowly but surely, Detroit is returning to the farmland it once was.


The BBC's blurb says:

Julien Temple's new film is a vivid evocation of an apocalyptic vision: a slow-motion Katrina that has had many more victims. Detroit was once America's fourth largest city.

Built by the car for the car, with its groundbreaking suburbs, freeways and shopping centres, it was the embodiment of the American dream.

But its intense race riots brought the army into the city. With violent union struggles against the fierce resistance of Henry Ford and the Big Three, it was also the scene of American nightmares.

Now it is truly a dystopic post-industrial city, in which 40 per cent of the land in the centre is returning to prairie. Greenery grows up through abandoned office blocks, houses and collapsing car plants, and swallows up street lights.

Police stations and post offices have been left with papers on the desks like the Marie Celeste. There is no more rush hour on what were the first freeways in America. Crime, vandalism, arson and dog fighting are the main activities in once the largest building in North America. But it's also a source of hope.

Streets are being turned to art. Farming is coming back to the centre of the city. Young people are flocking to help. The burgeoning urban agricultural movement is the fastest growing movement in the US. Detroit leads the way again but in a very different direction.

2 days left to watch!!!

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