The cognitive map of a refugee

Eleonas bis

At the bottom of this long, pitted and dusty road in Athens is the Eleonas refugee camp, located in a run down industrial estate. This is my only picture because we weren’t allowed to film or take photos inside the camp, which currently houses around 1600 refugees from many different countries, but mainly Afghanistan and Syria. More are expected.

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Julio García Espinosa 1926-2016


Very sad to hear of the death in Havana of the pioneer of Cuban cinema, Julio García Espinosa, at the age of 89. One of the founding members of Cuba’s film institute, the ICAIC, of which he was President from 1983-91, he was the author of a key manifesto, ‘For an imperfect cinema’ (1969), where he argued that the imperfections of a low budget cinema of urgency, which  sought to create a dialogue with its audience, were preferable to the sheen of high production values which merely reflected the audience back to itself.

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Filming Boulez in 1972

Boulez 6705:2:4 copy
Photo: Noel Chanan

IT was the mid-1960s, I was in my late teens, I was already becoming familiar with post-war avant-garde music, yet the first time I heard Pli selon Pli by Pierre Boulez, who has died at the age of 90, I couldn’t make head or tail of it. Something in the back of my head, however, insisted that the problem was mine, not the music’s, driving me back to hear it a second time when he conducted it in London again a few months later. This time I was rewarded by a musical experience as scintillating, diaphanous and transcendent as I’ve ever had. When I talked to him about his music a year or two later, I immediately connected the experience with his description of music as ‘controlled hysteria’, an effect which is highly calculated but produces in the listener a peculiar kind of euphoria, a free-floating intensity that can also be found in certain old time composers like Perotin or Tallis, even Beethoven, at least in the readings of certain symphonies by certain conductors–try listening to Boulez’s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth. Continue reading

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Neighbourhood Solidarity in Madrid

As elections approach in Spain, the latest episode from our forthcoming documentary Money Puzzles.

In Greece last July our camera witnessed the tangible forms of solidarity elicited by the extreme austerity imposed by the unrelenting finance ministers in Brussels. ‘Solidarity For All’ is the name of an association of more than 350 solidarity groups across the country helping to feed people, provide health care, and other kinds of services they can no longer afford and whose public provision has been severely cut by austerity measures. But this is not just a stopgap. In Mandra, on the outskirts of Athens, where we filmed a food distribution centre, a local organiser explained that they’ve developed relations with local producers that cut out the middleman, and this was the kernel of a different way of organising society. Something similar is true of the widespread networks of local solidarity groups across Spain, each concerned with particular issues like protection from eviction or running food banks, but activists are never far away from the idea of alternative forms of social organisation, according to different values where money no longer determines what ‘value’ means, and people escape the atomisation and social isolation, with its dire psychological effects, that capitalism in crisis imposes to an ever more intense degree.

One of the reasons for the Eurogroup’s intransigence was the fear that what started in Greece might spread elsewhere in Europe. Syriza seemed to offer the hope that it was possible to overcome the fractured state of the left to create a irresistible new political force. The result of the Referendum last July, when over 61% of voters said No to the bailout conditions, seemed to confirm it. If the effort immediately collapsed when Alexis Tsipras lost his nerve and capitulated to Europe (a moment we documented in Greece, Europe, Undemocracy), then the latest developments in Portugal (Portugal gets new leftwing PM after election winner only lasted 11 days) suggest this dream has not been killed off, even if it implies compromises. In Spain–where I went to film at the beginning of November–there are elections coming up on December 20, but here the left is still fractured, and electoral politics are complicated by the emergence of a populist right wing party, Ciudadanos, in response to the sudden rise of Podemos on the left, who also face a challenge from other left groupings like Izquierda Unida. The primary political issue, however, during my fortnight in Barcelona and Madrid, was Cataluña’s bid for independence, with its unresolvable political and economic conundrums, rather different from the issues in the Scottish case. The issue plays into the hands of the constitutionalist majority, and no-one I spoke to thought that the left could win the elections.

The elections come up obliquely in this short video, Neighbourhood Solidarity in Madrid, filmed in Puerta Del Angel, just across the river from the city centre, with the local branch of the RSP (Red de Solidaridad Popular, or Network of Popular Solidarity) covering the districts of Latina and Carabanchel. The group’s primary activity is a food bank, but they also support people–that’s to say, each other–in other ways, and there are volunteers who provide professional advice or give classes in maths or languages.

The RSP Latina Carabanchel exemplifies the strength of the movement against austerity known as 15M, from the date of the mass demonstrations of the indignados in cities across the country (15 May 2011). The movement has generated a wide set of local initiatives attacking the effects of austerity politics in parallel fields, loose federations of autonomous local groups under umbrella names that indicate their focus. Thanks to a small network of friends active in one or other of these groups, I was able to connect with people working on housing, food provision, and healthcare in Barcelona and Madrid. These sequences will be included in the completed film. My thanks especially to Ricard Mamblona in Barcelona, and Concha Mateos in Madrid, who were both extremely generous with their time and attention as production managers, and to the camera people they found to work with me, Oriol Bosch Castellet and Raquel Salillas.


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What the big media don’t show

Paris 29 November 2015.

By chance I was in Paris for the weekend. No demos are allowed in Paris because of the State of Emergency following the November 13 terrorist attacks, so at midday protestors organised a human chain along Boulevard Voltaire. One of the organisers, a friend of mine, told me that the police agreed to this as long as roads were not blocked, and the memorial site at the Bataclan theatre was excluded. None of this was reported in the big media, which focussed instead on the shoes at the Place de la Republique and a violent clash which took place there later in the afternoon. The shoes made a powerful symbolic statement, but so did the human chain which the media ignored. Continue reading

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Two takes on the new economics

Two events during October, one in Bristol and one in Brussels, give evidence that notwithstanding the capitulation of Greece’s Syriza to the Eurogroup’s shameless intransigence, anti-austerity economics is gaining ground in Europe in tandem with the gathering social movements across the continent. We went to film both events for Money Puzzles, our documentary-in-progress about money, debt and us. In some ways, Bristol’s New Economy Summit and the Citizens Assembly on Debt in Brussels were complementary, and in other ways contrasting. The former was centred on questions of money, and the theory and practice of green economics, including alternative currencies like the Bristol Pound. The focus of the latter was on questions of debt (the other side of the coin, so to speak) which neoliberal policies create at every level, from the household to sovereign states, with disastrous social effects.

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Down there in Buenos Aires

Arriving in Buenos Aires the day after the Labour Party leadership election results were declared, I was impressed to discover that practically everyone I talked to during the ensuing week—whether economist, sociologist, journalist, workman or community activist—already knew Jeremy Corbyn’s name. My impression was that they also approved of his position that there is an alternative to the politics of austerity, which is something Argentina suffered in the closing years of last century and brought about the country’s economic collapse early in the new one. A couple mentioned the comment of Argentina’s ambassador in the UK that Corbyn is uno de ‘los nuestros’—’one of “ours”‘—in reference to the question of the Malvinas. ‘Is that really true?’ they asked me, and I told them he was no warmonger and advocated negotiation (like Tony Benn in 1982). This is for the future. Meanwhile there are others things to attend to, like the elections coming up in late October—about which I offer no comment: Argentine politics remain confusing and impenetrable even to Argentinians.

Kici Bus Ad 02 bis 2
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The next chapter: Argentina

The next chapter: Argentina, or, What happens when a country can’t pay its debts?

During the six month stand-off between Athens and Brussels, which we documented in Greece on the Edge?, while European intransigence was driving Greece ever closer to default on its massive debt – a step which would inevitably entail exiting the euro – various commentators began asking whether Greece might have anything to learn, one way or the other, from the case of Argentina,* where the currency collapsed in December 2001,  the banks put up shutters, the country got through five presidents in twelve days, and ended up (when the IMF withdrew its support) in a spectacular default.

There are big differences between the two countries, of course, but there are also strong  similarities in the economic dilemma facing them. Continue reading

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