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On Movies, Dynasties, and Hope

One of the most interesting political movies of recent years was the German film The Lives of Others, which gave a realistic depiction of the overwhelming espionage to which the government of East Germany subjected the citizens of that country, and of the corruption at the highest level, as officers of the state and the ruling party used their powers for unspeakable private purposes. The movie won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, along with a number of other prizes, and was acclaimed by many as a masterpiece.

Steve Ullathorne, "orwell.jpg" from Restyles of the Dead and Famous. Courtesy of the artist:

It is perhaps more from movies like The Lives of Others or novels like Animal Farm or 1984 that we get a mental representation and a feeling about the kind of regime that Communist parties in power generated in the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps details such as the hereditary rule implemented in a country like North Korea and the aspects of everyday life—and everyday espionage on citizens, like that illustrated by the aforementioned works—illuminate our view of these regimes as much as all the hundreds of volumes describing the political, social, and economic realities of the Stalinist regimes in Europe and Asia. In a similar way, movies such as the Argentinian Kamchatka convey to us, without statistics or political statements, the whole horror of the military dictatorship in which many thousand citizens were desaparecidos. If anything is clear in the murky and treasonous world of modern politics it is the need for a tough defense of civil liberties, the only warranty against governmental abuses of power.

In this context, the recent movie Citizenfour should give us a chill. Though any person with some familiarity with the possibilities of espionage on the citizenry that have been opened by modern technology should not be surprised by the facts presented by Citizenfour, to see Edward Snowden, William Binney, and Glenn Greenwald showing vividly how the U.S. government is spying on all of us provides much more that intellectual enlightenment. This is especially true because the movie has reached the screens at about the same time as the publication of the Senate report on torture used by the CIA to extract information from detainees. All this alarmingly illustrates the fact that the real existence of civil liberties in the United States is overshadowed by the existence of powerful institutions that compromise those civil liberties and might even eliminate them at a given moment without much effort. Indeed, passing recently in front of a large TV screen presenting the news, I read a caption stating that most Americans are okay with CIA methods. If that is so, the existence of civil liberties depends on a very weak conjuncture of factors.

The inheritance of political power, proper to ancient monarchies and modern ruling families like those in North Korea, Syria, or Cuba, is revealing of the concentration of power and the lack of real democracy. Jeb Bush has suggested he will be running for president in 2016. If he wins the G.O.P. nomination, it is very plausible that he will have as his opponent for the presidency Hillary Clinton. Thus we would have the brother of one former president and the son of another running against the wife of another former president. Does this suggest some analogy with other modern dynasties like those of North Korea or Cuba? Certainly analogies cannot go very far, because in the case of Kim Jong-un power is based on the iron grip of a political party that commands all the levers of power, while in the U.S. political families are powerful because they belong to the elite of the wealthy or to the handful of families that have demonstrated leadership in managing the collective business of the rich and powerful. Thus, as Glenn Greenwald has written in The Intercept, the wealthy instantly celebrated Jeb Bush’s likely candidacy and Wall Street has shown its collective excitement over a likely Hillary Clinton presidency. Furthermore, unsurprisingly, the two families have developed, as Greenwald put it, “a movingly warm relationship befitting their position: the matriarch of the Bush family (former First Lady Barbara) has described the Clinton patriarch (former President Bill) as a virtual family member, noting that her son, George W., affectionately calls his predecessor ‘my brother by another mother.’”

Perhaps we should be worried about all this, but sometimes the apprehension of reality requires more than rational knowledge. If democracy and civil liberties will prevail, to be usable for political developments in favor of the people, then perhaps it is hopelessness and not hope that will move to action. As the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski once wrote from the Auschwitz concentration camp, it may be hope for a better world that sometimes leads us to suffer the worst indignities. 

It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyzes them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.

Citizenfour received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Oscars. Probably we shall be grateful to Laura Poitras for being our present-day Borowsky, teaching us to be hopeless. 


Jose Tapía Granados

JOSE TAPIA GRANADOS teaches history and politics at Drexel University.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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