Waiting for a Capricious Lady: Silvio Tendler’s Utopia and Barbarism

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2011 by David St.-Lascaux

Update: General Vo Nguyen Giap died on Friday, 4 October 2013. He was 102 years old.


Utopia e barbárie (Utopia and Barbarism), 2009. Directed by Silvio Tendler. Pictured: Silvio Tendler and General Vo Nguyen Giap. Image detail courtesy of Caliban Produções Cinematográficas, provided by MoMA.

Utopia and Barbarism
Premiere Brazil,

FRIEDRICH ENGELS, BON VIVANT SOCIO-ECONOMIC THEORIST and partner with Karl Marx in drafting The Communist Manifesto, was quoted as saying that, “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism,” a statement later paraphrased by the German Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a film by Brazilian filmmaker Silvio Tendler so entitled should have a socialist slant.

Utopia, which is a review of Twentieth Century socialist movements with an emphasis on Brazil and Latin America, is as much a review of colonialist power maintenance through surrogate military/totalitarian (if there is a difference) brutality in Latin America, and U.S. direction thereof. The film essentially repeats, item by item, events about which many in the intelligentsia already know: the CIA’s overthrow in 1953, at the behest of what is now British Petroleum, of the Iranian government, which was in the process of nationalizing its oil industry (the Wikipedia graphic here, showing that Iran holds about 20 percent of the world’s reserves tells you all you need to know); the French loss of Vietnam, specifically the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (more in a moment), with ongoing commentary by the Vietcong commander Vo Nguyen Giap; and the French loss of Algeria in 1962, at which point the film shifts focus to Latin America.

The Latin American story, which covers Cuba in passing, is mainly the story of Brazil, Chile and Argentina, where military regimes imprisoned, tortured and “disappeared” thousands of people under Operación Cóndor – no doubt some of the brightest, most earnest and socially progressive minds in these countries. Tendler’s archival footage and photography, one of the film’s primary narrative vehicles, shows street protests in which the screen is entirely covered by photo portraits of the missing under these military governments – Brazil’s lasted from 1964 to 1985, Chile’s from 1973 to 1990, with Argentina’s a more complex story from 1976 to 1983, instituted or blessed by the U.S. government without publicity or voter consent.

U.S. imperial capitalism… prior to globalization (the first major restructuring of the global workforce in human history) benefited multiple generations of U.S. citizens, now discarded, interchangeable lumpenproles in corporatism’s opportunistic, unimpeded global race to the bottom.

In addition to historical documentation, Utopia’s stories are also told through a second narrative device: interviews with heavyweight socially progressive witnesses/respondents, including Paraguayan human rights activist Martín Almada, the late French historian Jean Chesneux, Susan Sontag, Israeli journalist Amira Hass, and the late Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal. Whether it’s the power and truth of the story itself, the effectiveness of these celebrity intellectuals, or Tendler’s skill as a filmmaker, the personal testimony of Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, author/journalist Eduardo Galeano and the others comes across as compelling and poignant. As one asks, “What kind of people could do this?,” discussing the unspeakable inhumanity of the activities instituted on behalf of U.S. imperial capitalism, which, prior to globalization (the first major restructuring of the global workforce in human history) benefited multiple generations of U.S. citizens, now discarded, interchangeable lumpenproles in corporatism’s opportunistic, unimpeded global race to the bottom. It’s ironic that glasnost is described as one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s game changers (the other being perestroika, or “restructuring”), given that the term means transparency, which is something the U.S. government, corporations and media strive to avoid. As to balance: One suspects that if Tendler had tried to gain perspectives from the right, as in interviewing torturers and their socially elite enablers – including the triangulated, malleable middle classes – they would’ve declined to participate. But it would’ve been interesting if even one had, and one hopes that Tendler had the imagination to try.

Several points stand out: The view that totalitarian regimes in Russia, China and Czechoslovakia, inter alia, failed because they were totalitarian and undemocratic, not because they were socialistic; that the propaganda that the U.S. supports “democracy” is patently false (the client state elites, their military enforcers and their ideologue U.S. patrons, a commentator argues, took their actions against popularly elected progressives based on a “a lack of belief in democracy” [to which one might add a lack of belief in the value of human life]), and that the U.S. government, itself long reduced to surrogate collector/enforcer for legal-fiction corporations, imposes its will the old-fashioned way – through military force, torture and murder; and that the Latins “get it”: the capitalist, says one, opposes socialism because it entails making humans more equal, and that in the Americas, the U.S. is always to be found operating behind the scenes whenever there is retrogression, gross disparity and barbarity. The footage of the jocular instructor in the car-bomb training class at the now rebranded School of the Americas in Panama provides a different kind of transparency, as does the specificity of the U.S. offer to France of “not one, not three, but two” nuclear bombs for use in Vietnam. As poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in “Howl,” “this actually happened.”

The Latins “get it”: the capitalist, says one, opposes socialism because it entails making humans more equal.

Unlike the military regimes of Operción Cóndor, whose international persecutions were computer-coordinated by the U.S., Tendler and the Chilean auteur Patricio Guzmán, whose more focused, poetic Nostalgia for the Light, an interwoven allegory in part about Augusto Pinochet’s Chacabuco concentration camp in the Atacama Desert, aired in early 2011 at MoMA, haven’t compared notes, which is a shame. As long as people of goodwill are disconnected, the disciplined forces of oppression will likely prevail. Although both films use talking heads, Tendler’s encyclopedic approach seems to overreach, and sometimes rambles. Because Utopia is a nineteen-year labor of love freighted with personal pain and genuine conviction, Tendler’s edit-aversiveness is understandable; still Algeria, Palestine and the burning of money in China for good luck distract, even though all are inarguably relevant.

The film closes with Galeano, whose name became known to norte-americanos when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez brilliantly used a photo op to give a copy of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, his 1971 history of Spanish, U.S. and European colonialism/imperialism most comparable to the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, to U.S. president Barack Obama in 2009. Open Veins includes Galeano’s exposure of economic mass murder as capitalism’s default assumption: “The human murder by poverty in Latin America is secret – every year, [the equivalent of] three Hiroshima bombs.” Taking a long view, Galeano opines that, “History is a slow, capricious lady, because her time is infinitely longer.” There is, he concludes, “a beautiful need to create a different world.” Against the barbarous success of the Invisible Hand wielding the oppressive sword, the Ingenuous One earnestly advocating with the utopian pen seems destined for millennia of futile scrivening. One hopes that we have that long. When Rousseff says, “Damn them,” she means us.

* * *

DAVID ST.-LASCAUX is a poet, critic at the Brooklyn Rail, and author of e*sequiturs, the multimedia e-book.

* * *

2 Responses to “Waiting for a Capricious Lady: Silvio Tendler’s Utopia and Barbarism”

  1. Luisa says:

    A video by Silvio Tendler about Juliano Mer-Khamis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3F6KSyNDfk

  2. St.-L says:

    Update: I apologize if my single-word reference to Algeria and Palestine – distractive – might have been misconstrued as dismissive. Sr. Tendler’s video about the late Israeli actor/filmmaker Juliano Mer-Khamis is a touching tribute to a peacemaker. May his soul rest in peace, and may his spirit live on in the hearts of the people whose lives he touched.

Leave a Reply