From Debs to Berlusconi: the Socially Relevant Film Festival

Monday, March 13th is opening night for the Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York, an annual event I have been covering since 2014. Featuring both narrative and documentary films, it is the quintessential alternative to the sort of escapism embodied in Hollywood blockbuster films and especially relevant in the current period, when the president of the United States is mounting an assault on the humane and progressive values expressed in the festival’s offerings. As you will see, the three films I have had a chance to preview amount to a rebuttal of the racist, xenophobic, corporatist and warmongering Trump administration.

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs

This is a documentary about Eugene V. Debs made by Yale Strom, whose earlier work I first came across fourteen years ago. This was a witty and wise film titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” that told the story of Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomist republic of the USSR.

Like that film, “American Socialist” is a vastly entertaining and politically insightful look at what might appear to be another somewhat Utopian experiment, namely the overthrow of American capitalism under the leadership of the most charismatic socialist politician in American history whose name and reputation cropped up in the 2016 primaries during his admirer Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Indeed, Sanders directed his own much more modest 28-minute Debs documentary in 1979 that was made before he became a Democrat. While nobody could doubt that Sanders was preferable to Clinton or Trump, Debs was very clear about the two capitalist parties in a 1904 campaign speech: “The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.”

Although I am familiar with Debs’s speeches, I knew very little about his life and career, which “American Socialist” provides in detail. We learn that his parents were a major influence on him politically. His father used to read French social protest novels to him as a youngster. The young Debs was especially fond of “Les Miserables”.

As is the case with most people who become socialists, Debs did not spring out of his mother’s womb with fully developed ideas about class conflict. Indeed, as a young man with a sympathy for the working class, he still mistakenly took the side of the railroad bosses in the epochal strike of 1877 when he was 22 years old.

Becoming more familiar with the one-sided war on labor as he grew older, especially by the railroad bosses, Debs became a co-founder of the American Railway Union in 1893, one of the first industrial unions in the USA. A year later, the union led a strike against Pullman, the sleeping car manufacturer whose workers lived in Pullman, Illinois—a hyper-exploitative company town founded by someone shameless enough to name it after himself. When George Pullman decided to maintain the price of rent after he had lowered the wages of 4,000 workers, they went out on strike. The strike took on political dimensions as the government falsely claimed that it impeded the delivery of mail and had to be crushed. In a way, it was the airline controllers strike of its day but on a much higher level. 80 workers were killed in confrontations with the police and army.

Using the technique pioneered by Ken Burns but with much more political acumen, Yale Strom draws upon photos of the battling Pullman strikers that really capture the intensity of the struggle. As a popular leader of the strikers, Debs was well on his way to becoming the tribune of the entire working class.

Drawing upon interviews with leftwing labor historians, including Nick Salvatore—the author of a Debs biography, Strom documents the remarkable geographical reach of both the IWW and the Socialist Party that Debs helped build. Debs was a contributor to “Appeal to Reason”, a socialist magazine that had a circulation of over a half-million at its height. The magazine’s offices were in Girard, Kansas, a place we would now associate with Trump voters. Indeed, the IWW and the SP reached the most oppressed members of the working class (fruit pickers, longshoremen, miners, lumberjacks) in the boondocks. Oklahoma, a state most liberals would consider particularly retrograde, was fertile territory for the radical left at the turn of the 20th century.

Debs had an affinity for ordinary workers, who listened spellbound to his speeches even when they didn’t understand many of the words. We see a photo of Debs leaning forward characteristically from a platform speaking to adoring Polish factory workers with only a smattering of English.

My own grandfather, who I was named after, was chairman of the Socialist Party in my home town as well as head of the Workman’s Circle, a leftist benevolent society for Jewish workers. At the time, socialism was a massively popular movement as indicated by the six percent vote Debs received in the 1912 election.

While the exact social and economic conditions that led to the popularity of the Socialist Party cannot be repeated in an epoch of financialization and runaway shops, the sense of unfairness that led to such a massive Debs vote exists today. If Debs was up on a cloud in socialist heaven, I am sure he would be gladdened by the sight of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matters, whose activists are seen marching down the streets in Strom’s film. History does not repeat itself but we are certainly moving toward a showdown with the beast that Debs spoke against in a 1900 speech after the fashion of a biblical prophet:

The working class must get rid of the whole brood of masters and exploiters, and put themselves in possession and control of the means of production, that they may have steady employment without consulting a capitalist employer, large or small, and that they may get the wealth their labor produces, all of it, and enjoy with their families the fruits of their industry in comfortable and happy homes, abundant and wholesome food, proper clothing and all other things necessary to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It is therefore a question not of “reform,’ the mask of fraud, but of revolution. The capitalist system must be overthrown, class-rule abolished and wage-slavery supplanted by the coöperative industry.


If Eugene V. Debs is the model for the kind of political movement against Trumpism we need today, this documentary about a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon is the perfect squelch of his racist attacks on immigrants fleeing state terrorism in Syria and elsewhere.

This film deserves the widest distribution and I hope that its screening at SR 2017 will help catapult it into other venues like nation-wide theatrical distribution. Director Lucas Jedrzejak, a man of Polish descent now living in Great Britain, puts a spotlight on the valiant efforts of Lebanese businessman and landowner Ali Tafesh who created a refugee camp in Ketermaya that was home to more Syrian refugees in 2015 than the entire USA—and that was when a Nobel Peace Prize winner was in the White House not a screaming Islamophobe.

Jedrzejak’s film focuses on the camp’s children, many of whom are orphans. Despite the hardships of living in Spartan conditions, the occupants of what can be described as huts are intent on living as much of a normal life as possible. Wise beyond their years, the childrens’ life revolves around playing in a makeshift playground and going to a one-room schoolhouse. One of the teachers is a star in the film, a 13-year old hijab-wearing girl named Nijmeh who should go on speaking tour of the USA about Syrian refugee realities. She is deeply aware of her responsibility to teach the ABC’s to children half her age as well as to keep their morale up. We see her leading a group of them in what looks a bit like ring-around-the-rosie that they delight in. When we learn that most of them have been exposed to aerial bombardment from Assad and his Russian gangster confederates, we can understand that they are glad to be alive even if they lack videogames and large-screen TVs.

For most of them, the deepest hope is to return to Syria—not to go to Europe or the USA. They are mature enough to understand that this is impossible under Bashar al-Assad who has destroyed their lives and those of millions of their countrymen. They long for normalcy, a chance to be among fellow Syrians in their homeland where they can play, go to school and enjoy family celebrations. It is one of the great crimes of the 21st century that their lives have been turned upside down in a war on ordinary people fraudulently called a war on terrorism.

Lucas Jedrzejak’s film is both inspiring and politically necessary in a time of growing demonization of Muslim peoples. If the USA is not quite ready to accept a fascist dictatorship, you can certainly say that people like Steve Bannon have found a scapegoat to put at the would-be fascist’s disposal. Like the Jews of the 1930s, the people of Ketermaya are desperately in need of solidarity. “Ketermaya” is an important statement on their behalf as well as millions of others fleeing persecution.

The Toxic Circle

Just over a year ago, I offered an analysis of Donald Trump that differed from many on the left who compared him to Hitler or Mussolini. I thought that the more apt comparison was with Silvio Berlusconi, the demagogic authoritarian but democratically elected Prime Minister of Italy during whose 12 years of rule the laws were bent in favor of the rich. Everything took place through “free elections” even though the Italian one-percent could rely on the mafia, the cops, the courts and the elected officials of Berlusconi’s Forza Italian party to circumvent the law.

This is what happened in Campania, a region in Southwest Italy, just above the boot. Directed by Wilfried Koomen, who is based in the Netherlands, “The Toxic Circle” is an examination of toxic dumping in the countryside of Campania that has become the Naples mafia’s biggest cash cow, even more than the drug trade. Known as the Camorra, the gangsters run trucking companies that dump chemical waste generated in Italy and the rest of Europe into the waters, roadside, hills and fields of Campania. To escape detection, large trucks offload the waste into smaller panel trucks that burn their contents after dark to escape detection.

When LBJ was president, his wife Lady Bird went on a campaign to persuade Americans to avoid throwing their garbage out of car windows when traveling on the highways as part of a beautification campaign. As ugly as the sight of garbage strewn alongside Campania’s highways is, the real damage is medical not esthetic. The toxic dumping of heavy metals and other carcinogens has led to a cancer epidemic in the countryside that is dramatized by the story of one woman in the film whose baby developed leukemia a couple of months after his birth and who died just before his second birthday. When visiting him in the children’s ward, she was shocked to discover that several other women who lived nearby were visiting for the same reason. Considering the extreme rarity of the illness, this epidemic had to be investigated.

When the mothers made their case to the government, the Minister of Health who belonged to Berlusconi’s party, denied any connection between toxic dumping and the illnesses their children and other Campania residents were suffering and blamed them for indulging in unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking. The mother bitterly comments that her son had never smoked a single cigarette in his entire life.

In early February, Congress repealed the Stream Protection Act that restricts coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams and waterways. One imagines that many miners or ex-miners considering West Virginia and Kentucky’s depressed state voted for Trump because he promised to make coal great again. You can be assured that jobs in the labor-intensive pit mines will not be restored. Instead, mountaintop removal will continue unabated and that the coal companies will be at liberty to dump the toxic waste into local waters, thus ratcheting up the cancer rate. This might not be fascism, but it is certainly class dictatorship under the façade of democracy.

This film and every other film on the Socially Relevant Film Festival schedule will help arm us politically for the struggles we will surely carry out over the next four years, and for that matter over the decades to come as American big business continues to treat us as its subjects rather than as citizens in a democracy. As I have stated on many occasions, filmmakers such as those whose work can be seen at this film festival are a key part of the emerging vanguard of the coming American revolution. Don’t miss a chance to see them in action.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.