Ovid: a Netflix for the Left

After reading the reviews below, you’d likely agree that Ovid is an invaluable resource for the left. Launched on March 22, it aggregates films from eight different cutting edge film distributors, including some whose documentaries and narrative films I have reviewed over the years: First Run, Bullfrog, and Icarus. These are the kinds of films that show up in art houses like the Cinema Village in NY or the Laemmle in Los Angeles but generally for a week or less. They may show up on Amazon or iTunes, but you will never get a head’s up as you would if you were an Ovid subscriber. The main benefit of subscribing for $6.99 per month (a real pittance) is the convenience of having an intelligently organized website that categorizes films geared to its intended audience. While Netflix groups film by genres such as horror or crime, Ovid groups them, for example, by “Don’t Mourn, Organize.” In that category, you can find “No Gods, No Masters: A History of Anarchism,” “Eugene V. Debs: American Socialist,” and the 1967 groundbreaking documentary “Far From Vietnam.” In addition to such radical documentaries, you will find avant-garde narrative films from Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, and Marcel Ophüls. So, don’t hesitate. Ovid is the Netflix the left has always needed, supporting evidence from the reviews beneath:

1. Stopover

Co-directed by Delphine and Muriel Coulin, this 2016 French narrative film is a white-hot drama about a platoon of French soldiers who spend three days at a five-star hotel in Cyprus before returning home from Afghanistan. The goal of the all-expenses-paid voir du pays (stopover) is decompression, a way of avoiding the bends by returning to France prematurely.

The military brass wisely calculates that a goodly portion of the troops is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. If they punch out a Cypriot or a vacationing European, that’s better than if the victim was a French citizen. On the first day, we see tension mounting as the soldiers have trouble feeling comfortable around rich kids on a Club Med type vacation, especially after they’ve had one drink too many. That includes Marine (Soko), a tightly-coiled female soldier who picks a fight with a hulking bartender who does not respond quickly enough to her request for a refill.

Besides Marine, two other women have joined the army mostly for economic reasons rather than to defend Europe from al Qaeda. In the small town they both lived in, there were neither jobs nor men who would make a suitable mate. From early on, you understand that none of their fellow soldiers would be a possible match since they are sexist to the core. The testosterone-filled racism that drew them to kill Afghans went hand in hand with seeing the three women as fresh meat.

Aurore (Ariane Labed) and Fanny (Ginger Romàn) keep a watchful eye on Marine, who the Taliban badly wounded in a firefight during their tour of duty. They try to entice her into the hotel’s hedonistic pursuits, but most of the time she sits away from both the soldiers and the guests, smoking cigarettes and gazing at the sea.

The brass leads a kind of group therapy that will aid in the decompression process. They meet in a hotel conference room and take turns going to the front of the room to use virtual reality goggles for reenacting the battle with the Taliban that cost several lives. The troops regard this as a pointless exercise but know better than to duck them. In every instance, we see the participants begin to demonstrate PTSD symptoms as they relive the experience.

On their second day at the hotel, a couple of Cypriot men persuade Aurore and Fanny to take a ride with them to see the sites in the Greek-controlled part of the island. Just before they are leaving, Marine insists on coming along since she senses that the men might have predatory intentions just like the soldiers. Instead of taking them to historical sites or picturesque villages, they end up at the barbed-wire fence that separates them from the Turkish half of Cyprus. Beyond the fence, it is “no man’s land” according to a sign. Within minutes, a car pulls up with four of the soldiers who end up as rivals to the Cypriots in the same that the Greeks are rivals with the Turks. Except, they are vying not over land but female flesh.

Winner of the best screenplay prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Stopover” is a powerful film that deals with the same issues that #metoo took on but within a context that was missing from a movement targeting corporate bigwigs. In an interview with No Film School, a brilliantly named website, they answer a question about rape in the military: “We have gained some things in terms of equality for women. At the same time, you cannot be alone in feeling equal. These girls went in the army because they thought that they were equals with men and they could do the same jobs. But if the other people—the men—don’t think you’re equal, then it’s pointless.”

2. Anthropocene

This documentary should be required viewing from everybody involved in the ecosocialist movement. It points to the inevitable ties between environmental science and the need for a revolution. Structured around interviews with scientists in the Anthropocene Working Group, it makes the case that we are no longer in the Holocene epoch but in the Anthropocene that began around 11,000 years ago when human beings began to develop agriculture and form class societies. One of the film’s startling revelations is how rice cultivation led to the warming of the planet. Like the burping cows, it releases methane into the atmosphere.

The Anthropocene school theorizes the beginning of the epoch as coinciding with the inventions of two men that changed the world. James Watt’s steam engine provided the energy that made modern manufacturing and transportation possible. Ironically, one of its earliest functions was to drain water from coal mines in England through steam-driven machinery that operated in a perfect feedback loop. More coal produced more steam engines that then produced more coal.

The other breakthrough came from a German scientist whose name might not be familiar to you: Fritz Haber. Haber developed a method for synthesizing ammonia out of nitrogen in the atmosphere. This technique made chemical fertilizers possible and hence the possibility of unrestrained agricultural production. In the early stages of the Anthropocene that the scientists liken to our impetuous teenage years, governments saw this as a perfect way in a Trumpian sense to feed a hungry world. However, agricultural expansion led to deforestation that continues unabated to this day, as evidenced by Bolsonaro’s assault on the Amazon rainforest.

Without mentioning the word degrowth, the scientists conclude that humanity has to learn to live within geological limits, or we will become extinct just as surely as the dinosaurs. As grim as this subject matter seems, there is a mordant sense of humor shown throughout the documentary as we see footage of post-WWII films about what miracles fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers were. When Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again, he must have in mind the kind of futuristic newsreels I saw in the late 1950s when gasoline was twenty-cents a gallon and Atoms for Peace was in vogue. While most people recognize that Trump is a psychopath, it is far scarier to consider that a majority of America’s ruling class probably agrees with him.

3. The Chicago Boys

Like “Anthropocene,” this is a most timely documentary. Made by Chileans, it is an eye-opening study of the Catholic University economics students who were admitted into the University of Chicago in 1955 to soak up the wisdom of Milton Friedman. Mostly harmless as academic figures, they became Pinochet’s henchmen after he took power. As one of these Friedman acolytes put it in the film, they had to wean him away from statism. He derided the Chilean military’s belief in the need to control all aspects of the economy (keep in mind that General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, a two-time president of Chile, began the nationalization of the country’s copper mines.) But once Pinochet saw the light, he made sure to torture, kill, or disappear anybody who questioned neoliberalism.

One wonders how these economists could have no idea how gruesome they would appear to anybody outside of the Milton Friedman cult. Listening to Sergio de Castro, who was Pinochet’s chief economic adviser and a Friedman student, is like listening to Goebbels’s secretary Brunhilde Pomsel, who died in 2016 at the age of 106. She insisted that “we knew nothing” about Hitler’s atrocities. Like her, de Castro said he knew nothing about how 40,000 people suffered death, torture or disappearance under Pinochet. He was “too busy” with economic matters. The net effect of listening to him and other of these Chicago boys is similar to those Spaniards who still believed in General Franco, as documented in the film “The Silence of Others.”

Besides de Castro, we hear from Rolf Lüders, who says that inequality is not a problem, only poverty. Those who resent inequality are only guilty of envy. Lüders is unaware that there is both poverty and inequality in Chile. The protests that have shaken the country to its core this year are proof of that.

Now 95, Arnold Harberger was one of the main arteries between the youth at Catholic University and the mother-ship in Chicago. Like the others, he sees their role as benign even if it took murder to make it possible. He smiles and says that the proof of their uplifting role is the continuation of neoliberal policies even under democratic governments. Like Lüders, he shows no understanding of why people are now in the streets demanding change against any government on the right or on the center-left.

Give credit to directors Carola Fuentes and Rafael Valdeavellano for being canny enough to get these economists to hang themselves on their own petard. Of course, it is likely that even if they saw this film, they still wouldn’t get how evil they appear to ordinary people. That’s what makes “The Chicago Boys” so compelling.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.