A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT
Director: Chris Marker
(First Run/Icarus Films 2001; first released in France 1978)
DIAMONDS AND RUST
Director: Adi Barash, Ruth Shatz
(First Run/Icarus Films, 2001)
Profit and Nothing But!
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At their best, documentaries can offer revelatory vistas of neglected worlds. While audiences have been lulled to see them as objective accounts of non-fictional narratives, this mentality misses the prodigious artistry that can be found in the form. The great ones mingle reportage and poetry, find metaphors in the mundane, and dapple light on subjects ignored by a culture moving too fast to care. These films offer singular perspectives — they make journalism and artistic expression seem inextricable.
The closest Raoul Peck’s Profit and Nothing But! comes to art is its invocation of the great Chris Marker, the largely unsung French radical filmmaker whose call for “films that make the heart beat faster” Peck quotes as an inspiration for his work. (More on Marker later.) A movie of potent outrage and little sense, Profit and Nothing But! sees itself as part of a valiant tradition of leftist agitation in cinema. There is plenty that is wrong and presumptuous with Peck’s movie, and when he invokes Marker’s name, Peck’s movie’s flaws look all the more stark.
Profit and Nothing But! is a fierce indictment of capitalism (or “capital” as Peck insistently calls it), taking as its departure point the poor of Port au Piment in Peck’s homeland of Haiti. A one-time Culture Minister of Haiti, Peck made a splash last year with Lumumba, his biopic of the Congolese political leader who fought against the country’s Belgian colonizers in the 1960s. More than anything else, Peck’s movie served as a frame for Eriq Ebouaney’s stunning performance as the charismatic Patrice Lumumba.
Far less engrossing than Lumumba, Profit drags on interminably — a stunning achievement for a 52-minute film. Peck has essentially made a home- video harangue, long on indignation and short on argument. The movie intercuts footage of Haiti’s poor with interviews of French intellectuals and man-on-the-street spots with the privileged denizens of Paris and New York.
The film also includes excerpts from speeches by world leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Francois Mitterand, who represent the capitalist cabal seeking to advance the cause of the free market on the backs of the world’s poor. Peck sets out his organizing metaphor by showing footage of an old commercial featuring a young Ronald Reagan as Peck’s droning voiceover intones, “We are all suffering from Alzheimer’s.” Accusing his audience of forgetting the ideals of a vanished left, he bellows balefully, “Capital has succeeded in buying our silence.” Peck lambastes the triumphalism of free-marketers, arguing that capitalism’s victories have only touched a select few. Capitalism, the movie purports, has led to “no progress.”
It’s tendentious, indefensible claptrap like this that gives progressivism a bad name. Relentlessly spewing bilious agit-prop, the movie’s greatest sin is arguably its refusal to engage in any real dialogue about the harmful effects of globalization and the callousness of the capitalist system. At a moment when we need practicable measures aimed at improving life for everyone on the planet, Peck offers us flagrant self-congratulation. Those in agreement with Peck’s basic argument are expected to pat each other on the back for our moral superiority, and shake our heads dismally as yet another shot of a nameless Haitian child flits by. Thanks, but no thanks. It’s a movie for the converted.
One comes away from Profit and Nothing But! with just as much knowledge about Haiti — a country that Peck says, “theoretically doesn’t exist” — as before seeing this film. By contrast, take a movie like Life and Debt, Stephanie Black’s 2001 documentary about the effects of globalization in Jamaica [PopMatters review and interview]. That movie also suffered from a stilted voiceover, but it was blessed with the clarity of Black’s vision. Focusing on specific industries (textile workers, banana farmers, etc.), Black gave her critique of globalization a human, compelling, and persuasive face. Her movie has a focus and power that Profit and Nothing But! doesn’t even aspire to.
Then again, there really is no winning an argument against Peck’s movie: In a craven move, Peck inoculates himself from criticism by anticipating it. According to him, capitalism’s victory has been so pervasive, so incontrovertible, that people who fail to buy his worldview must not mean it — they’ve simply been brainwashed by the system. The claim is insulting to his audience’s intellect; there is little room for dissent when one sees the world in black and white, and Peck proves himself no better than the totalitarians he imagines running the world.
Perhaps Profit and Nothing But! suffered especially, coming on the heels of my recent viewing of Marker’s epic documentary, A Grin Without a Cat. An account of the rise and fall of the New Left from the 1960s to the 1970s, it was originally made in 1977, but reworked in 1993 in the wake of the Cold War’s end. The movie shares with Profit a vigorous leftism and the wry acceptance that capitalism has won. The similarities end there. Subtle and dense, A Grin contextualizes leftism, giving it the moral heft it deserves. A needed corrective to a history written by the winners, Marker’s movie doesn’t shy away from circumspection. He identifies the collapse of the Left as caused partly by ideological factions within the movement. In a way, Marker is addressing the inevitable futility — and persistence — of utopianism. An even more piercing insight is Marker’s suggestion that the collapse of the New Left was ultimately affected by the Cold War superpowers. Touching on the collapse of the dissident uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968 (thanks to Soviet tanks) and the downfall of Chilean President Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973 (thanks to a U.S.-backed coup), the movie posits that the two most likely embodiments of the movement’s ideals crumbled in the face of superpower imperatives.
Insightful and ambiguous where Profit and Nothing But! is sanctimonious and shrill, A Grin Without a Cat is the documentary form elevated to its greatest heights: it is art and advocacy, memory and history. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two movies. After all, Marker is an old hand at this filmmaking thing, and Peck is a relative neophyte. But if Peck is to imagine himself as part of a heroic tradition, then his work must be judged by the steep standards of his forerunners. Peck may have the courage of his convictions, but that’s not nearly enough. Late in the movie, he asks faux-rhetorically, “Why make films?” His answer — “Because we don’t know any better” — says more about his movie than he perhaps intended. Peck gives leftism a bad name; Marker seeks to resuscitate its valiant and moral heart.
* * * * * * * *
Playing as the second feature on a double bill with Profit and Nothing But! at New York’s Pioneer Theater was another documentary called Diamonds and Rust. Israeli filmmakers Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz go aboard the “Spirit of Namibia,” a dilapidated diamond-mining ship, off the coast of Namibia, for 90 days, documenting the strange, dysfunctional dynamic among the multinational crew. What the filmmakers find is a fascinating microcosm, replete with the persistence of blithe colonial attitudes (South African officers shockingly candid about their racism), a spirit of camaraderie among the deckhands (Cubans and Namibians singing Karaoke together), and even the ship’s own Captain Bligh (Danny Levin, the trawler’s hard-ass Israeli manager). Reticent and modest, Diamonds and Rust is an engrossing experience and a pie in the face of diamond company De Beers. Stepping aside and letting its subjects do the talking, the movie effortlessly immerses you into a new world and broadens your understanding of human experience in its myriad forms — precisely what all good documentaries should aim to do.