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The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez

and

Through the Wire

Consider the question of indie filmmakers as freedom fighters. Every now and than, some flagrant injustice will capture the imagination of an auteur who becomes obsessed with setting things right by making a documentary. Does attention from the alternative media help people in dire situations to get out? What happens to them (and their kids) afterward? Americans who decades ago were labeled terrorists, and either incarcerated or hounded out of the country – including Tupac’s auntie – are still making news.

* * * * *

Imagine a happy, carefree boyhood in Mexico. Now, imagine being told that your mother and your father… aren’t. Instead, they are your adoptive parents. A mental health professional has advised them to reveal only that much, then wait for your questions. Which you don’t ask, because you’re so freaked out already.
double life
Years ago, someone handed over a mystery baby to Gabino and Alma Gomez. They understood it was a political situation. Although no details were supplied, they suspected that the U.S. authorities were interested in your whereabouts. In honor of Che Guevara, they named you Ernesto.

Of course, relatives and friends were curious to know whose baby just showed up one day out of the blue. The simple answer, “He’s ours,” left everyone free to imagine telenovela-inspired scenarios of past indiscretion and spousal forgiveness.

Turns out you’re not Mexican, either, but a Puertoricano whose real name is Guillermo Sebastian Morales Pagan; whose biological father lives in exile in Cuba and whose birth mother is serving a 55 year sentence in an American prison for “seditious conspiracy.”

So goes an indie film called The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, which follows the journey of this child of fugitives. “I grew up in Mexico with a beautiful family, being the eldest of four siblings with many uncles, aunts, three wonderful grandparents. I had a beautiful childhood and a normal life until the “truth” was told. I was ten, almost eleven, when I first was told by my parents that I wasn’t their ‘belly borned’ son.”

Ernesto was taken to the States to meet Dylcia Pagan in prison. At age 15, accompanied by a Puerto Rican patriot whose own children were grown, he moved to the US so it would be easier to get to know Dylcia. His guardian introduced him to Berkeley filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg.

“She knew that we had made political videos, and she called and suggested a meeting,” Weimberg says. “We met for dinner and he enjoyed the evening. He borrowed one of our videos, “Maria’s Story,” produced by Cathy, about an El Salvadoran wife, mother, and revolutionary guerilla leader. The next time we saw him he asked, more out of curiosity than as a demand, ‘Could you make a film that would free my mother from prison?’”

That question resulted in a beautifully crafted documentary that includes historical background on the Puerto Rican independence struggle, and such gleaming side themes as the quietly persistent dedication of friends on the outside who try to ease the privations suffered by prisoners of conscience. There is fascinating and wrenching first-person commentary from the teenage Ernesto himself, exposing the complicated mesh of thoughts and feelings that encircled his young life.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional may have been responsible for as many as a hundred bombings. (Of course, taking the FBI’s creative bookkeeping into account, this could translate into 20 people charged in each of 5 incidents.) The organization was responsible for the deaths of six people and the permanent wounding of many others. Pagan and several FALN comrades were all apprehended at the same time. Within the system, they comported themselves as prisoners of war, refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the court, to put up a defense, or to participate in their trials. Still, the government was unable to convict them of bombings or of any crime that injured anyone.

FALN member Alejandrina Torres, arrested in the same year as Ernesto’s father, was a subject of the 1990 documentary Through the Wire (directed by Nina Rosenblum, narrated by Susan Sarandon, and shot by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, veteran of his own fierce encounters with federal authorities.) Convicted of several counts, including “seditious conspiracy,” Torres was sentenced to 35 years. And that was the shortest sentence among the Puerto Rican independentists, the longest being 97 years. The average sentence meted out to these separatists was many times longer than the typical murder conviction in the US at the time.

* * * * *

Through the Wire
“Supermax” prison design actually originated in Australia in the 1970s at a facility known informally as the “electronic zoo,” which was soon shut down by pressure from human rights groups. Undaunted by this example, the US penal system adopted the Supermax paradigm for, supposedly, the most ferocious inmates: serial killers, high-profile criminals, prison gang leaders, and those who have assaulted or murdered someone in less secure facilities.

None of the three women in Through the Wire was convicted of violent crime, either in or out of prison. Yet they were labeled “high risk” and singled out for special attention by the injustice system, not so much for their real-world actions as for their perceived wrong-headedness. As Susan Rosenberg said, “What put us in jail in the first place is that we made a commitment to say it’s possible to resist the strongest state in the world.” One of the movement’s slogans is Si, se puede, meaning “Yes, it can be done.”

Rosenberg, formerly of the Revolutionary Action Task Force, was arrested in 1984 and sentenced to 58 years for not the use of, but the mere possession of, explosives. (That’s another interesting bunch of numbers. Whenever her story is retold by law’n’order types, the number of pounds of explosives grows.) Hers was the longest sentence anyone in the United States had ever drawn for a similar charge.

Silvia Baraldini was sentenced to 43 years for aiding in a prison break. The escapee was Black Liberation Army soldier Joanne Chesimard (now called Assata Shakur.) Actually, Baraldini only got 40 years for that, but another three years were tacked on when she refused to tell a grand jury about the Puerto Rican independence movement.

A 1997 stage play, Bombs in the Ladies Room by Megan Rodgers, highlighted the cases of Baraldini and Torres, as well as two German women held in similar circumstances where the object is to get the political prisoners to inform on others and to renounce their deeply-held convictions. Baraldini is again featured in a film called Silvia, made by Margo Pelletier and Lisa Thomas, which was finished recently and is being shown in various venues now. This documentary, six years in the making, was partly financed by foundation grants.

* * * * *

Through the Wire describes the high-tech high-security “control unit” in the basement of the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky, where the isolation cells formed an environment specifically designed to break the spirits of dissenters and change their stubborn minds. In fact, these three women were clearly told that conditions would improve if they renounced their political beliefs. If you’ve ever voiced such thoughts as “Our foreign policy sucks,” there may be a similar place reserved for you.

From various sources, a picture is built up of this experimental hellhole’s methods. Sleep deprivation by being awakened every hour. Sensory deprivation in a stark white environment with round-the-clock bright fluorescent lighting and the absence of any natural light. Constant surveillance by male guards, even in toilets and showers, and daily strip searches by male staff, including frequent and unnecessarily brutal cavity searches which, had they occurred anywhere else, would be classified as rape. No books, no pictures on walls, petty humiliations over sanitary napkins and similar personal needs, lack of care for even the most serious medical conditions.

Geographical isolation from families, such that even the few visits allowed caused extreme hardship to the visitors, and harassment of what few family members and lawyers were allowed in. No contact with other prisoners, guards instructed to say nothing beyond the giving of orders, and everything said by the inmates logged in a journal. It is a Kafkaesque world of unrelenting psychological torture, stress, depression, fear, violation, and even physical mistreatment. “You will die here,” the prisoners are told. The only kind of “good behavior” that can earn any points is the renunciation of political beliefs and the giving of information about comrades on the outside.

Through the Wire doesn’t attempt to prove anyone’s innocence, or to say they shouldn’t be in prison. The point is that nobody, but nobody, should be in this particular type of prison, a test lab with human subjects where the authorities studied how much pressure prisoners could withstand before changing their views, admitting their thought-crimes, and renouncing their belief in justice. And, equally important, how much ill-treatment of political prisoners would the public put up with? When people who think about and, yes, even talk about violence are punished worse than many who actually commit violence, would the average American stand up and object?

The isolation of such prisoners is only partly punitive – it is also meant to keep the other inmates from being contaminated by the example they set. “We conduct ourselves with dignity and respect,” says Rosenberg, “and stand up for the other prisoners. They don’t want us in the general prison population.” This is a widespread policy in lockups. Ideological rebels, pacifists, and other dangerous thinkers aren’t allowed to pollute the minds of rapists and murderers.

Of course now, with the revelations of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and myriad forms of torture including electric stun implements, Lexington’s program may seem tame. But in that era, the punishment there was considered sufficiently cruel and unusual to attract the outrage of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights. From the moment the High Security Unit opened in October of 1986, a number of organizations focused their efforts on closing it.

The Federal District Court in Washington finally ruled that confining inmates to an isolated prison under constant surveillance is a “dangerous mission for this country’s prison system,” as well as unconstitutional, and in 1988, after two infamous years of operation, the Lexington Unit was shut down. At the same time, however, sixteen similar facilities were being created in anticipation of a ruling the following year from the Federal Court of Appeals, which held that a prisoner’s political beliefs and associations are legitimate basis for placement in special “control units,” and that’s not going to change.

When Lexington was immediately replaced by a newer, much larger control unit within Florida’s Marianna prison, Torres, Rosenberg and Baraldini were transferred there. In this place and others like it, each 7 x 12 foot cell has a solid windowless “boxcar” door with a locked food port, and is almost totally soundproofed. The isolation is intense, with every type of human contact reduced to the minimum possible.

* * * * *

At the time of her trial, Rosenberg’s lawyers pointed out that normally the things she was convicted of would have drawn maybe a five-year term. But she had been an outspoken activist against the Vietnam War and in favor of the freedom struggles of Blacks and Puerto Ricans. So in the system she stayed, until in January of 2001 Bill Clinton commuted her sentence, over vociferous objections from those who insisted that she was an unreformed terrorist. Indeed, the brainwashing hadn’t worked. Someone managed to interview her in the early ‘90s, when she was quoted as talking about “necessity for armed self-defense” in the cause of “revolutionary anti-imperialist resistance.”

Where do people like Rosenberg get their wild ideas? Maybe from Alexander Hamilton, one of those men we call the Founding Fathers. He wrote, “If the representatives of the country betray their constituents, then there is no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense.” Thomas Jefferson, another Founding Father, also thought it was a good idea for the rulers to be warned occasionally that the spirit of resistance is preserved in the people. “Let them take arms,” he wrote. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Once released, back in the world, Susan Rosenberg taught literature at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, but police officers who were students there objected. She was hired to present a creative writing seminar at Hamilton College, but alumnae donors got wind of it and withdrew hundreds of thousands in contribution pledges, so the gig was cancelled. The controversy got plenty of press well into 2005, and John Jay didn’t renew her contract.

President Clinton also exercised his right of executive clemency in 1999 to release former FALN members Alejandrina Torres and Dylcia Pagan, among others. Filmmaker Gary Weimberg describes how he, Catherine Ryan and Ernesto Gomez went to pick Dylcia up “at the very moment of her freedom after nineteen and a half years in prison – one of the most worthwhile and wonderful moments of my life.”

Bill Clinton did not just arbitrarily decide to issue pardons or commutations to the Puerto Rican nationalists. Nor, still refusing to recognize the right of the United States to hold them, did they request clemency, which is the usual first step. The request, made by their supporters, had been on the table for years, during which the FBI had plenty of time to react, and indeed did its best to insert a monkey wrench into the machinery.

Clinton may have done the right thing, but don’t cheer for him too loudly. This is the same president who in 1996 signed a wicked piece of law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act that severely curtailed the rights of prisoners to challenge brutal conditions by filing suit in federal courts.

* * * * *

Like Alejandrina Torres, Dylcia Pagan returned to Puerto Rico where she now lives in a house of her own, free from restrictions after a period of parole. Her voice is still heard, saying what it has always said. She wrote about the death in 2005 of Ojeda Rios at the hands of the FBI, a shooting that many feel was no more than an extrajudicial execution. Regarding such matters, Pagan quotes United Nations Resolution 2621, which “affirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples under colonial and alien domination recognized as being entitled to the right of self-determination to restore to themselves that right by any means at their disposal.” Sustained by belief in the rightness of her cause, she is currently working on a book about her life.

Ernesto’s bio-father William Morales is a noteworthy revolutionary who in 1977 was severely injured by a bomb he was constructing. Still, he managed to escape from the maximum security area of New York’s Bellevue hospital, elude pursuers, and make it to Cuba, where later on his grown-up son visited him several times. Morales, who married many years ago and also has a 13-year-old son, is still making news. Early this year, students and alumni filed a lawsuit against the City College of New York. They claim their First Amendment rights were violated when a sign, which had been there since 1989, was removed from the door of the Guillermo Morales / Assata Shakur Student and Community Center. Currently, the US government is pressuring Cuba to prove its commitment to democracy by extraditing Morales (specifically named) and others. H.R. 525 has five sponsors and, you can count on this, a significant “or else” factor written between the lines.

Assata Shakur, member of the extended family of Black activists who all adopted the same last name, was best friends with the mother of rapper Tupac Shakur. Although there is a very convincing case that she was framed, Tupac’s godmother is still in Cuba with a million-dollar price on her head, offered by the US Department of Justice. The FBI and the state of New Jersey say she killed a state trooper. (Actually, a real cop-killer can be picked up much more conveniently – his name is Judge John M. Walker, Jr. and he lives in Connecticut.)

The Gomez family who raised Ernesto are still in Chihuahua, working with social movements to improve the lives of their fellow Mexicans with fewer economic opportunities.

And what of Guillermo Sebastian Morales Pagan, aka Ernesto Gomez Gomez? If his life was so complicated already, one can only guess how it changed after the film was released. In the comments section of a PBS website discussing the movie, one entry begins, “Dear Guillermo: By way of this letter, I would like to express my opinion on your life.” Whoa! Who needs it?

But let the man, who has returned to going by the name of the parents who raised him, tell it: “I right now live in Puerto Rico with my girlfriend. I finished college some three and a half years ago. I currently bartend to pay the bills and I’m trying to open a film production company with some Mexican partners. I tend to say my blood is Puerto Rican but my heart is Mexican.”

Ambivalent about the forces and historical events that have shaped his life, Ernesto says, “I feel that many people have turned this whole political prisoners issue into a romantic tale of heroism and sacrifice. And every mistake and wrongdoing, every pain they’ve caused, is supposed to be right and understandable because it was in the name of the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence. I have learned by my own experience it isn’t like that. I was an innocent victim (and I hate the word victim) of both my biological parents’ decision to join a clandestine armed movement inside the US. Luckily for me, an exceptional family took me in as one of their own. But I was the only one with such luck. Most of the children of the other political prisoners had pretty difficult and, some, even horrible childhoods.”

* * * * *

How much difference have these films made? Well, exposure has certainly not stopped the building, staffing and filling of institutions as bad as Lexington and worse. There are now two entirely Supermax federal prisons (Florence in Colorado and Marion in Illinois) and 30 others, both federal and state, that have Supermax wings or sections.

Silvia Baraldini served over 16 years in the U.S. prison system before being repatriated to Italy in 1999 to finish her sentence. Did being in two movies influence her fate? Whether it did or not, let’s hope she is better off in her native land, even if incarcerated.

Nearly ten years after Through the Wire, the still-imprisoned Susan Rosenberg was featured on 60 minutes in December of 2000. Did this lead to the commutation of her sentence the following month? One columnist suggests that Bill Clinton was influenced by the TV show. But, given the lengthy process involved in clemency, it’s more likely that the purpose of the show was to prepare the public mind to accept the executive decision that released her.

What about Dylcia Pagan and the other Puerto Rican independentists? “Yes, we were very much part of the seven-year international campaign that lead to the successful petition for clemency,” says Gary Weimberg, who took earlier versions of his film to fund-raisers and other events. Dylcia’s son Ernesto says, ‘The film played, in my opinion, a key role in the whole campaign for their freedom.”

It’s hard to measure just how much difference, in any given case, attention from the alternative media actually made. The increased visibility certainly didn’t hurt the cause. It’s an interesting point to consider, now when the political complexion of America has changed so much that anybody who speaks against the rapacious, murderous government could be picked up and made to disappear. Remember habeus corpus? Our leaders don’t. If something doesn’t change, there won’t be enough indie producers to make movies about all the potential victims of governmental injustice, and besides, all the filmmakers will be there in the Halliburton Hotel along with us.

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(Originally published by the late, great Earthblog.net, May 19, 2007)

America Freedom

“I would advise movie theatre managers to hand out vomit bags. You may end up needing one.” — Todd David Schwartz

“Ye shall know the truth, and it shall upset ye.” — Michael Ventura

I never call anybody a paranoid conspiracy nut, for this simple reason: the high probability that things are even worse than the most extreme nightmares of the most paranoid of conspiracy nuts. Aaron Russo, who made the movie America: Freedom to Fascism, is not the first person to have noticed that our country’s domestic and foreign policies are run by bankers. Mussolini, an expert on fascism if ever there was one, defined fascism as corporatism. When multinational corporations, the government, and the bankers are working together, that’s all it takes. Presto: the New World Order.

The beginning of the end, as any wild-eyed political theorist will attest, was the passing of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. By strange coincidence, the federal income tax started that year too, after the alleged ratification of the 16th Amendment. I say alleged, because as recently as 2003, a judge declared the 16th amendment never was properly ratified. President Wilson later admitted he had accidentally ruined the country. During all the years when America bitterly denounced Communism, it’s ironic how no one mentioned that the graduated income tax and the “national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly” are two of the ten planks of the Communist Manifesto.

These blows to the American economic system were followed up in 1934 by a devastating punch when we went off the gold standard. Paper money, which had previously consisted of receipts that you could trade for gold, became just paper. One school of thought holds that printing paper money not backed by gold is just the same as counterfeiting. So the Morgans, Warburgs, Rockefellers, et al, now had a license to steal, via the Federal Reserve which can print (or counterfeit, depending on your orientation) any amount of money it cares to. It’s a private bank, uncontrollable by either the President or Congress.

Did you know that we don’t have to pay federal income tax? No kidding. This is because “gain” is the taxable thing, but swapping work for money is an even exchange, with no gain involved. That’s one of the basic arguments. There is no law that requires the average American worker to pay this tax. If there were, they would have showed it to us by now. Ask any IRS goon, or indeed any government official, to show you the law, where it says you have to file a 1040, and they’ll show you the door. If, like Aaron Russo, you arrive at their office with a camera to record their answer to the big question, first the guards will tell you not to film, and then some Homeland Security personnel will show up.

Actually, it’s not fair to lump all IRS people together as goons. America: Freedom to Fascism rounded up a bunch of ex-IRS employees who renounced the dark side and came back with impressive stories to tell. There’s the former criminal investigator who accused the agency of violating people’s rights, and was told to resign. And the former special agent who quit paying and won’t start again until they show him the law. One ex-employee of theirs who stopped filing and paying was asked a question by an interviewer, phrased in such a way that it implied he was getting away with something. He replied that he isn’t getting away with anything, as he has no obligation to obey a law that doesn’t exist.

The hunt for this elusive law rivals the legendary search for the Holy Grail. It just doesn’t seem to be anywhere. A pesky group called We the People are always stirring up trouble: they offer a $50,000 reward to anybody who can show the law; they start a class-action lawsuit against the IRS to make them show the law. A guy from the Tax Honesty movement goes on a hunger strike. But all these efforts are in vain. In 2005 some judge ruled that the government doesn’t have to show us the law. The law that affects every living American, the law that if we disregard it, we can lose all we own, including the right to exist outside a prison. The law that never was.

When that ruling came down, the mainstream press, as usual, ignored the issue – one that, admittedly, is not conveniently reducible to sound bites. It takes several whole meals, actually, before a person can begin to absorb and digest the enormity of the income tax scam. Tax resistance is a huge subject with a long history and a lot of angles. There’s the “voluntary compliance” aspect, the Fifth Amendment aspect, the slavery aspect, the linguistic aspect. “Direct unapportioned tax” is the key phrase here – look it up some time. There’s the IRS = Mafia aspect, namely, the income tax is nothing but an extortion racket on a titanic scale. Of course, even when the Supreme Court is against them, the decisions don’t apply to the IRS, which doesn’t have to obey the Supreme Court. Who says so? The IRS, of course.

Like any other struggle, the tax resistance movement has chalked up a lot of martyrs. Russo’s movie recounts the truly heartbreaking story of the famed prizefighter Joe Louis, one of the most severely damaged victims, though far from the only one. There are guys like Irwin Schiff, who have been at this for decades, refusing to back down, despite whatever the government throws at them. The real ugly part is, you don’t even need to intentionally thumb your nose at the IRS to attract its retribution. Russo interviews people whose homes and business have suffered terrorist attacks by IRS troops. They can just come in and grab everything you have without ever even charging you with any crime, never mind such a quaint formality as a conviction. How is anyone able to hear these stories and not get up and grab a weapon right now?

Did you know that all money from individual income tax goes to pay off interest on debt? In other words, all the income tax you’ve ever paid has gone to the bankers. You remember the bankers – the ones that took over the country in 1913-34. None of the federal income tax you’ve ever poured into the insatiable maw of the IRS has gone to pay for services. The states pay for highways and schools. Corporate taxes pay for defense. Federal income tax pays the bankers. It is, says Aaron Russo, that simple, and that terrible.

He mentions the number of millions of people who refuse to file federal income tax returns. It’s questionable, given the nature of the matter, how accurate such a number can be. But a great many people have said no to filing a 1040. The reason is, they prefer not to lie, because it’s very punishable. A dire crime, is lying to the IRS. The agency goons are the only ones who get to lie, such as by telling us we owe them anything in the first place – the greatest hoax ever perpetrated by any government, anywhere. Even Hitler’s big lies wore off after a few years, and the people caught on. But we’ve believed and gone along with this income tax swindle, how many years now?

Russo introduces us to Marcy Brooks, who was a juror in a trial where someone was accused of not filing tax returns. First, she realized that a government witness had lied, contrary to what could be seen on videotape. Then, she paid attention when the defendant said, “You show me the law that requires filing and I’ll be glad to do it.” Later on, during their deliberations, the jury asked the judge for a copy of that law. He refused, saying “You have everything you need.” They jury didn’t like that, and returned a verdict of Not Guilty.

In trials having to do with tax evasion, as in so many others, the jury nullification concept is precious. We should all regard it as a great privilege to be on any jury, especially one where something as heinous as the income tax is concerned. A citizen armed with awareness of the right of jury veto is one of the most powerful people on earth.

When America: Freedom to Fascism was released, it didn’t make as large an impression on the American public as some people had expected. Possibly, the film covers too much. It gives an overview of the various features of the Patriot Act and the Executive Orders, of which most people have managed to stay blissfully unaware. And oh, right, the Real ID Act. And the seemingly unstoppable movement to put RFID spychips in everything, everywhere, including paper money. Each one of these problems deserves a movie in its own right.

If you’re not calling for the vomit bag yet, try this: a harrowing video clip depicting the arrest of a woman attacked by the police with a taser. The really ugly thing about this weapon is, the suspect is immobilized and debilitated. Then the cop can order some action – “Take your hands out of your pockets,” “Put your hands up,” whatever – which the suspect is no more able to comply with, at that point, that a quadriplegic would be – so the cop hits them with the electricity again. This is not what we expect to see in our country.

So here we have a movie that began as a quest to find out if there is, in fact, a law requiring Americans to pay taxes on their incomes; a movie that espouses freedom and deplores the concept of world government, and that shows us things the Founding Fathers would resist to the death. Why hasn’t America: Freedom to Fascism garnered the attention it deserves? Why aren’t crowds roaring through the streets, demanding change, on account of the things we’ve seen here?

It got off to a pretty good start. As of June 2006, Russo’s office reported that the film had been screened in several cities to sold-out audiences who granted it standing ovations. And it’s been seen online over a million and a half times. But somehow it just didn’t gain the momentum and recognition that, for instance, Fahrenheit 9/11 did. Comparisons between these two works are inevitable. In fact, one such comparison was made by Todd David Schwartz of CBS, who said Russo’s movie “makes Fahrenheit 9/11 look like Bambi.” So, why did it make less of a noise?

A few theories, in no particular order:

Moviegoers are attracted by Michael Moore’s humorous, in-your-face demeanor – although Russo, whose approach is more sophisticated, is no less charismatic a figure.

Moore’s film took the public’s virginity and exposed the entirety of what the government’s jockstrap concealed. Russo’s film kicked it up a notch, confirming that those who rule us do, indeed, utilize every orifice of every beast, including the Domestic Taxslave.

Even with all its many ramifications and secrets, the 9/11 attack was a discrete event, with boundaries of place and time, and thus easier to journalize about than a horror that’s been ongoing for decades. This whole matter of the Federal Reserve and fiat currency and inflation, requires some knowledge of the “dismal science” of economics, and it offers no visuals to match the spectacular cinematic fare of burning towers and heroic rescuers. It’s easy to get upset and demand that the government solve the problem of planes crashing into towers, but the problem of unbridled, unlegislated taxation and play-money currency won’t be tackled by government. Rather, the government has to be tackled by us, but people are not yet ready to do anything on that scale.

It may be that one factor working against America: Freedom to Fascism was a tendency to take it for granted that the movie would lead to immediate and widespread outrage, resulting in drastic action. Because of this very assumption, Earthblog.net chose not to review it when it was first released, since the site’s main purpose is to throw light on under-illuminated issues and events. The feeling was, it would be redundant to comment on a movie already destined to saturate the media like the death of a pope or a porn star.

Then there was Russo’s illness, which meant spending time in a European cancer clinic, not the best place from which to run a film publicity campaign. And, like every other worthy project, getting the film released needed lots and lots of money – like half a million dollars. And although at that time the Freedom to Fascism website had 11,000 incoming links, it could always have used more publicity.

People will pay to be upset, no question. But when they slap down their dollars at the box office, they want to be upset by the sight of nubile teenagers dismembered with pruning shears, not by a list of the fifty kinds of taxes they’ve paid in the last 24 hours.

People will also pay, many thousands in some cases, to not be upset. They travel to Sedona and other venues where seminars and workshops can teach them to calm down and stop stressing out. People desire peace of mind, and a certain percentage of us believe in looking for things to be joyful about, not things to take offense over. Some very wise and spiritual people insist that the only possible argument, and certainly the only potent one, that can be made for peace is to model the behavior they’d like to see everyone abide by. If a person is fortunate enough to reach a plateau of life that offers peace and creativity, what’s so wrong with wanting to cherish that and make the most of it? If more people had peace and creativity in their lives, they wouldn’t go around acting like thugs, on whatever scale of thuggery they happen to participate, whether petty or grand.

But of course, there are no personal solutions. When even one is in chains, no one is free. The world doesn’t work unless it works for everybody. We know this. But while the thugs won’t change and become like us, neither do we want to change and become like the thugs, which kind of precludes seizing up weapons and taking to the streets. (The good news is, one “call to action” doesn’t involve guns: Refuse the national identity card and any thing that looks like it. Repeal the Real ID Act and anything that acts like it. )

When one watches such a film as America: Freedom to Fascism, there is a certain sense of futility. Because the filmmakers aren’t just trying to expose the wrong, they want something done about it. And who knows how to fix this mess? What Russo shows is so big and so serious, and it’s been going on for two generations – who are we going to punish? The greed-heads who started it are all dead, leaving their progeny to benefit from their rape of the American working person – not to mention the middle class, which has all but disappeared without a trace.

And this thing is so big, it’s overwhelming. You can’t just write a letter that’s going to put a stop to the thievery and make restitution to all the Moms and Pops who’ve been crunched up in the jaws of the income tax monster. It’s easy to be a patriot when all you have to do is say “I support the troops” or “I vote”. What’s not easy is to go out and overturn the Federal Reserve system. That’s messy. People are not ready to address this.

When a cop beats up a bartender in another city, it’s pointless to get involved, because outsiders won’t have much impact on a local matter. But when the entire government and the system that funds it are corrupt from top to bottom, there are no outsiders. And it is overwhelming. The whole system would need to be ripped apart, and we’d have to change the country in major ways, to stop enforcing this law that doesn’t exist. It’s better to pretend we don’t understand, and unfortunately most people don’t even need to pretend.

In those who consider themselves politically hip, reactions to America: Freedom to Fascism range from familiar disgust to severe revulsion, though there is not much surprise. But to anyone not accustomed to looking beneath the surface, there’s enough here to drown them. The IRS and Federal Reserve are the main focus, but Russo touches on enough other things to make you want to give up and bury yourself in the mundane triviality we call life in the USA. Reading Lost Rights is less fun than watching American Idol, but it would be a real good idea to make the switch.

There is a belief that anyone who sees things getting worse is a card-carrying member of the Tinfoil Hat brigade. There seem to be a lot of Americans who, even when the irrefutable proof stares them in the face, even when they find themselves inside the barbed wire perimeters, will still be saying “Russo is a paranoid conspiracy nut.” That’s the sad part.

However, there is cause for optimism. Just because this powerful film didn’t rile everybody all up the first time around, doesn’t mean it isn’t doing a lot of good. When an idea enters someone’s head, it does not always flourish right away. Just because a person is exposed to an idea, it doesn’t mean they’re gonna jump up and turn their life around within 24 hours. An idea can burrow in, lie dormant for years, and then show up later under the most surprising circumstances and in the most astounding ways. So it’s good to never discount the delayed reaction effect.

Problem is, we don’t have a whole lot of time left to wait around while that natural process takes place.

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Two federal marshals are on a boat, headed for the institute for criminally insane, located on an island. Once landed, they have to hand over firearms, and are told the rules they must observe. Ward C is for the worst homicidal maniacs, and, only has 27 inmates, but it’s a Civil War-era fort about as big as the Pentagon. (The sensible thing would be to section off part of the huge building for prison use, and shut off access to the unused portion, which in this case would be the greater majority of the interior space. It’s a scandalous waste of tax dollars. But it has to be that way, for the numerous stalking and chase scenes that take place in the corridors and dungeons.) (The entire institution has seemingly hundreds of staff and employees, for 60-some patients. Somebody’s congresscritter needs a talking-to.)

Leonardo DiCaprio plays marshal Teddy Daniels, who has a serious case of PTSD, complete with flashbacks and hallucinations, as a result of being a liberator of concentration camps during the war. One of the administrators of the institute for the criminally insane is a former German citizen, so that gets Daniels’s back up.

The other chief shrink is Dr. John Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley. It’s nice to have such a good face that baldness doesn’t matter. He explains to the marshals about the escaped patient, which is what they came here to investigate. She’s gone, “as if she evaporated,” and her case psychiatrist left the island for vacation this morning. My first thought is, the chief shrink killed her. Then it gets really complicated, a tricky psychological thriller.

The storm blows out the phone lines. The staff is called together for interrogation, which seems kind of risky, because who’s watching the inmates? Daniels quizzes a nurse about group therapy the previous night. She schools him about how they deal with a lot of really dramatic situations, so group therapy “usually isn’t a big part of our day.”

Everybody who works at the place pretty much stonewalls and stymies the investigation. Daniels threatens to call in the FBI, and tells his partner the main reason he came here was to blow the whistle on the mind control experiments being conducted. And the institution is funded by a special grant from the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Top-secret evil needs to be exposed. Then it gets even more complicated. There’s a lot of derring-do, including the scaling of cliffs by a federal marshal who is better than Spiderman at clinging to vertical surfaces.

How did the entire Board of Overseers manage to get to the island in the hurricane? Around that point was when I started to catch on. But at the end, I still wasn’t sure.

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Good Hair (2009)

“Weave sex is a little awkward,” an actress named Nia Long says. “Keep your hands on the titties,” is the advice given by the barbershop men.

If I were a sociology teacher I’d show this movie in my class and we would have plenty enough to talk about for a whole semester. Definitely more to it than meets the eye.

Chris Rock has delightful spontaneous wit.
Al Sharpton is cool.
Ice-T is cool.
Maya Angelou is cool.

The dancers and models we see here are of course in excellent shape, but the ordinary citizens, the folks interviewed by in barbershops and beauty parlors, are so overweight. I’ve been studying up on obesity in America, and it really does seem like we’re being secretly poisoned by something inescapable.

It’s wrong to be judgmental or discriminatory against anybody because of their size, but I’m pretty sure that people who are 100 pounds overweight, don’t want to be, any more than I want to be however many pounds overweight I am. And medical care for the various conditions that occur alongside obesity, well, who can afford any kind of medical care any more? And how beautiful can a person feel, even with a $3,500 hair weave, when carrying around an extra 100 pounds?

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A Staggering Work of Smart Humor, Yet Serious as a Heart Attack

Rev. Billy is an activist preacher whose road show choir sings out in protest against the commercialization of Christmas. They do performance art, infiltrating Times Square or the Mall of America, where they prophesy the Shopocalypse. Finally the holy flash-mob winds up at Disneyland, home of the Antichrist, aka Mickey Mouse.

The average American spends 5 hours a week shopping, so some poor bastard is out there shopping 9 hours a week to make up for me. Some people are clinically addicted to shopping. (One such addict calls herself a shopping bulimic, always buying a mountain of stuff she can’t afford and then returning it.)

The action is interspersed with interviews with real people, and Python-esque animations, one with a sound effect that is somewhere between a Latin liturgical chant and an auctioneer’s spiel. Sometimes Rev. Billy gets arrested. And when the Stop Shopping Choir goes caroling, look out!

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(The real title is Moartea domnului Lazarescu )

Dante Remus Lazarescu: his parents must have been educated, for they named him after the Italian poet and one of the founders of Rome. He once had a wife, but she’s been dead for ten years. He once had a daughter, but she’s gone to live on another continent. Now he’s just an old guy who drinks and stinks, living on an inadequate pension in Bucharest. To his sister and her husband, he’s a mooch who is always borrowing money to drink on. He loves his three cats tenderly, and the neighbors don’t like them a bit.

Mr. Lazarescu is not well, and at first we think maybe he’s just lonely, making a call to the medical service for some much-needed attention. He asks a neighboring couple for medicine. They seem cold at first, and standoffish, then you get a hint of what they have put up with from him already. When the paramedic, a woman named Mioara, arrives, the neighbor woman says she resents Mr. Lazarescu because he started her husband drinking. Yet despite some rough words, these neighbors act with incredible kindness. The husband, Sandu, goes along to the hospital.

These neighbors have an interesting relationship. Sandu issues orders to his wife, but she issues some to him, too. Even when her husband specifically tells her not to do something, i.e., not to bring Mr. Lazarescu a bowl of their stew, she goes ahead and does it anyway.

The poor man, now vomiting blood, gets taken to four different hospitals, always accompanied by Mioara the ambulance attendant, who is a hero in her own quiet yet assertive way. As the night wears on and they are sent, for various logistical and bureaucratic reasons, from one hospital to another, the EMT attends her patient impersonally yet intimately. If she weren’t wearing the official orange vest with her job title stenciled on the back, she might be Mr. Lazarescu’s concerned, dutiful wife or daughter.

I’m wondering if this is a true picture of the attitude toward alcoholism in contemporary Romania. Because it was Communist for more than 40 years, until 1989, and alcoholism was always a big problem in all the Iron Curtain countries. Of the many medical professionals the patient encounters through the night, some give him hell about drinking. One doctor is particularly bastardly in his scolding. However it may have been in the old days, there is little tolerance for alcohol addicts here.

Ed Gonzalez says all the medical people “glibly dismiss Lazarescu because he stinks of alcohol” and the ambulance nurse “bears witness like some frustrated angel of mercy to the man’s dehumanization.” But it’s not like that. The doctors that seem like the biggest assholes at first, are the most helpful. One doctor who seems uncaring turns out to be incredibly cool. Some of the medics are more brusque than others, but mostly they are kind. And no matter how indifferent or critical their words, they are never rough in their physical handling of the patient. When he vomits or pees himself, they’re mainly professional, though one is a bit rude. One of the things the story illustrates is how much, under any system, so much still depends on personal contacts, the extended family, the favor bank. And it is truly surprising, the amount of gentleness shared between strangers.

As the hours drag by and he is shuttled from one health care facility to another, Mr. Lazarescu loses ground. He’s already lost control of his arm and hand. Plus, he’s confused and doesn’t understand the informed consent stuff the doctor is telling him. He won’t sign the paperwork. The doctor says take him to another hospital, or drive around for an hour until and wait till he’s comatose, then bring him back and they can operate without consent.

Roger Ebert wrote that the film is seen by many people as a criticism of Romania’s health care services. When this movie was made, the country was some kind of a democracy with a state-owned health care system. It doesn’t seem so bad. In the workplace, women appear to have just as much rank, and an equal right to be arrogant jerks also. The camaraderie among the medics is true to life.

If there is criticism of the system here, it’s far from a scathing denunciation. The man does get the diagnostic scans he needs. A doctor uses her personal clout to convince another doctor to set it up. The doctor who won’t proceed without the consent, well, who would expect him to throw away his medical license by improperly authorizing a surgery? In this respect, Romania is probably no worse than anywhere else. Doctors have constraints; even if the rules are wrong, they have to follow them or get kicked out of the union. And besides, there was a terrible bus accident and all the city’s hospitals are in overdrive.

But really, this poor guy is what an American doctor would describe as a GOMER, as in “Get Out of My Emergency Room.” Of course it’s one of those ironic medical humor expressions, because doctors know they are supposed to treat all patients as equal. They take an oath. But it is maximally depressing when someone shows up that the staff knows is not going to get any better, no matter how diligently they work to patch him up. GOMERs are one of the reasons why medical workers suffer burnout. Especially the patients who are on their last legs, the no-hopers whose every step into decrepitude and imminent death was self-inflicted.

The patient is sinking fast, and one of the last semi-coherent things he says is “I have to go to Christmas with girl Bianca.” That’s what he’s got to hold onto and stay alive for, the very unlikely chance that his daughter might make the trip back from Canada. Or maybe he is lost already in the misty past.

Finally, he ends up at a hospital where they agree to do surgery on him. Two women do the surgical prep. Up until now, all the various medics have been repeatedly dressing and undressing him as the various needs arose. These women cut off his pajama pants, as if to say, “You won’t be needing these any more.” They efficiently and dispassionately wash his wreck of a body, with its mound of abdominal fat and the lower legs swathed in bandages because of the open sores. One of the women meticulously, carefully shaves his head for the surgery. She tucks the sheet up under his chin and says some kind words, and the movie ends. It could almost be one of those ambiguous endings. Maybe he pulls through, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he makes it back home to his cats. On the other hand, the title is The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, so that’s kind of a spoiler.

After watching the film on the recommendation of a friend, only then do I look at the box and do a double-take. They’re calling this a comedy? The most acclaimed comedy of the year?  WTF? Wow, I am really losing my grip. Never in a thousand years would I have classified this as a comedy, black or otherwise. That anyone does, shows how far I have drifted from comprehension of the current world. (Of course I said the same thing on learning that the grim, pointless, revolting Trainspotters was touted as a comedy.) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu: Here I am, thinking I’ve just watched a touching, absorbing portrait of human nature, one that maybe says something about a political system or a social theory, but….

a comedy?

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It doesn’t really have an ending. And it confounds all expectations. I think the black kid is going to die. I figure, that’s what the scene with him and white girl in the restaurant is all about. To show that he can be mellow, non-confrontational, sweet, etc. – so that when he is killed, we will care.

Then, the horrible prolonged scene on the subway where the Arab insults and eventually spits on Anne. I figure, she will react to that hysterically, causing her boyfriend to kill the next dark-skinned person he sees – who will just happen to be that guy we have learned to like. But that isn’t what happens. Nothing happens. As we go along, I make up several different endings, none of which is the one provided by the movie.

The other remarkable thing is, it shows the ordinary routine of being smuggled into France and then deported, an everyday occurrence for the Romanians.

Juliette Binoche can look so plain, and also so luminously beautiful. She’s an unparalleled physical actor. The body as instrument, to the nth degree. All the set pieces show her off.  Movies often have those, as actor bait. Write something a real actor would love to sink teeth into, and a real actor with a name will do it for union scale. It happens. It happens the other way, too. The clever producer or director or writer gets with a huge name actor and says, “What do you want to do on the big screen? Sing, tap dance, drown, masturbate? You name it, and we’ll write it into the script.”

For a film, that can be a disaster. But not here. However they came about, these amazing scenes show off so well the genius of Juliette Binoche. The one where she’s listening to a kid being abused in the building. And at her acting job, the locked-in-a-room-by-a-twisto scene. And that off-the-scale scene, more literally a tour de force than many others given the label, where alone on the stage she stomps around being a total uninhibited madwoman, with large awkward movements like Mountain Girl in Intolerance. The viewer is far, far back in the theater. What the hell is that? Is it from an actual play that already existed, or was it created for the purpose of this film?

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