March 2007 -- Film Review of: Freedom’s Fury, Mine Your Own Business, and Hammer and Tickle
Most of us remember well the 1980 victory of the American Olympic ice hockey team over the heavily favored Soviet team at Lake Placid, New York. That victory took on its special significance against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and communist expansion around the globe.
But few remember the equally dramatic confrontation between the Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, only two weeks after Red Army tanks crushed the freedom revolt that erupted in Budapest. Freedom’s Fury documents the history of that failed revolution and how the Hungarian people’s aspirations for liberty came to be embodied in that sporting event.
At the end of World War II, Soviet troops occupied Hungary. The desires of that country’s people to replace fascism with democracy were slowly strangled by the rise of the Communist Party in Hungary, backed by and employing the same repressive tactics of Stalinist Russia. But by 1956, Hungarians began to let their desires for liberty be known.
Freedom’s Fury shows us how the October demonstrations, led at first by students and later joined by individuals from all walks of life, brought tens of thousands to the streets of Budapest. They forced Stalinist dictator Mátyás Rákosi to step down and ousted the hardline Communists in favor of a government of reformers who asked remaining Russian army units to leave and announced their intention to withdraw from the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact. But while Moscow indicated its intention to abide by the wishes of the Hungarian people, it worked secretly with Hungarian Communists to quell the uprising. On November 4, the Soviet military rolled into the country. Hungarians put up a strong resistance. Thousands were killed in the fighting but were no match for the Red Army. Reform Prime Minister Imre Nagy was arrested and later executed.
Against the birth and murder of Hungarian freedom, Freedom’s Fury shows us archival footage of the Hungarian water polo team training for the 1956 Olympics in Australia. The film also interviews the surviving team members, who describe how they wondered whether, after the bloody events of that fall, they would be able to get out of the country.
Freedom’s Fury is important because current generations must not forget past struggles for freedom.
Fortunately, they did, and the match-up with the Russian team in Melbourne, only two weeks after Soviet tanks rolled over the bodies of so many of their countrymen, became the symbolic focus of the aspirations of all their countrymen. The match itself was brutal. Hungarian team star Ervin Zador was sucker-punched by an opponent, and the “blood in the water” and on his face symbolized his nation’s own bloody struggle for independence. The Hungarian team’s victory in that match was bittersweet in another way: The team understood that half its members would defect to the West, possibly never to see their homes and families again.
The film ends with the now-elderly surviving members of the Hungarian team, as well as those of the Russian team, meeting in Budapest. All the animosity is gone. They want to remember that Olympic spirit.
Freedom’s Fury is important because current generations must not forget past struggles for freedom if they are to fight for it today and in the future. It was written and directed by the brother-sister team of Colin Gray and Megan Raney Aarons and narrated by world-famous swimmer Mark Spitz. Thor Halvorssen was co-producer; executive producers included Quentin Tarantino, Lucy Liu, and Andrew G. Vajna, who was also responsible for such hits as First Blood, Total Recall, Evita, and Terminator III. The documentary premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Mine Your Own Business
In Mine Your Own Business: The Dark Side of Environmentalism, Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer writes and narrates the story of how Westerners, who you’d expect would want to foster the quest for prosperity by people in less-developed countries and in lands emerging from the yoke of communism, argue literally that those people would rather remain poor.
McAleer takes us first to Rosia Montana, a village in rough and rugged rural Romania. The Canadian firm Gabriel Resources wants to open a gold mine in this area that has been mined since Roman times. Pure gold—for the impoverished and unemployed locals who face an even worse fate as the state-owned operations wind down.
But Western environmentalists say “No!” Belgium activist Françoise Heidebroek, who lives far from Rosia Montana in Bucharest, calls that village a “magic place” and believes the gold mine will ruin it. She suggests that the locals can earn livings instead from agriculture, raising sheep, growing vegetables in little gardens, and tourism. She also opines that most locals might prefer horses to cars. And she bemoans the mining company’s efforts to move locals out of the part of the town where they want to set up operations.
But McAleer can find no locals who yearn for subsistence farming. Out-of-work miner George echoes his neighbors’ desire for good jobs with a Western firm to replace the ones lost as the state operation closes. George points out that the area is already pretty filthy and polluted because of the money-losing government enterprise that will be required to shut down as Romania enters the European Union. By contrast, Western firms are far more environmentally friendly and will run their operations in compliance with EU standards. Do the natives want horses rather than cars? As one villager observes, “We are human beings and we need to develop.”
Remote Rosia Montana will never become a tourist magnet; there’s little to attract wealthy Westerners. And the lack of indoor plumbing is a reason why villagers whose houses are being purchased by the Canadian company (it is not allowed to seize homes) welcome the opportunity to sell out and move to a nicer area. Ironically, environmentalist Heidebroek works for the country’s railroad, which can and does seize property.
McAleer shows us a village near Rosia Montana with no major employer or Western investment. Its few remaining people scratch out a marginal living smashing up the remains of old industrial facilities to sell for scrap. It’s like a scene out of Atlas Shrugged .
Is this condescending desire to force villagers to be “happy peasants” limited to a few environmentalists in Romania? McAleer takes George to even-poorer Port Dauphin in Madagascar, where environmentalists have fought for fifteen years against opening a mine there. In this case, Mark Fenn, the country representative for the Worldwide Fund for Nature who lives in that country but not in that village, wants to save the “quaintness” of Port Dauphin. Fenn shows off his $35,000 boat and the foundations of his dream house in a country where the average income is $100 per month.
When the matter of material prosperity is brought up, Mark explains to an incredulous George that we must ask what and whom we perceive to be rich and poor. Yes, a mine would bring jobs and prosperity; but if one spends time with a family in Port Dauphin, one can “count how many times in the day that family smiles, and if you could measure stress” you’d find them better off than most folks in the developed world.
Mark maintains that, in any case, when these people get money, they don’t want to hang onto it. They spend it all in three or four days; they buy beer and throw a party, perhaps purchase a stereo and some jeans. He further explains: “Indicators of quality of life are not housing, they’re not nutrition specifically, they’re not health in a lot of cases, it’s not education. A lot of…children in Port Dauphin don’t go to school because the parents don’t consider that to be important.”
One has trouble focusing as McAleer shows us villagers who want nothing more than jobs, prosperity, and a better future for their children, while Mark Fenn’s children go to school in South Africa. For in the words of a friendly, good-looking, and well-spoken Westerner, one has just heard as pure an anti-human evil as one can imagine.
Writer Deepak Lal says environmentalism is a “new secular religion.”
McAleer finds more of this unbelievable condescension in a British environmentalist who wants to stop a mining operation fifteen thousand feet up in the Chilean Andes. Sure, 27,000 people applied for the five thousand jobs, but, he explains, for so many natives there is a “spiritual connection with earth.” No matter how materially well-off these people might become, he claims, digging into sacred mountains will mean they will lose the core of their spiritual reality, something they’ll never recover.
Writer Deepak Lal tells McAleer that environmentalism is a “new secular religion” and denounces the “misanthropy of the green movement.” McAleer observes that “progressives” used to march to demand jobs for all, but now march to deny them to the poor of the world. He summarizes the theme of his film well by calling for “the dignity of development.”
At a Q&A session after its premiere, the film’s co-director and producer, Ann McElhinney, observed that leftwing actress Vanessa Redgrave—with no sense of the irony of her action—walked onto a stage decked out in gold jewelry to accept a prize for her work to stop the goldmine in Rosia Montana.
Hammer and Tickle
Most of us cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a repressive communist regime. Yet millions of individuals did. How did they cope?
In Hammer and Tickle, filmmaker Ben Lewis gives us a whirlwind history of communism. But unlike most documentaries, he uses re-enactors, archival footage, and individuals who opposed the system to show how humor helped people cope, and how it helped bring down a system that its subjects saw as a horrible joke.
Communism was bigger and better than other dictatorial systems: the queues were longer, the party congresses were bigger, there were ten times as many secret policemen. But the harder the times, the better the jokes; and best of all were jokes about communism.
Lewis shows us up front that humor was recognized at the highest levels as a weapon against the system. President Ronald Reagan tells of a conversation with a communist who is asked about the potato supply: If we put them in one pile, they’d reach the foot of God! But in the Soviet Union, there is no God. Well, there are no potatoes either!
Reagan’s joke echoes one about two Russians standing in a long line. One says, “My son is playing William Tell in school play.” The other asks, “But where did they get an apple?”
Such jokes began with Lenin and the Russian Revolution. What’s the difference between capitalism and communism? Capitalism is the exploitation of men by men. Communism is the exact opposite!
After Lenin’s death, he’s lying in state. As a man files past, the bodyguard remarks, “Lenin is dead, but his ideas will live forever.” Replies the man: “If only it were the other way around.”
The era of Stalin was even harsher for subjects of the Soviet government, and Lewis shows us this as reflected in the jokes of the period:
Stalin asks his driver, “Are you more or less happy since the revolution?” “Less.” “Why?” “Before revolution I had two suits; now I only have one.” “What are you complaining about? In Africa people walk around naked.” “Yeah, when did they have their revolution?”
Under Stalin’s collectivization of farms, some seven million people starved to death. Thus, Soviet subjects joked that Stalin was having a problem with mice in his office. An advisor suggests that to get rid of them, he should make his office a collective farm: half the mice will die of hunger, and the other half will run away.
The documentary opens with Orwell’s quote that “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
But jokes were not always a laughing matter. Lewis tells us that some 100,000 people were sent to the Gulags for so offending their communist masters with humor. Thus, the joke about the competition for telling jokes: first prize—twenty-five years! And an aide finds a judge in a Moscow courtroom laughing hysterically. “What joke’s so funny?” he’s asked. “I can’t tell you; I just gave a man ten years for telling it.”
World War II brought the joke about Hitler and Stalin in hell, the former up to his neck in feces, the latter only up to his waist. Why isn’t Stalin also up to his neck? He’s standing on Lenin’s shoulders!
After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev didn’t seek to jail people for telling jokes. Perhaps Soviet leaders felt it was better for people to joke than to demonstrate in the streets or try to escape, as they were doing in Soviet satellite countries.
So, one guard at the Berlin Wall asks a second guard, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” “Yes,” is the answer, followed by the response: “Then I’ll have to arrest you!”
Soviets officials tried but failed to use jokes at the expense of the West. In the end, they allowed jokes in their own controlled publications at the expense of shop assistants or petty bureaucrats, which spoke to peoples’ frustrations without challenging the system.
But decades of communism led to inevitable economic decline: “How come you don’t have any cheese in the shop today?” “Sorry, we’re the shop with no meat. The shop with no cheese is across the street!”
Queuing for necessities became a way of life: “Where did you find toilet paper?” “I didn’t buy it. It’s just back from the laundry.”
And nothing worked. A Soviet factory manager brags about his productivity: In the first year they produced five hundred items, in the second year five thousand, in the third year one hundred thousand, and next year it will be five hundred thousand. What does he produce? “Out of order” signs!
Even Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika couldn’t stop the outbreak of freedom in Eastern Europe and the final fall of communism—nor the endless supply of jokes at the system’s expense. Lewis ends with President Reagan, who would tell these jokes and not just to conservative audiences. While other diplomats and presidents might be too mistakenly polite to do so, the Gipper told them to Soviet leaders to their faces when he met with them. This was his way of saying, “I know the nature of your system, you know the nature of your system, and your people certainly know the nature of your system.”
Hammer and Tickle won the top prize at the Zurich Film Festival and has aired on BBC4 as well as French and German television. Thor Halvorssen was executive producer of the film, and he tells TNI that the film was purchased by and will air on the Sundance Channel this spring.
Ben Lewis opens the documentary with Orwell’s quote that “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” At its end, we understand that the fight for freedom takes on many forms. We have Lewis, Halvorssen, and the rest of the staff at MPI to thank for capturing on film a major victory on this oft-ignored front.