Tag Archives: music

Call + Response

This documentary focuses on the important social issue of human trafficking. Its specific emphasis is upon sex trafficking, and features lots of disturbing stories and statistics, delivered via a slick production. However, the documentary’s biggest problems are systemic and fatal: namely, its reformist orientation toward the subject matter and the resulting naiveté of the directorship.

Even though it purports to be about anti-trafficking movements, no actual social movement activities are even depicted—even simple protest is absent. The director laughably references so-called “open source” protest, as if previous social protest is irrelevant, or that something has dramatically shifted in real-world power relations to justify such a new term. It presumes that people can “just get involved” and “make a difference” by “educating themselves” and clicking some buttons. Unfortunately, the naiveté only gets worse.

If there is a central root cause to the modern, global “slave trade”, it is modern capitalism, just as mercantilist capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy was the cause of post-medieval era African slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Amazingly, though the film claims to be so concerned with slavery, it does not mention—even once—this major institution (capitalism) that drives the “trade”. Sure, “profit” is mentioned a few times (which heads in the right direction), but in a post-2008 financial crisis era and post-Occupy Wall Street, this oversight is not so much unfortunate or tragic, as it reveals the superficiality of the film’s analysis. This significance reflects a story told about Murray Bookchin, the famous eco-anarchist. After hearing endless testimony of people at a city hall meeting, railing against “economic injustice”, Bookchin rose to his feet to thunder “in my day, we called it capitalism”. That plain-spoken-ness is absent here in this documentary, and instead we’re awash in abstractions and manipulative, heart-tugging stories lacking context.

The sex trade in Asia is very sad, but horribly de-contextualized. Amazingly, there is not a single mention of patriarchy. How are people to understand something if it is not explained systematically, in plain language? No one in the film bothers to hypothesize or ruminate about just how different the US and Europe were (or were not) in their slavery practices 150 years ago. “The same shit, different century”, would be a simple conclusion to draw. But, now the US has “modernized” and is “civilized”. Of course, the average American (or even most History majors in college) know zilch about historic slaveries, chattel slavery in the US south, the US civil War, etc. (Instead, most usually believe mis-truths about all these subjects.) This raises the concern that “human trafficking” is portrayed as such a serious issue now simply because most of the people trafficked do not originate in the West. This leads to a serious case of Orientalism (i.e., Westerners depict the “East” in stereotyped, incomplete, racist, and warped ways). This problem may even over-shadow the capitalist-gorilla-in-the-living-room problem. Nearly all the stories are about Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe—although “slavery” still occurs in North America and Western Europe. Hearing terrible stories of how people treat their own kind in other countries serves to “other” people outside the West. “Wow, people in those poor countries are monsters. And the poor girls and women who live there… let’s save them!”

It’s good that child soldiers (in Africa) appear in Call+ Response, but again there is no context to understand their circumstances. There is no mention of colonialism (let alone neo-colonialism), no analysis of the conflict minerals in people’s cell phones, and no acknowledgement of western mineral corporations or endless marketing (itself a multi-billion dollar industry in the US alone) to convince people of the “need” for such electronic devices (or whatever other toys). Instead viewers are just left with anecdotal stories.

You can learn a lot of important things about a documentary by the people a director chooses to interview. In Call + Response, we are treated to an appearance by the war-criminal Madeleine Albright (former US Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton). She comments on the injustice of the slave trade. This is meant to be sincere and convincing. However, many viewers may not remember that this woman claimed on national TV in the 1990s that a half-million dead Iraqi children from US-imposed sanctions was “worth the cost”. To which, the mothers or Iraq would likely respond: Fuck you, Albright, you occupy no moral high ground.

Most of the assembled interviewees are, unsurprisingly, very white—except for Cornel West. Regrettably, his usually radical analysis is blunted, as he is relegated to merely discussing the influence and origins of Black music. Other interviewees include prominent celebrities, who ooze a “savior” complex. We should be skeptical of celebrities who start doing activism (like Julia Ormond, Ashley Judd, and Daryl Hannah), and that pick such sensationalist and uncritical topics for their efforts.

While non-sex trafficking is described, it’s the sex trafficking stuff that gets the central focus. As with the anti-breast cancer “movement”, we should suspect a titillation factor at work. You know, “ooh, boobs!” Whether the subject is sex trafficking or not, “slaves” are presented as lacking agency, thus requiring salvation. Surely, there is much clear-cut coercion, kidnapping, and the like occurring throughout the world. But, to lump all non-free practices together under the same label does a disservice to “victims”. People do things for complex reasons, including self-subordination. People sometimes sell themselves into bondage to pay for transit to other countries, to pay bills or survive, while others freely submit to “wage slavery” and work 40 hour work weeks. These distinctions—so crucial to understand about capitalist exploitation—are washed away. The film does try to separate slavery and labor at the beginning, but the debate is left undefined. Thus, the broader issues of free-will under capitalism are left un-addressed.

Other sensational elements contribute to the confusion. For example, it’s hard to have clear numbers about trafficking, given its illicit character. Just as with all estimates of crime, this one is just as tough, if not tougher. (Even US crime is hard to estimate, while actions outside the US are often harder, especially with Western cultural biases at work.)

One final criticism is warranted, which has to do with style. The “rockumenary” format of Call + Response is compelling in some moments, while tragically overblown in others. It’s hard to take serious a self-important and self-absorbed [male] rock star rocking-out, in the midst of the doom and gloom featured through out the film. Hip-hop artist Talib Kweli shines, but most of the musical acts are rock bands—and mostly all-male efforts at that—featuring serious-looking rock stars (and, let’s face it, fuck rock stars!, amiright?). A subtle message is delivered herein, as throughout the rest of the documentary: these men are going to save women who need help. It’s an ancient patriarchal trope shrouded in mythological chivalry and just a tad of 21st century polish. It’s the kind of ensemble that a college-educated white dude would make, who independent of any grounding progressive politics, discovers a “cause” to dedicate his privileged, post-college life to. This effort, incidentally, requires zero introspection or lifestyle change on his part.

Of all the hundreds of documentaries I have seen, this is one of the worst. And, if this is cutting edge of new social movements, we’re all screwed. After watching this documentary, I am thoroughly depressed—for altogether different reasons than those the director intended.

Topics: crime, activism, music, sex, work

The Punk Singer

Most music documentaries—especially biopic films—do little to inform a sociological analysis. There are scores of context-independent, apolitical, and boring music documentaries out there (and these are on musicians who are good)! Thankfully, The Punk Singer is not one of these. It focuses upon the life and ideas of Kathleen Hanna, whose musical and political resume would be one of envy for many. She was the lead singer of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill and co-founder of the riot grrrl movement, to name only two things of note (member of Le Tigre would be another). Hanna has been central to so many things of cultural significance in the United States in recent decades that The Punk Singer could serve as a historical primer of sorts for the ill-informed.

For those unfamiliar with Hanna and her cultural milieu, The Punk Singer defines and provides a brief overview of the first and second waves of feminism in the US. Then, without giving an overt definition of feminism’s third wave, the documentary offers nearly all the main elements that scholars and activists identify with the third wave. We see an emphasis on cultural reclamation of previously derogatory words (incl. “slut”, which Hanna had written on her belly once while performing and the word “girl”). Even the idea of girlhood is reworked here. There is the advocacy of taking control of one’s own sexual empowerment and pleasure (see Bikini Kill lyrics and numerous statements by Hanna). The DIY (do it yourself) ethos is replete throughout the documentary, as musicians, punk scene denizens, artists, and Hanna herself create their own subcultures, media, events, and social movement. The Punk Singer also inserts a brief nod to intersectional themes, as a member of the “queercore” band Tribe 8 reflects on needing to analyze other forms of domination and inequality. Finally, the third wave is represented by the post-modernism demonstrated by punk and Hanna herself—she remarks to the camera that not everyone has to care about feminism, but that others should have to stay out of her way.

For Bikini Kill or Le Tigre fans, there are numerous opportunities to see these bands perform, as well as old “how did it really happen” interviews. Even for those unfamiliar with these bands, many will have heard of others who were influenced by Bikini Kill and Hanna herself, or who crossed paths with her. Joan Jett and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon appear as friends and confidants, as does King Ad Rock (aka Adam Horowitz) of the Beastie Boys, who is Hanna’s husband. There is also an important reflection upon Hanna’s friendship with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (Hanna spray-painted the phrase “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his apartment wall, inspiring the band’s most famous song title); an interviewee remarks that a good Nirvana history will conclude that its legacy is not in the “hesher rock” scenes of the Pacific Northwest, but in feminist art punk.

Sociological audiences will be able to observe how social change occurs in subcultures, with people pushing the boundaries of acceptability and expression, creating the space for new groups of people and ideas. The Punk Singer shows how Hanna challenged both her male punk compatriots to treat women better (sexual violence and marginalization are central themes) as well as empower her female compatriots to seize control of their lives and their art. Bikini Kill challenged male thuggery at their concerts, asked women to stand-up front by the stage, and called-out sexual predators. Hanna’s influence on riot grrrl is just as significant: she and her fellow punks created fanzines that discussed the need for feminism in punk scenes in order to protect and encourage female participation, and other problems faced by women in the male-dominated punk environment. Not only was this an intellectual influence upon punk (felt by women as well as men), but it also manifested in real-world riot grrrl groups, who met—kind of like second wave consciousness-raising circles—to support each other, network, do art and music together, and push for change within the punk movement. It is impossible to deny the effect that riot grrrl has had upon punk. Of course, sexism, misogyny, and assault still exist, but they are far less tolerated by everyone and they are easier to challenge than in the early-1990s. The Punk Singer is a great window into a fascinating world and one of its most charismatic participants.

Topics: gender, feminism, music, culture, social movements