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God's Children
by Louis Proyect
29 March 2002 14:30 UTC
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Hiroshi Shinomiya's documentary "God's Children" takes the audience into
the lowest levels of hell on earth. It revolves around the lives of
Filipinos who eke out a living in search of scrap metal, plastic bottles,
etc. at a massive garbage dump near Quezon City called "Smokey Valley," a
sardonic euphemism in line with "Smokey Mountain," another garbage dump
outside Manila whose denizens were featured in Shinomiya's first film.

Eighteen thousand families were drawn to Smokey Valley because there were
no economic alternatives. During a question and answer period after last
night's screening at MOMA, the director stated that the unemployment rate
in Manila for youth now stands at fifty percent.

In the opening scenes of the film, we discover that a typhoon had ripped
through the area in July 2000, causing a landslide of garbage that
demolished shacks abutting the dump, killing more than one thousand
dwellers. We are reminded of the aftermath of 9/11 as we see rescue crews
pulling dead bodies out of the fetid rubble, but with one difference. Given
the power relationships that govern this planet in this epoch, nobody ever
held memorial concerts or raised millions for these victims of the nameless
and faceless terror known as capitalist neo-liberalism.

After this disaster, the government closed the dump. Shinomiya's film then
focuses in on the desperate effort of a group of families to survive, as
their one economic opportunity is lost. Yams dug from nearby plots, or
boiled rice and water serve as the only meal of the day. Throughout this
ordeal, the families struggle to maintain their dignity. Farmers whose
livelihoods have been destroyed by the inexorable forces of agribusiness or
natural disaster head most of the families featured in the documentary.
They have the same hopes as any other family: to bring children into the
world and to raise them properly. Because of crushing poverty, this appears
to be an impossible task. Cholera, malnutrition, measles and other diseases
kill infants in massive numbers in Smokey Valley. As is the case with much
of the film, the funeral scenes for these newly born are emotionally
devastating to the point of being practically unwatchable.

During the discussion period, I commented that the United States was
responsible for the misery seen in the film. It invaded the Philippines at
the turn of the twentieth century and imposed a series of oligarchies on
the people that would protect the US-owned or controlled sugar plantations
that exist to this day. If that land were used for small-scale farming,
there would be enough food for everybody. To the sound of applause, I
commented that nobody picks through garbage in Cuba.

In essence, this distinction is lost on leftists who judge Cuba as a
failure because it has not transcended commodity production and many of the
other features of capitalist society. But the true yardstick for such
countries is not whether a people is liberated from the daily grind of
work, but whether they can bring children into the world without worrying
about losing them to cholera during infancy.

In the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly, we discover that life was much
better in 1491 for the average indigenous inhabitant of the New World than
it was for a European. (http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2002/03/mann.htm)
We can probably assume that the same thing was true for the 15th century
Filipino who survived by fishing, hunting and migratory cultivation. Unlike
more centralized state-based societies such as China or India, the
Philippines had more in common with North America where loosely governed
bands enjoyed nature's bounty on an egalitarian basis.

The lack of an advanced state mechanism made the task of subduing the
Philippines far easier. For 330 years Spain exploited the riches of the
islands while turning the population into peons, whose indigenous beliefs
were replaced by force-fed missionary Catholicism. Finally, when they
gathered together the resolve to throw the Spanish out, the USA stepped
into the breach and constituted itself as a new colonial master. This
prompted Mark Twain to write the following:

"And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We
can have a special one -- our States do it: we can have just our usual
flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the
skull and cross-bones." (To the Person Sitting In Darkness, 1901)

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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