Thursday, August 09, 2007

An Anarchist's Story: The Life of Ethel MacDonald

(Movie Review)

Another documentary I watched off of TV links. (They wouldn't have had it at my local video store anyway). That TV links is a dangerous site, isn't it? As if the Internet didn't waste enough of my time as it is....but nevertheless here's the link for anyone interested.

I had never heard of Ethel MacDonald before. Neither have most people. Which, according to the Internet, is one of the reasons this documentary was made in the first place, in order to rescue Ethel MacDonald's forgotten legacy.

Ethel MacDonald was a Scottish anarchist who took part in the Spanish civil war as a journalist and radio propagandist for the Spanish Republic. According to wikipedia she was also active in the 1950s peace movement towards the end of her life, but this documentary only focuses on the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War, and in particular the anarchist movement associated with it, has long been one of those areas of history that I've been interested in but never got around to thoroughly reading up on. (So much interesting history, so little time. Regular readers of this blog of course know that lately I've been focusing my reading on the Paris Commune, another land mark in anarchist history).

The Spanish Civil War, with its different stages and shifting alliances between monarchists, fascists, republicans, anarchists, and communists has often confused better history students than me. Add to that the story of international support for the Spanish Civil war, and then on top of everything the personal story of journalist Ethel MacDonald, and you have a film which is juggling a lot. Fortunately the film makers do a good job of narrating the material. It may not get too in depth about the Spanish Civil War, but it never gets too confusing either. It handles each topic briefly, but it handles enough topics to maintain interest.

As you would expect, there is lots of archival footage and old news reels. But there are also actors to supply the visuals when the archival footage doesn't exist--similar to the BBC series "Days that Shook the World" (which I guess is why the film is labeled docu-drama). At times this gives the film a bit of a cheesy feel, but the constant visuals also help to give a narrative to the muddled history of the Spanish Civil War.

There is also the usual cuts away to the talking head experts, the only one really recognizable is Noam Chomsky. Chomsky doesn't seem to know a lot about Ethel MacDonald (or at least they don't ask him about her) but he fills in a lot of the history and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, and is brilliant, articulate, and a pleasure to listen to as always.

The story of the Spanish Civil War is one of deep divisions and betrayals on the left (a theme also present in Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls") and Ethel MacDonald's own experience serves as a very good example around which larger themes are introduced. Once the Communists turn against the anarchists in Barcelona, MacDonald has to go into hiding from the very republican government she was fighting for.

If you hang out in activist circles (as I do on occasion when I'm in the US) the betrayal in Barcelona is still remembered by the anarchists. I was at a media mouse event last year where I remember a woman advocating that anarchists should never make common cause with communists because as soon as communists get into power the first thing they do is shoot all the anarchists (Barcelona being one example, the Russian Revolution another).

It is hard to argue with historical fact, and everyone knows that history does to some extent repeat itself but I'm wary of turning historical precedent into some sort of religious dogma that can be applied across the board to all countries in all time periods. Communism, anarchism or any ideological movement does not have an independent life of its own but is made up of nothing more or less than its human adherents, and people are always different depending on circumstances.

At any rate, in a country like the US where the communists are in no danger of rising to power any time soon, I hardly see the danger in cooperating on anti-war projects. I circulated A.N.S.W.ER. petitions back in 2002 and don't feel a bit guilty about it. But all of this is probably another topic for another post.

Link of the Day
Swagman family blogging: my sister's post on the last couple weeks and everyone being back in town for my brother's wedding (even features a picture of me at the Swagman family dinner table)
Plus news that she and her boyfriend got engaged. Congratulations!

An Anarchist's Story: The Life of Ethel MacDonald: Movie Review (Scripted)

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