Rob Edelman: Ugly American

Oct 9, 2017

If you are an American-- or, if you are a certain type of American-- you may think that you are king of the world. You can show up in a part of the world whose citizens are struggling, are suffering, and present yourself as honest and well-intentioned, and win over these “foreigners” by making hollow promises.

Do you, however, have a hidden agenda? What are you trying to accomplish? Even though you essentially are a stranger in a strange land, you are, after all, an American who tosses money around as if it is water. And surely, that is enough to rope in any and all who are in your path.

This precisely is the case in MIRACLE, a clever, revealing tragicomedy from Lithuania that was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. The setting is a struggling rural pig farm that has been operated since the 1970’s by Irena, a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who has no choice but to accept her plight and fate. Irena deals with everyday issues involving money, or lack of money, and local bureaucracy. Plus, she understandably has no love for her boorish, alcoholic husband. Granted, Irena struggles, but she exists in a culture in which everyone around her struggles.

Then one day, Irena is visited by Bernardas: an American who tells her that his parents hail from this part of the world. He has money to spare and wishes to purchase and rebuild her farm, in honor of his deceased parents. Bernardas presents himself as a conqueror. He expects to take everything he wants, from Irena’s land to Irena herself. But who is he? What are his true motives?

While watching MIRACLE, I could not help but be reminded of Donald Trump. So not surprisingly, Bernardas is described in the festival’s programme notes as “a boisterous American-Lithuanian stranger (who is) intent on buying the farm while pledging to make Lithuania great again.”

Fitting right in here is COMPANY TOWN, a heartbreaking, anger-inducing investigative documentary that recently came to theaters. The town in question is a small one: Crossett, Arkansas. The company is Georgia-Pacific, which runs a paper mill and chemical plant in Crossett, and which spills poisonous waste into the local river. And so too many Crossett residents have been suffering from, and dying from, what is described as “door-to-door cancer.” Can this be directly linked to the chemical content that Georgia-Pacific exposes them to? Well, of course it is. Now if you work at G-P and speak out, you will be fired. Or if you are not an employee, your relative who is one will be let go and, to paraphrase one Crossett resident: “How many of us have to die in order to keep one job at the plant?”

COMPANY TOWN is a disturbing film and, given its content and the manner in which the company’s billionaire owners lord it over their powerless workers, it is not surprising. And oh yes, the billionaires in question are none other than the ultra-conservative Koch brothers. Lately, there increasingly has been an advertising campaign for Koch Industries in which the company is presented in the most positive light. The angle here is: You may not have heard of Koch Industries, but you should be aware of all the wonderful products that fill up all the shelves in your home. Well, if you have billions, you could market and sell just about anything. But if you are a powerless working person, you might as well shut up and die quietly...

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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