Dusan Makavejev's visionary insolence

WR Mysteries of the Organism is screened in London.

"Gentlemen, in our Democracy, everyone is entitled to a doughnut. Some get the doughnut, others get the hole in the doughnut.” 

A throbbing essay in visionary insolence, WR Mysteries of the Organism by Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev, which will be screened tonight at BFI Southbank in London, mixes formal experimentation with radical lyricism in an incendiary cocktail of cinematic liberation. The film sets out to document the life and times of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, Freud’s former pupil famous for his treatises on sexual repression and liberation.

Makavejev succeeds in translating Reich’s notion of the orgasm as a tool of psycho-social emancipation into images. The film articulates its irreverent narrative around free associations, creactive juxtapositions and deviant evocations - New York transsexuals sing Stalinist musicals; Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs roams the Manhattan grid masturbating a rifle, opening hostilities between civilized pliancy and creative insurgency. Eisenstein’s “dialectical montage” is hijacked by the unorthodox urges of the New Left; the orgiastic surrealism of spontaneity overcomes the tedium of Actually Existing Socialism.

Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain, a Soviet sportsman ("Honoured Artist of The People") beheads his impudent girlfriend in a grotesque attempt to preserve his Communist purity against the decadence of the Yugoslav "Third Way". The assembled workers are aroused, quite literally, by a young woman calling for genital happiness and denouncing Stalinism as “a puny lie disguised as a great historic truth”. Sexual repression is presented here as the main reason behind the failure of the October Revolution or, in a more Reichian fashion, "The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality". The exuberant slapstick style characterising the "Eastern Chapter" of the film epitomises Reich's and Makavejev's belief in the incompatibility of indoctrination and freedom, instinct and constraint. To have combined the didacticism of psychoanalytical thought with the power of images remains the film's principal achievement. It's a film whose very semantic matrix transcends geographical borders, a perfect example of cross-pollinating 1970s film, neither western nor eastern.

The late British film critic Raymond Durgnat wrote a book about WR (in the BFI's "Modern Classics" series), declaring it a film whose radical tenets he did not fully share yet by which he remained deeply fascinated. It is a captivating book, showing how a film that “yields great pleasure, emotional and aesthetic” upset the empiricist and pragmatic outlook of a devoutly analytical critic. The volume is a rare instance of an analytical approach succeeding in disclosing the inner workings of a visual text without neutralising its pre-linguistic impetus. 

WR was described by Makajevev as “a black comedy, a political circus, a fantasy on the fascism and communism of human bodies, the political life of human genitals, a proclamation of the pornographic essence of any system of authority and power over others”. All this prior to the moment when, in Raymond Durgnat’s words, “60s anarcho-libertarianism ebbed before the routinisation of sexual permissivness and the neo-puritanism of ‘Political Correctness’.”

"The invasion of compulsory sex-morality": Reich on the Russian Revolution (Photo: Getty Images)
Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood