Friday, July 17, 2009

Conyers Rallies Activists for Single-Payer Health Care

Veteran Congressmember Speaks at World Beat Center July 12


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

When African-American John Conyers, Jr. became the Congressional representative for Michigan’s First District (now the 14th District) in 1965, Barack Obama was three years old — a fact Conyers reminded his audience of when he spoke at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park, San Diego, July 12 as part of a nationwide tour to build support for single-payer health care. Though Congress has so far refused even to consider single-payer — which would replace the private health-insurance industry with a government-administered and –financed plan similar to Medicare — and has instead obsessively debated whether to allow a so-called “public option” to exist alongside the current system — Conyers thinks health-care reform needs to go beyond that, and he’s speaking across the country to get citizen activists to demand it.

“All of us in elected office are politicians,” Conyers said. “I don’t consider that derogatory. Politicians must be pushed. They are influenced by pressure.” As for Obama, while Conyers recalled his pride at seeing the first African-American President inaugurated last January, he said that Obama “hasn’t gotten it right on health care. Something is missing. The proposals that are being debated by three committees in the House and two in the Senate are not what we’re talking about. If Obama didn’t know any better, we’d say we’d have to get past his advisors. But Obama knows better. He came from the South Side of Chicago and he supported single-payer [in the 1990’s], so somebody help me out here.”

Conyers, who’s been pushing a single-payer bill for years and getting nowhere with it — the current version is numbered HR 676 — especially faulted Obama for reaching out not to ordinary people, but to health industry lobbyists for help in formulating his proposals. “I like the idea of reaching out, but we’re playing hardball,” Conyers said. “This isn’t about being diplomatic or how pretty your sponsors will be. We want action, and we [single-payer advocates] are being pushed into a corner, not even noticed, not even part of the debate. … There is no other plan that matches ours or has more supporters — 84 co-sponsors in the House. This is not something about which we can play around.”

According to Conyers, at least part of the problem is that many people who need health-care coverage have too-low expectations of what they deserve or what the political system could provide if it had the will to do so. “I hear people say, ‘I want health care for my children, not myself,’ and I say, ‘Get off the stage,’” Conyers said. “If I haven’t got it for myself, why would I fight to get it for my kids? I want universal health care for everyone in the country. Is there something selfish about that?”

The reason he’s stuck himself out on a limb with what the Congressional mainstream — Democrats as well as Republicans — consider a dangerously radical proposal on health care, Conyers said, is because he believes single-payer will literally save lives as well as money. “We’re talking about helping people live longer,” he said. “At one of these meetings, a woman asked me, ‘What about the cost? I pay taxes!’ The beauty of single-payer is that if you deal fairly with everybody and eliminate the profit motive from the health-care system, you’ll save money.”

Conyers cited Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), one of the groups sponsoring his San Diego appearance, as an example of the kind of grass-roots organizing he feels needs to be done on this issue. “We need more activists — not only on 676 but everything the government does in a democracy,” Conyers said. “What do we have to do? We have to hold conversations with our members of Congress, including the Senators. I am writing a book on the care and feeding for members of Congress.” Conyers stressed the importance of being polite and knowing what you’re doing, so you can get a meeting with your representative him- or herself instead of “talking to an intern — and sometimes they’ll be very nasty.”

According to Conyers, the activists’ ambitions shouldn’t stop with the House of Representatives. “What about the U.S. Senate?” he asked. “One hundred people who roll along every six years. They’re really busy. They have a whole state to represent. This is where it tests our individual wills. You’ve got to figure out what it takes. You’ve got to get into their offices 150 strong, not to threaten or intimidate, but just to demand an honest, democratic discussion on single-payer, and we want them to hear what we have to say.” Conyers also said he’s going to seek a personal meeting with President Obama and wants “a few of the doctors [who are supporting single-payer] to come with me and explain the technical aspects of it.”

Conyers’ HR 676 is formally titled “United States National Health Care Act or the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act.” It says, “All individuals residing in the United States (including any territory of the United States) are covered under the USNHC [United States National Health Care] Program entitling them to a universal, best quality standard of care. … Individuals who present themselves for covered services from a participating provider shall be presumed to be eligible for benefits under this Act, but shall complete an application for benefits in order to receive a United States National Health Insurance Card and have payment made for such benefits.”

The bill would guarantee coverage for “(1) Primary care and prevention. (2) Inpatient care. (3) Outpatient care. (4) Emergency care. (5) Prescription drugs. (6) Durable medical equipment. (7) Long-term care. (8) Palliative care. (9) Mental health services. (10) The full scope of dental services (other than cosmetic dentistry). (11) Substance abuse treatment services. (12) Chiropractic services. (13) Basic vision care and vision correction (other than laser vision correction for cosmetic purposes). (14) Hearing services, including coverage of hearing aids. (15) Podiatric care.” Other services could be added by the “National Board of Universal Quality and Access” which would be set up under the bill to administer the program.

One aspect of Conyers’ bill indicates that when he says he wants to take the profit motive out of health care altogether, he means exactly that. Single-payer proponents often say they don’t want to change the way health care is delivered — merely the way it’s paid for — and stress that they’re not trying to set up anything like Britain’s National Health Service, in which the government puts doctors and other health professionals on salary actually to provide care. But HR 676 would allow private doctors, hospitals, clinics and health maintenance organizations (HMO’s) to participate in the national health system only if they reorganized as sole-proprietor businesses or non-profit corporations.

“For-profit providers of care opting to participate shall be required to convert to not-for-profit status,” the bill provides in Section 103. “For-profit providers of care that convert to non-profit status shall remain privately owned and operated entities. The owners of such for-profit providers shall be compensated for reasonable financial losses incurred as a result of the conversion from for-profit to non-profit status. … The Secretary [of Health and Human Services] shall promulgate a rule to provide a mechanism to further the timely, efficient, and feasible conversion of for-profit providers of care.”

“The industry has always tried to make Americans think that government-run systems are the worst thing that could possibly happen to them, that if you even consider that, you’re heading down on the slippery slope towards socialism,” said Wendell Potter, former public relations director for the Cigna health insurance company, in an interview on the July 10 episode of the PBS-TV show Bill Moyers’ Journal. “So they have used scare tactics for years and years and years, to keep that from happening. If there were a broader program like our Medicare program, it could potentially reduce the profits of these big companies. So that is their biggest concern.”

The fear campaign has already started, not only to keep the door nailed shut on single-payer but to eliminate altogether any public alternative to private health insurance in whatever health care reform bill ultimately emerges from Congress. “They are trying to make you worry and fear a government bureaucrat being between you and your doctor,” Potter told Moyers. “What you have now is a corporate bureaucrat between you and your doctor.” Not only does the current system routinely put private bureaucrats between patients and doctors, it makes them the ultimate arbiters of who gets what care and how quickly. And sometimes people die as a result.

Potter told Moyers about his involvement in the case of Nataline Sarkisyan, a 19-year-old who died as a result of Cigna’s decision to deny her health-care claim. “Nataline Sarkisyan’s doctors at UCLA had recommended that she have a liver transplant,” Potter recalled. “But when the coverage request was reviewed at Cigna, the decision was made to deny it. The family had gone to the media, had sought out help from the California Nurses’ Association and some others to really bring pressure to bear on Cigna. And they were very successful in getting a lot of media attention, and nothing like I had ever seen before. It got everyone’s attention. Everyone was focused on that in the corporate offices.” The public pressure eventually turned Cigna around, and they approved payment for Sarkisyan’s liver transplant — only she died just two hours after the company decided to pay after all.

“What we have today, Mr. Chairman, is Wall Street-run health care that has proven itself an untrustworthy partner to its customers, to the doctors and hospitals who deliver care and to the state and federal governments that attempt to regulate it,” Wendell Potter said when he had a chance to testify before Congress on health care. In his Bill Moyers’ Journal interview, Potter described how he rose through the ranks at Cigna — which owns or operates up to 70 percent of all employer-based health insurance plans in the U.S. — in an almost Marie Antoinette-like obliviousness about the average American’s difficulty in accessing health care until he went to a health fair in Wise Country, West Virginia, a few miles from his boyhood home in Tennessee.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Potter told Moyers. “I just assumed that it would be booths set up and people just getting their blood pressure checked and things like that. But what I saw were doctors who were set up to provide care in animal stalls. Or they’d erected tents, to care for people. I mean, there was no privacy. I’ve got some pictures of people being treated on gurneys, on rain-soaked pavement. I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care. People drove from South Carolina and Georgia and Kentucky, Tennessee — all over the region, because they knew that this was being done. A lot of them heard about it from word of mouth. There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up at the house down the road, in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me.”

Like a Cinderella in reverse, Potter returned from that West Virginia health fair to his “normal” life as a high-paid P.R. man for the private health insurance industry. “I would often fly on a corporate aircraft to go to meetings,” Potter recalled. “And I just thought that was a great way to travel. It is a great way to travel. You’re sitting in a luxurious corporate jet, leather seats, very spacious. I was served my lunch by a flight attendant who brought my lunch on a gold-rimmed plate. And she handed me gold-plated silverware to eat it with. And then I remembered the people that I had seen in Wise County. Undoubtedly, they had no idea that this went on, at the corporate levels of health insurance companies.”

Also on the program at the World Beat Center July 12 was Mike Sievers, former member of Conyers’ Congressional staff and now working privately with him on the campaign for single-payer. “I don’t know too many House committee chairs who organize a movement,” Sievers said. “It’s now or never. There will be a bill that’s supposed to be a universal health care bill. Single-payer may be ‘off the table’ before the Congressional health care committees, but not with the Congress as a whole or the American people. There are families here in San Diego that have members that are sick and can’t go to a doctor. One of Conyers’ ideas is to do national health care town-hall meetings. The PDA’s in San Diego and Los Angeles hooked up to do a town-hall with Congressmembers Maxine Waters and Diane Watson and invite people to speak on what they think the health-care system should be. We used to say in the 1960’s that ‘the revolution will not be televised. Well, this revolution does need to be televised.”

For more information on Congressmember Conyers’ campaign for universal single-payer health care, visit

$9.99: Charming Stop-Motion Movie Offers the Meaning of Life


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Have you ever wondered, ‘What’s the meaning of life? Why do we exist?’,” runs the advertising copy for a book called The Meaning of Life, offered for sale for the titular price in a charming new movie called $9.99. “The answer to this vexing question is now within your reach! You’ll find it in a small yet amazing booklet, which will explain, in easy-to-follow, simple terms your reason for being! The booklet, printed on the finest paper, contains illuminating, exquisite color pictures, and could be yours for a mere $9.99.”

$9.99 — the movie, not the price tag — is a stop-motion animation feature, a co-production from Australia, the U.S. and Israel, based on a series of short stories by an Israeli writer named Etgar Keret and co-written by him and the film’s director, Tatia Rosenthal. It’s set in a modernistic apartment building — the exterior looks sharp and new but the insides seem to be crumbling — and it brings together a set of characters who seem to have little in common but having ended up under the same roof.

The central characters, more or less, are the Peck family: single dad Jim (Anthony LaPaglia) and his two young-adult sons, Lenny (Ben Mendelsohn) and Dave (Samuel Johnson). Lenny has a sleazy job as a repossessor — a sort of employment that in today’s era of economic breakdown may seem incredibly timely, but which in this film means they can come into a debtor’s home and take not only whatever the person borrowed money on and isn’t repaying, but just about everything in the house that isn’t nailed down and possibly a few things that are, as well. Lenny also has a seemingly hopeless crush on the supermodel Tanita (Leeanna Walsman), who’s just occupied the penthouse of their building and is actually willing to have sex with him. But her price for her favors is a chilling set of physical transformations that would have scared even the late Michael Jackson.

As for Dave — the younger brother who orders The Meaning of Life — he doesn’t have a job at all. He gets a tryout with Lenny’s employer, only he bungles the first repossession he goes out on because he feels sorry for the guy, a long out-of-work magician named “Marcus Pocus.” Also in the building live several other tenants, each with equally odd problems and hopes. Ron (Joel Edgerton) gets dumped by his schoolteacher fiancée Michelle (Claudia Karvan) and hangs out in his apartment with three two-inch gnomes, identified as “students” in the official synopsis but recognizable as such only to the extent that they drink beer (which Ron feeds them with an eyedropper) and party a lot. They learn to activate Ron’s turntable (he listens to music on vinyl) and generally use his place as a frat house.

Zack (Jamie Katsamatsas) is a schoolboy in Michelle’s class, who’s got his heart set on an electronic toy called “Soccer Jack.” As one of those parental exercises in teaching fiscal responsibility, his single father (oddly, while there are women in this film, none of them are mothers) gives him a piggy bank and tells Zack he’ll give him 50 cents for every glass of milk he drinks — then, when he’s drunk enough milk to fill the piggy bank, they’ll break it open and he’ll be able to buy “Soccer Jack.” Only Zack falls in love with the piggy bank, bringing it in to show-and-tell day at school and boasting that it smiles at him whether he puts money in it or not.

The final strand in this eccentric plot concerns Albert (Barry Otto), a retiree who takes in a homeless man (Geoffrey Rush) who turns out to be a guardian angel — though, as he explains, that’s actually a demotion. The angel hasn’t quite mastered the art of using his wings, but he has become adept at wheedling money out of passers-by by threatening to commit suicide on the spot if they don’t give him a handout … and actually doing so. (He gets away with this because he’s an angel, so he can’t die permanently.)

As arbitrary as this plot sounds, not only in its free mixture of natural and supernatural elements (the sort of thing usually described by the vague and overworked phrase “magical realism”) but also in the rather tenuous connections between the plot lines — one gets the impression each strand was a separate Keret story and it was only while writing the film that he and Rosenthal figured out ways to link them — $9.99 mostly works. The relative crudity of stop-motion animation works better than any other conceivable way of telling the story — a live-action version would have come across as way too arch and a computer-animated one would have seemed too machine-made and lacked the tactile surfaces of the characters as we have them — and the voices, especially LaPaglia’s, supply depths of character the clay puppets lack.

$9.99 is a quite impressive film that uses animation to express intellectual content as well as to have fun. In that regard it’s reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life — a film which used Rotoscoping (tracing over live-action footage to turn human actors into what appear to be hand-drawn cartoons) and told a similar story of individuals on an intellectual quest for the meaning of life. But whereas Linklater’s film seemed awfully preachy at times, Rosenthal’s expertly balances joy and thought, innocence and experience, and stays interesting despite the seeming arbitrariness of the plotting: this is one film in which “anything can happen” — and does.

It also helps that $9.99 carefully cultivates its universality. The plot description on gives the location as Sydney, Australia — though the film’s title is American and the check Dave receives as a refund when his second book order doesn’t go through is in dollars — but it really could be happening anywhere in the world where there’s a white-majority population and English is the native language. (For that matter, it could be happening in a country where English isn’t the native language; with the relative crudity of the stop-motion puppets’ lip movements, it would be easy enough to dub it into other tongues.) It’s also nice to see an animated film that frankly admits that people not only possess sex organs (Lenny is enviably well-hung) but use them to have sex.

$9.99 is a movie that’s well worth seeing if you can get into its quirky charm. It’s only 78 minutes long — it doesn’t overstay its welcome, though the ending seems abrupt and one could easily imagine it going on for another half-hour or so — and it’s certainly not the sort of cookie-cutter entertainment with which the major studios regularly bludgeon us these days. If you’re looking for something different at the movies, give it a chance.

$9.99 is now playing at the Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Avenue in San Diego. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.

Cygnet’s Noises Off: It Doesn’t Get Much Funnier


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

One of the most remarkable things about British playwright/novelist Michael Frayn — whose star-making 1982 play, Noises Off, is in production through August 23 by Cygnet at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street — is his ability to put flesh on some old and pretty clichéd bones. Noises Off deals with one of the most hackneyed theatrical premises — the “backstage” story, the act of putting on a play and the clash between the actors’ roles and their “real” identities — but it does so in a fresh, exciting manner that is at once oddly moving and funny as all hell. And Cygnet, blessed with a strong cast top-to-bottom and the fast, energetic direction of the theatre’s artistic director, Sean Murray, has done justice to Frayn’s crazy tribute to the bedroom farce and come up with a production that’s sure to entertain you.

Noises Off is in three acts, each one encompassing a performance of the first act of Nothing On, a farce by Robin Housemonger. This play-within-a-play deals with the attempt of house agent Roger Tramplemain (Jason Heil) to find a tenant for the country home of successful playwright Philip Brent (Craig Huisenga), who’s off in Spain with his wife Flavia (Sandy Campbell), where he’s established a legal residence in an attempt to evade Britain’s income tax. Roger has brought along a girlfriend, Vicki (Jessica John), hoping to use the house to help impress her and get in her pants, only his amorous (or at least sexual) intentions are stymied by the presence on the property of the housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett (Rosina Reynolds), who’s trying to settle down on the couch with a plate of sardines and watch the Royal-Something-or-Other horse race on TV. The Brents also come on the scene — they’ve sneaked back into Britain and are mortally afraid of being caught by an Inland Revenue agent — as does a burglar (Jonathan McMurtry) — and, in the classic manner of bedroom farce, a lot of doors open and close, a lot of intrigues are revealed, and Vicki has to spend much of the act in her bra and panties.

The dramatis personae of Noises Off are the people endeavoring to put Nothing On on — and getting caught up in a series of complications that, by Frayn’s design, are far more interesting than the ones in the script they’re performing. Dotty Otley (Rosina Reynolds), who plays Mrs. Clackett, has put some money into this production, hoping that a tour of the British provinces will enable her to make enough of a profit that she can retire. She’s having a difficult time remembering her actions — confronted in the first scene with a telephone receiver, a newspaper and a plate of sardines, she can’t remember which she’s supposed to take with her and which to leave behind when she exits — and she’s also having an affair with Garry Lejeune (Jason Heil), who plays Roger. Frederick Fellowes (Craig Huisenga), who plays Philip Brent, has just broken up with his wife when the play begins. Selsdon Mowbray (Jonathan McMurtry), who plays the burglar, is a chronic alcoholic; when they’re not fretting that he’ll miss a performance because he’s either in a bar or in an alley drying out, the rest of the company members are frantically looking backstage for all his Lost Weekend-style booze stashes.

Noises Off also features director Lloyd Dallas (Albert Dayan), who’s having an affair with assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Kim Strassburger) — at one points she starts to blurt out that he’s got her pregnant. But that isn’t stopping him from cruising Brooke Ashton (Jessica John), who plays Vicki and is, if anything, even more vacuous and bird-brained than her dumb-blonde character (who’s revealed, early in Nothing On, to be an Inland Revenue agent hot on the Brents’ trail). Long-suffering company stage manager Tim Allgood (Jason Connors), who’s gone without sleep for two days putting up the elaborate set, is obliged to step into the part of any of the male cast members (as Poppy is for the females) in case they are late or disappear. He also gets drafted to buy flowers and other gifts for Lloyd’s new girlfriend without his old one catching on. Belinda Blair (Sandy Campbell), who plays Mrs. Brent, sails above the intrigues of both Nothing On and Noises Off with an air of imperious detachment that can’t help but drive the other characters crazy.

The plot of Noises Off deals with three stages of the production of Nothing On. The first act occurs during the technical rehearsal — or is it the dress rehearsal? The characters themselves aren’t sure — in which Lloyd is trying to get the final bits of blocking set and first appears only as a disembodied voice, thundering over the theatre’s P.A. system like the voice of God in a bad Biblical movie. After one particularly messy sequence in which the actors are frustrated not only by their own memory lapses but by technical malfunctions in Tim’s set — a door that’s supposed to open won’t open and one that’s supposed to close won’t close — Lloyd finally descends from his mountaintop and says, “And God said, ‘Hold it.’ And they held it. And God saw that it was … terrible.”

For the second act, Frayn specifies that the action take place backstage — which means that the whole elaborate house set has to revolve on a turntable (you should stay in the theatre for at least one of the two intermissions just to see Connors and Strassburger, in character as Tim and Poppy, personhandle the set) and much of the action has to take place in pantomime because the backstage actors can’t talk to each other without disrupting the performance on the other end. This is the act in which Dotty has a diva hissy-fit and locks herself in her dressing room, barely making it on in time after leaving Poppy anxious that she might have to take her place on stage. For act three, we see the front of the set again — we’re watching the final night of the Nothing On tour — and by now the actors are in such a state of disgust with the play, the tour and each other that the performance is a shambles, barely resembling what we saw being rehearsed in act one.

Though the Old Town Theatre’s lack of a front curtain means that he can’t stage the final gag the way Frayn called for — “The curtain detaches itself from its fixings and falls on top of them all, leaving a floundering mass of bodies on stage” — Murray’s direction is fully assured, rising to a script that seems at times to be a compendium of every way in which a play can go wrong. Murray seems to have taken his inspiration from classic movies: the first act is 1930’s screwball farce, the second is silent-screen comedy, and the third is a Marx Brothers-esque travesty that gives Heil a marvelous opportunity for a Buster Keaton-style pratfall, which he handles beautifully. Propelling the action with the frenzied energy that’s his directorial trademark, Murray steers his cast and helps them nail the laughs Frayn wanted.

The bill for the show boasts that it features “San Diego favorites Jonathan McMurtry and Rosina Reynolds,” but that’s a bit unfair to Jessica John, who should also be considered a local favorite and who stands out in a first-rate ensemble cast. She’s appeared all over town, playing heroines and villainesses (sometimes both in the same play), intellectuals and airheads, sad and happy characters. Reynolds, whose own efforts as a director (mostly at Diversionary Theatre) have tended towards intense romantic melodramas, proves a first-rate comedienne; her Cockney accent, especially when she pronounces “Spain” as “Spine,” is especially hilarious. (Kudos also to dialect coach Emmelyn Thayer.) McMurtry plays what’s essentially a one-joke part but plays it well. As John’s vis-à-vis, Jason Heil is striking in a bilious orange-and-brown outfit — where on earth did costume designer Corey Johnston find him such awful clothes? — and catches his Nothing On character’s self-importance as well as his Noises Off character’s hopeless obsession with the twice-his-age Dotty.

Sean Fanning’s set construction fully lives up to Frayn’s demand for “a superb example of the traditional English set-builder’s craft — a place where the discerning theatergoer will feel instantly at home.” Sound designer Matt Lescault-Wood has dug up a perfectly awful bit of introductory music — resembling a theme from a 1960’s British movie — and also does a good job feeding in recorded applause for the unseen Nothing On performance in act two. Lighting designer Eric Lotze keeps everyone visible and provides appropriate changes for a play that doesn’t challenge him to create atmosphere the way some of Cygnet’s other productions have. Corey Johnston’s costumes and Peter Herman’s wigs and hair help us see the Nothing On cast members as the perfectly awful, pretentious people they’re supposed to be playing, and Bonnie Durben’s task as properties designer range from having to provide five, count ’em, five plates of sardines to a phone with a detachable receiver and a lot of household bric-a-brac that predictably flies in the slapstick scenes.

Though Michael Frayn has become a deeper, richer, more intellectual playwright since Noises Off — Cygnet has already produced his marvelous 1988 play Copenhagen, a dramatization of the conflict between real-life physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the 1940’s and Heisenberg’s role in Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons program — this play remains a masterpiece of its kind. It’s a pity Cygnet didn’t (or couldn’t) include Frayn’s fictitious program for Nothing On in their real program for Noises Off — it contains humorous descriptions of the director and actors and an hilarious essay offering an intellectual defense of the bedroom-farce genre (“The removal of the trousers traditionally reveals a pair of striped underpants, in which we recognize both the stripes of the tiger, the feral beast that lurks in all of us beneath the civilized exterior suggested by the lost trousers, and perhaps also a premonitory representation of the stripes caused by the whipping which was formerly the traditional punishment for fornication”) — but their production itself is self-assured, sensitive, fast-moving and very, very funny.

Noises Off plays through Sunday, August 23 at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street. A Cygnet Theatre production. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $17-$46. Discounts are available for seniors, students, military and groups. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Cygnet's Web site at or calling the box office at (619) 337-1525. Tickets can also be purchased in person by visiting Cygnet's box office located at the Old Town Theatre.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fernando Suárez del Solár Speaks at “Senseless Death” Screening

Activist Lost His Son in Iraq in 2003, Now Is Frustrated with Obama


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Obama does not have the solution,” said Fernando Suárez del Solár at a July 8 screening of the French-Canadian TV documentary A Senseless Death at the San Diego Public Library downtown. “Obama is the representative of the other side of the big power in this country. The big power in this country is green” — meaning the money of large corporations and wealthy individuals who keep the U.S. involved in wars around the world to secure oil and other natural resources, and to maintain control of emerging markets.

Suárez del Solár’s story — and that of his son Jesús, who was killed in Iraq in the early days of the current war in 2003 — is featured in A Senseless Death, a film by Raymonde Provencher. The filmmaker, whose most famous previous credit was the 1999 film September 11, 1973 — a documentary on the military coup on that date which overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile and replaced it with the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — seized on the fact that two of the earliest combat fatalities on the U.S. side of the Iraq war weren’t U.S. citizens at all.

Instead, they were so-called “green-card soldiers,” immigrants from less-developed countries lured into the U.S. military not only with the usual promises made (and broken) by recruiters — job-skills training, help with college and the like — but by the hope of legal immigrant status and a pathway to U.S. citizenship. Not all the “green-card soldiers” are otherwise undocumented — the Suárez family were already legal immigrants when Jesús enlisted, hoping the military would give him training he could later use to combat the drug cartels — but the other soldier profiled in A Senseless Death was.

He was José Antonio Gutierrez, a Guatemalan raised in a camp for homeless youth run by an American living there. He had to cross two heavily policed borders — between Guatemala and Mexico as well as between Mexico and the U.S. -— to smuggle himself into this country so he could sign up to fight its war. Much against the wishes of his American foster father, who wanted him to stay and help build Guatemala, Gutierrez saw his future in the U.S. and eagerly grabbed a chance to enlist as a way of becoming first a legal resident and then a U.S. citizen. All he got in the end was the macabre distinction of being the first U.S. servicemember killed in the Iraq war — and a posthumous grant of U.S. citizenship by Congress at the behest of the Bush administration.

“This is a good example of the use and abuse of immigrant people,” said Fernando Suárez del Solár. “Last week, La Opinion ran a story about a man who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now facing jail and deportation because he joined the Army with fake papers. They won’t hire you at McDonald’s with fake papers, but they will send you to fight, kill and die.” The film depicted another casein Los Angeles, in which an undocumented immigrant mother whose son was promised legal status for his family if he enlisted is being threatened with deportation — because her son was killed in the war before he turned 21.

Fernando reacted to his son’s death not by crawling in a hole with his remaining family and grieving in silence, but by lashing out at the U.S. government — especially when he couldn’t get a straight answer from them as to just how Jesús died — and becoming an anti-war activist. He hooked up with Activist San Diego and the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, and these organizations invited him to speak at virtually all of their anti-war rallies. At first he spoke in Spanish — usually with his friend, UC San Diego professor Jorge Mariscal, as interpreter — but as he gradually improved his command of English he began to learn to express himself and make speeches, including his library appearance, in his audience’s language rather than his own.

But Fernando’s activities to raise awareness of the war and the military’s recruitment strategies didn’t stop with making speeches to friendly audiences. In November 2003 he went to Iraq himself, insistent on seeing the place where his son had been killed, and brought back video footage (some of which is seen in A Senseless Death) and stills which he showed to San Diego audiences. In 2005 he organized a “peace pilgrimage,” marching from the San Ysidro U.S.-Mexico border checkpoint to San Francisco in 16 days — and Raymonde Provencher took his cameras along and shot the footage that makes up the bulk of A Senseless Death.

At the library showing, Fernando and his friend Mariscal both spoke after the movie, not only about the war but about the need to confront the deceptive strategies of U.S. military recruiters. Among Fernando’s programs was organizing the Guerrero Azteca (“Aztec Warrior”) Foundation to raise money for college scholarships so Latinos and other U.S. people of color can have alternative sources of money for college rather than joining the military. (During his presentation, he noted grimly that Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Canada all offer free higher education, while the U.S. does not.)

He and Mariscal have also worked with a long-existing organization, Project YANO (Youth And Non-Military Opportunities), to leaflet high-school campuses and make students aware of college and job training programs that would allow them to better themselves without putting themselves on the line as cannon fodder for America’s wars. “It’s not necessary that you study at a university,” Fernando said. “You can study at a technical school and have opportunities for free grants.”

“We always say go to college or community college, but now it’s really hard,” Mariscal added. “Colleges are capping enrollments and raising fees, and Pell grants [the major federally funded financial aid program] are being cut. With the economy down, the military is really having a field day. It’s really rough for working-class people now.” Like Ask Not, the PBS documentary on the military’s anti-Queer “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy also recently shown at the library, A Senseless Death makes the claim that the U.S. military is having trouble meeting its recruitment targets. That was true when both films were made — but it isn’t any longer, now that the U.S. economy is tanking, the supply of civilian jobs for young people is drying up and the military is looking better and better as a career option.

One of the best things that happened to the U.S. military in terms of its ability to suck up America’s young people — especially rural and working-class whites as well as people of color — was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This education “reform” contained a little-noticed provision requiring that all school districts receiving federal funding for anything give names, addresses and all contact information on their military-age students to the Department of Defense, so they in turn could assign recruiters to contact the students and sign them up. According to anti-war activists, the military is using this information to target the poorest people in this country, as well as opening offices in Mexico, the Philippines and other countries to recruit them from abroad.

What’s more, Mariscal said, school districts are becoming more responsive to letting Junior ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] and other military programs come to their campuses — especially as state and local budget cuts eviscerate school funding and make the military’s money an ever more attractive option. According to Mariscal, Obama’s appointee as secretary of education, Arne Duncan, did more in his previous job as superintendent of schools in Chicago than anyone else to turn public schools into military academies under the charter-school program.

“This is a massive movement to drain money from public schools and give it to the military,” Mariscal said. “This is a huge problem. Militarism is permeating the culture like never before. The work Fernando took on in 2003 is crucial.” Mariscal announced that the anti-war movement has selected Chicago as the site for its first nationwide conference of counter-recruiters.

But along with the critique of the U.S. military, its wars and its recruitment tactics, Fernando and Mariscal also expressed deep disillusionment with the Obama administration and frustration at how little has changed. “Soldiers and Marines are still dying in Iraq,” Mariscal said. “Afghanistan is looking like a long occupation. I voted for Obama, but I think we who opposed these wars have been paralyzed by Obama’s election and we don’t know how to criticize him.”

“A lot of people say we need to focus on the economic crisis, but the amount of money we are spending on the wars could help solve the economic crisis,” Fernando added. “The young people need to understand that we have the power to change the system. We need to change the Congress and the rules of the game, not just the faces in the White House and Congress. It’s immoral for the military to enter the schools and say, ‘We’ll pay for your education, but you’ll pay with your life.’”

Where Fernando sees hope is in the younger generations. “The boys and girls in high school have an opportunity to change things,” he said. “Middle-school boys and girls have even more opportunities to change. Boys and girls in colleges and universities have the real power to change the system. It’s important that people in the universities understand that peace is the way. The U.S. is addicted to war. The government is addicted to war. The military and the Pentagon are the real power. Young people today are trained by video games that teach them that to kill is to win. We need games that teach people that to help people is to win.”