What happens when a Finnish director tries to find her ex-comrades from an East German youth academy? Phil Butland reviews a documentary film with provides a significant contribution to old and new discussions about socialism.
In 1988, the 20-year-old Finn Kirsi Marie Liimatainen went to study at the FDJ Youth Academy “Wilhelm Pieck” in East Germany. As she says, she wanted to “learn more about Marxism-Leninism and change the world”. Young people from more 80 countries studied at the Academy in Bogensee, near Berlin. More than 20 years later, Liimatainen tries to find her old comrades and to film their reunion.
Liimatainen wasn’t just looking for old friends, but also for the fighting spirit of Marxism, which she feels has disappeared. She explains: “I want to know what remains from the great socialist dream.” He journey takes her to 3 continents, to socialists in Bolivia, Chile, Lebanon and South Africa.
Where are the comrades now?
Her old colleagues have developed politically in different ways, but all are still fighting for justice in their own way. Marceleno, who describes himself as the “last communist in Chile” remains true to his party. Meanwhile Lucia in Bolivia tries to reconcile her faith in God with her belief in Communism. Similarly, she is trying to maintain her faith in Evo Morales, despite his cooperation with US corporations in building a major motorway through the rain forest.
The South African resistance fighter Duma is now sadly dead, but his widow continues the fight. In Lebanon, Nabil has drifted away from left-wing politics and is now a member of the Future Party, which tries to combine national liberation politics with neoliberalism. But Nabil’s family and his friend Ghazwan – who also studied at the Wilhelm Pieck academy – maintain a (critical) relationship with the Communist Party.
Criticism of East Germany
Although the comrades met each other in East Germany, they are mainly very critical of “Really Existing Socialism”. Lucia questions a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” that can last for 40 years. Ghazwan criticizes the Stasi and Nabil the long queues while shopping. Even the faithful Marceleno says “for me personally, the Marxist-Leninist Idea inevitably fell apart with Totalitarianism”.
One exception is Khulu, formally a fellow fighter with Duma in the armed struggle against Apartheid. Khulu explains how East Germany fully supported the ANC and the South African Communist Party while West Germany was working hand in hand with the Apartheid system. Nevertheless it seems that the others have only maintained their conviction in socialism, because the expect more from socialism than what they experienced in East Germany.
Parties and their Shortcomings
Similarly, each interviewee is trying to come to terms with their frustrations about their local parties. Lucia sees herself as a Communist without party affiliation, because she believes that parties are fundamentally only interested in grabbing power. Ghazwan’s father complains that the left-wing movement has sold itself, while a friend expresses his regrets: “it’s all over. Some became ministers or their deputies or filled their pockets. Others stayed behind, and yet more had to be buried.
The biggest criticism is expressed by Duma’s widow when mourning her dead husband: “he was disappointed by the people who are now in positions of power in the ANC. They are doing it wrong. They are doing the wrong things … This is not the struggle that the Mandelas, the Sisulus, the Mateos fought for. Liimatainen agrees: “we are now a long way away from the previous political agenda of the ANC – the Freedom Charter – whose principles corresponded to Marx’s Manifesto.”
How much you like the film will depend on how you react to the open questions. For me it’s fully acceptable that the film states the unanswered questions of the protagonists without trying to answer them all. That is our job! If we want to fight for a better society, WE must find the answers. What sort of society was East Germany? Do we need parties, and if so, what sort of party? Can we always rely on charismatic figures like Morales (who is also interviewed in the film)?
Instead of offering simple answers, the film shows us the craving for something better. At the beginning of the film, Liimatainen explains why socialism excited her as a child: “the belief in a better world. The belief in the strength of the group. The belief that something will happen. Soon. For us all.” This belief never dies.
“Comrade Where Are You Today?” shows a neoliberal society, which, Lucia explains, is based on the law of the strongest. This can provoke either hope or despair. For Lucia it means that “if we are aware of our power … we can make the whole world a better place.” For Ghazwan it means the following: “one day we must build a contemporary version of socialism. Not the hard Stalinist socialism, but a democratic socialism, where people are not under duress.
Change in Germany as well?
To finish off, I do have a small criticism. In the film we get the impression that socialism is something exotic – something that can be fought for in Latin America, Arab countries and South Africa, but not here in the West. I would have liked to see Liimatainen also interviewing a European colleague – someone who has been inspired by 15M, Jeremy Corbyn or Nuit Debout. The old ideas of communism are perhaps obsolescent. But there are new aims that we can follow – even in temperate Germany.
This is not to devalue the film, which has made an important contribution to the discussion about socialism. It shows us both how we can look at earlier societies which called themselves “socialist” as well as how we can fight now for real socialism.
“Comrade Where Are You Today?” starts in German cinemas on 18 August. Before that, there are two previews in Berlin followed by Q&A sessions with the director: Thursday, August 11 at 20:15 in the Babylon Cinema (moderated by Dagmar Enkelmann from the Rosa Luxemburg foundation), and on Saturday, August 13th at 7pm in the Moviemento Cinema (moderated by Phil Butland)
The original version of this review (in German) can be found at www.marx21.de/filmtipp-comrade-where-are-you-today/