The Gulf of Guinea

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I undertook research in the Sahelian ”landlocked” region of West Africa. In connection with my studies and later consultant assignments I also got to know some of the towns and cities along the Atlantic coast known as the Gulf of Guinea. The most dramatic adventure of my West African career happened on the coast in 1996, when I was hospitalised and operated for suspected appendicitis at a small clinic in the Togolese capital, Lomé. I can remember walking painfully through the gardens of the Hotel du Bénin overlooking the sea, wondering what was wrong with my insides and plucking up courage to go to a doctor… As a result, instead of heading westwards from Togo through Ghana on a tour of the coastal castles, I was flown back to Copenhagen for further checks at Rigshospital before recuperating in a cottage close to the Kattegat.

The largest city in Benin is Cotonou, sprawling on often-flooded lowlands between the Gulf coast and several large lagoons. Many people live in wooden houses built on stilts above the water. There are pirogues (canoes) all over. Not far to the east is the town of Porto Novo, which was a major Portuguese trading post. There’s an ethnographic museum in the town with many sculpted figures and masks illustrating the powerful influence of voodoo in this region of West Africa. I visited during an assignment in Benin at the beginning of 1998 and was intrigued by the strength of animist beliefs in the mysterious spirits from beyond, which have a grip on the modern populace too.

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Then ensued a very long absence from the Gulf coast, which I didn’t visit at all from 1998 to 2010. For over ten years I was involved in assignments in Southern Africa, Central America and South-East Asia, where I also admired many coastal landscapes around the world’s great oceans as well as glimpses of the South China Sea, the Andaman Sea in the Bay of Bengal, the Java Sea, etc. In particular, living in Managua for three years provided many opportunities to be beside the seaside, both on the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts which we found time to explore between 2002 and 2005.

The Gulf of Guinea reappeared on my radar when I participated in a review of a forest conservation and management scheme associated with the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation.[1] There are still some relatively pristine rain forests in the region. Having failed to cross the border from Togo in 1996, my first visit to Ghana was at the end of 2010 and included an excursion to the tropical forests in the Western region with a stopover at the beautiful Busua beach resort. However, although we had time to walk around the edge of the Kakum national park, my guides didn’t introduce me to the castles, which have made the Ghanaian coast particularly infamous.

Cape Coast and Elmina are amongst the sheltered landing sites along the Gulf of Guinea through which tens of thousands if not millions of slaves passed between the 1520s and the mid 19th Century. The castles were built by the European slave traders and housed the governors of the British, Danish, Dutch, French and Portuguese enclaves. Slaves were shackled in dungeons beneath the towers and battlements until they were ready for what was known as the “middle passage” across the ocean. The ships that left from these harbours were loaded with miserable, half starved and terrorised men, women and children, many of whom didn’t survive the journey to the New World. The grim stories of the castles and the mistreatment of human cargoes are on display in a little museum at Cape Coast; well worth a visit, despite the horror. Even 150 years after the last shipments the sense of evil is in the air.

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In the early 21st Century the coastal towns are bustling with fishermen and their boats. I visited the region in March 2019 with a team of researchers at the Coastal Management Centre set up by environmentalists at Cape Coast University.[2] It is estimated that around ten per cent of Ghana’s population is involved in fishing in one form or another, catching, loading and transporting, selling and processing. A significant share of protein and nutrients is derived from the consumption of fish. But the harvest of the seas has reached the limits and attempts are being made to stop overfishing. At the same time pollution is an increasingly serious blight, both from offshore oil and gas installations and due to runoff from rivers that have become toxic with waste from illegal small-scale mining of gold and other minerals. It is time for a clean up, as we could see from inspection of the water quality around the harbours.

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Further to the east along the coast lies the port of Tema. The city grew up on the edge of Accra when the giant Akosombo Dam on the Volta River was opened in the early 1960s; the construction of an aluminium plant and hydro-electric turbine generators required major investment in harbour facilities. As the Ghanaian economy has grown, so has the port.

Danish interests associated with global container shipping are evident in Tema; the huge Maersk company is heavily involved in the region. The roads around the port are choked with heavy goods vehicles bringing cocoa for export and trucking all manner of mostly Chinese goods throughout Ghana and northwards to the landlocked countries, Burkina Faso and Niger. There is also considerable expansion going on. Projections of increased incomes in West Africa have underpinned decisions to invest in new berths and terminals in Tema.

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But there are dark clouds around the harbour too. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is another manifestation of the lawlessness plaguing West Africa. Boko Haram terrorists in north-eastern Nigeria and the neighbouring countries have encouraged further militarisation as government forces and their allies attempt to regain control. Beefing up the navies in the Gulf is also on the agenda as pirate attacks and kidnappings are on the increase. Heavily armed criminal enterprises are responsible for creating widespread insecurity at sea.[3] Thus, trading and seafaring in the region are once again associated with violence.

[1] Ghana has been in the forefront of global efforts to design and introduce programmes and policies aiming to reduce GHG emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). A thorough critical assessment of the REDD+ processes in Ghana and Nigeria by Adeniyi Asiyanbi et al (2017) can be found in the journal called Forests (volume 8-78).

[2] The research is described at: http://www.hotspot-ghana.net

[3] See: https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/imb-gulf-of-guinea-led-the-world-for-piracy-in-2018

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Three score years and ten

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is 70 years old. Is there anything to celebrate? Despite the pre-amble to the treaty committing members to seek peace according to the United Nations charter, the defensive character of the organisation has been transformed into a forum for militarism par excellence. What is the problem in country x or region y? NATO and its member states can be sure to solve it by supplying arms, training soldiers, deploying rapid intervention forces, building airbases, flying drones, dropping bombs, etc., etc. You name it, NATO has the answer: send in the gunboats and kill! Sooner or later some governments must be going to wake up to the reality of the arms race and sooner or later citizens must organise effectively to refuse spending vast amounts on these absurd mountains of hardware and software…

Meantime, there’s always plenty of distraction in the form of the world wide web. At the end of a good read about surveillance and the military origins of the internet in the 20th Century, I was moved by the following:

The internet and the networked microprocessor technology on which it runs does not transcend the human world. For good or ill, it is an expression of this world and is used in ways that reflect the political, economic and cultural forces and values that dominate society. Today we live in a troubled world, a world of political disenfranchisement, rampant poverty and inequality, unchecked corporate power, wars that seem to have no end and no purpose, and a runaway privatised military and intelligence complex – and hanging over it all are the prospects of global warming and environmental collapse. We live in bleak times and the internet is a reflection of them: run by spies and powerful corporations just as our society is run by them…

This is an extract from “Surveillance Valley – the secret military history of the internet” (by Yasha Levine, Icon books, 2018). To wind up, I came across this little gem from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom:

It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.

A few days in the Scottish lowlands, March 2019

The following ‘photos illustrate a trip to Scotland in March: to the west in and around Glasgow and to Edinburgh. With one exception the pictures aren’t classic views of the region, but I have done my best to capture a ”sense of place.” It was a pity that we didn’t have time to go further north to explore the highlands and islands. Maybe we’ll get another chance…

There’s a disused railway track near the village of Kilmacolm where my aunt lives. It’s popular with cyclists and walkers; nothing too strenuous, with some gently sloping landscapes as well as heather, pines and wee lochs to admire. We went for a stroll to get our leg muscles in trim ready for the more intensive urban wanderings we had planned for Glasgow and Edinburgh.

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A small museum has been opened next to a giant supermarket in Johnstone, the cotton mill town where my grandparents lived for most of the 20th Century.[1] Many childhood memories are associated with the town. At the museum I was particularly amused by the inclusion amongst the exhibits of the Scottish bard Robbie Burns (1759-96) musing on drink!

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The highlands are tantalisingly close to the northern banks of the Firth of Clyde. On a cloudy day we drove along the southern banks from Port Glasgow to Largs stopping for coffee and for lunch (at the Bosun’s Table…) and to take a picture of one of the ferries. Often there are good views of the mountains towards Loch Lomond to the north, but we were unlucky.

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A series of statues surround George Square in the centre of Glasgow. James Watt (1736-1819) is one of the great Scots: responsible for getting the industrial revolution seriously underway by inventing an improved steam engine. Coal mining then took off, leaving later generations to clean up the mess before global warming spirals the planet into hothouse conditions.[2]

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The Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh is a wonderful building stuffed with almost everything imaginable, from ancient Egyptians to eagles, from huge whales’ skeletons to Samurai warriors. There’s a lot of scientific and technological stuff including a small 1990s particle accelerator from CERN in Geneva.[3] I liked the colourful cosmic sunburst.

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Our choice of a deli for lunchtime sandwiches in Edinburgh was just opposite the St. James Centre. An ugly 20th Century concrete monstrosity – apparently one of the city’s most unloved buildings – was torn down a couple of years ago and the construction of a new urban complex is underway. I thought the cranes were cool, standing like cranes in the landscape!

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It seems that the Barony is one of Edinburgh’s oldest bars. We ate the “specials” – pie and chips and fish and chips – on our last evening. The décor was stylish and the food was good too! According to information on a little sign outside, the site in the Broughton district was known for black magic, witches’ covens and suchlike goings on in the 18th Century.

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Finally, in honour of Edinburgh’s distinctive grey stonework as well as the extraordinary rooftops with chimneys, I took a ‘photo of the building where we stayed. There are hundreds of similar street scenes in the so-called New Town. But I don’t know any other cities where the chimneys are arranged in long rows in this manner.

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PS … and not a word about the Scots Nat Party or Brexit… as the UK heads for the showdown…

[1] Check out: http://johnstonehistory.org

[2] Possible hothouse scenarios for the earth system in the future can be found in a recent article on trajectories in the anthropocene by Will Steffan et al: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252

[3] https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/science-and-technology/cern-accelerating-cavity/

De l’eau à Bamako

In February 2019 I spent several days in Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. It was my sixth or seventh visit to the city, first encountered at the end of very long, slow journey by rail from Dakar in Senegal in the autumn of 1986. Since then much water has flowed under many bridges…

I arrived the easy way, by plane from Copenhagen via Paris. Leaving the northern winter behind for a few days turned out to be fine! On a bright, cloudless Sunday I flew across the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain, across the Mediterranean near the strait of Gibraltar and across the Atlas mountains in Morocco, before descending to land at Modibo Keita International Airport just south of the Niger River.[1] En route I tried to take some ‘photos of the landscapes from the air, but was not very satisfied with the results. The GPS on the video screen gave better impressions!

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The air-conditioned comfort of the Boeing was abruptly abandoned for the sweat and noise of a busy arrivals hall in mid-afternoon. Outside I noticed several white painted United Nations aircraft. The temperature was around 36-38 degrees Celsius in the shade. I walked to the car without putting on my hat and realised after ten metres that I had to be careful in the sun.

Temperatures increase for another couple of months before the rains begin, ushering in the cooler season. In February Bamako is dry and dusty. Despite being familiar with the urban environment in West Africa it was a minor shock to find myself in the chaotic traffic, cruising past all manner of small enterprises along the roadsides and past piles of rubbish.

I stayed at a “residence” called the Casa Blanca in a wealthy district close to the river. A group of watchmen sat around a stove brewing tea on the street outside the high gates. The residence was overflowing with artworks, both classical West African sculpted figures in wood and bronze and modern designer items such as a shoal of coloured wooden fish in a courtyard. Under the dangling branches of some fruit trees the gardens were full of chairs and tables in retro style laid out for relaxing around a small swimming pool.

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A very realistic wooden crocodile sat in the sunshine by the pool. Later I discovered that some of the new roundabouts in Bamako have been decorated with large sculptures of animals including a huge hippo and an enormous elephant. There is some wildlife in the parks in the Mali, but they are not very easy to access and recently tourism has more or less collapsed.

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I was in Bamako to work not just to relax by the swimming pool and enjoy the excellent meals served at the residence! I joined a “real time” evaluation team, with consultants from Burkina Faso, France, Mali and Senegal. We zoomed around the city meeting representatives of a series of organisations which are funded by Danish development assistance through so-called thematic programmes designed to contribute to “peaceful co-existence” and strengthened local government (“decentralisation”).

Bamako is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. There are few formal sector employment opportunities and under-employment is the name of the game. But people find all sorts of things to do in construction, transport, handicrafts, furniture making, small scale trading, etc., etc. From the balconies outside the offices where two of our meetings were held I observed urban gardening in full swing. There are veggies being grown on the plots of land between hundreds of half-built houses all over the city. Tiny wells provide the essential ingredient for successful cultivation: water.

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At the end of my trip I tried to summarise the state of affairs in Mali, anno 2019. The people I had met, the stories I heard and the commentaries I read didn’t leave much room for optimism. Bamako seemed relatively peaceful, but the nearly 20 million Malians struggling to make a living on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert are facing difficult times.

Sadly, the security situation in Mali and in neighbouring countries – particularly Burkina Faso – has deteriorated considerably over the past couple of years. While conflict resolution efforts in the north culminated in the signing of a peace agreement (the “Accord de Algiers”) in 2015 and continued peacekeeping efforts through the United Nations MINUSMA operation, there are now numerous violent incidents and general insecurity in the central regions of Mali, from Ségou northwards in a belt stretching from the Mauritanian border to northern Burkina Faso. A mixture of conflicts associated with age-old land and natural resource access problems (with inter-ethnic dimensions), with a violent religious inspired insurrection, with attempts to undermine state authority (both military and civil) and with criminal operations (trafficking, theft of cattle, etc.) have become increasingly widespread.[2]

Corruption is another serious problem. Many observers have pointed out that poor public financial management and administration have resulted in dis-functional institutions both at central and local (regional) government levels. A combination of attacks on government officials, loss of confidence in the institutions of the state as well as low levels of tax revenue are leading to the widespread failure to deliver public services for the population.[3] There is much talk of the collapse of “state legitimacy.”

In some ways the biggest tragedy of the crisis is the jihadi assault on education. Across the Sahel hundreds of schools have been closed after attacks, intimidation and threats to teachers. It is generally argued that the future prosperity of the region depends on a successful demographic transition – reduced birth rates – which in turn depends on educating girls. But in Mali at present around 250,000 children are unable to attend classes.[4] The upshot is an impending disaster: too many mouths to feed, low productivity agriculture and a continued exodus to hungry and thirsty towns and cities. Many dream of leaving altogether…

Not far from the Casa Blanca was another hotel with a terrace overlooking the Niger River. I went there a couple of times to enjoy a beer and eat some peanuts while watching the fishermen sailing homewards and the sun going down. There are small irrigation schemes along the riverbanks and some people spread their freshly washed linen on the scrubby bushes to dry. The pictures I took weren’t very good, but do give an idea of the size of the mighty river. Would that it flowed through a more peaceful and prosperous region!

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[1] Modibo Keita was the first president of independent Mali from 1960. He was an African socialist, overthrown by General Moussa Traoré in 1968. Traoré’s dictatorship lasted until 1991. After a people’s uprising another military man overthrew him: Amadou Toumani Traoré, known as ATT. One way or another military matters have dominated Mali since French colonial rule.

[2] MINUSMA is the United Nations “multidimensional integrated stabilization mission.” An organisation called the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) has published an interesting analysis of the origins and scope of conflicts in central Mali (Adam Thiam, 2017). Increased hostility towards the Peuhl (Fulani) communities is particularly noteworthy. For a relatively recent overview of the conflict and security issues in Mali there’s a succinct political economy analysis for the Norwegian government by Boubacar Ba and Morten Bøås (2017): https://www.nupi.no/en/Publications/CRIStin-Pub/Mali-A-Political-Economy-Analysis

[3] In December 2018 the government agreed with the IMF on payment of a final tranche of an extended credit facility (dating from 2013) after the Fund accepted “non-observance of a performance criterion”, which was the shortfall in tax revenue. Economic growth rates in Mali have been around 4-5 percent in 2017 and 2018.

[4] https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/school-closures-sahel-double-last-two-years-due-growing-insecurity-unicef

Words of wisdom

On a blackboard in a garden where I stayed in Bamako there were some wise words by Mark Twain translated into French. Here’s my translation back to English:

Life is short/ Break the rules/ Pardon quickly/ Embrace slowly/ Laugh uncontrollably and never regret something which has made you smile.

I concur!

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Something is rotten

The Economist magazine (newspaper) recently published a special survey about Islam in the West. The upbeat conclusion is that modernisation is slowly but surely transforming the attitudes and behaviour of Muslims living in Europe and North America. While immigrants arriving in the 1960s and 1970s mostly expected to return to the Middle East and Turkey, second-generation settlers were increasingly torn between traditional Islamic religious practices and beliefs and the prospects and opportunities in open societies. Since the end of the 20th Century the West has become steadily more secular and liberal – e.g. in approving same sex marriage – in contrast to the repressive social codes associated with Islam in a wide arc of countries stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. These tensions have tended to give rise to conflicts and extremes, reflected in the statistics of attacks and the rhetoric of hatred. But the authors of the survey argue that most young people in the third generation of Muslims are leaving the fundamentalists behind and are set to become a permanent part of more diverse, more tolerant Western society – as long as that society continues to nurture those values.

The warning is apt, given that hard line conservatives and anti-democratic forces have the wind in their sails in a raft of countries at present. Precisely the key values identified in the survey – diversity and tolerance – have been ridiculed and rejected by many right-wingers in Denmark since the early 2000s. Thus, the survey authors observe that although many European parliaments have passed laws against wearing the burka for example, in terms of anti-Muslim legislation Denmark has gone further than most.

The country has one of Western Europe’s lowest rates of jihadist attacks, but fear of Islam is pervasive. Last year the right wing government introduced a rule requiring children from designated poor districts inhabited mainly by immigrants, which it calls “ghettos”, to attend a day-care centre for 25 hours a week from the age of one (as almost all Danish children do). Another recent law requires new citizens to shake hands at naturalisation ceremonies even though some Muslims oppose touching members of the opposite sex on religious grounds. Government subsidies to Muslim (but not Christian or Jewish) schools have been cut and some have been closed down. To many Muslims and Western liberals such measures seem counterproductive. Muslims feel stigmatised, alienated and defensive. Unlike in many other Western countries, young Muslims in Denmark are more observant than their elders.

“Angst essen seele auf” says Ali in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 movie story of a love affair in Munich between an aging cleaning lady and a Moroccan immigrant. It looks as if fear is eating the souls of many people in Europe these days.

Three films, three worlds

In January we went to the local cinema to watch three very different recent films, charting the struggles of three men trying to cope with the difficult circumstances imposed by the worlds in which they live. The films underline the power of the cinema in portraying the highs and lows of human behaviour in a range of settings: there are worlds of difference between Denmark in the 19th Century, mid-20th Century Poland and France and 21st Century Mexico and the USA. My notes on these films are in this chronological order.

Rural life in pre-industrial, semi-feudal Denmark is the theme of Before the Frost (Før Frosten), a film directed by Michael Noer. The well-known Scandinavian actor Jesper Christensen plays ”cowman Jens”, a smallholder farmer struggling to keep body and soul – and his family – together in the 1850s. Social hierarchies are rigorously enforced in the village church where the priest ranks the community according to wealth; beggars standing in the back row. Jens’ children’s hunger is almost palpable in the early scenes as the farmer realises the harvest is going to fail and there is nothing but crusts soaked in thin gruel to put on the dinner table. The frosts of winter will bring starvation. Neighbours offer escape routes, particularly as Jens has an attractive daughter Signe (Clara Rosager); having already sold his cows she is his main negotiable asset. His wife is long dead and the two boys in the household are his nephews, but neither is capable of bringing in much of value. Then, just as Jens is arranging to marry off his daughter to a rich Swedish landowner and his scheming mother, his farmhouse burns down under mysterious circumstances and the younger boy is killed in the blaze. There’s an insurance claim, a shocked and terse bride-to-be and some unpleasant fights in the cowshed. Other farmers in the village abandon their land and set off to go to America, labourers are mistreated and in a final twist the older boy is murdered and his body dumped in a swamp. Jens is silent in the closing sequences as he reckons up the costs of his survival.

Cold War is a magical journey around Europe from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. It is a black and white film directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and overflowing with carefully selected images and musical scores. Post-war Poland is slowly getting back to normal and some artists are setting up a music and dance school in the countryside. One of the teachers, a musical director and pianist called Victor (Tomasz Kot), falls in love with an aspiring student Zula (Joanna Kulig) who has a beautiful voice and a seductive style. Their passion seems to know no bounds. However, when the Stalinists assert their influence on the world of music and theatre, Victor decides to head to the west and escapes from a school excursion to Berlin where the students are supposed to fraternise with the East German socialist youth (their erstwhile enemies). Then ensues a lengthy on-off relationship between the two lovers, torn between desire for each other and efforts to make their living in the jazz clubs of poetic Paris and the ritualistic singing and dancing circles of communist Warsaw. The physical and mental borders between east and west gradually become more and more oppressive. When Victor decides to return to Poland he is sent to a labour camp where his fingers are damaged so that he can no longer play the piano. Meanwhile Zula has taken to the bottle and stumbles around off stage. Finally coming full circle and trapped in a cold war from which they can see no way out, the star-crossed lovers re-visit the village where they first met, down some pills and die in the cornfields. The film ends with the opening bars of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

There’s also a good deal of music in Clint Eastwood’s archetypal American road movie The Mule. It’s a film version of a story published in the New York Times about a 90 year-old man who became a drug courier for one of the biggest cartels in the business. Earl Stone has failed as a husband and father, but excelled at growing lilies, until his little business is undercut by internet-based flower companies. Forced to quit his home and his greenhouses, Earl is also rejected yet again by most of his family. But then he chances on the opportunity to earn easy money driving consignments of cocaine between shippers and dealers. Much of the film focuses on the old man at the wheel of his Ford pick-up, cruising the highways and listening to country music. With dollars in his pocket he re-connects with his veterans club and is able to help his granddaughter complete her studies. Unfortunately both the narcotics police (DEA) and assorted heavies in the Mexican gangs he is working for get on his trail, culminating in a prolonged chase as Earl “disappears” to be at his ex-wife’s side on her deathbed. In some ways a strangely low key film, with some scenes slipping across the boundaries of belief – the old man gets hooked up with two prostitutes in two separate scenes – the Mule combines the violence of lawlessness battling law enforcement with a simple message about the centrality of the family in the shifting sands of a brutal world. There’s also some well-tuned humour, notably about the difficulties for the older generation in adjusting to the world wide web and social media. In the closing scenes when captured and tried for drug smuggling, Earl pleads guilty to all charges, so he ends his days tending flowers in the prison gardens.

There are no happy endings: one old man bitterly surrenders to his superiors in order to survive, another commits suicide and the third is imprisoned. While the cowman and the mule are dark figures in hostile landscapes stalked by violence and death, the lovers in Cold War are unable to reconcile their passions for music and each other with compromises required to conform in a bleak, divided continent. The Danish and American films are solid and slightly plodding stories of old men struggling to make ends meet, while the Polish production soars high above them in an orgy of sights and sounds. There’s no doubt in my mind that the musical magic of Cold War captures the contradictions of the era in an extraordinary manner.

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