Apathy or boredom?
Ben Lewis reviews ‘The Trotsky’, Jacob Tierney (dir), Alliance Films (general release in Canada).
Leon Bronstein, a young, privileged Canadian of about 17 and three-quarters, is not your average high school student. How could he be? How would you feel if, on reading Leon Trotsky’s biography My life, you realised that your life was actually just a modern rerun of the old revolutionary leader’s?
At such a tender age it is rare that anybody has a fully-worked out life plan. Yet Leon’s is a kind of programme not just for his little existence on this planet, but for humanity as a whole. He will live and die by this plan, which is lifted straight from My life.
Indeed, the nine-point-plan neatly adorns his bedroom wall – a room which looks more like a Comintern bureau than a teenage den. It runs something like this: lay out first steps for the revolution, marry an older woman, get in touch with Lenin before the age of 21, set up a newspaper, get betrayed by inferiors, get exiled and get killed. Undaunted – indeed rather excited by the life he is convinced lies before him – he follows this plan to the letter.
Bronstein is a veritable class traitor: when on holiday from his expensive private education, he works in the packing department of his father’s factory – not in order to ‘learn the trade’ and inherit the family business, but to organise his ‘fascist’ father’s employees into a union. A failed hunger strike (interrupted by his stepmother attempting to bring him sandwiches) and his arrest then ensue. When he plans to sue his father for calling the cops, this all proves too much and he is cast out. His father, who by now is reading My life himself, points out that there is no evidence of the real Leon Trotsky being sent to such an expensive school, and so decides to send Bronstein to ‘public’ (comprehensive) school. His life is turned upside down.
Yet his firmness of principle and persuasiveness manage to see him through: he soon settles down to school life, joins the school union (ie, two students sitting in a back room smoking and planning the school dance) and giving speeches on the football field. Initially, few people listen.
Someone who definitely is all ears though is the headteacher, the aptly-named Mr Berkhoff, who likes to run a ‘tight ship’ of a school. Once a liberal arts school (“pot, sex, graffiti”) Berkhoff is looking to “turn it around” with the aid of his fellow teacher and mistress (“demonic concubine”, to use Bronstein’s words) Miss Davies: the all-too-familiar ‘educator’ who is so preoccupied with mundane order and ‘discipline’ that she actually forgets to teach the kids anything at all.
The battle-lines thus begin to form: in no uncertain terms the “brownshirt” Berkhoff makes it clear that if Bronstein meddles in his system then he will not go to university. Bronstein is undeterred. He chooses a ‘Social Justice’ theme for the dance (‘Peace, Bread, Dance’) and uses it to collect signatures for a genuine students’ union.
Ever the revolutionary optimist, he puts his unswerving faith in the ability of the students to make their learning experience better by changing it themselves. But this is no easy task. The students’ obvious lack of interest in history lessons on the Spanish Civil War test his patience to the limit. He wonders: are they completely indifferent and apathetic, or just bored? The latter, he concludes – a condition from which they can be roused.
Berkhoff’s strategy, in contrast, is utterly cynical. The masses are apathetic. No matter what happens, all they want is the “same old shit” day in, day out: the endless monotony of work, sleep and American Idol (X-Factor).
The film thus traces the rather remarkable Bronstein through this struggle against the powers that be, as well as his development through the trials and tribulations of teenage life: angst and infatuation, strained family relations, overbearing teachers and – of course – the problems of the world revolution, which he must carry on his youthful yet broad shoulders.
There are some side-splitting moments: when faced with the self-serving and arrogant Dwight, careerist president of the school’s union, he flatly states: “Are you going to be my Stalin, Dwight?” Or when, after ringing every Ulyanov registered in the Canadian phonebook, he travels to ‘London’ (Canada) to meet – you guessed it – Vladimir Ulyanov, ie, Lenin. Yet before they start discussing co-operation they are going to need a stiffening coffee: Ulyanov has had a heavy night on the pop at a student party. Worse, as Trotsky rolls up to his house, Ulyanov’s disgruntled girlfriend Nadya is in the process of leaving him for an alleged infidelity. (Oh, Inessa?)
Yet how does Bronstein reconcile his militant atheism, his scientific world outlook, with belief in reincarnation? “You would make a good Hindu”, says his fated lover Alexandra. “Oh”, responds a rather taken aback Bronstein. “Terry Eagleton encourages us to let Marxism breathe in our century by allowing for things that Marx could not have even known about. We must let the guidelines of the great dialectic guide us towards moral, not moralistic thinking!”
Bronstein is serious. Dead serious. Even when he ambles around, Trotsky-like, with two hands behind his back, he seems beset with and agitated by thoughts, plans and worries. He abhors injustice, too – accompanying some genuinely bewildered students to Miss Davies’ detention out of solidarity.
But behind his hard revolutionary shell there is also a rather emotionally vulnerable young man – something which his love troubles with Alexandra wonderfully evoke.
Bronstein’s quest for Alexandra’s heart oscillates between what in far left jargon could be described as revolutionary patience and ‘the theory of the offensive’. Although convinced that their elopement is an inevitability, this does not prevent him at times desperately, incoherently, seizing the initiative in a fashion so typical of young love. He gives her flowers, leaves soppy answer machine messages and even breaks into her house at night when she is out. Returning, she takes him for a burglar and bashes him across the head – not with an icepick, but a frying pan.
What really tickled me in the film was how Bronstein’s character was in many respects a metaphor for some of the practices – good and bad – of the current Trotskyist left. It appears to have been written by people with some knowledge of, and sympathy for, the far left.
On the one hand there is Leon’s boundless energy, dedication to the cause and willingness to constantly stir up trouble. On the other there is – Eagleton aside – his delusion of being, as the title suggests, ‘the’ Trotsky of our times – a mantle which more or less all Trot groups claim. This often necessarily goes hand in glove with a certain grandeur and self-aggrandisement: ie, a group of 20 people in five different countries (aka an ‘international’) laying out the theses for the global seizure of power. The film takes the Trotsky cult (anyone remember the Workers Revolutionary Party’s death mask of Trotsky, on display at their conferences?) and places it in a humorous yet sympathetic light.
What he also shares with the far left is the desire to emulate Trotsky’s wonderful turn of phrase and cutting wit, but without the ability to quite pull it off. So it is that many of Bronstein’s attempts to employ the ornate rhetorical and literary devices of the master backfire, with far too many metaphors mixed – all of which have hilarious consequences that will make you fall off your chair laughing.
Thus, speaking at a meeting of the school board, he promises that he will “rain down a hellfire of shit” upon their legacy, and that Berkhoff’s “tunic of oppression … will choke” him.
Is he plain mad or simply ahead of his time? Is he just out for attention, or a revolutionary sans un revolution? Luckily, he is not alone in his struggle to win a union for his students. He is able to draw on the organisational talents of his younger sister, his chubby, bashful friend Skip, and his two smoker comrades from the student union. The team combines text messaging and coffee house speech-making to raise the collective political consciousness of the students and whip them into action. But will it work? Are we dealing with apathy or boredom?
It is somewhat of a tragedy that this heart-warming, laugh-a-minute film has still not managed to achieve general release beyond Canada. It really should be obligatory viewing for any group of pupils and students currently organising to resist the obscene Con-Dem attacks on education in this country. We have recently witnessed inspiring struggles from young people, and this film might help to maintain rebellious sentiment and even spark some more of it. It certainly reminded this writer of some of the antics – stupid and not so stupid – he got up to as a radicalised sixth form student.
The youth of today are more than au fait in the use of the internet, and as such should have no problems in getting hold of a copy of this film online (nudge, nudge; wink, wink), showing it to their friends and comrades in schools, colleges and universities to spread the message as far and wide as possible. I am pretty sure that Trotsky would approve – after all, his very first act of rebellion was supposedly in school: against the male, Ukranian equivalent of Miss Davies. So maybe the film’s blurb is right, the revolution really does begin in high school!