Nicolas Wadimoff’s portrait of his old teacher, the Swiss intellectual and revolutionary Jean Ziegler, attempts to test convictions against realities.
Are the bad guys of today the same as the bad guys of yesterday? And how about the good guys – didn’t they turn out to be bad guys too? These are questions asked in the documentary about the Swiss intellectual, politician, revolutionary, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Right to Food and currently vice-president of the Advisory Committee to the UN Human Rights Council, Jean Ziegler.
Ziegler himself asks few questions it seems, he is the kind of man who provides answers. Or at least he keeps to himself the doubts he harbours about how the world functions in general, and in particular how revolutions progress, or regress.
The Optimism of Willpower is the title of Nicolas Wadimoff’s portrait of his old teacher. It might also have been titled The Power of Vanity. Ziegler’s and Wadimoff’s. They both seem to be acutely aware of the vanity of the other, but less of their own.
Against the visuals of archival footage from Ziegler’s days at University of Geneva in the 1960s and 1970s and to the sound of dramatic background music we learn that it was as a 20-year old political science student that Wadimoff met Ziegler ”the first time”. It was at one of Ziegler’s tutorials about national liberation movements during times when the university was a battleground against ”imperialism, fascism and capitalism”.
”That was yesterday,” Wadimoff’s speak says, ”but for Jean Ziegler it is still today”, and then the film cuts to present day Cuba, to the back seat of a car where Jean Ziegler is conversing with a woman, of whom we do not learn even the first name until the last scene of the film, and only in the credits is it confirmed that she is, of course, his wife Erica Deuber Ziegler, the art historian and politician.
It might be because Wadimoff assumes everyone will recognize her, but it might also be because the world of the film revolves around two men, Ziegler and Wadimoff, and everyone else becomes the extras: Erica Deuber, Che Guevara, locals in Cuba, children suffering from the hunger-induced noma disease – photographs of whom Jean Ziegler always carry, he confides ”It is for them I am talking, do you understand?” – delegates in the UN, protesters in Munich.
While preparing to speak to the crowd of the latter during the G7 Counter Summit 2015 in Munich, Jean Ziegler utters a very telling sentence:
”Under what conditions can ideas shaped by one man become a material force, a social force? It is only if the social movements take the idea, and transform it into a movement, into a historical force. It is the secret dream of each of us, and maybe that is what will happen tonight.”
The layers of vanity in these words are astonishing, and so is the imaginary about ”one man” (an island perhaps?), ”the social movements” (in the workerist version more often conceptualized as ”the masses”), and ”historical force” (historical materialism in its most crude and vulgar form). Indeed the thinking revealed here is not ideas shaped by one man but rather by a lot of men, and it is a thinking that permeates European left tradition.
Wadimoff’s camera catches Ziegler in the moments before he will attempt to ignite the (self)cheering crowd of protesters. Ziegler, neatly dressed in a suit – no tie of course – combs his hair while looking avidly towards the stage.
The persuasive message of the film portrait is that Ziegler is as sincere in his concern about justice and prosperity for the wretched of the earth as he is engulfed in himself as the world’s navel. His wife clearly knows this and clearly loves him anyway.
Arriving in Cuba Jean Ziegler is going on about how pleasant it is that there is no advertising, not many lights, and not much traffic while they drive through Havana, and Erica Deuber dryly says – after several attempts to break through his stream of words – that it is ”a sign of shortages”. Ziegler pauses, visibly struggling with a childish urge to be offended, and then says: ”Maybe it’s a sign of shortages, but the result is beautiful”. ”For poetry, maybe,” she replies, and he sneers: ”Not for poetry, for my wellbeing, I feel good here.”
While the director is obviously not impressed by the Cuban revolution in the 21st century, he does carve out a just space for the message that those shortages are not least the result of decades of US-led embargo.
That Nicolas Wadimoff is no less vain than his former teacher is revealed in the verbal exchanges, or fencings, between the two, when Wadimoff as the interviewer voice challenges Ziegler’s views. As when Ziegler is defending the Cuban limitations on freedom of the press by argueing that money from ”fascists” in the US would otherwise pour in to finance distribution of ”poisoning” lies. Wadimoff objects that the minds of the population could not just be poisoned when people have access to culture and education as in Cuba. Ziegler puts on an intelligible face and says: ”You’re not good when you play the reactionary”, and Wadimoff replies instantly: ”I’m not a reactionary”.
In another scene Jean Ziegler is evaluating the first round in the UN presenting his report on ”vulture funds” – hedge funds that can push entire states towards bankruptcy – where a for Ziegler unanticipated attack has come from the Ghanian delegate proposing a more neutral word than ”vulture”. Subsequently it turns out that a powerful representative of the OIC countries is also conspiring to pull the teeths out of the report.
When Ziegler notes to the camera that he committed a tactical error by not foreseeing danger coming from outside the Western world, Wadimoff twists the knife in the wound by saying: ”You focused on the bad guys from last century”. Taken aback Ziegler says that they are still the bad guys, still dominating the game, and Wadimoff returns: ”But they are no longer the only bad guys”, seemingly unaware that he is now just repeating what Ziegler had already noted.
As the documentary shows – with both admiration and distance – Ziegler has a flair for articulating the global order of injustice in simple, easily digestible terms.
”We live under the worldwide dictatorship of globalized financial capital. Last year, the 500 largest privately owned transcontinental companies controlled 52,8 percent of the gross world product,” as Ziegler says to the Munich protesters. Or in a more punchy form as he phrases it while showing the noma disease photographs to the camera: ”World hunger is organized crime and we can point out the assassins.”
These are not ideas shaped by one man, but indeed important facts and Jean Ziegler has dedicated his life to disseminating them. Had Wadimoff’s film been more a life and times-biography and less a portrait of the vanity of man, it might more effectively have contributed to the same effort.