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The power of vanity

The Optimism of Willpower
Regissør: Nicolas Wadimoff

Nicolas Wadimoff's portrait of his old teacher, the Swiss intellectual and revolutionary Jean Ziegler, tries to test beliefs against reality.


Are today's bad guys the same as yesterday's bad guys? And what 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, the politician, the revolutionary former Special Rapporteur to the UN on Right to Food and now Vice President of the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council Jean Ziegler. It seems Ziegler himself is asking a few questions; he is the kind of man who delivers answers. Or at least he keeps to himself the doubts he may have about how the world usually works, and especially about how revolutions bring about progress or decline.

A man's world. The Optimism of Willpower ("Optimism of Willpower") is the title of Nicolas Wadimoff's portrait of his old teacher. It could just as well be hot The Power of Vanity ("The power of the vanity"). Zieglers and Wadimoff's respectively. For they both seem to be very attentive to the other's vanity, and far less to their own.

The archival footage of Ziegler's time at the Geneva University in the 1960 – 70 years and dramatic background music informs us that it was like 20-year political science student Wadimoff met Ziegler for the first time – during one of the latter's lectures on national liberation movements, one of the period's national liberation movements was the fighting arena against imperialism, fascism and capitalism.

Ziegler himself asks a few questions, he is the kind of man who delivers answers.

"It was yesterday," Wadimoff's voice reads, "but for Jean Ziegler it is still today." It is cut to scenes from today's Cuba, to the back seat of a car in which Ziegler converses with a woman. We are not told as much as her first name before in the last scene of the film, and it is only in the scrolls that it is confirmed that she is of course his wife, art historian and politician Erica Deuber Ziegler. Maybe it's because Wadimoff reckons everyone recognizes her, but it could also be because the film's world revolves around two men, Ziegler and Wadimoff, while everyone else remains extras: Erica Deuber, Che Guevara, Cubans, children affected by the hunger-related disease noma – which Ziegler always has photographs of. In all confidence, he says: "These are the ones I speak for, you see?" – UN delegates, protesters in Munich.

The traditions of the Left. As he prepares to speak to the latter at the 7 G2015 summit in Munich, Ziegler makes the following eloquent statement: “Under what conditions can ideas created by one man become a material force, a social force? Yes, only if the social movements take up the idea and transform it into a movement, into a historical force. It's the secret dream of each one of us, and maybe this is what will happen tonight. "

The layers of vanity in these words are astonishing, as are the imaginary "one man" (an island, perhaps?), "The social movements" (in the left-wing version more often conceptualized as "the masses"), and "historical force" (historical materialism in its rawest and most vulgar form). The thinking revealed here is certainly not ideas created by one man, but rather by a multitude of men, and it is a way of thinking that permeates the European left tradition.

Poetic lack of advertising. Wadimoff's camera captures Ziegler in the moments before he tries to ignite the jubilant, if not self-cheering, crowd of protesters. Ziegler, elegantly dressed in a suit – no tie, of course – combs his hair as he eagerly looks at the stage.

The film portrait's compelling message is that Ziegler is as sincere in his commitment to justice and prosperity for the earth's miserable as he is engrossed in himself as the navel of the world. His wife is obviously aware of this, but clearly loves him nonetheless.

After arriving in Cuba, Ziegler goes on to talk about how comfortable it is that there is no advertising there, that there are not many lights and not much traffic when driving through Havana, and Erica Deuber remarks dryly – after several attempts to break through his flood of words – that it is «a sign of shortcomings». Ziegler is silent for a moment – it is clear that he is struggling with a childish urge to feel offended, and then he says: "It may be a sign of shortcomings, but the result is beautiful." "Maybe for poetry," she replies, and he smiles: "Not for poetry, but for my well-being, I feel good here."

Although the director is obviously unimpressed by the Cuban revolution of the 21st century, he still clears a reasonable space for the message that these shortcomings are not least the result of decades of US-led sanctions.

The knife in the wound. That Nicolas Wadimoff is no less vain than his former teacher is shown in the verbal exchanges, or fencing exercises, between the two, when Wadimoff as interviewer challenges Ziegler's views. As when the latter defends the Cuban restrictions on freedom of the press by claiming that money from "fascists" in the United States would otherwise have flooded into the country to finance the spread of "toxic" lies. Wadimoff objects that the minds of the population are not so easy to poison when people have access to culture and education, as in Cuba. Ziegler makes an understanding gesture and says, "You are not very good at playing reactionary," and Wadimoff immediately replies, "I am not reactionary."

 "The world's famine is organized crime, and we can pinpoint the killers."

In another scene, Ziegler evaluates the first round of the UN where he presented his report on "vulture funds" – hedge funds that can force entire states into bankruptcy. But Ziegler has faced an unexpected attack from the Ghanaian delegate who proposes a more neutral word than "vulture". Afterwards, it turns out that a powerful representative of the OIC countries (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) will also help to make the report more toothless.

When Ziegler tells the camera that he committed a tactical blunder by not anticipating that danger could threaten from anywhere other than the Western world, Wadimoff twists the knife around the wound by saying, "You focused on the bad guys of the last century." A little confused, Ziegler says that they are still bad guys, they still dominate the game, and Wadimoff replies: "But they are no longer the only bad guys," apparently without realizing that he is just repeating what Ziegler had already said.

Organised crime. As the documentary shows – with both admiration and distance – Ziegler has a penchant for expressing injustice in the global order with simple, easily digestible words.

"We live under the worldwide dictatorship of globalized finance capital. Last year, the 500 largest privately owned transcontinental companies controlled 52,8 percent of the world's total value creation, "Ziegler told Munich protesters. Or in a more pointed form, when he shows the pictures of nomadic children to the camera: "The world's famine is organized crime, and we can point out the killers."

These are – again – not ideas created by one man, but really important truths, and Jean Ziegler has dedicated his life to spreading them. If Wadimoff's film had been more of one life and timesbiography and less a portrait of a self-absorbed man, it could have contributed more effectively to the same.

The film was streamed to MODERN TIMES subscribers throughout February. 

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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