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Archive for December, 2011

[update below] [2nd update below]

There’s a fascinating interview in Libération with Greek historian Nicolas Bloudanis, on the modern Greek state—or the lack of it. Bloudanis says that the relationship of Europe to Greece has been based on a fundamental misunderstanding, which is that there is a link, or continuum, between the Greece of antiquity and the Greece of today, that modern Greece is the cradle of European civilization. But this is a myth, as modern Greece is much more a product of four centuries of Ottoman domination than of anything that preceded it. The modern Greek state, which dates from the 1820s, is much closer to a patrimonial state of the Arab world or Africa than a rational-legal state in northern/western Europe (this is my observation based on what Bloudanis says). And the Greek economy has been closer in structure to that of the countries of eastern Europe in 1989 than to those in the EU. It’s obvious to just about everyone nowadays that Greece should have never been admitted into the euro. But it should also have never been admitted into the EC/EU period, either in 1981 or after.

Bloudanis mentions the capital importance in all this of the massive influx into Greece of ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor in the 1920s—of the forced population exchanges between Greece and Turkey—and of the traditions these Greeks brought with them. Very interesting.

The interview dates from October but was brought to my attention by a friend just this week. Read it—the whole thing—here (if it’s behind a wall, then try here). I should mention that the interview was conducted by Jean Quatremer, Libé’s excellent Brussels correspondent. Quatremer is not only tops in his EU reporting but has the distinction of being the very first French journalist to write—and warn—about Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s issues with women, and as early as 2007 (and for which he was denounced by his journalist colleagues, even in his own paper). Good for him.

UPDATE: Jean Quatremer has a post on his excellent blog on the Libération web site, Coulisses de Bruxelles, on why the IMF is asking Greece to lower private sector wages and prices. (February 8, 2012)

2nd UPDATE: Nicolas Bloudanis has a new blog, La Grèce contemporaine (May 7, 2012)

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In October I had a post on a couple of films from the Middle East with women at the center of the story, Nadine Labaki’s droll comedy-fable ‘Where Do We Go Now?’, and Iranian director Mohammed Rasoulof’s ‘Good Bye’. Since then I’ve seen another three films from the Middle East-North Africa with different aspects of the status of women as the theme. The highest profile one, ‘La Source des femmes’ (English title: The Source), by Romanian-French director Radu Mihaileanu, premiered at Cannes, where it received either a rapturous reception or a mixed one (reports differed). Mihaileanu is best known for his ‘Live and Become‘ and ‘The Concert‘, both of which were loved by just about everyone I know who saw them (I thought both were good enough though not flawless—and particularly the former, which had problems in its second half).

This one is set in a remote mountain village in an unnamed MENA country but that is rather obviously Morocco (it was shot in a Berber village in the High Atlas), and inspired by an apparently true story from Turkey. The women in the village do all the backbreaking, heavy labor—notably hauling water in buckets from the spring up the mountain—while the men sit around, play cards, and don’t do a damned thing all day long. They used to be warriors in generations past but that’s all in the past and there’s no work for them nowadays. As hauling the water causes the women to fall down, injure themselves, and have miscarriages, they get fed up and demand that the men do something about it, like put pressure on the public authorities to install a pipeline to transport the water to the village (suggesting that the men do the water hauling was apparently too revolutionary an idea for the women). As the men are lazy f—offs and seem not to mind their womenfolk breaking their backs, the women caucus in the public bath and vote to go nuclear, to not have sex with their husbands until they act. They stage a sex strike (a “no-nookie regime” as one reviewer put it). The men get all up in arms and go crazy but the women’s solidarity, though tried at various moments and with the usual backbiting, proves unbreakable. And of course they win in the end.

That’s the movie. It’s feel good and with heavy doses of bons sentiments, no question about it. French reviews were mixed. US critics at Cannes were not overly impressed themselves, though saw some commercial potential for the pic outside the production countries. Hollywood Reporter thus called it a “[l]ively and saccharine Maghreb dramedy,” and a “certifiably crowd-pleasing slice of world cinema…boast[ing] an Arthouse for Beginners appeal that could reach broad audiences beyond Europe.” But though the pic had positive facets—technically and in terms of cast—there was “an unwieldy, bordering-on-kitsch side to Mihaileanu’s storytelling…[that] tends to walk the line between a soap opera and an advertisement for Royal Air Morocco.” Variety‘s critic was a bit tougher on Mihaileanu’s “formula of equal parts schmaltz and stereotype,” asserting that “this overwrought fable proves a difficult concoction to swallow,” though “the colorful, lushly designed Arabic-lingo pic might seduce undiscriminating audiences and ride the coattails of current interest in the North African revolutions…”

Not stellar recommendations for the movie, though I have to say that while disagreeing with none of the above critiques, I found it entertaining and not all bad. Above all, I loved the cast, which was All-Star for this kind of film, with three top under-30 beurette actress: Leïla Bekhti—sublime as always—, Hafsia Herzi—typically excellent—, and Sabrina Ouazani; the Algerian actress Biyouna; and Israeli-Palestinian stars Hiam Abbass—toward whom I am very partial—and heartthrob Saleh Bakri. All had to learn Moroccan dialectal Arabic for the film, which was quite an accomplishment (particularly as Mihaileanu doesn’t speak a word of it himself). It was also beautifully shot; technically very good. So unless one has a low tolerance for one-dimensional schmaltz and bons sentiments, it’s a film that may be seen.

I should mention a polemic provoked indirectly by the film, notably between me and a Franco-Moroccan friend. The day after it came out France 2’s news magazine show ‘Envoyé spécial’ had a half hour report on the making of ‘La Source des femmes’, focusing specifically on the villagers—mostly illiterate and almost all poor—, who served as the extras in the film (the report may be seen here). They were interviewed on what they thought of the experience, as well as the theme of the film (which was unclear to many) and if such a sex strike would be possible in their village (answer from the women: interesting idea but would never happen). They were simple people and the whole thing had been a little over their heads. The reporter accompanied the lucky ten villagers selected to go to the Cannes festival for the film’s premiere. So one saw the excited villagers take the one-hour van ride along bumpy mountain tracks to Marrakesh—where some had never been—to buy clothes for the event (and blue jeans for the girls, who had never worn them before), board a plane for the first time in their lives and for the undreamed of trip to France, stroll along the Promenade de la Croisette with all the tourists and glitterati, walk the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals, do a traditional dance and decked out in traditional Berber costumes (from another region; no one in their village had ever dressed that way, so one said), and receive a standing ovation from the audience at the film’s debut. Forty-eight hours later they were back in their dirt poor village.

I thought it was a fine reportage and didn’t have a problem with it, but it outraged my friend (I had already seen the film, she hadn’t). We had a rapid-fire exchange of text messages right after the report, followed by a phone conversation, during which she expressed her indignation at what she saw as the shameless exploitation—during the film’s shooting and at Cannes—of the bemused, economically impoverished villagers, and who were treated at Cannes like exotic primitives at a colonial exposition from a century ago. She wondered how much monetary compensation they had received for their participation in the film, if they had been reimbursed for the clothes they bought in Marrakesh (a huge expense for them), and if they and the village would at all benefit from any of the film’s box office receipts. Based on comments on a web site that immediately posted the ‘Envoyé spécial’ report, my friend was not alone in her à chaud sentiments. After the lightening trip to Cannes the villagers, not knowing how film festivals work, were surprised and disappointed that the film did not win any prizes, and indeed wanted to know what the financial payoff would be for them and the village. My friend was so indignant that she fired off that night an email to Mihaileanu, expressing her mauvaise humeur and informing him that she would refuse to see the film. Her message was polite but firm in its arguments. Mihaileanu, who was in Morocco at that moment, replied to her immediately, in a message that was respectful and almost contrite in tone. Taking her objections to heart he tried to address them—e.g. that 48-hour trips to Cannes are the norm for everyone whose expenses are paid by the festival—, expressed regret at her decision to boycott the film and hoped she would reconsider, and said that he would be returning to the village to project the film, and where he would apologize to the villagers—and to my friend as well—if they felt he had not shown them sufficient consideration.

Well, it was quite a response from Mihaileanu. And to his credit. I thought my friend made valid points (particularly on the song-and-dance skit at Cannes)—and which I conceded to her—but didn’t change my overall view. Mihaileanu had a good story and for a mass appeal, feel good film and wanted to make it as authentic as possible. Having Moroccan darija as the film’s language was an audacious and smart choice (cf. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s calamitous ‘Black Gold‘). As for what the villager figurants were paid for their participation, I would need to know what the going rate is for this kind of thing, in Third World countries and the West, before passing judgment. The Cannes trip: I thought it was nice. Better a 48-hour trip to France—the trip of a lifetime for the villagers—than no trip at all. As for an eventual responsibility of the film’s director and producers toward the village as a whole, to transfer some of the box office receipts to help it out materially, I would say that the lack of water, electricity, and other infrastructure there is a matter for the Moroccan state, not a film production company. If there are regions of Morocco that are impoverished, with no schools or infrastructure and where the population ekes out a subsistence living, this is a political issue for the Moroccans to deal with, particularly in view of the extreme inequalities of wealth in that country, the opulence displayed by its elite (take a spin around the Anfa district of Casablanca if you want to see it up close; if you can’t do that, see this movie), and the massive corruption at the summit of the state. It’s really not the responsibility of Radu Mihaileanu, and whose eventual charitable action wouldn’t change a thing.

Another movie seen recently on women in MENA: ‘Stray Bullet’ from Lebanon. Reviews in France were somewhat mixed, though Le Monde liked it. Variety did too. As its review begins

Theater helmer Georges Hachem makes his film debut with “Stray Bullet,” the literate, deeply felt story of a woman attempting to take control of her life. Set in 1976 during Lebanon’s civil war, this absorbing chamber piece avoids feeling stagebound thanks to considered lensing and editing that are beautifully modulated to evoke time, place and psyche. Star Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”) should provide initial enticement for international buyers who’ll then be wooed by the pic’s force, notwithstanding a few overdrawn moments. Regional arthouse play is likely to make a mark, while fest exposure could lure Euro satcasters.

The film takes place in a Christian area near Beirut and among middle class Maronites, but where women are still bound by tradition and constrained in their choices. One of the female characters moonlights in a militia, where she murders in cold blood. Her discourse around the dinner table on the sectarian conflict is chilling. And no doubt realistic for that time.

The other movie seen: ‘Ephemeral Marriage’, by France-based Iranian director Reza Serkanian, which focuses on the Iranian Shi’ite practice of temporary marriage, that enables couples to licitly “do it” and with no strings attached. Great deal, maybe for women, definitely for men. The protag is a widowed woman in her 40s. I think it’s set in Mashhad but am not sure. Reviews in France were good on the whole. It so far seems not to have been seen by an American critic. It won’t be coming to your local multiplex, that’s for sure.

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Lois mémorielles

Je prends la liberté de publier le texte entier de cette importante tribune de Pierre Nora dans Le Monde sur la loi liberticide que l’Assemblée Nationale a voté la semaine dernière

Lois mémorielles : pour en finir avec ce sport législatif purement français

Point de vue | LEMONDE | 27.12.11

par Pierre Nora, Historien, président de l’association Liberté pour l’histoire

On ne pouvait imaginer pire. Et si le Sénat devait confirmer cette funeste loi sur “la pénalisation de la contestation des génocides établis par la loi”, ce sont les espoirs de tous ceux qui ont désapprouvé la généralisation des lois mémorielles et tous les efforts de l’association Liberté pour l’histoire depuis 2005, qui se trouveraient anéantis. A peine y avait-il une cinquantaine de députés en séance pour voter à main levée. Je ne doute pas que les plus conscients d’entre eux ne tarderont pas à se mordre les doigts devant les conséquences de leur initiative. L’ampleur du désastre est telle qu’il faut reprendre la question à zéro.

Il y a en effet dans cette loi deux aspects très différents : la question arménienne, sur laquelle on s’est focalisé ; et un aspect de portée beaucoup plus générale, qui n’a pas été mis en relief.

Versant arménien, l’affaire est claire. Le parallèle historique entre le “génocide” arménien et la Shoah, qui justifierait l’alignement de la législation française sur la loi Gayssot – pénalisant en 1990 la contestation du génocide juif -, ne tient pas. Pour la Shoah, en effet, la responsabilité de la France vichyste est engagée, alors que, dans le cas de l’Arménie, la France n’y est pour rien. Et s’il s’agissait de faire pression sur la Turquie, le résultat est concluant : la décision française ne peut qu’exacerber le nationalisme turc et bloquer toute forme d’avancée vers la reconnaissance du passé. La Turquie avait proposé, en 2005, la création d’une commission bipartite d’historiens et l’ouverture des archives ; les Arméniens avaient refusé au nom de leurs certitudes : génocide il y avait, et donc rien à ajouter, comme si le mot seul dispensait d’explorer les conditions de la chose. Le gouvernement français aurait dû faire pression pour qu’Ankara installe une commission internationale, dont la Turquie se serait engagée à suivre les conclusions, pour sortir du fatal tête-à-tête.

Le mot génocide a une aura magique, mais il faut rappeler que tous les historiens sérieux sont réticents à l’utiliser, lui préférant, selon les cas, “anéantissement”, “extermination”, “crimes de masse”. L’expression, élaborée pendant la guerre, a été dotée d’une définition juridique en 1948, fondée sur une intention exterminatrice. Elle a pris une connotation extensive aux frontières floues, et son utilisation n’a plus qu’un contenu émotif, politique ou idéologique. Si les Arméniens souhaitent l’utiliser, pourquoi pas ? Il peut se justifier. Mais ce génocide était déjà reconnu par la République française depuis 2001. Alors ?

Ce qui frappe dans la loi adoptée le 22 décembre, son urgence, son téléguidage par l’Elysée, c’est le cynisme politicien, la volonté de couper l’herbe sous le pied d’une initiative parallèle de la gauche au Sénat, son arrière-pensée d’en finir avec toute candidature à l’UE de la Turquie, ainsi diabolisée, et pratiquement “nazifiée”.

Il en va de même de la notion de crime contre l’humanité, associée dans la loi à celle de génocide. La notion est entrée dans le droit en 1945 au procès de Nuremberg, et son imprescriptibilité signifiait qu’aucun des auteurs du crime n’était à l’abri de poursuites jusqu’à sa mort. On l’a vu pour les nazis. Mais l’Arménie ? Aucun des acteurs n’étant encore en vie et le crime datant de près d’un siècle, faut-il que ce soient les historiens qui en portent la responsabilité ? Comment ceux-ci pourraient-ils travailler sur un sujet désormais tabou ?

L’aspect arménien n’est pas le plus grave. Cette loi prétend n’être que la mise en conformité du droit français avec la décision-cadre européenne du 28 novembre 2008 portant sur “la lutte contre certaines formes et manifestations de racisme et de xénophobie au moyen du droit pénal”. C’est faux : elle va plus loin. Devant la décision de Bruxelles, la France avait choisi une “option” qui consistait à ne reconnaître que les crimes contre l’humanité, génocides et crimes de guerre déclarés tels par une juridiction internationale. C’était admettre l’éventualité d’une criminalisation des auteurs du génocide au Rwanda, au Kosovo et autres crimes internationaux contemporains, mais mettre les historiens qui travaillent sur le passé à l’abri de toute mise en cause. La loi actuelle s’applique à tous les crimes qui seraient reconnus par la loi française.

En termes clairs, la voie est ouverte pour toute mise en cause de la recherche historique et scientifique par des revendications mémorielles de groupes particuliers puisque les associations sont même habilitées par le nouveau texte à se porter partie civile. La criminalisation de la guerre de Vendée était d’ailleurs sur le point d’arriver sur le bureau de l’Assemblée en 2008 lorsque la Commission d’information sur les questions mémorielles avait conclu à la nécessité pour la représentation nationale de s’abstenir de toute initiative future en ce sens. D’autres propositions de loi se pressaient : sur l’Ukraine affamée par le pouvoir stalinien en 1932-1933 et les crimes communistes dans les pays de l’Est, sur l’extermination des Tziganes par les nazis, et même sur le massacre de la Garde suisse, aux Tuileries, en 1792 ! A quand la criminalisation des historiens qui travaillent sur l’Algérie, sur la Saint-Barthélemy, sur la croisade des Albigeois ? Mesure-t-on à quel degré d’anachronisme on peut arriver en projetant ainsi sur le passé des notions qui n’ont d’existence que contemporaine, et de surcroît en se condamnant à des jugements moraux et manichéens ? D’autant plus que la loi n’incrimine plus seulement la “négation” du génocide, mais introduit un nouveau délit : sa “minimisation”, charmante notion que les juristes apprécieront.

La loi Gayssot avait sanctuarisé une catégorie de la population, les juifs ; la loi Taubira une autre catégorie, les descendants d’esclaves et déportés africains ; la loi actuelle en fait autant pour les Arméniens. La France est de toutes les démocraties la seule qui pratique ce sport législatif. Et le plus tragique est de voir l’invocation à la défense des droits de l’homme et au message universel de la France servir, chez les auteurs, de cache-misère à la soviétisation de l’histoire. Les responsables élus de la communauté nationale croient-ils préserver la mémoire collective en donnant à chacun des groupes qui pourraient avoir de bonnes raisons de la revendiquer la satisfaction d’une loi ? Faut-il leur rappeler que c’est l’histoire qu’il faut d’abord protéger, parce que c’est elle qui rassemble, quand la mémoire divise ?

C’est ce que défend Liberté pour l’histoire. Nous avions lancé en octobre 2008, aux Rendez-vous de l’histoire de Blois, un appel aux historiens européens que plus d’un millier d’entre eux avaient signé en quelques semaines. “L’histoire, proclamait-il, ne doit pas être l’esclave de l’actualité ni s’écrire sous la dictée de mémoires concurrentes. Dans un Etat libre, il n’appartient à aucune autorité politique de définir la vérité historique et de restreindre la liberté de l’historien sous la menace de sanctions pénales (…). En démocratie, la liberté pour l’histoire est la liberté de tous.”

C’est le moment de rappeler cet appel. Que tous ceux qui l’approuvent prennent l’initiative de nous rejoindre. Il est des revers qui ne font que relancer l’ardeur au combat. Il est des lois que d’autres lois peuvent défaire, des institutions politiques que d’autres institutions politiques peuvent corriger. Rien ne peut davantage prouver le bien-fondé de notre cause, appuyée sur le simple bon sens, que cette attaque en rase campagne. Ou plutôt en pleine campagne électorale.


Historien, président de l’association Liberté pour l’histoire, Pierre Nora est l’auteur notamment de “Présent, nation, mémoire” (Gallimard, 420 p., 25 euros) Pierre Nora, Historien, président de l’association Liberté pour l’histoire

Article paru dans l’édition du 28.12.11
Je reviendrai sur le sujet. C’est pas possible cette loi. AMHA, elle ne sera pas promulguée. L’Elysée, le gouvernment et le parlement trouveront le moyen de la jeter aux oubliettes.

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Voilà my annual list of the best and worst movies of the year (for lists of past years, see here). N.B. the films here came out in the cinema this year in either France or the US. Those in the top categories all have separate posts on the blog (or will soon).

TOP 10:
A Separation (جدایی نادر از سیمین)
Beginners
Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux prunes)
Habemus Papam
Meek’s Cutoff
Rebellion (L’Ordre et la morale)
The Artist
The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au vélo)
The Tree of Life
When We Leave (Die Fremde)

HONORABLE MENTION:
Carnage
Declaration of War (La Guerre est déclarée)
Le Havre
Midnight in Paris
On the Path (Na Putu)

BEST MOVIE FROM ROMANIA:
Morgen

BEST MOVIE FROM SLOVENIA:
Slovenian Girl (Slovenka)

BEST MOVIE FROM ALBANIA:
Amnesty (Amnistia)

BEST MOVIE FROM AUSTRALIA ABOUT A LOWLIFE CRIMINAL FAMILY IN MELBOURNE:
Animal Kingdom

BEST MOVIE FROM TURKEY THAT EXPLORES THE HUMAN CONDITION:
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da)

BEST MOVIE FROM TURKEY ABOUT AN ELDERLY MAN WHO SAYS NO TO RAMPANT URBAN DEVELOPMENT:
10 to 11 (11′e 10 Kala)

BEST MOVIE FROM LEBANON ON HOW WOMEN CAN BE PEACEMAKERS IN A SECTARIAN CONFLICT:
Where Do We Go Now? (وهلّأ لوين؟)

BEST MOVIE FROM LEBANON ON HOW WOMEN CAN BE COLD-BLOODED KILLERS IN A SECTARIAN CONFLICT:
Stray Bullet (رصاصة طايشة‎)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT A FATHER-SON ACADEMIC RIVALRY:
Footnote (הערת שוליים)

BEST MOVIE FROM ITALY ABOUT AN OVER-THE-HILL MAN WHO LONGS AFTER WOMEN HALF HIS AGE AND THEN DECIDES THAT HE DOESN’T REALLY:
The Salt of Life (Gianni e le donne)

BEST MOVIE FROM URUGUAY ABOUT A SHY OVERWEIGHT LOVESICK HEAVY-METAL FAN WHO FINDS HIS KINDRED SPIRIT:
Giant (Gigante)

BEST FILM NOIR FROM ARGENTINA:
Carancho

BEST MOVIE FROM DENMARK PARTLY SET IN AN UNNAMED AFRICAN COUNTRY IN THE THROES OF CIVIL WAR THAT IS OBVIOUSLY SUDAN:
In a Better World (Hævnen)

BEST MOVIE FROM CANADA MAINLY SET IN AN UNNAMED MIDDLE EASTERN COUNTRY IN THE THROES OF CIVIL WAR THAT IS OBVIOUSLY LEBANON:
Incendies

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE THAT IS PARTLY IN KURDISH:
Si tu meurs, je te tue

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ON THE EXERCISE OF STATE POWER:
The Minister (L’Exercice de l’Etat)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ON NICOLAS SARKOZY’S CONQUEST OF STATE POWER:
The Conquest (La Conquête)

BEST FEATURE-LENGTH MOVIE FROM FRANCE MADE ON A BUDGET OF €150:
Donoma

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE ON SOCIAL CLASS STRATIFICATION DURING THE THIRTY GLORIOUS YEARS:
The Women on the 6th Floor (Les Femmes du 6e étage)

BEST COMEDY ON THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT:
When Pigs Have Wings (Le Cochon de Gaza)

BEST OKAY OCCASIONALLY FUNNY COMEDY SET IN MY HOMETOWNS MILWAUKEE AND CHICAGO:
Bridesmaids

BEST OKAY FEEL GOOD MOVIE ON THE WANING DAYS OF THE JIM CROW ERA:
The Help

BEST MOVIE ON THE USE OF QUANTITATIVE METHODS IN PUTTING TOGETHER A SPORTS TEAM:
Moneyball

BEST MOVIE ON THE MISERY OF SATYRIASIS:
Shame

BEST MOVIE DEPICTING THE SOVIET GULAG AND THAT IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY THAT IN FACT NEVER HAPPENED:
The Way Back

BEST MOVIE ON THE DOWNWARDLY MOBILE AMERICAN WORKING CLASS:
Putty Hill

BEST MOVIE THAT WAS NOT THE BEST MOVIE TO WIN THE OSCAR FOR BEST MOVIE:
The King’s Speech

BEST MOVIE THAT WAS IN FACT NOT ALL THAT GREAT OF A MOVIE:
Black Swan

BEST MOVIE ABOUT SADDAM HUSSEIN’S PSYCHOTIC SON UDAY WHO IS SO PSYCHOTIC THAT HE MAKES SADDAM HIMSELF LOOK LIKE AN ALMOST HALFWAY DECENT NORMAL GUY BY COMPARISON:
The Devil’s Double

BEST MOVIE ON HOW THE ISRAELI MOSSAD IS NOT AS EXCELLENT AND EFFECTIVE AS IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE:
The Debt

BEST CAR CHASE FILM D’AUTEUR:
Drive

BEST SCREENPLAY ADAPTATION OF ‘THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN’ SERIES:
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

BEST DOCUMENTARY FROM SPAIN ABOUT CRIMES COMMITTED BY THE FRANCO REGIME:
Los Caminos de la Memoria

BEST DOCUMENTARY FROM CHILE ABOUT CRIMES COMMITTED BY THE PINOCHET REGIME:
Nostalgia de la Luz

BEST DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE ABOUT CRIMES COMMITTED BY THE PARIS POLICE DURING THE ALGERIAN WAR:
Ici on noie les Algériens

BEST DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE THAT WAS ACTUALLY MADE IN 1961 BUT ONLY RELEASED COMMERCIALLY IN 2011 ABOUT CRIMES COMMITTED BY THE PARIS POLICE DURING THE ALGERIAN WAR:
Octobre à Paris

SADDEST HOME MOVIE FROM IRAN DEPICTING THE JUDICIAL PERSECUTION OF A GREAT FILMMAKER:
This Is Not a Film

WORST MOVIE ABOUT ARABIAN TRIBES ON THE CUSP OF MODERNITY:
Black Gold

WORST SCREENPLAY ADAPTATION OF WHAT WAS NO DOUBT AN ALREADY TRASHY NOVEL:
Black Gold

WORST POSSIBLE DEBUT FOR QATAR’S INCIPIENT FILM INDUSTRY:
Black Gold

WORST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ON AGING MIDDLE CLASS LEFTISTS NOSTALGIC FOR THE CLASS STRUGGLE:
The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro)

WORST MOVIE FROM FRANCE OF TWO SELF-INDULGENT ACTORS PLAYACTING POLITICIANS:
Pater

MOST POINTLESS REMAKE OF THE MOVIE ‘TRUE GRIT':
True Grit

MOST RIDICULOUS MOVIE ON A GLOBAL PANDEMIC SPREAD BY A MYSTERIOUS MUTATING VIRUS THAT THREATENS TO WIPE OUT THE WORLD’S POPULATION IN SHORT ORDER THUS LEADING TO MASS CHAOS AND SOCIAL BREAKDOWN BUT THAT SCIENTISTS SUDDENLY AND MIRACULOUSLY STOP MUTATING THEREBY SAVING THE WORLD AND ENABLING THE QUARANTINED TEENAGE DAUGHTER OF THE PANDEMIC’S FIRST VICTIM TO ATTEND HER HIGH SCHOOL PROM:
Contagion

MOST EXCRUCIATINGLY PAINFUL MOVIE TO SIT THROUGH:
127 Hours

MOST TECHNICALLY BEAUTIFUL BUT PONDEROUS CLUNKER OF A MOVIE THAT TAKES ITSELF WAY TOO SERIOUSLY AND IS TAKEN WAY TOO SERIOUSLY:
Melancholia

MOST INSUFFERABLE ACTION MYSTERY MOVIE FROM CHINA THAT SHOULD ONLY BE SEEN BY PEOPLE WHO LIKE THIS KIND OF ACTION MYSTERY MOVIE:
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (狄仁傑之通天帝國)

MOST REPREHENSIBLE MOVIE FROM AUSTRALIA ABOUT SADISTIC PSYCHOPATHIC WHITE TRASH MURDERERS IN ADELAIDE:
Snowtown

MOST FAILED ATTEMPT FROM FRANCE TO IMITATE A WOODY ALLEN MOVIE:
The Art of Love (L’Art d’aimer)

MOST FAILED ATTEMPT FROM SOUTH KOREA TO IMITATE AN ERIC ROHMER MOVIE:
Oki’s Movie (옥희의 영화)

MOST TEDIOUS MOVIE ON ENNUI IN HOLLYWOOD:
Somewhere

ADDENDUM: Dan Kois, a writer and cultural critic, has a piece in the January 1, 2012, New York Times Magazine—and to which I entirely adhere—on “The Top 10 Reasons to Make (and Love) Top 10 Lists.”

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That’s the title of an excellent review essay in the NYRB by the reliably excellent Mark Lilla, on lefty academic Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Lilla commends Robin for having a genuine interest in the right—unlike older generation left historians—but is critical of his approach, which he says is not “an example to follow, but one to avoid.” One of Robin’s shortcomings, Lilla points out—and which I have observed for decades among American lefties I know (many of whom are dear personal friends)—, is a failure to appreciate the deep cleavages within the right—that right-wingers are not all the same—, not only over tactics or strategy but fundamental world-views. Lilla writes

And what about all the factionalism within the right? Isolationist paleoconservatives at magazines like The American Conservative hate “American greatness” neoconservatives at The Weekly Standard for their expansionist foreign policies and unconditional support of Israel, and the feeling is mutual. Theoconservatives at the journal First Things who resist gay marriage drive libertarians at the Cato Institute up the wall. There are serious and consequential disagreements on the right today over immigration, defense spending, the Wall Street bailouts, the tax code, state surveillance, and much else. Who wins those arguments could very well determine what this country looks like a generation from now. Robin registers none of this.

This is not news to me, as I have had a longstanding intellectual and academic interest in the right—knowing the enemy sort of thing, or at least how “the other side” thinks—, not only in the US but in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. As an object of study, the right has always interested me more than the left (mainly because I already know how and what lefties think, as I’m around them all the time and have been my entire life). But I’ve known hardly any lefties who have any interest in the right or read its literature. E.g. in following the prolific writings of the so-called neocons over the years—in The Weekly Standard, AEI web site, etc—it is clear that there have been significant differences, even conflicts, among them over a number of issues, one being Iraq in the 2003-04 period. But one would not know this had one only read liberal/left web sites or publications. Mark Lilla himself knows something about the subject, in part on account of his past as a youthful evangelical.

In the latter part of his essay Lilla discusses the recent transformation of the Republican party into a reactionary force by any definition of the word. We know it—and reasonable conservatives know it all too well—but Lilla hits it on the head. It’s truly frightening. Read the essay. All of it.

ADDENDUM: Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol—whose politics are liberal-left—has been studying the Tea Party up close and just come out with a book on the subject, which she discusses in the New York Times. She sees it as a more complex movement—and riven with contradictions—than it has been made out to be on the left.

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Algeria, 26 December 1991

Today is the 20th anniversary of the first round of the first multiparty parliamentary election in Algeria’s history. It was indeed the first entirely free-and-fair national election in the history of the Arab world, with all political forces in the country present—i.e. with no significant political party banned or not participating in the vote—and where the result was not rigged by the regime. The result: the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) received 47% and the ruling FLN 23%. If one includes the votes of smaller regime-collaborating Islamist parties, the Islamist total was 55%. Parties calling themselves “democrats”—i.e. westernized and secular (which should be in quotes, as both are misnomers in the Algerian context, as is the term “democrat,” which a certain number of Algerians claiming the label were in fact not)—collectively received on the order of 10%. And the leading “democrat” party, Hocine Aït Ahmed’s FFS (which did in fact merit the democrat label), had an almost entirely regional Kabyle Berber electorate, most of which was culturally traditional.

The result was a shock for the government—led by a minority faction of the FLN—and its allies in the “democrat” camp, and all the more so because of the consequences it would have in view of the electoral system. The Algerians had reflexively adopted the French system of single-member constituencies elected in two rounds. Adopting the right electoral system is crucial for a polity in transition from authoritarianism to a multiparty democracy. There is no right formula for all countries; each has to adopt the system best adapted to its particular conditions and history. But there should always be some variant of proportional representation and with a relatively low threshold, so as to insure representation for smaller parties, which are often comprised of ethnic or confessional minorities lacking a strong regional base, and to foster coalition governments. Single-member constituency systems are fine for mature democracies and that have a long tradition of them but not in polities in transition and with weak to non-existent party systems, where the exclusion of significant sociological forces can undermine the legitimacy of the whole electoral enterprise. And the two-round French system has a particular perverse effect, which is the artificial inflation in the number of seats of the leading party in the first round. What happened in Algeria was a perfect demonstration of this, as the FIS, with its 47% of the vote, won 44% of the seats outright in the first round; had the FIS won every second round runoff in which its candidate was favorably placed (ballotage favorable)—which was a distinct possibility—it would have ended up with 77% of the seats in Algeria’s first multiparty national assembly. Needless to say, the French electoral system was not only inappropriate for Algeria, it was insane. But almost no one in Algiers at the time understood electoral systems—the culture politique of the country’s political actors was pretty low—and the ruling circles in the government and their “democrat” allies—who were convinced that doing the elections à la française would benefit them, not the FIS—showed that they fundamentally did not understand their own society. (Contrast this with Tunisia today, which has gotten things pretty much right so far.)

The rest was history. On January 11th, five days before the scheduled second round, the army intervened, removed President Chadli Benjedid from office, and had the electoral process cancelled. The FIS was banned two months later, part of the party went underground and launched an armed struggle against the regime and its supporters, employing selective terrorism such as had been used by the FLN during the war of independence against the French. In the ensuing repression new Islamist groups formed, notably the notorious GIA, which embarked on a campaign of mass terrorism. The army fought fire with fire and Algeria descended into a nasty internecine war in which tens of thousands were killed (the 200,000 figure cited in the media—and by academic specialists who should know better—is a huge exaggeration; it’s nowhere near that, not even by half). Twenty years after the aborted election, Algeria is a soft authoritarian regime kept afloat by rentier income from hydrocarbons, with a façade of multiparty politics but where election results are fixed in advance. And with no perspective of any significant change on the horizon.

I would not have remembered today’s anniversary had it not been for a fine article marking the event by the very fine Algerian journalist Akram Belkaïd in Slate.fr. Belkaïd writes that he opposed the cancellation of the electoral process in January ’92 and has not changed his mind about it two decades later. Among Algeria’s democrats (and “democrats”) back then, Belkaïd’s position was not a majority one. Secular, westernized Algerians—the kind of people Europeans and North Americans who visit or live in that country meet and befriend—were terrified by the prospect of the FIS coming to power—the FIS was not a “moderate” Islamist party as is today’s Tunisian Ennahda—and largely supported the cancellation of the second round of the elections (even Mohammed Harbi—who is a true democrat—initially supported interrupting the electoral process, before modifying his position). Through the rest of the ’90s—as Algeria descended into violence and terror—secular, westernized Algerians were split into two bitter, feuding camps: the éradicateurs, who supported the regime’s uncompromising repression of the now banned FIS—who wanted to expunge Algeria of Islamism, even if it involved massive human rights violations, not to mention violating some fundamental principles of democracy—, and the dialoguistes (or réconciliateurs), who had mostly opposed the cancellation of the elections and advocated a negotiated solution to the country’s political crisis and with willing elements of the FIS (and elements of it there were). The éradicateur/dialoguiste cleavage was played out in France in a guéguerre on the left, with intellectuals choosing their camp: BHL, André Glucksmann, Pascal Bruckner & Co supporting the éradicateurs; Le Monde Diplomatique and academics with personal links to Algeria (e.g. Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Benjamin Stora), among others, siding with the dialoguistes. Each camp had its Algerian champions, the leading ones well-known feminist activists: for the éradicateurs, the current Algerian Minister of Culture (who went by her married name back then); the dialoguistes, a leading journalist and a leader of a leftist political party. The polemic was quite bitter. As an uncompromising supporter of the dialoguistes I was subject to all sorts of accusations by éradicateurs, the best one during a live radio debate in 1995—in Paris of course—with the brother of the head of one of the “democrat” éradicateur parties, who informed the listening audience that I was “un islamiste parfaitement identifié”—not a dupe of the Islamists or an Islamist fellow traveler but an outright Islamist, period… I asked him how I could be an Islamist when I wasn’t even a Muslim… That was the general ambiance of the (non-)debate.

Back to Belkaïd’s article, I entirely agree with him. Twenty years later I do not revise my view one iota. The cancellation of the elections was a disaster for Algeria, brought about the violent death of tens of thousands, pushed hundreds of thousands into exile or simply leaving the country, and firmly entrenched the ruling power apparatus. The political system in Algeria is frozen and is not likely to be unfrozen for the foreseeable future. The question to be posed is what would have happened had the electoral process continued and the FIS come to power. The éradicateurs and their friends are quite certain that Algeria would have entered into the dark Islamist night, that the country would have turned into an Iran or Afghanistan. Engaging in counterfactual historical speculation is worth what it’s worth but I argued in the ’90s—and will argue today—that it was unlikely that the FIS would have sought to impose an Islamist dictatorship, or succeeded in doing so had it tried. First, the leaders of the FIS—led at the time by Abdelkader Hachani—made it very clear between the first and aborted second rounds that they did not want to govern Algeria on their own. They sought a coalition, notably with the FLN. The FIS leadership was not entirely made up of extremist hotheads. The proof: two leading FIS personalities were co-opted into governments in the early ’90s and by the middle of the decade fully half of the members of the FIS majlis al-shura were at liberty in Algiers. They had been co-opted into the system. Secondly—and this is crucial—, the leadership of the FLN, which was led at the time by the well-respected Abdelhamid Mehri—and who was in conflict with the government of Sid Ahmed Ghozali—, was opposed to the cancellation of the electoral process. The FLN party apparatus was willing to collaborate with the FIS in a coalition government (such as we’re seeing in Tunisia today). The FFS of Hocine Aït Ahmed, by far the largest democrat party, was likewise opposed to cancelling the elections, as Aït Ahmed saw himself as the future leader of the opposition in the national assembly. Parties whose vote totals exceeded 80% wanted to see the process continue. Algeria was not split down the middle in 1991-92; the overwhelming majority of the population was “dialoguiste.” Thirdly, President Chadli had another two years left on his term and given Algeria’s strong presidential system, no significant reform could have been enacted without his approval. And this included modifications to the constitution, which could only emanate from the president. Fourthly, had the FIS overreached, tried to impose Shari’a law, or fostered instability and violence, the army could have then intervened à la turque and with greater legitimacy.

This is all counterfactual speculation, of course, but the debate is legitimate. We know the consequences of the army’s action of January ’92, from which Algeria has yet to recover. Allowing the FIS to form a government in ’92 would have entailed risks but the risks were worth taking.

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Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro

English title: ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. Director: Robert Guédiguian. This has been a box office success in France since it opened in mid-November and has received excellent reviews (which in France usually means that the critics are friends with the director in question and share his or her politics). I wasn’t going to bother with it, as I am not a fan of Guédiguian, who wears his hard leftism on his sleeve and shoves it in your face in his films, at least in the two I had seen prior to this one. One was his 1997 ‘Marius et Jeannette’, which was a huge hit back then on the French left, at least among those over a certain age. I didn’t like it, as, among other things, its politics were so unsubtle and simple-minded. Roger Ebert, a good American liberal comme moi, was equally unimpressed with the pic, calling it

…a sentimental fantasy of French left-wing working-class life, so cheerful and idealized that I expected the characters to break into song; they do all dance together, in the forecourt of a shuttered cement factory…in a blue-collar district of Marseilles…

You get the idea. After this one I had no interest in seeing Guédiguian’s subsequent films, avoiding even his ‘Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars‘—on François Mitterrand in his dying days (which I really should see, out of professional and cinephile duty)—and ‘Voyage en Arménie‘. I did, however, feel compelled to see his ‘L’Armée du crime,’ on the Manouchian group in the FTP-MOI during the Nazi occupation of Paris. I know this period of history fairly well—and which I should, as I teach it to undergraduates—but not every last detail, so I decided to reserve judgment on the pic until I got the verdict from a friend who is a bona fide specialist of the subject. He informed me, in a private communication, that the film “is a propaganda piece” for the Stalinists of the 1940s French Communist party, is riddled with errors—of chronology, events, interpretation, you name it—, and, in short, “is crap.” So much for ‘L’Armée du crime’.

I was thus going to avoid this latest one like the plague, but finally cracked, mainly on account of its 4.1 rating on Allociné. What a mistake. It’s almost a sequel to ‘Marius et Jeannette’, set in the L’Estaque quartier of Marseille’s 16th arrondissement, a charming seafront area that I’ve been to a few times. Same lead actors, same politics, same schtick. I was rolling my eyes and groaning at various moments, and toward the end let out an audible “Oh please, give me a break!” The audience, mean age 63 or thereabouts, did not react likewise. It was just so caricaturally bleeding heart. A parody of French gauchisme. Variety’s critic—an “Anglo-Saxon” bien entendugot it right

The sweetest young orphans one could possibly imagine get saved by a middle-class Marseille couple in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a blizzard of cloying sentiment not to be confused with Hollywood’s like-titled Hemingway adaptation from 1952. Inspired by a Victor Hugo poem, French director Robert Guediguian (“The Army of Crime”) returns to the small-scale work with which he began his career in 1980, ladling on the syrup in an ingratiating bid to melt bourgeois hearts. While Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre Darroussin are endearing enough as the middle-aged do-gooders, the forecast calls for “Snows” to fall mainly in Gaul.

Implausibly contrived to rhyme with Hugo’s “How Good Are the Poor,” pic has its happily marrieds turning the other cheek after they’re tied up, beaten and robbed by the orphans’ downtrodden older brother, Christophe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Guediguian may intend to salute, per Hugo, the goodness of the poor. However, as Christophe remains callously unrepentant for the crime (while his siblings remain merely adorable), the film favors a couple that’s underemployed but sufficiently comfy to give money away. Super 16 lensing lends the obligatory hint of grit to a classy production.

Yes, the unionized French working class has indeed become middle class and bourgeoisified—no doubt to Guédiguian’s regret—, and is a subtext of the film, but which is in no way contradictory with them expressing working class consciousness or in having a grand cœur. I am no doubt in the tiny handful to make this observation but I think Guédiguian erred in making the hero of the film a militant in the CGT at the port of Marseille. The CGT, despite its history of Communist domination, is an estimable trade union federation and which has often effectively defended the legitimate interests of French working men and women. And I should be careful not to critique it too severely, as an extremely close member of my family is a union delegate in this syndicat. But the CGT in the Marseille port has been particularly retrograde and corporatiste in mentality—like its counterparts in the Paris press, whom I wrote about a few months ago—, and bears considerable responsibility for the economic problems of the city. Even the national CGT has shied away from lending more than lip service support to its Marseille port section in its incessant labor conflicts. Marseille should by all rights be one of the leading ports in the Mediterranean—generating employment in a city that sorely needs it and being a force for economic dynamism—but it is not, in good part thanks to the excessive militancy of the longshoreman’s unions, and notably the CGT (e.g. see here). Sorry to sound like a réac but what I say here is an incontrovertible fact.

If one is wondering why the pic has its name, it’s ’cause the protag couple’s CGT comrades gave them a one-week vacation to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania as a present (and with the protag husband pledging to speak Swahili there, not English—the language of the colonialists, so he declared—, neither of which he spoke anyway). But having bleeding hearts, the couple cashed in the tickets and gave the money to the poor orphaned children of the imprisoned lout who had brutally tied them up and robbed them. Say what one will about Hollywood but no American film could ever get away with such a denouement. It would be laughed out of, well, everywhere. And however much aging French lefties may gush at such bleeding heartism (angélisme, en français) on the big screen, not a single one of them would ever act likewise. On se fout de ma gueule ou quoi ?…

For cinematic treatments of the déclassé working class, the American indy film ‘Putty Hill‘, which I saw earlier in the fall, is far superior. It’s set in a working class suburb of Baltimore, whose characters look to be straight out of season 2 of ‘The Wire’ but well after they’ve lost steady (unionized) employment. These are the Americans who join the army and are sent to fight wars in places like Iraq, who tend not to vote in elections—and are therefore a negligible quantity politically-speaking—, and who are rarely seen in Hollywood movies.

Another film on the working class I saw not too long ago, this one from Scotland, is ‘Neds’. As it’s British, it has its level of violence and general brutality. And with no bleeding heartism. Not for the Celts. They don’t know such a thing in Glasgow. Reviews here, here, and here. Recommended.

ADDENDUM: A couple more observations on Guédiguian’s film. First, the CGT protag is fond of quoting Socialist père fondateur Jean Jaurès, notably to the younger generation. Le retour aux sources. But how utterly conventional. Charles de Gaulle excepted there is probably no political figure in 20th century French political iconography more consensual than Jaurès. Even Sarkozy and the right cite Jaurès to their advantage. And even the Front National. One will, however, not hear any mention in a Guédiguian film of, say, Maurice Thorez or Jacques Duclos (huh? who are they?), or the veritable icons of the CGT-PCF in decades past, V.I. Lenin and J.V. Stalin. Secondly, the trip to Mount Kilimanjaro. Seriously, what group of proletarians, who have likely never ventured further than Spain or Italy—and even then—, would think of giving a cherished comrade co-worker an all-expenses paid vacation to f***ing Tanzania?! If one wants to please an ordinary Frenchman or woman with a vacation to an exotic faraway place, one proposes Martinique or Saint Martin, or maybe Thailand. Or if the cégétistes could put their ideological prejudices aside, New York or Florida. Or Las Vegas. Really, WTF would a couple of proles from Marseille do for a week in Arusha? No wonder they cashed in their tickets.

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