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Archive for September, 2013

yema-affiche

My previous post was on three worthy Moroccan films I’ve seen of late. Moroccan cinema has become quite good, probably the most interesting in the Arab world at the present time. There’s also some good stuff coming out of Algeria, including two films I’ve seen in the past three months. The most recent one is ‘Yema’, which is set at an undetermined moment during Algeria’s army-led regime vs. Islamist insurgents sale guerre and entirely in a small farm on a remote hillside (somewhere in the petite Kabylie). I’ll let Variety’s Jay Weissberg—the anglophone world’s premier critic of Maghrebi cinema—describe the pic

Algeria’s fratricidal battle between the government and fundamentalists is played at the micro level in Djamila Sahraoui’s three-hander “Yema.” Designed as a Greek tragedy, the telegraphic story is set in a stunning landscape where a mother grieves for her soldier son, killed by Islamic insurgents affiliated with his brother. Beautifully lensed by Raphael O’Byrne (“The Portuguese Nun”), “Yema” (meaning “mother”) has all the trappings of the ancient classics, yet feels equally antiquated; it’s worthy without transcending a static iconicism…

Like a grieving Virgin Mary, Ouardia (helmer-scripter Sahraoui, “Barakat!”) prepares her son Tarek’s body for burial. She’s confined to her home and environs by a one-handed guard (Samir Yahia), taking orders from his superior (Ali Zarif). Gradually it’s revealed that the superior is Ouardia’s younger son, a mujahideen fighter she blames for Tarek’s death. The younger brother also stole the elder’s wife, further embittering their disconsolate mother. Everyone is wounded emotionally and physically by the country’s conflicts, and only Ouardia’s dogged cultivation of her garden produces life from the parched soil. Visuals further the sense of an epic tale recounted on a human scale.

There’s not a lot of action in the film but it’s absorbing. I recommended it (particularly for Algeriaphiles and those interested in the dynamics of civil wars). Another review is here, French reviews (good) here, and trailer here.

The other Algerian film seen lately—actually a French film with Algeria theme—is ‘Né quelque part’ (literally, “born somewhere,” but given the unsatisfying English title ‘Homeland’), by first-time director Mohamed Hamidi (from the Paris area, a founder of the well-known banlieue-themed Bondy Blog, and who normally teaches economics and management for a living). This is a comedy (or perhaps a dramedy) for le grand public, about a 26-year-old Parisian law student named Farid (actor Tewfik Jallab) from an Algerian immigrant family, who’s asked by his ageing father to go en catastrophe to the family’s village (near Tlemcen), to deal with the local authorities’ intention to raze the house the father had built there for his retirement. So Farid has no choice but to drop everything and go to Algeria, where he had never set foot. Now this wasn’t too credible—immigrant families who periodically return to the bled invariably take the kids with them—, nor was it credible that he wouldn’t understand a word of Algerian darija, but that’s okay. At the airport he’s met with open arms by relatives he’s seeing for the first time, one a cousin played by comic Jamel Debbouze—who is hugely popular in France (and in my family)—, who take him to the bled, where he encounters the whole range of zany, offbeat characters. And the rocambolesque story takes off (in short: Farid intends to stay only a few days but, against his will, is retained there for considerably longer). The movie is quite funny—indeed hilarious—, particularly if one knows Algeria and Algerian humor. Immigrés vs. blédards dynamics are naturally a theme. Algeriaphiles will definitely appreciate it. So despite a few contrivances and implausibilities I give it the unreserved thumbs up. I was thoroughly entertained. Review in English is here (the film showed at Cannes), French reviews (good) here, and trailer here.

ne-quelque-part-affiche

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This is a slick new Moroccan film I saw recently, about three youthful petty thief layabouts in Tetouan and how they decide to go legit. One, the thuggish Allal, takes the Islamist route (which is legit for some, though not all); another, the protag Malik, falls in love with attractive hooker Dounia and seeks to settle down and leave the life of crime. But corrupt police inspector Debbouze, played by director Faouzi Bensaïdi, twists Malik’s arm to become an informer in return for releasing Dounia from jail, where she found herself after a police raid. And all sorts of problems for Malik ensue. The screenplay is not extremely original—as this review justly observes—but the film is engaging and with incontestable qualities (acting, camerawork, sociological interest).

A nitpicking remark: contrary to what this review says, Tetouan is not a port city. The seaside scenes in the pic were in Martil, which is several km to Tetouan’s east. The film being set entirely in Tetouan and Martil was of particular interest to me personally, as I was in both last month. Tetouan is well worth the visit if one is in that part of Morocco: the medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the new city that juxtaposes it was entirely built by the Spanish—as it was the capital of the Spanish protectorate in northern Morocco (1912-56)—, so has the character and feel of a city in southern Spain. And Martil is one of the resort towns on Morocco’s westernmost Mediterranean coast. It is not particularly interesting so far as beach resorts go except that the tourism along that stretch of coast—running north to M’diq and Marina Smir (due south of Ceuta)—is entirely Moroccan—middle and upper-middle class, and with many Moroccan immigrants in Europe home for the holidays, but hardly any Europeans—and with some of the Moroccan women in two-piece bathing suits, which one would not see among nationals in any other Arab country (Christian parts of Lebanon excepted and maybe a restricted-access beach or two in Algeria or Tunisia). Culturally speaking, Morocco is not the Middle East, Egypt, or—when it comes to the status of women—Algeria.

Most of the above paragraph admittedly has little to do with the film, which offers a representation of the bas-fonds in contemporary urban Morocco. For this reason alone—but in addition to its cinematic qualities—I recommend it. French reviews are good. Trailer (with English s/t) is here. Et voici un entretien sur France 24 avec le réalisateur (à partir de la 4ème minute).

Another Moroccan film I saw recently was ‘Rock the Casbah’—which is, bizarrely enough, the second film with this exact title I’ve seen in the past six months (the other was from Israel)—, by director Laïla Marrakchi, who did the 2006 hit pic, ‘Marock‘, the subject of which was Casablanca’s jeunesse dorée. This one, which focuses on the same social stratum as does ‘Marock’, is set and shot entirely in Tangier (where I spent two weeks last month). The story in brief: rich family patriarch, Moulay Hassan (played by Omar Sharif), dies—he’s seen in the movie in flashbacks—, which brings the whole family together for the funeral, and with the usual family histoires one gets at such gatherings. The mainly female cast is stellar; it is, in itself, a draw for the film. The Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (whom I’ve seen in at least 15 films over the past decade) is Moulay Hassan’s wife, Aïcha, and who has three grown daughters, two of whom live in Tangier—Mariam (played by Lebanese actress/director Nadine Labaki) and Kenza (the Moroccan-Spanish-Belgian Lubna Azabal)—and one in New York, Sofia (the rather beautiful Moroccan-American actress Morjana Alaoui), who’s married to an American—and with a kid who speaks neither Arabic nor French—and arrives in Tangier en catastrophe after many years of absence. There was a fourth sister in the past but she committed suicide under murky circumstances that are revealed in the film. Sofia does not get along with Mariam or Kenza and there are issues with her mother, and all sorts of stuff comes out while they’re supposed to be mourning their deceased father/husband, with deep, dark family secrets revealed and la totale. The film is alternately humorous and melodramatic—it’s one for le grand public, not a film d’auteur, and with more French spoken than Arabic, signifying that the director had an international audience in mind—, and with a screenplay that is—like ‘Mort à vendre’—not entirely original. We’ve seen it many times before. But while not a chef d’œuvre, the pic is entertaining, the ensemble cast is great, the deep class and gender hierarchies in Moroccan society are dealt with head on, and I loved the scenes of Tangier (places and streets I strolled along just three weeks before). So I recommend it. Hollywood press reviews are here and here. French reviews are here. Trailer is here.

For the record, I saw a film at the Tangier cinémathèque last month, ‘Le Temps du terrorisme’ (‘The Time of Terrorism’), by director Aziz Saadallah, which so far has opened only in Morocco. It’s a curious film, set in a residential quartier in the heart of Casablanca, of a divorced middle-aged television screenwriter, played by Saadallah, working under a deadline but en mal d’inspiration and who becomes the target of ire of his neighboring Islamist greengrocer, who reproaches him for moral turpitude and a generally decadent lifestyle (consuming alcoholic beverages, frequenting women with whom he is not related). The film goes back-and-forth between the screenwriter’s cultural, social class, and ideological clash with his intolerant, increasingly fanaticized neighbor and the screenplay he needs to finish, which is progressively inspired by this real life clash. The worthy message of the film is the mounting danger of Islamist extremism in Morocco. The one English discussion of the film I’ve come across is here. Trailer is here. As the film won’t be making it to Paris—let alone outre-Atlantique—anytime soon, at least one can read about it here on AWAV.

rock the casbah laila marrakchi

zaman al irhab

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Qatar: modern-day slavery

Qatar (photo: Construction Week)

Qatar (photo: Construction Week)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

The Guardian has an article with accompanying 9½-minute video on Qatar’s World Cup “slaves”: the migrant workers in that accidental country who are forced to work for no pay while building the stadia and other infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, which Qatar was amazingly, incredibly chosen by FIFA to host. The Guardian has been on a tear on the issue over the past week, with one article asserting that “Qatar World Cup construction ‘will leave 4,000 migrant workers dead’,” and another asking “How many more must die for Qatar’s World Cup?” (See also the Qatar 2022 coverage in the excellent blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.)

Qatar may pledge to reform its migrant labor practices but it won’t. Just as it won’t end the Kafala system of tying foreign workers to employers, confiscating the former’s passports, and requiring exit visas (and which does not only concern manual laborers from poor countries; e.g. see the article in yesterday’s Libération on what it’s like to work for Qatar Airways). Qatar won’t change on this score—nor will other states of the Arabian peninsula—because the master-slave mentality is almost inscribed in its cultural DNA (see my previous blog posts on this theme here, here, and here). To expect Qataris—or Saudis, Emiratis, etc—to voluntarily change their ways on this—and in the absence of democracy, a civil society (and with independent trade unions), or anything even halfway resembling the rule of law—would be akin to politely asking an antebellum Mississippi plantation owner to free his slaves, pay them correctly, offer decent working conditions, etc. For this reason alone, FIFA needs to strip Qatar of the 2022 tournament and award it in extremis to a worthy country (if UEFA countries are eligible, England or Turkey; if not UEFA, Australia or the US).

What a batshit crazy decision to award the tournament to Qatar. It is clearly unreasonable to be playing sports in 50°C temperatures—air conditioned stadiums or not (and what happens when people are not in the stadium? where will the masses of fans spend their free time?)—and shifting the tournament to the winter will almost certainly not happen—regardless of what FIFA and UEFA are saying on this today—, as it will come in the middle of soccer season in Europe and conflict with the Winter Olympics. Qatar is simply unfit to be hosting the tournament. In addition to the labor issues and climate, the country only has one city worthy of the name—and which has no public life to speak of—, the distractions and amusements for the fans—notably bars and members of the opposite sex in abundance—will not be available (at least not in the quantities necessary for a month-long happening of this scale), and the prospects for cultural friction will be considerable (can one imagine the tens of thousands of rowdy, beer-swilling English, German, etc fans on the streets of Doha or Al Rayyan for three whole weeks—with nothing to do between matches and thus bored out of their minds—, and crossing paths with the hordes of Saudis who are certain to descend on the emirate for the event?). Forget it, Qatar just doesn’t have what it takes to be hosting the World Cup. Even Mongolia would be a better choice. The campaign to strip it of the tournament is apparently gaining steam in FIFA. Très bien.

UPDATE: Business Insider has a post on the “11 reasons why the Qatar World Cup is going to be a disaster.” One pertinent point about scheduling the tournament in the winter is that it will conflict with the final phase of the American football season, thereby dramatically reducing the level of interest in the US—a major FIFA growth market—and wreaking havoc with the television contract there. And a World Cup elimination match would almost certainly fall on Super Bowl Sunday. Just can’t see FIFA doing this. Or the Fox Broadcasting Company agreeing to it.

2nd UPDATE: It appears to be open season on Qatar this week, as the BBC website has a piece up on how “Qatar 2022 World Cup organisers [are] ‘appalled’ by work conditions.” They’re shocked, shocked!

3rd UPDATE: The Business Insider piece above links to an item about the possible price tag of Qatar 2022, which could be as high as $220 billion. Even if it’s only half that—though one supposes it will likely be far more—, this is, objectively speaking, an obscene amount of money to be spending on a one-month sporting event. One may easily come up with a list of more socially, economically, and humanly useful ways such a sum could be spent. All the stadiums and related infrastructure built for the event will give a new dimension to the term “white elephant.” This has long been a problem for major international sports events—particularly the Olympics—and looks to be a big one for Brazil next year (e.g. see the NYT article earlier this week on the stadium under construction in Manaus and, more generally, the social movement in that country against the diversion of economic resources that hosting the event necessitates). The fact is, the World Cup and Olympics tend not to be a good economic deal for the hosting country—when a not downright bad one (e.g. Montreal 1976, Athens 2004)—, and particularly if that country is not among the world’s richest. Now Qatar may be flush but it is simply unconscionable to be blowing that kind of cash building sports stadiums and gleaming infrastructure that will eventually be swallowed up in the sand.

Migrant workers, Doha (© 2011 Sam Tarling)

Migrant workers, Doha (© 2011 Sam Tarling)

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I have had absolutely nothing on this blog on the Fukushima accident, which is not to say that I haven’t been following the story closely over the past 2½ years and fretting over it. A certain number of articles I’ve read on the subject, including lately, have been alarmist, indeed catastrophiste, as to the situation at the plant and how it could go from bad to worse, particularly in the coming months. But I just read this article in Slate by former WaPo journalist Paul Blustein, who lives in Japan, informing us that “[m]uch of what [we]’ve heard about the nuclear accident is wrong.” The article is based on an initially secret—and still not widely known—evaluation of the accident by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The bottom line: there is no plausible worst-case scenario that threatens the city of Tokyo. Even in the most nightmarish of eventualities, 30 million people—or even a portion of that—will not need to be evacuated. A very interesting article and absolutely worth the read.

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In a 7-minute video here.

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Blue Jasmine

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It opened in Paris today, so I went to see it (MK2 Odéon 17h50 séance, if anyone wishes to know). I’ve seen every last film Woody Allen has ever made, so was obviously not going to skip this one. Reviews in the US, where the pic opened two months ago, were very good, French reviews so far are tops (both critics and Allociné spectateurs). But two highbrow cinephile friends outre-Atlantique, with whom I usually—though do not always—agree, gave it the thumbs way down. My verdict à chaud: though not quite as categorical as my two friends, I largely share their dim view. The film is watchable and I did not actively dislike it. But I did not like it either. First, I do not care for Cate Blanchett as an actress and found her character antipathique and without interest. In short, I couldn’t stand her (not only her character but her, period). Second, almost all the characters were social class caricatures. Quasi cartoon characters. Third, whatever the moral of the story was—money can’t buy you love, or love is more important than money, or whatever—was banal and so what? Not original.

When the film ended a woman in front of me clapped and shouted “bravo!” A woman in the row just behind exclaimed “Woody Allen, qu’est-ce qu’il est tordu!” (i.e. what a twisted mind he has)…

Speaking of twisted minds, I regret to say that I thought this is what director Claire Denis had after seeing her latest film, ‘Les Salauds’ (in English: ‘Bastards’), earlier this month. Claire Denis is a highbrow director, whose films are generally unknown by the grand public and inaccessible to it (not in the physical sense of not being able to see them but in making sense of what one is seeing). If you were to ask your average French movie-goer—le cinéspectateur lambda—what s/he thinks of Claire Denis’s films, the response would invariably be “connais pas” (never heard of her). If one has seen several Claire Denis films, this is a sure fire sign not only of cinephilia but of possible cinésnobisme (I’ve seen 5 of her 11 feature-length films, which may or may not qualify me as a snob). ‘Les Salauds’ is the noir-est of films noirs. To call the story bleak would be an understatement. The cast is first-rate—with Vincent Lindon (always excellent), Chiara Mastroianni, and future vedette Lola Creton, entre autres—but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. Almost all the characters are antipathique. The film is just so glauque (sordid). Worse, it’s reprehensible, indeed despicable, and particularly the ending. One leaves the theater revolted, if not repulsed. In point of fact, the film had no redeeming value, despite its technical quality and that of the performances. French reviews were mixed but Allociné spectateurs downright hated it. Hollywood press reviews (the film premiered at Cannes) are here, here, and here. See it if you like but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Why couldn’t Claire Denis have made a film like her 2009 ’35 Rhums’ (in English: ’35 Shots of Rum’), which I saw on DVD a few months ago? Now this was one fine movie—stellar US reviews are here—, set in Paris and its northern banlieues, and with an almost all-black cast (African and Antillais), including the wonderful, beautiful, sublime actress (and budding director) Mati Diop. If one does not like ’35 Rhums’, then one is almost by definition not a cinephile. Nor a cinesnob.

Les Salauds

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The rise of the new new left

Labor Movement And An Organized College Walkout Add Support To Occupy Wall Street Protest

[update below]

If one didn’t see it, Peter Beinart has a very interesting essay of this title in TDB, dated September 12th, in which he foresees a bright future for a revived left wing politics in the US. The lede

Bill de Blasio’s win in New York’s Democratic primary isn’t a local story. It’s part of a vast shift that could upend three decades of American political thinking.

This is one of the more thoughtful reflections I’ve read on the general subject in a while. I don’t know if Beinart is right but sure hope he is. His essay is lengthy but really worth the read.

À propos, the right-wing TWS’s in-house economics writer, Irwin Stelzer, has a post on the TWS blog, dated September 21st, on what he regretfully sees as the possible revival of trade unions in the US. I don’t know if Stelzer is right but sure hope he is!

If one needs just one little reminder of how loathsome the Republican party has become—and why America really needs a revived left wing politics and robust unions—, read Timothy Egan’s post, “Red state pain,” dated September 19th, on the NYT’s Opinionator blog.

UPDATE: The NYT has a most informative article about Bill de Blasio’s youthful participation in the 1980s Nicaragua solidarity movement: “A mayoral hopeful now, de Blasio was once a young leftist.” (September 23)

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