Archive for November, 2014

Wałęsa_Człowiek z nadziei

This film, which premiered at the 2013 Venice Biennale and opened in France the week before last (under the title L’Homme du peuple), was not one I was going to miss, in view of its subject matter and the director—Poland’s great Andrzej Wajda—even though it’s a biopic, which are normally merely good at best and rarely chefs-d’œuvre. But having seen it two evenings ago, I can report that it’s a solid, entertaining, well-done film on one of the most important revolutionary leaders of our times, Lech Wałęsa, and, more generally, on one of the most momentous revolutionary movements of the twentieth century, period: the working class uprising against the Communist dictatorship in Poland—a Soviet protectorate for 45 years following the end of WWII—and that set in motion the chain of events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet rule in eastern Europe, and the end of the Cold War. As Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg puts it in the introduction of his thumbs up review

There’s something fitting about Andrzej Wajda bringing Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to life, just as it’s proper that he subtitles the film “Man of Hope.” For “Walesa. Man of Hope” is a natural companion piece to the great director’s landmark “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron,” his influential duo on resistance to communist oppression. With a bit of understandable triumphalism devoid of hagiography, Wajda tracks Walesa’s career from shipyard worker to Nobel Prize winner, crafting an old-fashioned (in the best sense), at times stirring biopic that masterfully integrates an exceptional range of contempo footage…

To continue reading Weissberg’s review, go here. As for ‘Man of Marble’ and ‘Man of Iron’, which I saw in 1978 and 1981 respectively, these were remarkable films for their time but, technically and otherwise, ‘Man of Hope’ is superior (at least insofar as I remember the two early films, as I only saw them once). Wajda does a good job in depicting the wretchedness of Communist rule—particularly in the early scenes of the 1970 protests in Gdansk and Gdynia—and the economic clochardisation it brought about, but also the doubts that apparatchiks of the system had by the 1980s of their own legitimacy. And while Wałęsa is portrayed as a charismatic leader and a hero—which he was—Wajda does not, as Weissberg accurately asserts, portray him as a saint. He is a leader with undeniable qualities but is also cocky and full of himself—are there any charismatic leaders who are not?—and who could have descended into megalomania were it not for the stabilizing presence of his loving but strong-willed wife, Danuta (that’s how Wajda depicts it at least).

À propos, I was discussing the film earlier today with a colleague, who said that he was hesitant to see it after having read a mixed review in Libération, whose critic, according to my colleague, criticized the film for being a hagiography (I have not yet bothered to look for Libé’s review). My response to this was that many on the Western European and North American left—including those who were not at all “Stalinists” or enamored of the Soviet model—were—and remain—uncomfortable with Wałęsa (and even with Solidarność itself). They intellectually understood the situation and sympathized with the workers in Gdansk but had a hard time wrapping their heads around the spectacle of a genuinely working class movement and independent trade union contesting a self-proclaimed socialist order, and with the movement’s leaders and members being, to a man and woman, devout Catholics and who worshiped the Pope (the adulation of Wałęsa and all those around him—and including lower-level regime agents themselves—for Jean Paul II is well depicted in the film). This was tough for many Western gauchistes to swallow—as was Wałęsa et al’s embrace of American support (e.g. one sees at the end of the film the hero’s welcome Wałęsa received in the US Congress in 1989, and with Dan Quayle seated in back of him while he gave his speech). Having frequented a gauchiste milieu in those years and knowing its discourse and world-view comme ma poche, I know of what I speak.

So if one has the chance to see the pic (which has yet to open in the US), do so, as I give it the green light. The review in The Guardian is here and article in the NYT is here (the film was a big hit in Poland). My anecdote of shaking hands with Wałęsa and hearing him speak is here. Trailer is here.

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Saw this the other day (titre en France: Night Call). It’s a slick film, engrossing, and with an extraordinary performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s in practically every frame. It will be a scandal if he is not nominated for the best actor Academy Award. In brief, the film, directed by Dan Gilroy, is set in L.A.—and mainly at night—, with the Gyllenhaal character, named Lou Bloom, a lowlife petty thieving sociopath with little formal education and no apparent friends or family—but is a smooth talker and upwardly mobile—, serendipitously deciding to become a nightcrawler: a freelancing cameraman who cruises the thoroughfares and freeways of L.A. at night riveted to police radio, so as to quickly arrive on the scene of a car accident, shooting, fire, or some other fait divers with blood and hopefully involving people killed, to film the gory scene up close and then quickly sell it to local TV stations for their 6 AM news reports of the crime and mayhem in the city the previous night. Drôle de métier. Lou, who spends his off hours on the Internet and takes online business courses, or so he says, has completely mastered the lingo of the American business world (not being a business person myself, I’ll leave it up to those who are to judge the authenticity of his jargon; it certainly sounds so to me). Lou is sans foi ni loi, i.e. without scruples, whose only ambition is to make money and get ahead. A 21st century Horatio Alger character, si vous voulez. Reviews, which are very good in both the US and (especially) France, opine that the pic is a critique of the us et coutumes of the US broadcast media and its frenetic quest for ratings. But in my view, it is a critique more generally of the capitalist system of our era. The final scene—spoiler alert!—, where we see the amoral, lawbreaking capitalist (Lou) prevailing over the representative of the state and rule of law (the police detective), symbolizes to a tee the ethos of our times. This may not have been the intended message of the director but it was my take on the film. The acting, in addition to Gyllenhaal’s stellar performance, is good all around, notably Riz Ahmed and Rene Russo. So: highly recommended. Trailer is here.

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Rage in Jerusalem

Shufat, East Jerusalem, July 3 2014 (Photo: Sliman Khader/Flash 90)

Shufat, East Jerusalem, July 3 2014 (Photo: Sliman Khader/Flash 90)

[update below] [2nd update below]

This is the title of a must-read article by Nathan Thrall—the International Crisis Group’s resident Jerusalem analyst—in the latest issue of the London Review of Books, in which he reports on the deteriorating situation in that city and the increasing rage of its Palestinian population. No money quotes, as the piece is not long (3,000 words), so one may go here and read the whole thing.

Just three comments. First, I have been among those who reject applying the apartheid label to Israel (and certainly of Israel inside the Green Line; the issue is more complex in the occupied Palestinian territories but I will still argue that the label doesn’t apply there—at least not yet). But when it comes to Jerusalem—East and West—, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the city is indeed subject to a de facto apartheid regime, if not de jure as well. Now defenders of the Israeli position will object that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem may become Israeli citizens should they so desire—the overwhelming majority having refused the offer—and thereby enjoy theoretical equal rights with Jews. But Thrall mentions some of the hurdles East Jerusalem Palestinians face when applying for Israeli citizenship, among them a knowledge of Hebrew—which does not apply to Jewish immigrants, who receive citizenship upon arrival and regardless of language capacity—and the obligation to renounce Jordanian nationality or any other they may hold. This is new to me. If it is indeed the case—and I don’t imagine that Thrall is mistaken on the question—, this constitutes brazen discrimination against Palestinians, as there is no obligation whatever for Israeli Jews—government ministers excepted—to renounce other citizenships, at the moment of naturalization or any other in the course of their lives (and I will wager that Israel has a higher percentage of citizens who are dual—or triple or quadruple—nationals than any other country in the world).

Second, on the Israeli response to the rage in East Jerusalem—of draconian police and army repression, mass arrests and prosecutions of minors, sealing off Arab neighborhoods with concrete blocks, demolishing the homes of the families of terrorists (or anyone the Israelis deem as such; a.k.a. collective punishment), randomly spraying “skunk water” in the eastern part of the city, restricting Muslim access to the Haram al-Sharif, colonizing densely populated Arab quarters with extremist settlers, proposing new “anti-terrorism” laws that will further abuse Palestinians under Israeli rule (including Palestinian citizens of Israel, PCIs), etc, etc—, WTF are Netanyahu & Co.—indeed the entire Israeli right—thinking? How do they imagine this is going to play out? What’s the end game? We’re not talking about Gaza, Jenin, or some place around which the Israelis can build a wall and try to forget about. This is their “eternal” unified capital city, but where close to 40% of the population does not enjoy the rights of citizenship and is hostile to them. And the Palestinians of Jerusalem are devoid of political leadership, with not a single person who can speak in the name of even some of them or serve as an interlocutor with the Israelis. Moreover—and I find this incredible—, the Israelis don’t want Palestinian interlocutors in Jerusalem. They don’t want to negotiate or bargain with the Palestinian residents of the city, to collectively dialogue with or treat them as anything other than barely tolerated interlopers in a city that they, the Israelis, consider to be theirs and theirs only. And the Israelis have absolutely nothing to propose to the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem (except to subtly—or not so subtly—encourage them to emigrate, or just go away). The people who run the state of Israel have become unhinged, point barre (the new state president, Reuven Rivlin, being a notable exception). Again, WTF do they expect to happen? Indian-style communal riots, with rampaging mobs in both communities chauffé à blanc murdering dozens, if not hundreds? And if this comes to pass—an eventuality that one must not exclude—, what then? If anyone who identifies with the Israeli right can give a response to this—to what appears to objective observers to be an irrational fuite en avant on the part of Netanyahu & Co.—, I’m all ears.

Third—and repeating an assertion I made in a post two years ago—, Israel, in view of the manner in which it has treated the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem over the past 47 years, has no moral right to decree itself as the eternal sovereign power over the parts of the city it occupied in 1967. The legal (non-)right was settled by UNSCR 478 in 1980. But the moral (non-)right is equally pertinent. Israel has no right to rule Sheikh Jarrah, the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, Silwan, Shufat, the Mount of Olives or any other such neighborhood it conquered in ’67.

And then there’s the “Jewish nation-state law,” which, if it passes in one of its forms—and which seems likely—will further complicate matters with PCIs, plus diaspora Jews. Again, WTF are these people thinking?

UPDATE: Le Monde correspondent Benjamin Barthe, who has been reporting from Israel/Palestine for many years, has a spot on analysis in the issue dated November 25th on the volcanic situation in East Jerusalem, “A Jérusalem-Est, un mélange hautement inflammable.” The full text of the article is in the comments thread.

2nd UPDATE: The Guardian has an exclusive report (March 20th 2015) on a leaked EU report that says “Jerusalem [is] at [a] boiling point of polarisation and violence,” with the “city more divided than at any time since 1967 and [that] calls for consideration of tougher sanctions over settlement building.”

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obama immigration address november 20 2014

I’ve been reading about the speech today and just watched it on YouTube. This is President Obama’s best action of his second term. It was such an obvious thing to do, particularly as he has the authority to issue an executive order on the question. One only regrets that he waited until after the midterms to do it. On the politics of the decision—to regularize the status of undocumented immigrants with children who have been living and working in the US for at least five years—, I couldn’t care less about it, of whether it will help the Democrats or hurt them, cause problems for the Republicans, or whatever. The partisan political calculations do not interest me. And public opinion polls interest me even less. If large numbers of individuals oppose legalizing undocumented immigrants, that’s their personal opinion. What interests me is that it was the right thing to do. It is quite simply unconscionable—indeed immoral—for a state to seek to deport persons who have been living and working within its borders for many years—invariably in precarious, poorly paid jobs and with no health insurance or other benefits—, and in a state of permanent insecurity and fear for the future. And particularly if they have children, who have grown up in the country and are often citizens and native speakers of the language, but who likewise lack legal status and what this means for their lives—and who could see their parents suddenly deported, leaving them stranded. If a state is unable and/or lacks the will to deport undocumented foreigners—who have been working, paying taxes, and not been involved in criminal activity—within a relatively short period of time—up to, say, five years—, then that state has a moral obligation to allow them to stay. Period. The only thing I regret with Obama’s new policy is that it does not also include longtime undocumented immigrants without children.

As for those who are critical of Obama’s announced measure, they have no good arguments. The notion that the immigrants in question have unfairly jumped to the head of a metaphorical line—which is how it’s put—is silly and just plain ignorant, as if an actual line exists in which all potential immigrants out there take a number and patiently wait their turn. International migration does not work this way, nor does US immigration policy (or the immigration policy of any country). As for the immigrants lowering wages and taking jobs from nationals, I came across this reaction to Obama’s speech by the anti-immigration, pro-trade protectionist publicist Alan Tonelson—who’s a sort of American Nicolas Dupont-Aignan-style souverainiste—on a social media comments thread

Hooray! Working and middle class Americans will face much more low-wage competition! The Party of the Common Man serves the plutocrats’ agenda once again!

This is ignorant demagoguery, as cross-border migrants in their great majority do not compete with nationals for the same jobs. They do not operate in the same labor markets. Immigrants invariably invest sectors, or niches, of the economy that are low paying, necessitate a high degree of flexibility, and are perceived as low status in the immigrant-receiving country, having thus been deserted by nationals. And once this situation pertains, it cannot be reversed by administrative fiat. It is beyond the capacity of governments or state functionaries to administer labor markets in a complex capitalist economy. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the literature on international migration knows this. As for immigrants lowering overall wage levels of nationals, this has not been conclusively demonstrated by economists (e.g. see this NBER paper that Paul Krugman linked to today). In any case, if undocumented immigrants are being exploited by employers, paid below the minimum or normally going wage, and are bringing about localized downward pressure on the wages of nationals, then the solution is obvious: legalize them! Which is precisely what President Obama has announced he will do. Should President Hollande be so inspired…

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As my previous post was on Norway, I should mention this German-Norwegian co-produced film, directed by Georg Maas, I saw last spring (French title: D’une vie à l’autre; in German: Zwei Leben) and that is mainly set in Norway (and is in Norwegian and German, with some English). Here’s the description from the review in Film Journal International

The film ingeniously blends two extraordinary and related chapters of 20th-century German history. One chapter is the Nazi’s Lebensborn program that paired SS officers and Aryan women (also from occupied countries later in the war), tasked to produce the “racially pure” babies for the Fatherland the Nazis envisioned. The second, more recent chapter concerns the East German (GDR) Stasi (State Security) exploitation of the then-grown children (the former illegitimate “Nazi brats”) and their records from the Lebensborn program that the Stasi used for their spying activities on both sides of the wall before it came down.

Two Lives, which uses frequent flashbacks to move its story across generations and countries, begins in 1990 when the Berlin Wall has just fallen and East Germany is no longer. Well, not quite, because Stasi archives have become available to the West and reveal new aspects of Communist history and spying. Among the scholars, government officials and legal noses combing the now-available files is reformist German-Norwegian lawyer Sven Solbach (Ken Duken).

In Norway on a now-peaceful home (even homey) front is Katrine (Juliane Köhler, star of Oscar-winner Nowhere in Africa and Downfall), also an issue of the Lebensborn program years before in Norway. But she was sent as a baby to Germany and raised in what was to become Communist East Germany where other “Nazi brats” ended up. But in 1990, Katrine, who has been reunited with her Norwegian mother Ase (Liv Ullmann), now enjoys a rich family life in Norway, where she lives in a quaint seaside town with her handsome and loving ship captain husband Bjarte (Sven Nordin), daughter Anne (Julia Bache-Wiig), and her mom. Ase, not exactly blameless, had, we are to believe, a relationship with a Nazi soldier in occupied Norway who fathered Katrine.

Katrine now has a successful graphic-design business and is in a lovely place (both geographically and spiritually) until Solbach comes into her life. A reformer at heart, he asks her and Ase to be witnesses in a case he champions against Norway in his effort to get reparations for war children like Katrine who were separated from their Norwegian mothers. Many of these children became stuck in what became East Germany, where travel to the West was forbidden.

But something’s rotten in the state of Norway and it’s not just the mysterious discovery of a woman’s body in the woods…

One may read the full review here (warning: it contains spoilers). It’s a good, engaging Cold War thriller—the pic was Germany’s submission for the 2014 best foreign film Oscar—and with solid acting—notably Juliane Köhler—, though I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ending. Mais c’est pas grave. I recommend it. Variety’s review is here, The Hollywood Reporter’s here, trailer is here.

In regard to the Cold War—and on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last weekend—, there is a new, not bad German film, ‘West’ (German title: Westen; in France: De l’autre côté du mur), directed by Christian Schwochow, that I saw last month at Paris’s annual Féstival du cinéma allemand (call me an oddball but I saw six films at this over six days, all of which will be posted on at some point). The pic is set in Berlin in 1978, about a mid 30ish woman named Nelly (actress Jördis Triebel, who won the best actress prize at the 2014 German Film Awards for her role in this) who manages to smuggle herself across the Berlin Wall with her ten-year-old son Alexis (Tristan Göbel). But instead of finding immediate freedom in the West she is sent to a transit center in West Berlin, where defectors from the East remain until receiving residence and other permits from the authorities—including the Allied Forces, who were the supreme political authority in the city—, and that involves an interrogation gauntlet that can last months. Far from being welcomed with open arms, defectors were viewed with suspicion, as being possible Stasi agents whose flight from the East was enabled. And in Nelly’s case, there was added suspicion in view of her having cohabited with a Soviet/Russian scientist posted in East Berlin, the father of her son and who, three years earlier, she was told had been killed in an automobile accident while on a visit to Moscow (but was he really?). The interrogations here are mainly carried out by the Americans (the CIA operative, in an interesting casting choice, is played by the multilingual Franco-Burkinabé actor Jacky Ido). The climate of suspicion and distrust pervaded the transit center—some of whose residents had been there for over a year—, where almost everyone was suspected by everyone else of being a Stasi agent. And the psychose began to affect Nelly as well, who wanted to get the hell out of the center but was finding it complicated. As the poster below reads (in French), ‘West’ evokes ‘The Lives of Others’ and ‘Barbara‘ but skillfully differentiates itself from them. The film was supposed to have opened in the US last week but seems not to have. THR’s review is here, trailer is here.

Westen - Französisch Plakat

Back to Scandinavia, I will briefly mention two Danish films seen in the past year. One was ‘Northwest’, directed by Michael Noer, which is a crime drama set in the mean streets of Copenhagen, or, more precisely, in its downscale multiethnic banlieue called Nordvest. It’s a well-done genre film of criminal gangs and the shit they do. One novelty in it—for a non-Dane comme moi at least—is seeing gang-bangers with names like Jamal and Ali trash-talking in colloquial Danish. So in the phantasms of Bat Ye’or & Co. (see previous post), these lowlife lumpens are the shock troops who will transform le vieux continent into Eurabia. GMAB. Reviews are here, here, and here, French reviews (mostly tops) are here. Trailer is here.

The other pic was ‘R’—just the letter—, co-directed by Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm (who directed the very good ‘A Hijacking‘ and co-wrote the screenplay of the equally very good ‘The Hunt’). It opened in the US in 2011 but, for some reason, took three years to make it here. It’s a prison drama—set in the baddest penitentiary in the state of Denmark—, bearing a strong resemblance to Jacques Audiard’s 2009 ‘Un prophète‘. This one, while not quite on the same level as the aforementioned French chef d’œuvre, may be seen, though, in view of its violence and relentless bleakness, may also not be seen, particularly if one is looking for something more uplifting and/or entertaining. US reviews (generally good) are here, French reviews (mostly good, which is why I went to see it) are here, trailer is here.



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A Norwegian Tragedy

Adam Shatz has a first-rate review essay—as one would expect from him—in the latest issue of the London Review of Books, on two books on Anders Behring Breivik: A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya, by Aage Borchgrevink—a well-known Norwegian writer and literary critic; his book was first published in Norwegian in 2012—, and Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia, by Oslo-based social anthropologist Sindre Bangstad.

Borchgrevink’s book, which Adam says is “superb,” recounts the troubled parcours of Anders Breivik and the massacre he committed on July 22, 2011 (which I had a post on at the time, ironically speculating on the possible Tea Party GOP reaction to the bloodbath). Breivik, as it happens, had friends in Oslo’s Muslim immigrant community—the largest component of which is Pakistani—as an adolescent but gradually developed a virulent hatred of them, which Borchgrevink examines in detail. Before his trial Breivik was described as a paranoid schizophrenic but he rejected the notion and psychiatric examinations found no sign of it. He did hail from a dysfunctional family, however, and steeped himself in, as Adam puts it, the “virtual netherworld of ‘Eurabia’ literature,” which, intellectually speaking, set him on his murderous path.

I’ve looked at the “Eurabia” literature, which posits that Muslims/Arabs are taking over Europe—demographically and as part of a plot hatched by France and the EU—and that Islam will, at some point in the course of this century, become the majority religion on the continent and impose “dhimmi” status on non-Muslims. It’s conspiratorial junk. Preposterous trash. Bon pour la poubelle. The author most associated with this wacky idea is the British/Egyptian Jew Gisèle Littman (better known by her nom de plume Bat Ye’or), to which one may add the nutters and cranks Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, right-wing Danish intellectual Lars Hedegaard, gay American Oslo denizen Bruce Bawer, and Canadian polemicist Mark Steyn, entre autres. None of these illuminés, it may be said, possess the credentials—scholarly or otherwise—to be writing articles and books on the subject. But write on it they do, and their screeds have an audience in Norway, as Sindre Bangstad details in his book on Breivik and Islamophobia. Now I happen not to like the “Islamophobia” neologism, which lacks a precise definition and tends to conflate criticism of Islam as a religion—which, in a liberal, secular democracy, is an entirely legitimate exercise of free speech—, denunciation of radical Islamism—also entirely legitimate (and which large numbers of Muslims engage in themselves)—, and the stigmatizing of Muslims as individuals, whether or not they practice the religion—which is bigotry pure and simple. But whatever label one wants to attach to it, fear and loathing of Islam and Muslims pervades a portion of the Norwegian public, as it does elsewhere in Europe and North America. So while Anders Breivik was an outlier in his act of terrorism, he was not one in his beliefs.

One is reminded in reading Adam’s essay that Breivik received the maximum sentence in Norway for his crime—of murdering 77 people—, which is 21 years imprisonment. Now this sentence can be extended indefinitely—and presumably it will be—but still, it’s crazy that in Norway cold-blooded murderers—not to mention mass murdering terrorists—can theoretically be released from prison while in the prime of their adult lives.

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Why the Republicans won

www.usnews.com photo Mark Wilson Getty Images

That’s the title of a good analysis by Elizabeth Drew posted yesterday on the NYR blog. Apart from following the polls I paid minimal attention to the midterm campaign but have read numerous analyses and commentaries since last Wednesday morning. I have some things to say about the outcome—of the Democrats’ debacle, the GOP victory, and what it all means (nothing good)—but haven’t had the time of late—nor, admittedly, a burning desire—to write it all out. I’ll get around to it at some point. In the meantime, one may take a look at my Twitter feed, notably the pieces—sober and not too optimistic for the future—by Jonathan Chait and Michael Tomasky, whose analyses I check out first when it comes to American politics.

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Abdelwahab Meddeb R.I.P.


He died today, following a “terrible illness” so it was reported. Triste nouvelle. I didn’t know him personally and only saw him speak once—at a small conference here in Paris three years ago—, which was enough for me to decide that he was one of the smartest and, from my standpoint, most politically sympathetic Arab intellectuals I had encountered in a very long time. As I wrote after the event

The conference speakers…were very good but there was one in particular who stood out: Abdelwahab Meddeb. First time I’d ever seen him in person. Listening to him talk, it was one of those times when I say to myself “this person is quite simply brilliant.” His erudition on Islamic thought, past and present, plus his analyses and commentary of what’s happening today in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region, are simply on another level.

I appreciated his public declarations over the past few years, e.g. the one he initiated during the early months of Tunisia’s post-Ben Ali political transition, “Pour la responsabilité civile” (here, scroll down), and his call to create a “global network of liberal Muslims.” In last month’s Tunisian election he announced that he would be voting for Nidaa Tounes—a perfectly understandable choice IMO—and explained why here (and he took pains to respond to his numerous, mainly gauchiste detractors). And then there was his 2011 televised debate with that overrated bloviator Tariq Ramadan (no need to say whose side I took in that one).

Meddeb published numerous books, a few that were translated into English, including The Malady of Islam and Islam and the Challenge of Civilization, plus the edited volume (with Benjamin Stora) A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day. In his memory I think I will finally read at least the first one.

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A Touch of Sin

a touch of sin

In my last post, on the documentary ‘Fidaï’—the subject of which is a single FLN fighter during Algerian war of independence—, I mentioned the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, who was the film’s executive producer. As it happens, the last film Jia directed was the excellent ‘A Touch of Sin’, which I saw almost a year ago, made my Top 10 best of list of 2013, and that I totally forgot to post on. So now I am, a year later. Mieux tard que jamais. In brief, the film consists of four stories—all based on actual fait divers over the past several years that Jia learned about via social media—of horrendous murder sprees committed in different parts of China, focusing on the murderers (and murderesses)—who appear to be ordinary people—and what caused them to snap and commit their crimes. In the film Jia weaves the fait divers together and casts them in the wuxia operatic tradition, of taking an actual event and fictionalizing it, rendering the actors as chivalric individuals crushed by oppressive, unjust power and reacting with violence that is both extreme and futile. There are no heroes or good guys here (i.e. this is not Hollywood). It is one of the most powerful films I’ve seen on contemporary China, of the anomie and violence of social relations there, and the utter absence of justice or any kind of ethical or moral code guiding the behavior of those in power. US reviews were good, French reviews excellent. Trailer is here. Very highly recommended.

On other films from China seen over the past year-and-a-half or so:

‘Mystery’, by director Lou Ye, who had been banned from making movies over the previous five years for transgressing taboos on Tiananmen Square 1989. This is a film noir-ish thriller set in Wuhan, of an upper middle class couple riven by infidelity and jealousy, and which results in murder—the story inspired, as with the above discussed film, by fait divers the director learned about via the Internet. Another tale of the violence, corruption, and amorality of a contemporary China sans foi ni loi. This US review was good but this one and this were mixed. I lean toward the mixed. French reviews were good enough on the whole. Trailer w/English s/t is here, w/French s/t here.


‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’, by Diao Yinan. As this was the happy winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale this past February, I was clearly not going to miss it, and particularly in view of its top reviews in France. The film is, to quote one critic

a mystery story presented almost exclusively from the point of view of an ex-cop [named Ziang Zili; actor Liao Fan], and dealing with a series of grisly murders, with the victims’ bodies chopped to pieces and spread over a large territory, hundreds of miles apart.

Lovely. It’s the noir-est of film noirs, and yet one more cinematic portrayal of the dark underside of contemporary China. As Variety’s reviewer, who noted a “certain opacity” in the film, observed

Though…a less overtly political film than Jia Zhangke’s recent “A Touch of Sin,” “Black Coal, Thin Ice” does proffer a similarly dark and blood-soaked portrait of a China in which human lives are as expendable as natural resources and everyone is standing on dangerous ground. All that’s missing is for Diao to have someone tell our forlorn hero, “Forget it Zhang, it’s China.”

To be honest, I couldn’t get in to this film. I lost the thread of the story part way through, either on account of its above mentioned opacity and/or because I nodded off more than once (which happens) and possibly missed crucial information. In short, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. And my overall sentiments were manifestly not in the minority, as Allociné spectateurs were considerably less enthusiastic about the pic than were the critics. The Hollywood Reporter’s “bottom line” anticipated this reaction from the unwashed cinema-going masses, calling the film

A fascinating exercise in style that will entrance the critics and leave audiences scratching their heads.

I was seriously scratching my head at the end (and particularly with the way it ends). Further down, THR’s reviewer opined that despite the film’s undeniable qualities

as a detective story it verges on the incomprehensible, which will be a serious drawback to distribution, [though s]ophisticated audiences will enjoy its strange atmosphere as they try to puzzle out plot and characters.

I guess that means I’m not part of the sophisticated set, as I didn’t try to puzzle out a thing after leaving the salle. Perhaps it all goes to show that I’m finally just a regular movie consumer and with regular middlebrow tastes—as one Uber-highbrow cinesnob friend has been sniffing at me of late—, meaning that the incomprehensible will leave me uncomprehending. Oh well. Trailer w/French s/t is here, w/English s/t here.

black coal thin ice

‘Three Sisters’, by Wang Bing. A languidly paced 2½-hour documentary entirely set in a mountain top village in the fin fond of Yunnan province… Not exactly your Saturday night date film. I hesitated on seeing it, despite the top French reviews and having been impressed with the director’s previous film, The Ditch. But when it came to my local cinéma municipal, which is a mere ten minute walk from chez moi, I had little choice. But I’m glad I went, as it’s worth seeing. I’ll let NYT critic Jeannette Catsoulis describe it

Not for the faint of heart or weak of bladder, Wang Bing’s two-and-a-half-hour “Three Sisters” documents extreme poverty in rural China with the compassionate eye and inexhaustible patience of a director whose curiosity about his country’s unfortunates never seems to wane.

Filming for six months in a remote hillside village in 2010, Mr. Wang follows the spirit-crushing lives of a short-tempered peasant and his three little daughters. Their mother ran off long ago, and now Yingying, 10; 6-year-old Zhenzhen; and Fenfen, 4 — all so malnourished that they look years younger — spend their days doing chores and herding sheep. But when their father leaves for a job in the city, taking the two youngest girls with him, Yingying is left alone. A grandfather and an aunt live close by, but the girl’s isolation and sadness suggest a poignant hopelessness, as though she has reached the age at which she has begun to notice a future. And it’s not pretty.

Though less overtly political than Mr. Wang’s nine-hour masterpiece from 2003, “Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks” (which chronicled China’s painful transition from a state-run economy to a free market), “Three Sisters” makes its point in lice-infested hovels and with the bleeding feet of endlessly coughing children. A communal meal at a great-uncle’s house reveals village elders sniffing at the government’s proposed “rural revival,” knowing that it really means extra land fees for already strapped peasants. Clearly, the country’s economic boom is not trickling down, leaving them frozen in a way of life as ancient as the ground beneath their feet.

Not pretty, contemporary China. The film holds one’s attention, at least it did mine and despite the length and languidness, though it could have been shortened. Variety’s Jay Weissberg agreed, regretting that the film’s running time will likely limit its exposure beyond “Sinophile film nerds and scattered human-rights fests.” THR’s review is here. Trailer is here.


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À l’occasion du 60ème anniversaire du déclenchement de la Guerre d’Algérie par le Front de libération nationale, voici un peu de publicité pour ce bon documentaire—co-produit, il convient de le dire, par le grand réalisateur chinois Jia Zhang-ke—qui est sorti à Paris cette semaine—et que je me suis précipité de voir—sur la mémoire de la guerre à travers un fidaï (combattant) du FLN. La critique de cinéma Sandrine Marques a eu un bon compte rendu du film dans Le Monde

Un « fidaï », en arabe, est un soldat, soumis à un code de l’honneur strict et prêt à sacrifier sa vie pour une cause, sans pour autant aspirer à devenir martyr. Le terme se rapporte, dans le remarquable film de Damien Ounouri, à son grand-oncle Mohammed El Hadi Benadouda qui, pendant la révolution algérienne, a secrètement intégré un groupe armé du Front de libération nationale (FLN) en France. Là, on lui confie une arme et l’ordre d’assassiner un traître. El Hadi s’exécute. Il connaîtra le maquis, les règlements de compte, la clandestinité. Aujourd’hui âgé de 70 ans, il rompt enfin le silence autour de cette période obscure de sa vie.

Ses souvenirs, d’abord imprécis, sont réactivés à la faveur de reconstitutions étonnantes, organisées à la demande du réalisateur qui avait auparavant réalisé un portrait du cinéaste chinois Jia Zhang-ke. A cette occasion, Damien Ounouri se glisse dans la peau de la victime que El Hadi a grièvement blessée et qui devait décéder quelques heures tard, lors de son transport à l’hôpital. Il répète avec précision les gestes par lesquels, cinquante plus tôt, il a ôté la vie à un homme, simplement parce qu’on lui avait ordonné de le faire et que la cause n’appelait pas d’autre considération.

un double geste de transmission

La chorégraphie meurtrière contraste avec les moments de vie au présent de la famille, radieux, complices et bigarrés. Femmes, petits-enfants, cousins ignoraient tout ou presque des activités passées de l’aïeul. En exhumant son histoire des limbes où il l’avait enfouie, c’est celle de la guerre d’Algérie qui a refait surface. Les jeunes générations la méconnaissent, constate El Hadi.

Fidaï s’organise conséquemment autour d’un double geste de transmission. C’est le legs mémoriel d’un homme à sa famille qui se superpose intimement à l’histoire politique d’un pays. Damien Ounouri est dépositaire de cette mémoire. Il en explore les béances, questionnant par là-même ses origines et sa propre appartenance à l’Histoire. Elle s’incarne par le truchement des images d’archives. Elles achèvent de documenter un film puissant, qui s’offre comme un ouvroir sur le temps présent.

un documentaire qui compte

Avec lui, c’est le Printemps arabe qui résonne de toutes ses forces, en même temps que notre propre engagement. Celui du réalisateur est très physique. Ses images sont arrimées aux corps qu’il met en scène (y compris le sien) et leur élaboration produit progressivement des effets inattendus. Comme dans la séquence où El Hadi est allongé sur son lit, en proie à un malaise. Les Djinns, dit-il, sont venus à sa rencontre sur le chemin qu’il a emprunté à rebours pour faire renaître ses souvenirs. Doit-on voir, dans ce soudain effondrement, la manifestation tardive d’une culpabilité ?

Le vertige qui s’empare de ce vaillant septuagénaire est aussi celui de l’Histoire qui nous happe et nous rattrape jusque dans les arcanes les plus souterraines de notre existence. Ce courant caché et tendu comme le secret, est ce que parvient à saisir, avec beaucoup de grâce, d’intelligence et d’engagement, Damien Ounouri dans un documentaire qui compte.

Voir également la critique de Jean-Michel Frodon, anciennement du Monde, dans Slate.fr, celle du HuffPost Algérie, l’entretien avec Damien Ounouri dans Algérie-Focus, et les critiques en anglais dans Variety (très bon), IndieWire, et Middle East Monitor. La bande annonce est ici.

Pour le moment le film ne se joue que dans une salle parisienne mais on suppose qu’il sortira ailleurs en France dans les semaines à venir.

J’ai vu un autre documentaire en salle récemment, sur un moment de la lutte nationale algérienne, “Les Balles du 14 juillet 1953,” réalisé par Daniel Kupferstein, qui a fait des documentaires sur le 17 octobre 1961 et le 8 février 1962. Voici le synopsis

Le 14 juillet 1953, un drame terrible s’est déroulé en plein Paris. Au moment de la dislocation d’une manifestation en l’honneur de la Révolution Française, la police parisienne a chargé un cortège de manifestants algériens. Sept personnes (6 algériens et un français) ont été tuées et une centaine de manifestants ont été blessés ont plus de quarante par balles. Un vrai carnage.

Cette histoire est quasiment inconnue. Pratiquement personne n’est au courant de son existence. Comme si une page d’histoire avait été déchirée et mise à la poubelle. En France comme en Algérie.

Ce film, est l’histoire d’une longue enquête contre l’amnésie.

Enquête au jour le jour, pour retrouver des témoins, pour faire parler les historiens, pour reprendre les informations dans les journaux de l’époque, dans les archives et autres centres de documentation afin de reconstituer au mieux le déroulement de ce drame mais aussi pour comprendre comment ce mensonge d’Etat a si bien fonctionné.

Avant que les derniers témoins ne disparaissent, il est temps que l’histoire de ce massacre sorte de l’oubli.

C’est dommage que le documentaire ait été fait après que la majorité des acteurs de l’événement sont décédés mais mieux tard que jamais. Voici un compte-rendu dans le Bondy Blog et un retour sur la manifestation du 14 juillet 1953 par un archiviste du journal L’Humanité. On peut voir un extrait de 6 minutes du film ici.

les balles du 14 juillet 1953

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