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Archive for December, 2014

Hippocrate-Affiche

In putting together my ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2014’ list, I was struck by how many French films were on it. I saw a lot of French films this year, more than in any other year of my life (first-run films in the cinema at least). Now I won’t say that all were worth seeing—there was not a chef d’œuvre among them—but enough were good or at least good enough. All the films were either well-reviewed and/or by directors I follow—or were such huge box office hits, veritable phénomènes de société—that I felt compelled to check them out.

The best of the lot, IMO, is ‘Hippocrate’ (in English: Hippocrates), by Thomas Lilti, which opened in September to top reviews. I was initially not too interested in seeing it but word-of-mouth and the general buzz convinced me to do so. And I’m glad I did. As the ‘bottom line’ of Hollywood Reporter critic Jordan Mintzer’s review trenchantly puts it, the film is “[a] scathing yet touching social dramedy that depicts the sketchy underside of a French public hospital.” Mintzer’s review thus begins

The doctor is in, but he’s neither motivated, competent nor altogether sober. That’s at least the diagnosis in Hippocrates (Hippocrate), a darkly comic, socially potent portrait of a Paris hospital as seen through the eyes of a young intern making his very first rounds.

Starring — or rather slouching — Vincent Lacoste…opposite the terrific Reda Kateb (“Zero Dark Thirty”), this gritty workplace dramedy recalls French films like The Class and Polisse, tracking the daily grind of disgruntled state employees through a mix of humor, realism and two-fisted compassion. (…)

Named after the ancient Greek physician whose eponymous oath has become the code by which doctors are supposed to live by, Hippocrates reveals a reality far different from their promise to work for the “good of patients” and “never do harm to anyone.” Or, as one baggy-eyed intern states at one point, a cigarette dangling from his mouth: “Medicine is not a career. It’s a curse.”

That’s not exactly how it first appears to med student, Benjamin (Lacoste), who begins a six-month internship in the ward run by his father, [Professor] Barois (Jacques Gamblin). Slightly shaky when it comes to actual procedures, but already quite sure of himself, Benjamin learns the ropes the hard way, caring for elderly patients on their last legs while partying hearty with the other interns, whose boisterous meals and fetes resemble an episode of Doogie Howser M.D. crossed with scenes from Animal House. (…)

I haven’t seen such a dramatization of life inside a large urban hospital since the TV series ‘E.R.’. The film is, no doubt, the most dead-on accurate that has ever been made of hospitals in France. The fact that director Lilti is also an M.D., and has practiced at one of the hospitals seen in the film, certainly helped on this score. The French health care system may be second-to-none—on this, there is no dispute—but it is afflicted with serious problems—and which are laid bare in the film—among them the deplorable conditions of work of the interns, their low pay, the steep hierarchies in the medical profession, and the crumbling physical stock of the older establishments. The film was shot at different hospitals in Paris, including Cochin and Saint-Antoine, which were founded in the 18th century (I’ve been inside both pour l’info, having had in-laws hospitalized at the latter and a brother-in-law doctor at the former, who informed/assured me recently that it has undergone major physical renovations). I could hardly believe the almost slum-like living quarters of the interns and their wild parties—during which they decompress big time—but have been reliably informed that it really is this way.

On the acting—first-rate—Mintzer writes that

…it’s [Reda] Kateb — a rising star with three films in Cannes this year — who steals the show, portraying [an experienced Algerian physician] whose professionalism and humanity are constantly thwarted by the other staff members, especially the Gallic natives that don’t have to jump through the same hoops he does. The film ultimately reveals how Abdel [Kateb’s character] may be the only true hope for the Hippocratic spirit to be carried on in France, underlining how much foreigners contribute to a field that both welcomes and rejects them at the same time.

On the vital presence of foreign doctors in French hospitals—large numbers hailing from former colonies on the African continent—anyone who has been treated in a large hospital in this country can confirm this. And they’re treated shabbily, mainly via being overworked and scandalously underpaid (the pretext being that their foreign-earned diplomas are not equivalent to those from French medical schools). As for Reda Kateb (who is of Algerian and Italian/Czech immigrant stock), he is indeed a rising star in the French movie industry. He’s a great actor and very prolific these days. If a movie with him in the lead role gets even halfway decent reviews, I’ll see it. And if one has the chance to see ‘Hippocrate’, which will open in the US at some point, do so. Trailer (w/English s/t) is here.

Briefly, here are some of the other French films I’ve seen this year, in the order in which I recommend them (films that focus on immigration and ethnicity will be discussed in a later post):

Elle l’adore, by Jeanne Herry: As with ‘Hippocrate’ I was initially not going to see this one, as it looked a little too middlebrow and I hadn’t heard of the director—for whom it’s the debut film (she’s normally an actress and, pour l’info, is the daughter of Miou-Miou and Julien Leclerc)—but as the reviews were good and it was playing at my local cinema, I decided what the hell. I didn’t regret it. The story, in brief, concerns a mid 40ish ditzy divorcée Paris hairdresser named Muriel (Sandrine Kiberlain), whose main interest in life is a pop singer approaching middle age named Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte), of whom she’s been an obsessive fan for twenty years. One evening in the Lacroix household, in the course of a dispute between le chanteur vedette and his unhappy wife, the unthinkable happens—the wife is accidentally killed by a falling heavy object—Lacroix, assuming, not unreasonably, that the police will think he killed her (as it sure looks that way), panics and calls upon Muriel—whom he had never formally met, but whose existence (and address) he was aware of via her countless fan letters (which he’s archived) and front-row appearances at his concerts, to help him cover up the tragedy. Though having nothing explained to her—she’s initially clueless—she readily agrees to help her idol. And then all sorts of stuff happens. It’s a riveting movie, absolutely first-rate, and with great acting (including the two detectives, played by Pascal Demolon and Olivia Côte), and particularly the terrific Kiberlain. She won the last best actress César for her role in 9 mois ferme and deserves it again for this. Her performance in this has convinced me that she is presently one of France’s best actresses. (As I write this I’m wondering if I shouldn’t rank ‘Elle l’adore’ above ‘Hippocrate’; okay, it’s a close second). Hollywood press critics Jordan Mintzer and Lisa Nesselson, who saw the pic at Cannes, gave it the thumbs up. Trailer is here and (w/English s/t) here.

elle-ladore-affiche

La French, by Cédric Jimenez. English title: The Connection. Put the two together and you get “The/La French Connection.” Duh. The pic is a French version of the story depicted in William Friedkin’s 1971 classic, beginning here in 1975 and lasting six years, with investigating Marseille magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) single-mindedly setting out to dismantle the heroin trafficking network headed by Marseillais mob kingpin Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lelouche). That’s the pic. It’s a middlebrow grand public crime thriller/policier, the kind best accompanied by a big box of popcorn. It’s by the numbers, hardly original, and thoroughly entertaining. The decor of the period is impeccable, as is the acting; Dujardin—in his first totally non-comedy role (he hardly cracks a smile in the pic)—and Lellouche are good, as is Céline Sallette as magistrate Michel’s wife. One notes, entre autres, the portrayal of longtime Marseille deputy-mayor Gaston Deferre (actor Féodor Atkine)—France’s answer to Richard Daley père and Socialist party heavyweight (and, pour mémoire, the party’s failed presidential candidate in 1969)—making his implicit compromissions with the Corsican mafia—which had thoroughly infiltrated the state apparatus in the Marseille area—and consequently thwarting Michel’s investigation, but once named Minister of Interior following François Mitterrand’s 1981 election to the presidency, gave magistrate Michel carte blanche to smash that same mafia. Reviews in France are good and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. As for Hollywood press reviews, The Hollywood Reporter liked it, Variety thought it was okay, and Indiewire deemed it so-so. À vous de décider. Trailer is here.

La French

Les Combattants, by Thomas Cailley. (The stupid) English title: Love at First Fight. This directorial debut I normally wouldn’t have bothered seeing were it not for the top reviews, both critical and by Allociné spectateurs, plus the awards won at Cannes. Put simply, this is a boy-girl (early 20s) more-or-less love story set in the Landes (south of Bordeaux). The boy, Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), is just a regular middle class French guy but the girl, Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), is something else altogether: a brooding, humorless, physically strong-as-hell survivalist chick, who wants nothing more than to join the army, push herself to the physical limit, and kick ass (Haenel has exceptional athletic ability, so didn’t have to go through a crash body-building regimen for the film). She’s a piece of work. In one scene, she jumps into an ice cold swimming pool and then eats a raw fish, just to test her endurance. In America she’d want to be a Marine or Navy SEAL. She and Arnaud are total opposites in every respect, but as opposites tend to attract he develops a powerful one to her, and finally she to him. It’s a pretty good film, carried, above all, by Haenel’s performance. Haenel, who won the best supporting actress César this year for her role in Suzanne, is an up-and-coming actress in French cinema. On the pic, see, in particular, Jessica Kiang’s review in Indiewire, plus this one, this one, and this one. Trailer is here.

les combattants

Dans la cour, by Pierre Salvadori. English title: In the Courtyard. Last spring’s crowd-pleaser for discerning ciné-spectateurs, the pic is set in an older apartment building—mainly the courtyard—in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, with the focus an unlikely friendship forged between elderly propriétaire Mathilde (Catherine Deneuve) and the new gardien d’immeuble (superintendent), a 50ish shlump named Antoine (Gustave Kervern), previously a musician with a minor rock band who walked off that job and into this one via Pôle Emploi (unemployment office), is washed out and doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but is well-intentioned and an all-around good guy. So the story is about Mathilde, Antoine, and other offbeat residents of the building, funny stuff that happens, and with Mathilde and Antoine becoming slightly batty as the film moves along. It’s a light comedy, touching, and well-done overall. I didn’t find it particularly memorable, though one of my discerning ciné-spectateur readers loved it. Hollywood press critics who saw the pic at the Berlinale gave it the thumbs up (here, here, and here). Trailer is here.

Dans-la-Cour

Respire, by Mélanie Laurent. English title: Breathe. I went to see this for one reason only: that it was directed by Mélanie Laurent, whom I really like—as an actress (notably her role in Beginners)—and despite her 2011 directorial debut, Les Adoptés, not being too good. And also despite the fact that Mme Laurent has become an Anne Hathaway à la française: the actress that fellow compatriots—those who express their views on the Internet, at least—most love to hate (e.g. here, here, and here; N.B. the latter link is satirical). Apparently she’s seen as arrogant and pretentious, or something. Whatever. I don’t care. I still like her (and I happen to like Anne Hathaway too; as it happens, Anne and Mélanie are almost exactly the same age). As for the film in question—based on the eponymous best-selling 2001 novel by the then 17-year-old Anne-Sophie Brasme—it’s about the relationship between two 17-year-old girls in their last year of lycée in an unnamed town in the Midi—the pic was shot in Béziers and near Sète—named Charlène, a.k.a. Charlie (Joséphine Japy), and Sarah (Lou de Laâge). Charlie is serious and studious, Sarah—a newcomer in the school—is brash and with an attitude. Both are good-looking, bien évidemment, and have problematic family situations, but which, in Sarah’s case, only becomes clear later. They quickly become BFFs, totally inseparable, before the inevitable falling-out, when Sarah becomes Charlie’s worst enemy. The film recalls ‘La Vie d’Adèle’ (Blue Is the Warmest Color) minus the steamy scenes. In short, it’s about the passion-filled, turbulent relationship between two teenage girls. While watching it I was thinking to myself “Why am I sitting through this? What am I doing here? This is a movie for girls my daughter’s age, not me.” It’s not that I didn’t think it was a good film (though I didn’t like the ending); I just deemed it something I didn’t need to see. But afterward I checked out the reviews of US critics who saw it at Cannes, all of whom gave it the thumbs up and with enthusiasm (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here). Well, how about that. As far as the Hollywood press is concerned, the pic has earned Mélanie Laurent her chops as a director. And the youthful actresses Japy and de Laâge are ones to watch. So it may be recommended to females in the, say, 12 to 29 age cohort, plus their parents. As for those outside these cohorts, c’est à chacun(e) de décider. Trailer is here.

RESPIRE-AFFICHE

La Prochaine fois je viserai le cœur, by Cédric Anger. English title: Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart. I don’t know why I went to see this movie. In fact, I do know: It was playing at my neighborhood theater, received mostly good reviews, and had Guillaume Canet in the lead role. And then there was the morbid curiosity in seeing a film based on a true story of a psychotic serial killer, here the “tueur fou de l’Oise” (the mad killer of the Oise), Alain Lamare, who murdered several women in the department of the Oise, due north of Paris, in 1978 and ’79, sowing terror up that way until his arrest. Lamare had a predilection for murdering women in their late teens-early 20s (with firearms or his speeding car; no sexual assault). Named Franck in the film, Lamare was a gendarme, i.e. a cop, and participant in the hunt for the serial killer, i.e. himself, which prolonged the investigation somewhat. But he was finally nabbed and—to the outraged disbelief of the public—judged not responsible for his acts by reason of insanity, whereupon he was placed in a psychiatric institution (and where he logically remains to this day). Canet, who’s in almost every frame, is perfectly cast. He looks like a serial killer, or at least someone you would not want to be alone with in a car. But though Canet was first-rate and the film well-done, I did not enjoy sitting through it. Watching young women get killed by a psychopath, and seeing the terror on their faces as it’s happening, is just not my idea of a good time (and it’s not only because I have a daughter the age of the victims). After the movie was over I walked across the street from the theater to a restaurant, where I met my wife and a group of people for dinner, and announced to all that this was not a film that they needed to see. THR’s review is here, trailer is here.

la prochaine fois je viserai le coeur

Une nouvelle amie, by François Ozon. English title: The New Girlfriend. I went to see this for one reason and one reason only: the director, who is one of France’s best. Ozon’s recent films have been tops, notably Dans la maison (In the House)—which was the nº1 French film of 2012, IMO—and Potiche (Trophy Wife), one of the two top French films of 2010. I read nothing about this one beforehand (with rare exceptions, I don’t read reviews of films before seeing them). I just went, period. In most respects it was a good film: technically, the scenario, and, above all, the acting. Romain Duris is very good, comme d’hab’, as is Anaïs Demoustier. I’m not going to say a thing about the actual story—for that, one can read the reviews—except that I found it of little interest. Cross-dressing and people who are confused about their gender identity—or want to physically change it—do not interest me. While I could appreciate the film on its merits as a film, it left me indifferent. I didn’t care about it and gave it no thought after leaving the theater. In short, it was an unsatisfying 1¾ hours of my time spent. But that’s me and my tastes. Others may have different sensibilities. Hollywood press critics who saw the pic at the TIFF gave it the thumbs up (here, here, and here), though with at least one exception (here). Trailer is here.

One little detail about the film. While it is, of course, set in France, the houses and residential neighborhoods in the film are clearly not in France. They are obviously North American. And sure enough, as one learns from the credits (which I stuck around to read), those scenes were shot in Canada. Ozon did the same thing in ‘Dans la maison’. Curious. I wonder why he chose to do this.

une nouvelle amie

Arrête ou je continue, by Sophie Fillières. English title: If You Don’t, I Will. Once again, I went to see this for one sole reason: the top billing of Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric. Des valeurs sûres. And it’s thanks to these two great actors that this trivial, utterly forgettable film about a middle-aged couple going though a middle-aged marital crisis is halfway worth watching. If you want to see it, then by all means do so. But if you don’t really want to, then absolutely don’t. French reviews were good on the whole but Allociné spectateurs—the vox populi—were less enthusiastic. Hollywood press reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.

arrete ou je continue

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Best (and worst) movies of 2014

Now an annual late-December AWAV tradition, here’s my list of the best and worst movies of the year (for last year’s list, see here). The movies here opened commercially this year in France or in the US. All have posts on this blog or eventually will. N.B. Several well-reviewed US movies of the past two or three months—and that figure on the “best of” lists of US critics—are opening in France after the new year, so I have yet to see them. BTW, if I were to designate the nº1 movie of the year, it would be the very last one on the Top 10 list.

TOP 10:
’71
Boyhood
Child’s Pose (Poziția copilului)
Like Father, Like Son (そして父になる)
My Sweet Pepper Land (سرزمین شیرین فلفلی من)
Return to Ithaca (Regreso a Ítaca)
Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)
Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)
Whiplash
Winter Sleep (Kış Uykusu)

HONORABLE MENTION:
A Girl at My Door (도희야)
Hippocrates (Hippocrate)
Leviathan (Левиафан)
Pride
Timbuktu

BEST MOVIE FROM ALGERIA:
The Man from Oran (L’Oranais الوهراني)

BEST MOVIE FROM QUEBEC:
Mommy

BEST MOVIE FROM BRAZIL
Neighboring Sounds (O Som ao Redor)

BEST MOVIE FROM SERBIA AND BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA:
Circles (Кругови Krugovi)

BEST MOVIE FROM POLAND:
Ida

BEST BIOPIC FROM POLAND:
Wałęsa: Man of Hope

BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY SET IN AFGHANISTAN:
In Between Worlds (Zwischen Welten)

BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY SET IN MOROCCO:
Exit Marrakech

BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY SET IN NORWAY:
Two Lives (Zwei Leben)

BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY SET IN GERMAN-OCCUPIED POLAND:
Run Boy Run (Lauf Junge lauf)

BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY SET IN SOVIET-OCCUPIED EAST PRUSSIA:
Wolfskinder

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT DIVORCE LAW IN RELIGIOUS COURTS FOR JEWS IN ISRAEL ALL GOING TO SHOW THAT JEWS AREN’T ALL THAT DIFFERENT FROM MUSLIMS WHEN IT COMES TO DIVORCE LAW IN RELIGIOUS COURTS:
Gett: The Trail of Viviane Ansalem (גט – המשפט של ויויאן אמסלם)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT A COUPLE OF LOWLIFE LOUTS IN PETAH TIKVA:
Youth (הנוער)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT FROM AN ISRAELI PERSPECTIVE:
Bethlehem (בית לחם)

BEST MOVIE FROM PALESTINE ABOUT THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT FROM A PALESTINIAN PERSPECTIVE:
Giraffada (جيرافادا)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT A WOMAN IN HER 40s WHO WANTS ROMANCE AND TENDERNESS AND JUST TO LIVE LIFE:
Lulu in the Nude (Lulu femme nue)

BEST MOVIE FROM CHILE ABOUT A WOMAN IN HER 50s WHO WANTS ROMANCE AND SEX AND JUST TO HAVE FUN:
Gloria

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT A WOMAN IN HER 60s WHO WANTS SEX AND FUN AND JUST TO SETTLE DOWN AND GET MARRIED:
Party Girl

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT A WOMAN IN HER 60s WHO WANTS SEX AND FUN AND IS JUST NOT SURE WHAT ELSE SHE WANTS:
Bright Days Ahead (Les Beaux jours)

BEST OKAY MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT A WOMAN IN HER 60s WHO JUST DOESN’T KNOW WHAT SHE WANTS:
On My Way (Elle s’en va)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH SANDRINE KIBERLAIN IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Elle l’adore

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH ADÈLE HAENEL IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Love at First Fight (Les Combattants)

BEST ACTUALLY NOT THAT GOOD OF A MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH EMMANUELLE DEVOS IN THE LEAD ROLE:
If You Don’t, I Will (Arrête ou je continue)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH REDA KATEB IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Insecure (Qui vive)

BEST TOUGHEST MOVIE TO WATCH FROM FRANCE ABOUT A PSYCHOTIC SERIAL KILLER BASED ON A TRUE STORY WITH GUILLAUME CANET IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart (La Prochaine fois je viserai le cœur)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT THE KHMER ROUGE TYRANNY IN CAMBODIA:
The Gate (Le Temps des aveux)

BEST MOVIE FROM CHINA ABOUT SHATTERED LIVES DURING THE MAOIST ERA:
Coming Home (歸來)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM GREECE ABOUT A COUPLE OF YOUTHFUL GRECO-ALBANIAN BROTHERS IN GREECE ON A QUEST TO RESOLVE AN UNRESOLVED MATTER FROM THEIR CHILDHOOD:
Xenia

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE LAYING BARE THE ETHOS OF OUR PRESENT-DAY ADVANCED CAPITALIST SOCIO-ECONOMIC ORDER:
Nightcrawler

BEST HOLLYWOOD WAR MOVIE ABOUT WORLD WAR II:
Fury

BEST INDIE MOVIE ABOUT HOW DANGEROUS IT CAN BE TO BE A YOUNG BLACK MALE IN AMERICA:
Fruitvale Station

BEST INDIE MOVIE ABOUT ECO-TERRORISTS IN OREGON WHO REALLY AREN’T CUT OUT TO BE TERRORISTS:
Night Moves

BEST MOVIE BY WOODY ALLEN:
Magic in the Moonlight

BEST MOVIE BY WES ANDERSON:
The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST MOVIE BY SPIKE JONZE:
Her

BEST MOVIE BY VOLKER SCHLONDÖRFF:
Diplomacy (Diplomatie)

BEST MOVIE BY NAOMI KAWASE:
Still the Water (2つ目の窓)

BEST MOVIE BY MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS:
The Search

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY DAVID FINCHER:
Gone Girl

MOST LACHRYMOSE MOVIE BY STEPHEN FREARS:
Philomena

MOST UNESSENTIAL MOVIE BY DAVID CRONENBERG:
Maps to the Stars

MOST UNSATISFYING MOVIE BY FRANÇOIS OZON:
The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie)

MOST ANTIPATHETIC MOVIE BY ALEJANDRO G. IÑÁRRITU:
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

MOST FAILED MOVIE BY GEORGE CLOONEY:
The Monuments Men

MOST FORGETTABLE MOVIE BY AMOS GITAI:
Ana Arabia (אנה ערביה)

MOST PREPOSTEROUS MOVIE BY LARS VON TRIER:
Nymphomaniac: Volume 2

SECOND MOST PREPOSTEROUS MOVIE BY LARS VON TRIER:
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1

MOST INSUFFERABLE MOVIE EVER BY JIM JARMUSCH:
Only Lovers Left Alive

BLEAKEST MOVIE FROM KAZAKHSTAN:
Student

SECOND BLEAKEST MOVIE FROM KAZAKHSTAN:
Harmony Lesson

MOST HILARIOUS POLITICALLY INCORRECT COMEDY FROM FRANCE POKING FUN AT TINPOT DICTATORS AND CLUELESS WHITE PEOPLE IN AFRICA:
Le Crocodile du Botswanga

MOST LOWBROW NOT TOTALLY UNFUNNY COMEDY FROM FRANCE POKING FUN AT INTER-ETHNIC INTER-RACIAL AND INTER-CONFESSIONAL RELATIONS IN FRANCE:
Serial (Bad) Weddings (Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu?)

BEST QUASI-ETHNOGRAPHIC DRAMA FROM FRANCE ABOUT STRATIFICATION IN A YENISH TZIGANE COMMUNITY NEAR BEAUVAIS:
Eat Your Bones (Mange tes morts – Tu ne diras point)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT A REAL-LIFE FRANCO-CONGOLESE SLAM RAP STAR IN STRASBOURG WHO CONVERTS TO ISLAM AND DECLARES HIS LOVE FOR FRANCE:
May Allah Bless France! (Qu’Allah bénisse la France)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT A FRANCO-ALGERIAN MUSLIM FAMILY IN A PARIS BANLIEUE WHERE ONE BROTHER FINDS CHRIST AND ANOTHER BROTHER FINDS ALLAH AND HOW THEY DEAL WITH THAT:
The Apostle (L’Apôtre)

BEST MERELY OKAY CROWD-PLEASING MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN UNLIKELY RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A BURNED-OUT FRENCH BUSINESS EXECUTIVE AND AN ILLEGAL SENEGALESE IMMIGRANT IN PARIS:
Samba

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT A GANG OF BLACK CHICKS WITH ATTITUDE IN A PARIS BANLIEUE:
Girlhood (Bande de filles)

MOST FEEL-GOOD MOVIE FROM FRANCE BASED ON A TRUE STORY ABOUT A HIGH SCHOOL CLASS OF MOSTLY MUSLIM IMMIGRANT-ORIGIN STUDENTS IN A PARIS BANLIEUE WHO ARE INSPIRED BY THEIR HISTORY TEACHER TO LEARN ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST AND THEN GO ON TO RECEIVE A NATIONAL PRIZE FOR IT:
Once in a Lifetime (Les Héritiers)

MOST PAINFUL TO WATCH MOVIE FROM FRANCE REENACTING A HORRIFIC ANTISEMITIC CRIME COMMITTED BY LOWLIFE RABBLE IN A PARIS BANLIEUE:
24 Days (24 jours, la vérité sur l’Affaire Ilan Halimi)

MOST POWERFUL PAINFUL TO WATCH DOCUMENTARY ON THE UNBELIEVABLE TRAGEDY IN SYRIA:
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait

MOST CRINGEWORTHY BONS SENTIMENTS-DRENCHED DOCUMENTARY FROM ISRAEL ABOUT A PALESTINIAN MAN WHO WANTS ARABS AND JEWS TO LIKE ONE ANOTHER WHEN THEY PREFER TO HATE ONE ANOTHER:
Dancing in Jaffa

WORST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE THAT HAD PRETENSIONS TO BEING A GOOD MOVIE:
August: Osage County

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eau-argentee-syrie-autoportrait

These photos of Homs, “Assad’s trophy city in Syria,” graced the home page of Le Monde earlier today. Homs: Syria’s third largest city and with a pre-2011 population of some 700,000, large parts of which are now a destroyed ghost town. Last week I saw the 110-minute documentary, ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’, which premiered at Cannes and is presently playing in four Paris cinemas. Quoting from Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety, it is

A necessary, often unbearable documentary that bears vital witness to the horrors of Syria’s civil war.

It’s said that Syria is the land of assassinated filmmakers, since anyone with a camera or cell phone becomes an instant target for sniper bullets. Director Ossama Mohammed (“Sacrifices”), in exile in Paris since 2011, sifted through thousands of online videos documenting the daily atrocities in his country to make “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” a necessary, often unbearable documentary that bears witness to the horrors of the civil war. To this he adds footage by Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a young Kurdish woman in Homs who contacted Mohammed for advice on what to film around her. The combined results, given a structure by chapter-like intertitle headings, will leave no viewer unshaken…

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here. The film—which is mainly of Homs—did not leave me unshaken, that’s for sure. It’s devastating, the most powerful documentary one is likely to see on the Syrian civil war. The level of violence, mayhem, cruelty, and sheer destruction in Syria as depicted in the documentary defies belief and comprehension. Cela dépasse l’entendement. The film footage, taken by the “1,001 Syrians”—army soldiers included—who shot it on their mobile phones, does show armed jihadist brigades—likely the Jabhat al-Nusra—and who have their share of responsibility in the catastrophe, but there is no question whatever that the main culprit is the Ba’athist regime. But we all know this by now. For more on the film, see the review in THR and Paris prof Karin Badt’s piece in Huff Post. If you have the chance to see it, do so. Trailer is here.

On the general subject, here’s a 20-page enquête (PDF) by journalist David Lepeska in Al Jazeera Magazine (dated November 29th), entitled “Left Behind.” The lede: A generation of Syrian refugees have been forced to leave their childhoods at the border as they take on the responsibility of providing for their families in a strange country [Turkey].

And with this, I wish all a Merry Christmas.

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Dick Cheney defending torture on 'Meet the Press', December 14th (photo: William B. Plowman/NBC News, via Reuters)

Dick Cheney defending torture on ‘Meet the Press’, December 14th
(photo: William B. Plowman/NBC News, via Reuters)

[update below]

That’s the title of yesterday’s NYT editorial, calling on President Obama to authorize the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of those who were directly implicated in the post-9/11 torture program, which should include, entre autres, Dick Cheney, his chief of staff David Addington, George Tenet, and John Yoo. Investigate, prosecute, and convict the SOBs, then throw ’em in the slammer. On the evil Cheney, I recently read—spurred by the release of the Senate torture report—Mark Danner’s three review essays on the calamitous ex-VP that appeared in the NYRB earlier this year: “In the darkness of Dick Cheney” (March 6th issue), “He remade our world” (April 3rd), and “Cheney: ‘The more ruthless the better’” (May 8th). All three articles are free access and absolutely worth reading if one hasn’t already done so (they may also be accessed on Danner’s website, along with the first three review essays—on Donald Rumsfeld—in his six-part series, two of which are gated on the NYRB website).

For additional readings on the unspeakable Cheney—post-torture report—see Heather Digby Parton’s piece in Salon, “Dick Cheney’s grotesque legacy: Why the record is so much worse than reported,” and these two blog posts by Andrew Sullivan: “Watching Cheney: He’s got nothing,” and “The depravity of Dick Cheney.” As Sullivan concludes in the latter piece

[Cheney] is a sociopath. He is a disgrace to his country. And he needs to be brought to justice.

Amen.

UPDATE: Yale University prof David Bromwich has an essay in the January 8th 2015 issue of the London Review of Books on the Senate’s torture report. Money quote

Cheney worked hard to eradicate from the minds of Americans the idea that there can be such a thing as a ‘suspect’. Due process of law rests on the acknowledged possibility that a suspect may be innocent; but, for Cheney, a person interrogated on suspicion of terrorism is a terrorist. To elaborate a view beyond that point, as he sees it, only involves government in a wasteful tangle of doubts. Cheney concedes from time to time that mistakes can happen; but the leading quality of the man is a perfect freedom from remorse. ‘I’d do it again in a minute,’ he said recently of the plan for the interrogation programme and the secret prisons which the office of the vice president vetted and approved.

Cheney: Bring him to justice.

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Return to Ithaca & Una Noche

Retour à Ithaque affiche espagnol

[update below]

Continuing from the previous post, on Obama’s Cuba announcement…

As it happens, I’ve seen two films from or about Cuba over the past year that are directly relevant to all this (see previous post). The first, which opened in Paris earlier this month, is ‘Return to Ithaca’, by the highbrow French director Laurent Cantet (en français: Retour à Ithaque)—who has an illustrious filmography to his name—was shot in Cuba, is entirely in Spanish, and with Cuban actors (apparently locally well-known, who live in Cuba). The entire pic—the screenplay of which was co-authored by Cantet and the well-known Cuban writer Leonardo Padura—takes place over a day and a night on a rooftop in downtown Havana—overlooking the oceanfront esplanade, the Malecón—with five old friends, 50ish in age—four guys and a gal—in a Big Chill-like reunion, where they drink, eat, and talk, talk, and talk. The 95-minute film is one long talk fest. Nothing else happens. The friends are all cultivated and educated—an engineer, artist, two playwrights, and an ophthalmologist—met in their late teens-early 20s in what looked to be (from their description and photos they showed one another) the Communist party youth league or some CP-led youth brigade, believed in the Revolution, and were part of the system into their adult lives. The occasion for the reunion is the return to Cuba of one of the gang, a playwright named Amadeo, who had been living in Spain for the previous 16 years.

The pic begins with the friends recounting stories from their shared past and all the funny things they did, with lots of laughing, joking, and singing, and how they all loved each other so much. I was somewhat dubious about the film going into it—it didn’t look too promising from the trailer—and the way it started out did not reassure me, but then the dialogue became more serious, and then very serious indeed, as the friends took stock of their lives—and engaging in personal recriminations along the way—and how their lives and dreams were frustrated, when not shattered, by the system. Only one of the friends, a onetime artist, was doing well for himself, as a manager in an enterprise or organism—obviously state-owned—that offered him access to foreign goods (electronics, high-end whisky, etc) and frequent foreign travel in style. As for the others who were getting by okay, they had family members in Miami who sent care packages. Castro or the Communist party are never mentioned, or even alluded to, but the film, in its final quarter, evolves into a biting, even devastating, critique of the political and economic order Fidel & Co have imposed on the country. The friends all believed in the Revolution when they were young but all but one have lost their illusions—and the one who is still a believer, but is not doing too well for himself—and is unable to make use of his training as an engineer—says he remains so because “I have to believe in something.” The clincher comes when Amadeo finally reveals—no spoilers—the veritable circumstances of how he ended up in Spain, why he opted for exile, and had decided now to return and for good (which his friends could not comprehend). It’s an awesome moment in the film.

When I left the salle—at an art house-y cinema pas loin de chez moi—one of the audience members (few in number and all older) who exited next to me asked what I thought of it. My response: “C’est un très bon film” (with stress on the très). I will go so far as to say it’s one of the best I’ve seen this year. It’s not a film grand public but may (and should) be seen by anyone with art house-y tastes and/or a strong interest in politics. Reviews are here and here. Trailer is here.

The other film is ‘Una Noche’, which I saw exactly one year ago (it opened in the US in August 2013). It’s the directorial debut of Lucy Mulloy, who’s British, a graduate of Oxford and the NYU film school, and a protégé of Spike Lee. In an interview prior to the release, Mulloy thus described her film

Una Noche is heart-wrenching movie that takes us to Havana, Cuba, this unique country that in this day and age of globalization is still a mystery to so many. It follows the lives of three teenagers: Raul (Dariel Arrechaga), Lila (Anailín De La Rúa De La Torre), Elio (Javier Núñez Florián) through their daily lives in Havana until an assault involving a tourist leaves Raul little choice but to flee to the United States [on a makeshift raft]. Elio will help and Lila will follow, for reasons that only young hearts can justify. They lead us to the water of what is and what was, and that inexplicable way of loving.

And this from Stephen Holden’s NYT review

“Una Noche” surges with vitality so palpable that, for its duration, you feel as if you were living in the skins of characters often photographed in such extreme close-up that they seem to be breathing in your face. You feel the sun on their bodies and get goose bumps when they shiver from the cold.

Contemporary Havana, as depicted in the film, is an impoverished, crumbling fleshpot, whose residents eke out a living the best they can, often by prostituting themselves to tourists. It’s also a barter culture; Elio exchanges his bike for the motor. You can have anything you want if you know whom to go to, observes a character. The authorities are constantly on the alert for trouble. We overhear a security guard warning a supervisor, “There’s a citizen talking to a blonde.”

The movie’s first two-thirds are a portrait of the city as experienced by these teenagers, as they frantically (and surreptitiously) prepare to leave. A narrator (Aris Mejias), assuming Lila’s point of view, muses out loud about a city where, in the words of Raúl, the only things to do are sweat and have sex.

“[A]n impoverished, crumbling fleshpot, whose residents eke out a living the best they can…”: Holden gets it exactly right. And the sex: Cuba may well be the most libertine society in the world (possibly an unintended consequence of the five-plus decades Communist rule in the tropics, where there is nothing else for young people to do). The material privations and general poverty of the place are well-depicted in the film. One of the teens works in the restaurant kitchen of a big tourist hotel, handling food that ordinary Cubans can only dream about. Each day quitting work he is body searched by security guards, looking for lobster and other delicacies that he may be smuggling out of the kitchen. As it happens, not long after seeing the film I read a reportage by a freelance American journalist, Michael Totten, who had just visited Cuba, and in which he wrote

Taking a bus [in Cuba] came with another advantage I hadn’t foreseen. I didn’t have to stop at the checkpoints.

I’m used to seeing military and police checkpoints when I travel abroad. Every country in the Middle East has them, including Israel if you count the one outside the airport. The authorities in that part of the world are looking for guns and bombs mostly. The Cuban authorities aren’t worried about weapons. No one but the regime has anything deadlier than a baseball bat.

Castro’s checkpoints are there to ensure nobody has too much or the wrong kind of food.

Police officers pull over cars and search the trunk for meat, lobsters, and shrimp. They also search passenger bags on city busses in Havana. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about it sarcastically in her book, Havana Real. “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”

If they find a side of beef in the trunk, so I’m told, you’ll go to prison for five years if you tell the police where you got it and ten years if you don’t.

No one is allowed to have lobsters in Cuba. You can’t buy them in stores, and they sure as hell aren’t available on anyone’s ration card. They’re strictly reserved for tourist restaurants owned by the state. Kids will sometimes pull them out of the ocean and sell them on the black market, but I was warned in no uncertain terms not to buy one. I stayed in hotels and couldn’t cook my own food anyway. And what was I supposed to do, stash a live lobster in my backpack?

Does one wonder why so many Cubans have fled to Florida over the decades, and why so many more would if they could?

As for the film, it’s good. Lucy Mulloy spent several years making it and, for a debut film, the result is impressive (she only got into trouble with the authorities once, when armed soldiers on the beach thought the flight-on-the-raft scene the crew was shooting was the real thing). One sees Havana like never before on the big screen (or small), at least not that I’ve seen. Likewise contemporary Cuban youth and their No Future lives. The actors—all amateurs—are very good. Reviews were positive in both the US and France, and with the pic winning a slew of awards at film fests and Mulloy receiving a rapturous reception at its premiere screening in Havana. Trailer is here.

BTW, the brother and sister in the film—who became a real couple during its shooting—used the occasion of the film’s screening at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last year to seek asylum in the United States. They currently live in Miami.

UPDATE: The April 2nd 2015 issue of the NYRB has a review essay (dated March 3rd) by the well-known Mexican intellectual and writer Enrique Krauze of two new books on Cuba, one of them entitled Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971, by University of Florida prof Lillian Guerra. This looks to be one of the more detailed studies to date of how Fidel Castro went about creating a totalitarian order during the first twelve years of his regime. For those who can’t access Krauze’s essay (which is behind the paywall), his discussion of the book may be found in the comments section below.

una-noche-12

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35166904_h33834331

[update below] [2nd update below]

I’ve been reading more articles—or, to be precise, clicking on more links—about Cuba over the past four days than I have in I don’t know how long. Like just about everyone with half an intellect and a quarter ounce of sense, I was pleased by Obama’s announcement on the reestablishing of diplomatic relations. This issue—of putting an end to a pointless Cold War anachronism—is such a no-brainer that it’s beyond the pale of debate. I was surprised it took Obama even this long to do what should have been done years, if not decades, ago (it looks like Alan Gross was the stumbling block here). For the anecdote, in 2008 I gave a number of talks (under the aegis of the US State Department) on the American presidential campaign before audiences in Africa—sur place in the two Congos (Brazzaville and Kinshasa) and Cameroon, via video conference in a dozen other countries, plus on TV in Paris—and was frequently asked what I thought would change with US foreign policy if Obama were elected. I replied probably not a whole lot—that there would likely be more continuity than change—except on Cuba, where I predicted that a newly elected President Obama would act within his first term to normalize relations and push Congress to end the embargo—which is, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias put it, “the longest-running joke in US foreign policy”—as this was a logical thing to do in terms of US interests and there was quite simply no good reason whatever not to. Looks like I was off by a few years.

As for the embargo, I guarantee that the GOP-led Congress will indeed put an end to that joke before the 2016 elections, as there is no way it will allow US corporations to lose out to European, Canadian, Brazilian, Japanese, Chinese etc competitors as the Cuban economy is further liberalized and opened up to foreign investment. [UPDATE Nov. 2016: It looks like I was wrong about that one…].

Obama’s announcement on Wednesday has been a big topic on social media—on my various news feeds, at least—and with all the liberal-lefties naturally giving it the thumbs way up. I have been particularly amused to read some of the reactions of American gauchistes, who backhandedly continue to indulge the Castro regime and see in its model of development something admirable and precious and that must be preserved. E.g. here is a social media status update following Obama’s Wednesday announcement by a university professor—who is very smart in his field of specialization (which is not Latin America)—I will call “Academic gauchiste 1”

I’ve been telling myself for years to visit ‪#‎Cuba‬ before they ruin it. Now it’s probably too late.

Which led to this comment by one of his friends

Although I suspect the Cuban regime did a pretty good job of ruining it before now, too.

Response by Academic gauchiste 1

Yeah, but now the shit storm apocalypse will destroy the place in 3 years flat. Massive cruise lines, privatized beaches, huge hotel developments, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, McDonald’s. It’ll be a spring break destination by 2017, mark my words.

Then this comment by Academic gauchiste 2

the number of extremely obese Americans and the fast food joints to feed them is about to go through the roof. perhaps Cuba can put a weight limit, or at least a body-fat ratio limit, on entering tourists… and outlaw fast food joints.

In a status update following this exchange, Academic gauchiste 2 asked this question

What is the chance Cuba can maintain anything resembling a welfare state with its renowned health, education and other services and a decent level of equality now that the US is about to barrel back into the country? Wasn’t the country already changed by its incorporation into the global economy via tourism and other sectors which have long been open to Europe and the rest of the world?

These boneheaded comments are typical of US leftists, who have manifestly not internalized the fact—to which they make not the slightest allusion—that the Cuban regime over the past 55 years has been a repressive dictatorship far worse—I repeat: far worse—than was the Pinochet regime in Chile (its first year excepted) or any other 1970s and ’80s Latin American military junta that wasn’t combating an insurgency. On this particular point, there is no debate whatsoever (emphasis added). As for the egalitarianism of the Castro regime—a nivellement par le bas, in effect—and its vaunted health care system, sure, except that there is a huge chasm in Cuban society today between those who have dollars and access to foreign goods, and those who don’t, which has engendered inequalities possibly greater than those predating 1959. Also, pour mémoire, Cuba was not a poor country when les frères Castro & Co took it over in ’59. In that year per capita income in Cuba was one of the highest in Latin America. Cuba was on a par with Argentina. Cuba today is not on that par. In terms of per capita GDP, it is somewhere between Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. And Cuba’s economic problems have nothing to do with the idiotic, pointless US embargo—an embargo which, in fact, strengthened the Communist regime and its administered economy, with the Soviet Union paying above world market prices for Cuban sugar and offering all sorts of subsidies (the stupidity and futility of the US embargo has long been evident to even mainstream commentators, e.g. Thomas Friedman, who had a lucid column on the subject fifteen years ago). With the end of the Soviet Union and its subsidies, the Cuban economy went into a tailspin, the country was pauperized, and with it producing, as in 1959, little for export apart from agricultural commodities and raw materials.

And then there’s the tourist sector. Academic gauchiste 1 above laments the inevitable advent of “privatized beaches [and] huge hotel developments,” except that Cuba already has these! And the “privatization” of beach fronts in Cuba today is no doubt even more extensive than in other Caribbean coastal countries, as Cuban nationals are banned from them—from interacting with the foreign tourists (prostitutes possibly excepted)—which is, of course, not the case anywhere else. On the matter of prostitution, the eradication of which was one of the early accomplishments of the Castro regime, or so it was claimed, Havana and other tourist areas have been inundated with women (and men) offering their services to foreigners, possibly to an even greater extent than in other less-developed countries with large numbers of rich country visitors. And in Cuba one may find hookers with university degrees—but unemployed, or employed and making $20 a month—which is rather less common elsewhere.

On the supposed egalitarianism of the Cuban model, see this piece from last February on the proliferation of gated communities for the Cuban elite (CP members, military officers, and other well-connected nouveaux riches).

As for McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other megabrands of the global consumer culture moving into Cuba, so f—ing what! So I suppose we should also regret the fall of the Berlin Wall, as one now finds McDo throughout the ex-GDR… Allez, only boneheaded gauchistes get exercised over such irrelevant symbols.

Concluding all this, here is the pertinent response to Academic gauchiste 2’s above quoted status update by a smart liberal

Cuba’s economic system is in shambles including its welfare state. For a welfare state to work, there needs to be wealth to redistribute. And equality of outcomes is an ideal (that can really never be reached in a well functioning economy) rather than a policy that can be pursued. Tourism and globalization did not ruin Cuba, even though they have some of the negative effects mentioned above. Cuba’s government ruined Cuba. You can have a redistributive welfare state in a well functioning economy (such as is certain Scandinavian and other contexts, and with things that could best be modified in those countries as well). The problem here is not imperialism or lack of it, it is that the only thing that really works is a mixed economy with redistributive policies and a strong welfare state. Cuba is in bad shape, and it can get worse or better, but the status quo, even the pre-tourism status quo, does not make it better, it makes it worse…

Très bien.

Continued in the next post

ADDENDUM: Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, or unfair, in skewering the above cited academic gauchistes for regretting the inevitable changes in store for Havana, as I have admittedly been guilty of this myself. During a visit in 2010 to Damascus—a city refreshingly untouched by the franchises and symbols of the global economy—I told a Syrian friend “Please, don’t let this place change. Don’t become like Beirut.” I was mainly joking, though did feel that it would be a damned shame if a McDo were to open next to the Souk Al-Hamidiyah, or anywhere in the city center. If that stuff was going to come to Syria—where there are clearly other preoccupations these days—let it be confined to malls in Mezzeh Filla Gharbiya and elsewhere out of sight from authenticity-seeking tourists…

UPDATE: Le Monde dated December 19th has an analysis of how the economic and political crisis in Venezuela pushed the Cuban regime to seek normalization of relations with Washington.

2nd UPDATE: Le Monde journalist Paulo Paranagua has an article (May 7th 2015) on the numerous obstacles to Cuba attracting significant foreign investment, “À Cuba, l’absence d’un Etat de droit freine les investisseurs.”

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Kamel Daoud (photo credit: AFP/Bertrand Langlois)

Kamel Daoud (photo credit: AFP/Bertrand Langlois)

[update below]

Kamel Daoud, the excellent Algerian commentator and author—whose latest novel was a finalist for the 2014 Prix Goncourt—, has been hit with a fatwa by salafi imam Abdelfatah Hamadache (a.k.a. Shaykh Abd al-Fatah al-Jaza’iry)—who preaches in salafi Algiers mosques and leads a micro-political party (not recognized by the Algerian state) called the Islamic Sahwa Front—, calling Daoud a “Zionized…apostate” who insults “Allah” and the Qu’ran, and who would, if Algeria were governed by Shari’a law, be put to death for “apostasy” and “heresy” (the good imam published the fatwa yesterday on his Facebook page; the post begins with this: دعوة لتطبيق الحد عليه). Here is Daoud’s brilliant riposte, published on his FB page. It merits translation into English and other languages

 50 nuances de haine

Question fascinante: d’où vient que certains se sentent menacés dans leur identité, dans leur conviction religieuse, dans leur conception de l’histoire et dans leur mémoire dès que quelqu’un pense autrement qu’eux ? La peur d’être dans l’erreur les poussant donc à imposer l’unanimité et combattre la différence ? De la fragilité des convictions intimes ? De la haine de soi qui passe par la haine de l’Autre ? De toute une histoire d’échecs, de frustrations, d’amour sans issue ? De la chute de Grenade ? De la colonisation ? Labyrinthe. Mais c’est étrange: ceux qui défendent l’islam comme pensée unique le font souvent avec haine et violence. Ceux qui se sentent et se proclament Arabes de souche ont cette tendance à en faire un fanatisme plutôt qu’une identité heureuse ou un choix de racine capable de récoltes. Ceux qui vous parlent de constantes nationales, de nationalisme et de religion sont souvent agressifs, violents, haineux, ternes, infréquentables et myopes: ils ne voient le monde que comme attaques, complots, manipulations et ruses de l’Occident. Le regard tourné vers ce Nord qui les écrase, les fascine, les rend jaunes de jalousie. Le dos tourné à l’Afrique où l’on meurt quand cela ne les concerne pas: Dieu a créé l’Occident et eux comme couple du monde, le reste c’est des déchets. Il y a des cheikhs et des fatwas pour chaque femme en jupe, mais pas un seul pour nourrir la faim en Somalie. L’abbé Pierre n’est pas un emploi de musulman ?

Laissons de côté. Gardons l’œil sur la mécanique: de quoi est-elle le sens ? Pourquoi l’identité est morbidité ? Pourquoi la mémoire est un hurlement par un conte paisible ? Pourquoi la foi est méfiance ? Mais que défendent ces gens-là qui vous attaquent chaque fois que vous pensez différemment votre nationalité, votre présent ou vos convictions religieuses ? Pourquoi réagissent-ils comme des propriétaires bafoués, des maquereaux ? Pourquoi se sentent-ils menacés autant par la voix des autres ? Etrange. C’est que le fanatique n’est même pas capable de voir ce qu’il a sous les yeux: un pays faible, un monde «arabe» pauvre et ruiné, une religion réduite à des rites et des fatwas nécrophages après avoir accouché, autrefois, d’Ibn Arabi et un culte de l’identité qui ressemble à de la jaunisse.

C’est qu’il ne s’agit même pas de distinctions idéologiques, linguistiques ou religieuses: l’imbécile identitaire peut tout aussi être francophone chez nous, arabophone, croyant ou passant. Un ami expliqua au chroniqueur que la version cheikh Chemssou laïc existe aussi: avec la même bêtise, aigreur, imbécillité et ridicule. L’un parle au nom de Dieu, l’autre au nom des années 70 et de sa conscience politique douloureuse et l’autre au nom de la lutte impérialiste démodée ou du berbérisme exclusif. Passons, revenons à la mécanique: de quoi cela est-il le signe ? Du déni: rues sales, immeubles hideux, dinar à genoux, Président malade, une dizaine de migrants tués dans un bus sur la route du rapatriement, dépendance au pétrole et au prêche, niveau scolaire misérable, armée faiblarde du Golfe à l’océan, délinquances et comités de surveillance du croissant, corruption, viols, émeutes. Rien de tout cela ne gêne. Sauf le genou de la femme, l’avis de Kamel Daoud, le film «l’Oranais», dénoncer la solidarité assise et couchée avec la Palestine, l’Occident en général, le bikini en particulier et l’affirmation que je suis Algérien ou le cas d’Israël comme structure des imaginaires morbides.

Pourquoi cela existe ? Pourquoi l’âme algérienne est-elle encerclée par une meute de chiens aigus et des ogres pulpeux ?

A petition has been launched in Algeria expressing solidarity with Kamel Daoud and calling on the Ministry of Justice there to prosecute Abdelfatah Hamadache for his call to murder. Très bien.

UPDATE: A well-known Algerian journalist and blogger informs me that Abdelfatah Hamadache is “nothing other than a pawn in the hands of the security services” (n’est rien d’autre qu’un jouet aux mains des services). And Éditions La Découverte’s engagé CEO François Gèze—a longtime critic of the Algerian regime—has a post (December 21st) on his Mediapart blog in which he informs the reader that Hamadache is indeed an agent of the DRS. Perhaps. Algerians will always tell you that so and so is in the pay of the DRS and offer all sorts of evidence (or “evidence”) to back it up. On en prend acte, c’est tout.

solidarité avec kamel daoud

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leviathan_poster

As I’m reading and thinking about Russia at the moment—the contemporary politics and international conduct of which is the current subject in one of my graduate level classes—, I want to mention two films from or about that country that I’ve seen this fall. The objectively superior one is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ‘Leviathan’, which premiered at Cannes in May. As the French reviews were dithyrambic and Zvyagintsev’s last film, Elena, first rate, I had high expectations for this one. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a powerful film, one of the best of the year. It is, moreover, the most devastating portrait of the political order in contemporary Russia—of the us et coutumes of those who run the Russian state—that one will see on the big screen (though, as it happens, the film was made with the support of the Russian ministry of culture). I’ll let Variety’s Peter Debruge describe it

In “Leviathan,” which director Andrey Zvyagintsev has described as a loose retelling of the Book of Job, an ordinary man must wrestle with his faith not in God but in the Russian state — an epic struggle against a monster with many faces possessed of the capacity to bend the law to suit its own appetites. Resistance is futile, as they say, and yet this stunning satire’s embattled patriarch valiantly perseveres for the sake of his family, even as it crumbles around him. Debuting in competition at Cannes, this engrossing, arthouse-bound opus spans a meaty 142 minutes and unfolds with the heft of a 1,000-page novel.

Lest you think Zvyagintsev’s latest a work of science fiction, the leviathan in question is strictly metaphorical — a concept borrowed from Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 treatise of the same name. That may come as a disappointment to those who’ve likened the 50-year-old slow-cinema auteur to a latter-day Andrei Tarkovsky, hoping this might be the abstract metaphysical feature they’d been waiting for. And yet, there’s ample cause for celebration: This is the director’s most accessible and naturalistic film, using everyday characters to test how well modern-day Russia is maintaining the social contract with its citizens.

The setting is a small town on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia, a has-been fishing community littered with the carcasses of ships and whales alike, far from Moscow and yet close enough to “civilization” that the locals can practically see Finland from their backyards. Come for the scenery, stay for all that’s rotten beneath the surface in what amounts to an expose touching on the many challenges that face the country today: religion, politics, guns and alcohol.

No doubt, when his ancestors settled the riverside homestead on which Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) and his family — son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and sexy second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) — still live, they never imagined a crooked mayor (Roman Madyanov) would one day seize the land to do with as he pleased. But Kolya is no pushover, enlisting his longtime lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) all the way from Moscow to contest the mayor’s claim of eminent domain. (…)

To continue reading Debruge’s review, go here. Reviews by other Anglo-American critics who saw it at Cannes are equally stellar. The pic is scheduled to open in the US before the end of the year. So if you have any interest in Russia or simply like seeing great movies, don’t miss this one. Trailer is here.

The other film—which I saw three nights ago—is Michel Hazanavicius’s ‘The Search’. Pour mémoire, Hazanavicius directed The Artist—which won five Oscars, including best film and director—plus the two OSS 117 comedies (I saw the first, which was okay; my students tell me I must absolutely see the second, so I will). This one, which is far more sober and serious than the director’s previous pics, is about the Second Chechen War (set in 1999-2000 in Chechnya and Ingushetia, shot on location in Georgia). I was looking forward to it in view of the subject matter and having seen the trailer, and with Bérénice Bejo and Annette Bening at the tête d’affiche an added draw. But then I took note of Le Monde’s thumbs down review (placing it in the “to be avoided” category) and read that the film had received a chilly reception at its screening in Cannes (though the boos mainly came from Russian journalists in the audience, so it was said). And the reviews have been mixed—or divided between the very positive and sharply negative—, both in France and by US critics who saw it at Cannes (one consequence of the negative reception at Cannes was Hazanavicius cutting some 20 minutes from the film, thus reducing its commercial running length to 2¼ hours). The film is not flawless, that’s for sure. There are problems with some of the characters—who are, as Variety’s Justin Chang put it, “reduc[ed]…to either tragic victims or moral mouthpieces”—and with the Russian soldier protag lifted straight out of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (which was kind of flagrant and that just about every critic mentioned). And the depiction of the Chechen war is manichean. Hazanavicius has it out for the Russians, to put it mildly. They’re the bad guys, period.

This all being said, though, I was thoroughly absorbed in the film and, when it was over, pronounced it to be not bad (and, as it happens, the audience reaction—in later screenings at Cannes and on Allociné—has been more positive than that of the critics). One may acknowledge the film’s shortcomings and heavy-handed didacticism but still find it worthy. Now if I were Russian I would possibly wince at the way the Russian Ground Forces—soldiers being about the only Russians one sees in the film—are depicted, an army commanded by sadistic psychopaths with not an ounce of humanity and whose foot soldiers are hazed into becoming such. As Hazanavicius is French—and may or may not know the Russian language—, one may want to express skepticism at his portrayal. On this, I look forward to the verdict of those who know the Russian army from the inside or can speak about it authoritatively. But until then, I will go with Hazanavicius’s portrait, which conforms to everything I’ve read, understood, and simply know about the Russian army and its Red Army predecessor: about the violence involved in the hazing of soldiers and their behavior toward civilians identified with the enemy side. The fact of the matter is, the Russian army did commit massacres and wantonly bomb and kill civilians in Chechnya—as it did in Afghanistan and every previous war it waged. The opening scene in ‘The Search’ did happen during the Chechen wars and its occurrence was not exceptional. Such has been thoroughly documented and there is no disputing it. Now the Chechen fighters were not exactly enfants de chœur themselves—they committed their share of exactions and war crimes, as insurgents invariably do in such conflicts—but this must not detract from the principal culprit, which was the army prosecuting the counterinsurgency.

Hazanavicius said in an interview that, in his mind, ‘The Search’ is his best film to date. He has clearly been indignant about the Russian campaign in the Chechen wars and used his post-Oscar notoriety to make a film about it, which cost some €22 million. Technically the pic is excellent and with the Georgia locales where it was shot looking authentically Chechen. The film is mainly in Russian and Chechen—with actors and extras recruited among Chechen refugees in Georgia—, with some English and French (by Bejo and Bening, who respectively play the Ingushetia-based EU human rights commission official and war-weary ICRC rep). Hazanavicius’s enterprise here is similar to that of Angelina Jolie’s 2011 ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’—which I posted on last year—, a manichean indictment of the Serbs in the Bosnian war, shot on location in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Serbo-Croatian. I entirely shared Mme Jolie’s views of that conflict and entirely agree with Hazanavicius’s perspective of the one he treats. Others may view it differently. See the film and decide for yourself.

UPDATE: Historian Michael Wood, who writes on film for the London Review of Books, has an essay on ‘Leviathan’ in the LRB’s January 8th 2015 issue.

The Search poster

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putin

Back in March ’12 I had a post on a terrific review essay by Stephen Holmes in the LRB, on Luke Harding’s book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia. In the latest issue of the NYRB, Anne Applebaum has an equally terrific, must-read review essay, “How he and his cronies stole Russia,” on a new book on much the same subject as Harding’s, this Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Dawisha, a well-known political scientist and Russia/ex-USSR specialist at Miami University in Ohio, looks to have researched her subject more extensively than anyone else so far—and so much so that Cambridge University Press, with whom Dawisha initially had a contract, backed out of publishing it due to fear of libel lawsuits from Russians named in the book. Money quote

Whatever their conclusion, almost all of these analysts [of the failure of the 1990s reforms] seek an explanation in the reform process itself, asking whether it was effective, or whether it was flawed, or whether it could have been designed differently. But what if it never mattered at all? What if it made no difference which mistakes were made, which privatization plans were sidetracked, which piece of advice was not followed? What if “reform” was never the most important story of the past twenty years in Russia at all? (…)

… the most important story of the past twenty years might not, in fact, have been the failure of democracy, but the rise of a new form of Russian authoritarianism. Instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change, we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence. In league with Russian organized crime, starting at the end of the 1980s, they successfully plotted a return to power. Assisted by the unscrupulous international offshore banking industry, they stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves. Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.

Again, this is a must-read essay. So read it. Now. The whole thing.

While I’m at it, I just read, on The American Interest website, an interesting, if debatable, analysis of Putin’s geostrategic vision, “The Geopolitical Nihilist,” by Jakub Grygiel, who teaches IR at Johns Hopkins-SAIS. Grygiel begins

Russia’s bold moves into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine give one the impression that a calculating strategist sits in the Kremlin. Putin’s own public pronouncements tell us that his apparent aim is to restore Muscovite power and influence over territories deemed by him to be historically Russian. Putin is thus feared to be a shrewd competitor willing to use all forms of Russian power—from nuclear innuendo to a superiority in conventional forces to relentless information warfare—in order to build methodically a new regional order. In other words, he may be a geopolitical master.

But there is another possibility. It’s plausible that he has no such well thought out vision of geopolitical reconstruction, and little or no planning for how to establish and maintain whatever new rules Moscow might impose. Even if Putin did have a new regional order in mind, he may be incapable of translating it into reality. By choice and by necessity, Putin may simply be eager to wreck the status quo with nary a thought given to what comes after. In other words, he may be a geopolitical nihilist.

Also while I’m at it, Bruno Tertrais, the excellent French analyst of geopolitics, published an op-ed in the November 22nd Le Monde, rhetorically asking “Did the West really ‘humiliate’ Russia?” The lede (my translation): “Vladimir Putin’s bellicosity is often interpreted as the consequence of the supposedly hostile policy of the West toward Russia since the fall of the USSR. Nothing could be less true.” Tertrais’s op-ed looks to have vanished from Le Monde’s website but fortunately a blog—previously unknown to me—saw fit to cut-and-paste it, so here it is.

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The Torture Report

Senate-CIA-TortureReport_Page_001

Like everyone and her uncle, I’ve been reading about the US Senate’s just released torture report—formally, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program—over the past few hours. I know a few people who are reading, no doubt as I write, all 525 pages (of the executive summary; the whole thing—which remains classified—is over 6,000 pages). I don’t think I’m going to do that, at least not this week. All I need right now are the highlights and summaries, such as this one on “16 absolutely outrageous abuses detailed in the CIA torture report.” To call this appalling, sickening, outrageous et j’en passe is an understatement. The Executive Director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, has a speciously argued op-ed in today’s NYT—that he likely wishes he could take back—calling on Bush and those who tortured to be pardoned. No way. I go along with the POV of ACLU attorneys Jameel Jaffer and Ben Wizner, who argued in April 2009 that “[a]ccountability is needed for Bush-era torture.” Those who committed and/or abetted war crimes need to be prosecuted. Point barre.

UPDATE: Watch here the commentary (four minutes) on the torture report by Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

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Banning the niqab

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Christopher Dickey, grand reporter for The Daily Beast, offers an excellent argument here for banning face veils in public space. In a post 3½ years ago I expressed my disapproval of France’s “burqa” ban—which had just entered into force—, though not out of high-minded principle or respect for religious freedom, as face veils are specific to certain cultures, mandated by no religion—not that this matters one way or the other—, and cannot be defended on these particular grounds. But I’ve changed my mind. The French law may have been enacted for the wrong reasons but that doesn’t mean it was wrong tout court. Now this is not to suggest that the police should stop every last niqab-wearing woman they see on the street; discretion can and should be exercised—e.g. to avoid causing a riot—, as the police generally do when witnessing persons in the act of committing misdemeanors. But they should still have the authority to stop and detain those who conceal their faces in public. So on the question of the niqab, I say ban the damn thing!

UPDATE: Omer Aziz, a writer and J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, has an op-ed by the title of “Banning the niqab harms an open society: So does wearing it,” which is one of the best succinct arguments I’ve come across on this question. (March 16, 2015)

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