Archive for January, 2016

Recent films from the U.K.


In my post two days ago, on French trade unions and strikes, I had occasion to mention—twice—the British coal miners strike of 1984-85. This naturally reminded me of the film ‘Pride’, which I saw at the cinoche back in fall 2014 but didn’t get around to writing a post on. Did anyone not like this movie? Was it even possible not to like it? It was certainly the most heartwarming, feel-good movie of that year, no doubt about it. Not even a die-hard Thatcherite would disagree.

If one doesn’t know the pic, it’s based on a true story from 1984-85, when a group of gauchiste gays and lesbians in London formed an association, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, to raise money and collect food for the strikers, that being a gauchiste thing to do back then. As they couldn’t just send the money to the miners union (NUM)—PM Thatcher having ordered the sequestering of the NUM’s funds—the gays and lesbians had to take it directly to the miners themselves, to the Welsh mining town Onllwyn. And so they did.

Talk about a clash of cultures: of London LGBTs—who had never seen a coal miner in their lives or been anywhere near Welsh coal mining country—and those in Onllwyn, who were, needless to say, not even aware of the existence of LGBT activists and had never encountered anyone in their lives who admitted to being homosexual, not to mention one from London (or anyone from London for that matter). That the striking miners and their entourages would initially view the gays from London with circumspection goes without saying, though not all did. The barriers eventually did fall and with solidarity prevailing, bien évidemment, though this wasn’t just for the movies. It really did happen. On this, the ending scene, of the big 1985 London rally, where miners and LGBTs united in fraternity, will jerk tears of joy in even the most unsentimental Thatcher partisan.

On this level, the film did not overly lay on the ideology or political parti pris, though the latter is clear enough. The name of the NUM’s Stalinist dinosaur leader, Arthur Scargill, was not mentioned once, and that of Margaret Thatcher only once in passing so far as I recall. The subjects were the miners themselves: the men who stood to lose their jobs and livelihoods, and with their families and community in the same boat. And how could one not sympathize with them? Thatcher may have had the stronger argument in her bras de fer with Scargill, the British coal mining sector may have been structurally unprofitable and with pits destined to close, and with coal mining being a shitty occupation anyway, but still. Once the miners lost their jobs, that was it for them employment-wise. There was nothing else—and certainly not at their union-negotiated wages—and not in their company towns. So it wasn’t just the fate of the individual miners but of families and entire tight-knit communities, of towns where everyone had been born and raised and knew everyone else. If such has been one’s life since birth, to suddenly lose it is just terrible; it is not something that people from the well-to-do classes can easily comprehend.

As cinema—directing, acting, screenplay, all that—the film is good. The director, Matthew Warchus, was unknown to me, as was the cast, Dominic West (McNulty in ‘The Wire’) excepted (he played one of the LGBTs). US reviews were tops, as were French. Trailer is here.

There are several other films from the United Kingdom that I’ve seen over the past couple of years that I haven’t posted on, most of which were very good to excellent. Here are brief mentions of each, in no particular order.

’71, by first-time director Yann Demange. This is a terrific film, making my Top 10 best of 2014 (‘Pride’ was an honorable mention). It’s set in Belfast in 1971, in the early, terrible years of The Troubles. Soldier Gary Hook (actor Jack O’Donnell), who’s part of a British army company staging a raid in the Catholic Falls Road area, gets separated from his men as they hightail it out following a riot—and with Provisional IRA gunmen shooting at them—loses his weapon, and is left behind. So he tries to make his way out of hostile territory, with the Provos hot on his trail—they know he was abandoned by his men—and with discovery and capture meaning certain death, no doubt to be preceded by hideous physical abuse. This sequence, which takes up much of the film, is incredibly riveting and tense. During his escape, Hook—who’s just an ordinary soldier and regular guy—comes into contact with Protestant Loyalists who aren’t totally on the level themselves, is offered protection by a Catholic family—at great risk to their own physical integrity—who want to turn him over to the regular IRA, who won’t kill him, though he would possibly have to worry if he fell into the hands of a secret British counterinsurgency force that is engaging in underhanded actions in the area. In short, Belfast in 1971 was hell. One didn’t know who was who and with cold-blooded killers on all sides. This is one of the best films I’ve seen on urban civil conflict with multiple armed actors. It may be set in Belfast but could be a lot of places. Both US/UK and French reviews were tops. Trailer is here.


‘The Selfish Giant’, by Clio Barnard. This is another terrific film, which opened everywhere in December 2013 and that I saw a few weeks after. I was initially going to skip it and despite the top reviews in both the US/UK and France (titre en France: Le Géant égoïste), plus it being inspired by Oscar Wilde’s children’s short story of the same name, but seeing that my friend Guillaume Duval, the editor-in-chief of Alternatives Économiques, had praised the film to the heavens in a social media post, I decided to see it illico. Here’s a brief description from this website (and with my bracketed additions)

An official selection at the [2013] Cannes Film Festival, The Selfish Giant is a contemporary fable [set among the lower classes in Bradford, in the English Midlands] about 13-year-old Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Excluded from school and outsiders in their own neighborhood, the two boys meet Kitten (Sean Gilder), a local scrap dealer [most of the characters in the film are Gypsies]. Wandering their town with just a horse and a cart, they begin collecting scrap metal for him [which mainly involves stealing telephone, railway, and electric power cables and copper wire]. Swifty has a natural gift with horses while Arbor emulates Kitten – keen to impress him and make some money. However, Kitten favors Swifty, leaving Arbor feeling hurt and excluded, driving a wedge between the boys. As Arbor becomes increasingly greedy and exploitative, tensions build, leading to a tragic event that transforms them all.

The two youthful first-time actors, Connor Chapman and Shaun Thomas—who manifestly issue from the couches populaires—are great. Check them out in this short interview. What to say, I really liked this movie and recommend it to all and sundry. Trailer is here.

the selfish giant

‘Testament of Youth’, by James Kent (en France: Mémoires de jeunesse). This one I saw more recently, some three months ago. Initially dubious, I was swayed to see it by the positive Allociné audience reviews (invariably more reliable than those of the critics, though these were good too for this one). And I did not regret. I was totally, completely absorbed in and captivated by the film, to the point where it made my Top 10 best of 2015. Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times got it exactly right in his review

From first to last, “Testament of Youth” sweeps you away. Unapologetically emotional and impeccably made in the classic manner, it tells the kind of potent, many-sided story whose unforeseen complexities can come only courtesy of a life that lived them all.

Based on Vera Brittain’s deeply felt 1933 memoir of her World War I experiences, a modern classic that has never gone out of print and kept Virginia Wolfe up all night reading it, “Testament of Youth” is an attempt to write history in terms of personal life that is wrenched out of its author’s very soul. Only that way, Brittain wrote, “could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War.”

To read the rest of Turan’s review, go here. Vera Brittain is played by Alicia Vikander, who merited an Oscar nomination for her performance. I won’t say anything more about the pic except that I really liked it. It’s top notch entertainment, particularly for those over a certain age. UK/UK reviews were very good on the whole. Trailer is here.

testament of youth

‘Locke’, by Steven Knight. This one, which opened in 2014, I saw a year ago on the small screen. It stars exactly one actor, Tom Hardy—who plays the protag Ivan Locke—and takes place entirely inside a car at night—Locke’s BMW—on the M6 motorway between Birmingham and London, with him at the wheel and talking on the phone. The film is billed a thriller and, believe it or not, it is. Here’s the description from this website

The day before he must supervise a large concrete pour in Birmingham, construction foreman Ivan Locke learns that Bethan, a colleague with whom he had a one-night stand seven months previously, has gone into premature labour. Despite his job responsibilities and although his wife and sons are eagerly awaiting his arrival home to watch an important football match, Locke decides to drive to London to be with Bethan during childbirth. Locke never forgave his father for abandoning him as a child, and he is determined not to make the same mistake.

Over the course of the two-hour drive from Birmingham to London, Locke holds a total of 36 phone calls with his boss and a colleague, Donal, to ensure the pour is successful, with his wife Katrina to confess his infidelity, his son, and with Bethan to reassure her during her labour. During these calls, he is fired from his job, kicked out of his house by his wife, and asked by his older son to return home. He coaches his assistant Donal through preparing the pour despite several major setbacks, and has imaginary conversations with his father, whom he envisions as a passenger in the back seat of his car. When he is close to the hospital, Locke learns of the successful birth of his new baby.

I had no idea this was going to be the film before seeing it, that it would be just a guy talking calmly on his mobile phone while driving his car. And it works. It’s quite a good film and that never loses one’s attention. The family members with whom I saw it agreed. One thing that intrigued me was Locke’s accent, which is British but regional and that I could not identify. A Google search afterward revealed it to be Welsh, but which is not the way Tom Hardy normally speaks. He did it for the movie. US/UK reviews were very good on the whole, French ones not bad. Trailer is here.


‘Snow in Paradise’, by first time director Andrew Hulme. This one I saw last spring. One reviewer called it a “spiritual take on the Cockney gangster pic.” The plot, in a nutshell

Dave’s a petty criminal living on drugs and violence in London. When his actions kill his best friend, he’s propelled into feelings of shame and remorse. Discovering Islam, he begins to find peace but his old life comes back to test him.

It was probably the Islam subplot that piqued my interest in seeing the pic, which was a mistake, as I did not care for it. Every last character is an unsympathetic lowlife and with many of them given over to extreme violence. I’m always game for seeing a good gangster movie but this one wasn’t it. I was not entertained and forgot about it almost as soon as I left the cinoche. US/UK critics, who have given it mixed reviews overall, are clearly on the same wavelength as moi, and while French critics were more positive, Allociné spectateurs have been less so. If one still has the slightest interest, trailer is here.


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The French taxi war

Boulevard Périphérique, Paris, January 26th (photo: AFP)

Boulevard Périphérique, Paris, January 26th (photo: AFP)

I actually have nothing in particular to say about the French taxi strike earlier this week—and which may still be going on for all I know, as I haven’t been following the story too closely. I rarely take taxis and have yet to call an Uber (though have the app on my phone). I’m a public transportation guy—and when I need to go somewhere in a car, I drive mine—so am not personally concerned by this (and as I never take the car to Paris during the week, I wasn’t held up in some traffic jam caused by enraged, striking cab drivers or otherwise put out by their action). My friend Claire Berlinski, who lives in the heart of the city—and likely takes a taxi or Uber on occasion—did, however, comment substantively on the taxi strike in a post on the Ricochet blog, “Live from the Frontlines of the French Taxi War.” Ricochet’s tagline is “Conservative conservation and community” and as Claire is one of its editors, it stands to reason that, politically speaking, she situates herself somewhere to the right of center. She thus writes

But that’s not all! The air traffic controllers went on strike, causing the cancellation of 20 percent of flights in and out of Paris. And somewhere between 10 and 30 percent (depending who’s estimating) of the teachers’, doctors’, hospital workers’, public-sector workers,’ and farmers’ unions went on strike. The farmers yet again blocked roads with their tractors and dumped manure outside the tax offices. It was your totally stereotypical, “What the hell is wrong with the French” kind of day. I wasn’t personally inconvenienced because I was working at home, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you batty if you need to catch a flight. You end up standing in the street (if you’re me) screaming, “Bring me Margaret Thatcher. I don’t care if you’ve got to exhume her, just get her over here.”

FYI, Claire is the author of an admiring biography of Margaret Thatcher, so it was perhaps inevitable that she would invoke the Iron Lady when weighing in on a strike. I had a few things to say about her post, which I wrote in a private email. But instead of sending it, I decided what the hell, as it’s political and not personal, I’ll post it on AWAV instead. So voilà, here is what I wrote to dear Claire:

(a) On your question “Is it true that the French are always on strike?” The answer: No, contrary to popular belief outside France (and for some inside). It’s been several years since I’ve seen current data on annual work days lost to strikes but can assure you that it has plummeted over the past four decades. Strikes here have become infrequent; they’re less than the 1990s and there is no comparison with the 1970s. And strikes are even more infrequent in the private sector, happening mainly in the fonction publique and public services. And because they tend to happen in the latter—public services—one notices them (more than if just a private enterprise were affected).

(b) Public sector strikes in France are invariably of short duration: one day, maybe two or three, and tend to be localized. They don’t last. It’s been over twenty years since the last long strike movement (3½ weeks) that was national and really paralyzed the country (the grèves of November-December 1995). And there has been nothing in a very long time that can hold a candle to the 1984-85 British miners strike, in duration or scale. In this respect, strikes in France almost never entirely shut down an enterprise or public service, as the decision to participate in a strike is an individual one of the employee (as is joining a union and paying dues). No employee in France—private sector or public—can be compelled to go on strike or prevented from working if a strike has been called by one or more unions. Not even members of unions are obliged to participate in strikes called by their union if they don’t feel like it.

(c) Strikes in public services may seriously inconvenience the public and tourists, particularly in anything connected with transportation, but what tends to create problems is not the strikes themselves but the public actions of strikers that disrupt public order, e.g. taxi drivers or farmers blocking traffic, or striking students erecting barricades in front of universities and shutting them down. A lot of these actions are illegal, though with the police often doing nothing about it (at least not right away). One may express exasperation at the government for its pusillanimity but sometimes it gives the order not to crack down—or to wait a while before doing so—so as not to cause a tense situation from degenerating further (and, above all, not to kill someone, which is every government’s dread fear). And if a situation degenerates following a show of force by the police, this could—no, it definitely would—deepen the movement, with unions across the board calling for sympathy strikes. Because here’s the thing in France: unions can call a strike on short notice (five days in advance in the public sector) and for pretty much any reason they like (there is some encadrement, usually honored in the breach), and stay on strike for as long as they please. A certain number of strikes in France would be illegal in the US and most European countries. Mais voilà, c’est la France.

(d) So, one may say, what this country needs is a Margaret Thatcher, a nerves-of-steel ball crusher who will bust the unions, ram through reforms, and generally kick ass. This has been a mantra of The Economist magazine and others outre-Manche for the past three decades. But what, precisely, would a French Margaret Thatcher do? I have yet to see an answer from those who say that France needs an ass kicker as she was seen to be. Also, when it came to strikes and unions, what precisely did Thatcher do when she was in power? In point of fact, she stood down exactly one big strike, which was that of the miners. As mentioned above, that one was of an entirely different nature than anything France could possibly experience nowadays. And Thatcher had a dream adversary, the Stalinist dinosaur Scargill, and with a weak, divided political opposition (the Labour party having suffered one of its worst defeats ever in the 1983 election). As for the labor reforms Thatcher enacted— banning closed shops and secondary strikes, etc—these brought British legislation into line with what had been the status quo in the US since the late 1940s (Taft-Hartley), as well as numerous European countries. In this respect, Thatcher has been oversold. And when she overreached (on the poll tax), her party dumped her. Also, French presidents and PMs have indeed pulled a Thatcher over the years in conflicts with public sector unions, deciding that they’re not going to back down or compromise in any significant way, e.g. Jean-Pierre Raffarin in 2003 (Loi Fillon) and Sarkozy in 2010 (réforme des retraites).

(e) But, one may ask, why don’t French governments, even of the right, enact laws that would prevent unions from striking whenever they please and for any damned reason, i.e. to bring France into line with the rest of the advanced capitalist world on this score? (personally speaking, I’m all for strong unions—which are necessary for the health of a democracy, not to mention for the workers themselves—but would eagerly support such a law). Governments would no doubt like to do such a thing but don’t and for at least three reasons. First, it’s not worth the aggravation. The mere proposition of such a projet de loi would be greeted with strikes and demos and protests of all sorts. From the standpoint of a prime minister, it would be a pain in the ass and with little payoff, so who needs it? Second, strikes in public services generally don’t involve all unions. Unions in France are fragmented and with several present in a workplace (and which are in competition with one another as much as in cooperation, one effect of which is surenchères). Some unions are militant and maximalist (e.g. FO, CGT, SUD), others are reformist and inclined toward cooperation with management (CFDT, CFTC, CGC…). When governments embark on reform legislation that directly affects the unions, they (the governments) invariably find unions who will cooperate with them. E.g. the 1995 Plan Juppé and which led to the big grèves that fall: the CGT and FO were hostile to the Plan and demanded its withdrawal, whereas the CFDT supported Juppé and did not participate in the strike movement. It’s almost always thus. A proposed law seen as a frontal attack on union rights across the board would end the cooperation that does, in fact, exist. Thirdly, governments have decided to take an incremental approach in lieu of the Thatcherite one, of enacting laws gradually rather than doing so in a big bang, e.g. the 2007 law on the service minimum in public transport, which has all but ended the prospect that the RATP could be entirely shut down again in the way it was in 1995. To try to maintain peace and dialogue with important social actors does seem preferable to confrontation and conflict, no?

(f) Re my above bit about strong unions being necessary for the health of a democracy, I just processed a review—in my capacity as book review editor of The Journal of North African Studies—of a new book on the role played by Tunisia’s trade union federation, the UGTT, in the political transition there since the end of the Ben Ali dictatorship five years ago. Without the existence of robust, independent trade unions—a cornerstone of civil society—so the author of the book argues, Tunisia’s transition to democracy would have likely ended in failure, i.e. with the Islamists assuming a monopoly of power. Just saying.

End of email. Claire, who posts on Ricochet almost daily, often writes stuff I find provocative—or that provokes me—e.g. one from earlier this month on “The Huguenots and the Second Amendment.” I have a lot to say on this one. Plus tard.

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Leila Alaoui, R.I.P.

Leila Alaoui

I didn’t know of her until last Friday, when I learned via social media that she had been one of the victims of the Al-Qaida terrorist attack in Ouagadougou. She was in front of the café facing the hotel that was the terrorists’ target, that they raked with machine gun fire, just as the ISIS terrorists did at the cafés and restaurants in Paris’ 10th and 11th arrondissements last November 13th. Massacring people because they happened to be there. It was reported that Leila had survived, been rushed to a hospital in the city, and was out of danger. But yesterday it was announced that she had died. She was 33-years-old, Franco-Moroccan, and an accomplished professional photographer (see here and her website here). She was in Burkina Faso to do photography for Amnesty International. At least five friends and persons with whom I am friendly knew her personally—were friends of hers—and there are no doubt more. This has been all over my social media news feed today. People are shattered by her death and, though I didn’t know her myself, I am quite affected by it myself. What a loss. And a crime. I was already affected by the Ouagadougou attack before learning about Leila—as a terrorist outrage of this nature hits close to home for me—and am now that much more so. And with my sentiments—shared by countless others—reinforced that ISIS, Al-Qaida in all its forms, and others of the ilk (Boko Haram, Somali Al-Shabaab, etc, etc) need to be exterminated. Eradicated from the face of the earth. The New York Times has an obituary of Leila here. Thanks to Ammar Abd Rabbo for the photo of Leila below.

UPDATE: Le Monde’s obituary has more information on Leila, who lived between Paris, Marrakesh, and Beirut. The Amnesty International project that she was in Burkina Faso for was a documentary on violence against women. As fate would have it, she was in Paris last November 13th and in New York City on 9/11. She could have possibly survived had she been tended to in a more advanced medical facility than exists in Burkina Faso.


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Two films from Tunisia

على حلة عيني

على حلة عيني

Last Thursday was the 5th anniversary of the end of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia, climaxing that country’s famous Jasmine Revolution—so designated by the Western media—and which launched the so-called Arab spring—or, rather, the Arab winter, as The Economist calls it—that swept the Arab world over the subsequent months, notably in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Of the countries that witnessed popular uprisings during that exhilarating, ephemeral historical moment, only Tunisia has succeeded in effectuating a transition to democracy, or at least to a non-authoritarian political order this is incontestably preferable to the regime it replaced. Two analyses by Tunisia specialists writing on the anniversary’s occasion get it exactly right, one by the first-rate journalist Thierry Brésillon—who did some of the best reporting from the country during the transition period—in the CCFD-Terre Solidaire’s Paix et Conflits website, the other by Tunis-based political scientist Laryssa Chomiak, in a post on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog. There is also Al Jazeera’s 25-minute reportage-debate, aired on January 15th, “Where is post-revolution Tunisia heading?,” with specialists Amel Boubekeur, Youssef Cherif, and Simon Mabon.

Rather than offer my own thoughts, I will recommend a terrific Tunisian film I saw the other day, À peine j’ouvre les yeux (English title: As I Open My Eyes), by youthful, up-and-coming director Leyla Bouzid, that is set in the summer of 2010, half a year before the onset of the Jasmine Revolution. In lieu of describing it myself, I will copy-and-paste the review by Variety’s great critic Jay Weissberg, who knows Maghreb cinema better than any critic writing in any language, who saw the pic at one of the film festivals where it debuted (Dubai, Venice, Toronto), before hitting the salles in France last month

A headstrong young woman in Tunisia bucks her parents and her repressive society in Leyla Bouzid’s impressive debut.

On the eve of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, a young woman struggles against family and society to pursue a singing career in Leyla Bouzid’s impressive, generally nuanced debut, “As I Open My Eyes.” Sharply yet subtly capturing the atmosphere of fear fostered by the dictatorship of President Ben Ali, this skillfully made drama is especially attuned to the myriad forms of surveillance, from the prurient to the political. Showcasing a stand-out lead perf by first-timer Baya Medhaffer, with intriguing compositions by Iraqi musician Khyam Allami, “Eyes” will open eyes to several new talents and could see a small international rollout.

There’s an appealing youthfulness about the film: the characters’ ages, of course, and the indie music, but also the fluid lensing and the irresistible freshness of Medhaffer’s slightly pouty face, her fixed determination giving character to doll-like features. The actress plays Farah, an aspiring thrush in a new band about to perform their first gig. The young woman has just graduated with honors, and everyone expects her to go on to study medicine, but she’s more interested in musicology.

That doesn’t sit well with mom Hayet (singer Ghalia Benali), once a free spirit herself but now determined to do everything she can to “protect” her daughter from making wrong choices. Life in this middle-class Tunis household is tense, owing to both Mom’s overprotective nature and the frustration that dad Mahmoud (Lassaad Jamoussi) lives in the center-west city of Gafsa, unable to get a transfer to the capital because he refuses to join the ruling party.

Farah is in a heavy-petting relationship with fellow band member Borhene (Montassar Ayari), a cool lute player with sensuous hands that caress her skin. They try to keep their liaison hidden, but the moment a man touches a woman or vice-versa, people notice and stare. Their band is poised for a breakthrough, and the preview gig goes over like gangbusters, especially the new song “My Country,” with its line, “Oh my country, land of dust/Your gates are closed and bring misfortune.”

That sort of lyric makes the authorities wary, and Hayet receives a visit from old acquaintance Moncef (Youness Ferhi), an Interior Ministry employee who warns that Farah is drinking and hanging out with people known to the police. Hayet flips (she’s given to over-dramatization) and makes her daughter swear she won’t go to the gig, but Farah locks her mother in and does the show. Professionally things seem to be going so well, but then manager Ali (Aymen Omrani) wants the band to censor themselves, and tensions mount from every corner: How can Farah fulfill her dreams as an independent young woman in a society that allows only a semblance of freedom?

Helmer Bouzid brings so much shading to the script that the more cut-and-dried last quarter is a slight letdown, as if she felt things had to suddenly be made starkly clear when they already were powerfully drawn. Similarly, wedging in a few scenes about worker tension at the phosphate mines of Gafsa (where unrest was one of the sparks leading to Revolution) feels unnecessary, but these minor quibbles don’t compromise the film’s overall impact, which skillfully conjures the pressure-cooker atmosphere lying just below Tunisia’s surface during the waning days of the dictatorship in 2010.

Especially striking is how the pic evokes the illusion of normality, which makes the roadblocks Farah stumbles over that much more disturbing. This is a society where informers are discovered in unlikely places, and expectations for women, even among the young and hip, run counter to self-expression. With his long hair and easy projection of nonconformity, Borhene seems like a guy happy to see Farah be the fearless woman he praises, but when she draws attention to herself at a party, his traditional concept of woman’s place takes over: Women should not make a spectacle of themselves. This emphasis on the gaze carries an enormous impact: As a free-spirited young woman, Farah is the target of censure from everyone, including her mother, whose past gutsiness has been deformed by a state that rules through fear and coercion.

Benali’s gutsy perf as Hayet fills the screen with highly-charged energy, so it’s to Medhaffer’s enormous credit that the novice so potently holds her own. As both singer and actor, she projects an outer fragility consistently overpowered by heady determination, making Farah a deeply satisfying character. D.p. Sebastien Goepfert, who worked on “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” has a sensual feel for figures and textures, and the top-notch lensing exhibits a pleasing freedom of movement, with smooth pans and gliding camerawork. Allami’s songs have a biting insistence.

Weissberg gets it exactly right. A few comments on the film. First, the two lead actresses, Baya Medhaffer and Ghalia Benali—the 18-year-old daughter (Farah) and mid-40ish mother (Hayet), respectively—and who dominate the film, are absolutely excellent. And it’s apparently the first cinematic role for both, though with Benali being a well-known Tunisian singer. While Medhaffer is spunky and pretty in a youthful way, Benali is maturely beautiful and sublime. She’s fabulous (and on this, two mid-40ish female colleagues/friends—so far the only persons I know who’ve seen the pic—entirely agree with me). Secondly, the family dynamics are just right, in the relationship of mother with daughter, father and daughter—and he’s a good man, the father—and the couple with one another. They’re middle class educated, were clearly opponents of the regime in their youth, but have been beaten down by the system and made their compromises with it—the father only up to a point, though in the end he finally throws in the towel on his passive resistance. Thirdly: though the milieu portrayed in the film is liberal and Westernized, the deadweight of patriarchy and social pressure in regard to gender weighs down on everyone, as Weissberg suggests. It’s really hard to break with prevailing social norms when everyone is watching over and judging you. Fourthly, the workings of the Ben Ali police state, of the mechanisms of its surveillance and control over the population, are brilliantly depicted. And—spoiler alert!—the interrogation sequence of Farah by the secret police is chillingly realistic. If one wants to know what it’s like to live in an authoritarian regime, to (innocently) test its limits—even if one is not overtly political—and have a run-in with the authorities, see this movie. Fifthly, people want to be free. They don’t want to live in a fucking dictatorship and with the constant threat of being suddenly hauled off by the mukhabarat, detained in some secret interrogation center, and tortured and sexually abused at the slightest transgression. Sixthly, the music—original, apparently composed for the film—is quite good IMO. As a singer Medhaffer has talent. And seventhly, the ending was just right. I feared one that would mar the film but happily this was not the case.

Indiewire and Screen Daily gave the pic the thumbs way up. French reviews of the film are also very good, with Allociné spectateurs particularly enthusiastic. The Huff Post has an interview with director Bouzid. Trailer is here.

Another good Tunisian film seen recently—last spring, actually—is Le Challat de Tunis, a mockumentary by Kaouther Ben Hania, another youthful, up-and-coming feminist director from that country. Here’s the description by Hollywood Reporter critic Stephen Dalton, who saw it at the 2014 Cannes film festival

This playful blend of real and fake documentary uses a bizarre true story of unsolved knife attacks against women to examine gender politics in newly democratic Tunisia.

Offering a wry feminist critique of macho chauvinism in Arab culture, Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania’s second feature is an intriguing addition to the boom in low-budget filmmaking inspired by the recent wave of Middle East revolutions. (…)

Challat of Tunis takes a real event as its starting point. In 2003, a mysterious knife attacker rode through the Tunisian capital on a motor scooter, slashing the buttocks of women on the sidewalk. Nicknamed the “Challat” [“slasher” in Tunisian Arabic], the assailant was never caught, but he achieved a kind of folk-hero notoriety, particularly among religious and social conservatives who believed women in jeans or short skirts were being rightfully punished for not dressing “respectfully.”

Ben Hania has examined the gap between European and Arab cultural values before, in her well-reviewed 2010 documentary Imams Go To School. Indeed, she initially planned to make a straight non-fiction film about the Challat, but soon came up against the bureaucratic brick walls of the old regime under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Following the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, however, she reworked the project into a playful docu-drama hybrid that uses the Challat story to interrogate the sexual politics of her newly democratic homeland.

Shooting in hand-held mock-doc style, Ben Hania straddles the line between director and actor. She interviews slasher victims, prison guards, detectives, lawyers and ordinary citizens — some clearly fictionalized, others apparently real. She finally meets a young man who claims to be the Challat, Jallel Dridi, a hotheaded mummy’s boy who models himself on Al Pacino in Scarface.

The film’s most powerful sections are the vox pops with real Tunisians. One man suggests the knife attacks were “a sign of virility” and “part of our Arab culture.” A religious cleric even claims women with “beautiful hair” are sent by the Devil to tempt and corrupt helpless males. The Challat’s female victims, meanwhile, share grim memories of shame, suicide and sexual molestation by the police. “I felt as if I had been attacked by the whole society,” one recalls. Predictable enough, but still sickening. (…)

Variety’s Jay Weissberg, calling the film “audacious” and “hilarious,” also gave it a thumbs up review, as did academic film critic Shelagh Rowan-Legg—for whom the pic is “brilliant and disturbing satire”—on the TwitchFilm website. French reviews—critics and Allociné spectateurs—were good to very good. Trailer w/English s/t is here.

UPDATE: Francis Ghilès has a well-informed article in OpenDemocracy (January 29th), “Something is rotten in the state of Tunisia,” which paints a somber, indeed pessimistic, portrait of the situation in the country.


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David Bowie, R.I.P.


I learned about it in the past hour. I had no idea he had terminal cancer, and apparently few outside his family did either. Everyone was taken by surprise, as France Inter has been saying since the news broke. He was one of my favorite singers—in the top five—from the moment I was turned on to ‘Ziggy Stardust’—one of the greatest rock albums of all time—at age 16, in precisely the fall of 1972. I never got to see him in concert, though did watch an entire one of his on ARTE in the past decade—I think it was Dublin and may or may not have been live—during which I kept telling myself ‘he is so cool’ and so excellent. Last May I went to the touring exhibition David Bowie Is at the Philharmonie de Paris. A great expo. Voilà, c’est tout c’que j’ai à dire. R.I.P.

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Nº 1224, 06-01-2016

Nº 1224, 06-01-2016

Today is the first anniversary of the massacre. I had not intended to mark the occasion but have just come across an excellent commentary by the fine British writer Kenan Malik, “Charlie Hebdo, one year on,” that he posted on his blog today and that I am reposting, as I share his view across the board. Among other things, Malik aims his fire at persons—mainly non-Francophones who had never picked up a copy of Charlie Hebdo in their lives and simply didn’t know what they were talking about—who asserted that CH was “racist” and “Islamophobic,” and, in its cartoons lampooning Islam and Islamism—though never Muslims qua Muslims—was, as the cartoonist Gary Trudeau put it, “attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority.” Malik rubbishes all this, as did I in several posts last year (which, if one is interested, may be consulted via the Charlie Hebdo category on the sidebar).

For the record, I do differ with Malik on one point, which does not specifically concern CH. He writes

Like many on the left in France, Charlie Hebdo has often expressed strong support for the policy of laïcité. ‘Laïcité’ is usually translated as ‘secularism’. It is as a secularist, however, that I oppose it. Secularism demands a separation of state and faith. Laïcité, on the other hand, refers to a form of state-enforced hostility to religion. It requires the state to intervene in matters of faith.

This view of laïcité is widespread—including in France—but is inaccurate. There is a culture and spirit of laïcité but it is, above all, a law: the law of 1905 on the separation of churches and the state—which contains 44 articles—and its follow-up decrees—and which, it must be emphasized, enjoys a 100% consensus in France. No public person in France or organization anyone has heard of opposes the 1905 law. Not one. The 1905 law mandates neutrality of the state vis-à-vis religion. That’s basically it. The 1905 law does not speak to the comportment or vestimentary practices of citizens—agents of the state in the execution of their duties excepted—in public space. So in order to proscribe the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols by students in public schools or of face veils on the street, new laws had to be enacted, as such was not prohibited by the 1905 law. The conception of what laïcité means has indeed evolved in France over the past three decades with the rising visibility of Islam, with laïcité now seen—by politicians left and right, intellectuals, and the public at large—as involving the behavior of individuals and not merely the state. But this is a perversion of laïcité as spelled out by the 1905 law. It is a distortion of this hallowed principle.

There has been a significant political evolution in France since last January’s attacks and, above all, since the ones of November 13th. France is going a bad and dangerous direction, and with François Hollande in the lead role. I’ll have more to say about this in the coming week or two.

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The Hateful Eight


My first movie of the year. And so far the worst. It is identified in the opening credits as Quentin Tarantino’s “8th film.” Two I have yet to see—the ‘Kill Bill’ series and ‘Death Proof’—but the others I have. The verdict: I loved ‘Jackie Brown’, thought ‘Inglourious Basterds’ was a hoot, ranked Django Unchained one of the Top 10 best pics of the year it came out, and did anyone not give the thumbs up to ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’? All this has ergo made me a more or less unconditional fan of Tarantino. After this latest one, I will need to make that conditional. Now I did not downright hate the movie—it merely disgusted me—or get bored or impatient at any point, despite its unreasonable running length of 2 hours 48 minutes (already 20 minutes shorter than the original version), which is without justification. If a movie is going to take up more than two hours of a moviegoer’s time, it should have a good reason to do so. There was none whatever for this.

The problems with the pic: First, it is unoriginal as far as Tarantino films go; stylistically and dialogue-wise, it’s a continuation of Django. Now some of the numerous critics who liked it did find the dialogue and storyline fresh and original. GMAB! We’ve heard and seen it all before from Tarantino. And stripped of the goofy characters, incessant trash talking, and copious use of the N-word, it’s just another Western. Secondly, a certain tedium does set in toward the middle, during which the characters—all unpleasant—drone on with their trash talk (N.B. most of the film is set indoors, in the single room of the lodge-saloon). I successfully staved off falling asleep over some twenty minutes, though felt I wouldn’t have missed much if I had. Thirdly, there’s the violence. One expects violence in a Tarantino film, which tends to be campy, indeed absurd, and not to be taken in the first degree. But it’s on another level in this one and from the outset, and exploding into a pornographic orgy of gore toward the end. And it’s gratuitous, not offbeat, tongue-in-cheek, or at all funny, and gets old fast. Tarantino may be trying to épater la bourgeoisie with graphic scenes of people—including nice, innocent ones, who are introduced in the latter scenes—getting their heads blown to pieces and sex organs riddled with bullets but he’s more likely to turn them off, if not repulse them (as he did me). Fourthly, Tarantino clearly wishes to convey a message about America’s history of race relations but it is not at all clear, not to me at least, what that message may be. And I don’t care about it. Ça n’a pas d’importance. And didn’t he already do this in Django?

In short, ‘The Hateful Eight’ is a nihilistic, pointless film to be avoided by all but the most unconditional Tarantino fans. For pertinent reviews, see A.O. Scott’s in the NY Times (mixed) and Lou Lumenick’s in the NY Post (thumbs down). The film opens in France on Wednesday (I’m presently in the US), where the critical praise is sure to be effusive.

UPDATE: Wow, Le Monde, in its issue dated Jan. 6th, has reviewed the film over an entire page, totally trashing it! Zero stars out of four: On peut éviter (one may avoid it).

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