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Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

Liu Xiaobo, R.I.P.

My friend Xiaorong Li has a remembrance in The New York Times, “Liu Xiaobo’s Unflappable Optimism.”

Also see the well-known Sinologist Perry Link on “the passion of Liu Xiaobo,” in the NYR Daily.

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Jihadi terrorism, that is. The news was dominated this past week by the terrorist attack in Manchester. There is not a sentiment I can express about it that hasn’t been by everyone else. Targeting youngsters for death and maiming, and at a festive event no less: ça dépasse l’entendement. One has no words. Je ne sais pas qu’est-ce qu’on peut dire de plus.

I did not scour the internet for articles to read on the atrocity, though stumbled across a few, such as this one from The Independent, “Salman Abedi: How Manchester attacker turned from cannabis-smoking dropout to Isis suicide bomber;” Emily Crockett’s comment in Rolling Stone, “Why Manchester bomber targeted girls: As is so often the case, misogyny was woven into this act of violence;” and the report in The Telegraph that the security services ignored reports from Muslims in Salman Abedi’s neighborhood about his erratic, worrisome behavior. And this editorial in The New York Times: “When terrorists target children.”

Some ten days ago I took a group of a dozen journalists from Denmark, who work the immigration/Islamic radicalism/terrorism beat in their country, on a walking tour of “immigration and the changing face of Paris,” which I periodically lead for the Paris office of Context Travel. The leader of the group was a sharp Copenhagen journalist named Jakob Sheikh (he’s Danish-Pakistani), who has reported extensively on the radicalization of young Muslims in Denmark. Two articles of his have been translated into English, which are particularly pertinent at the present moment, “My childhood friend, the ISIS jihadist,” in Mashable (October 15, 2014), and “Meeting the foreign fighters: how does Islamic State recruit thousands of Westerners?,” in the New Statesman (December 1, 2015).

My mother emailed me the other day, asking, in the context of the Manchester atrocity, if I had done a blog post on Udayan Prasad’s 1997 film My Son the Fanatic, the screenplay of which was written by Hanif Kureishi (and inspired by his 1994 short story in The New Yorker of the same title). I have not, in fact, had a post on the film, as it’s been over ten years since I last saw it. The one thing I’ll say about it here—in addition to it being first-rate and with a great performance by lead actor Om Puri—is that it remains, twenty years after its release, one of the best cinematic treatments one will find of the religious radicalization of the youthful offspring of immigrant families from Muslim countries—here, Pakistanis in the British Midlands—and of the perplexity, indeed despair, this provokes in their parents, who seek nothing more than to work, better their families’ lives, and integrate into the receiving society. But their children feel no such need to “integrate”—whatever integration for them is supposed to entail (those who yammer on about this never say)—or to keep their heads low and not make waves, because they were born into that society and are of it. Anyone interested in the subject should see the film (which is available on Netflix). The late, great Roger Ebert’s review of it is here and the trailer is here. See also Hanif Kureishi’s piece in The Spectator last December 10th, “‘My son the fanatic’ revisited: Can one generation’s mistake be corrected by the next?”

À propos, jihadi terrorism has been the subject of some six French films—feature-length, that have opened theatrically or were initially slated to—over the past couple of years, all which I have seen. If there’s a pic on the topic, I’ll see it, no matter how mixed or negative the reviews. And the reviews are often this, as of the six or so films in question, only one gets the thumbs up from me—more or less—and may be recommended—more or less—which is Le Ciel attendra (English title: Heaven Will Wait), by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar (who also directed the 2015 Les Héritiers). Moreover, it is the only one of the six or so that found an audience (330K tix sold, which isn’t too bad for a film of this genre).

The story is of two typically French middle-class teenage girls, Sonia (Noémie Merlant, nominated for the ‘most promising actress’ César for her performance) and Mélanie (Naomi Amarger, who lives in Créteil in the film, près de chez moi), with stable, loving families (Sonia’s father is Algerian but totally laïque) and who are doing well at school, but have become self-radicalized, via the internet, into Islamic State-style jihadi Islam. The film depicts their solitary descente aux enfers into Islamic extremism, the desperation of their parents (Sandrine Bonnaire plays the mother of Sonia) when they realize what is happening, and then the efforts to deradicalize them in therapy sessions led by the anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who plays herself.

Bouzar has had a high-profile in France over the past decade, for her work on Islam and France—she publishes a book a year—and the tidy subventions she has received from the state for her association—the Centre de Prévention contre les Dérives Sectaires liées à l’Islam—and proactive work on deradicalizing French adolescents who have returned from Syria, been caught trying to get there, or contemplated doing so. For the anecdote, I saw Bouzar speak to a packed auditorium at the École Militaire, which seats 700, in January 2015 and which was streamed live to audiences throughout the world, but with her face blurred on the screen for security reasons (as if it was not already well-known to those who would want to know it). She was quite the star.

As for Bouzar’s arguments on self-radicalization and how to counter it—which I won’t try to summarize here—I found them interesting enough, though she has been severely criticized by academics and others who work in her domain, for, entres autres, her exclusive focus on juridical minors (those under age 18), emphasis on converts to jihadi Islam (including heretofore non-practicing Muslims), and of Facebook and other social media as a vector of radicalization. Bouzar and her work are controversial among practitioners and specialists, who consider her analysis of the wellsprings of jihadi radicalization to be problematic (there is also a personal side, as all of Bouzar’s university degrees were obtained after age 35, so she is not considered by some to be a bona fide member of the academic club, even though Olivier Roy was her doctoral thesis supervisor).

Back to Mention-Schaar’s film, French reviews were good (Paris press) to very good (Allociné spectateurs), though Hollywood critics who saw it at the Locarno film festival—here, here, and here—found it unsubtle, overly didactic, and with unconvincing performances. I won’t quibble with the stateside critics, though their objections didn’t bother me as much. One didactic point in the pic’s favor is that it depicted the reality of jihadi self-radicalization in this web 2.0 era by teenagers who have never set foot in a mosque or had actual face-to-face contact with real live salafis. Trailer is here.

As for the other films:

Made in France, by Nicolas Boukhrief: This was scheduled to open in theaters throughout France on November 18, 2015, and with big eye-catching posters (below) in the metro stations and elsewhere in public in the weeks prior. But then there was the terrorist atrocity of November 13th. Bad timing for the pic, the release of which was naturally postponed to a later date, and with the distributor finally announcing that it would go straight to VOD in January ’16 and not open theatrically at all. So one had to see it chez soi, on the small screen. That’s okay. It’s a by-the-numbers thriller, about a Franco-Algerian journalist named Sam (Malik Zidi) who infiltrates a jihadi cell in the Paris area (an alternative English title of the film is ‘Inside the Cell’) to land the big scoop. But then he gets caught in the engrenage—from which he cannot extricate himself—with the fanaticized cell leader Hassan (Dimitri Storoge), who is determined to commit a terrorist atrocity (spoiler alert: nothing happens), and flanked by the other cell members, all stock characters: Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed), the not-too-bright Maghrebi thug; Sidi (Ahmed Drame), the black, who’s not a bad guy deep down; and Christophe (François Civil), the Français de souche convert who’s settling personal scores. A genre film from A to Z. While entertaining, it’s not on the same pedagogical or sociological level—if one is looking for that—as Philippe Faucon’s 2012 La Désintégration. And the depiction of the cell—comprised of men who have not personally known one another for long—is of a bygone era. Jihadi terrorist cells in Europe nowadays are invariably composed of blood relatives. Hollywood press reviews—here and here—are more positive than for ‘Heaven Will Wait’. Trailer is here and interview with the director in The Guardian is here.

Les Cowboys, by Thomas Bidegain: This one, which opened two weeks after the November 13th atrocity, is less about terrorism than the sudden indoctrination of one’s child into a cult—here, salafi Islam, presumably terrorist-inclined—though which is not actually seen. It’s an odd film and from the opening scene, of a Western-style rodeo and hootenanny, with everyone dressed up like cowboys and cowgirls, contra dancing to country music, eating barbecue and burgers et le total, except that they’re all French people in the Bas-Bugey and in precisely 1994, when the story begins. Alain (François Damiens), Stetson on his head, is dancing with his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, who then vanishes from sight. Alain and his wife, Nicole (Agathe Dronne), find a letter she has written them, saying that she has moved on to another life and bids them adieu. As they quickly learn, she has absconded with her petit ami, named Ahmed, who had become a salafi. She could be in Algeria—then in throes of the Islamist insurgency, though Ahmed’s Algerian immigrant parents, whom Alain knows, have no idea—the Middle East, Afghanistan, or anywhere. So Alain sets out on the obsessive quest to find his daughter, which takes him to Yemen, Pakistan—where he is helped by an American CIA type (played by John C. Reilly)—and other points on the globe, and that spans 17 years, though with him being killed in an automobile accident along the way, and with the search continued by his son (and Kelly’s younger brother), Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), who finally, maybe locates his sister in 2011.

Reviews of the film were good, including in the US, and with Damiens and director Bidegain receiving César nominations. It certainly held my attention, though I had mixed feelings about it. One understood Alain’s desperation as a father but his persona irritated me throughout, with his incessant blowing his stack and flying off the handle. And the ending left me unsatisfied. Bidegain was, as every review took care to mention, inspired by John Ford’s 1956 Western ‘The Searchers’, with Damiens obviously the John Wayne character and modern-day Muslims the savage Comanches. Having never seen ‘The Searchers’, I got it on Netflix in the US after seeing ‘Les Cowboys’. I was fully aware that Ford’s classic is considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest Westerns ever made—that, e.g., Martin Scorsese considers it one of the greatest films ever, period—but, personally speaking, thought it was crappy 1950s dreck, with wooden acting, a stupid story, and racist in the way it portrayed American Indians. And my mother, who has highbrow film tastes and knows well American cinema of the ’50s—when she was a young adult—entirely agreed with me. And no patient explanation of the film’s qualities will change our minds. Voilà. ‘Les Cowboys’, despite its flaws, is better. Trailer is here.

Taj Mahal, by Nicolas Saada. This one opened three weeks after the November 13th terrorist attacks. It reenacts the November 2008 terrorist operation in Bombay by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba—that lasted three days and killed 164 people—entirely from the perspective of an 18-year-old Franco-British girl named Louise (Stacy Martin, the protag in “Volume 1” of Lars von Trier’s preposterous 2014 ‘Nymphomaniac’), who found herself trapped during the attack in a suite at the Taj Mahal hotel, where she was staying with her parents. One hardly sees the terrorists as they maraud through the luxury hotel on their murderous campaign, the idea presumably being that one is supposed to feel the terror of a potential victim as she hides in the suite, keeping in touch with her parents, who are outside, via mobile phone.

I saw the film at an avant-première—on precisely the seventh anniversary of the first day of the attack—with the director and part of the crew present, plus members of the Association Française des Victimes du Terrorisme, who wholeheartedly endorsed the film. The intentions of the director were laudable and the film does have some merit—it was partly shot on location in Bombay—but unfortunately it’s a turkey. If one is expecting a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat thriller, this film is not it. One is struck by the blasé, low-key attitude of the parents (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Gina McKee) as they await the dénouement of the terror attack, and with their daughter at imminent risk of violent death. If it were me and my wife, we would, at minimum, be panic-stricken, if not downright hysterical. The general sentiment of Hollywood press critics is that the film was “inert” and low energy (here, here, here, and here). French reviews were more respectful—possibly because director Saada was a longtime critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, so a member of the club—though Allociné spectateurs were not so indulgent. The pic, needless to say, was a total box office failure. French audiences simply didn’t want to see such a film less than a month after November 13th. Trailer is here.

Salafistes, by François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem. This is a  71-minute documentary that opened in late January 2016 and to controversy, as the ministry of interior sought to prevent its release—arguing that it constituted an “apology for terrorism” (a criminal offense in France)—and with the ministry of culture then trying to forbid it for persons aged 18 and under (which, in France, is exceedingly rare). The film, which finally opened in two theaters in Paris, consists of actual footage, by Mauritanian co-director Ould Salem, of Timbuktu under the rule of AQIM; interviews with radical salafi theologians in Mali, Mauritania, and Tunisia; and then raw footage of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq carrying out horrendous acts, one of the more shocking being IS fanatics in their pick-ups racing down a desert highway in Iraq, machine-gunning every car they pass, just for the hell of it. In your face. My attitude during the film was who needs this? I am sufficiently well-informed on the subject, the film wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, and watching psychotic people commit acts of gratuitous sadism and mayhem—not to mention salafi theologians (or “theologians”) blather about their crackpot Weltanschauung—is just not something I enjoy doing. But various persons thought the film worthwhile, e.g. former Le Monde editor-in-chief, Natalie Nougayrède, who wrote in The Guardian that “Salafistes is gruelling viewing – but it can help us understand terror.” And Claude Lanzmann, writing in Le Monde, called the documentary a “véritable chef d’œuvre…d’une grande beauté formelle, rapide, efficace, très intelligent,” and slammed the government for trying to block or restrict its release. And The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer also recommended it. Voilà, comme vous voulez. Trailer is here.

Voyage sans retour, by François Gérard. No one saw this film, or practically. It was slated for release in September 2013 but, in the month prior, was subjected to a campaign of denigration on social media, accusing it of being “Islamophobic,” with a lawsuit filed against it by a dodgy (subsequently disbarred) lawyer and actor Samy Naceri, who had a secondary role in the pic, entering into a conflict with the director and also trying to thwart its release. Director Gérard—who is ethnically Algerian (malgré his name)—denied that his film was in any way Islamophobic but the damage was done. It opened in only a couple of independent salles in the Paris area and was gone within two weeks. Vanished into the ether. I saw it via the internet a couple of years later (and needed help from a movie streaming-savvy colleague in finding the pic). In a nutshell, it’s about a Toulousian voyou named Kad (played by Gérard), who runs afoul of a gang of dealers, is obliged to hightail it out of France to England, where he is dragooned into an international terrorist organization, ends up in India and then Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he undergoes terrorist training, and with the idea that he will return to France to commit attentats. But then in Bombay, he runs into a former teacher of his, Nadine (Marie Vincent), who happens to be living there, the two develop sentiments for one another, and with her convincing him of the error of his ways. But he is not out of the woods yet.

The film was said to be loosely inspired by the story of Khaled Kelkal, though I didn’t perceive this at all. The review in Le Monde (one of the few) maintained that while “[f]ragile certes, imparfait assurément, Voyage sans retour est un document choc sur le recrutement des djihadistes dans les banlieues françaises, ce qui le pare d’une dimension testimoniale et pédagogique estimable.” This is too nice. All in all, it is not a good film. The sequence in south Asia is not credible—and particularly the relationship with the former teacher—the acting is mediocre, and one doesn’t give the film a moment’s thought after it’s over. If one wants to see the trailer, voilà. If one wants to actually see the film, good luck.

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The Lahore massacre

Lahore, March 28 2016 (AFP Photo/Arif Ali)

Lahore, March 28 2016 (AFP Photo/Arif Ali)

As with the massacre in Brussels last week, I have no original thoughts of my own on this latest terrorist atrocity, so will link to others. For the moment, just one piece, by Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of the London-based think tank Quilliam and founder of Khudi Pakistan, writing in The Daily Beast (March 28th), “What the slaughter of Christians in Lahore says about the global jihad.” The lede: “We cannot pretend that the extremism driving jihadist terror around the world has nothing to do with Islam.”

More links will follow.

UPDATE: The New Yorker’s Rozina Ali has a short post on “A crisis for minorities in Pakistan.” (March 29th).

2nd UPDATE: South Asia specialists C. Christine Fair and Sumit Ganguly—who teach at Georgetown and Indiana University, respectively—have an article in the Winter 2016 issue of The Washington Quarterly, “Five Dangerous Myths about Pakistan.”

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Titli

titli une chronique indienne

This is a first-rate film from India I saw the other day, about a lowlife crime family in greater Delhi and their lowlife antics. I’ll let Variety’s Jay Weissberg—who probably knows non-Western cinema better than any other US film critic—describe the pic

The rising profile of Indian indies on the international scene receives another boost with Kanu Behl’s grittily impressive noir debut, “Titli.” Set within the claustrophobic confines of a criminal family in a downtrodden section of Delhi, the film plunges into this pitiless milieu with headstrong assurance, presenting a paternalistic world where corruption seeps into people’s pores and women need backbones of steel to survive. Behl coaxes standout perfs from the largely non-pro cast and captures the volatility of a society where violence lies uneasily just below the surface…

If the recent horrific rapes reported from India have taken much of the globe by surprise, “Titli” seems to be saying, “Look, let me show you where this comes from.” Behl and co-scripter Sharat Katariya make no apologies; nor do they create one-dimensional monsters: They depict a dog-eat-dog culture where feelings of powerlessness engender acts of terrible cruelty. Part of this stewing anger comes from the increasingly independent power of women, creating a backlash and crushing wives unable to maintain their precarious control.

The name Titli translates as “butterfly,” an apt moniker for a character (Shashank Arora) who undergoes a troubling transformation. He’s the youngest of three brothers, living together with their father (Lalit Behl, the helmer’s dad) in a cramped, dingy home off one of Delhi’s countless unpaved streets. Titli dreams of escaping and buying the concession for a newly constructed parking garage, but he’s about $500 short. Once his family is introduced, it’s apparent why Titli is so anxious to get out: Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) is a belligerent tyrant who’s driven his wife to file for divorce, and middle brother Baawla (Amit Sial), through his calm demeanor, enables Vikram’s expansive ruthlessness and their father’s silent control. (…)

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here.

The film paints a bleak portrait of contemporary India in this era of globalization—urban India’s globalized logo consumer culture is declaimed in the opening scene—, neoliberalism, and—how else to put it—modernization and the attendant anomie, with the violence that suffuses social relations, not to mention relations within the family, and the general breakdown of social mores. My grandfather (1903-80) would die a second time if he saw what India has become, where money is all that matters, people have extramarital affairs and get divorced, and you name it. Indian culture is famously family centered, which the film depicts well, except that the families are distinctly Mafia-like—no sentiments, just pecuniary interest—but with the women neither passive nor taking shit from their menfolk. At least some things have changed for the better. The Lunchbox—a most heartwarming film—this is not. And this one no doubt nails a certain reality in India these days more than did Gangs of Wasseypur, which was over-the-top and borderline cartoonish toward the end.

In addition to the backhanded social commentary, the pic is gripping—I didn’t check my watch once, which, for a 2+ hour film, is not bad—and very well acted all around, in particular the comely Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), the protag Titli’s wife (or “wife”). As for Titli’s name, I thought it odd, as that’s normally a girl’s name (or nickname), but it’s mentioned halfway through that his mother (deceased) so wanted her third (and last) child to be a girl—as her first two sons were destined to be sleazebags from birth, who could blame her?—that she gave him a girl’s name anyway. The film—which has so far opened only in France (it has yet to in India)—contains a warning that some spectateurs may find certain scenes shocking (for the violence), so be ready to avert your eyes (as I did). Reviewers from THR and Screen Daily who saw the pic at Cannes last year give it the thumbs up, as have French critics. Trailer is here.

Titli

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le-temps-des-aveux

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Marking the occasion, Le Monde’s Friday issue has a full-page article by one of the paper’s international editors, Adrien Le Gal, “Voyage chez Pol Pot,” in which it is recalled how the Khmer Rouge victory was applauded by numerous Western leftist activists, tiersmondiste intellectuals, and engagé journalists—including, Le Gal specifies, at Le Monde itself. The subject of the article is precisely those Western apologists, delegations of whom were invited by the Khmer Rouge to visit “Democratic Kampuchea” in 1978—in groups of three or four at a time—the first Westerners to set foot in Cambodia in three years. Le Gal tracked down some of those visitors, to solicit their assessments with four decades hindsight. Most regret their views of the time, though a few remain unrepentant (one being the Swedish gauchiste writer Jan Myrdal, son of the illustrious Gunnar & Alva). One of the more vocal Khmer Rouge apologists in the English-speaking world was the British academic Malcolm Caldwell, who was killed in Phnom Penh in late 1978 in mysterious circumstances. French historian Henri Locard—who has authored a recent book on the Khmer Rouge—told Le Gal that he is quite sure Caldwell’s killing was an accident, that he was hit by a stray bullet fired by a Khmer Rouge guard in an altercation that had nothing to do with Caldwell. Interesting.

For the anecdote, I was one of those who applauded the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, apologized for them for a couple of years, and did not wish to read the horrific refugee accounts that appeared in publications like Reader’s Digest (which, as Susan Sontag informed an unappreciative New York audience several years later, got it more right on communism than did The Nation). In April 1975 I was a college freshman and self-proclaimed Maoist (a political posture I had adopted four years earlier—as a 10th grader—after reading Edgar Snow’s Red China Today). In 1976, during my sophomore year, I wrote a term paper, for an interdisciplinary course on East Asia, explaining and defending the Khmer Rouge’s evacuation of the population of Phnom Penh to the countryside. My principal source was a just-published monograph by Khmer Rouge Über-apologists Gareth Porter and George C. Hildebrand, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. The professor’s remark at the end of my paper was “Excellent!” (letter grades did not exist at my college but if they had, I would have gotten an A for sure; I probably still have the paper, buried in a box somewhere). The très engagé Porter—who’s still around and kicking—held a doctorate in Southeast Asian studies from Cornell—the top university in that field—and was thus no hack, has sort of half-apologized for his Khmer Rouge apologetics (though he’s kind of defensive about it). Other leftists of the period, who had nothing in particular to say about the Khmer Rouge while it ruled, suddenly started to denounce it, and to give credit to all the horror stories, after Vietnam’s January 1979 invasion and occupation of Cambodia. The Vietnamese invasion gave them cover. It was Vietnamese Communists good/Khmer Rouge bad (like the good Lenin vs. the bad Stalin). I am reminded of the spectacle of holier-than-thou leftists, at a public debate on US foreign policy at New York’s Public Theater in the winter of 1981, taking to task panel member Richard Holbrooke—who had just finished his stint as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs—for the Carter administration not having recognized the Vietnamese client regime in Phnom Penh and having backhandedly aligned the US position on Cambodia with that of China, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign patron…

There have been several cinematic treatments of the Khmer Rouge’s ubuesque, totalitarian regime, its enslavement of the entire Cambodian population, and the auto-genocide it embarked on (the first time in human history a ruling cabal set out to exterminate the majority of its own population). Everyone has seen Roland Joffé’s 1983 The Killing Fields. Last December Régis Wargnier’s Le Temps des aveux (English title: The Gate) opened in France. This tells the story of ethnologist François Bizot as recounted in his 2001 prize-winning book Le Portail, published in English under the title The Gate. In his book Bizot, a leading French academic specialist of Cambodian civilization who, since 1965, had been living in a village near Siam Reap—where he married a Cambodian—tells of his abduction by the Khmer Rouge at a guerrilla checkpoint in 1971. Imprisoned in an open-air jungle camp in Khmer Rouge-held territory, Bizot was shackled, mistreated, brutally interrogated, and accused of being a CIA agent, which meant execution. During his captivity, he witnessed the extreme cruelty of the Khmer Rouge, where people were led off to be shot or clubbed to death for the most minor of infractions—infractions decreed by the Khmer Rouge that almost no one could avoid committing at some point or another. But Bizot, played in the film by Raphaël Personnaz, managed to convince his otherwise pitiless interrogator, Kang Kek Ieu, a.k.a. Comrade Duch—played by writer and translator Kompheak Phoeung—that he was indeed merely a scholar researching ancient Buddhist manuscripts. When Bizot appeared before the Khmer Rouge leadership—the Angka, with Pol Pot presiding—to be judged, he was acquitted. Duch, no doubt at some risk to himself, had managed to convince his Angka colleagues of Bizot’s innocence. The scene of the revolutionary tribunal reminded me of the similar one in the film Timbuktu, which I had seen a few days earlier, of the formal commitment to law and legal procedure by men who know nothing whatever about law and are utterly arbitrary in their decisions.

So Bizot owed his life to Duch, a cruel man—a sort of Cambodian Eichmann—who, it would later be revealed, had had many thousands tortured and murdered. After three months of captivity, Bizot was freed, with instructions that he deliver an envelope to the French embassy in Phnom Penh. The envelope contained the text of the Khmer Rouge’s ideological and political treatise, which spelled out precisely what it planned to do once it had conquered the country. The auto-genocide was all in there. The treatise, it seems, was filed away untranslated at the Quai d’Orsay. No one read it before 1975.

Bizot declined to leave Cambodia after his experience—his family and work were there—and was in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived in April ’75.  He sought protection with his family at the French embassy, along with all resident foreigners and many terrified Cambodians. This sequence of the film is well-done, though Wargnier does take a few liberties with the historical record, e.g. in showing Duch as the Khmer Rouge official at the embassy gate (when, in fact, he wasn’t there). Olivier Gourmet plays the consul Jean Dyrac, who was the senior French diplomat in the country (France having formally broken diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Lon Nol’s 1970 coup d’Etat). Here Wargnier, relaying Bizot’s account, corrects the portrayal in ‘The Killing Fields’—Sydney Schanberg’s, in effect—of the French diplomats in Phnom Penh having behaved cynically, indeed immorally, in pushing Cambodians associated with the fallen regime out of the embassy grounds and to certain death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Bizot asserts that such did not happen, at least not in the way Schanberg claimed it did; the consul and his staff were faced with an almost impossible situation, as the Khmer Rouge did not respect the extraterritoriality of the embassy grounds, couldn’t have cared less about any Vienna Convention, and were ready to storm it at any moment. There was nothing the French could have done to save the Cambodians at the embassy who didn’t hold a foreign passport (see here; also here).

Bizot, with hastily made French passports for his family, left on the convoy to Thailand (though his wife didn’t make it past the border guards; she survived the Khmer Rouge but their marriage did not). The film then jumps to 2003, with Bizot back in Cambodia and where he meets with Duch, now in detention and awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. And the trial finally happened six years later, which Bizot wrote about in this 2009 NYT op-ed. I thought the film was quite good. It’s engrossing, well-acted, and effectively conveys the evil of the Khmer Rouge (and it was entirely filmed in Cambodia). And Bizot’s story is exceptional. The one full US review, in THR, is here (it’s positive, though I totally disagree with the final paragraph, on the film’s supposed “one failing”). It will surely open in the US at some point. Trailer is here.

After Wargnier’s film, I simply had to check out others on the subject. So over the subsequent two weeks I saw two documentaries on DVD by Paris-based filmmaker—and co-producer of ‘The Gate’—Rithy Panh (not to be confused with the photojournalist Dith Pran, whose story was at the center of Roland Joffé’s film). The first one was the 2003 S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, about the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, a.k.a. S21, in Phnom Penh, of which Duch was the director for most of the Khmer Rouge’s years in power and where some 17,000 persons were interned, interrogated, tortured, and executed. Prison interrogators and guards coolly described to Rithy Panh how they went about their work. It’s an amazing documentary. An absolute must-see (trailer is here). Tuol Sleng is now a museum and memorial of the Khmer Rouge’s auto-genocide.

The other Rithy Panh documentary seen was The Missing Picture (L’Image manquante, curieusement pas encore sorti en France), which won the Un Certain Regard top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and was one of the five pics nominated for the 2014 best foreign film Oscar. In this one Rithy Panh tells the story of his own experience under the Khmer Rouge, of his deportation from Phnom Penh at age 11, the slave labor in the countryside, and death by starvation of members of his family. One particularity of the Khmer Rouge era is the near total absence of images. Mug shots at Tuol Sleng and a few black-and-white propaganda films excepted, there are practically no photos or other images of Cambodia of the period. Like the Nazis and their extermination camps, the Angka did not wish to record what they were doing for future posterity. So to make up for the absence of images, Rithy Panh used miniature clay figurines to tell his story. It’s an original film and powerful. Like his ‘S21’, it’s a must-see. Hollywood press reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.

These are but two of the several documentaries Rithy Panh has made on the Khmer Rouge, one of which is entirely focused on Comrade Duch. This I’ll see at some point. He’s also published his memoir (written with Christophe Bataille), L’élimination, which has been translated into English. As with the Holocaust and other episodes of genocide and mass evil, there will never be too many books or films on this subject.

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[update below]

I would likely not be doing a post marking Lee Kuan Yew’s death this past Monday were it not for my visit—my first—to Singapore last June. I spent three full days there, which is the right amount of time for a tourist (and that’s what I was). I was interested in seeing the place but had certain preconceptions: that it would be sterile, soullessly modern, overly expensive, not much of interest to see or do… And then there were the news stories from past decades of the petty repression, of being fined for spitting, chewing gum (which I don’t), etc. I was quite impressed with the city, though, which has much to recommend it and is absolutely worth a visit if one happens to be in that corner of the world (I was coming from Malaysia). The modernity is married well with the older ethnic quarters (Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street…). Singapore is a well-ordered city-state, easy to get around (on foot and by the excellent public transportation system), and not overly pricey (hotels, restaurants) if one knows where to go. And I was particularly impressed with the cultural patrimony—which is not insignificant—and the museums, which reveal the will to build a national identity in a city-state that was not a nation when it became independent en catastrophe in 1965. I learned more about the modern history of Singapore—of the construction of the state and nation—at the National Museum than in any book (not that I had read a tremendous amount on the subject beforehand). And the nearby Peranakan Museum—entirely devoted to the hybrid Chinese Confucian/Malay Muslim subculture, now vanished, that was born in Malaya and Singapore in the late 19th century via mixed marriages (Chinese men, Malay women)—was fascinating. I had no idea. And the Chinatown Heritage Centre was well worth the visit, where one sees—as at the National Museum—how poor Singapore was and how miserably most people there—mainly Chinese migrants—lived into the 1960s.

Modern Singapore is a miracle (and aided by the modern miracle of air conditioning, as economist Branko Milanović reminds us via Paul Krugman, without which no successful economy in the tropics or a desert—including the US sunbelt—would be what it is). From a piss poor country six decades ago Singapore now has a higher per capita GNI at PPP than the US or any member state of the EU (I was informed while there that the salaries of public primary school teachers begin in the mid five figures in US$, and university professors are all paid into the six figures US$; and for nationals, housing is not expensive). And Singapore is not a Gulf emirate or sheikhdom living off rentier income. The Singaporeans have done it by hard work and, while they’ve been at it, in forging a collective national identity based on what in France is called communautarisme (Chinese 74%, Malays 13%, Indian Tamils 9%). And it works. And all thanks to one man: Lee Kuan Yew.

Far from me to praise an authoritarian (soft) and who theorized nonsense on something called “Asian values.” On this subject I go with the critiques of Amartya Sen and Li Xiaorong—Asians both—end of discussion. But one must give credit where credit is due. Lee was an authoritarian who succeeded (how nice it would be if the Arab world could boast such a figure). On this, I link to James Fallows’s remembrance, “Lee Kuan Yew, the leader who lasted.” Also the one by conservative writer Theodore Dalrymple on “The man who made Singapore,” in which he expresses his admiring ambivalence of the sociopolitical order created by Lee. Echoing the last line in Dalrymple’s piece, a Turkish resident with whom I conversed par hasard told me that Singapore is an excellent place to live and where one can do well for oneself, provided that one scrupulously obeys the law and respects all the rules (of which there is a plethora). If one does that no questions asked, then one will have no problems. But if one transgresses, big problems will ensue.

While Lee’s ideas on “Asian values” were problematic, to put it mildly, he had interesting things to say on other topics, notably that of Islam, a religion well represented in Singapore via the Malay community and a minority of the Indians (Tamils, Punjabis). As I read in TOI last October 17th, Lee clearly designated Saudi Arabia as the culprit for the rise in jihadi terrorism in Southeast Asia after 9/11.

According to Lee, Muslims in Southeast Asia were traditionally moderate and tolerant. But in the 40-odd years since the oil crisis and petrodollars became a windfall in the Muslim world, Saudi extremists have been proselytizing, and building mosques and madrassas that preach Wahhabism. Lee argued this Wahhabi brand is a “venomous religion” that has radicalized Southeast Asian Muslims, and marketed to Muslims throughout the world that the gold standard for being a good Muslim is Saudi Arabia.

Southeast Asia has thus fallen victim to the Wahhabi-driven al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah (JI) that was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing and a string of terrorist attacks in Indonesia from 2003 to 2005. Now, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines are witnessing a revival of Islamic extremism via the spread of ISIS.

Lee Kuan Yew got this one totally right. Saudi Arabia has been one of the most pernicious forces for evil in the world over the past several decades. But as Saudi Arabia has all that oil, occupies a strategic position in a part of the world vital to the world economy, and is a relatively stable (for now) state in a region going to hell in a handbasket, there is unfortunately almost nothing that can be done to counter the malevolent strain of Islam that it has been aggressively exporting.

As for the Islamic presence in Singapore—where religious tolerance is an ironclad rule, as is moderation in religious practice—here are some photos I took

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In Chinatown.

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Muhammet, tailor, South Bridge Road. He wants you to know where he stands on the question of secularism back in the home country.

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The Malay quarter.

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Bussorah Street, behind the Sultan Mosque.

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It’s ‘malam nisfu sya’aban’—the Night of Mid-Sha’ban—so hundreds of worshipers have come to the Sultan Mosque.

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I’ve lived in Muslim majority countries for some eight years of my life and have never seen such a sight, of so many women in colorful hijabs (not a single niqab) praying outside a mosque. Traditional Islam in Southeast Asia is the not the same as in the Middle East-North Africa.

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In Little India.

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To read, click on image and enlarge.

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This is the Kampung Kling Mosque in Malacca (Melaka), Malaysia, 235 km northwest of Singapore.

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Talk about a syncretic architectural style…

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An amazing mosque. I’ve never seen one like it.

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The mere sight of this mosque would give ISIS a collective heart attack. They’d definitely blow it up if they could.

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While I’m at it, this is the Masjid Jamek in Kuala Lumpur (City Centre). Its design and construction were supervised by the British.

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The National Mosque, on the edge of the KL City Centre. Built in 1965.

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You can get a few thousand worshipers into this mosque.

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Architecturally speaking, it’s rather less interesting than the ones above.

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Moi.

UPDATE: Longtime Harvard professor Graham Allison has a piece in The Atlantic (March 30th) worth pondering on “The Lee Kuan Yew Conundrum.” The lede: “Singapore’s late leader governed undemocratically but effectively. Which raises a question: What is the ultimate purpose of government?”

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A Touch of Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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