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Like everyone I read all about last Tuesday’s grotesque farce in Singapore, though as it was so manifestly a publicity stunt, indeed a con job, by the White House dotard—the DPRK regime is to be eternally commended for informing us native speaking Anglophones of the existence of this word in the English language—I avoided watching the TV coverage. It goes without saying that the summit was a clear win for the DPRK and with the US coming away with nothing in particular; this is the consensus among objective observers and commentators (so much so that no references are necessary). How could it be otherwise with an ignorant idiot like Trump, whose sole sources of information are what he sees on television and whatever may be whispered in his ear by one of the lackeys, lickspittles, or whackadoodles in his entourage? He reads nothing, as we know, not even short memos or abbreviated intelligence briefings. The fact that Trump was winging it in Singapore—that the preparatory work of his staff was minimal and that he had no idea what he was doing or talking about—was confirmed—if confirmation were necessary—by his own words at the press conference after the event.

While the reviews of Trump’s performance have been heavily negative, I did note a couple of gauchiste friends on social media who put a positive spin on it, taking liberals and lefties to task while they were at it for not giving Trump credit where credit was due. One of their arguments was that South Koreans in their majority were delighted by what happened in Singapore. Well, of course they would be: when a mentally deranged US dotard president threatens to rain “fire and fury” on the Korean peninsula and then, for reasons known only to himself—and even then—suddenly does a 180° and starts talking peace, then obviously people south of the 38th parallel will be relieved. So no, Trump gets zero credit. None whatever.

One friend who has weighed in publicly on Singapore is Stephen Zunes, a smart engagé political scientist well-known among lefties and peace activists, who posted his take on social media, and on which he invited me to comment. So here’s his commentary followed by my response:

Some thoughts on the Singapore Summit between Trump and Kim:

1) The joint statement is vague and doesn’t amount to much, so I’m dubious it will amount to any treaty or denuclearization or lasting peace, at least while Trump is president

2) Nevertheless, they are talking with each other instead of threatening each other and are at least pretending to move in the right direction, and that is very positive

3) US-South Korean military exercises, while largely defensive in nature, are not really necessary and are seen as provocative by the North Koreans, so their unilateral suspension by Trump as a confidence-building measure is a good thing

4) If Obama had done the same thing Trump has done in recent days regarding North Korea, Democrats would be defending him and Republicans would be mercilessly attacking him. Since it’s Trump, however, it’s largely been the other way around. The summit and the joint statement should be judged on its own merits, not by partisan politics

5) Trump is being totally hypocritical to walk away from a detailed verifiable nuclear agreement with Iran while praising a vague unverifiable set of principles with North Korea.

6) North Korea would be naïve to sign any binding agreement with Trump, since he clearly does not feel obliged to keep the United States’ international commitments

7) The joint statement was NOT one-sided in North Korea’s favor. It was one-sided in the United States’
favor, since it said nothing about the U.S. eventually getting rid of or even reducing its vast nuclear arsenal

8) North Korea is a horrific dictatorship, but that doesn’t mean that the United States shouldn’t engage in respectful diplomatic negotiations in areas of mutual concern. Indeed, the Trump administration provides arms and security assistance to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes with bipartisan support in Congress, so it’s ridiculous to claim that meeting with Kim means the United States is suddenly coddling dictators

9) Trump probably took his far more moderate and conciliatory position than many expected because the South Koreans had so strongly objected to his earlier belligerent approach and he realized it would be difficult for a country on the far side of the world to take a more hardline position than the country most affected by North Korea

10) Despite these positive developments, the world should still be concerned about having an unstable impulsive militaristic narcissist with nuclear weapons; we should also be concerned about Kim Jong-un.

I agree with all of these points except 3, 7 and 9, and with a comment on 2. On the latter, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war but in this case, the only serious threat of war—and nuclear at that—has come from Trump. The DPRK may act crazy from time to time but, as I think we understand, it is not actually crazy, and certainly not enough to launch a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack on South Korea or Japan, let alone the US. Sure, it’s a totalitarian regime and behaves horribly toward its own people, plus to unfortunate foreigners who get into trouble there, but it does not behave irrationally in its foreign dealings. And while we have no idea about Kim Jong-un’s mental health state, we do about that of the malignant narcissistic megalomaniac in the White House, who is entirely capable of doing another 180°, tearing up what was signed at Singapore, and once again threatening to rain fire and fury if it dawns on him that he’s being played by Kim. As Emmanuel Macron and countless others have learned, Trump keeps no commitments, respects no rules, and has no friends. So one can only look at what happened in Singapore with a jaundiced eye.

On point 3: the US-South Korea military exercises are entirely legitimate and normal in view of the defense treaty between the two countries, the heavy militarization of the DPRK, and the formal state of war that still exists. Trump’s unilateral suspension was not only gratuitous—he did not need to offer Kim any more confidence-building measures than he did by simply meeting with and flattering him—but also a slap in the face to South Korea and president Moon Jae-in, who was not informed about it beforehand. This is the sort of concession to be made as part of a negotiating process, in which the US and South Korea receive something concrete and comparable in return. But such was not the case with the famous deal-maker Trump.

Point 7: The size, let alone existence, of the US nuclear arsenal is not on the table in negotiations with the DPRK. Only the latter’s is. The objection here is irrelevant.

Point 9: This assumes a logic and rationality to Trump’s thinking on foreign policy—indeed his thinking on anything—but also that he cares a whit about what other countries—here, South Korea—think or desire. Trump acts on impulse and follows his gut instinct. He cares about no one and nothing but himself. As for why he took his more moderate and conciliatory position toward the DPRK, again, we have no idea. For all we know, someone in his entourage told him that if he sought a meeting with Kim and talked peace, that he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. And Trump thought: “Great idea! And if Obama can have a Nobel Prize, why not me?” Such would also up his poll numbers and thrill the base to no end. If doesn’t get the Nobel—and he won’t—he may well walk away from his peace process, if he hasn’t already by then.

The fact of the matter is, there will be no deal with the DPRK, at least not one in which the latter denuclearizes and allows foreign inspectors unfettered access to verify that such is taking place. The DPRK would be crazy to sign such an agreement after what happened in Singapore. And they would be doubly crazy to sign any such deal with Trump.

À propos of all this, Slate staff writer Lili Loofbourow has a pertinent essay, dated June 14th, “We are in a linguistic emergency when it comes to Trump: He is getting exactly what he wants.” For those too lazy to click on the link, here’s the whole thing:

In the wake of the horrors currently being done to children in America’s name, here’s one thing we can do: Recognize we’re in a linguistic emergency. We have a president whose single-minded praise for macho might is wearing down even those who refuse to overlook his incompetence. Trump, the only presidential candidate to refer to his penis size during a national debate, wants nothing more than to be seen as powerful and manly, and to align himself with those who project the characteristics he desires. And he’s gotten help—from us. If you’ve ever called Trump “tough” on immigration, note that he just called a dictator “tough” for murdering his citizens. (And “very smart” for staying in power.) That should be a wake-up call to journalists responsible for telling the story of this moment: Stop using the words he routinely chooses to describe himself. And think hard about whether you’re accidentally reinforcing the model of power he’s trying to sell.

That change is task one: Sidestep every attempt he and his allies make to equate treating people badly with being strong, because their efforts to link those concepts are working. Neutral outlets are defaulting to his language for what he does—he’s “cracking down” on unions! He’s taking a “hard line” on the G-7! Driving “hard bargains”! These all position him as powerful, which he loves. The trouble is, it’s wrong. In practice, Trump’s positions slip and slide all over the place. He never got that “hard bargain” he allegedly drove (though he sure got credit for driving it). His deals fall through, his policy shifts depending on whomever he spoke to last. It would be the height of irony if the weakest president on record managed to rebrand himself as the strongman he so badly wants to be.

So: Infectious though his formulations can be, it’s time to break the habit. Don’t use his language outside quotation marks. Take particular care to avoid words that confuse cruelty with strength. Avoid warlike metaphors. No taking aim, no battles, no doubling down. No punching metaphors. No deals. Deny him the framing he wants. There are, after all, other words. Arbitrary. Confused. Crabby. Ignorant.

This is an extraordinarily weak president. Narrate him that way. It’s the truth.

Language reshapes relations; even the famous Stanford prison experiment—which ostensibly demonstrated that people with perceived power devolve to treating each other brutally—was recently exposed as having some of its more horrifying results engineered. The “brutal” guards were told to be brutal and how to be brutal. George Lakoff has argued that the metaphors underpinning language do at least as much messaging work as the words themselves do. He’s right. And Trump is good at using hoary old frames about mighty men, of calling losses wins. It doesn’t matter if he lies—the only goal is to convey strength. And it works.

His presidency has not, so far, been described faithfully and consistently for what it is. Take this December Bloomberg story, which describes a speech in which Trump makes it clear he has no idea how the immigration system he’s promised to change works. This is what he said: “They give us their worst people, they put them in a bin, but in his hand when he’s picking him are really the worst of the worst.” That is not, in any way, how America’s immigration functions.

In any other climate, the newsworthy element of the story would be obvious: a president claiming he can fix immigration doesn’t understand, at the most basic level, how the current system works. That’s a scandal. But rather than center that fact, the headline is “Trump Calls Immigrants With Lottery Visas ‘Worst of the Worst.’ ” That Trump got everything wrong doesn’t show up until the seventh paragraph. Not only does this marginalize what really matters—i.e., that the man in charge is so incompetent he can’t even describe the thing he plans to fix—it also concentrates the power of the story on Trump. It suggests that the important takeaway from this speech is what he calls a group of people that he just demonstrated he knows nothing about.

A president’s lack of basic competence is worth accurately reporting on. And it must be reported on when there is nothing else of value worth reporting.

So why doesn’t this happen more? Two reasons: For one, I sense in much of the reporting on Trump a secret fear that maybe we’re missing something. He won, after all. And he keeps insisting that he’s strong despite all the evidence, so maybe there’s something we’re not seeing. This, as many have pointed out, is gaslighting. It’s why he always says he has a plan he won’t describe.

The second reason is that many news organizations still confuse neutrality with accuracy. Better to just report what he says and let the people decide, the thinking goes.

But that’s wrong. And that’s due to the power of language: Simply repeating his fantastical claims makes them seem less fantastical. What a president says usually matters a great deal. But because what Trump says usually bears no relation to the truth (or to what his own policies end up being) it therefore fails to inform the public, and is not worth repeating. He wants to propagate the story of a power he doesn’t have. We shouldn’t help him.

Instead, repeat the valuable news that emanates from this White House: Usually, that will involve showing all the ways this president is wrong, weak, and reactive.

And if you’re stumped on finding the words to do that with, look to misogyny. I’m serious. Just imagine how the past week would have been framed had Trump been a woman—weakness would be the constant subtext. “A shaken Trump tries to shift blame for broken families on nonexistent ‘Democrat bill.’” “At Singapore summit, Trump makes nervous joke over weight.” “Trump catty with Trudeau.”

And then there’s this “Memo to the press, after 18 months of Trump,” posted June 15th by Robert Reich on his Facebook page:

1. Stop treating Trump’s tweets as news.

2. Never believe a single word that comes out of his mouth.

3. Don’t fall for the reality-TV spectacles he creates. (For example, his meeting with Kim Jong-un.) They’re not news, either.

4. Don’t let his churlish thin-skinned vindictive narcissistic rants divert attention from what he’s really doing.

5. Focus on what he’s really doing, and put stories into this context. He’s: (1) undermining democratic institutions, (2) using his office for personal gain, (3) sowing division and hate, (4) cozying up to dictators while antagonizing our democratic allies around the world, (5) violating the rule of law, and (6) enriching America’s wealthy while harming the middle class and the poor. He may also be (7) colluding with Putin.

6. Keep track of what his Cabinet is doing — Sessions’s attacks on civil rights, civil liberties, voting rights, and immigrants; DeVos’s efforts to undermine public education, Pruitt’s and Zinke’s efforts to gut the environment; all their conflicts of interest, and the industry lobbyists they’ve put in high positions.

7. Don’t try to “balance” your coverage of the truth with quotes and arguments from Trump’s enablers and followers. This is not a contest between right and left, Republicans and Democrats. This is between democracy and demagogic authoritarianism.

8. Don’t let him rattle you. Maintain your dignity, confidence, and courage.

À suivre.

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The Venerable W.

I am presently riveted newswise to Hurricane Irma, which is heading toward Florida as I write, though am reading about other calamitous events across the globe as well, one being the communal conflict in Burma and campaign of ethnic cleansing there against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the western part of the country. It is a tragedy and a crime against humanity, and which has been in the works for years, indeed decades. On the matter, I saw earlier this summer a bone-chilling documentary that opened theatrically in France, The Venerable W., by the well-known Swiss filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, the subject of which is the fanatical, high-profile (in Burma) Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who unabashedly preaches hatred against Burma’s Muslims in terms that would put Radovan Karadžić and Pamela Geller to shame. His rhetoric is borderline genocidal, expressed openly to Schroeder and without mincing words. And as one sees in the film, his following in Burma is not insignificant. Buddhism, in stereotyped ways of viewing things, is supposed to be about peace and love, whereas Islam is seen as the opposite, but here the clichés are turned on their heads. The uttarasanga-wearing Burmese monks are as fanaticized as any given bunch of Salafists or alt-rightists outre-Atlantique.

For more on the film, see the reviews by Jay Weissberg in Variety, Jordan Mintzer in The Hollywood Reporter, and Lee Marshall in Screen Daily, all of whom saw it at Cannes. One may also read the 2013 Time magazine cover story on “The face of Buddhist terror.” Trailer is here (where one will, entre autres, see Wirathu praising Trump).

The film, as one reads, completes Schroeder’s “Trilogy of Evil,” the first being the 1974 Général Idi Amin Dada: autoportrait—which I saw in the summer of that year at Le Cinéma Saint-André des Arts, with family and friends—and the second the 2007 L’Avocat de la terreur, on the sulfurous Paris lawyer Jacques Vergès. Of the three, Ashin Wirathu may certainly be considered the most dangerous.

Schroeder’s film touches on the troubled role—or non-role—played by Aung San Suu Kyi in the Burmese communal bloodletting. I am not sufficiently well-informed to have a viewpoint on the question but have the sentiment that she’s not a player in the conflict, that the military and radical Buddhist nationalists are in control of the campaign against the Rohingyas. As a longtime admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi, as everyone else has likewise been, I hope this is the case.

 

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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 named Karim Achoui 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.

S21

the_missing_picture

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