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Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

[update below]

I’ve been following the media reports and seeing the images as has everyone—plus the announcements on social media by persons I follow or see of loved ones or friends in India who have died of Covid. If one hasn’t already, do take the time to read Arundhati Roy’s ‘long read’ article in The Guardian, “We are witnessing a crime against humanity.” The lede: “It’s hard to convey the full depth and range of the trauma, the chaos and the indignity that people are being subjected to. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi and his allies are telling us not to complain.” I can do without Roy’s commentaries on geopolitics but she is very good when writing about her own country. E.g., this:

As this epic catastrophe plays out on our Modi-aligned Indian television channels, you’ll notice how they all speak in one tutored voice. The “system” has collapsed, they say, again and again. The virus has overwhelmed India’s health care “system”.

The system has not collapsed. The “system” barely existed. The government – this one, as well as the Congress government that preceded it – deliberately dismantled what little medical infrastructure there was. This is what happens when a pandemic hits a country with an almost nonexistent public healthcare system. India spends about 1.25% of its gross domestic product on health, far lower than most countries in the world, even the poorest ones. Even that figure is thought to be inflated, because things that are important but do not strictly qualify as healthcare have been slipped into it. So the real figure is estimated to be more like 0.34%. The tragedy is that in this devastatingly poor country, as a 2016 Lancet study shows, 78% of the healthcare in urban areas and 71% in rural areas is now handled by the private sector. The resources that remain in the public sector are systematically siphoned into the private sector by a nexus of corrupt administrators and medical practitioners, corrupt referrals and insurance rackets.

Healthcare is a fundamental right. The private sector will not cater to starving, sick, dying people who don’t have money. This massive privatisation of India’s healthcare is a crime.

On the sidebar at the end of Roy’s essay is a link to a report by The Guardian’s Delhi correspondent Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “‘The system has collapsed’: India’s descent into Covid hell.”

On the state of India’s social safety net, journalist and writer Vidya Krishnan—who has covered health and science there for some twenty years, including as the health editor for the daily newspaper The Hindu—explains in The Atlantic that “India is what happens when rich people do nothing: The chamber of horrors the country now finds itself in was not caused by any one man, or any single government.” Money quote:

What is evident, however, is that we suffer from moral malnutrition—none of us more so than the rich, the upper class, the upper caste of India. And nowhere is this more evident than in the health-care sector.

India’s economic liberalization in the ’90s brought with it a rapid expansion of the private health-care industry, a shift that ultimately created a system of medical apartheid: World-class private hospitals catered to wealthy Indians and medical tourists from abroad; state-run facilities were for the poor. Those with money were able to purchase the best available care (or, in the case of the absolute richest, flee to safety in private jets), while elsewhere the country’s health-care infrastructure was held together with duct tape. The Indians who bought their way to a healthier life did not, or chose not to, see the widening gulf. Today, they are clutching their pearls as their loved ones fail to get ambulances, doctors, medicine, and oxygen.

At the top of the NYT webpage today is an article titled “Deaths mount at an Indian hospital after oxygen runs out,” which reminds me that a great uncle of mine died at a hospital in Bombay in the 1990s because, needing oxygen, the tank he was provided was empty. My grandmother also died of malpractice in an Indian hospital in the early 1960s. If medical care in that country is such for the middle class, one can imagine what it is for the poor,

Mumbai-based researcher, writer, journalist, and strategy consultant Vivek Y. Kelkar has a report in the Substack newsletter The Cosmopolitan Globalist—that he is co-editor of and with which I am informally associated—”Covid19 brings chaos and horror to the Subcontinent: India thought it had escaped the worst. It was wrong.”

Don’t miss the Financial Times’ ‘free to read’ article by writer and columnist Ramachandra Guha, “The unmaking of India: The country’s catastrophic Covid response has exposed a creeping erosion of democratic values and traditions under Modi.”

À suivre.

UPDATE: Writing in Project Syndicate (May 4th), Brahma Chellaney, who is a professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, critiques “The lurid Orientalism of Western media.” The lede: “By trafficking in images of death, suffering, and private acts of mourning, Western media coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in India has broken one of the first rules of journalism. And while a Western double standard is nothing new, applying it repeatedly does not make it more acceptable.” Among other things. Chellaney takes issue with the circulation of images such as the one above of the funeral pyre.

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Pandemic lockdown: week 1

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

We’re still in the first week of confinement here in the Hexagon, which went into effect on Tuesday at noon. One can still go out but only with this form issued by the Ministry of Interior (printed out or copied by hand), checking the box of one of five authorized reasons: to go to work (if you can’t telework from home, and with a certificate from your employer), go food shopping or to the pharmacy (and close to home), for health reasons (to see a doctor or veterinarian; we’ve already had to do the latter), for “imperative” family reasons (to aid elderly or infirm family members or take children to a sitter), or to engage in solitary physical activity close to home (or walk a dog). My wife and I are teleworking (me teaching my classes via the Moodle platform, to students who are now mainly back in the US), as is my daughter (now 26) and her bf in their small one-bedroom apartment in Paris. As I already had my own personal lockdown seven years back—not stepping outside for five weeks—this is not a new experience for me.

I’m not going to linger on my own situation or thoughts, as everyone is in the same boat and thinking largely the same things. As for my worries and fears—for the economy (local and global), family and friends, and my own situation and future (not rosy)—they are shared by several billion people across the planet (the news today says that one billion are presently on lockdown). This is the biggest black swan event of the lifetime of everyone reading this. However the pandemic plays out, it is a certainty that the world will not be the same afterward.

Speculating on what the post-pandemic world may look like, the very smart and always interesting intellectual and writer Pankaj Mishra had a must-read two-part column in Bloomberg Opinion earlier this week: “Get ready, a bigger disruption is coming: The Covid-19 pandemic reflects a systemic crisis akin to the seminal crashes of the 20th century” & “Coronavirus will revive an all-powerful state: Much maligned in recent years, big government will come back—and with it, the potential for both greater good and evil.” If one can’t open the links to Mishra’s important piece, please let me know and I’ll copy-and-paste the text in the comments thread below.

Historian Adam Tooze, who is equally very smart and always interesting, has an equally must-read op-ed in The Guardian, “Coronavirus has shattered the myth that the economy must come first.” The lede: “Since the 1990s, faith in ‘the market’ has gone unchallenged. Now even public shopping has become a crime against society.”

Journalist and Politico founding editor John F. Harris—who is also smart—had a good column the other day, which spoke in particular to the current generation of university students, “The pandemic is the end of Trumpism: For a rising generation, a crisis fueled by frightening science foreshadows the coming conflicts.”

In Politico also see the forum, “Coronavirus will change the world permanently. Here’s how.” The lede: “A crisis on this scale can reorder society in dramatic ways, for better or worse. Here are 34 big thinkers’ predictions for what’s to come.”

Shifting gears to the here and now, one has perhaps read about the 180° flip this past week of Trump State Television, a.k.a. Fox News, in its coverage of the coronavirus (watch here). As to the chutzpah of Fox’s propagandists, of them doing this 180° with straight faces, David Frum, in his latest column in The Atlantic, drew an apt historical parallel with the American Communist party (and other Comintern affiliates) during the Stalin era changing the party line 180° from one day to the next on WWII following the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union (and, prior to that, in 1935 with the call to form anti-fascist ‘popular fronts’ with social democratic parties—heretofore tarred as “social fascists”—and in August 1939 with the proclamation of neutrality toward Nazi Germany following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Moscow-line CPs never felt it necessary to explain, or even acknowledge, their revirements, let alone apologize for their past positions. The party line had changed and that was that. Likewise in Trump World.

Haaretz’s excellent US editor Chemi Shalev, in an analysis of Benjamin Netanyahu’s brazen power grab presently underway, speculated on the possible action of Bibi’s American alter ego, “Americans beware: Trump could emulate Netanyahu’s coronavirus coup.” The lede: “The United States is facing greater coronavirus upheavals than Israel, led by a president who has less respect for democracy and the rule of law.” Money quote:

But even if someone other than Trump was president, and he or she had not wasted precious weeks preparing for the coronavirus onslaught, the United States would still be facing an uphill battle, compared to Israel, in containing the plague. It is an immeasurably larger country with a far more dispersed and diverse population. Its public health system is a sham and a shame.

And unlike Israeli society, which can be described as permanently mobilized and has experienced national mobilization and country-wide lockdowns in its recent past – weathering Iraqi missiles with no response in the 1991 Gulf War comes to mind – Americans have never experienced such a direct threat to their homeland, not even in World War II. And while Israelis may grumble about their government, they see no alternative. Millions of Americans, on the other hand, truly view the federal authorities as their enemy.

It was enough to hear a Washington Times columnist on Fox News last week praising a coronavirus-inspired rush on guns and ammunition in Midwestern states as a “healthy sign” to realize that while it is Israelis who are seen as unruly and undisciplined, parts of the United States may simply be unmanageable. Corona is bound to come knocking at their door.

Given these two factors – a leader who rejects any check on his presidential authority and a coronavirus crisis that could soon grow out of control – Americans should beware a Trump who decides to emulate Netanyahu. The U.S. president, who now fancies himself a “Wartime President” with all the emergency powers that accompany the title, will go farther and more radical than Netanyahu would ever dare. But if the Israeli prime minister’s flirtation with tyranny inspires Trump, the battle to maintain American democracy and rule of law will be far fiercer than anything Israel is set to experience.

Scary.

Everyone is aware of the labeling of the coronavirus by the Trump regime and its propaganda organs as the “Chinese virus.” Not to diminish or relativize this blatant racism and xenophobia, but one must not ignore the responsibility of the Chinese regime in the coronavirus becoming a global pandemic, as Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid writes in The Atlantic, “China is avoiding blame by trolling the world: Beijing is successfully dodging culpability for its role in spreading the coronavirus.”

I’ll write next time about the French state and the pandemic. In the meantime, I recommend the blog of Parisian Claire Berlinski, who lives in the heart of the city and is in lockdown comme tout le monde.

UPDATE: Yuval Noah Harari—whose Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind everyone has read—has a ‘long read’ essay in the FT on “the world after coronavirus” that everyone needs to read. The lede: “This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come.” Money quote:

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

 

2nd UPDATE: Sofia-based political scientist Ivan Krastev—who is always worth reading—has a worthwhile essay in the New Statesman, “The seven early lessons of the global coronavirus crisis: Governments will eventually be forced to choose between containing the spread of the pandemic at the cost of destroying the economy, or tolerating a higher human cost to save the economy.”

3rd UPDATE: The Foreign Affairs website has several articles that should be read, one by the well-known economist Branko Milanovic, “The real pandemic danger is social collapse: As the global economy comes apart, societies may, too.”

Another is MIT economist Daron Acemoglu’s “The coronavirus exposed America’s authoritarian turn: Independent expertise always dies first when democracy recedes.”

4th UPDATE: Naomi Klein—whom I have not been a fan of—has a very good 27-minute video in which she “[m]akes the case for transformative change amid [the] coronavirus pandemic.”

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On the coronavirus pandemic

Credit here

If you want to read something that will make your day, take a look at the ‘long-read’ piece in the online magazine spiked (h/t John Judis), by the very smart Princeton University economist Ashoka Mody, “Italy: the crisis that could go viral. Coronavirus threatens to turn Italy’s economic and financial crisis into a global one.”

This coronavirus pandemic is getting quite scary, less for the eventual public health consequences—not to minimize these—than for its impact on the world economy—and on the lives of each and everyone of us.

To this may be added what is looking like an overreaction, albeit inevitable, of the public authorities in France and elsewhere. As my (Paris-based) friend Claire Berlinski tweeted yesterday:

The coronavirus mass hysteria reminds me of the aftermath of 9/11. Wouldn’t it be good to remember that overreactions to real but manageable threats can be far more dangerous than the threat itself?

The (under)reaction of the regime in Washington and its propaganda apparatus is another matter entirely.

The United States will face some particular challenges when the epidemic starts spreading, as The Atlantic’s Amanda Hull explains, “The problem with telling sick workers to stay home: Even with the coronavirus spreading, lax labor laws and little sick leave mean that many people can’t afford to skip work.”

Also independent journalist Carl Gibson in The Guardian: “Millions of uninsured Americans like me are a coronavirus timebomb: I haven’t gone to the doctor since 2013. When you multiply my situation by 27.5 million, that’s a scary prospect.”

Medicare-for-all and a labor code à la française anyone?

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Australia had a parliamentary election on Saturday, if one didn’t know, with the outcome a shocker, as the incumbent conservative coalition led by PM Scott Morrison won against all expectations, the polls having unanimously pointed to a decisive Labor Party victory. One does not have to care one way or another about Australian politics to regret this result, as the very conservative Morrison—who’s a Pentecostal (already one strike against him)—is not good on the climate change issue—which is particularly important there (Great Barrier Reef, etc)—and is downright execrable on immigration, which he was in charge of as a government minister in 2013-14, putting in place Australia’s cruel policy of sending asylum seekers (principally from Iran and Afghanistan) to Christmas Island, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea, where they are kept in what are in effect prison camps for years on end, their asylum applications rejected but with repatriation manifestly inadvisable (if one wishes to read about this—and be indignant—see the reportages by Roger Cohen here and here). Scott Morrison is not a good man.

One of the news articles I read about the Australian election referred to “the cut-throat world of politics in Canberra.” As it so happens, I just watched in the past month—on the recommendation of a political science friend—the full two seasons (six episodes each) of the riveting Australian Netflix series Secret City, which is entirely set in and around Canberra (with a few brief scenes in Adelaide in season 2). It’s all about espionage, geopolitics, and just Australian politics, and boy, it sure is cut-throat, both figuratively and [spoiler alert!] literally. Here’s a brief description from IMDb:

Beneath the placid facade of Canberra, amidst rising tension between China and America, senior political journalist Harriet Dunkley uncovers a secret city of interlocked conspiracies, putting innocent lives in danger including her own.

That’s as much as one needs to know. The screenplay is sophisticated—it’s very well written—the pacing impeccable, and the acting first rate. It’s an Aussie answer to the brilliant French series The Bureau (and is, needless to say, on a far higher level than ‘Homeland’). It’s just all around excellent. In the first season the bad guys appear to be China but that’s somewhat of a ruse, as in season 2 [spoiler alert!], a Deep State theme is developed (yes, there is indeed one Down Under). The message, and which holds everywhere: if you want to know where the real threat to your homeland comes from—to your security and freedoms—look at your own state. The threat is at home.

A sub-theme in season 2 [spoiler alert!] is drone warfare, of Australian military drones in action over Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of the international coalition in that conflict—and of the PTSD-suffering drone pilot having notched 448 kills, so we learn, not all of whom were Taliban and other bad guys. This reminded me of the 2015 Hollywood movie, Good Kill, by director Andrew Niccol, which, to my knowledge, was the first one of its sort to focus on the ethical dilemmas of military drones, here via the états d’âme of the protag drone pilot, played by Ethan Hawke, who kills people in Af-Pak daily—who may or may not be combattants—whom he sees on his console screen at a base in Nevada, after which he goes home to wife and children in his sub-division. The film deals ably with its subject, though is somewhat marred by a Hollywoodish sub-plot about the protag’s marital problems. Reviews were middling, including in France, but the pic may certainly be seen (and Allociné spectateurs liked it more than did the critics).

On drone warfare and the effects it has on the soldiers who wage it via remote control, see the excellent New York Times Magazine article (June 13, 2018) by Eyal Press, “The wounds of the drone warrior.” And going back a few years: “Confessions of a drone warrior,” by Matthew Power, in GQ; “Everything we know so far about drone strikes,” by Cora Currier, in ProPublica; and Jane Mayer’s “The predator war: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” in The New Yorker.

Back to ‘Secret City’, as much as I liked it I hope it doesn’t go to a third season. It achieved closure at the end of season 2. Nothing is left hanging and it said what it needed to say.

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Credit: Getty Images

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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I’ve been travelling the past couple of weeks—mainly in Egypt (Cairo), a little in Turkey (Istanbul)—so have been off AWAV. So as to get something up—and in the same vein as the last post, on Trumpian America being a rogue state (and with the latest declaration of trade war on the country’s closest allies, can anyone seriously deny that it is?)—I offer this recent article by Andrew J. Bacevich in The American Conservative that carries the title of the post, in which it is rhetorically asked “How can you trust an establishment that so easily succumbs to fantasies of global hegemony and go-it-alone militarism?”

Bacevich aims his fire at the Washington neocon/liberal hawk think tank swamp and punditocracy, which is in permanent agitation for America to militarily intervene in some country or countries, but the main takeaway from his piece is that at this point—and given its imperialist history—America has no moral authority to be intervening just about anywhere. This was driven home to me in a review essay I just read by Max Hastings, “The Wrath of the Centurions,” in the London Review of Books, in which he reviews Howard Jones’ My Lai: Vietnam, 1968 and the Descent into Darkness. As Hastings recounts, My Lai was only the biggest massacre of non-combattants committed by American soldiers during the Vietnam War, who, in fact, murdered civilians regularly and with impunity. The number of Vietnamese villagers raped and/or killed in cold blood by American soldiers will likely never be known but it was significant. In point of fact, American soldiers have behaved thusly in every war they’ve ever participated in. Every army does likewise, of course, and a good number have been far worse, but we’re talking about America here.

On that note, here’s a thought by my friend Claire Berlinski, who has believed all her life in America as a force for good but is having second thoughts nowadays.

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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

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Lee Kuan Yew 1024x576(EN)

[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

a touch of sin

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

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

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

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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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Narendra Modi in the Big Apple

With my Mother

With my Mother

[update below] [2nd update below]

In my last—and only—post on Narendra Modi, from 4½ months ago, I opined that were he to become Indian PM following the general election there the US would no doubt lift the visa ban he was slapped with in 2005, for his implication in the infamous events in Gujarat three years prior. It is indeed hard to imagine an Indian Prime Minister being denied entry to the US and not welcomed at the White House with open arms. So PM Modi arrived in New York City yesterday for, as WaPo reports, a five-day “rock star-like U.S. tour,” which will involve, entre autres, a speech “to a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in a show replete with laser lights, holo­graphic images and former Miss America Nina Davuluri as co-host [and with the event being] broadcast in Times Square and 100 other venues around the country.” Moreover “[t]he Port Authority of New York and New Jersey [will add] extra trains to accommodate the expected crowds [and a] red carpet will be unfurled.” Definitely rock star-like. À propos, an academic gauchiste half-Muslim Indian friend—whose political views are the antithesis of those of Modi and his supporters—informed me today that, to her exasperation, her Facebook news feed has been inundated with links and comments by excited friends and relatives who plan to attend Modi’s US events. A post in the NYT’s The Upshot blog on Thursday indeed called Modi “A Facebook leader, too,” informing the reader that he had 21.8 million official fans on his FB page—two days later it’s over 22 (see above image)—, which is way more than any other political personality anywhere save Barack Obama (who has 42MM). By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was bragging recently about how he has more Facebook fans than François Hollande, has yet to hit a million…

On Narendra Modi’s US appeal, the très gauchiste historian Vijay Prashad, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford CT, had a comment in The Guardian yesterday on how “Tough guy Modi is the man of the moment for wealthy Indian Americans.” Money quote

For wealthy sections of Indian America, Modi represents a strong man who evokes pride in India. When Modi brags about his 56-inch chest, his machismo indicates India’s arrival in world affairs. Poverty is swept away by his braggadocio. Eyes are averted from the slums and instead rest upon his promises to toss environmental and labour laws in the dustbin. Trains will run on time, workers obey their supervisors and the armed forces will spread their testosterone along India’s borders. Experiences of racism and discrimination inside the US will be forgotten in the presence of Modi. If America sees Modi’s toughness, say his US supporters, the petty humiliations of life in the west will vanish.

As I observed in my post of 4½ months ago, Modi bears a distinct resemblance to Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Poor India.

Pankaj Mishra, in the November 21st 2013 NYRB, had a review essay on the latest books (co-)authored by Indian economist frères ennemis Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, “Which India matters?,” in which he made observations similar to Prashad’s

Rising social unrest is making an insecure Indian elite gravitate to such hard-line leaders as Narendra Modi, whose well-advertised toughness with labor unions and PR-enhanced business-friendliness make him the preferred choice of many corporate leaders, economists, and commentators as India’s next prime minister. Bhagwati, for instance, has described Modi as a “positive role model” with “an unblemished record of personal integrity.” As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was allegedly complicit in the killing of over a thousand Muslims there in 2002 and was barred from traveling to the United States as a result. But he still embodies managerial efficiency and iron discipline to those disturbed by the political assertiveness of the poor and the disaffected.

And Mishra writes supra that

India’s ruling class today consists, as C. Rammanohar Reddy, editor of The Economic and Political Weekly, defines it, “of large Indian businesses, the new entrepreneurs in real estate, finance, and IT, the upper segment of the urban middle classes, the upper echelons among the bureaucracy, and even large sections of the media.”

What’s immediately striking about this class of the relatively affluent is the degree to which it shares the same interests and beliefs, and its reflexive hostility to government spending on welfare—although political parties feel particularly obliged to indulge in such spending before elections. But the conservative rhetoric about buoyantly self-reliant entrepreneurs hides the fact that, as [Atul] Kohli writes [in his 2012 book Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India], the Indian state since the 1980s has been “pro-business” rather than pro-market, responsible both for the dynamic forces at the apex of India’s economy and “the failure to include India’s numerous excluded groups in the polity and the economy.”

This “collaborative capitalism,” of which Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, is the most egregious exponent, consists of the state extending tax benefits to India’s largest businesses and facilitating their cheap access to national resources of oil, gas, forests, and minerals. In turn, “the disproportionate control over economic resources,” Kohli writes, “enables businessmen to ‘buy’ politicians,” shape decision-making through the media, and even enter politics themselves.

The spitting image of RT Erdoğan. If Modi acquires anything resembling RTE’s electoral base, he’ll be around for many years to come.

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra, in a column in Bloomberg View (September 29th), says that “Narendra Modi is a dangerous cliché.”

2nd UPDATE: Meera Nair, who teaches writing at NYU, has a post on one of WaPo’s blogs (October 3rd) informing us that “Narendra Modi was speaking in code when he visited America. Here’s what he was really saying to his Hindu nationalist base.”

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The Indian election

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

[update below]

I don’t follow Indian politics too closely, though am, of course, aware that a general election is underway there, and which will most certainly result in the victory of the BJP and accession to power of its worrisome leader, Narendra Modi. If one wants to get up to speed on this—as I’m trying to do—I can recommend a couple of good articles that I’ve read over the past 24 hours (h/t Mira Kamdar and Roane Carey).

The first is by the well-known South Asia specialist William Dalrymple, “Narendra Modi: man of the masses,” in the New Statesman (May 12th). The lede: Modi, implicated in a massacre in 2002 while chief minister of Gujarat, is poised to become India’s next prime minister. Is he a dangerous neo-fascist, as some say, or the strongman reformer that this country of 1.2 billion people craves?

Modi may be a lifelong member of the fascistic RSS but that does not ipso facto make him personally a neo-fascist. To me, he sounds like an Indian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—though with some blood on his hands—, which will be just fine for BJP supporters but not so fine for those who don’t support the BJP.

The other article is by Zahir Janmohamed, “Could a Hindu Extremist Become India’s Next Prime Minister?” in The Nation (May 13th). The lede: Narendra Modi’s role in the horrific 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat has never been properly investigated, but now a timely new study is raising the right questions.

Janmohamed, pour l’info, lives in Ahmedabad and is writing a book about the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and has previously worked as a foreign policy aide to Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) and as the advocacy director for Amnesty International. The “timely new study” Janmohamed reviews in his essay is The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, by Times of India journalist Manoj Mitta. Money quote:

In Manoj Mitta’s new book The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, published by Harper Collins India, Mitta argues that if there has been no real attempt to get to the truth of Modi’s actions during the riots, it’s because of the “cavalier” approach to justice. Through extensive documentation, Mitta shows that Modi might be on trial today, as opposed to campaigning for prime minister, if only he had been asked the right questions about his role in the riots.

If the US visa ban on Modi—which he was slapped with in 2005—is still in effect, one may assume that it will soon be lifted.

While I’m at it, for those who can get behind the NYRB’s paywall, Pankaj Mishra had a review, in the August 15 2002 issue, of Human Rights Watch’s report ‘We Have No Orders to Save You’: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat (in which Narendra Modi is mentioned forty-eight times).

À suivre.

UPDATE: Vinod K. Jose, executive editor of The Caravan: A Journal of Politics & Culture, has a very good article, dated March 1 2012, entitled “The Emperor Uncrowned: The rise of Narendra Modi.”

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Ilo Ilo & A Simple Life

Ilo Ilo Movie Poster

This is a gem of a film from Singapore I saw last September, when it opened in Paris, and that a stateside friend informs me is currently playing in the US (he saw it and liked it). The film—29-year-old Anthony Chen’s directorial debut and for which he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last year (and to a 15-minute standing ovation)—is set in Singapore during the 1997 financial crisis and centers on a middle-class couple going through a rough patch—the office employee husband (actor Chen Tian Zen) having lost his job, which increases the already existing tensions in their relationship—and who hire a live-in Filipina housekeeper and nanny, named Terry (actress Angeli Bayani), to tend to their turbulent, headstrong 10-year-old son, Jiale (played by the remarkable Koh Jia Ler, in his first role), while his working mother (actress Yeo Yann Yann) sees through her pregnancy. The parents cannot cope with the bratty, undisciplined Jiale, and who torments Terry when she joins their household. But Terry is patient with him and the two eventually bond—and which arouses the jealously of Jiale’s mother, who was already cool toward her. As the couple’s financial difficulties mount they decide they can’t afford to keep Terry—and despite the important, stabilizing role she plays in Jiale’s life—, so she returns to the Philippines.

The film, as Kenneth Turan put it in his (stellar) review in the L.A. Times

quietly demonstrates that in the right hands [of director Anthony Chen] even the familiar stuff of everyday life can move us deeply. (…) Created in a sensitive, neo-realistic style, “Ilo Ilo” deals with how emotional connections are made and frayed, with the different ways individuals become important to us and how that dynamic plays out in the lives of children who are essentially powerless over their personal situations. (…) The great joy of “Ilo Ilo” is that, aided by naturalistic acting by all concerned…everything is allowed to happen believably in its own space and time, pulling us gradually but deeply into these people’s lives. It is difficult to overstate how real and touching all this feels and how much it ends up affecting us.

Yes, absolutely. The story was inspired by the director’s own childhood experience, of his family’s live-in Filipina maid until he was 12-years-old and to whom he was attached. She was an important person in his early life—he called her Aunt Terry—but the family lost touch but with her, remembering only that she came from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines (thus film’s international title; the Chinese title translates as “mother and father are not home”). Reviews of the pic have been tops across the board, in both the US—e.g. see Stephen Holden’s in the NYT—and in France. The trailer may be seen on the film’s website.

Similar to ‘Ilo Ilo’ was a film from Hong Kong I also saw last year, ‘A Simple Life’ (en France: ‘Une vie simple’), by director Ann Hui, about a 40ish film producer named Roger (actor Andy Lau) and his lifelong domestic, Ah Tao (actress Deanie Ip), who has served four generations of Roger’s upper middle class family over six decades. Roger, who’s a bachelor, is the only one left in the house, as his siblings have long married and moved out, his father has passed away, and his mother lives abroad, so Ah Tao tends exclusively to him, cooking his meals and all. But she’s in her late 60s and suffers a stroke, so obviously has to stop working. Roger wants to hire a caregiver for her at home but she insists on going to a nursing home, so he accedes to that. She’s been Roger’s family’s domestic all his life—and most of hers—and has become an integral member of the family—and to whom he is closer than he is to his own mother. And the situations are now reversed, with him now taking care of and tending to her.

I loved this movie, as did the friend with whom I saw it (it made my Top 10 list of 2013). It is so moving and touching, well-acted and just all around excellent. The relationship of Ah Tao to Roger and his family is at the center of the film but it also depicts, more generally, a world that is disappearing, of middle class families in Hong Kong—and other societies—and the domestics who worked for them, who were engaged by the families as children and served them for a lifetime. In Hong Kong, poor families who sent their children to be domestics with well-to-do families often named them “Chun” or “Tao,” to the point where these names came to be associated with domestics. There’s a great scene in the movie where Ah Tao, before she moves into the nursing home, is interviewing a job applicant to replace her. She informs the young woman of what will be expected of her, of how she is to tend to Roger—fussing over him, giving him massages, and all—, to which the applicant responds to the effect of “I’m not going to do that shit! Fuck that!” and then gets up and walks out. Lower class women in today’s Hong Kong are no longer available for that kind of work (as in Western societies, where housekeepers and nannies are invariably immigrants). As it happens, the film is based on the real life story of its producer, Roger Lee. Reviews were tops in France and in the US (see, in particular, this 4-star review by the late Roger Ebert). Trailer is here.

a_simple_life

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Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

The TPP. Any idea of what that is? Most likely not. I hardly knew myself until today, and I like to think that I’m well-informed on international affairs. It’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement the Obama administration is presently negotiating below the radar screen with several Asian and Latin American countries (map below). And it is very important. So important for the business interests that are driving it—and of the governments doing their bidding—that, from their standpoint, it best be kept way below that public radar screen. The redoubtable Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, who has been organizing around trade and globalization issues since the ’90s, explains what’s at stake with the TPP in this Democracy Now! interview. It will take 14-minutes of your time to watch it (it starts at the 13th minute) but is well worth it if you’re a citizen of any of the countries involved. So please watch it now.

Re Lori Wallach: Talk about being well-spoken and having your facts and arguments down cold. I would dread being on the opposing side of a debate with her. For more by Wallach on the TPP, see the article she wrote last year in The Nation, “NAFTA on steroids.” The lede: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would grant enormous new powers to corporations, is a massive assault on democracy.” If Wallach’s characterization of the TPP is at all accurate—and I have no reason to believe that it’s not—, it represents, at the very least, a significant, European Union-like transfer of national sovereignty to a supranational entity. Except that, unlike the EU—until the enlargements of the past decade plus Greece—, the TPP involves countries with vastly different standards of living, political institutions, systems of governance, and economic legislation (labor, consumer, etc), to name a few, but without any EU-type supranational institution (commission, parliament, council, court) and absent any pretense of democratic accountability. Moreover, one has a hard time imagining what benefits could accrue to significant numbers of citizens in the countries involved, and particularly the United States. This thing needs to be stopped, and beginning with Congress refusing fast-track authority to President Obama. NAFTA, which I was all for twenty years ago, turned out to be a mistake. The TPP will definitely be a mistake and a much bigger one.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a post (December 12th) on his blog on why he doesn’t think the TPP is a big deal. Dean Baker explains on his blog why his friend Paul is in error on this, that the TPP is indeed a big—and bad—deal.

2nd UPDATE: Joseph Stiglitz has a must read article on the TPP, “On the wrong side of globalization,” on the NYT op-ed page. (March 15, 2014)

3rd UPDATE: Robert Reich, in a pedagogical video just shy of 2½ minutes in length, explains “The worst trade deal you’ve never heard of: The story of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” (January 29, 2015)

newTPP map cropped

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t1larg.map.japan.fukushima.daiichi.radius

I have had absolutely nothing on this blog on the Fukushima accident, which is not to say that I haven’t been following the story closely over the past 2½ years and fretting over it. A certain number of articles I’ve read on the subject, including lately, have been alarmist, indeed catastrophiste, as to the situation at the plant and how it could go from bad to worse, particularly in the coming months. But I just read this article in Slate by former WaPo journalist Paul Blustein, who lives in Japan, informing us that “[m]uch of what [we]’ve heard about the nuclear accident is wrong.” The article is based on an initially secret—and still not widely known—evaluation of the accident by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The bottom line: there is no plausible worst-case scenario that threatens the city of Tokyo. Even in the most nightmarish of eventualities, 30 million people—or even a portion of that—will not need to be evacuated. A very interesting article and absolutely worth the read.

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ini-avan-movie

‘Ini Avan’. This is a fine movie from Sri Lanka I saw last week—the first I’ve seen from that country (can’t think of any other). The title (Tamil) translates as ‘Him, Here After’—which is what the pic is called in English—, though when written as one word (iniavan) means ‘sweet man’. The double entendre is deliberate. The story is about a former LTTE fighter—his name is never mentioned; he is simply ‘avan’ (him)—who returns to his village near Jaffna after having done time in a government rehabilitation camp (he likely surrendered or was captured in the final Sri Lankan army offensive in 2009, that decapitated the LTTE and put an end to its three decade-long insurgency). The former fighter

[hopes] to find meaningful work, reconnect with his lost love, and create a new life as an “iniavan” in his old village. But the village has turned against Avan and the separatist cause he fought for. From the first moments in the film, his old neighbours, all believably portrayed by amateur actors, stare at him in disapproving silence, and a child runs away from him. An old man comes to shout that Avan “killed” the man’s sons by luring them into the LTTE; we learn that he recruited everyone in the village who supported the cause, and they all died in the war. It was only Avan who survived to return and face those who were left behind to mourn their relatives while living in fear of LTTE extortion and government violence. He doesn’t want to face them, though. When anyone tries to talk to him, he replies, “piraiyosanam illai”: “no point”.

The scene could be from the aftermath of so many civil wars, where villagers supported the insurgents when they were in the ascendancy and the village sons had joined—not always on their own volition (there is a significant degree of impressment in these conflicts or offers one can’t refuse)—, suffered the actions of the army—killings, rape, destruction of property—but also of the insurgents themselves (their “revolutionary taxes”—i.e. extortion—, high-handed behavior, killings, and the like). And, in the case of the LTTE’s insurgency, it was all for naught. ‘Avan’, who was a gun slinging local big shot during the insurgency, is now a pariah. He tries to find work in Jaffna but his identity is known and he has no particular skills—apart from being a fearless tough guy who can be entrusted to do jobs outside the law. On the streets in Jaffna he encounters men from his insurgent past; they don’t look nice and he doesn’t want to deal with them: and they clearly have issues with him. And no one wants to hire him, except a local mafia-type who precisely knows his past. And a story thus ensues. The film is engaging, hangs together, and ends as it should. It has only opened in France so far (reviews here). Hopefully it will make it to the US and elsewhere. Trailer is here and interview with director Asoka Handagama is here.

Another film from that general part of the world seen in the past week was ‘Metro Manila’, which is from the Philippines but written, directed, and produced by the Englishman Sean Ellis (who’s made a couple of films I hadn’t heard of). It’s a sort of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ set in Manila, as more than one critic has observed. French reviews are mostly good—though Le Monde panned it—and Allociné spectators have given it the thumbs way up, so I was definitely going to check it out. But I regretfully had to agree with Le Monde’s review and part company with the Allociné spectators, whose collective assessment of films is normally on the mark. I did not like this movie and almost from the get go.

It begins in a village in northern Luzon, with a (good-looking) young rice farmer who can’t make ends meet and thus decides to migrate to Manila. So he sets off to the big city, with (attractive) wife, (adorable) five-year-old daughter, and (cuddly) baby in tow. There were several problems right off the bat. First, the family was too well-groomed and scrubbed to be dirt poor farmers. Peasant-wise, they didn’t cut it. And one learns in the course of the film that the husband, named Oscar (actor Jake Macapagal), had worked in a factory before becoming a peasant. Not too credible. Usually it’s the other way around. Secondly, they seemed to have no family in the village—or anywhere (a bit odd for folks from the sticks)—and knew no one in Manila. But when people migrate—whether rural-urban or cross-border—they are invariably imbedded in networks—family, friendship, village—, with knowledge of where they’re going—and that determines that destination—, a place to stay when they arrive, and information about employment. Migrants, even the poorest, possess a degree of social capital. But this couple clearly had none. They were entirely on their own. Thirdly, they were utterly clueless once in the chaotic Manila-Quezon City metropolis—where they’d clearly never been—, both enthralled by it and with no idea of what they were doing, thereby leaving them easy prey for the inevitable predators and swindlers. Again, peasants may be peasants, but they’re not that naïve when in the big city. The clichés here were a little much. Fourthly, Oscar, despite being a rube, had served in the army, so one learns—which normally should have provided some sort of network—, knew how to find the employment office, and make phone calls in English. Again, not entirely credible. Fifthly, they find digs in a particularly fetid, malfamé shantytown, though manage to keep clean, cook food, get the baby’s diapers changed, etc. Not clear how they did all that, and while being flat broke to boot. And finally, they were so nice. Such good people: decent, honest, trusting, ethical, moral… Even the daughter protects a kitten that is being abused by neighborhood boys. And on this level, the film grated, as it tugged at and manipulated your emotions (and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing). And you just knew, almost from the outset, that bad things were going to happen to the family. Bad things happening to good people. I hate that. For this reason alone I found the pic excruciating to sit through—angoissant—and couldn’t wait for it to be over.

And the bad stuff does happen—though not entirely and definitively. The way the bad stuff happens—and the film ends—is also contrived. Somehow I can’t imagine a Filipino director making this movie. It took a ‘Slumdog Millionaire’-inspired Westerner to do so. Now the film does have a certain “authenticity”—it is entirely in Tagalog; the script was in English, with the cast translating as they went along—and one does get a feel for Manila in its teeming, bustling sprawl, seaminess, violence, concentrated wealth and mass poverty—the technical feat of shooting the movie in that city during the workweek is to be commended—, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. US reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.

metro manila

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