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fidelio-l-odyssee-d-alice

Voilà a few noteworthy French films of late 2014 that have received César nominations (the awards ceremony is tomorrow). This one (English title: Fidelio, Alice’s Journey), directed by newcomer Lucie Borleteau (Best First Film nominee) is about a merchant mariner named Alice (Ariane Labed, Most Promising Actress nominee), who’s around 30, lives somewhere near Toulon with her Norwegian graphic designer b.f., Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie)—he’s the man of her life—and receives an urgent summons to join an aging cargo ship, the Fidelio, en route to Dakar, to replace the chief engine room mechanic—Alice being one herself—who has suddenly died aboard (was it a suicide, as she is told, or an engine room accident that the shipping company wants to hush up?). She’s the only woman on the ship—in a man’s world and doing a job normally not done by women. Her cabin is the same as her deceased predecessor’s, where she finds his personal diary and reads (throughout the film), in which he recounted, entre autres, his many love and sexual affairs at the ports of call on his long voyages away from home—but also his sentiments of melancholy and loneliness—and which resonate with her own life at sea. Love and sex—above all sex, of her own sexuality but also of the other crew—are a central theme of the film. Soon aboard the ship she discovers that the captain, Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), is an ex-lover of hers, whom she hadn’t seen a long while. They cautiously reconnect and though he’s married and she all but is—she regularly Skypes with Felix, professing her love (genuine)—they briefly rekindle the flame, but that should, in principle, not affect their relationships back on land, as “what happens at sea stays at sea” (dixit the poster above). As for her fellow shipmates—who, in their free time, play cards, drink, and watch porn movies—they treat her as one of the guys. She’s sexually off-limits to them and vice-versa, so when she has a one-nighter with a Romanian mariner who boards en route, she is upbraided by a colleague for violating the taboo. Her commitment to Felix is never questioned, but she can’t reconcile her desire for a stable life with her man and the realities of her career on the open sea, which keep her away from home for weeks, even months, at a stretch, and with the inevitable straying. Back with Felix after the voyage to Senegal, she makes a mistake that upends their relationship, though the film’s ending—in Gdansk, where, now promoted to captain, she’s taken the Fidelio to be scrapped—leaves open the possibility of reparation.

I really liked this movie. Ariane Labed, who’s in almost every frame, is terrific. She’s a real screen presence. And I will readily admit to finding her extremely attractive, not only physically but her persona in the film and the work she does (I think it’s cool seeing women as engineers and working with heavy machinery, and in other such jobs that one normally associates only with men). She’s mainly a stage actress and, until this one, has mainly had small roles in films (she lives in Greece, so away from the French cinema scene; she had a bit part in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Midnight’—set in the Peloponnese—in the luncheon sequence). French reviews are very good and Hollywood critics gave the film the thumbs up (here and here). Trailer is here.

My brief take on the other films:

‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, directed by Olivier Assayas. This one has netted six César nominations, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Juliette Binoche), and Best Supporting Actress (Kristen Stewart). Since I’m lazy I’ll let this website give a synopsis of the story

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an actress at the peak of her international career who is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years earlier. Back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young woman who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. She departs with her assistant (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse in Sils Maria, a remote region of the [Swiss] Alps. A young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal (Chloë Grace Moretz) is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face to face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an unsettling reflection of herself.

The film, which is almost entirely in English, is driven by the dynamic between the Binoche and Stewart characters: the famous actress rehearsing a role she is greatly ambivalent about playing and her youthful assistant who pulls her along. I’m not a great fan of Juliette Binoche—I think she’s overacts—but thought that Kristen Stewart—a well-known American actress, so I learn, with roles in films I would never consider seeing, so knew nothing about her—is first-rate. As for the film, it held my attention, despite the story not being overly compelling IMO. I’ve found Olivier Assayas’s films to be uneven—the ones I’ve seen (though his 5½-hour biopic on the terrorist Carlos is a near chef d’œuvre)—but will put this one in the thumbs up category (for home viewing, not worth traveling to the cinema for). French reviews (very good) are here, early US reviews (generally good) are here, trailer is here.

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‘Eastern Boys’, directed by Robin Campillo. This has been nominated for three Césars: Best Film, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Kirill Emelyanov). The story: Mid-40s gay white-collar professional, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), engages a youthful prostitute—whose name is either Marek or Ruslan (Emelyanov), and may or may not be a legal adult—he spots at the Gare du Nord. Marek/Ruslan is part of a gang of Eastern European guys, over and under age 18, who hang out at the Gare and are clearly up to no good. To consummate the transaction Daniel has Marek/Ruslan come to his apartment, which was a real mistake, as the entire gang comes along and, led by the gang leader—a not-nice Russian dude they call Boss (Daniil Vorobyov, perfectly cast)—proceed to relieve Daniel of his worldly possessions. But despite having set a trap for himself, Daniel continues to seek remunerated sex from Marek/Ruslan. With his life manifestly devoid of something (meaning? love?), Daniel develops a genuine attachment to Marek/Ruslan—who at first claims to be Ukrainian but turns out to be Chechen—stops the sex, begins to treat him as almost a son, and decides to save him from Boss’s gang (made up of undocumented bogus asylum seekers). It’s a gripping film and from beginning to end. Setting aside two implausibilities in the story and one leap of faith, I’ll give it thumbs up. French reviews (very good) are here, US reviews (mostly good) are here and here, trailer is here.

eastern boys

‘Party Girl’, directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, Samuel Theis. No less than three directors. It’s been nominated for two Césars, including Best First Film (for the three directors). I saw it last September, on the recommendation of Guillaume Duval of Alternatives Economiques, if I remember correctly. The film is a real life story about a 60-year-old almost lifelong bar woman, Angélique Litzenburger, who works in downmarket cabarets in the declining industrial Lorrainer town of Forbach on the German border. She’s had four children—one of them a co-director of the pic (Theis)—presumably not of the same father, and, given her lifestyle, has not been the greatest mother to them. But they’ve stayed in touch with her and done okay for themselves (we meet them in the film). The main pic’s story—it’s a semi documentary, with not much of a plot—is the marriage engagement of Angélique with regular bar patron Michel (Joseph Bour). He wants her to finally settle down and with him, and she agrees, but then gets cold feet, because she’s been a bar woman her entire adult life and can’t conceive of leaving that life. It’s a small film but interesting and totally original. French reviews were good, as were those of Hollywood critics (here, here, here, and here). Trailer is here.

party girl

Bande-de-Filles

In my December 31st round-up of French films of 2014, I mentioned that I’d have a separate post on films focusing on immigration and ethnicity, of which there were several last year. Le voici. Three discussed here have received nominations for this Friday’s César awards. ‘Bande de filles’ (English title: Girlhood) leads with four, including Best Director (Céline Sciamma) and Most Promising Actress (Karidja Touré). The story, in short: Marieme (K.Touré), a.k.a. Vic, is a mid teen girl of African immigrant stock, who lives with her hard-working mother (hotel chambermaid) and two brothers in a cité in the neuf-trois. She’s generally well-behaved but doesn’t have the grades to get into a lycée général—that would track her to higher education, which she desperately wants—and is thereby told that the only option open to her is a lycée professionnel (vocational high school), which she refuses. Following this setback she falls in with a gang of black chicks (African), led by the cool and cheeky Fily (Mariétou Touré), drops out of school, adopts an attitude, and spends her days with her new BFFs, getting into fights with other girls, riding the RER into Paris to hang out at the Forum des Halles, shoplift, and just fool around. But then the nice boy Ismael (Idrissa Diabaté) takes a liking to Vic and she to him, but as Ismael is a pal of Vic’s dictatorial older brother, who enforces the code of honor of the cités—thereby keeping tabs on his sister’s girl-boy interactions—the budding relationship with Ismael runs into logistical problems. So Vic, who’s basically a good kid, splits from the cité and takes her distance from her girl gang. It’s a coming of age movie about a black teen in the Paris banlieues who is finding her way. I was engaged enough with the film—it is well acted and certainly holds one’s attention—but wasn’t bowled over. French critics mostly gave it the thumbs up—N.B. in particular this review on the Africultures website—and their American counterparts positively loved it (the pic opened in the US on Jan. 30th). So as cinema it may be seen; as ethnography—if one is into that—it may definitely be seen. Trailer is here.

A note on the film’s choreographed opening scene, of a team of black girls playing American football, which more than one US reviewer took note of. The scene, which one may interpret as symbolizing the aggressiveness of the social interactions one sees in the film, is, as one reads, a mere clin d’œil of director Céline Sciamma at her favorite TV series, ‘Friday Night Lights’ (the players are from an amateur female American football team in the banlieue).

Also receiving a César nomination is ‘Samba’, by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, who co-directed the 2011 Über hit comedy Intouchables—which sold 19.5 million tix in France, making it the nº2 French film of all time—and became the biggest ever French film at the box office in several countries. And it propelled the career of Omar Sy—already popular with the younger generation—into the stratosphere. So seeking to capitalize on his and the film’s success, Toledano & Nakache made another movie intended to be crowd-pleasing—though this a dramedy, so more serious—with Omar Sy in the lead, and accompanied by top draws Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim (though the pic’s one César nomination went to the relative newcomer Izïa Higelin for Best Supporting Actress). In this one Sy plays an undocumented Senegalese immigrant in Paris named Samba, who has been working hard for ten years (in a restaurant kitchen), causing no trouble whatever and stealing no job from a single French person, and whose boss wants to promote him, except that he doesn’t have papers. Snared by the police, he is subjected to deportation proceedings and sent to a detention center near CDG airport. In trying to avoid deportation, he is assisted by a not very experienced immigration case worker named Alice (Gainsbourg), a corporate executive on extended medical leave for burn-out—which is, as I have learned from a friend who is suffering from it, a serious affliction indeed—who is volunteering her time with undocumented immigrants during her recovery. She is touched by Samba, develops feelings for him, and the two forge a relationship of sorts, which I didn’t find entirely convincing BTW (no spoilers, so I won’t say what does or does not happen between the two, or whether or not the pic has a happy ending). The film, which has its share of bons sentiments and tugs at one’s heart toward the end, is perfectly watchable but is not a chef d’œuvre by any stretch. French reviews were good to very good on the whole, though US critics who saw it at the TIFF were more reserved (here, here, here, and here). The word-of-mouth on the film was obviously good, though, as it sold over 3 million tix, which was nowhere near ‘Intouchables’ but still very good by any measure (and way higher than any other film discussed here). This is good and gratifying, as the film presents undocumented immigrants—and from Africa—in a sympathetic—and accurate—light, as law-abiding, hard-working potential future citizens—should they have the good fortune to have their status regularized—who want no more or less for themselves than any other Frenchman or woman. On this level—and in view of the near toxic nature of the issue in France at the present time, and with the attendant demagoguery and political surenchères—the film is salutary. Trailer is here.

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Also netting César nominations is ‘Qu’Allah bénisse la France’ (May Allah Bless France), a biopic of Abd al Malik (né Régis Fayette-Mikano), the well-known Franco-Congolese (Brazzaville) slam poet and rap singer (I should say well-known in certain milieux, as I was not familiar with his music and other artistic work before the film came out; see the NYT’s 2012 portrait of him here). The pic is directed by Abd al Malik himself—earning him a César nomination for Best First Film—and based on his eponymous 2004 autobiographical novel, though his role is played by Marc Zinga (César Most Promising Actor nominee). The film begins with the teen Régis/Abd al Malik’s life in the tough Strasbourg cité of Neuhof, where he hangs out with his homies, most of whom are drug dealers and petits voyous—Régis/Abd al Malik partaking in petty crime himself—lives with his nurturing (mother-headed) Catholic family, and performs brilliantly in lycée—notably in French and philosophy—resulting in an invitation by the school to enter hypokhâgne after receiving his bac (signifying that he is indeed very bright and with marked literary talent). Needless to say, there aren’t too many cagneux around of his social class and ethno-racial background, so he kind of stands out among his fellow students. He keeps up his friendships with his gangbanger homies, though, and when one with whom he was close gets killed in a gang règlement de comptes, Régis/Abd al Malik decides to convert to Islam (and change his name). During this time he’s writing slam poetry, composing music, and gaining celebrity. Under the influence of the Franco-Moroccan Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani)—his g.f. and future wife—he moderates his religious practice and a spiritual voyage of discovery to Morocco brings about a reconversion, as it were, to sufi Islam, which gives him inner strength, peace, and everything else contemplative, mystical sufism is supposed to do. The film—which is in black-and-white, à la Mathieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine’—is understated, almost low-key. And while one hears the poetry, there should be more of Abd al Malik’s music. The film could have also delved more into what the title strongly suggests, which is Abd al Malik’s (positive) relationship with France. His life experiences and trajectory give the lie to the crap one hears almost daily about problems of integration in France—whatever “integration” is supposed to mean and which I will insist is not a problem in this country—as Abd al Malik is clearly a success story of the Republic (among other things, he has published books with titles like La guerre des banlieues n’aura pas lieu and L’islam au secours de la République). It all goes to show that, yeah, one can be a rap-singing convert to Islam of 100% African stock and love France all the same. The film received generally good reviews in France—for a US review go here and scroll to the end—but was not a box office hit, which is perhaps unfortunate in view of the present-day salience of the immigration issue and the clear message of the film. The word-of-mouth clearly did not work in Abd al Malik’s sizable fan base, a likely consequence of him opting to make a film d’auteur rather than a more conventional, bigger-budget biopic. Trailer is here.

quallah benisse la france

Another recent film with an Islam/immigration focus is ‘L’Apôtre’ (The Apostle), written, directed, and produced by Cheyenne Carron—who was previously unknown to me—which opened in October in exactly one cinema (independent) in Paris, before being released on DVD the following week. The reason why the film played in only one salle: no distributor would touch it, as the subject was deemed too hot to handle. And what is the subject? The conversion to Christianity of a young Maghrebi Muslim. The story: Akim (Fayçal Safi), who’s in his late 20s, lives with his parents, older brother Youssef (Brahim Tekfa), and adoring younger sister Hafsa (Sarah Zaher) in an inner Paris banlieue. The family is close-knit and middle class (living in a house, not a flat in a cité). And they’re practicing Muslims, though “moderate”—mother and sister are not veiled—and with the father’s brother the imam at a nearby mosque. Youssef, who takes his religion seriously, is following in his uncle’s footsteps and it is hoped that Akim will become an imam too, but he declines. One day Akim is invited by his friend Fabien to attend the baptism of the latter’s baby daughter. It was Akim’s first time ever in a church. He is taken by the Catholic ritual and sets out to learn more about Christianity. The interest becomes a fascination, leading to a meeting with the priest of the local cathedral. Deciding that Catholicism suits his spiritual needs more than Islam, Akim takes the plunge and converts. And when he announces to his family that he’s found Jesus, well, a little crisis ensues, and particularly with Youssef, who considers his younger brother—the two are very close—to be an apostate and disgrace to his family. But—spoiler alert!—things work themselves out and there is no tragic ending.

I thought it was a pretty good film—the few reviews of it were positive—and on a topic of vital importance, as the issue of how Muslims deal with conversions out of Islam is a real one. The phenomenon is not insignificant in France, where the Muslim identity population (of some 4 million) is the highest in the Western world (the number of Muslim-to-Christian converts in France is into the five figures and one sees literature tables and other proselytizing efforts by Maghrebi and African Christian converts—mainly evangelical Protestant—in heavily immigrant areas). After seeing the film I was interested to know what kind of reaction it received among French Muslims. But as it played in just one theater—albeit off the Champs-Elysées—practically no one saw it (and no one I know). And I have seen no mention of it on the higher profile French Muslim websites (e.g. Oumma.com, Al-Kanz). C’est dommage. The film merits being seen and discussed. Trailer is here (followed by a 14-minute interview with actors Safi and Tekfa).

There are several more films I’d intended to discuss here. Will do so in a separate post in the next week.

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Timbuktu

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Everyone who pays any attention to cinema has at least heard of this by now, on account of the buzz, stellar reviews in France and the US alike, the Oscar nomination for best foreign language film (Mauritania’s submission) and its no less than eight César nominations, including best film (as the pic is French produced, it’s considered French here) and best director (Abderrahmane Sissako, who’s Mauritanian-Malian but lives in France). It’s a beautiful, powerful film, and understated, which adds to its force. As one knows, its subject is the jihadist (Ansar Eddine et al) takeover of Timbuktu in 2012—though the film is not situated in time and no organization is named (and, for security reasons, it was not shot in Timbuktu but in Oualata, Mauritania)—, the jihadists imposing their particular conception of Islamic law, and the destruction of a good part of the city’s architectural and historical patrimony. Anthropologist and northern Mali specialist Andrew Hernann has a good review of the film (dated February 9th) in the Africa Is a Country blog, “Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu complicates the Jihadist narrative,” which expresses many of the thoughts I had about it. He writes

Timbuktu, which opened in the United States on January 28, centers on a Tuareg family living in a tent on the outskirts of Timbuktu. Both honor and fatigue make the family reluctant to flee with their family and friends. This leaves them worried and lonely. It also makes them vulnerable to the jihadist regime, as well as fellow Timbuktians, who are equally frightened and on edge. But the film also highlights other residents—including locals and jihadists—as they negotiate the demands of the occupation.

Many film critics have lauded Timbuktu as a “visual masterpiece,” praising Sissako’s use of vast landscapes and captivating cityscapes. However, the cinematography accomplishes more than stunning images. Instead, it evokes the loneliness, confusion, desperation and sense of abandonment that so many Timbuktians experienced. Who could they rely upon and trust aside from the few who remained? How were residents to gauge the jihadists’ often conflicting motives?

Others critics have also applauded the film’s supposed comedic and satirical script. Such praise is somewhat misleading in my opinion. Timbuktu does not portray the jihadists—at least not all of them—as either purely ideological or bumbling buffoons. Many are depicted as critical thinkers in their own way. Others—(former) lovers of rap music and soccer—are depicted as youths who are way over their heads. Contrary to certain criticism following the Charlie Hebdo attack, however, this is not to suggest that Sissako is an apologist for extremism. Far from it. Instead, he depicts the jihadists as real, not as a caricature.

Sissako also demonstrates local resistance to shari’a. He includes a scene of a fishmonger critiquing new regulations that force her to wear gloves. And he includes another of lower-level jihadists searching for singers and guitar players. Some viewers and critics find these scenes amusing, and perhaps they were partially intended to be. Nonetheless, rules enforcing public veiling and prohibiting music were far from amusing to the Timbuktians with whom I worked in 2013. And as Sissako accurately illustrates, the jihadists brutally countered these local expressions of resistance.

To read all of Hernann’s review, go here. See also the review by NYU grad student Ethan Gates in TNR (February 9th), “Oscar-nominated ‘Timbuktu’ shows the terrors of life under Islamist extremism.”

One of my takeaways from the film was precisely the depiction of the jihadists not as a caricature of wild-eyed, bloodthirsty fanatics wreaking terror in the city—even though they are fanatics and who do terrorize—but rather as cold, determined men out to impose their vision of an Islamic order ruled by Shari’a law as they interpret it. In this respect, one notes their attachment to procedure and the law, though their knowledge of Islamic law is, to put it charitably, rudimentary. E.g. the scene where the protag Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed Pino) is hauled before the Shari’a “court” for having (unintentionally) killed the fisherman. He is assured that the “judge”—who, one may safely assume, had never set foot anywhere near Al-Azhar—is wise and just, but who is as inculte as the rest of his jihadist associates, making up the law as he goes along. The law is whatever the jihadists say it is.

Another takeaway was the incredulity of the Timbuktians—every last one a practicing Muslim—when confronted with the jihadists’ crackpot understanding of Islam: banning music, sports, and just about everything else, and the ordering of women to wear niqabs and gloves. As Andrew Hernann, relating his experiences in Timbuktu after the French army liberated the city in January 2013, writes in his review

[I]t’s important to consider that most Timbuktians themselves refused to identify the occupiers with Islam. Almost every time I referred to them as “jihadists” or “Islamists”, my friends would (sometimes angrily) correct me, saying, “No, these people know nothing about Islam. This is not Islam. They are terrorists, pure and simple.”

One notes Hernann’s remark about some of the young jihadists being in “way over their heads.” Hailing from various countries in West Africa, the Maghreb (jihadist commander Abdelkrim, played by actor Abel Jafri, is Algerian), and Europe, they don’t always speak a common language; thus the amusing scenes of the jihadist comrades trying to communicate with one another in broken English. As some appear nostalgic for music, football, and cigarettes—i.e. their pre-jihadist lives—one gets the feeling that at least a few among them could possibly waver in their ideological commitments and be lured back to the real world.

Though I ranked ‘Timbuku’ as one of the top films of 2014 it won’t be receiving my vote in either the Oscars or Césars. The Tuareg family at the center of the film is a little too idealized, both the family idyll and the Tuaregs more generally, who have long had a lofty stature in the French imaginaire (though the Malian Tuareg MNLA fighters have hardly been enfants de chœur, engaging in their share of bloodletting in recent years, as one is reminded in this critique of the film by Sabine Cessou in Rue89). Mais peu importe. The film is a must-see. Trailer is here.

les-heritiers

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, France 2 broadcast, over one week, an eight-part documentary series—totaling seven-and-a-half hours—on the Nazi extermination of the Jews, “‘Jusqu’au dernier': La Déstruction des Juifs d’Europe,” by the French filmmakers William Karel and Blanche Finger (English title: Annihilation: The Destruction of Europe’s Jews; English trailer is here). I missed it on TV but managed to see all eight episodes streamed on France 2’s website (before they disappeared, as French television regulations unfortunately only allow the viewing of programs on the web for a week after their broadcast). I’ve seen numerous documentaries on the Holocaust over the decades—and read plenty on the subject—but this one is particularly remarkable. The series, which begins with the 1933 Nazi seizure of power and closes with the memory of the Holocaust over the decades following WWII, is almost entirely composed of Nazi film footage and other images, and with the narration interspersed with interviews with some fifty historians and authors from eight countries. The documentary is a tour de force. The impetus for its making was a French public opinion survey in 2010 revealing that a majority of the under-35 age cohort had never heard of the Rafle du Vel’ d’hiv and, ergo, was ignorant of the details as to what happened to the Jews during WWII. For Karel and Finger, one of the goals of the documentary is to explain the Holocaust to the younger generation, now and in the future. It will soon be available in DVD and eventually shown in the US, UK, and elsewhere (it already has been in Germany and Belgium). It is absolutely worth seeing in its entirety by everyone, including those who think they know the subject well.

On teaching the Holocaust to the younger generation, there is a film on the subject presently showing in cinemas in France, ‘Les Héritiers’ (English title: Once in a Lifetime), and that merits mention. The pic is based on a true story, of a class of 10th graders at the Lycée Léon Blum in the Paris banlieue of Créteil during the 2008-09 school year and their participation in the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation: an annual competition, inaugurated in 1961 by the Ministry of Education, of participating 9th and 10th grade history classes, which submit class projects around a theme—set by the Ministry for the year—concerning some aspect of the resistance or deportation during the war. The theme for the 2008-09 year was “Children and teenagers in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps.” The Lycée Léon Blum class, composed mainly of turbulent 15 and 16-year-olds of immigrant families from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, ended up winning the competition.

I was particularly interested in seeing the film, on account of the theme but also because I live right next to Créteil, in the banlieue to its north, and thus know the place well. The Lycée Léon Blum, where the film was also shot, is 15 minutes by car or bus from chez moi, just off the major arterial thoroughfare and behind the Créteil mosque (which one sees in the film). Créteil, which has a population of 90,000, is not attractive—with its forests of soulless high-rises, most of them public housing—but it’s not the ghetto, let alone a “no-go zone” (a cockamamie fantasy that Fox News and certain right-wing commentators outre-Atlantique went on about after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murders last month, provoking incredulity, hilarity, and ridicule in France). Créteil has a major teaching hospital, a campus of the University of Paris system, and is the prefecture of the Val-de-Marne (94), with a multitude of civil servants employed in administrative and judicial organs of the French state there. And it’s connected to Paris by the metro (line 8). The city, which has a large post-colonial immigrant population but also a sizable middle class, votes for the left—François Hollande took 62% of the Créteil vote in 2012, ten points above his national score—and is run on the municipal level by the Socialists (not the Communists, which is normally a sure giveaway that a poor, immigrant-origin population predominates in the commune).

A notable feature of Créteil’s multi-ethnic demography is its Jewish community, which numbers some 20,000—mainly of Tunisian and Moroccan origin—and with some 15 synagogues, making it one of the largest in the Île-de-France. The different ethno-confessional populations have lived in bonne entente since the immigration waves began in the 1950s, though there have been incidents in recent years, the worst being the antisemitic crime this past December 1st, committed by three lumpen immigrant-origin youths (two African, one Maghrebi) and that happened in the area just behind the Lycée Léon Blum. ‘Les Héritiers’ does have a couple of scenes depicting the general bonne entente between Maghreb/African-origin kids and Jews, though one sees no Jewish students in the lycée itself, likely because they are few in number—most cristolien Jewish teens attending the nearby private Collège-Lycée Ozar Hatorah or one of the well-reputed public high schools—i.e. with middle/well-to-do class compositions—in neighboring, more upscale Saint-Maur-des-Fossés (one of the schools being my daughter’s alma mater).

The film hues closely to what happened in the Lycée Léon Blum class in 2008-09, as the screenplay was co-authored by one of the students, Ahmed Dramé—along with director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar—and who plays the student named Malik in the film (and for which he has been nominated for “Most Promising Actor” in the upcoming César Awards). And, as it happens, Dramé, now age 21, wrote a book, Nous sommes tous des exceptions—published last October by Fayard—about his tough upbringing—uneducated immigrant parents from Mali, growing up in a cité, raised by his mother (father absent), older brother in prison—and the lycée competition (watch him here interviewed on television last November). Dramé presents Léon Blum as the best public lycée général—i.e. for university-bound students—in Créteil and that he was determined to attend, but his 10th grade class being the most rowdy and undisciplined in the school. When their prof principale (homeroom teacher) and history-geography teacher, Anne Anglès, had to absent herself for a couple of weeks early in the year, the unruly students made life miserable for her substitute. So when Mme Anglès returned, she proposed, in order to re-establish authority and get control of the class, that the students participate in the national competition on the Nazi camps.

The students initially scoffed at the idea—as did the school principal and other teachers—saying that it was not something for them or that they were capable of. And there was reticence over the subject, with retorts to the teacher on the order of “Madame, we’ve had enough hearing about the Shoah” and “Madame, why does everyone always talk about the Jews?” As Dramé writes in his book—and that one sees in the film—the students, whose understanding of the Holocaust was rudimentary at best, viewed it as a massacre like so many others in modern times (Rwanda, Bosnia, etc). But Mme Anglès—played by the perfectly cast Ariane Ascaride (who’s been in almost all the films of gauchiste director Robert Guédiguian)—wouldn’t give up trying to persuade the students to participate in the competition. She patiently and respectfully responded to their questions, explained the specificity of the Holocaust—a genocide driven by a racialized, essentialized hatred of Jews that aimed to kill every last one the Nazis could get their hands on—, took them on a field trip to the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris—where I’ve taken American students a dozen or so times over the past decade—, all of which finally convinced the class—after three months of hesitation—to go ahead with the project (the film shows only one student refusing to participate, an ethnic French boy recently converted to Islam). But what clinched the students’ commitment to the project was a visit to the class by Holocaust survivor Léon Zyguel, who was arrested in Mont-de-Marsan in June 1942—at age 15—with his mother and siblings (his father had already been hauled off the previous year), interned at Mérignac and then Drancy, deported to Auschwitz, and who survived the January 1945 death march to Buchenwald. The students were stunned by Zyguel’s account—as the film shows and Dramé writes—and with many in tears (Zyguel is in the film and the emotion of the amateur cast was apparently for real; much of the film was indeed improvised by the cast, so it appears). So with that, the students forged ahead with the project. And they won. The ceremony at the École Militaire—facing the Eiffel Tower—and with the Minister of Education declaring the winner is a moment of high emotion in the film. Only those with hearts of stone will not be moved by it.

It’s a wonderful story—and literally so close to home for me—though I won’t say that the film, as cinema, is a chef d’œuvre. Much of it has the quality of a téléfilm, it’s replete with bons sentiments, is clichéd at times, and, helped along by the piano soundtrack, clearly seeks to jerk one’s tears (it certainly did with mine, I will readily admit). But who cares? While watching it I was reminded of the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, which I loved and found so inspiring at the time. And the experience of the Concours had such an impact on the students themselves, with all passing the baccalaureate three years later—and twenty with a mention (i.e. making the honor roll)—as one learns in this joint France 2 interview with Anglès and Ascaride the day of the film’s opening on December 3rd. It clearly affected the lives of a number of students, and, above all, Ahmed Dramé, who writes in the epilogue of his book of how the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation changed both his world-view and perception of himself.

Reviews of ‘Les Héritiers’ by Paris critics have been very good on the whole—not one is negative—and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. And it’s done well at the box office, with 530,000 tickets sold so far—which is not bad at all for a film of this kind—and is still showing at 109 theaters across the country nine weeks after its release. The Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher murders have certainly increased the interest in the film. And à propos, Anne Anglès was interviewed in Le Figaro on January 23rd on how the events were perceived by the students at the Lycée Léon Blum (there were only two incidents in the school of students not respecting the minute of silence for the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher victims). Trailer w/English subtitles is here.

In the William Karel-Blanche Finger documentary on the destruction of Europe’s Jews, more than one historian interviewee mentioned that there would soon be no survivors of the Holocaust left to offer personal testimony to the younger generations. As fate would have it, Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem issued a communiqué on January 30th—nine days ago—informing the public that Léon Zyguel had passed away.

Ahmed Dramé_Nous sommes tous des exceptions

Pro-Mosaddegh demonstration, Tehran, March 2 1953

Pro-Mosaddegh demonstration, Tehran, March 2 1953

This post—which I intended to do several months ago but didn’t get around to—has nothing to do with anything that’s happening right now. I am posting it at the present time as part of a social media exchange I’ve been having this past week with a friend, who expressed astonishment at an assertion I made that the CIA did not engineer the coup d’états in Chile or in Iran in 1953. On the Chile coup, I offered my friend my post of last September, Chile’s 9/11: What really happened?, in which I linked to an article in Foreign Affairs by a CIA officer in Santiago at the time, who explained—convincingly, in my view—that the CIA was not implicated in what happened there on that fateful September 11th 1973. My friend, who’s Algerian, remains skeptical, which doesn’t surprise me: Western leftists over a certain age and tiersmondistes the world over are almost politically hardwired to believe that the CIA was responsible for the Chilean coup. It goes without saying. And if people have believed something dur comme fer for over four decades, they’re not likely to change their minds after reading a single article, and by a CIA agent at that.

It’s likewise with the 1953 Iranian coup that overthrew Mohammed Mosaddegh, perhaps even more so, as Kermit Roosevelt—the CIA’s man in Tehran at the time—practically bragged about the role he played in the coup, serious scholars and journalists (e.g. Stephen Kinzer, Ervand Abrahamian) have written books on it, and the US government has acknowledged its involvement. I accepted this narrative pretty much without question—there was no reason not to—until I read an article in the December 8th 2009 TNR by Stanford University’s Abbas Milani, “The Great Satan Myth,” in which he argued that the circumstances surrounding the coup against Mosaddegh were much more complex than the dominant version had it. Milani followed up the TNR piece with one on The National Interest website, dated January 24th 2011, “The Myth of Operation Ajax: America can’t form a prudent policy toward Iran until it exorcises the ghost of Washington’s role in bringing down Mossadegh.” Involvement is one thing, responsibility is another.

Then in the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, Washington-based Iran specialist Ray Takeyh had an article—in the same series as the one on Chile discussed in my above-cited post—entitled “What Really Happened in Iran: The CIA, the Ouster of Mosaddeq, and the Restoration of the Shah.” Takeyh’s argument—that the CIA role in the 1953 coup was “ultimately insignificant” and that Mosaddegh would have been overthrown regardless of outside meddling—settles the matter for me. For those too lazy to click on the above link, here’s the text of the article. À chacun de décider ce qu’il en pense.

By Ray Takeyh

Back in 2009, during his heavily promoted Cairo speech on American relations with the Muslim world, U.S. President Barack Obama noted, in passing, that “in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Obama was referring to the 1953 coup that toppled Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and consolidated the rule of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Obama would go on to remind his audience that Iran had also committed its share of misdeeds against Americans. But he clearly intended his allusion to Washington’s role in the coup as a concession — a public acknowledgment that the United States shared some of the blame for its long-simmering conflict with the Islamic Republic.

Yet there was a supreme irony to Obama’s concession. The history of the U.S. role in Iran’s 1953 coup may be “well known,” as the president declared in his speech, but it is not well founded. On the contrary, it rests heavily on two related myths: that machinations by the CIA were the most important factor in Mosaddeq’s downfall and that Iran’s brief democratic interlude was spoiled primarily by American and British meddling. For decades, historians, journalists, and pundits have promoted these myths, injecting them not just into the political discourse but also into popular culture: most recently, Argo, a Hollywood thriller that won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture, suggested that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution was a belated response to an injustice perpetrated by the United States a quarter century earlier. That version of events has also been promoted by Iran’s theocratic leaders, who have exploited it to stoke anti-Americanism and to obscure the fact that the clergy itself played a major role in toppling Mosaddeq.

In reality, the CIA’s impact on the events of 1953 was ultimately insignificant. Regardless of anything the United States did or did not do, Mosaddeq was bound to fall and the shah was bound to retain his throne and expand his power. Yet the narrative of American culpability Continue Reading »

Greece: The Syriza victory

Alexis Tsipras, Athens, January 25th (Photo: Reuters/Marko Djurica)

Alexis Tsipras, Athens, January 25th (Photo: Reuters/Marko Djurica)

It was expected and I’m pleased. Syriza (acronym of the Coalition of the Radical Left) is the most left-wing party to ever win a legislative election in a Western democracy. And by far, as the socialists (PASOK), who are to Syriza’s right—and were all but wiped out yesterday—will in no way be associated with the new government. We now have a democratically elected government in a Western country composed of communists (small c), Trotskyists, and other motley gauchistes, who will now have to put their money where their mouths are and deliver the goods. Très bien. I will be watching with great interest.

It looks like Syriza will bring in the conservative, Eurosceptic ANEL as a coalition partner. In France this would be akin to a Front de Gauche/EELV/NPA-led government with support from Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France. Quelle hypothèse saugrenue. Now such a government in Paris would end in certain fiasco—it would crash and burn within months—but in Greece it could possibly work, as Alexis Tsipras’s hands will be sort of tied when he goes to Brussels and Berlin—he won’t have much margin of maneuver—but just about everyone outside Germany is fed up with the EU’s austerity politics of the past six years, the specter of deflation is looming, the ECB is engaging in unprecedented quantitative easing, and it’s simply clear to everyone—again, outside Germany—that something has to change in Europe and fast. So Syriza is coming to power at the right moment, when there will be more openness in the EU to accommodating it if it commits itself to serious reforms (on taxation, corruption, etc). We’ll soon see if the “loud-mouthed radical” Tsipras—as the FT called him back in ’12—will become un homme d’État.

As it happens, my Greek political science friends haven’t been too optimistic over the prospects of a Syriza government or Tsipras transforming himself into that homme d’État. My go-to man on anything having to do with Greece, Stathis Kalyvas, the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University—and who is not a Tsipras fan—has an instant analysis of yesterday’s election in Foreign Affairs (registration required), “So Long, Austerity? Syriza’s Victory and the Future of the Eurozone.” If you read just one article on the Greek election, let it be this.

Yesterday Stathis posted on social media “An improvised crash course in recent Greek political history,” which is both useful and cleverly put together.

Michalis Moutselos, a sharp political science doctoral candidate at Princeton, has also not been too impressed with Syriza. Back in November, in a social media response to a starry-eyed tribune in The Guardian, “Europe’s new left parties can make the dreams of 1968 come true,” authored by the starry-eyed Croatian gauchiste philosopher Srećko Horvat, Michalis thus let loose

I have had enough with the normalisation of SYRIZA and ensuing love affair with European leftist-progressives. Friends, those of you who think that these guys are the European avant-garde, you really should know what you are getting in bed with. These are people who talk about creating a Ministry or some kind of state sub-committee for about anything that you can imagine, from tourism to dancing to IT. They repeatedly call the German government occupiers and neo-colonialists in public and make speeches in the European parliament about World War II reparations. They are against any kind of reform of the Greek public sector (anything, from simple evaluation to firing people who have not showed up to their posts in months). They make sure to justify Russian foreign policy and shake hands with Putin’s ministers. Their MPs repeatedly justify acts of vandalism in Greek universities – and I mean not sit-ins and occupations of auditoriums to prevent votes -, but locking up professors who disagree in their offices. In terms of nationalism, populism, and sheer staleness of opinions and policies, they are a Leftist version of the Tea Party. Greeks are voting for them out of spite for the old parties and that is understandable. But at least foreigners who follow Greek politics and are not affected by the polarised atmosphere of the country should know better before getting too excited. You might have to do a big volte-face once SYRIZA are in power.

Aïe. As we say here, Michalis n’y va pas par quatre chemins. And on social media today, he slammed the budding Syriza coalition with the right-wing souverainistes

For those abroad following Greek election results: it might come as a surprise that Tsipras chooses to form a coalition with populist/nationalist/right-wing Independent Greeks rather than more centrist parties, like POTAMI or PASOK. However, it should not be… What you see as a progressive, leftist electoral uprising is really a negative coalition around anti-austerity and the desire to restructure the national debt without any conditions attached. For SYRIZA it is thus preferable to sacrifice progressive, left-liberal policies (cutting down on defense spending, recognizing gay rights, regularizing second-generation immigrants) or leftist tax-and-spend policies mending the pitiful welfare state in Greece, in order to retain a united “national” front on debt negotiations. There is also no deeper sociological, working-class/historical experience to unite SYRIZA voters – sorry, but unemployment and “humanitarian crisis” do not cut it. Thus the precariousness of the anti-austerity vote. Which will try to find new radical “harbors” when it is realized that SYRIZA+ANEL cannot achieve a new haircut without isolating the country and causing bank runs. The vicious circle of pseudo-radicalization will only stop when there is a realization that debt maturities have been (and will further be) extended so far in the future that debt repayment is not the foremost issue behind Greek exceptionalism, and that the inability to produce our way out of the stalemate is really the issue.

It would be a real shame if the coalition with ANEL causes Syriza to scrap its progressive policy proposals on migrants and nationality acquisition. A question to Michalis: You mean “leftist AND RIGHTIST NO-tax-and-spend policies,” n’est-ce pas? Hasn’t the problem in Greece been lots of spending—by both PASOK and ND—but with no tax revenue to pay for it?

When I asked Michalis the other day for a good link or two on the Greek election, he offered this WSJ piece, dated January 23rd, “Greece: Austerity, Relief, or Exit.”

He also recommended “Who Is Afraid Of Alexis Tsipras,” originally published on January 18th in El Mundo.

I found informative a lengthy interview with King’s College London political theory prof—and Syriza central committee member—Stathis Kouvelakis, published January 22nd in Jacobin, “Greece: Phase One.” The lede: Syriza is the Left’s best chance at success in a generation. But for socialists, the hard part starts after election day.

Writing in OpenDemocracy as last night’s election returns came in, University of Georgia prof—and specialist of European populist movements—Cas Mudde offered “five predictions of a much similar future” after Syriza’s landslide.

André Sapir, economics prof at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and adviser to former European Commission president Romano Prodi—which means he’s mainstream—was interviewed by Libération’s Jean Quatremer, where he said that “La volonté de réformes de Syriza peut être la solution.” Inshallah.

Americans abroad

the other americans in paris

Victoria Ferauge—American in Paris, voracious reader, and friend—has a great American diaspora reading list on her (excellent) blog, The Franco-American Flophouse. She’s read far more on the subject of Americans aboard than I have, that’s for sure. One of the top books she mentions—and highly recommends—is American in Paris, historian, and friend Nancy Green’s The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941, which was published last summer by the University of Chicago Press (and whose forthcoming publication I mentioned in a post 3½ years ago on David McCullough’s best-selling—and quite certainly less good—book on Americans in Paris). Nancy kindly had a copy sent to me, though I have yet to read it (but I will, promis juré), so here’s the description from the U of C Press website

While Gertrude Stein hosted the literati of the Left Bank, Mrs. Bates-Batcheller, an American socialite and concert singer in Paris, held sumptuous receptions for the Daughters of the American Revolution in her suburban villa. History may remember the American artists, writers, and musicians of the Left Bank best, but the reality is that there were many more American businessmen, socialites, manufacturers’ representatives, and lawyers living on the other side of the River Seine. Be they newly minted American countesses married to foreigners with impressive titles or American soldiers who had settled in France after World War I with their French wives, they provide a new view of the notion of expatriates.

Nancy L. Green thus introduces us for the first time to a long-forgotten part of the American overseas population—predecessors to today’s expats—while exploring the politics of citizenship and the business relationships, love lives, and wealth (and poverty for some) of Americans who staked their claim to the City of Light. The Other Americans in Paris shows that elite migration is a part of migration tout court and that debates over “Americanization” have deep roots in the twentieth century.

In her post, Victoria also recommends my mother’s memoir of the two years our family lived in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the 1960s, and which I mentioned in a blog post 3 years ago. C’est gentil de ta part, Victoria.

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