The Age of Incitement

Thomas Friedman wants to see a movie.  So do I.

Radio and movies made mass incitement possible and effective in the development of fascism (Italy) and nazism (Germany.)  Now, add the Internet to the tools available.

The movie is called “Rabin: The Last Day.” Agence France-Presse said the movie, by the renowned Israeli director Amos Gitai, is about “the incitement campaign before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin” and “revisits a form of Jewish radicalism that still poses major risks.” This is the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Jewish radical.

A worker fixes a new memorial sign for the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the centre of Tel Aviv November 3, 2005. Ten years after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot at a peace rally by an ultranationalist opposed to his talks with the Palestinians, the Jewish state is seeing a resurgent swirl of rumour and speculation about his death.

A worker fixes a memorial for the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the centre of Tel Aviv 

“My goal wasn’t to create a personality cult around Rabin,” Gitai told A.F.P. “My focus was on the incitement campaign that led to his murder.” Sure, the official investigating commission focused on the breakdowns in Rabin’s security detail, but, Gitai added, “They didn’t investigate what were the underlying forces that wanted to kill Rabin. His murder came at the end of a hate campaign led by hallucinating rabbis, settlers who were against the withdrawal from territories and the parliamentary right, led by the Likud (party), already then headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who wanted to destabilize Rabin’s Labor government.”

I hope many many see the movie and interpret not only Israeli history, connected to its present, of course, but U.S. history.  The extreme right has an almost total monopoly on radio incitement and has had for decades.  It’s a backhanded tribute to the American people that only 34% think Donald Trump is the greatest leader of the free world.

Heist: Who Stole the American Dream

KPFA, the venerable public radio station in the Bay Area, is offering during its fund-raiser, a copy of the film Heist, which looks as if it deserves a viewing everywhere.  Help out KPFA (right column, 12 down)or go directly to the film site.

HEIST…”has the virtue of taking the long view of a crisis that recent films like “Inside Job” and “Too Big to Fail” have only sketchily explored. It makes a strong case that government regulation of business is essential for democracy to flourish.”

—Stephen Holden, New York Times

HEIST earnestly paints the picture of a democracy slowly and methodically being nudged toward oligarchy with help from all sides.”
—Mindy Farabee, LA Times

The Day I Became a Woman – A Film from Iran

What an unexpected, unusual and brain shaping movie. The Day I Became a Woman is Marzieh Makhmalbaf‘s first film in her native Iran,  as a director  though she also has screen writing and assistant director credits.  Her husband is Mohsen Makhmalbaf and a first rate director himself.

The outline of the film is simple.  Three parts, each with the name of the female protagonist and corresponding to three stages of an Iranian woman’s life: the transition from childhood to womanhood; the new requirement of marriage; old age, with its possibilities and transitions.  What is so marvelous is the way in which certain actions or objects take on  symbolic weight, plunging the stories much deeper into the lives of all Iranian women, probably all women of any partially modernizing middle eastern culture, and likely of all woman everywhere.  The economy of means with which Makhmalbaf does this is phenomenal.

“Hava” is the first, and title story:  it is the day when Hava, on her 9th birthday, ‘becomes a woman.’ She is, of course, 9 and wants to play with her play friend of years, Hassan, a young neighborhood (orphan) boy.  Her grandmother and mother will hear nothing of it.  She is becoming a woman.  They measure her for her chador and shoo Hassan away.  Finally Hava, hearing her mother say she was born at noon, shows her grandmother by the family clock that it is only 11 o’clock.  She has one more hour.  She is given a thin stick and shown how its shadow, when stuck into the sand,  will shorten as noon comes.  When the shadow disappears her time is up and she must “become a woman.”  She runs off with a large scarf held around her head.

The sweet, child conversations as the two plead with each other to play sets the innocent undertone.  Hava’s large eyes, and childish vigor, unafraid of arguing with her mother, unafraid of adventure give us an immediate impression.  Her careful monitoring of the shadow and repeating that her “time is almost up,”  is a powerful and simple image for her life, and what is about to happen.  When Hassan can’t play – he is locked in until his homework is finished– she takes his allowance and gets some tamarind and  candy.

“Let’s share it before I have to say goodbye.”

She passes a round lollypop between them, both grimacing at the sour taste. She goes to the shore and trades her scarf for a colorful floating duck.  The two boys who trade have made a rustic raft out of oil drums and a platform, onto which they attach the sail.  The image of the boys’ freedom setting out to sea (in a boyish way) set against the shortening shadow of her own happiness is enormously powerful.   We don’t know it yet, but the “boat” will reappear in the third section.  At noon, Hava returns to her house and we see her being taken away by her proud progentiors.

“Hide your hair, hide your hair, don’t sin!”

The second part is a long bicycle ride/race — all women, all young, all in black.  The wind billows into their chadors and impedes their progress but they pedal with determination.  The camera focuses on one woman in particular,  ‘Hoora,’ with full and repeated studies of her face, a mirror of her unwillingness to stop.  We imagine at first that it’s a race and  she wants to come in a the winner.  It soon becomes apparant there is much more going on.

Long, multiple tracking shots follow a dashing young prince on a galloping horse.  Once the beauty of it is established we see the rider is her husband who is very angry that she is riding a bicycle.  He calls to her, rides alongside her, begs her and threatens her to get off the bicycle.  She keeps riding.  He returns with an elderly imam and they both ride along side of her, threatening her with divorce.  She keeps riding.  They divorce her, still on horseback and then the village (male) elders arrive, all on horseback, gesturing and shouting.  She keeps riding.  It is one of the strangest sequences you are likely ever to see in a movie. And so effective sequence, portraying with minimal emotion her unyielding determination.  You will feel the oppression of her village/clan and want to scream, to get in the way of the horses, to throw sand at the riders.  Your own legs will tense as she keeps riding, riding.  Finally her two brothers are sent.  The force her off the bike.  As the camera pulls away, keeping up with young competitor of  Hoora’s, it is unclear what is happening.  Are they beating her?  Are they carrying her away?  Is she standing her ground?

The third sequence, perhaps the most fanciful, centers on an elderly woman who has come into a sizable inheritance.  She has bound colored ribbons on every finger to remind her of the things she want to buy.  She has a local boy push her in a wheel chair into a major shopping mall and begins to buy a refrigerator, a bed, chairs, a sofa, each in turn being pushed by another young boy on a loading cart.  Finally she takes them in a grand parade to the beach and has all the goods set up on the sand, as though it were her house.  There are other comings and goings that are both amusing and sad.  In the end she tells the boys to get all their little boats and load the goods onto them and take them out to the big ships standing off the shore.

The little boats she is talking about are variations on the oil drum boats of the first scene.  One is just big enough to put a refrigerator on, tied erect; it bobs  in the soft waves with the ships in the background.  They boys put “nene” on a big raft, sitting in a chair with an umbrella and her big double bed behind her.  The camera pulls back to a surrealistic vision of her finally acquired worldly good, bobbing precariously on the waves, apparently to go back to the ships on which they first came.

I swear to you, you will not forget this scene for a long time — nor the bicycle race or Hava pleading for Hassan to play.

Hava, of the first section, appears in her chador with her mother, looking at the old woman, seeing, we believe, the probable end of her own days.

This is quite an extraordinary movie, about women, in 2000 in Iran, but really about women everywhere, the clash of tradition against individual expression, about hope for something different, in its bare beginnings.

Baran: A Movie of Afghan Immigrants to Iran

Baran, another very fine movie from Iranian master Majid Majidi [see reviews of his Color of Paradise and The Song of the Sparrows ] informs us in his usual beautiful, well paced way of lives we know little or nothing at all, combined with emotions and relations we know bone deep.  Baran takes us to the Iranian border with Afghanistan where over 1 million refugees fled from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and wars following wars following wars.  As everywhere, the plight of refugees is cruel.  Removed from their own countries, often from remote rural areas which once constituted their entire world, living in squalid, hastily put together camps without plumbing, electricity or the tools or sense of belonging to use them, they seek work where they find it, at wages below the prevailing native norm.

Much of Baran takes place on a building site where men build and destroy cinder-block and mortar walls in the most appalling safety conditions you can imagine.  I’ve been on Mexican building sites.  They are absolutely Inspection Ready compared to this one.  Many of the workers are Afghan refugees; all men and all illegal.  When one of them falls from the unguarded second floor and shatters his foot not only is his family in extreme difficulty but the building inspectors begin to descend on the Iranian contractor doing the work.

“Afghans!  Afghans run! the shout is taken up and half the workforce clears out — just as Migra raids in Southern California.

A work partner of the disabled Afghani brings his “son,” Rahmat to take his place, promising to watch over him.  The boy soon shows himself as too weak and clumsy to carry sacks of cement up and down make-shift stairways, or wield a sledge hammer.  He is swapped with a tall young Iranian boy, Lateef,  who had been doing the kitchen duties and resents his promotion to much harder work.  He begins to spy on and taunt Rahmat until he discovers what we have suspected from the beginning.  Rahmat is a young girl.

The wonderful central theme is Lateef’s increasing care for her, protecting her while trying to live within the customs of men and women apart, his own love-born shyness, and not wanting to jeopardize her work, and therefore nearness to him.  He goes to increasing lengths to help her, demanding his back wages from the brusque but kind hearted contractor, and selling his identity card on the black market.  Each time the money does not work as he intended.  He is as far as ever from her though eventually she recognizes him, and his intentions.

The ending is bitter sweet as the last gift of money doesn’t help the crippled father stay in Iran but to take the family back to Afghanistan.  The parting scene between the two is very compelling stuff.  The family is boarding a rickety pickup truck in the driving rain when the two finally exchange their recognition of love.  The best  best Cinderella moment I’ve ever seen in life or a movie takes place and then, water splashing into her footprint, the truck moves off.  She is gazing out through a netted niqab at him.  He is smiles at footprint and the water.  Water thrown at departing friends in Iran is a promise of return.

As is typical with Majidi the colors are saturated and rich.  Here, instead of flowers, and streams — though there is one river of particular and harrowing importance– he brings us into the construction site, with billowing gray dust, pouring rain, ruined barrels of steaming liquids, fires to heat the material, the slop of mortar.  It is very much a Dantesque scene, with great snow covered mountains in the background.  Steam coming from the workers mouths and nostrils, eagerly reaching semi-gloved fingers for the hot tea served all around.

I’ve never seen a movie so bound to workers lives as Baran; the constant, brutal physical labor, the fear of losing the job, the intimidating shouts and threats of the contractor.  Even away from this job site work is hard and dangerous.  Women, in full Afghan dress, pull stones and branches from a rushing river — again no safety equipment.  Them major theme of fierce sexual separation and how it is both “natural” and deformative runs the length of the movie.   The girl’s determination to break that wall as best she can to help her family; the Iranian suitor stepping outside his own walls to answer the mystery of his heart.

Our view of immigrants up against the larger culture, the disdain for them, their language and customs from the dominant one will ring familiar to all who pay attention to life here in the United States– but in the movie it is between people we would hardly have thought of in such a context.  And of course, we are reminded, mostly as background but also in one wrenching scene, of the war and the wars that continue to take lives of young people, and leave their families with gaping holes.

And through this, a  dawning love softens a crazy kid, puts him into his very best clothes to make an impression and drives him towards his loved one, despised immigrant or not.  This, he understands in the pouring rain,  is the love I will have in my life.

Every film of Majid Majidi’s is so wonderfully wrought I would go hours out of my way to see anything with his name on it, no title or plot needed, confident I would come away, once again, stirred by the shimmering colors of his human palate.