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.

Cambodian Film Maker Receives Cannes Prize

An autobiographical French-Cambodian film, “The Missing Picture,” which explores the bloody history of Pol Pot’s dictatorship in late 1970s Cambodia, has won the “Un Certain Regard” prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Director Thomas Vinterberg, who was this year’s jury president, said he was “very honored to be awarding this prize, which we all agree is for a fantastic movie.”

… “This selection was ferociously non-sentimental but poetic nonetheless. It was political, highly original, sometimes disturbing, varied, but above all unforgettable,” Vinterberg said.

“Clay figurines, extreme beauty, violence… systematic humiliation of human nature… are images that will follow us for a long time… Moments that remain in our collective memory, a mirror of our existence,” he added.

Zero Dark Thirty: Is It Pornography?

I’ve been wrestling with myself about whether or not to see Zero Dark Thirty, not only because the violence is up-close, personal and gruesome for some forty-five minutes, but because many reviewers who have seen it say that torture is linked directly to the success of finding and killing Osama bin-Laden.  A filmic argument is being made that torture was effective, without the smallest counter argument being shown, even though in the real world, which the movie aims to depict, there were arguments conducted at high volume and at the highest levels of government.

My mirror neurons are so tightly tuned that I had to walk out of Syriana a few years ago when fingernails started being pulled out.  I was sweating and breathing fast and shallow.  It took me fifteen minutes walking through a chill Marin night to get back to nada nausea, but not enough to want to go back in.  I nursed a beer until my friends came out.  That might have been a five minute scene.  Forty five minutes?  Of a man hanging by his wrists, being sexually humiliated, being shoved into a tiny box?

So I don’t think so.  Meanwhile, here are some reviews to help you make up your own mind; Read more of this post

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

Alhaam: A Film from Iraq — 2005

Alhaam, a movie shot in Iraq in 2004 — during the full catastrophe of the US invasion and related Iraqi insurgencies– is the rawest, hardest to watch movie of war I have ever seen — and I’ve seen many.    Not as tightly plotted or scripted as such American movies as The Hurt LockerFull Metal Jacket or The Thin Red Line  –which are in any case, about Americans in these wars–  the ragged effects of hand-held camera work, the not quite seamless narrative, the sometime loss of control in acting, adds to the chaos of what we are seeing – what they are experiencing.  In American war movies, even if hard-hitting and raw, it is still possible to think — this is not happening; this is a movie.  That’s Sean Penn, or Brad Pitt.  They were on the cover of People this month.  In Ahlaam it is very hard to think any of those things.  Whatever knowledge we retain that the movie has a director and actors it is hard not to believe that this is not a pure documentary of citizens caught in hell.

The film begins on the second day of the infamous  “Shock and Awe,” air campaign as American explosives light up the sky over Baghdad, scenes most of us are familiar with from the actual days of the bombing, scenes we saw on CNN.  One of the buildings blown to smithereens is an insane asylum.  Through the broken walls and over smoking rubble the terrified inmates escape. The film follows several of them through the streets and back into their lives to show how they came to be there, beneath the bombs.

Alhaam, the lead character – whose name means Hope–  is bubbling and pretty on the days of her engagement.  She and her fiancee meet by the Euphrates and laugh about having their mothers take care of all the children they plan to have.  Her wedding day, with the dancing, ululating family,  is just a day before the bombing.  As she is about to come downstairs for the ceremony, masked Iraqis burst into the house and kidnap her fiancee.  Through most of the film she staggers across the still-being-bombed cityscape trying to find him.

Ali’s story and institutionalization began in 1998, during the earlier bombing of Iraq by US and British forces during Operation Desert Fox.  An easy going soldier, he tries to cheer his best friend, in the army with him, who constantly talks about fleeing Iraq, the army, and the butchery of Saddam Hussein and beginning again in Europe.  During a bombardment the friend is badly wounded and Ali makes a heroic effort to carry him across the desert to get help.  He is eventually arrested by Iraqis, having gone mad and still carrying the corpse of his friend.  He is charged with desertion, and incarcerated.  In the asylum he calls the name of the friend over and over, obsessed with his inability to have saved him.

The third of the major characters is Mehdi, a hard working, diligent medical student who, after passing his board, is rounded up by that Baathists and impressed into the army — because of his father’s communist ties.  It is Mehdi who is in charge of the ruined hospital and leads a desperate search — with Ali in the lead– for those who have escaped and are roaming madly in the madness.

There are some over-the-top moments which might have been more powerful if more understated; even in a movie about chaos and human emotion we seem to have a sense of “over acting.”  The trope of inmates running, or escaping, an asylum as an allegory for the rest of us may be a bit cliched to educated readers, but as the crazed Ahlaam searches for, and occasionally “sees” her fiancee, when she is raped  by Iraqis who should be the first to help her, when a masked sniper deliberately picks off citizens, including some the inmates struggling back to the hospital any idea of cliche is blown away.  Some of the shots, the image of Ali carrying his friend through the mirage emitting desert comes to mind, are as powerful as any you are likely to have seen in any movie, anytime.

There isn’t much to be cheerful about during the course of the movie; nor in the war, of course.  Mehdi, the doctor is a wonderful portrait of patience and desperation, trying to befriend the terrified inmates, offering them cigarettes to show he means no harm,  carrying one through the swampy mud at the edge of the Euphrates…  Ali, racing around Baghdad often in nothing more than boxer shorts,  becomes the idiot-every man rising out of his personal maddness to help those around him.

Next to the hell of  Alhaam Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell seems almost a cartoon of fanciful symbols, a misleading distraction from the actual hells that humans create.

Mohammed Al-Daradji, the director, is a young Dutch-Iraqi film maker, living  in Europe to avoid persecution from the Baathist regime.  When the war broke out in 2003 he went back wanting to make a film about ordinary Iraqi people. Ahlaam was shot in Baghdad in extremely difficult conditions – not only did he have to work around curfews and electricity cuts but members of his crew were arrested both by insurgents and by the Americans, neither side believing that they were simply making a film.

An interesting interview at Electric Sheep, can be found here.


AD: The character of Ahlaam is the one that brought me to the story. In 2003 I was watching the news about the war in Iraq while I was studying for a Master at Leeds University and I saw a reportage about a mental institution in Baghdad and how they were affected by the war. And then I saw Ahlaam – she was talking in a nonsensical way and it really shocked me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I dreamt about Ahlaam, on the street in Baghdad as you saw in the film.

VS: So Ahlaam was a real character?

AD: She was a real character, but I couldn’t meet her when I went to the mental institution in Baghdad two months after I saw the reportage. But I met another character, Ali. She wasn’t called Ahlaam. Ahlaam in Arabic means ‘dreams’. It’s not just about Ahlaam’s dreams but it’s also the dreams of the other characters, Ali’s dreams, Doctor Mehdi’s dreams, the dreams of any Iraqi who’s lived under Saddam’s regime and under the invasion. So for me it was about giving two meanings to the title: it’s the girl, and it’s also the meaning of the word.

 Alhaam was his first full length work, which he followed up with Son of  Babylon, not yet available at Netflix, but in the queue.  It was made under the auspices of Human Film  which also has other note-worth films to its credit, a new style production company like Participant Media, which ties it’s movies into vehicles not for product placement but for social change.


Twinned, Human Film & Iraq Al-Rafidain established in 2005, with a goal to seek and explore individual creativity, producing films with a social conscience and impact.
With roots in the east through our bases in Leeds (UK), Rotterdam (NL) and Baghdad (IQ), we are collectively committed to producing innovative, compelling films that entertain, inspire and challenge perceptions, furthering understanding on critical human issues to worldwide audiences through film.

Through our existence, we have the opportunity to share stories that we have a strong personal belief in, and through not applying any language, cultural, political, religious, or any other barriers to our filmmaking practice our work has the potential to affect and inspire.

Over the past 5 years we have successfully completed 3 feature films in Iraq; Ahlaam (2006), Iraq’s official entry for the 2011 Oscars and Golden Globes, Son of Babylon (2010) the recipient of the Berlinale IFF Peace Prize, Amnesty Film Award 2010 and Karlovy Vary’s NETPAC Award and most recently: Iraq, War, Love, God and Madness (2010).


You won’t find a more honest, direct and even heroic account of the toll war takes on non-combatants than in this movie.  Ahlaam is a must see, even if you can’t watch some of it.


Inch’ Allah Dimanche: Algerian Immigrants to France

Immigration is big in the news these days – mostly the opposition to it–  around the world.  It is absolutely the case that most people welcome immigrants when they need them and curse them when they don’t.  What the natives really want is the fairy tale world of snapping fingers to make the genies of cheap labor appear and disappear as needed.  It was as true in France after WW II as it is now.

Inch’Allah Dimanche, a quite wonderful, if not quite complete, film from French Algerian director Yamina Benguigui, explores in microcosm what happens when, after ten years, women and children are allowed to join their worker-husbands in mainland France.  Zouina, as played by the wonderful Fejria Deliba,  also French Algerian, brings three children, and her ferocious mother-in-law [Rabia Mokeddem] to a small row-house in Saint Quentin, France.  After a too painful parting from her own mother at embarkation — with the mother-in-law cursing her, and the children frantic — she arrives to a husband, Ahmed,  [Zinedine Soualem] who is more engaged with his mother than with his wife.

Zouina, despite having to steal the key to get out of the house, begins to make her way around the neighborhood and into the prize flower bed of her next door neighbor after the hyper competitive horticulturist stabs the kids’ soccer ball for a transgression into her sweet babies – that would be flowers.  She learns the strange ways of shopping, that you can’t prepare your coffee in the back yard, and that some French women are demons and others are friends.  She knows when one brings a gift of lipstick and rouge it must be hidden, after a quick try and pleasure at seeing the results.

Deliba  is really wonderful as the determined, curious — and beautiful– mother.   Her  mother-in-law is a dragon of almost unbelievable portions, though she won’t be seen as a stranger to many cultures we are more familiar with.  The man of the house is alternately a beginning guitar player painfully picking out “Apache,”  a dutiful son and a rage-filled husband.

The weakness of the movie  is that Benguigui didn’t quite make up her mind as to whether she had a comedy going, or an angry tale about women in the Arab world.  The husband administers several savage and prolonged beatings.  A heart wrenching scene ends Zouina’s  first contact with another Algerian woman well into the film.  On the other hand, the music, the exaggerated sneaking and running, the flower-gardening neighbors,  sometimes cast it as a French comedy — promising to be all well that ends well.

And in fact it does end well as, after one more escapade, Zouina comes home with her kids alone on a bus whose driver she has caught the eye of.   Ahmed, standing outside waiting for her, suddenly orders his mother to shut-up and go back inside and seems to leap to a new regard of his wife — who announces proudly “From now on, I am walking my children to school.”

An evening of intelligent fun and social commentary, not nearly as disturbing as BiutifulAlejandro González Iñárritu‘s wrenching film, with Javier Bardem, about immigrant life in Barcelona.  Inch’Allah Dimanche won several awards in 2001 for best film, best actress and for  the director.  A very nice sound track complements much of it,  including several songs by Algeria’s well known Berber singer and song writer, Idir, [and here and here,] Alain Blesing’s “Lail” and “Djin,”  Hamou Cheheb’s sweet and scathing “Mon enfance,” [My Childhood.]  (English [google] translation below the fold.)

The title by the way, mixed Arabic and French, translates to “Sunday, God Willing.”

I’m going to watch it again, just to gaze, like the bus driver,  at Fejria Deliba‘s smile.

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The Kite — Over the Lebanese-Israeli Border — a Film

Many years ago I translated The Manuscript of a Crow, a short story by Spanish author Max Aub, the protagonist of which was a crow relating its observations of human beings as he saw them in their concentration camps.  He was astounded that a man could go to sleep a Pole and wake up a German and then, not too much later go out shopping and come back to find himself a Russian.  Human history never stops spinning its wheels in the same ruts and so a similar story is found in Randa Chahal Sabbag‘s wonder of a film, The Kite.  Released in 2003 it apparently never made the round of US art houses, and too bad for all of us.

Set on the Lebanese-Israeli border where the barbed wire and watch towers divide two Druze villages, the story is of  Lamia [ Flavia Bechara]the most charming 15 year old girl you’re likely to have seen in recent movie time. She is sent off to marry her cousin Samy [Edmond Haddad] on the Israeli side because well, the men have decided so.  The opening scenes have her flying kites with her sweet and much loved younger brother, right along the border.  Her wing-like, white kite gets away from her and lodges up against a barbed wire fence.  She sets off to get it, to the screaming fear of the kids, and a handsome Druze guard: she is walking across a mine field.

Because of the separation of the two villages, families, cousins, sisters, the negotiation for her marriage takes place between the two gates, via bullhorns, womaned by the most raucous women you’ve likely ever heard, abaya clad or not.  She’s ready for marriage yells her mother, “She started menstruating two years ago!”  When it’s suggested the new husband isn’t man enough for the girl — “beautiful from the tips of her toes to the ends of her fingers”– his mother yells back that he is such a stud he mounted a nanny goat when he was only seven!

Lamia wants nothing to do with the arrangement.  The two families swap videos of the intendeds.  She is not impressed; his not much more so.  But, what does a 15 year old girl have to say in a rural Arab village?  Not much.  After the wedding festivities on her side of the border, off she goes, fully gowned, alone, along the dusty “crossing” through the no-man’s-land to meet her new family.

It does not go well.  And, she has caught a glimpse of the handsome guard catching a glimpse of her catching a glimpse of him.  Nice dream sequences follow.  More hollering back and forth across the divide, as Lamia proves impossible.  Her rather sweet groom doesn’t insist, and returns her insults rather more sadly than she hands them out.  “I only wanted to help you.  You can go back.”  She being the stubborn girl she is — wait till you meet her mother!– says she doesn’t want to go back.  She wants to stay here!  Eventually she is returned  and the film uses the opening white kite to pull us into a marvelous magical-realism ending in which love and transcendence and erotic longing suggest, at least in the imagination, the only way to dissolve the wounds of politics, armies and ancient hatreds.

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The Mother of the Bride – Screwball Comedy from Egypt, 1967

Comedies of family life have been a regular feature of movies and television in the US from the 1950s right down to today.  From Jackie Gleason and Audry, Ricky and Lucy with no kids, to Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best with cute, sometimes mischievous kids viewers enjoyed watching beleaguered men try to stay in charge while wives took care of everything that mattered.   Sometimes the kids bossed each other around, sometimes got into trouble.  Dad was besieged with money worries, mom was always to the go-to-gal.  It seems the same was true in Egypt.

Mother of the Bride from 1963 is  cut from the same cloth. Father Hussein, a mid-level government functionary, with enough time on his hands to produce 7 children, from marriageable age to a suckling child, is besieged by the racket in the house, the demands of his wife to pitch in and deal with the kids before she explodes.  The eldest daughter sees, is introduced to, becomes betrothed and married to a young man in less than a month.  The  second daughter, caught up in the wedding planning – and slightly wider dating parameters with an engaged sister–  follows in the same path, and begs permission to be married just as the nuptials of the first are finished.

Money, virtue, money, family insults, childhood behavior, money are the main markers of a mildly amusing movie. We are taken by many similarities of US movies we may have seen, and struck by the differences. Three younger kids share a triple bunk bed. The two older girls share a room. The teen-age boy is gunning to be in charge of family morals and the four year old is cute and obnoxious – like one of the Spanky and Our Gang kids – asking for a piaster for anything he does.  Mom and Dad make side comments to the kids about the other. “Your mother is hot-tempered.  She must have some Turkish blood in her!”

I suppose the most striking thing to an American audience will be the high decibel level of family discourse. Everything, it seems, is carried on in shouts – from the mother, to the small-fry. It’s sort of like child-rearing by verbal assault, though perhaps not that far from ideas we might have about Italian, Irish or Jewish immigrants in our movies.  And I was struck, that in a 1963 movie, Egypt or elsewhere, that the mother would be shown pulling her breast out to feed the child.  It was quick, but it was there.

Besides the lightning fast engagement party arranged by the groom’s parents with a formal visit to the bride-to-be’s house – with her OK, as this is a liberal household– the most memorable scene is when the grooms’ family re-visits to complain about the cheapness of the bride’s father in getting the new apartment furnished. We have already seen mother, father and daughter in department stores, he approving of the cheaper goods while mother, once he walks away, orders the more expensive. The groom’s mother, father and aunt show up and abuse the bride’s family, with threats of withdrawing the engagement unless things get better fast. It’s a memorable little bit, even if over-done.

We learn that, at least in those years, the groom’s family paid a dowry, or bride price, in cash, to the bride’s father who  is then responsible for setting the couple up. Papa Hussein is stretched to the limit, and after the abusive visit, figures out that a temporary loan from some government funds in his safe will see him through. Of course the anxiety of getting caught becomes part of the story – right thorough to the wedding night. Every thing ends happily, as such films must and will plenty of ululating by the women, as this is a movie from Egypy

Atef Salem, with32 films to his credit, including the noirish  Struggle on the Nile, reviewed here earlier, put together a good cast and handles the fast moving action inside the house quite well — people coming and going in and out of the frame in a kind of synchronized chaos.  At one point a goat and some chickens join the parade.

Taheya Carrioca who plays Zeinab, the mother, was one of Egypt’s great leading ladies, with 59 some film roles before her death in 1999.  Imad Hamdi, as Hussein the father, was even more employed with 96 titles to his name.

As is true with most of these Arabic language movies I’ve been watching, the main reason in 2011 to watch them is curiosity about how the other half live, as it were.  The world is so much smaller now than 50 years ago.  We can hear and see our neighbors much more clearly but we still have some last century ideas about who they are and what kind of devils they are.  Movies are just one way to begin to dissolve the knots on those ideas and be more ready to acknowledge them as another bunch pretty much like we are, warts and all, weddings and all, distraught fathers and all.




Struggle on the Nile: Three Tough Guys and a Dame in Egypt

In Struggle on the Nile, a 1959 movie from the golden age of Egyptian cinema, you will encounter a young Omar Sharif as you’ve never imagined him — after witnessing the wonder of his stately good looks in Dr. Zhivago (1965), Lawrence of Arabia, (1962) and other movies of his Hollywood years.  Sharif was Egyptian of course.  Somehow though, we never think of him as Egyptian Egyptian — a young man, speaking Arabic and floating down the Nile with an older friend engaged to teach him how to be a man.  Yet that’s what we have in Struggle on the Nile.

Muhasab, [Sharif,] is a very young, very innocent — and very pretty — man, dizzily in love with the belle of Luxor village, Ward [no credits found], and is being sent off to Cairo by his recently blind father, to sell the last of the lateen sail feloukas of the village, “The Bride of the Nile,”  and buy a big motorized barge to compete with the other traders and boat owners along the river.  “The future is in steam and gasoline,” says one of the elders.  A long time friend of his father, Mujahed [ Rushdy Abazza] is to be the Chief of the boat. He is handed the sack of money collected by the village, much of it from selling their own boats and,  in a show of trust, and respect, gives the money to Muhasab for safe-keeping.

The scenes along the river and on the boats are filled with period detail — men handling rope, scampering up the mast, furling the large tri-corner sail.  The voices of the  old men in the village are filled with consternation over the coming changes —  “No one can defy time.” Read more of this post

A Citizen, A Detective & A Thief: Comic Relief in Egyptian Cinema

Up to this film I was prepared to believe Egyptian movies only dealt with serious matters in serious ways.  Adrift on the Nile, and The Curlew’s Cry, both in stark black and white, look at small groups of people and how they treat one another, some tenderly, some horrifically.  Both are undergirded by the question of sexual morality, freedom, class, the treatment of women by men.  As the credits roll, one reflects and thinks, but does not laugh.

That has changed with A Citizen, A Detective & A Thief, a 2001 madcap tale of these three fellows, and of course, the women in their lives — in the central case, the one woman in two lives.   It’s hard to slot this film in any well known space of western cinema.  By turns droll, silly, sad, and brutal, with long musical numbers thrown in, from a prison mess hall to a hip-and-belly churning wedding it too deals with class relations, corruption, the relations between the sexes and the social lubrication in a garrulous culture of “arrangement.”   There’s a lot to like in it, and a few things that could have used some editing.  Though, as the main story comes to a culmination and the director, Daoud Abdel Sayed, keeps going with an enormous long tail of more scenes to show several generations following the main characters, we continue to be tickled, even if only for the comic effect of speeding through so many important events.

The crux of the story is that The Citizen, a well education, monied and handsome young man, Selim [Khaled Abol Naga,] is in the throes of writing his first novel.  An old family friend, Fathi, The Detective, wonderfully played by Salah Abdallah, who arrives to help track down The Citizen’s stolen car, persuades him he needs a housemaid, being a bachelor and all.  The very tempting Hayat, [Hend Sabri] arrives.  Not only is she good looking, she is bright and tough, more than a match for the educated Selim.  She is also the girlfriend of The Thief, [Shabaan Abdel Rehim] who is in prison as the movie begins.  Rehim is, in real life, a popular singer and  he puts this to good use in the movie,  often singing a kind of Egyptian “corrido,” telling of the events of the day or week, how he feels and wants others to look on him, or what they are going through — a day in prison, for example.

Selim, though he has an upper class girlfriend is, naturally, attracted to Hayat and they find themsleves beneath the sheets — with a bit of his bare chest and her bare arms showing.  She has not yet been forthcoming about her other friend, and Selim is still blissfully unaware.  When she steals a few of his things, including the novel, the story gets really silly and rich.  It turns out that the Thief is extremely well read and fancies himself the literary critic.  In his opinion, Selim’s novel would be more useful keeping them warm. Into the fire it goes.  In the fight that follows, the Thief loses and eye, which being a singer, he sings about to help him through the pain….

Honest, it’s a funny movie to watch — except for a couple of more than slap-stick beatings administered to Hayat.  Upper class boy marries lower class girl; upper class girl is very content with the Thief – though they all regress to their original loves from time to time, with no hurt feelings, natch.  The constant  Thanks to God, It’s all in His hands, the praise heaped on each other, even trouble is intended,  and the wonderful hand gestures as arguments are advanced add to the enjoyment as we watch folks not too different from us act in ways that are different enough to set us up for some very engaged viewing.