Ai Weiwei’s Harrowing Film on the Refugee Crisis Is a Must-See

A still from Ai Weiwei’s new documentary, “Human Flow.” (Screen shot via YouTube)

Once called the “contemporary art world’s most powerful player,” Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has turned his focus onto the most urgent humanitarian issue of our time: the global refugee crisis. In a new documentary called “Human Flow,” the artist—who has made political statements the core of his art—explores how war, violence and climate change have made refugees of 65 million people.

Ai, who traveled with his camera crew to 23 countries over the course of a year, captured intimate moments of desperation that have driven refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Palestine, Myanmar and elsewhere, risking their lives to escape violence. The film is sweeping and vast, with drone-camera shots utilizing aerial views to showcase the extent of the crisis, combined with intimate iPhone footage taken by Ai.

“Human Flow” is essential viewing for Americans, whose government has not only had a hand in creating many of the crises that drive migration, but is also actively closing the door to refugees. “The U.S. does have a responsibility,” Ai told me in an interview about his film. “Very often people in the United States think that something happening in different continents doesn’t really affect the U.S.” But, he says, “Look at U.S. policy and what’s happening today: the travel ban, or the building of this ‘beautiful’ fence or wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It all shows that the leadership has a very, very questionable position in dealing with migration and refugees.”

Indeed, President Donald Trump—with the help of the Supreme Court—has kept in place a de facto blanket ban on refugees entering the country. It is perhaps easy for most Americans, who live so far from where this misery is unfolding, to ignore the global refugee crisis, especially given the near-daily assaults on the Constitution and good sense emanating from the White House these days.

But by embedding himself for months in the flow of refugee life while making his film, Ai developed an understanding of what it is like to flee violence and danger. Through “Human Flow,” he takes viewers into intimate spaces: the heart-rending decisions as families weigh whether to stay or leave, the pain they feel from losing their loved ones in the choppy seas of the Mediterranean, and the frustration and rage that emerges from being blocked from reaching their destinations by barbed wire and armed police.

One moment in “Human Flow” is seared in my memory—a moment no Hollywood studio could reproduce. Two young brothers are sitting on the muddy ground outside their meager tent in the semi-darkness of a refugee camp. One is crying, promising to follow his brother anywhere, no matter what. Ai added context to that remarkable scene, which he and his crew witnessed. “They had no idea where they would be accepted,” he told me. “They had been refused. They had been stopped at the border and had spent all their money on the dangerous journey to come to a place which will block them and maybe send them back.”

In another harrowing scene, an Afghan woman agrees to speak with Ai, but only if her face is not on screen. She sits with her back to the camera and begins answering questions about her family’s torturous journey from Afghanistan. Minutes later, she loses control and throws up.

One middle-aged man takes the film crew to a makeshift graveyard, where multiple members of his family were buried after they drowned while trying to flee. He breaks down in tears as he sifts through the identity cards of the dead—all he has left of his kin.

At a time when Europe and the U.S. are rewriting their rules for entry in direct response to the massive demand by people looking for safe haven, Ai’s film puts faces to the numbers. “You see people really feel betrayed,” Ai says. “They think [of] Europe as a land that protects basic humanity.” The cruelty of European anti-refugee policies emerges as a central theme, as Ai explores the abandonment of lofty ideals of humanity on a continent that promised never again to turn away refugees after World War II (ironically, tens of thousands of European refugees fled the violence of World War II and found refuge in camps in the Middle East, including in Syria). It was, perhaps, easy to make pronouncements like “Never Again” in hindsight, but when the opportunity arises to prevent another human disaster, all the familiar political reasons re-emerge, like zombies from the grave.

Not content to showcase the fleeing refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, the film also includes the stories of refugees who are less popular in mainstream media: Palestinians displaced from their homes and languishing under Israeli siege in Gaza, Rohingya Muslims fleeing Buddhist Myanmar’s persecution, climate refugees from various African countries, and even Latin American migrants desperate to enter the United States.

Bizarrely, it is the story of a wild animal that best expresses Europe and America’s abandonment of humans. A tiger, having entered Gaza through an underground tunnel, is housed and fed by a local organization. “Human Flow” shows the extraordinary lengths to which local, regional and state authorities cooperate with one another to ensure the safe passage and relocation of the tiger—a privilege not afforded to the refugees stranded on the same lands. Unlike the “flow” of humans seen throughout the film, Palestinians living in Gaza are “stuck,” according to Ai. “It’s like jail for millions of people living in such unbelievable conditions,” he says of the unending Israeli siege of Gaza.

The artist-turned-filmmaker has broken a number of barriers in his film by focusing on the humanity of tens of millions of people that the world would rather forget about. But he has also broken some rules of filmmaking. There are few talking heads in the film and little discussion of politics and policy. News headlines from media outlets scroll along the bottom of the screen, filling in the blanks in terse text. And really, do we need any more films about the well-documented causes of human suffering in the global refugee crisis?

What Ai’s film offers is what is missing most from our discussions of the refugee crisis: the fact that those who are fleeing are real people who bleed when they are injured, who cry when they are hurt, among whom are innocent children and tired elders, who are all being abandoned in a moment we will collectively look back on in shame.

“Human Flow” opens in theaters nationwide in October. Learn more online at www.humanflow.com.

Sonali Kolhatkar
Columnist
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
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An all-women “Lord of the Flies” reboot is a contradiction in terms

Two male directors are slated for the all-girl remake and, besides Warner Bros., few are excited

 

An all-women "Lord of the Flies" reboot is a contradiction in terms
“Lord of the Flies”(Credit: Columbia Pictures)

It was announced Wednesday that Warner Bros. will remake “Lord of the Flies” with an all-female cast directed by two men.

Scott McGehee and David Siegel will write and direct the new version, based on the original novel by Noble-prize winning author William Golding, Deadline reported.

“We want to do a very faithful but contemporized adaptation of the book, but our idea was to do it with all girls rather than boys,” Siegel told Deadline. “It is a timeless story that is especially relevant today, with the interpersonal conflicts and bullying, and the idea of children forming a society and replicating the behavior they saw in grownups before they were marooned.”

McGhee added that he hopes the spin will break “away from some of the conventions, the ways we think of boys and aggression. People still talk about the movie and the book from the standpoint of pure storytelling,” he told Deadline. “It is a great adventure story, real entertainment, but it has a lot of meaning embedded in it as well. We’ve gotten to think about this awhile as the rights were worked out, and we’re super eager to put pen to paper.”

People on Twitter were quick to point out why this concept may be inherently flawed:

[flies into frame on a broom]
the thing about lord of the flies is that it’s about systemic male violence + how it replicates
[flies away]

uhm lord of the flies is about the replication of systemic masculine toxicity
every 9th grader knows this
u can read about it on sparknotes https://twitter.com/deadline/status/903002462394527744 

GOOD: A female-centric Lord of the Flies!
BAD: A female-centric Lord of the Flies written by… two men.http://deadline.com/2017/08/lord-of-the-flies-scott-mcgehee-david-siegel-female-cast-warner-bros-william-golding-novel-1202158421/ 

Photo published for Scott McGehee & David Siegel Plan Female-Centric ‘Lord Of The Flies’ At Warner Bros

Scott McGehee & David Siegel Plan Female-Centric ‘Lord Of The Flies’ At Warner Bros

Scott McGehee & David Siegel Plan Female-Centric ‘Lord Of The Flies’ At Warner Bros

deadline.com

Lord of the Flies, but with women, and also written and directed by two men! This couldn’t POSSIBLY miss the mark! http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/looks-like-were-getting-a-female-lord-of-the-flies-remake.html 

We’re literally living an all-male “Lord of the Flies” right now, but sure, let’s see two male writers describe how women would be worse.

As Twitter users explained, McGehee and Siegel — the creators behind the quite brilliant, quite enlightened “What Maisie Knew” — might need a refresh on the nuance of the classic novel and how women actually work together before they actually “put pen to paper.”

Yes, people will talk of “Mean Girls,” “Heathers” and the often self-destructive behaviors of women and girls in cliques both in youth and in adulthood when it comes to this remake. Yet, at its core, Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” is an intensely malenarrative rooted in male group dynamics. The vocal turn-taking gambit that requires the passing of the famous “conch” and so many other aspects of the source material constitutes a sharp critique of how men and boys listen to and interact with each other both in personal and political situations. Women, as we have learned, do things very, very differently.

As writer Roxane Gay said, “An all women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because . . . the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women.”

The American nightmare: the career of moviemaker George Romero

Nicole Colson looks at the career of moviemaker George Romero, who died July 16.

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
— Karl Marx

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”
— Johnny, Night of the Living Dead

Zombies on the hunt in Night of the Living Dead

Zombies on the hunt in Night of the Living Dead

THE “THEY” that were coming for poor Barbara–and for us in the audience–changed frequently from film to film over the course of horror-master George Romero’s career. Racism, consumer culture, Reagan-era militarism, the ruling class–all were fair game for the father of the modern zombie movie, who died on July 16 after a career in film spanning nearly 40 years.

Romero’s best and most-enduring film was his first–1968’s Night of the Living Dead. It was made by a group of friends and shot on a shoestring budget outside of Pittsburgh in just 30 days, with the cast and crew working in 24-hour shifts. Friends played the zombies, and the meat and entrails needed for the gore were helpfully provided by a friend who was a butcher.

Night of the Living Dead tells the story of a group of survivors of a zombie outbreak seeking shelter in a farmhouse–catatonic Barbara, whose brother Johnny is killed in the opening scene, squabbling parents Harry and Helen and their young daughter Karen, young couple Tom and Judy, and protagonist Ben. [Editor’s note: Spoilers abound throughout this article, but it’s your fault if you haven’t seen these movies already.]

The film masterfully ratchets up the tension as the survivors fall victim to the zombies, before ending on a note that is both shocking and beautifully bleak, and stands as not only a masterpiece of modern horror, but one of the starkest commentaries on racism in American film.

While zombies had been depicted in American film before Night of the Living Dead, they were, essentially, not monsters but slave labor. Romero’s genius was in taking zombies and turning them into a slow, inexorable, mindless force bent only on feeding–a force that he would use as an allegorical foil in multiple films.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

NIGHT OF the Living Dead was one of a number of horror movies from the late 1960s and ’70s that were shaped by the massive upheavals taking place in American society.

Romero and other horror icons, like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, who emerged at the time transmitted on screen what they saw in the world: the violence of police, dogs and fire hoses being used against civil rights marchers; city streets burning in the wake of urban rebellions; body bags and the escalating horrors of Vietnam.

The monstrous was already taking place in real America every day, and making its way into living rooms on the evening news. It was only natural that this should find its way onto the big screen as well.

As Romero commented in the 2000 documentary The American Nightmare, explaining the choice to shoot his first movie in black and white, “In those days, the news was in black and white, and black and white was the medium…I thought it was great, you know, this idea of a revolution…a new society devouring the old completely and just changing everything.”

“Obviously,” Romero added, “what’s happening in the world creeps into any work.”

In contrast to the multitude of zombies in horror today–from the Walking Dead to World War Z, the endless iterations of Romero’s own Living Dead series, and even a genre of “zombie romantic comedies”–Night of the Living Dead was the first time that an act of cannibalism had been portrayed on a U.S. movie screen.

The scene of a young child eating her parents was shocking for what it said about a society so at odds with itself, as evidenced by the racist violence used against civil rights activists and the increasing numbers of young men returning home from Vietnam in body bags or still alive, but profoundly changed by the horrors of war.

In fact, the look of Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead owes much to effects artist Tom Savini, who used his experiences as a combat photographer in Vietnam as inspiration.

While Romero didn’t originally intend for Night of the Living Dead to be a commentary on race and racism, the casting of Black actor Duane Jones as protagonist Ben makes it impossible to not see the film this way. Because of Jones, scenes in the film evoke lynchings, the terror of the Klan and the civil rights movement.

That Ben is authoritative and seemingly in control throughout–slapping Barbara out of hysterics at one point and telling Harry to “Get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there. I’m boss up here”–only underscores the gut-punch of the casual brutality of his death. It is one of the most emotionally devastating endings in modern film, not just horror.

In a twist of fate, Romero and his collaborators finished the film and loaded it in a car trunk to take to New York to find a distributor on April 4, 1968–the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

PART OF the brilliance of Night of the Living Dead is the way it builds tension through demolishing movie conventions–the ostensible heroine becomes catatonic for virtually the entire film, only to be eaten by her brother; the young couple in love are burned alive and eaten; the nuclear family is (literally) torn apart as a zombified child chomps on her dad and then hacks mom to death with a trowel.

Just when dawn is breaking and rescue seems imminent for Ben–who has, against all odds, survived the long night of the zombie hordes–he is nonchalantly gunned down. Shot between the eyes by a white sheriff’s posse, he is reduced to “another one for the fire,” his body dragged away with hooks.

As Renée Graham wrote recently in the Boston Globe about seeing the film in 1968:

Everyone in the posse is white. Ben is African American. I was a child, but the message I received was depressingly clear: They killed Ben because they believed a Black man had to be a threat. A Black hero equaled a dead hero…

Already, 1968 had been a beast of a year. On an April night, as my family prepared to celebrate my father’s birthday, a TV bulletin announced the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Two months later, still wearing a costume from my dance recital that evening, I stood in front of the television watching mourners wave, weep and salute as a train carried the body of Robert F. Kennedy, murdered days earlier. For months, every adult around me walked around in agony and silence.

Yet nothing that year affected me as profoundly as watching Ben die…

Night of the Living Dead made Romero a legend by expanding the audience’s concept of what a horror movie could be. Its resonance for me still cuts deeper. Whatever his original intentions, Romero’s classic taught me early and indelibly that the real monsters who threaten us aren’t undead ghouls stalking the night.

“We always had that ending,” Romero commented later. “It seemed like the only fitting end. And even though the posse goes rolling across the countryside, leaving our hero dead, we get the feeling that they are not going to win either. There’s this new society coming. In the end, none of this is going to work, guys.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

LATER INSTALLMENTS of Romero’s Living Dead series would make the social commentary more explicit–though none to the same brilliant extent as Night.

Romero would state in one DVD commentary that while writing or making a movie, the points he would make about society were often more important to him than the characters–which led to politically interesting films, though the storytelling sometimes suffered.

Dawn of the Dead, perhaps Romero’s best film outside of Night, is a satire on consumer culture. In it, survivors take refuge from zombies inside Pittsburgh’s Monroeville Mall, leading to hilarious sequences of “mindless consumption”–both by human survivors and, of course, the zombies. “This was an important place in their lives,” one character says in explaining why the zombies would be drawn to a shopping mall after dead.

In 1985’s Day of the Dead, Reagan-era militarism comes under fire. A group of scientists and soldiers are stuck in an underground military base, coming into conflict over the macho militarism of the soldiers in charge, as well as the grisly experiments by one of the scientists, who believes that zombies can be made docile.

Of particular interest in today’s current political climate, however, is Romero’s 2005 Land of the Dead–an uneven, though often hilarious, entry in the Living Dead series.

A maniacal and entertainingly campy Dennis Hopper plays a character clearly modeled on our current president. In the face of societal collapse, he has convinced the super-rich to move into a self-enclosed, Trump-Tower-like, high-rise called “Fiddler’s Green.” The rest of the human population lives outside in squalor and fear, while Hopper’s character sponsors mercenaries to go out on runs and collect supplies for the rich.

At the core of the film is the question of the allegiances of the mercenaries and the potential of a growing zombie consciousness. Led by a Black zombie mechanic, the zombies begin to communicate and organize. The climax of the film hinges on a moment of zombie-human solidarity that is both funny and deeply satisfying for socialists to watch.

As Romero once said, “The zombie for me was always the blue-collar monster. He is us.”

Also well worth watching is Martin, Romero’s 1978 meditation on the vampire genre–which asks what makes a monster and what kind of psychological dysfunction lurks inside the house next door.

Though uneven, the film takes joy in exploding romanticized notions about vampires–there’s nary a sexy or sparkly vampire anywhere in it–to get down to brass tacks in examining what might be thought of as vampire working conditions.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“I’VE BEEN able to use genre of fantasy/horror and express my opinion, talk a little about society, do a little bit of satire,” Romero once said, “and that’s been great, man.”

Marxist film scholar Robin Wood, a staunch defender of Romero’s work into the 1980s, would go farther, claiming:

It is perhaps the lingering intellectual distrust of the horror genre that has prevented George Romero’s Living Dead [series] from receiving full recognition for what it undoubtedly is: one of the most remarkable and audacious achievements of modern American cinema, and the most uncompromising critique of contemporary America (and, by extension, Western capitalist society in general) that is possible within the terms and conditions of a “popular entertainment” medium.

So in tribute to George Romero, don’t wait until Halloween this year to watch his movies. With the monsters in Washington revealing their true natures every day, we should remember what Romero thought about the potential of horror:

Horror is radical. It can take you into a completely new world, new place, and just rattle your cage and say, wait a minute–look at things differently. That shock of horror is what horror’s all about. But in most cases, at the end of the story, people try to bring everything back–the girl gets the guy and everything’s fine and things go on just the way they were. Which is really why we are doing this in the first place. We don’t want things the way they are or we wouldn’t be trying to shock you into an alternative place.

So go ahead–when it comes to George Romero movies, consume away.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/08/02/the-american-nightmare

White House shakeup: A further step toward authoritarian rule

31 July 2017

Friday’s announcement by President Trump removing White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and replacing him with retired Gen. John F. Kelly marks a further stage in the emergence of the military brass as the decisive political power in the Trump administration.

With General Kelly as White House chief of staff, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, an active duty officer, as national security adviser, and retired Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense, military men hold three of the top four appointed positions in the executive branch.

Press coverage of the White House transition has focused almost entirely on the Twitter antics by Trump and the vulgar ranting by his new communications director, former hedge fund boss Anthony Scaramucci. A sober assessment of the actual political implications of the White House reshuffle reveals, however, that the events of the past week mark a major turning point for the Trump administration and the crisis-ridden US political system as a whole.

Trump fired Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, whom he chose as chief of staff to act as a conduit to the Republican congressional leadership and the party establishment. He has replaced him with a retired Marine general with no political record and an avowed and well-publicized contempt for civilian oversight of the military—one, moreover, who, as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has overseen the administration’s program of mass arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants.

The president coupled the removal of Priebus with a public blast against Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, over their failure last week to enact any version of a repeal of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.

Trump responded with a series of tweets saying Senate Republicans “look like fools” and demanding that McConnell trample on minority rights in the Senate and proceed immediately to push through White House proposals for slashing taxes on the wealthy and gutting social programs such as Medicaid.

Trump presents himself more and more as a ruler above the two capitalist political parties, while seeking to surround himself with uniformed audiences. He addressed 40,000 Boy Scouts assembled at a jamboree in West Virginia, then gave a speech Friday to police on Long Island in which he endorsed “rough” treatment for immigrants and others under arrest, touching off chants of “USA, USA” from the assembled cops.

While inciting police violence, Trump made direct appeals to ultra-right bigotry with a tweet calling for the expulsion of transgendered people from the military and new legal steps by the Justice Department directed against the democratic rights of homosexuals.

Added to this is the rancid atmosphere of palace intrigue in the White House. It is widely reported that Trump family members played a key role in the firing of Priebus, with son-in-law Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump and First Lady Melania Trump all weighing in.

In all of this there is the stench of dictatorship. Trump is pursuing a definite political strategy. He is seeking to carve out for himself, as the representative of the financial oligarchy, a position of power independent of the apparatuses of the establishment political parties and the traditional institutions of bourgeois rule such as Congress, the courts and the so-called mainstream media.

Like all would-be Bonapartist autocrats, he seeks to establish a personalist regime based on the military and police. His use of Twitter is an essential component of this effort. He bypasses the establishment media and makes his appeal directly to the military and police while seeking to whip up national chauvinism and all forms of social and political backwardness. He seeks in this way to establish a base he can mobilize independently of the political parties.

But Trump is not some aberration or accident, an interloper into the otherwise pristine precincts of American democracy. He is the product of decades of uninterrupted war, reaction and decay of political culture within the ruling class and all official institutions, including academia—a process that has been presided over by both big-business parties. This has coincided with the rise of a criminal financial oligarchy and a staggering growth of social inequality to levels incompatible with democratic norms.

The Democratic Party for its part welcomes the appointment of Kelly. Its opposition to Trump continues to be centered on demands for an escalation of the confrontation with Russia. It welcomes any sign that this is being done, such as the White House’s announcement that Trump will sign the bill passed last week with virtual bipartisan unanimity imposing new sanctions on Russia, as well as Iran and North Korea.

It fears no less than the Republicans the growth of social opposition and anticapitalist sentiment in the working class and supports the domination of the military over the political system as insurance against the threat of social revolution.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi praised General Kelly during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, while expressing the hope that he would improve the functioning of the Trump White House. “I will be speaking with him today and look forward to working with him,” she said.

On another Sunday interview program, CNN’s “State of the Union,” Democratic Representative Barbara Lee was grilled for remarking that by putting General Kelly in charge, “President Trump is militarizing the White House and putting our executive branch in the hands of an extremist.” Lee backpedaled from the suggestion that she was antimilitary, declaring, “Let me first say, I have come from a military family… And so I respect and honor the military and recognize the sacrifices that all of our military men and women make as well as General Kelly and his history and his sacrifices.”

Senator Bernie Sanders appeared on the same program and did not even make reference to the White House shakeup.

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny financial oligarchy, personified by social criminals like Trump and Scaramucci, is completely incompatible with democratic rights. The defense of democratic rights falls to the working class, as a central element in its struggle for the abolition of the profit system and the socialist reorganization of society.

Patrick Martin

WSWS

‘Dunkirk’ Avoids Politics and Melodrama to Deliver a Powerful Human Survival Story

Posted on Jul 22, 2017

By Allen Barra

  A scene from Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” (Screen shot via YouTube)

Read Allen Barra’s piece on the historical context of the Dunkirk evacuation here.

If you go to see Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” expecting a war movie—or even an antiwar movie—you’re going to be disappointed. Nolan has said it himself in an interview: “I don’t see it as a war film, I see it as a survival story.”

The battle and evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 is the greatest story to come out of World War II, and, amazingly, it has been given very little cinematic attention. It was the backdrop for the 1942 Greer Garson vehicle, “Mrs. Miniver,” directed by William Wyler. There was a competent 1958 British production, “Dunkirk,” directed by Leslie Norman, with John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Bernard Lee as the journalist around whom the story is framed. Dunkirk’s most effective rendering was in Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” with James McAvoy as a Tommy (a British soldier) stranded on the beach, staring across the English Channel.

Nolan’s film is not only different from any other ever made on the subject. It’s different from any other film connected to war. If Sir Richard Attenborough had made the movie, it would have been respectable, ponderous and laced with a strong dose of stiff upper lip. If made by Spielberg, it would be painted in broad strokes with primary colors and bolstered with nostalgia and Eisenhower-era patriotism. If directed by the Michael Bay of “Pearl Harbor” … let’s not go there.

Nolan’s “Dunkirk” eschews politics and practically leaves out the point of view of the enemy altogether. (There is scarcely a single close-up of a German soldier in the entire film.) Instead of laboring to make the point that the Germans are people just like us—or would be under the proper circumstances—as in “The Longest Day” or “Saving Private Ryan,” Nolan subtly makes the point that despair, courage and hope aren’t national but human characteristics.

The film opens with a handful of British soldiers walking down the deserted streets of what we quickly learn is the village of Dunkirk. Leaflets are falling from the sky. They are German propaganda with a map showing how hopelessly surrounded the British and still-resisting French were. The actual leaflet the Germans dropped featured the message “La guerre est finie pour vous!” (The war is finished for you). This ingenious device tells the viewer exactly where the soldiers are and what their situation is.

The scene turns out to be just one of three intertwined narratives which ultimately come together to tell the whole story of the battle and evacuation. It’s a device Nolan has used in several of his films, but here it does not seem strained or pretentious. “Dunkirk” may be the first time Nolan has relegated his technique to the service of the material.

And the material needs no artificial embellishment. The story of how hundreds of fishermen, ferry captains, yachtsmen and tugboat skippers rescued more than 335,000 men seems almost incredible. Nolan nudges, rather than pushes, the story along. There is a minimum of dialogue.

The great Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot has perhaps six lines to speak and does most of his acting with his eyes and facial muscles. Mark Rylance, the 2016 Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for “Bridge of Spies,” plays the owner of a small yacht who embarks on the rescue mission with his young son aboard and conveys his emotions in hushed tones that draw one’s ear closer.

Nolan directs without hyperbole. There is surprisingly little action in “Dunkirk,” but the suspense is so heightened that you may not realize it until the film is over. Hans Zimmer, who has dealt out his share of schlock for “Batman v Superman” and one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, seems inspired when he scores for Nolan. His spare, throbbing background sounds are less music and more an aural rendering of the characters’ subconscious. He may be the first composer capable of reflecting the collective subconscious of hundreds of thousands.

“Dunkirk” may be the first movie about a battle that cuts through the barriers of class and nationality. It’s the first I’ve ever seen about death and survival that doesn’t manipulate audience emotions but connects them with the emotion inherent in the story.

truthdig

Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience

Lauded for its clear vision of the future, “RoboCop” just gave the plutocratic philanthrocapitalists of today cover

Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience
Peter Weller as RoboCop in “RoboCop”(Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios)

We have become obsessed with prescience. Or rather, a kind of reverse-prescience that sees old books (from Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer”) invested with a new vitality. These works, and their authors, are hailed for their farsightedness and acute judiciousness, for their ability to “speak to our troubled times.” But more often than not, it’s a case of too little, way too late.

Reading the Stalinist parable “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to make sense of Trumpism feels about as useful as scanning the instructions on a bottle of bear spray while your torso’s already half-digested by a savage Kodiak. Still, we laud the old works and the old masters for their seeming ability to forecast the present, even if they do so in hazy, generalizing terms. The esteemed quality of prescience thus reveals itself as conservative, keeping us fixed on the past, lost in our fantasies of foregone foresight. Damn, if only we could have seen it coming back then.

Few pop-cultural objects carry this burden of prescience like “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire/Detroit dystopia/Christian allegory, which turns 30 this summer. Set in a near-future Motor City beset by corporate greed, with slums being rebuilt as privatized skyscraper communities and public services seized by profiteering private contractors, much of “RoboCop’s” critical legacy hinges on its seemingly spooky ability to predict the future: from the militarization of American police forces, to the collapse (and rebirth) of Detroit, to the way in which politics has become increasingly beholden to private money.

Never mind that all these things were already happening when “RoboCop” was released theatrically at the ass-end of the Reagan administration. What matters is how the film is regarded as effectively anticipating what’s happening now. Problem is: claims of the film’s prescience aren’t just overstated. They’re fundamentally incorrect. And if we’re to believe — as many seem to — that “RoboCop’s” near future is meant to be our present, then we must reckon with one of its greatest oversights: its depiction of business-suited capitalists as crass, corporatist, unfeeling heels. What “RoboCop” got wrong was its depiction of the bad guys — of those greedy corporate profiteers looking to razz Detroit’s crumbling ghettos, quarterback private police militias and trap the hearts and minds of good, honest, working men inside hulking robotic exoskeletons.

***

On the commentary track bundled with Criterion’s now out-of-print 1998 home video release of “RoboCop,” producer Jon Davison summed up the movie’s message. He called it “fascism for liberals.” As Davison puts it: “The picture is extremely violent, but it has a nice, tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” Indeed, “RoboCop,” like many of Dutch expat Paul Verhoeven’s other films (“The Fourth Man,” “Starship Troopers,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” even the recent “Elle”) function through this sort of deeply embedded irony; this “we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” The sex, the violence, the way they flirt with ideological reprehensibility — Verhoeven’s films are calibrated to invite reaction, even disgust. And yet that’s never the end in itself.

When a heavy artillery “urban pacification” tank shoots up a boardroom meeting early in “RoboCop,” in one of the film’s most legendarily over-the-top sequences, the joke isn’t the display of gore itself, but rather the reaction. When the scowling CEO of Omni Consumer Products (referred to with mock-affection as “The Old Man,” and played by Dan O’Herlihy) witnesses the wanton display of machine-on-man violence and mutters to sniveling underling Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), “I’m very disappointed in you,” that’s the joke — a critique of the corporate world’s utter disdain for human life, packaged in a parody of Reagan-era paternalist condescension. This, presumably, is what Davison is talking about. “RoboCop” offers visions of violence, of top-down, totalitarian corporate control, and the crumbling of the American Dream itself that proves fundamentally comforting in its cheekiness and ironic distance. Yes, the world it depicts is bad. But we know it’s bad. And that’s good.

Yet this idea — fascism for liberals — runs even deeper into the movie’s DNA. What its capitalist parody doesn’t anticipate is the current entanglements of corporatism and politics. While the ascent of celebrity capitalist Donald Trump may play like something out of a direct-to-video “RoboCop” sequel, the film fails to address the more pressing threat of smiling, do-gooder philanthrocapitalists: guys like Michael Bloomberg or Mark Zuckerberg who increasingly set the agendas of American (and global) politics, while retaining the image of selfless saviors. These are the people who, increasingly, represent the corporatization of everyday life, albeit in a way that “RoboCop”-style corporate villainy can’t account for.

When Donald Trump announced that America would be backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to pick up the tab with his private money. Likewise, before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced he was buying the Whole Foods supermarket chain last week — a move that boosted Bezos’s stock while sapping that of competitors like Wal-Mart and Target — he canvassed Twitter for ideas on charities to which he could donate money. This is the face of modern consumerist capitalism: lead with a benign-seeming charitable gesture, follow through with a massive, bottom line-boosting buyout.

The fundamental weakness of ’’80s-era, “RoboCop”-ian businessman bad guys is their conspicuousness. They are vulgar and cruel, they divulge their scheming master plans in Bond villain-style monologues, and mainline cocaine and throw their henchmen out of moving vehicles. They are obviously (too obviously, maybe) villainous. They are unabashedly wolfish and competitive. This is not meant as a dig at “RoboCop” itself, which is a perfect film. Rather, it’s a critique of the automated reaction to praising the film for its farsightedness in a way that seems blinkered and myopic, even from the perspective of today.

Because today, things are altogether different. The billionaire super-capitalists seeking to monopolize the experience of daily life tend to appear not as smirking super-villains with spindly fingers steepled together as if it say “I’m scheming.” Rather, they’re the “good guys.” They donate money to charity (while exploiting tax loopholes), they care about the environment and schools and LGBTQ rights and the health and wellbeing of the Democratic Party. Some even want to go to Mars. They orbit around politics without seeming overtly political. (The obvious exception in this glad-handing rogues gallery is Bloomberg, though his move from mayor of America’s largest city back to private citizen and super-rich guy tends to be regarded as just that, a return or a retirement from political life.) And this seeming isolation from the sphere of politics is their greatest strength.

***

In 1831, French bureaucrats dispatched Alexis de Tocqueville to America to study the national prison system. He skipped the prisons, surveying instead the whole broad expanse of American society. The resulting study, “Democracy in America,” is an exhaustive account of life and liberty and the then-fledgling republic.

One thing that struck de Tocqueville was the cleaving of church and state. Unlike France, where the Bourbon Restoration had reinstated privileges of nobility granted to the clergy that had been largely stripped during the Revolution, and where the Catholic Church was state religion, America’s deep religiosity existed outside (or alongside) the political realm. “In America,” de Tocqueville observed, “the clergy never hold public office and are not politically active. While the power of religion seems diminished without an alliance with political power, it is actually stronger.” Where “the political sphere is constantly in a state of flux and is always changing according to public opinion,” religion provides a stabler “common morality.”

De Tocqueville’s observations on the American clergy’s power were explicitly translated to the political-social realm by economist Friedrich Hayek and other so-called “Austrian School” economists. As Linsey McGoey writes in her 2015 critique of philanthropy “No Such Thing as a Free Gift,” these economists “grasped the that in order to wield lasting power it was important to make sure their efforts appeared as non-political as possible. Unfailingly, whenever confronted with a choice between overt political engagement and more surreptitious political lobbying, Hayek would recommend the second strategy.” This sense of standing outside the muck and mire of politics itself, of living above the fray, grants billionaire corporatists inordinate power in the public imagination (to wit: during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump successfully spun his lack of experience in politics into a virtue, and similarly framed his inordinate wealth as a mark of his incorruptibility).

Capitalism, or even just gauzier ideas of “business” and “the market,” provide their own contemporary “common morality” (or they appear to, anyway). This is the ultimate liberal fantasy: that all we need to solve massive social problems is more money, that the way to fight against billionaires is with different kind of billionaires. And this is not even to say that Bloomberg, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim et al. are necessarily bad or evil. But this altruism and aloofness is the essence of their menace. They use wealth, power and influence that results in a net negative of the democratic experiment. While appearing benevolent, they set the agenda, all without the consultation of the broader public (save for the occasional Twitter poll). They consolidate their power and restrict possibilities, delimiting democracy and wrangling into a plutocracy of smirking good Samaritans. This is the sort of stuff that never frighten liberals, who are happy to see their vested interests fortified in the hands of those who think just like them.

And this, perhaps, is why I reserve a certain fondness for director Fred Dekker’s often-mocked 1993 sequel “RoboCop 3.” There, the film’s namesake robotic constable functions not as a metalloid Christ cleansing the temple of American industry from conspicuously chicanerous capitalists, but as a hero of the disenfranchised. He’s an android golem, fighting on behalf of a ragtag revolutionary army of down-and-out Detroiters and pensionless public servants against the encroachment of corporate control (both domestic and foreign) and the steamrolling of Old Detroit. 

Despite the film’s arch-cartoonishness and family-friendly feel (it pares back the blood and gore for scenes of Robo battling Japanese ninja androids and whooshing around in a jetpack), “RoboCop 3” has little in the way of the original’s beloved “tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” It’s fueled by a more intersectional, revolutionary energy, in which everyday people band together to defend their retirement funds and stand up for their communities. It’s the sort of story that might actually trouble institutional liberals and do-gooder philanthrocapitalists, one in which a legitimate #Resistance rises up and asserts itself, with or without the help of a reprogrammed robotic police officer. It’s a message that, one might hope, will one day too be trumped up and over-hyped as acute and totally visionary.

Or maybe the better hope is to forgo the backward-looking fetish for prescience altogether, to turn away from Oceania and Gilead and Delta City and cast a caustic eye on the present, to ferret out the culture that will seem ahead of its time well down the line, and to see what’s coming — right now.

Three intriguing new films that should not disappear unnoticed: Sami Blood, Past Life and Radio Dreams

By David Walsh
10 June 2017

There are still compelling reasons to pay attention to interesting, artistic films, such as Sami Blood (Sweden) , Past Life (Israel) and Radio Dreams (Iran-US), all of which opened in the US in early June.

Most of the films in movie theaters in the US at the moment are poor, juvenile or worse. As a result, the public is increasingly turning away. From 2009 through 2012, North American box office grew by slightly less than two percent. 2016 was one of the worst years in the history of the American film industry in terms of ticket sales per person. The decline seems likely to continue this year. Revenues climb solely because of the rising cost of movie tickets.

The exhaustion of the large film studios’ (i.e., conglomerates’) collective imagination has reached a dangerous, nearly provocative level.

It is almost a commonplace by now that more intriguing work, in general, is being done in the US in television, by the cable channels and so forth. There is even an argument to be made that the 8- or 10-part series is more conducive to pursuing certain subjects, including complex historical and social questions.

Moreover, the eruption of virtually universal political crisis legitimately and imperatively pushes certain issues to the fore. The film world comes in for justifiable impatience and anger for its failure by and large to confront those great issues.

However, that is not an argument against the filmmaker undertaking more personal or at least specialized work. The reasoning, should it emerge, that the urgency of the conditions means that only large-scale, panoramic films are worthwhile, is not a good one. As Trotsky once suggested, “personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist.” Moreover, he added, the new human being could not “be formed without a new lyric poetry.”

None of the three films that opened in early June falls into the category of “lyric poetry,” and, in fact, each raises certain historical or social questions, broadly speaking, but they are undoubtedly concise, detailed pictures, more concerned with the manner in which social events find psychological expression, and determine the course of individuals’ lives. Their greatest value lies in encouraging more complex thinking and feeling.

One or more may already have vanished from theaters in New York and Los Angeles, for example, but they are now in circulation, and will reappear somewhere or other, or in some other format. These are edited versions of comments that have appeared previously on the WSWS.

Sami Blood

Sami Blood

There are films that are painful and pleasurable at the same time. Amanda Kernell’s Sami Blood, from Sweden, is not an easy film to watch. It creates considerable unease and anxiety, reflecting the internally conflicted, nearly impossible situation of its central character.

The film, Kernell’s first feature-length work, is set in Sweden primarily in the 1930s. Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), 14, is a reindeer-herding Sami girl, who is sent to a state boarding school aimed at “civilizing” its students.

The Samis are an indigenous people inhabiting northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Like other indigenous peoples, they have long faced racism and oppression.

One of the early scenes is memorable. Elle Marja is rowing herself and her younger sister, Njenna (Mia Sparrok), across a beautiful, tranquil lake. They are on their way to the boarding school, leaving their mother and everyone they know behind. Njenna cries quietly. “I don’t want to go,” she says simply, while her sister pulls the oars.

Elle Marja is a bright, ambitious girl. She wants very much to assimilate into the Swedish population. She sharply tells her sister, “You must speak Swedish.” Meanwhile local farm boys call them “dirty Lapps,” although one seems to be Sami himself.

One day, officials come to the school in a car and the girls and boys line up in their native costumes. The event starts out like some sort of stuffy but harmless bureaucratic ceremony. Horrifyingly, the officials are there to measure and photograph the Sami children, as part of research into “racial characteristics.”

Elle Marja wants to continue her education, she starts dreaming of another life, but her teacher (Hanna Alström) somewhat regretfully lets her know that “You people don’t have what it takes” to get by in the wider world. Eventually, Elle Marja takes off, for Uppsala, a large city. She tries to impose herself on the family of a Swedish boy she has met. Every effort to fit in ends in awkwardness for her, if not humiliation. At one point, a young guest at the family’s house, an anthropology student, asks her patronizingly to perform a traditional Sami singing style.

In any case, she needs money to pay for her schooling. She goes back home and demands a sum of cash. In an outburst, she tells her mother: “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be with you. I don’t want to be a f–––––– circus animal.”

Kernell’s film is made with great sensitivity and attention to detail. The director was born in 1986 in the far north of Sweden to a Swedish mother and Sami father. Sami Blood was reportedly inspired by the experiences of Kernell’s grandmother. The filmmaker told an interviewer that the treatment of the Samis was an “untold” story and a “dark chapter” in Swedish history. The film, she said, is about someone “leaving what you’re from, becoming another.” What are the consequences for Elle Marja when she “cuts all ties”?

The worst part of the story is that in order to make a life for herself, Elle Marja has to absorb into herself elements of racism and contempt for her own people. This is what Swedish society does to her. In one especially difficult scene, Elle Marja, who is trying to pass herself off as a “normal Swede,” is obliged to shoo away her own beloved sister, pretending not to understand what she is saying and blurting out, “Get away, you filthy Lapp.” Njenna may never forgive her for this.

The drama is remarkably intimate. We know at times almost more than we want to know about Elle Marja’s predicament. Kernell also provides hints of broader social processes–the concern with “race” and eugenics, for example. In the same interview, she said that she did not want to “explain” anything, but simply tell the story.

This is not the occasion to enter into a polemic on that score once again, especially in regard to a film that, for the most part, is moving and clear-sighted and a filmmaker who is obviously conscientious and humane.

However, it is one thing to recognize that artists for the most part are more expert at “showing” the world than explaining it, that they are seized by powerful impressions that have a strong element of intuition. It is another to make a positive program, as so many artists do today, out of “not explaining.” In our view, the filmmaker or novelist requires “high intellectual powers,” in Aleksandr Voronsky’s phrase, and cannot make progress without “immense, very persistent and complex rational activity.”

Sami Blood is an extraordinary, deeply felt film. But it is probably the sort of work that can only be done once. Even as it is, its strong emotional content should not blind us to certain tendencies that may endanger Kernell’s development: the relative narrowness, the intense immediacy. …

Past Life

Past Life

Avi Nesher’s Past Life, from Israel, is an intelligent, convincing film for the most part, inspired by a true story. It takes place in the late 1970s.

Aspiring composer Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger) is in Berlin to sing with her choral group when a woman approaches her after a concert, and upon hearing her name, calls her father a “murderer.” The woman seems to be Polish, and wears a crucifix around her neck.

Sephi and her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar), who has an axe to grind against her stern father, set out to look into the matter. Nana works for a leftist magazine of some kind and has arguments with her father about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. When we first see her, she is condemning Israelis for “robbing people of their land” and for justifying “our crimes by crimes committed against us.” Her father, a gynecologist, will hear none of it.

The sisters, with Nana (“I hate secrets”) in the lead, uncover painful facts about their father’s life in Poland during World War II, when he hid in a farmer’s basement from the Gestapo. Eventually, against his better judgment and against his wife’s wishes (“Why bring up the past?”), Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), reads to his daughters his wartime diary, a diary of “hell.”

The story is complicated by the woman Sephi met in Berlin, Agnieszka Zielinska (Katarzyna Gniewkowska), and her son, Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak), a composer with whom Sephi develops a friendship. Why is the Polish woman so convinced Dr. Milch is a murderer? Can a victim of the greatest crime in history have committed inexcusable acts?

There are many complications and intricacies in this story. There is even an element of “suspense.” Some of the situations seem unlikely, but they are apparently rooted in fact. Nesher, a veteran director, comments, “World War II ended in 1945 and it took the world seven decades but finally everyone seems to have moved on–everyone, that is, except for the sons and daughters of those Holocaust survivors, the very people who constitute the vast majority of the population of my homeland.”

He continues: “Slippery politicians know only too well how to press the Holocaust button and activate reactions that would do Pavlov proud. … [The Holocaust] is a deeply rooted trauma that is very difficult to overcome, but overcome it we must if our children are to have a future.”

Nesher, however, seems to have a limited notion of what “overcoming” the past would mean. It seems simply bound up with “forgiveness,” “reconciliation” and similar concepts. He has set the film when he did for a reason. Past Life’s production notes explain: “1977 is the same year Egyptian president Sadat decided to break the shackles of history and bravely embark on a peace process with Israel. In many ways this is exactly what the two sisters need to do as they travel throughout Europe, bent on uncovering the past and getting to the truth behind their parents’ darkest secret.” This is a poor comparison on every score.

The desire to promote reconciliation as such perhaps helps explain the somewhat unconvincing, pat final scenes, during which various attempts are made to bring Dr. Milch and his wife together with Agnieszka Zielinska.

For the most part though, the film is intensely and richly written and performed. The sense of historical nightmare hanging over the various characters is palpable. Tavory is particularly memorable.

Past Life is inspired by Dr. Baruch Milch’s autobiography Can Heaven Be Void? Milch’s diary was brought to Nesher’s attention by Milch’s daughter, Ella Sheriff. Sheriff explained to an interviewer: “It was terrifying to know that our parents had a secret, but never knowing what it might be. In fact, the atmosphere was consistently grim. There was never a feeling of a happy childhood. We could not share our own distressing experiencing with our parents, either, and yet on the other hand we girls were always overprotected, especially by our father, and we could not understand where this anxiety was coming from, the constant fear of loss.”

Shedding light on the mentality of many of those who emigrated to Israel after the war, Sheriff pointed to her father’s personal “Ten Commandments,” which include: “Thou shall have no other Gods before yourself,” “Do only that which benefits you, and do not sacrifice for others,” “Toughen your heart and do not heed it,” “Do not get too close to people, and do not bring them closer to you,” and “Do not be gullible, and trust no one.”

Radio Dreams

Radio Dreams

Radio Dreams, directed by Iranian-born, London-based director Babak Jalali, is a pleasurable experience. The film takes place for the most part in a Farsi-language radio station in the Bay Area during the course of one day.

Numerous tensions exist, side by side. The programming director, Hamid Royami, is an Iranian émigré, a novelist, well-known in his own country (played by the Iranian singer-songwriter, Mohsen Namjoo). He has artistic ideals, and some sort of leftist past. He wants to present something about life, including the lives of Iranians in the US, in poetry, songs, stories.

Maral (Boshra Dastournezhad), the daughter of the station’s owner, worries only about the income coming in from advertisers. The station owner himself is mainly interested in wrestling. Maral’s noisy, crass commercials for pizza shops and dermatologists interrupt and cut into Hamid’s artistic programming, threatening to send him over the edge.

Bizarrely, everyone at the radio station is waiting for the appearance of Metallica, the rock ‘n’ roll band. The three members of the Afghan band, Kabul Dreams, in particular are sitting around in hopes of meeting their idols. One of the band, meanwhile, falls in love with Maral and reads her a poem, in which he explains that he will wait “120 years in the gutter” for her to whisper his name.

An English-language interviewer asks Hamid why he has invited Metallica to the station. The latter explains, with and without the aid of his inadequate translator, that he was thinking of the tragic history of the two countries, the US and Afghanistan, and wanting to bring the two bands together, “without war, without violence.”

Out of the blue, the station has the opportunity to broadcast an interview with Miss Iran USA. On the way to the station, an employee points out to the young woman, who is dressed in full beauty queen attire, that “No one can see you on radio.” This is the sort of programming that appalls Hamid, her eventual interviewer. The pageant winner has a history of modeling and aspires to be a pharmacist. She is also a poet of sorts. “Do you want me to read one of my poems?,” she asks on air. “No,” Hamid replies, leaving it at that.

In the end, one of Metallica’s members makes an unlikely appearance, but it may be too late for Hamid.

Radio Dreams is appealing. Namjoo, with his amazing shock of grey hair, is an intelligent and sensitive presence. “Poetry like bread is for everyone,” he explains early in the film. How can he reconcile his artistic feelings and his social views with life in America, where he can barely speak the language, and, specifically, with the philistine goings-on at the radio station?

Taking into account the situation in the Middle East and Central Asia, one might wish for a greater urgency. Nor is the social layer represented in Babak Jalali’s film the most oppressed or hard-pressed. But there is a painful element here too: the strangeness of emigration, the indifference of the new country and its population … This is a rather sad comedy. If it were an American film at present, unhappily, the various episodes would be vulgarly done, over the top and terribly unfunny. Jalali brings humanity and sophistication to the work.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/10/past-j10.html