Seam: an action thriller SF allegory of societies under siege from government and global oppression

Elan Dassani, Rajeev Dassani, “Seam” (2017)

An excellent little film that could serve as a pilot for a television series, “Seam” posits that in the near future, after a global war between cyborgs and humans, cyborgs will be living and working separately from regular humans in the cities, towns and the countryside, and the two groups will be allowed to interact only in militarised border zones known as “seams”. Human societies by then will have become de facto panopticon police states in which activity is monitored by authorities using drones to spy on people and, if necessary, destroy them. The major aspect of this film is that there are cyborgs still living among humans, even partnering with them and having children with them; moreover, these cyborgs are suicide sleeper agents working for a secret resistance organisation which itself monitors government oppression of human beings.

The film divides into two parts, one a minor part that takes place in a Chinese city and the second major part set in a town somewhere in the Middle East. The major link between these two parts is the effect on human relationships that the rival politics between oppressive government and resistance forces exerts with devastating results. In the Chinese part, a family is left without a father (Stephen Au), and in the Middle Eastern part, Ayana (Rakeen Saad) and her soldier husband (Khaled al Ghwairi) must part forever because one of them is the sleeper agent carrying information to the resistance organisation, located in a remote desert, which the authorities, represented by the Commander (Oded Fehr) and the Controller (Ulka Simone Mohanty) are determined to thwart.

The entire cast does a great job in the breathless cat-and-mouse action thriller game that takes place, and this viewer quickly started cheering Ayana and husband Yusef on against great odds. The cinematography is so good that the desert environment becomes a major actor character in its own right as the historical mythical source of the Semitic-speaking peoples and as a continuing inspiration to them. The special effects, emphasising holograms, are well done, and the actors’ interaction with them is also spot-on natural and casual.

The film can be interpreted as an allegory of the reality in far too many parts of the world today: people angered at oppression, losing hope and ready to sacrifice future love and happiness, may give in to their fury to join extremist organisations and become suicide bombers and terrorists. Whoever controls them may draw on their history and culture to manipulate their charges and set them on destructive paths. Oppressors in their turn become more extremist in their own ideologies and behaviours and actions towards those they themselves rule and control. At the centre of the film though is the question that science fiction has posed since its origin as a distinct cultural phenomenon: what is a human and what makes someone a human?

Capharnaum: a film of hope in search of identity and a place to call home

Nadine Labaki, “Capharnaum” (2018)

I’m sure plenty of children around the world are serving time in juvenile centres for serious criminal acts including stabbing a man and crippling him for life as a result but not too many of those kids get the opportunity to phone a television current affairs show to announce that they’re going to sue their parents for bringing them into a rotten corrupt world that condemns them and their siblings to bleak, hopeless poverty and robs them of happiness and opportunities to play, go to school and learn to be decent human beings. That one 12-year-old boy called Zain (Zain al Rafeea) does so is a springboard into a documentary-styled drama focused on the twilight world inhabited by refugees, illegal migrant workers and homeless children, the relentless pressures on them to find their next meal and some shelter over their heads, and the extraordinary (and ingenious) risks they take to survive. The bulk of Zain’s story is told in flashback as he and his attorney (director Labaki herself) on one side of a courtroom face his parents Souad and Selim (Kawthar al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) on the other side while the judge (Elias Khoury, an actual retired judge) presides over the proceedings.

Zain lives with his parents and an apparent horde of siblings in a tiny Beirut apartment rented to them by a landlord whose son Assaad is infatuated with Zain’s 13-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam). Almost as soon as Sahar has her first period, the parents marry her off to Assaad and Zain rebels against the marriage and stomps off. He travels to another part of the city where he meets a transvestite called Cockroach Man (Joseph Jimbazian) who leads him to Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethiopian migrant working various odd jobs and hiding her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), knowing that his discovery by the authorities will lead to her deportation and the baby being sent to an orphanage. For several months, Zain babysits Yonas – at least until Rahil is arrested and jailed. From then on, Zain does his best to look after Yonas while trying to find work to get enough money to buy food and feed them both.

Eventually Zain reaches the end of his tether when he cannot get any work and leaves the baby with Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) who promises to place Yonas with a foster family – in reality, Aspro works in trafficking desperate Syrian refugees to Sweden – so he can go home to find his papers so he too can leave Beirut. Once home, he discovers the dreadful fate that befell Sahar soon after she married Assaad and the boy vows vengeance on the landlord’s son …

Through Zain’s point of view, the precarious and unstable existence of an underclass with no papers that would prove their existence and identity is portrayed with a raw grimness occasionally lightened by humour (even if it’s on the black side) and the innocence of children like Yonas. In spite of the incredible, grinding poverty, the violence and abuse he suffers at home, and the pain he sees around him and experiences, Zain is still capable of compassion, love and care for those less able than he to defend themselves, like Sahar and Yonas. Zain al Rafeea, himself a refugee from Syria, delivers an incredible performance as a child struggling to survive yet yearning to know his true path and direction in life, and wanting nothing more than to know he is known and needed by society. Apart from Labaki herself, all the actors in the film are non-professionals and several of them actually were refugees or undocumented workers. In bringing their experiences to their roles, the actors helped give the film a raw and harsh quality.

No less than the cast itself, the poor neighbourhoods of Beirut, weighed down by floods of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, its bureaucracy and institutions unable to cope with them and illegal migrants from other countries, are a dramatic, often severe background in which the modern-day Oliver Twist tale plays out. Parts of the script do stretch credibility – is it really possible that the authorities manage to find Yonas among the crammed warehouses of people hoping to find asylum in Sweden? – and the ending can come across as unbelievably optimistic. Little attention is given over to how Zain’s parents came to be in their appalling predicament in the first place, how others exploit and manipulate them, and how and why they have given up hope for themselves and their children. The system which they and their son fall into cannot offer them hope and one presumes that after Zain serves his allotted jail-time that he will return to his family and possibly fall into trouble again.

The film offers hope that, for all the pain and horror he has experienced, Zain’s natural resilience, compassion and ingenuity that have served him and Yonas well will not only help him to survive but to thrive as well. The deliberate identification of Zain with the city he inhabits by “Capharnaum” make the boy a metaphor for the fortunes of Beirut and by implication, Lebanon and the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Levant.

Aleppo Renaissance: after war, looting and destruction, a city determined to regain its rightful place as a major Middle Eastern industrial hub

Sinan Saeed and Tom Duggan, “Aleppo Renaissance” (2017)

Here’s a very welcome documentary on Aleppo and its significance in Syria’s history, culture and economy, and why the city was targeted by jihadis during the recent war against ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and other jihadi groups financed from abroad. Through narration by Duggan and Saeed, and interviews with Aleppo politician Fares al Shihaby and businessman Mohammad al Nawai, we learn how the city became one of four designated industrial zones in Syria for local and foreign investment in 2004. Unfortunately for Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his government, this attempt to modernise and industrialise Syria, to turn the country into the workshop of the Middle East, was at variance with Western plans to destabilise the country as part of one stage towards Western neocolonial domination of the Middle East and the seizure of the region’s natural resources; and the war that broke out in Syria in 2011, starting when jihadists in Dar’aa in the south hijacked a protest against food price increases, killing police and setting buildings on fire, quickly spread to Aleppo. We learn how the city’s factories (especially those in Sheikh Najaar industrial zone) were systematically targeted, bombed and looted by Turkish forces, jihadis and their allies. Agricultural products and historical artefacts were also stolen by Turkish gangs. The presence of gangs named after past Ottoman Turkish sultans indicate a clear political agenda: the occupation of Aleppo and surrounding regions in Syria by Turkey, eventually to be incorporated into a new Turkish Islamic empire.

While parts of the documentary, especially al Nawai’s description of how his factories were destroyed and all the machinery stolen, can be heartbreaking, the film’s narrative looks forward to a revival of manufacturing and the rebuilding of Aleppo’s infrastructure and economy now that the city has been liberated by the Syrian Arab Army. Scenes of post-apocalyptic / scorched earth destruction give way to a clean modern textile factory in which workers, men and women, supervise the weaving of thread and the making of cotton materials; to streets filled with shoppers inspecting finished cotton goods in pop-up market stalls and newly renovated shops. Both Saeed and Duggan express hope that the city will regain its pre-eminence in Syrian life. Mohammad al Nawai emphasises the city’s historic role as a trading post and focus of manufacturing for the past 8,000 years.

Made on a small budget, the film is straightforward and minimal in its presentation so it’s easy to follow and understand. It may be light on actual evidence that Turkey was behind the systematic looting and destruction but those interested in more detail of what the jihadis and their foreign backers did can search for articles on the Internet. (See this article from Al Monitor for example, and this article from Syrian Free Press.) Various city scenes in all their beauty (before the war) and their horror (after the war) as well dominate the film, and are the most unforgettable part of it.

For some people, the film’s major weakness is that it ignores the possibility that Turkey might again invade northern Syria and try to retake Aleppo and steal all its industry. The Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran need to be on the alert that such a catastrophe not only might recur but is already in planning. Whether this means that Russia will have to maintain a military presence in Syria by deploying its S400 missile system and other technologies, and by rotating the forces it has there, along with whatever the Syrians and Iranians must do to maintain a high level of defence, given that Russia and Iran also face other serious challenges from the US and NATO on their borders in Europe and Asia, remains uncertain.

I recommend that people watch this film to learn more about Aleppo and its recent history, its prominence in Syrian life, and to discover the determination and resilience of the Syrian people who intend to rebuild the city and restore it to its rightful place as a major industrial hub of the Middle East.

Wadjda: a heart-warming film about a girl’s desire for freedom and how she thwarts social and political restrictions to achieve it

Haifaa al Mansour, “Wadjda” (2012)

A heart-warming film on one girl’s desire for freedom, especially the freedom to be true to herself, “Wadjda” is remarkable for being the first Saudi film to be made by a female Saudi director. Shot mostly from the point of view of its young protagonist Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), the film demonstrates how persistence, hard work, hope and being true to oneself can reap rewards greater than money or winning the approval of one’s elders. The film also looks at how middle-class Saudi women cope with the restrictions placed on them by government, to the extent that they cannot drive and must rely on male chauffeurs to ferry them about, and that they cannot allow themselves to be seen in public by strange men.

When we first meet the 10-year-old Wadjda, she’s already a rebellious kid who loves Western pop and rock, wears sneakers to school and never has her headscarf secured properly to cover her hair. She is an entrepreneurial go-getter who makes pocket money by making plaits for football clubs and selling them to the girls at school. She befriends a boy of her age, Abdullah (Abdurrahman al Golani) who has a bicycle. Wadjda wants one as well and coaxes a local shopkeeper into keeping a recently imported bike for her. The bike costs 1,000 riyals so to raise the money Wadjda enters her school’s Koran-reciting competition which offers a first prize of … 1,000 riyals.

Wadjda’s teachers at the hardline conservative girls’ school are surprised at the girl’s sudden turnabout from secular slouch to devoted religious convert but do not suspect what she wants the money for. The girl keeps busy doing normal lessons and then learning and reciting various Koranic surahs off by heart, and in her spare time secretly learning to ride Abdullah’s bike under the boy’s tutelage.

Meanwhile Wadjda’s mum (Reem Abdullah), a teacher, is at loggerheads with Wadjda’s dad because Dad desires a son but Mum cannot give him one. He is in negotiations with a family to acquire a second wife. As a result Dad comes and goes quite often, and is away for long periods leaving his unhappy wife and rebellious child on their own. The film does a good job limning the mother’s frustrations at her restricted life: arguing with her driver Iqbal (because as a woman she is forbidden from driving her own car) and going shopping for glamorous showy dresses which she knows she cannot wear away from home. One comes to understand how Wadjda might have become a rebel, seeing her parents unhappy with each other and both yearning for what they cannot have. Mother and daughter come to develop a close relationship which is often strained but turns out to be rock solid when Dad finally abandons them.

In its own deceptive simple and minimal style, “Wadjda” has a great deal to say about the nature of religious oppression and the stifling of normal human social intercourse this creates. In a society that denies women freedom of movement, Wadjda’s mother and teachers are horrified that the girl wants a bicycle, and do all they can to prevent her from having one. It is significant that women are the ones who zealously police girls’ behaviour and ensure they do not offend any men. With the exception of young Abdullah, the male characters are passive bystanders who do not affect the direction of the plot in any way; even the father simply disappears with the likelihood that he will continue supporting his wife and daughter financially at least.

The restrictions on women’s movements certainly affect the female characters in major ways but there is an insinuation that the male characters also suffer from those restrictions indirectly. One gets the impression that the men are rather infantile, not fully adult, and the women a strange and unpleasant mix of grim and unyielding strictness, hysterical superstition and amoral childishness. It seems to me that societies where fundamentalist religion rules absolutely not only turn out to be police state societies moulding people’s thinking and outlook but also breed people lacking internal moral compasses with the result that hypocrisy and corruption go hand in hand deeply and across society along with the repression.

The acting is minimal and matter-of-fact with Waad Mohammed holding this viewer quite spellbound with her character’s cheek and cleverness. People in the film either admire her or fear her chutzpah. The character of the mother is perhaps the most complicated and puzzling: like Wadjda, she yearns for freedom but is very much a submissive creature of the society she grew up in. The Riyadh setting gives the film a sunny and bright look, which is rather ironic given the nature of the repressive society portrayed and its poisonous effects on both women and men alike. Wadjda’s family home is surprisingly opulent, redolent of great family wealth; it would have been interesting to see where Abdullah’s family lives and what the house and its furnishings look like.

The film’s ending is an incredible surprise and speaks of hope in overcoming barriers both physical, mental and psychological in a context of despair and sadness.

Russian Media interview President Bashar al Assad of Syria: a view of how Syria is fighting terrorism and advancing political change

Russian Media Interview with President Bashar al Assad (16 September 2015)

Syrian President Bashar al Assad granted a rare interview to representatives from various Russian media outlets including RT, Rossiskaya Gazeta, Channel 1, Russia 24, RIA Novosti and NTV Channel. Given that for the past four years Syria has been under siege from various rebel groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, the interview inevitably centred on Syria’s fight against these terrorist groups, how this fight is progressing and what the process to achieve and maintain lasting peace will be, and the huge wave of refugees leaving Syria for Europe. The interview was conducted in Arabic, English and Russian, and can be viewed at this RT link. The English-language transcript is also at the link.

The interview starts at the deep end with a multi-loaded question on the political process to peace, the President’s view on sharing power with Syrian opposition groups that originally wanted him gone and how he plans to carry out political reforms in the current difficult circumstances. The President replies that from the outset his government used dialogue to bring together different groups of Syrians in Damascus, Moscow and Geneva, to discuss political change and how to fight terrorism, and that this dialogue is still ongoing. However for political change to occur, terrorism must be defeated first, and to defeat terrorism and stop the exodus of refugees, the West must stop supporting terrorists. Most Syrians who are refugees are fleeing Syria because of the terrorist threat, and most remaining Syrians want security and safety first before political reforms can take place.

On the question of international co-operation to solve the terrorism problem, Assad acknowledges the support from Iran, Egypt and Russia at varying levels. There has been some co-operation with Iraq as well. On the other hand, the coalition of countries led by the US has had no success in combating terrorism and has only allowed ISIS to expand its forces. Some Middle Eastern countries are assisting ISIS by providing fighters and weapons.

On the question of the type of enemy Syria faces in ISIS, whether ISIS is a large organisation or an actual state, Assad asserts that the state ISIS claims to have created is artificial and bears no resemblance to a normal society. ISIS is an extremist Islamist creation of the West and serves as a de facto army to bring down Assad’s government and create chaos and instability in the Middle East.

Asked if he was prepared to work with those Western politicians who had wanted his overthrow once peace is restored to Syria, Assad indicates that he would if such co-operation brings benefits to Syria and the Syrian people and that his personal feelings were irrelevant. Assad expresses sorrow that there are so many Syrian refugees who have fled to Europe, as every person gone is a loss to Syria but he also emphasised that the deaths of people in Syria from terrorism are no less tragic than the deaths of refugees on the high seas in the Mediterranean.

The interview concluded with a question as to whether the war in Syria against ISIS and other terror groups began and who Assad thinks is responsible for it. He lays the blame squarely on the US and the oil kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula and refers to the general historical background stretching back to the 1980s when the West adopted the murderous mujahideen in Afghanistan as “freedom fighters”.

Watching and listening to the interview, I was impressed with Assad’s soft-spoken demeanour and his fortitude in the most difficult circumstances. He may not have willingly taken on the role of Syrian President – he was originally an eye doctor working in London until the death of his older brother who had been groomed by their father Hafez Assad as his successor forced him to return to Syria – but he has shown tremendous moral fibre in staying with his people and defending them.

 

The Battle of Algiers: excellent and powerful film dramatisation of the Algerian drive for independence

Gillo Pontecorvo, “The Battle of Algiers / La Bataille d’Alger / La Battaglia di Algeri” (1965)

Filmed 50 years ago, this Italian film drama of the Algerian independence struggle against France in the late 1950s remains as relevant today in the post-9/11 world as it did for audiences living during the decline and end of the colonial era when Britain and France gave up their empires in Africa and Asia. The film, influenced by the Italian neo-realism pioneered by Roberto Rossellini and other directors in the 1950s, combines crisp, matter-of-fact drama, imaginative and brilliantly shot cinematography, excellent acting, a highly evocative music soundtrack and a plot left deliberately sketchy to emphasise the film’s messages, of which the most important is that a people’s desire for liberation and independence will always succeed in spite of the repression it is subjected to.

The bulk of the film follows a young man, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), from his early life as street thief who becomes radicalised as a freedom fighter when as a prisoner he witnesses the guillotining execution of a political prisoner. After being released, he applies to join the National Liberation Front (hereafter referred to as the FLN, its abbreviation in French) and is given a test by FLN leader Jaffar. The test confirms Ali’s commitment and from then on he is part of a clandestine network of cells in which each member knows only three others: the person who recruited him and the two people he is required to recruit.

The film does not dwell much on Ali’s advancement to the topmost level but instead follows various resistance fighters who kill police officers as part of a general protest against the forces of law and order who are the front-line of the colonial society that treats the Algerian people as serfs and denies them access to their own lands and resources. The film clearly shows the segregated nature of the city of Algiers: Europeans live in one part which revels in wealth and leisure while the majority Arabs and Berbers are forced to live in crowded labyrinthine conditions in old buildings with primitive infrastructure and transport. The French drive cars while the Arabs and Berbers must still use animals for transport. The murders of the police officers lead to greater repression and the police themselves resort to bombing a section of the Muslim quarter. People die and from then on, the FLN uses terrorism, encapsulated in a section of the film where three Muslim women doll themselves up in Western clothes and carry bombs into cafes and an Air France office, to protest the continuing brutality. Violence from one side begets violence from the other until Paris sends in Colonel Matthieu (Jean Martin) to impose martial law on the suffering Algerians. Determined to wipe out the FLN, Matthieu resorts to arresting and torturing people to gather information about the FLN, and systematically hunts down its members until he and Ali La Pointe finally confront each other in a chilling and cold-blooded climax.

The contrast between the Algerians’ poverty and the colonialists’ lavish lifestyle is highlighted by the cinematography which captures the paranoia and terror the Algerians feel as French rule becomes ever more violent and intrusive. The music, composed jointly by Pontecorvo himself and renowned composer Ennio Morricone, also captures the terror and drama of the film. Scenes of torture are filmed in a sensitive manner that demonstrates the victim’s suffering without dwelling too much on the violence and gore.

While Pontecorvo is sympathetic towards the Algerians, the film shows both oppressors and oppressed as humans with all their flaws and good qualities. Ali, Jaffar and the other leaders of the FLN stubbornly hold out to the very end and Matthieu, for all his admiration of them, is steely in his determination to eradicate them. Surprisingly, Matthieu has the clearest understanding of the conflict between France and Algeria: the French are hell-bent on keeping Algeria as their colony and denying the Arabs and Berbers a share in the colony’s wealth. As long as this situation lasts, there will always be conflict and suppression. One would think that, having fought in the Resistance against Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Matthieu might sympathise with the Algerians’ desire for liberty; yet he puts his loyalty to France ahead of any feelings he may have for the Algerian cause or the admiration he has for individuals like Ben M’hidi, one of the FLN leaders, for his moral stance. As the only actor in a cast of non-actors, Martin makes his colonel stand out as a man who suppresses his humanity and compassion for evil disguised as unquestioning loyalty to the State.

One aspect of the film that is not too clear is the role of the media in changing public opinion in France to favour and support Algerian independence which eventually pressured Paris to grant Algeria its freedom in 1962. Apart from that, the film shows how the colonial authorities use propaganda to try to break the spirit of the Algerians. After destroying the FLN, the authorities obviously believe they have broken the back of the independence movement; unfortunately the film does not go on to say (and this is a major weakness of “The Battle …” and the structure of its plot) what the authorities did next, that might have resulted in a resurgence in the Algerians’ cry for  freedom and independence. One assumes that the French colonial authorities did not do much to give Algerians a greater say in their governance and control of their land and resources, but continued to harass them with police state brutality and petty bureaucratic regulations, and that the French living in Algeria continued to live in blithe ignorance of the tensions simmering even more among the people they treated as their servants.

The film’s complexity in its themes and technical values has stood the test of time, even if the actual visuals look dated. It has been used as a manual by both terrorist groups and governments alike, not always in the way that Pontecorvo and his cast would approve. Violence and brutality always beget more violence and brutality, and both bully and victim end up more traumatised and psychopathic in their natures. The film still has power to move contemporary audiences into sympathising with ordinary people’s desire to control their own lives and resources, and not to live as slaves.