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.

Death of Yazdgerd: a slow film illustrates how the common people are caught between two repressive forces

Bahram Beyzai, “Death of Yazdgerd / Mard Yazdgerd” (1982)

Running close to 2 hours with a small cast, a heavy emphasis on dialogue to push its plot and message, and a very minimal and claustrophobic setting, this film betrays its origins as a stage play. Beyzai not only directed this film, he wrote the screenplay and produced it as well. Perhaps as a result, too much of the stage play and the style of acting it requires appear in the film to the extent that the action gets stuck going round and round in a groove while the actors flail about, banging on one story or another over and over and working themselves and each other into near-frenzy. The film drags very slowly and viewers unfamiliar with pre-Islamic Persian history and culture will find it very boring.

The film is based on the actual death of the last Sassanian shah, Yazdgerd III, in 651 CE while fleeing Arab forces invading the Persian empire: tradition has it that he was killed by a miller who was after his purse. In the film, the King is already dead and the Miller (Mehdi Hashemi), his Wife (Susan Taslimi) and their Daughter (Yasaman Arami) are on trial for his murder. The judges who have the power of life and death over them are a Priest (Mahmoud Behrouzian), a General (Amin Tarokh) and a Commander (Karim Akbar Mobarakeh), all of whom are very inclined to execute the impoverished family on the spot if they say anything that turns out to be a trigger word. Desperate to save their necks from an improvised garrotte, the three family members offer various exculpatory versions of how the King died in the hope they will be pardoned: initially the family mistakes the king for a bandit having robbed the King of his wealth and finery; in another version, the King has seduced the Daughter; in yet another version, the King has killed the Miller and exchanged clothing; in still another alternative story, the King is keen on the Wife instead and suggests eloping with her. In the meantime, while the family construct ever more elaborate and contradictory stories on how the King died, Arab forces are steadily wiping out the shrinking Sassanian armies and are encroaching upon the Miller’s hut where the trial is taking place.

The actors – in particular Hashemi and Taslimi – put in excellent and intense performances, even though they can be very theatrical and not a little tiresome in parts. One must suspend disbelief and take for granted that a poor farming family far out from the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon has intimate knowledge of the King’s palace and its architectural arrangements. As the story constantly shifts, and the responsibility for the King’s death bounces from one person to the next (even onto the King himself), the viewer will marvel at the extent the Miller and his family are prepared to lie, or feel guilty as the lies pile up, one on top of the other. At some point in the film, the Daughter appears to be possessed by the spirit of the King himself and starts saying things only the King and his most intimate companions would know. Something of the rigidly hierarchical society and the belief in the near-divine status of the King – to the extent that even the Priest and the old General have never seen the King’s bare face – is revealed.

Through this film, Beyzai comments on the stagnant, corrupt and hierarchical society presided over by the Pahlavi shahs (their power underpinned by British and American support) from 1925 to 1979, and how that society was soon replaced by an equally repressive society supposedly based on Islamic principles. The King himself is revealed as a presumptuous autocrat who treats his subjects badly and whose lifestyle is far removed from the vast majority of Persians who toil endlessly to pay the heavy taxes that support the King’s lavish court. At the same time, the Arab forces that will soon defeat and make history out of the Sassanians are portrayed as dark savages carrying black flags, in contrast to the Sassanians’ white flags.

The Islamic government that replaced the Pahlavis quickly saw the historical parallel the film makes with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and what the film insinuates about the theocratic arrangements, and banned the film from being shown in cinemas. As the trial reaches its climax and the judges prepare to make their verdict, viewers who have stuck thick and thin with the meandering plot will be surprised by the fairy-tale nature of the outcome, which turns out not to amount to much when (to paraphrase a cliched utterance by one of the characters) history will be written by the victors.

Diplomatic Viruses: a deeply disturbing film about a US military laboratory in Georgia

Diljana Gaytandzhieva, “Diplomatic Viruses” (Al Mayadeen, 2018)

Bulgarian journalist Diljana Gaytandzhieva gained fame early in 2018 for uncovering and reporting on shipments of weapons from EU countries through Azerbaijani airline Silk Way Airlines to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, some of which later turned up among terrorists in Syria, over a period from 2016 onwards: for this reporting, she was sacked by her Bulgarian newspaper employer. Recently Gaytandzhieva has been in Tbilisi, Georgia, interviewing residents living near the Richard Lugar Research Center, a military laboratory currently being utilised by the US Department of Defense, and hearing their complaints of smells and strangely coloured smoke emanating from that facility at night, and of pollutants smelling like rotten eggs being piped through their neighbourhood and into local waterways from the facility. Through her interviews and gaining access to documents from insiders, Gaytandzhieva finds that the facility is being used by the US government to research biological and chemical weapons, and that disease pathogens, mosquitoes and various chemicals are being transported as diplomatic cargo to the facility by people from the US embassy in Tbilisi. She attempts to get access to the laboratory and to speak to an entomologist apparently working there but is constantly rebuffed and threatened. At one point during her stay in Tbilisi, she is locked in her rented apartment and is forced to call emergency services to help her get out.

This documentary, filmed for Al Mayadeen TV news channel, and narrated by Patrick Henningsen (of 21Wire) off-camera, follows Gaytandzhieva closely as she uncovers one disturbing fact after another. Why is the US ferrying frozen human and disease pathogens as diplomatic cargo to the Lugar Center laboratory? Why is there an entomologist (Joshua Bast) working there? Is research being done on dangerous mosquito-borne diseases? Is there a connection between the work being done at the Lugar Center and an outbreak of Crimea-Congo haemorrhagic fever in Georgia back in 2014/5? Residents living near the Lugar Center mention four Filipino nationals being seriously injured and two of them dying: were these four people poisoned by dangerous chemicals at the facility? Why are researchers at the Lugar Center collecting DNA and RNA samples from Russian people? Why are there private companies also using the resources at the Lugar Center and what are their interests in doing so? Why did the Georgian government sign an agreement with the US Department of Defense in which Georgia has to give up control over what happens at the Lugar Center and over what researchers, government and private alike, do with effective diplomatic immunity?

To Gaytandzhieva and the Russian government, what the US is doing at the Lugar Center and in other laboratories in over 20 other countries is conducting research and experiments in biological and chemical weapons, often using human tests subjects, even communities, without their consent and with often dire consequences for neighbourhoods and even whole small towns surrounding these laboratories. In recent years since the US established military research labs in Ukraine, the number of exotic disease outbreaks including outbreaks of botulinism poisoning has risen alarmingly.

That the US is collecting and presumably testing DNA and RNA samples taken from Russian people should be of great concern: do the Americans plan to create a virus or bacterium that will target Russian Federation nationals but no-one else? How do the Americans propose creating a disease that targets specific ethnic groups but not any other? What they are doing is impossible in the case of Russians because Russians have absorbed many peoples in the past and will have a highly diverse genetic pool compared to other populations. Would the US be able to control the pathogen if it were to spread to nations outside Russia and into its own territory? (Would the US government even care?) The documentary digs fairly deep into issues of great medical, political and environmental importance.

This is a very worthwhile and important video to watch. Gaytandzhieva has done an excellent job at great personal risk to herself.

Undercover in Idlib: secret snapshot of jihadi-held Idlib province in northwestern Syria

Jenan Moussa, “Undercover in Idlib” (2017)

Presented and narrated by Jenan Moussa, a reporter for Al Aan TV in Dubai, this 22-minute documentary on the situation in Idlib province, in northwestern Syria, as of 2015 – 2016 reveals facts that Western news media outlets have never shown: that a number of towns in the province including Jisr al Shugur are dominated by jihadis and their families from China and Central Asia, and that the whole region is controlled by extremist groups like Jabhat al Nusra, the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaeda. The documentary was secretly filmed by Moussa’s informants (all pro-opposition) on cellphones; had they been discovered to be filming, they would have been imprisoned, even put to death. Even filmed in secret however, and with all the other limitations such filming involved (such as the use of cellphones), the documentary is clear and enough film footage was taken by Moussa’s sources to support a clear narrative.

Filming took place in Idlib city, Jisr al Shugur – revealed as a complete wreck – and other towns in the province. Film footage shows huge amounts of graffiti scrawled on walls and buildings quoting pronouncements by Al Qaeda leader Ayman Mohammed Rabie al Zawahiri. Houses and buildings abandoned by pre-2011 Idlib households and businesses have been seized by extremist groups and auctioned off to their followers; even crops have been seized and auctioned off. Christian churches have been defaced or converted into mosques and in one town a statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by an al Nusra flag.

Of the various checkpoints in and out of Idlib province, mostly with Turkey, the vast majority are controlled by Jabhat al Nusra and the rest controlled by other extremist groups allied with them. If any so-called “moderate” anti-government rebel groups exist in Idlib province, their presence was confined to their headquarters.

The most amazing revelation is that all of Moussa’s sources agree that huge numbers of ethnic Uyghur jihadis from China, plus Uzbek jihadis and “Turkistani” jihads and their families have settled in Idlib province and number from 10,000 to 20,000 people. All made their way to Syria from China and Central Asia for jihad. Moussa does not say how they managed to travel long distances from their original countries or on what passports they travelled on.

Since the documentary was first made, Jabhat al Nusra changed its name to Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) so Moussa asked her contacts to return to Idlib province to take note of any changes made. They reported that the propaganda had been softened and made more colourful and appealing to the local people. Al Zawahiri’s name was scrubbed off from walls where his quotations had been scrawled on and any references to HTS or its predecessor had disappeared, to give the area a more generic look.

Moussa reveals her sympathies with pro-opposition / anti-government forces (if they exist) in Syria by stating at the end of the documentary that everyone in Idlib province fears what may happen once Syrian government forces and their Russian allies begin their offensive to drive out the extremists in the province. Apart from this bias, which I disagree with, the film is a sobering survey of the reality of Idlib province: a permanent resettlement policy is under way in this part of Syria which I fear is intended to lay the foundation for a new invasion of the rest of the country by religious extremists supported by Syria’s enemies.

Those Who Said No: a slickly made and polished film that is less than honest about the politics of the activists it champions

Nima Sarvestani, “Those Who Said No” (2015)

A very polished film, complete with stereotypical mournful droning music in parts, this Iranian / Swedish documentary follows proceedings of the Iran Tribunal, a people’s court hosted at The Hague, in its investigation of alleged violations of human rights and crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1988. According to a cleric, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, between 2,800 and 3,800 political prisoners were executed or disappeared by the Khomeini government. These massacres began in mid-July 1988 and went on for several months.

The documentary does a very good job recording the testimonies of people who had been arrested, imprisoned and tortured by Iranian prison authorities. One witness after another takes the stand to answer questions from stony-faced (and often bored-looking) judges about their time and experiences in prison. This constant narrative is broken up by a minor story of a man who survived the tortures and mistreatment, and who travels to Japan to confront Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a former representative of the Iranian court system in the 1980s, in Tokyo.

Where the documentary fails is in providing a full political context to the arrests, the imprisonment, torture and execution of the political prisoners by the Iranian government in 1988: why were these people arrested and for what crimes, and what were the organisations or groups they belonged to – these are details that are not mentioned in the film. Having to do my own research, I discovered that the majority of the prisoners who were executed were members of a radical leftist organisation known as the People’s Mojahedin of Iran or Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) which among other things it did during the 1980s carried out bomb attacks against and assassinations of various clerics in the government and sided with the then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces, even going so far as to set up its headquarters in Iraq: a move regarded by most Iranians as a grave betrayal since Iraq and Iran were at war. After 1985, MEK became a full-fledged fruitcake terrorist cult centred around Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam, and spends a great deal of its money on organising propaganda campaigns, using computer bots to spread disinformation on social media platforms and lobbying politicians in the US government. New recruits to MEK are subjected to intense indoctrination and bizarre rituals that may include sexual abuse with the aim of breaking down their sense of identity in an environment that deliberately isolates them from the outside world and makes them dependent on MEK members. The organisation has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Iran and some other countries since the early 1970s and most people in Iran shun the organisation.

After discovering the MEK connection, I am not surprised then that the Iranian government cracked down severely on political prisoners and tortured and executed thousands. Political prisoners belonging to the Iranian Communist Party (Tudeh) and other leftist groups were also arrested and jailed, and many of them were killed; unfortunately the film does not identify these people who were swept up in the killings. What the film omits to mention lessens the impact it wants to make, and moreover makes the film less than honest as a crusading vehicle for political activism.

The Insult: a calculated and manipulative soap opera melodrama posing as a courtroom thriller

Ziad Doueiri, “The Insult” (2018)

On one level, this Lebanese film illustrates the power of an utterance to inflame hidden animosities and escalate them (in a rather melodramatic way) to a level where they apparently hold an entire nation in breathless thrall to their outcome. On another level, “The Insult” is a standard courtroom drama thriller that feels very manipulative yet pulls its punches when the various issues it raises become too much and too complex to handle within its narrow movie genre format. The plot and the themes might have been better dealt with in a mini-series that would also allow a deeper exploration of the main characters, their backgrounds and their motivations.

The film revolves around a chance encounter of two men, Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a mechanic, Christian Maronite by background and a supporter of the Kataeb Party founded by past Lebanese President-elect Bachir Gemayel (assassinated in 1982); and Yasser Salameh (Kamel el Basha), a Palestinian refugee. Hanna and his pregnant wife Shirin (Rita Hayek) live in a Beirut street undergoing repairs; their apartment balcony has an illegal drain attached to it that sprays water onto pedestrians below. A construction crew working in the street sees the water so foreman Salameh asks Hanna to let his crew correct the illegal drain pipe. Hanna refuses but Salameh and his men fix the drain pipe anyway. Hanna sabotages the work and Salameh swears at him. Hanna complains about Salameh to his boss Talal so Talal arranges for Salameh to meet Hanna to apologise to him personally. However when Salameh and Talal arrive at Hanna’s garage, the radio there is loudly blaring Gemayel’s anti-Palestinian diatribes so Salameh refuses to speak. Hanna taunts him with an inflammatory remark that mentions the name of former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, at which Salameh punches Hanna and breaks two of his ribs.

From then on, the action moves, as if predestined, from one incident into another. Some of these incidents are highly improbable except in a soap opera universe: one would think that Salameh, realising the trouble he is in, and having no rights as an alien in Lebanon, would try to disappear entirely instead of giving himself up to the police. Hanna and Salameh representing themselves in a magistrate’s court seems unlikely; what’s even more unlikely is that when their case escalates to a higher court and they need lawyers, Hanna’s lawyer Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), an establishment, pro-Gemayel supporter, and Salameh’s lawyer Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud) turn out to be father and daughter! At this point, the trial ought to have been aborted by the judge Colette Mansur (Rita Kassar) and new lawyers for the men appointed but it steams on ahead.

In the second court case, Hanna and Salameh’s backgrounds and possible motivations are drawn out in some detail as Wehbe senior and Wehbe junior argue back and forth in ways that flummox even the judges as well as the respective clients. The elder Wehbe discovers that Hanna himself is a refugee of a massacre of Christians in the village of Damour in early 1976 by leftist fighters aided by Palestinian militants. Salameh is found to have beaten a man (admittedly a soldier) so severely that the man becomes wheelchair-bound. Even Shirin’s history of miscarriages is dragged into the disputation as a possible factor in forcing her baby’s premature caesarean birth.

The pyrotechnics that erupt among Hanna and Salameh’s supporters in the courtroom spill out into the streets and into Lebanese news media with unfortunate consequences: the Hannas end up being stalked and their supporters chase a motorcyclist who ends up in a collision with a car.

While Karam and el Basha are good and intense in their roles, and Hayek evokes much sympathy as Hanna’s long-suffering wife, the film does have a calculating and manipulative feel as plot twist follows plot twist. Various hidden grievances come to the fore – in particular, Lebanese resentment at the presence of Palestinian refugees in their midst, sucking up jobs and social services, depressing wages, always wanting sympathy and attention for their problems, while Lebanese Christian victims of past Palestinian violence are ignored – but get superficial treatment. Stereotypes about Arab people abound: the men seem to be all excitable and immune to reason while the women are either rational or stoic in getting on with business and life generally. The Wehbe father and daughter pair are little more than stereotypes of an older cunning political conservative, pragmatic and slippery, versus an earnest if perhaps naive young liberal with so-called progressive opinions and views (and who ends up supporting faintly Communist baddie types). The film’s conclusion has all the appearance of being a stitched-up Band Aid solution that restores peace and stability without really dealing with the long-simmering frustrations and grievances behind Hanna and Salameh’s prejudices and enmity.

At times I wonder if “The Insult” was actually made more for a Western audience than for a Lebanese audience, as it seems to rely on gimmicks, stereotypes and tropes that faintly mock Lebanese people. Injecting identity politics where it’s not needed and presenting Lebanese society as though it were an ongoing soap opera melodrama seem disrespectful of the subject matter and the wider political and cultural issues that arise from it. We are all familiar with lawyers pushing their own agendas onto their clients, the news media sensationalising trials and various hangers-on wanting to profit from other people’s misery, and “The Insult” hammers all of these subplots onto the main plot for the purpose of building it up into something more outlandish and sensational than it should be. The result is rushed and often superficial as the subplots are never fully resolved: in one, the hapless motorcyclist gets no more than a minute or so on screen and disappears forever.

If Hanna and Salameh come to an understanding, it’s more through their shared experience of being little cogs in a machine system they cannot fully comprehend than through recognising similarities in their histories as victims of others’ violence. Viewers are likely to feel just as ground out by a manipulative plot that tries to plead for reconciliation and understanding but ends up not succeeding very well.

A depressing view of Israeli society in “Empire Files: Israelis Speak Candidly About Palestinians”

Abby Martin, “Empire Files: Israelis Speak Candidly About Palestinians” (October 2017)

Abby Martin is an American journalist who hosts an ongoing current affairs show The Empire Files on TeleSUR, a satellite TV network based in Venezuela. In this episode she goes to Jerusalem (Zion Square, to be renamed Tolerance Square) to discover what ordinary people on the city streets think of the Israeli government’s policies regarding Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Martin’s interviews took place in September 2017, at a time when a right-wing party (with members in the Knesset) had held its conference and among other things approved a plan for Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, and to force Palestinians to move out of these territories.

Given that the public square where Martin meets her interviewees is to be renamed Tolerance Square, the responses she received were not at all tolerant. Most respondents were of the view that the land they call Israel had been given to the Jewish people by God for their exclusive use. Several people were of the opinion that Palestinians or Arabs generally should be bombed or killed. The possibility that bombing or killing Palestinians might encourage more tit-for-tat violence was never considered. A middle-aged man was of the view that Islam is a “disease” dangerous to the whole world and that Israelis should “kick away” Muslims. Some interviewees reveal the extent of the brainwashing and propaganda they received regarding the history of Palestine before 1948 when the area had been under Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman Turk and British rule. One teenager who belonged to a far-right organisation called Lehava (which advocates strict separation of Jews from non-Jews) stated that Jews have a special relationship with God and that Jews should not marry Arabs.

The surprising aspect of the answers Martin received is that she asked very general questions about how the interviewees felt about living in Israel and what they thought of the security situation. The racist responses they gave were completely unprompted and shocking in their extreme violence. Respondents confidently asserted that Palestinian land “rightfully” belonged to Jews – because at some remote time in the past it had been Jewish – and therefore Jews were justified in forcibly taking it away from Arabs without compensating them.

Perhaps as much for her own sanity as for that of her viewers, Martin consults activist Ronnie Barken who grew up in Israel and was exposed to the racist brainwashing that Martin’s interviewees were subjected to. At some point in his life however, Barken realised that all through his childhood and youth he’d been surrounded by a deliberate propaganda fog that demonised Palestinians and encouraged Israelis and Jews outside Israel to fear and hate them and Arab and Muslim people generally. He tells Martin of the Israeli agenda behind the portrayal of Palestinians as inferior, how it is really about stealing the land’s resources which enable a small power elite to exercise oppressive power over a weak people. He explains that Israeli identity depends on segregation from non-Jewish people and on denying Palestinians their identity, their culture and their right to exist at all. Barken’s explanation provides the context in which Martin’s respondents assert that Palestine and everything in Palestine that was actually created or produced by Palestinians over the last 2,000 years – in other words, Palestine’s very history and culture – belong to Israel.

This episode can be very depressing to watch, not least because most people Martin spoke to in her film were otherwise likable, generous with their time and frank in their attitudes. Far better it is though, to know the true nature of a society still traumatised by its past and how it responds to that trauma – but in a way that continues to produce fear, hate and loathing, and transmits those emotions and feelings to others – than to ignore reality and live under delusions fed by propaganda and lies. In this way, the cycle of hate, violence and genocide continues. Meanwhile, others (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) who profit from Israeli racism and prejudice against Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims generally will foment and fan the hatred and violence.

The film could have been better if Martin had tried to investigate some of the sources of propaganda that feed Israeli hate and prejudice: the country’s increasingly poor education system from primary level up to and including tertiary level should be one target; the militarisation of Israeli society that Barken alludes to is another; and the way in which Palestinians as a group are exploited by politicians to gain power and influence for themselves and to  ignore problems in Israel such as increasing socioeconomic inequalities, the concentration of wealth among a small number of families and individuals, and huge defence and security expenditures at the expense of education and social welfare. Viewers would gain a better understanding of the political, economic and moral corruption in Israeli society that underpins the suffering that in turn supports fear and hardened attitudes towards others.

No Date, No Signature: a traffic collision leads to an investigation of class conflict and an unsympathetic bureaucracy in a gritty realist drama

Vahid Jalilvand, “No Date, No Signature” (2017)

A chance encounter between two characters who would never have met otherwise becomes an examination of class conflict in an impoverished society where, it seems, bureaucracy and legalism are more important than being true to one’s conscience in this painfully gritty, realist film, the second by upcoming Iranian art-house director Vahid Jalilvand. Forensic pathologist Dr Kaveh Nariman (Amir Agha’ee) is driving home at night when he is side-swiped by another car and collides with a working-class family travelling on a motorcycle. Stopping and checking to make sure everyone is all right, Nariman finds that the 8-year-old boy Amir seems to have suffered nothing more than a few scratches and a slightly wobbly head while dad Moosa (Navid Mohammadzadeh) pays more attention to fixing up the motorbike and mum Leila (Zakieh Behbahani) tries to console a crying baby. Nariman directs Moosa to take Amir to the nearest medical clinic and offers the family money. Moosa accepts the money but ends up taking the family past the clinic later on.

Some days later, Nariman is shocked to find that Amir’s body has been delivered to the city morgue where he works. Seeing that he is distressed, Nariman’s colleague (Hediyeh Tehrani) offers to perform the autopsy on the boy. She determines that the boy has died from botulism. The news leads to a rift between Moosa and Leila who accuses her husband of killing the boy because weeks ago he bought some chickens cheaply from a worker at a poultry plant. Moosa returns to the poultry plant to confront the worker Habib. The two fight and Habib ends up in a coma. Moosa is arrested and imprisoned for assault. Meanwhile Nariman becomes obsessed with the thought that his collision may have led to the boy’s death and this obsession fills his life to the extent that his working relationship with his colleague becomes strained. Nariman also becomes unnecessarily involved with Amir’s parents and the court case against Moosa when Habib dies.

The film is more notable for its lead performances, particularly from Mohammadzadeh in playing a working-class man trying to make ends meet, behaving impulsively in ways that lead to grave consequences for himself and his family, and ending up trapped in an unsympathetic bureaucratic system lacking in compassion for the poor. The privileged Nariman spends much of the film moping about and putting off admitting the part he may have played in hastening the child’s death. His colleague and others question him as to why he didn’t report the collision to the police originally (though no-one thinks to ask him why he allowed his accident insurance policy lapse in the first place) or why he fails to admit that he offered money to Moosa. While Mohammadzadeh puts in a performance of a life-time in his showdown with Habib, and Agha’ee lends good support as the conscience-stricken doctor, the female actors stand out in rather more constrained and stereotyped roles: Behbahani’s Leila, initially subservient to Moosa, discovers her voice after his arrest and fights hard for him, and Tehrani’s coroner becomes as much inquisitor and devil’s advocate as friend and close associate to Nariman. Audiences are ultimately left uncertain as to what really did cause Amir’s death and it seems that Nariman might get off lightly compared to Moosa’s treatment for no reason other than that Nariman comes from a more privileged social layer than Moosa does.

Moosa’s rage at Habib is as much a rage against the social system that puts him in a position where he can be exploited, as it is against the people (including himself) he believes responsible for poisoning his son. The fact that Habib could be as much a victim of the system – otherwise why would he be driven to sell suspect chicken meat at a low price to a poor customer? – as he is escapes Moosa, and this helps to underline how unjust the system is and how it survives: while the poor squabble and fight among themselves, the society that divides and rules them, and forces them to fight for the few breadcrumbs it drops to them continues on impervious to their plight.

The cinematography with its emphasis on shades of grey and dull colour, and its relentless comparison of the morgue where Nariman works and the chicken-processing factory (and finding little difference, if any) is the other major feature that stands out in this bleak and often unflinching film.

While the plot is not always very clear and tends to jump ahead of what audiences might consider significant, audiences will get a good sense of how contemporary Iranian urban society, with all its faults, forces people into situations where they cannot be true to their values and principles, and instead have to ride roughshod over others simply to survive. The results of the decisions they have to make in order to make ends meet can be devastating.

Foxtrot: a meditation on loss, grief and the circularity of indifference, suffering and brutality

Samuel Maoz, “Foxtrot” (2017)

Divided into three parts, with the first and third parts dominated by the same actors and sharing the same setting (an apartment), “Foxtrot” is a meditation on loss and grief, and how the effects of loss can reverberate over generations, themselves leading to further consequences that might have the result of locking people into a never-ending cycle (as demonstrated in the basic steps of a foxtrot) of loss, grief, indifference – and violence. A decision made in haste sets in place a series of actions that end not only in loss but in friction, conflict, upheaval and maybe missed opportunities for reconciliation … such a decision can ruin people’s lives and turn a nation’s destiny down onto a dangerous spiral of brutality and violence begetting more brutality and violence.

Architect Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife Dafna (Sarah Adler) receive upsetting news from Israeli Defense Force soldiers that their son Jonathan has been killed in a fight. Acting on autopilot, the soldiers sedate a hysterical Dafna, advise Michael to keep drinking water on the hour to stay calm and collected, and tell the Feldmans that the IDF is taking care of all the funeral arrangements. Michael goes through a range of reactions from numbness to anger to grief and frustration as he demands answers about the circumstances of his son’s death from the soldiers. Later, they receive news from their superiors that a different Jonathan Feldman died and the architect’s son is still alive …

… and guarding an isolated outpost on Israel’s northern border along with three other young soldiers in the film’s second act. They eat tinned muck and sleep in cramped and wretched conditions in a shipping container – one that is slowly but surely sinking into muddy soil, as measured daily by how fast a tin of meat rolls from the upper end of the container to the lower sinking end – from one lo-o-ong day to the next. They lift the gate for wandering camels and check the IDs of Palestinians driving from one part of the country to the next. The Palestinians accept their humiliating treatment with passive resignation which, in the case of two wedding guests forced to stand in pouring rain while the soldiers run their information on a ramshackle computer, verges on tears as their hair-styles and make-up are ruined. The bored soldiers tell one another stories, listen to radio music and play video games to pass the time in their cramped and miserable outpost and shipping container, until they meet a group of party-goers in a car who accidentally drop what a soldier mistakes for a bomb and then all hell breaks loose …

Initially there seems to be not much plot for the film to hang on and it does pass by very slowly – all to emphasise the parents’ grief and agony, and how they deal with the shock of the news of their son’s death; and to detail the shabby treatment of young inexperienced soldiers by the IDF in putting them in situations where mistakes they make could have serious life-or-death consequences. The film starts to move when Michael, on hearing that his son might still be alive, demands the youngster’s return and contacts someone senior in the IDF. The IDF duly sets the wheels in motion to bring Jonathan home – but no-one can foresee what happens during the trip.

By mixing parts of the narrative so that the film’s climax comes at the end when it should come about two-thirds of the way through the film, director Maoz reinforces the circular nature of fate and how an apparently innocent decision intersecting with a random act can have devastating consequences. In the third act, Michael and Dafna have already split, their son really is dead but the parents appear not to know how he died: all the IDF will say is that he is one of “the fallen”. While Michael and Dafna make an effort to patch up their relationship, the IDF itself learns no lessons from the second Jonathan Feldman’s death and the circumstances in which it arose, and its soldiers continue to obey and carry out orders, robot-like, asking no questions and continuing to injure, wound and kill innocent people thoughtlessly.

The circularity of fate that traps the Feldmans may be a metaphor for the circularity of continuous trauma, brutality and unwillingness to face up to and learn from its decisions and actions that keeps Israel trapped and which has turned that nation into a global pariah. Ingeniously, Maoz’s film offers a path out of that trap: as the foxtrot needs to be danced properly with a partner, rather than solo, Israel needs to partner and reconcile with the Palestinian people to break it out of its descent into further dysfunction and to become a normal nation.

The cast of actors is very good and Ashkenazi turns in an incredible performance as the grieving Michael. Adler is a good foil though her role as a supportive wife is a little stereotypical. The cinematography is another asset: scenes shot from above, close-up or at unusual angles can stress helplessness, isolation or intense grief. The narrative’s minimal style throws emphasis on characters’ emotions and on the deterministic nature of the events that occur as they seem to lead inexorably to disaster and further tragedy.

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz (23 April 2018) – exposing the reality behind the Syrian White Helmets

“The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz” (23 April, 2018)

A most unexpected surprise from what I would have considered the least likely medium surfaced recently: US stand-up comedian (and political commentator) Jimmy Dore featured Bolivian actress Carla Ortiz on his weekly one-hour radio / online show. Ortiz recently returned from a trip to Syria – her second trip I think, although I’m not really sure – during which she visited Aleppo and among other things saw for herself the headquarters of the fake humanitarian first-response group the Syrian White Helmets … which happened to be located a couple of metres away from the headquarters of Al Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda). The actress also spoke to several people who had done volunteer work for the White Helmets – which mostly involved acting in the group’s propaganda films – and filmed scenes in sections of Aleppo that had just been liberated from terrorists by the Syrian Arab Army.

I missed seeing the first 20 minutes of the interview but what I did see and hear was in turns astounding, horrifying, depressing and uplifting. One astounding fact was that while volunteers working for the Syrian Arab Army would be paid the Syrian equivalent of US$50 a month for 16 to 18 hours of work, volunteers for the White Helmets could expect to receive a hefty US$1,500 a month. The temptation for Syrian civilians in areas captured by terrorists to work for the White Helmets – especially as the terrorists deliberately withheld food from civilian hostages unless they were prepared to pay hugely inflated prices – must have been immense. Ortiz and Dore do not discuss where the money would have come from to pay White Helmets volunteers but one suspects the most likely sources of funding are donations from Western governments and money from Sunni-dominated oil kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.

In her film, in which she enters the White Helmets headquarters, Ortiz points out two Al Nusra flags and states that they could not have been placed there accidentally, as very few Syrian citizens support Al Nusra and most such citizens hate the group. Ortiz notes that nearly all terrorists operating in Syria are from overseas. She reels off a list of actions of the terrorists that demonstrate their callous brutality: they keep civilians in cages and use them as human shields, and commandeer schools and hospitals, thus stunting children’s education and preventing families from obtaining medical help and medicines. People are deliberately starved as well and children die from malnutrition and diseases that could have been treated.

At least twice in the interview, Jimmy Dore mentions the CIA as paymaster for the terrorists to overthrow Assad but the reality may be more complicated than that: several Western governments want Assad gone and each would be using several agencies, including intel agencies, charities and news media outlets, to channel money and weapons to the terrorists, train them and promote them in the guise of humanitarian aid groups and organisations such as the White Helmets and Violet Organisation Syria.

However horrifying the war has been in Syria and especially in Aleppo, Ortiz speaks highly of the Syrian people: she notes that Syrian society has made great advances in giving women leadership roles in politics (the current Syrian vice-president is female and 30% of the country’s ministries are headed by women) and society generally. Since Aleppo’s liberation in 2016, 800,000 refugees have returned to the city and people are busy in rebuilding the city and making it function normally again. Ortiz draws inspiration from Syrians’ upbeat and positive attitudes, their love for their country (which, interestingly, they regard as a “living motherland”) and their pride in their 7,000-year history in which they themselves find inspiration and hope. Ortiz also speaks about the kind of world we are bequeathing to future generations, and what should be our legacy to them.

The interview flowed freely and quickly – Ortiz speaks quite rapidly and animatedly, and becomes emotional a couple of times – and the conversation bounces smoothly from one topic to another. Ortiz and Dore get on very well together and I am sure Ortiz will be returning to Dore’s show as guest interviewee in the not too distant future. The show is highly informative though viewers and listeners need to have some background knowledge of contemporary Syrian politics, how the current war began in the country and the various groups involved in fighting the Syrian government.

One thing that emerges from their talk, though Ortiz and Dore may not have been aware at the time, is the way in which Western news media portrays Syrians and Arab peoples generally: as backward people obsessed with religious sectarianism and literal interpretations of Islam and Shari’a law in particular. In the mindset of Western MSM news, Arab countries are always unstable and have long histories of tribal and religious conflict; this particular stereotype is not only racist but is part and parcel of a worldview in which Arabs cannot be trusted as stewards of energy resources needed by the West and cannot (and by implication should not) control their own lands. In this view also, Israel is the only country that is stable and democratic, and therefore should be treated favourably – in spite of its genocidal policies towards Palestinians and racist attitudes towards guest workers, refugees, immigrants and even Jewish people with non-Western backgrounds.