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.

The Baby: a snapshot of modern Tehran and young people caught between traditional family values and the temptations of city and university life

Ali Asgari, “The Baby / Bacheh” (2014)

In the space of 16 minutes, we’re drawn into a gritty world of urban bleakness and desperation that is modern Tehran under Shi’ite Islamic theocratic rule. Narges (Sahar Sotoudeh) who may or may not be studying at university is looking for someone to mind her newborn baby (Safoora Kazempour?) for a few days while her parents from out of town are visiting her. She enlists the help of a friend (Faezeh Bakhtiar) and together they traipse through the streets and travel by bus across the city trying to find someone who can look after the little one. The friend phones another friend, Samira, who may be able to help but the arrangement sounds a little too tentative. Narges has to return to her flat quickly to meet her parents so she parks the baby with her friend and goes back alone in the evening.

Through dialogue and silent acting we get a sense of Narges’ dilemma: her parents are likely to reject the child to the extent of disowning Narges and her baby for the shame done to their family, and this means Narges faces a bleak future having to care for her girl born out of wedlock. Viewers need to know something of the conservative society in which Narges, her friend and the baby live: a society where many people, especially working-class people and people outside the main cities in Iran, still disapprove of young people having sex outside marriage and single mothers, yet a society in which large numbers of young people leave home to attend college in large urban centres and for the first time in their lives experience freedom and the company of other young people in large numbers, male and female, away from sheltered family lives. Narges would be one of many young people caught between the temptations of city and university life and the strictures of a provincial, probably conservative religious family background.

While the acting is not bad and the baby is very well behaved, the characters are too sketchy and the story is not well developed enough for viewers to warm to Narges and sympathise with her plight. We never meet her parents so we have no idea whether they would be judgemental towards single mothers or not. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the film is its general atmosphere and urban background – viewers get a sense of Tehran as an alienating city where compassion and sympathy for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable are thin and people don’t go out of their way to help those most in need.

The Congress: good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology undone by a confused narrative

Ari Folman, “The Congress” (2013)

Partly based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel “The Futurological Congress”, in which the central character suffers from both delusional and actual mental states, Ari Folman’s film is split between live action and animated action reflecting its heroine’s existence in both the real world and the virtual world and her own mental state, wavering between delusion and reality. Robin Wright (played by the real Robin Wright) is an actor notorious for her fickleness and unreliability that have cost her many lucrative film roles, to the chagrin of her agent Al (Harvey Keitel), and which have reduced her to living in a caravan with her children Sarah and Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the latter suffering from Usher’s syndrome which is slowly destroying his sight and hearing. Try as she and Dr Barker (Paul Giamatti) might, the boy’s condition is irreversible and her circumstances force her to agree to a humiliating proposal by Miramount film studio representative Jeff Green (Danny Huston) to sell the film rights to her digital image and emotions in return for a huge sum of money, on the condition that she never act again. Considerable wrangling between Robin on the one hand and Al and Green on the other takes up about a third of the film and this section is filmed in live action, culminating in the scene where Robin is being digitally screened and Al subtly manipulates her into displaying her emotions by professing his apparent (if actually harsh and castigating) affection for her and revealing to her her fears.

Having sold her image and emotions to Miramount – the studio uses these to create a science fiction character “Rebel Robot Robin”, starring in a franchise of SF films, against the original Robin’s wishes – Robin spends the next 20 years caring for her ailing son and devoting her life to good works. She then travels to Abrahama City to renew her contract  and to speak at Miramount’s “Futurological Congress”. At this point the film turns into an animation with all the crude riot of colour and Hollywood 1930s animation style it can muster. Robin learns that Miramount has developed technology enabling anyone to turn him/herself into a digital likeness of her (Robin) and while she agrees to allow this in her new contract, at the Congress itself, she denounces this technology that commodifies individual identity. At this point, rebels opposed to the technology invade the Congress and Robin only narrowly escapes with the help of animator Dylan (Jon Hamm) who has always loved her digital image.

From here on, the animated Robin has several adventures in both the real world and the digital world (plus another digital world which could be a representation of a state beyond death – she does appear to die in one scene) in which among other things the real world is revealed as a post-apocalyptic dystopian ruin in which real human beings stumble around as though zombies, living in poverty and delusion, while a small elite (including Dr Barker) lives in airships floating above them. At this point, Robin determines to find her son Aaron but this means having to leave Dylan, with whom she has fallen in love, permanently.

The film pores over themes such as the loss, manipulation and crass commodification of individual identity; the domination of the cult of celebrity in Western societies; the use of drugs to escape reality and enter an artificial world where identities can be changed as casually as clothes; and various freedoms: freedom of choice, freedom to be and freedom to choose one’s path in life. One notes the irony in which Robin’s freedoms are constrained by her past actions, the unfortunate circumstances and Al’s manipulative chatter that force her to agree to sell her name and image and to pour out her emotions to Hollywood for peanuts, yet future others are free to buy her digital avatars and become them, if only temporarily and at a price. Hollywood is satirised as a greedy corporate machine. In later scenes, the film makes some subtle criticisms about how a techno-fetishistic society cannibalises past pop culture figures to prop up a shallow belief system, in which to possess the appearance of something is considered as authentic as being, and how this supposed culture substitutes for an actual impoverished culture in which a small elite exists in comfort and prosperity at the expense of a permanently deluded and severely enervated majority.

While Wright, Giamatti, Huston and Keitel are all very good actors, their talents are very much squandered in this film which -ironically enough – spends more time wallowing and losing its way through the crude animation sequences and not enough on the live action scenes where it seems the real horse-trading of one’s identity and authenticity is taking place. Ultimately one comes away from this film feeling that over two hours’ worth of viewing have been wasted on very muddled work. Good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology are undone by a confused narrative that probably should have ended or taken a very different direction – and one not necessarily animated – after Robin’s scanning. How ironic that with its themes this film should have foundered on its dependence on a live action / animation split.

9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo: an ordinary documentary short with little to say and leaving too many unanswered questions

Floor van der Meulen, Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma, “9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo” (2016)

Filmed over nine days (hence the title) in August 2012, this 13-minute documentary short captures one witness’s view of the beginning of the war between the Syrian government and the jihadis in Aleppo that was to last over 4 years until east Aleppo’s liberation by the Syrians and their Russian, Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) allies. Photographer Issa Touma filmed scenes within his apartment and outside through his apartment window; the effect is to give a very intimate and often claustrophobic, even paranoid view of the war as it developed (rapidly as it turned out) from what appears to be a skirmish between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to a more serious conflict between the SAA and jihadi terrorists that promises to be longer and brutally violent.

While the film, chronologically ordered by day, looks interesting enough in its scenes and their details, it lacks a clear narrative: why did Touma choose to film over nine days, as opposed to, say, seven days or 14 days, and why did he decide to stop filming once the terrorists replaced the FSA? Where does his despair emanate from? Why does he refuse to take sides in the war? For that matter, why did he decide to stay in his apartment instead of leaving the apartment block with his neighbours? Why did he prefer to stay in the apartment, to stay isolated (and watch Hollywood movies on TV) and not look out for his remaining neighbours? Assuming that he spent most of his daylight hours in the apartment, I am astonished that so little film and so little monologue ended up in this documentary.

Had Touma admitted his opinion of the Syrian government, the FSA and the jihadis, viewers would have a better idea of his demoralisation at the arrival of the jihadis. However, by saying that he refuses to support one side or the other, Touma ends up appearing apathetic and passive, and this impression may turn off viewer sympathy for his plight.

For a film that won the European Short Film Award in 2016, this documentary has very little to commend it. While street scenes and the ambient background soundtrack convey the drama of escalating conflict encroaching on an individual’s neighbourhood, the film overall turns out to be an ordinary piece of workman-like quality and offers nothing new or different that most people following non-mainstream news media on events in Syria over the past several years do not already know.

Channel 24 (Russia) Interview with First Lady of Syria Asma al Assad: a riveting conversation with a classy lady

Channel 24 (Russia) Interview with First Lady of Syria Asma al Assad (18 October 2016)

In contrast to so many female politicians and spouses of world leaders, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al Assad comes across as a natural and genuine person, well-spoken, intelligent and perceptive, in her first interview with a foreign interviewer in 8 years. Asma al Assad talks about her experiences in carrying out charitable works and projects of social and economic advancement in Syria, and in holding the country together under continuous assault from jihadi groups and those Western and Middle Eastern countries that finance and supply them with arms, advice and new fighters. As of the time of interview, her projects to improve Syrian people’s lives, particularly the lives of young people, are still ongoing though her focus is now on helping the families of soldiers and others who have died or are injured as a result of war. Asma al Assad speaks warmly of her husband, describing him as calm, approachable and easy to talk to, and explains why so far she has refused all offers (all non-Syrian) of sanctuary for herself and her children away from Syria. She expresses confidence in the country’s future and ability to rebuild its society and infrastructure.

Mrs Assad is a thoughtful interviewee, very articulate, and highly critical of Western duplicity and hypocrisy in portraying the situation in Syria to the public outside Syria. Having worked as an analyst in a major investment bank in the UK (where she was born and attended school and university) and in Europe, Mrs Assad was well prepared for the role of First Lady, tackling social problems in Syrian society, and easily sees through the apparent generosity of those Western countries that offered her asylum and financial security during the current war. She presents a very calm demeanour and her voice tends to be rather monotone. A contemporary young Western audience might find Mrs Assad rather boring to watch and listen to, and not at all glamorous or dramatic. Yet whatever glamour she emanates – and she does look like someone of class – comes from her inner being. The result is an interview that, while it does not touch on anything different from the narrative of war, suffering, Western hypocrisy and having to battle propaganda that we have come to expect, is nevertheless riveting.