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.

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

Haifaa al Mansour, “Wadjda” (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tehran Taxi / Jafar Panahi’s Taxi: purporting to be a snapshot of life in Tehran but an examination of life and behaviour under a police state

Jafar Panahi, “Tehran Taxi” aka “Jafar Panahi’s Taxi” (2015)

Banned by the Iranian government in 2010 from making films, director Jafar Panahi nevertheless managed to make at least three more films (as of this time of review) in ingenious if not always original ways. His 2015 comedy / drama flick “Tehran Taxi”, following in the foot-steps of that uniquely Iranian film genre of taxi dramas (the classic being Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” which made Homayun Ershadi an international star), poses as a snapshot of life in the streets of Iran as Panahi, playing at taxi driver (and not doing very well at that), picks up passengers and takes them (or not) to their various destinations. What drives the film and makes it appealing despite the supposedly spontaneous nature of the narrative is the conversations the driver and his passengers have, and the underlying political and social context – how to live and survive, and knowing what is right and what is wrong, in a repressive police state that seeks to shape people’s thoughts and behaviour – that unites all that everyone says and does.

The film has a minimalist style with bare-bones musical accompaniment though its look is not as raw and the cameras are not as jumpy as one might have expected. Panahi’s first two passengers have an animated discussion about the effectiveness of capital punishment in deterring future crimes. This discussion ends quite abruptly when the passengers have to leave but the opinions the two express later resurface unexpectedly when Panahi meets an old acquaintance who was recently robbed by an impoverished couple but did not report them to the police – because he feared that they would end up being executed In a subtle way, the film exposes how, in a totalitarian society, the law can be used as a sledgehammer to pound the poor and weak, without tackling and resolving the issue of why people might be driven to commit crimes, and at the same instill fear into others and create disrespect for law and order.

Iran’s treatment of the poor and most socially disadvantaged, and the effect of government propaganda and restrictions on their thinking and behaviour, is demonstrated in various scenes and a tiny sub-plot involving Panahi’s nine-year-old schoolgirl niece Hana Saeidi who is one of his passengers. A woman with an injured husband gets into Panahi’s car early on and he rushes them to hospital; during the trip the husband narrates his will to try to circumvent the law that prevents his sobbing wife from inheriting their home. Two elderly ladies with a bowl of goldfish urge Panahi to rush them to a place where they can return the goldfish and get two new ones before noon, in the belief that their lives will be extended and they won’t suddenly drop dead. In these two scenes, the effect of poverty on people’s lives and their thinking and behaviour which earns them ridicule and isolation can be tragic.

The sub-plot in which Saeidi harangues a poor boy for apparently stealing money from a bridal couple and thus wrecking her school assignment home movie (because his actions don’t fit the school’s requirement that the film be heroic and uplifting, not dark or “sordid”) looks more forced and artificial than the earlier strand with the accident victim, and only manages to succeed to the extent it does due to Saeidi’s bossy-boots character. Initially bright, perky and sassy, the girl becomes a bullying little bitch towards the passive yet rebellious boy and her transformation can be unsettling to watch.

How people manage to navigate or bluster their way around government restrictions is illustrated by a dealer who sells pirated foreign films and gets Panahi to drive him to see a film student, and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh who discusses the case of a woman, Ghonche Ghatami, jailed for going to see a volleyball game, with Panahi. Even the film itself is Panahi’s attempt to evade the restrictions on his ability to sustain himself and maintain his career, and this along with the dealer’s activities and Sotoudeh’s defiance in continuing her career despite previous imprisonment and torture says much about Iranian spirit and determination in the face of tremendous opposition.

The film turns out to be less spontaneous and improvised than it first appears so the documentary aspect of the film wears out very quickly. “Tehran Taxi” is a vehicle (pun intended) for exploring the effects of an all-encompassing and repressive police state and its ideology on people’s thinking, speech and actions and how all citizens are forced, more or less, to maintain and uphold that structure. Questions of how such control informs people’s morality, what actions people take to circumvent the law and how in control the state actually is, when people find ways to flout its laws, arise. The film’s climax comes as an unexpected and devastating blow when the state makes its move against Panahi and Hana.

Rendition: straining to present an honest and critical view of US foreign policy

Gavin Hood, “Rendition” (2007)

Rarely does Hollywood release a film that attempts to address and deal with issues critical of US government foreign and domestic policy in an honest way: “Rendition” is one such film that criticises the use of renditioning (arresting suspected terrorists and sending them to foreign countries to force them to give up information under torture, all under the supervision of US intelligence agencies), in a context that makes renditioning personal and puts it into a wider context that audiences can understand. The film is also to be commended for trying to show how terrorism might arise, how easily people might become terrorists and commit acts of terrorism, and how US policy itself influences people to resort to violence when everything else they do is either spurned or met with violence. If that weren’t enough, the film describes how individuals can be plunged into a Kafkaesque world of secrecy, violence and trauma through bureaucratic incompetence and indifference.

The film manages all of these things by running three linked subplots in parallel. The main plot concerns Egyptian-born US resident Anwar el Ibrahim (Omar Metwally) who is arrested at Washington airport after his return from a business trip to South Africa en route to his family in Chicago; he is questioned by a CIA officer who doubts his answers and who then sends the confused man to Egypt where he falls into the hands of the interior minister Abasi (Yigal Naor) and CIA agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal). Both Abasi and Freeman are after information about a recent suicide bomb attack in a street market that killed Freeman’s boss; the man’s death puts Freeman into his boss’s place and Freeman, somewhat a novice, finds himself responsible for Ibrahim’s welfare. Abasi tries to force information out of Ibrahim by various tortures (stripping him naked, keeping him in isolation, waterboarding, electrocution) while Freeman feeds the official questions and observes the questioning. Freeman increasingly feels conflicted over the increasing levels of torture Abasi metes out to Ibrahim and Ibrahim’s distress, and while the agent tries to cope with the demands of his job in the usual ways – drinking to excess, visiting strip clubs – he finds he is only delaying his own mental breaking point if he does not do something for his victim.

Meanwhile Ibrahim’s wife Isabella (Witherspoon) is frantic with worry at her husband’s disappearance and contacts an old flame Adam Smith (Peter Sarsgard), who is an aide to a powerful senator (Alan Arkin) in Washington, in the hope that he can find out what has happened to Ibrahim. Smith does what he can but comes up against two thick brick walls in the form of his senator boss and CIA head Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep) who deny any knowledge of the CIA renditioning programme or of Ibrahim’s whereabouts. Smith’s inability to find out anything more about Ibrahim and his unwillingness to upset his boss and jeopardise his own job prospects strains his friendship with Isabella. Isabella’s distress threatens her pregnancy and she goes into early labour.

The third subplot deals with Abasi’s wayward and headstrong teenage daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) who, unwilling to marry a boy chosen for her by her father, runs away and shacks up with a sensitive and artistic teenage boy of working-class background. The boy tells Fatima about his family and his older brother in particular. The film gradually reveals that the older brother had been recruited by a secret jihadi group to carry out acts of violence, and that the last such act led to the brother’s arrest, torture and death at the hands of Abasi’s police. The younger boy, keen to avenge his brother’s death, joins the same jihadi group whose leaders cynically plan to use him as a suicide bomber to stage an attack on Abasi’s life. Abasi himself races against time to find Fatima before she puts herself in danger as a result of her relationship with the would-be jihadi martyr.

Because the film’s message unites these stories, they are under-developed and the characters serve more as stereotypes than as real individuals. Even so, all the actors do what they can with the skimpy material they are given and they achieve quite a lot in an understated way. Gyllenhaal, Sarsgard and Witherspoon are to be commended with fleshing out their characters caught in moral dilemmas not of their own making but of the making of the system and ideology they work for or live under. Metwally has the least to do for a major role which involves being kicked around a lot and not being able to do much about that – but his character maintains some dignity even when Freeman has lost his. Streep’s Whitman is an all too obvious villain with a fake Deep South accent. Naor’s portrayal of Abasi as chief torturer and loving if patriarchal and traditional father is not especially nuanced but the character’s attempts to control fate and individuals that fail disastrously for him and his family are understandable and might elicit some sympathy. Fatima, her boyfriend and his dead brother become as much innocent victims as they are perpetrators of violence. The jihadi leaders capitalise on legitimate Egyptian working-class concerns about being exploited and harassed by government authorities (working together with the Americans) to insert and promote their own self-serving agenda based on their narrow interpretations of the Qu’ran and sharia law.

The film’s resolution of its plot strands isn’t entirely convincing and much of it is contrived to appease a mainstream audience for whom the sanctity of family is a given. One wonders though how the surviving characters will be able to pick up the pieces of broken relationships and careers, or relationships sorely tested by loss. The way in which the film handles its subplots so they run concurrently rather than in sequential order throws the character of Abasi into something of a moral minefield: has he learned anything from the tragedy he suffers? To this viewer, he seems not to have. Can Freeman and the Ibrahims do any better?

Even with its flaws, “Rendition” is still a valuable film for the way it deals with important issues in an age of increasing Cold War Version 2.0 propaganda and the demonising of Arab and Muslim peoples.

Al-Maydeen TV Interview with Sheikh Nabeel Naiem: stunning revelations about ISIS connections with the US

“ISIS: The Bombshell Interview to Impeach Obama” – Al-Maydeen TV Interview with Sheikh Nabeel Naiem at SyriaNews (3 July 2014)

Recommended by Moon of Alabama and The Vineyard of the Saker blogs, this interview which can be viewed over at the SyriaNews blog is a real humdinger in that all the way through the conversation the interviewee Sheikh Nabeel Naiem, a former Al Qa’ida commander and founder of the jihadi movement in Egypt, links the creation and funding of the jihadi terrorist group ISIS with the United States.  In a nutshell, Sheikh Nabeel Naiem explains that ISIS head Abu Bakr Baghdadi demands allegiance from Al Qa’ida leader Dr Ayman Zawahiri as he (Baghdadi) has funding and resources from the US government, that ISIS began in Iraq and received training from US marines in camps in Jordan, that the Americans are using ISIS and the Sunni-Shi’ite split within Islam to create continuous instability in the Middle East and keep the Arab peoples weak, and that politicians within the US and Israeli governments have been working together since 1998 to destabilise and overthrow the governments of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In particular, takfiri elements – the term refers to Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy against Islam – in Saudi Arabia are being groomed to overthrow the Saudi royal family and government.

The interview is 40 minutes long and carries on at a fairly fast clip. Everything the interviewee says about ISIS and its fighters is riveting. Those who cannot understand Arabic will be relieved to know that the SyriaNews blog carries an English-language transcript by Arabi Souri of the interview. Much of the early part of the talk revolves around where ISIS gets its funding, arms, other resources, advice and training from. The topic later switches to discussing the kind of people who join ISIS and what ISIS offers that attracts Muslim youth from across Europe. Nabeel Naiem identifies takfiri ideology as being ISIS’s main attraction but does not say why this should be so. One guesses that takfiri ideology appeals to young idealistic people because it concerns itself with sweeping away perceived corruption within Islam and Islamic societies, cleansing the religion and its principles and laws, and starting afresh with a pure and idealistic interpretation of Islam as they believe must have been practised by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers. In this way the Islamic Caliphate will be restored throughout the Muslim world and reach out beyond. It’s not difficult to see how a simplistic paradigm appeals to naive people ignorant of Islamic history and their original cultures who see around them corruption running deeply through the world. In particular young Muslims living in Western societies who experience discrimination simply because they are Muslims or Arabic-speaking, who have grown up with limited experience of their own cultures and whose experience of Western culture has not enriched them very much because it is mediated through an infantilising Americanised filter with exploitation as its tool and financial profit as its goal, may be vulnerable to ideologies promising an alternate path to a utopia in which absolute obedience to a narrow and literalist interpretation of Islam replaces mind-numbing consumerism with its cynical treatment of people.

The most chilling parts of the interview include those passages where Nabeel Naiem admits that ISIS is fighting both Sunnis and Shi’ites and has no hesitation in killing anyone and everyone who does not or will not submit to the ISIS takfiri ideology. Absolutely no-one is safe.  The sheikh also refers to Western writings and plans such as the Project for the New American Century as providing the blueprint for ISIS actions in the Middle East which do not discriminate between governments and ordinary people: all are equally apostate and therefore kuffar (infidels) to be killed if they will not submit.

Naturally the interviewer says the phenomenon of ISIS and the takfiri ideology needs more discussion and research and Nabeel Naiem states that all Islamic countries, Sunni and Shi’ite, and others, must work together to get rid of such jihadi groups as these represent the new and brutal face of Western neo-colonialism. The sheikh emphasises that the Prophet Muhammad met similar firebrand ideologues, known as Khawarij (outlaws), and condemned them.

If what Nabeel Naiem says is accurate and not exaggerated, then the conclusion is that the US and Israeli governments are even more depraved and psychopathic in their exploitation of the Middle East and its conflicts and problems so as to maintain control over the region and get what they want out of it. In spite of many historical examples demonstrating that manipulating other people’s conflicts for the purpose of controlling them does not succeed – one would think that the US would have learned something from meddling in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s and from interfering in the affairs of Latin America throughout the 20th century – the Americans and their Israeli ally blunder on ahead immersing themselves in more violence and chaos while their peoples sink further into poverty. Eventually if ISIS fails to establish a secure caliphate across the Middle East and suspects that it was betrayed by the US and Israel – and these countries are likely to betray ISIS if only because ISIS can’t be allowed to be more than a gadfly causing irritation and upset – then its fighters will turn upon their sponsors and the American and Israeli public will be victims.