9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo: an ordinary documentary short with little too 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.

 

 

 

The Syrian Diary: a valuable historical document giving an alternate viewpoint on the Syrian civil war

“The Syrian Diary” (Rossiya 24, 2013)

Made for Russian television, this documentary follows Rossiya 24 reporter Anastasia Popova and a Syrian army unit she is attached to (or embedded with, depending on your point of view) as the soldiers move through parts of Damascus to flush out and fight so-called “rebel” soldiers of the Free Syria Army. The documentary makers are unabashedly firm supporters of the Assad government and Syrian army forces. As such, this film is a valuable historical document as it shows a snapshot of the Syrian civil war from the point of view of pro-Assad supporters and also interviews three women with first-hand experience of the war and its effects on civilians. Given that so much Western mainstream news reporting about events in Syria is extremely biased against Assad, the intention being to support without question US desires to invade Syria and depose Assad, alternate opinions and ways of viewing the conflict, however dispassionate, are needed and very welcome in creating and developing a more complex and nuanced picture of what is happening on the ground.

The film’s narrative structure is not always too clear from the jumpy collages of individual accounts spliced hurriedly together. We jump from one interviewee to another but a few people dominate: Yara Saleh, a reporter herself; Bassem, a soldier who has lost a father and brother; Bassem’s wife Nadia; a middle-aged man; Mikhail, a reporter; and the widow of Amir, a friend of Bassem and Popova, who was tortured and executed by FSA forces. Through these people and others, we see themes developing: the loyalty and support for Syrian army troops demonstrated by the Syrian public, who turn out in their droves to hail and congratulate the soldiers; the soldiers’ willingness to die for Syria, their discipline and good natures; the bewilderment of Syrians at the lies being built up around their country by Western governments; and the barbaric behaviour of the FSA men in their treatment of civilians and the way they butcher their victims.

Call it propaganda, yes, but the film does flesh out what many alternative underground news media websites and other outlets have long suggested about the FSA forces: many if not most come from other countries (Libya and Saudi Arabia are mentioned), the fighters are young, illiterate, ignorant of their history and their Islamic religion, and untutored in the ways of the world. The fighters swallow whatever lies they are told by Saudi-funded Wahhabi “sheikhs” who most likely know nothing of Islam and its principles themselves. Disturbingly, the film mentions that many FSA fighters are on drugs and commit outrageously brutal and sickening acts of violence and desecration while under the influence of these drugs. Where these substances come from and who is supplying them and why are never known: one does not need an IQ in triple digits to guess that these drugs are most probably psychoactive substances made in some First World country and then delivered to middlemen parties in Middle Eastern petro-sheikhdoms who supply them along with weapons, ammunition and willing if gullible young men to Syria.

There are heart-breaking scenes of Amir’s treatment by the FSA rebels who obsessively film everything they do and then release the videos to Western news media with claims that government troops carried out the atrocities. A segment on Syrian soldiers praises their stamina and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their brother soldiers and their country, and portrays them as a sober and disciplined fighting force. A small section shows the soldiers goofing around on a bicycle and talking and laughing with children. Something of the generosity and hospitality of Syrians themselves, their religious tolerance, their reverence for their land and their love of a good time with lots of rhythmic sinuous music and dancing shines throughout the documentary.

Only the most obtuse can come away unmoved by this documentary. I recommend this film to all viewers following the news about Syria’s internal conflict and who are heartily sick of the Western news media’s performance in covering the civil war.

Wild Iran: interesting film on a photographer’s journey across Iran

Herbert Ostwald, “Wild Iran” (2011)

This documentary follows the Iranian-German wildlife photographer and environmentalist Benny Rebel on a 6-week journey across Iran taking photographs and videos of endangered species of animals in their natural habitats in the country’s national parks. The film zigzags through a variety of landscapes from the semi-tropical forests of northern Iran through the mountains in the central part of the country down to the hot and arid desert regions of the south and then back north to the Caspian Sea coast. Animals encountered along the way include brown bears, Asiatic cheetahs, deer, flamingoes, gazelles, ibexes, leopards, mouflon sheep, picas and various species of birds and reptiles.

It can be a bit bewildering to watch: there appears to be no logic in the way the film was put together and viewers have the impression that Rebel was dashing all over the country in Range Rovers and planes whenever the whim took him. The film would have done better to map out the routes he actually took on an animated map that would appear from time to time throughout the film just so viewers could appreciate the scope of the work Rebel undertook. Few in the West know much about Iran and most Westerners have very stereotyped views of the country and its people from news reports which either hammer on about Iran’s nuclear energy programs, its treatment of women and minority groups, and human rights violations. The narration can sometimes be annoying and a little patronising to viewers; far better it would have been for the film-makers to follow Rebel about and let him do all the explaining and talking as his English language skills are very good and his passion for his work lights up the screen.

The film does a good job of emphasising Iran’s unique position as a crossroads of animal life and landscapes: animals we associate with European temperate climes (bears, boar, deer, mouflon) live almost cheek by jowl with animals more usually representative of African desert and Asian tropical areas. Feral camels wander the desert in Iran and Caspian leopards hunt red deer. A cheetah is filmed chasing down a rabbit. The off-camera narrator will sometimes give current population figures for particular species of animals and note that the creatures were far more populous and widespread in the past. Opportunities to examine human-animal interactions and the role nature has played in Iranian history and culture over two to three millennia are unfortunately few but those that appear in the film can be quite astounding, in particular the filming of the interiors of pigeon towers, used not just to house pigeons but also to express Iranian ingenuity and artistry in arranging nesting places in pleasing geometric patterns such that the pigeons don’t crap on top of one another, and to collect the guano that falls to the ground for use as fertiliser. The film stops to visit a group of nomadic Qashqai herders taking their goats to new grazing grounds and to follow some animals that have taken refuge in the ruins of Persepolis, built about 2,500 years as a monument to imperial Persian power.

Unfortunately the emphasis on Rebel’s journey around Iran means that the film-makers did not consider asking members of the Iranian public about their views on conservation and preserving the country’s remaining wilderness areas as this was not part of the film’s scope. It might have been interesting and informative for Western viewers to see and hear what ordinary Iranians think of Rebel’s efforts and his aims in documenting wildlife conservation efforts. We also do not see Rebel writing his report for the Iranian government – mention of the report comes as an after-thought near the end of the film – and so we have no idea of how committed the government might be to preserving the nation’s wildlife and natural environments.

Some information on Rebel’s photography and particular methods of capturing animals on film and the equipment is given but it is very vague. He works very close-up to the animals, so much so that he often puts himself in some danger from the animals’ reactions to his presence and the noise his equipment makes.

The film works as an interesting nature documentary and travelogue for family viewing and as a snapshot of life in Iran in a very general way. People wanting more depth to their nature documentaries and to know more about Iran’s conservation efforts must treat this film as an introduction and find out more information for themselves.

The Gatekeepers: a powerful indictment of Israel’s obsession with security and use of fear, terror and violence

Dror Moresh, “The Gatekeepers” (2012)

An astonishing and powerful documentary about the Israeli internal intelligence security agency Shin Bet as seen through the eyes and viewpoints of six former heads of that service, “The Gatekeepers” turns out to be an indictment of Israel’s obsession with its security and resort to continual violence and terror in resolving its conflicts with Palestinians and neighbouring countries, and the instability and corruption such violence causes to Israel and the Palestinians alike. Moresh initially was moved to make this film after seeing the Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara” which dealt with the life and experiences of the former US Secretary of Defense.

The documentary takes the form of interwoven interviews between Moresh and his six interviewees and is set out in seven segments that follow a loose chronological structure starting with Shin Bet’s emergence as a result of the Six Day War in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the present day. Each segment focuses on a significant incident or series of incidents in which the Shin Bet was involved and which had a significant effect on Israeli government policy, public opinion and society generally. The interviews are embellished with archival footage and computer-generated reconstructions that approximate what happened.

Although the film appears dry, its impact and importance come through the men’s descriptions of their own feelings and views about their actions and the orders they were given by successive Israeli Prime Ministers like Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres among others. The former heads’ disgust for those politicians who bullied them and Shin Bet into performing hateful actions that killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of Palestinians and traumatised thousands more, yet hung out the Shin Bet heads to twist and wither in the condemnation of the Israeli media and public opinion, is very clear in the segment on the Bus 300 affair in which Shin Bet agents executed two Palestinian bus hijackers while the two men were tied up and helpless. Soon after this shocking incident, Avraham Shalom, one of Moresh’s interviewees, resigned as Shin Bet head and was pardoned, yet the memory of the incident in which he ordered the killings at the behest of the government affected him deeply at the time of interview nearly 30 years later.

Later segments in the film dealing with the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s, the rise of extremism among born-again Jews and the Jewish settler movement, and the targeted assassination of prominent Hamas leaders and members like Yahya Ayyash show how the Israeli government’s reliance on terror and violence to thwart Palestinian aspirations to self-determination and right to land stolen from them has steadily corrupted both Israeli politics and society, and traumatised Israelis as well as Palestinians. Each side ends up being driven to commit more desperate and deadly acts of violence and killing which escalate in scale, inhumanity and impact, and leave the other side even more psychologically wounded and intent on revenge.

The focus on interviewing the former Shin Bet heads has the unfortunate effect of ignoring the wider effect on Israeli society and economy. The constant obsession with repressing the Palestinian people privileges certain segments of Israeli society and entrenches their power and influence over Israel institutions. At the same time, other issues in Israeli culture and society are ignored and government spending on dealing and resolving these issues is either scant or even declining. As I write, I can Google for information on the levels of poverty in Israel and find articles reporting that Israel has the highest poverty rate and the highest child poverty rate, with 1 in 3 children living in poverty, of the OECD countries. This is before we even consider the levels of destitution facing Arabs in pre-1967 Israel and Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. I can also Google for information on the levels of social and economic equality in Israel and discover to my amazement that a very small number of families there control over half the nation’s wealth and wield incredible influence over society.

The former Shin Bet heads admit that they have behaved immorally and criminally, and see the irony of their having treated Palestinians almost as dismally as the Nazis treated Jews during World War II. The climax of the film comes when all of them express contempt for past Israeli Prime Ministers and governments, and advocate dialogue with all Palestinians, including groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that were or are dedicated to wiping out the Israeli state, as the only way to resolve conflict and bring about peace. As one of the interviewees jokingly admits, retirement from Shin Bet has made him a little bit “leftist”.

Even if Israel as a whole were to turn to peaceful diplomacy and conflict resolution, the path ahead is still strewn with problems, of which the major one is certainly the United States and other Western countries and the lobby groups in those countries’ governments that have an interest in prolonging conflict and using Israel as an enforcer to steal the natural resources of Middle Eastern countries and deny all Middle Eastern peoples, Jews, Muslims and other religious groups there alike, the right to control and determine their own destinies and use their territories’ wealth to secure their own well-being.

Cyberpunk trio of shorts proves substance still triumphs over style

Marcio E Gonçalves, “Rendering Lisa” (2010)

Mehmet Can Koçak, “Perspective” (2011)

Jesus Orellana, “Rosa” (2011)

A homage to cyberpunk sci-fi writers William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, “Rendering Lisa” is a short home-made film about the pitfalls of entering virtual reality. Some time before the events of “Rendering Lisa”, a young man steals money from an eco-terrorist group and explodes a bomb in a park, killing himself and his girlfriend Lisa. The young man’s surviving brother Michael (Kenny Leu) is strong-armed by eco-terrorist group member Harry (Shahaub Roudbari) into hacking into a computer program that contains the details of the bank account where the brother put the money. Problem is, once Michael’s in the program, he must speak to an avatar to access the account details and the avatar turns out to be Lisa (Jennifer Vo Le) who only wants to talk about the brother and a past romance the real Lisa had with Michael. After several attempts, Michael finally convinces Lisa to hand over details of the account and the relationship they had looks to be reviving until something unexpected happens …

It’s a pithy little short in which Michael realises the thin line between reality and virtuality is wafer-thin indeed, and at the end of the film he’s tempted to revive that lost romance with “Lisa” in spite of all that’s happened. Roudbari and Leu over-act their parts but as they’re not professional actors (though Leu looks like Cantopop romeo material), their histrionic efforts can be forgiven. The action is crisp and fast and editing is very well done. The stuttering electronic music is annoying and Gonçalves could have done without it entirely. The opening and closing credits are wonderfully done by Gonçalves and perhaps if he had more money, he could have added more special effects to make his virtual world look more realistic and colourful than the real world, so much so that Kenny could have been tempted to stay there with Lisa and never return to Harry.

“Perspective” is a clever Turkish cyberpunk short by Koçak who stars as the nameless hobo in a futuristic dystopian city. He pays money to a pimp who hands him some software and then enters a derelict building and goes up to an empty room where he finds a computer keyboard. He plugs the software into the keyboard, jacks into it by plugging a wire into a portal in his head (in the manner of the hero of William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer”) and using his retinas as a computer screen, pursues a red-haired girl in the software. He is interrupted by an intruder who turns out to be a mirror image of himself. Or is the stranger really an image? Horrified, Koçak ‘s character challenges the avatar to a duel with predictably disastrous results.

This is a highly intriguing film with a well developed concept and everything in the short working together: the film’s ambience is grimy and oppressive in a way reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and the sharp-edged music, used sparingly, suits the dark tone of the short. The use of hand-held camera conveys claustrophobia and comes into its own when the hobo meets his double and there’s a delicious twist when he reaches out to touch what he expects should be a mirror. The animation is cleverly inserted into the short and viewers get a real sense of first-person perspective with the clever use of the viewing screen as the hobo’s eyes which double as the computer screen.

Not quite so clever though versatile nevertheless is Orellana’s “Rosa”, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which a female android fights for survival against two other androids in an endless post-industrial labyrinth. Although the animation is beautiful and Gothic in appearance and ambience, the plot features too much superhero fighting, jumping and other unbelievable hi-jinx, and no actual story is told. We never find out why the male android and a second female android, in appearance the clone of the protagonist, are so hostile towards her or why the original female bleeds blood that turns into roses when the other female android doesn’t have the same effect on her surroundings when bloodied. Pity really because Orellana did everything himself and the details of the building’s backgrounds and the near-religious associations and nostalgia they evoke are stunning and Romantic: “Rosa” is a real work of love as well as labour on Orellana’s part.

I hazard that Orellana originally wanted to make something different from what’s actually realised but his bosses at Hollywood insisted on the short being “accessible” to the lowest common couch-potato public denominator so that meant having to include a lot of tiresome martial arts faffing and flailing about. The short might have worked better if the androids had fought, then faced a common enemy so they reconcile their differences to defeat the foe, and maybe as they’re deciding whether to live and work together or resume their petty grievances, the film cuts out.

Best of the trio is “Perspective” for its clever story with a twist done on a limited budget.