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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moosa’s rage at Habib is as much a rage against the social system that puts him in a position where he can be exploited, as it is against the people (including himself) he believes responsible for poisoning his son. The fact that Habib could be as much a victim of the system – otherwise why would he be driven to sell suspect chicken meat at a low price to a poor customer? – as he is escapes Moosa, and this underlines how unjust the system is.

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

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

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

Samuel Maoz, “Foxtrot” (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ari Folman, “The Congress” (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.