Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

German by birth and of Turkish origin, director Fatih Akin has coherently and beautifully squeezed six big lives into a mosaic that connects Bremen, Istanbul, Hamburg and Trabzon in his latest film, The Edge of Heaven.

Three-dimensional characters shot in wonderfully tangible ways make this film a quiet emotional ride. A short way into the film, before we have even been introduced to her, Yeter’s death is announced. Yeter, a prostitute who sends money home to her daughter in Turkey, moves in with one of her clients, the elderly Ali. His son Nejat is slightly horrified by this change in living arrangements, but warms to Yeter.

After Yeter’s death Nejat moves to Istanbul to try and track down Ayten, Yeter’s daughter. And so “a Turkish professor of German from Germany ends up in a German bookshop in Turkey” – a symbolic piece of dialogue which encapsulates the ease with which the film and the characters bump across cultural and geographic divisions.

Ayten is a fighter with an armed Turkish resistance group who has fled to Germany. She is befriended and then loved by student Lotte who in the end will do anything to help not only Ayten but the resistance as well, after Ayten is deported back to Turkey. The audience is warned of Lotte’s death at the beginning of the second act, again like Yeter before she appears on screen. Lotte’s death leads her mother, comfy middle class hippy Susannah, to seek out Lotte and her cause in Istanbul.

This plot, which relies on the coincidental interweaving of these lives, is tightly edited into a well-paced narrative. Each character has enough space to develop a credible relation to the plot but little back story. It is refreshing to let the viewer wonder how they all got to where they are without having any tortuous exposition ritual to fill in all the missing blanks.

A film that brings together Turkish and German in this way innately has a political edge. Ayten is imprisoned in Turkey for her membership of the group and while in Germany she clashes with Susannah who sees her only as a person who wants to fight. Deportations, Turkish law and whether Turkey’s membership of the EU will make a difference are all present. The openings of the first two acts show political protest, the first in Germany and the second in Turkey. What makes this film engaging is that these incidents aren’t separated or above the story or the characters. They are a part of it.

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A band gets together to record a demo. The studio is a small, cramped flat. While the drummer beats his rhythm alone, the bongos are banged in the kitchen and the guitars strummed around the coffee table. A fan cools a computer and Granny sings her moody vocals lubricated with a glass of rum. This opening scene is fast paced, cutting between scenes of the recording and the band members in the streets of Havana, with their upbeat pop rock providing the soundtrack.

As a Spanish production team arrives, dreams of success infect the musicians. A wonderful sequence displays the variety of music in Havana as the musicians take the producers to hear garage, rap and a fabulous death metal band who sing about Cuban rebellion. Comparisons between this film and Buena Vista Social Club are inevitable but inaccurate when one group sings “We black people got together and decided no more rumba.” The music is subversive, anarchistic and fiercely local.

The production team wants to promote these “unknowns” in the US. But the contract will involve a number of hard decisions to be made: to leave the town they love, to lose editorial control and to include criticism of Cuba in their music. This last constraint has huge consequences as it will probably mean that the musicians will not be allowed back: “Leaving isn’t the same if it’s for good.”

This is a slight plot but big chunks of bright and breezy music stop the film dragging.

Superbly edited with a cracking soundtrack, this is a love letter to Havana, live music and enduring friendship.

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In the opening shot a young man strolls across a square in Budapest, his yellow-starred coat flapping in the wind. The camera focuses on the star, giving a foreboding sense of the horror to come. From the start we know where we are, we know the story. The grotesque conclusions to the Nazis’ eugenics programme are not a new subject for cinema, but this debut is visually stunning and emotionally powerful.

Based on Imre Kertesz’s semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless follows 14 year old Gyuri’s experiences through the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz.

Gyuri’s father has been called up to work in a labour camp. There is time for a farewell meal with friends and family, and for the last awkward words between father and son. No one is really sure why these things are happening. “Jews have always suffered, and so our suffering continues,” answers one of the guests. Gyuri is told they share a “common Jewish fate” by the man who leads him in prayers for his father’s departure. Gyuri repeats Hebrew words that he clearly doesn’t understand. Mid-20th century Hungarian Jews were well assimilated, and Gyuri has as much trouble understanding the “common Jewish fate” as he does the liturgy he is reciting.

After his father has left, Gyuri encounters a group of neighbours his own age frenetically discussing what it means to be Jewish. For him there is no answer. The world is as it is and the hatred towards him is not personal, and he refuses to let it upset him. As Gyuri heads off to work on the local bus, all those with yellow stars are pulled off and start their journey to the camps.

In Fateless plot, dialogue and narration are pared down to a minimum. We view events from the point of view of Gyuri looking back � from his memories. This is achieved to superb effect, snatches of disturbing nightmares that continues to haunt. Life in the camps is shot as short vignettes of misery, often without words but with imagery that sticks in the mind. Veteran score composer Ennio Morricone adds his talent, immersing the viewer in the film.

The exhaustion illustrated by rows of men forced to stand for hours swaying with the pain of trying to remain standing parodies a congregation in prayer. A disorientating effect is achieved from these dislocated scenes as the inmates are shunted from place to place and thrown together with strangers. Occasionally a familiar face will reappear, only to be referred to not by name but a description such as “the smoking boy”.

Some of the themes picked are reminiscent of Primo Levi’s discussion of what it means to be human in such degradation, about how to survive and hold onto some dignity. With next to nothing, keeping hold of a scrap of bread can be vital to clinging onto humanity.

The disintegration of the men, literally in the case of Gyuri’s maggot-infested knee, occurs steadily through the film. The warm tones of Budapest seep away gradually to leave the grey sludge in the shooting in the camps.

Gyuri survives and returns to Budapest. The damaged men shuffling home inspire more horror than comfort from those they encounter. He attempts to wander back into his life, but no one knows how to react to him. Some of the responses that greet him are deeply hostile. Even with their pain and inhumanity, the camps themselves seem easier to comprehend than the world that put him there.

Published in Socialist Review May 2006

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The premise of the road movie has been well rehearsed. The long journey, cut off from usual concerns, provides an opportunity for characters to explore their identity and find out who they really want to be. That concept of long distance road travel is a bit of an anathema to British island dwellers, but in this film there are plenty of shots of a lonely car travelling through huge panoramas to make the point.

Bree, a pre-operative male transsexual, is one week from her operation. Everything is in place, and both therapist and doctor agree she’s ready. And then comes the hitch. Bree receives a call for help from Toby, her previously undiscovered son, who she fathered 17 years ago. Her therapist refuses to give consent for the operation until this “loose end” is tied up. So Bree goes to bail out Toby.

She decides not to reveal who she is to Toby, but can’t leave him in his drug-filled, shabby life, and offers to drive him to California. His ambition is to move from prostitution on the streets of New York to a career in the porn industry. Bree’s plan is to reunite Toby with his stepfather, which turns out to be a disaster. Their journey continues, bringing them into contact with a gathering of transsexuals in Dallas, a charming New Mexican horse breeder, and a hippy traveller who proves to be a huge liability.

Finally Bree feels forced to look up her family, who haven’t come to grips with her decisions – especially her mother, who is then excited to discover she has a grandson.

Felicity Huffman’s portrayal of a technically challenging role is staggering, leading to an Oscar nomination for best actress. The pristine, long-skirted, soft-flowing pink suits and overdone make-up help to create a prim and proper female persona. Every detail of Bree is constructed to stealthily exist without drawing attention, creating some subtle humour in the screenplay. Occasionally the structure cracks, and Huffman deals with this perfectly.

The plot is clunky in places, especially when Bree feels forced to reveal her true relationship to Toby. He has already discovered her gender, but this disclosure proves tougher. This pivotal point in the film felt like it played merely as a device to get the characters where they needed to be.

Throughout the film a relationship develops between Bree and Toby. Bree tries to inform her new-found son about the world around them, and chides him for his use of language, taking drugs, smoking, and putting his feet up on the coffee table. However, there are other parts of his lifestyle that are a bit more questionable, which go uncriticised either by Bree or by the film in any way.

Given the slew of interesting, thought-provoking US cinema around at the moment, this slightly flawed debut from Duncan Tucker wouldn’t be the first on my list to watch this month. Nevertheless the subtle humour and the lack of sentimentality create a likeable film, the calibre of the acting provides a believable piece and I’ll be interested to see what he does next.

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Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume revolves around the question of smell and is therefore difficult to adapt for the screen. However, Tom Tykwer managed to do exactly that – bringing the complex nature of the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, to life in a convincing way.

This is an epic, lavish production with scenes that positively heave with extras, and produced in such a way that the “period” does not detract from the story. From the stench of a Parisian fish market to the lavender laden fields of Grasse in the rural south, we actually observe 18th century France through its scents.

Grenouille’s life begins and nearly ends in the fish market. Left for dead among the entrails, his scream saves him and he restarts his life in a crowded orphanage. Through John Hurt’s fabulously dry narration, a sense of irony is woven into this tragic young life. As he grows, Grenouille’s sense of smell becomes so highly developed that it seems to extinguish all his other human qualities, including love, compassion and personal communication. Ben Winshaw’s innocent yet devilishly driven performance as Grenouille is both believable and intriguing.

Sold off aged 13 to a tanner, he works hard in treacherous conditions. One day he is taken into the town, where he experiences a new world of scents. The streets are sheer joy for Grenouille, who can only learn about the world around him through its smells. One smell captures him completely – the scent of a plum seller.

His fascination is complete and creepy. When he realises that he will never be able to smell her again, he tries in vain to keep her scent. And so begins his life’s work, the recreation of her smell.

He encounters the failing perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) who he charms by his ability to mimic a rival’s scent. Here Grenouille learns the theory behind the practice he has displayed – how to mix a perfume and how to create essential oil from flowers. When he finds that there are limits to what can be distilled to essential essence he leaves for Grasse, the Mecca of scent creation.

After an epiphany on his journey, Grenouille’s drive for the ultimate scent takes a macabre twist in Grasse and leads to his demise in a scene that opens the film. This device of opening a film with a scene that looks like the end is a tired way of building tension and suspense. And although there are brilliant comic touches in this film, neither Hoffman’s performance, nor the relationship between the two is convincing as it ought to be

The pace is often laborious and doesn’t leave quite enough space for the viewer’s imagination. Despite the film reaching thriller pitch, having seen the sentencing at the beginning serves only to slacken the pace and make the denouement more obvious.

Nevertheless, despite its flaws, Perfume entices the viewer into the world of a largely silent, scent-obsessed, nerd turned serial killer and makes his compulsion believable. That in itself is something of an achievement. An interesting alternative to the Hollywood blockbuster, Perfume, despite failing to hit the top notes, manages to hold its bouquet to the end.

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Papers from the Cario Geniza

There is little argument today against the idea that to be a Palestinian is to be oppressed on a daily basis. This is in sharp contrast with the once popular view on the left that the state of Israel could be seen in a socialist light due to the collectivist kibbutz settlements. There is, however, a profound need for clear theoretical analyses of the current situation and the history that led us to this bloody position.

There can be no even-handed response in a conflict that pits a military state armed to the teeth by the US against stone-throwing Palestinian teenagers. Yet many still try to reconcile justice for the Palestinians with a belief that a Jewish state in Palestine is justifiable.

John Rose has selected ten myths used in defence of Zionism. He explains why and how each is used, and then cites an overwhelming number of sources to prove that they have no authenticity. The book’s bibliography is perhaps the most comprehensive list of resources on the subject, reflecting the author’s lifelong practice of fighting and arguing against Zionism. Following this path leads to only one possible conclusion – that it is Zionism that is the problem, and without its removal there can be no peace in the Middle East, no reconciliation between Jew and Arab.

John Rose also consciously negotiates the possible traps that can accompany an anti-Zionist stand. For example, in arguing that Israel has been a protege of the Great Powers (first Britain and then the US), the idea that there is a Jewish lobby in the US is tackled head-on. Most recently the ‘Jewish lobby’ theory has surfaced in the idea that the Jewish neoconservatives at the heart of the Bush administration dictate policy towards Israel – or in the more extreme conspiracy theory that 9/11 was orchestrated by Jewish fanatics. But Washington’s policy in the Middle East is dictated by US, not Israeli, strategic needs. In fact President Nixon ‘delighted in telling associates and visitors that the “Jewish lobby” had no effect on him’.

There is a spark of hope in the past, in hidden histories. Jews have enjoyed a long history of cohabitation with Christians and Muslims in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. In Israel today over 1 million Jews come from Muslim countries – indeed, Baghdad was considered as a Jewish spiritual centre for many years, before the European Jewish communities reached their numerical height.

Forgotten documents written by Jewish merchants, scholars, craftsmen and others found in an 11th century synagogue in Cairo describe the lives of Jews in the Islamic Arab world. These documents tell us of houses and shops held in partnership by people of different religions. Maimonides, the most famous Jewish philosopher of the Muslim world, noted his legal approval of this situation, advising that the gains made on Fridays go to the Jews, and those on Saturday to the Muslims. The Cairo Geniza has provided a wealth of information about how integrated these lives were.

John Rose has provided the movement with an excellent book to undermine the foundations of the conflict in Palestine.

The Myths of Zionism by  John Rose, Pluto Press £14.99

Published in Socialist Review, November 2004

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The Lucky Strike

The Lucky Strike

Book Review published in Socialist Review, February 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson, PM Press, £8.99

Science fiction offers alternative futures and sometimes also explores how the past might have played out if something, trivial or not, was different.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel, Years of Rice and Salt, takes this onto a large scale, imagining that the plague of medieval Europe wiped out 99 percent of the population instead of 30 percent.

In Lucky Strike the arena is the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, where a different crew goes out to drop the bomb and the man with his finger on the trigger has doubts about the necessity of the mission.

Lucky Strike is an excellent short story that takes you directly into the heart of a world-changing event through some individual characters that would never be counted, whichever history played out.

This novella comes with a short essay deconstructing alternative histories of that day and an interview with Robinson. The essay is interesting but the interview is somewhat disappointing, reading like a standard set of questions from a magazine journalist with little interest in either the politics or the fiction.

The price tag seems a bit steep for this slight book. Instead, why not pick up another Robinson novel and dive into some great science fiction which puts the questions facing humanity in the 21st century under a sharp spotlight? The Mars and Science in the Capital trilogies come highly recommended.

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The Infidel 2010

The Infidel

Film Review published in Socialist Review April 2010

Director: David Baddiel, Release date: 9 April

On paper this shouldn’t work. David Baddiel, who worked with Frank Skinner on the dubious 1990s TV show Fantasy Football League, has written this comedic satire about the consequences of a British-born Pakistani Muslim, Mahmud, discovering that he was adopted and his birth name is Solly Shimshillwitz. Mahmud finds his dying father in a Jewish care home but his access is barred by Matt Lucas’s devout rabbi, who insists he must demonstrate some Jewishness before he can see his father.

At the same time his son’s potential wife has a new stepfather, Arshad Al-Masri, who wants to ensure that his stepdaughter is marrying into a family of “proper” muslims.

Omid Djalili, the kind of comedian who can reduce you to laughter with the raise of an eyebrow, recently played Fagin in the stage production of Oliver, so is no stranger to the idea that Jews are not that different to other cultures originating from the same part of the world. He plays this comedy of recognition superbly alongside Richard Schiff’s American-born London cabbie, Lenny, who teaches him how to say Oy vey, a smattering of Yiddish and that Israeli Jews aren’t real Jews because they have no angst.

Israel is the central tension used in the plot. A pro-Palestinian rally where Mahmud finds himself the centre of attention is the key device for cementing Mahmud’s confusion. It seems that Mahmud can’t be Jewish unless he accepts Zionist ideology. Being a light-hearted comedy this is treated simplistically and never points to the real dilemma that many Jews face by being pressured to support a country that is racist in their name.

The key protagonists are ordinary folk who happen to have a faith background but aren’t particularly devout. Unusually, the comedy doesn’t rely on attempts to assimilate into a dominant culture – as occurs in East is East or Bend it Like Beckham – so our characters are settled in their identities. While based on stereotypes, the religious leaders also pull them apart a little. Mahmud’s imam assumes his big secret is that he’s gay and goes on to explain that despite what is formally written in Islamic scripture, it’s actually alright.

For anyone familiar with Jewish or Muslim British culture this comedy should raise a few smiles. Aside from the cartoon depiction of the villain of the piece, Al-Masri, and his supporters, the characters are painted genuinely and will do much to disrupt the standard depiction of all Muslims as terrorists and religious fundamentalists and goes to show that most of us have more that unites than divides us.

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