Some stuff

First the good news.

Via Spencer Ackerman: the AP is reporting that the concrete barriers in Baghdad are coming down. It’s about time.

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Before catching my return bus last weekend, I used my sister’s Netflix account to re-watch the first half of The Edge of Heaven and was again reminded why Fatih Akin is the best thing in European cinema right now.

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Now, plunging into the crappy stuff.

Jill has a great post up about how the larger culture of misogyny and dehumanization of women enables men like George Sodini by legitimizing their view that women are things they are entitled to possess.

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“In Florida and Pennsylvania children as young as 7 can receive a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole.”

America’s justice system: made of FAIL.

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Hamesha writes from Kabul:

[...]one fears we have bitten off more than we can chew. we have dived headlong into constitutional liberal democracy, with the attendant outcome that we have none of the above: neither rule of law, nor true democracy, nor liberalism. and in the process the masses have come to abhor all of it, because it has not come at their pace, their comfort zone.

Some will say, well duh, this is a tired point, holding parliamentary elections in 2005 was sheer insanity. But if it is such a tired point, why do we always seem to screw up the sequencing of these things?

With no way to rewind history, the task ahead is that of filling Afghanistan’s hollow democratic order with something approximating the real thing. It will be slow-going and, I worry, increasingly dangerous in the near term.

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A few weeks ago I received an email from the refugee resettlement office, inviting me to watch Turtles Can Fly,  Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s critically-acclaimed 2005 film about orphans in Iraqi Kurdistan during the weeks leading up to the US invasion.

As much as I enjoy activist get-togethers, I passed on this one. Back in early college, I picked Turtles Can Fly out, pretty much randomly, from the foreign films rack at the video rental store near my sophomore residence hall. Without exaggeration, it was the single most upsetting film I have ever seen (followed closely by Lilja 4 Ever and Osama). Days afterward, I found myself breaking down in the shower.

American films, even pitch dark indie ones, generally shy away from portraying the world as a relentlessly violent and callous place to children.  If a child protagonist suffers it is never so much or so viscerally that the viewer feels the need to look away. Turtles Can Fly dispenses with all the sentimentality that surrounds children’s experiences in American cinema and goes well beyond where, say, Spanish cinema goes in this direction.

The film’s main protagonist, Satellite, is the shrewd thirteen year old leader of a tribe of orphans in an IDP camp near the Iraq-Turkey border. The children earn enough money to survive by clearing minefields and selling the unexploded mines. Satellite supplements their income by installing satellite dishes and translating English television news to villagers eager for information about the impending American invasion.

Ghobadi’s film overflows with imagery of bodily and social devastation; the deformed bodies of child victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks, a toddler’s chubby fingers grasping a razor wire fence, a  soldier shooting at the heels of Kurdish children from a sniper tower across the border. Even the sky is merciless. Day after day, it rains on the orphans’ meager existence, muddying their feet and dirtying their leaky tents.

Turtles Can Fly isn’t about underdogs making it against all odds (the title refers to the release of death). Instead, it’s about how even brave, smart, resourceful people get ground into the dust by historical events and material circumstances beyond their control. Ghobadi rejects the (largely American) idea that the human capacity to bounce back from tragedy and trauma is limitless. By subjecting the viewer to the fates of Satellite and the other children, he says don’t be so naive.

The take-away message of Turtles Can Fly is that respecting people like the film’s child protagonists requires a more sober understanding of where agency begins and ends.

It’s an important film, but once was enough for me.

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John le Carré is being put out of business by real life.

A former Blackwater employee and an ex-US Marine who has worked as a security operative for the company have made a series of explosive allegations in sworn statements filed on August 3 in federal court in Virginia. The two men claim that the company’s owner, Erik Prince, may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. The former employee also alleges that Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that Prince’s companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”

This is one of those stories for which “fucked the hell up” doesn’t even come close.

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Take a look at this.

A defense of fairytales

While I am waiting for a necessary email to come in, I thought I’d ramble about  this Alternet criticismof Slumdog Millionaire by Mitu Sengupta.

Sengupta’s main points are:

  • The movie uses unrealistic plot devices like “fate” to deliver fairytale endings to its impoverished and abused characters.
  • The deus ex machina is an imported quiz show, and thus a love letter to top-down globalization and cultural imperialism.

She writes:

Corruption is certainly rampant among the police, and many will gladly use torture, though none is probably dim enough to target an articulate, English-speaking man who is already a rising media phenomenon. Beggar-makers do round-up abandoned children and mutilate them in order to make them more sympathetic, though it is highly improbable that any such child will ever chance upon a $100 bill, much less be capable of identifying it by touch and scent alone.

Indeed, if anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor. It is near-impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent.

I tire of this criticism, which these days seems to be flung at every work of fiction that involves poor people and is not unrelentingly grim and depressing. I remember that when Juno came out, there were lots of people (on the Left, and with whom I am normally in complete agreement), who argued that Juno was a shallow, unrealistic, bourgeois,  and even anti-feminist portrayal of teen pregnancy, and that Diablo Cody should have made the American 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days instead.

Or how Khaled Hosseini was criticized for allowing Laila to not only live, but reunite with and marry her long-lost childhood love in A Thousand Splendid Suns.  Because, apparently, stories involving Afghan women must always end with everyone  dead or miserable.

And I could give numerous other examples.

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Interesting Bosnia short film

This interesting, and obviously very rough, film by Bosnian-American director Harun Mehmedinovic was brought to my attention through facebook.

‘In the Name of the Son’ tells the story of Tarik, a former soldier (in the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and prisoner of war who is resettled in the United States as a refugee and begins a new life, only to have his past literally show up on the doorstep one day. The story is told in flashbacks showing Tarik’s friendship with another Army of BiH soldier, who happens to be a Serb. At some point, the two young men are captured together, and a startling act of violence -startling even for war- ensures that the surviving characters will have to meet again to face the unsettled past.

Here’s a clip.

The last Bosnian war movie I saw was ‘The Living and the Dead,’ a full-length psychological thriller set during the 90′s conflict and WWII. Maybe it was just a little too psychological for me (lots of character hallucinations, rapid flashbacks, and unexplained plot twists), or something was lost in translation, or maybe I just had too much wine that night, but it left me feeling confused and a little dizzy. My local colleagues, however, raved about the film, and spent a good part of the next slow day at the office discussing its themes and social importance.  Well, that’s very, very cool, I thought.

Oh, and on a slightly related note, I am very disappointed that I missed this year’s Sarajevo Human Rights Film Festival, which concluded a couple of days ago and was apparently amazing.