Taking Liberties

I’ve just been to see Taking Liberties, The Movie (featuring, among others, Rachel North). The Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh now has Wifi, and since I’m One Of Those Guys With a Mac who carries his laptop everywhere like its a sixth limb, I’m able to provide a still-fresh-in-my-mind response.

The film focuses on the culpability of Tony Blair and his administration, in their ironic response to the post 9/11 terrorist threat, that is, the curbing of civil liberties in order to ‘protect’ our freedom. The myriad ways in which this has occurred has been well chronicled online. Indeed, I have asked before (can’t find the link at present) whether the popularity in blogging is linked in some fashion to the frustration at such incursions.

As we saw the slighty desaturated footage from protesters who had filmed the police, and from the police who had filmed the protesters, I found it very difficult not to consider the role of the ordinary policeman, and hard not to feel sorry for him. They are faced with the unenviable task of implementing the ill-considered laws that are handed down by governments. In one-heart breaking scene outside the Menwith Hill facility in Yorkshire, a young and amicable officer finds himself slipping into the illiberal misuse of the Terrorism Act. He is, of course, only following orders (mein Herr), only doing his job, sir, and the film-makers make him look faintly ridiculous – a lackey, a patsy, an automaton. In a similar scene, a couple of fresh young police-constables recieve similar treatment, when they are forced to hand out leaflets warning of the illegality of a protest on Parliament Square.

In a sense, these boys in blue are as much a victim as the protesters who we see suffer harassment, intimidation and unlawful detention. Because in most case, it is not that the ordinary policeman is going beyond the law, or that he is involved in any kind of ideological collusion with a would-be oppressor (although that charge is levelled against some officers in Brighton). It is that the laws are framed in such a way as to invite ridiculous, counter-productive outcomes. Campaigners such as Mark Thomas have become very proficient at designing their protest in such a way as to provoke these outcomes.

Rachel, from North London

Namastey London

“Well, I suppose overall it was an enjoyable film,” I said, as we wandered past the pop-corn. “I loved Ashkay Kumar’s shirts, I would like some like that. And he got the girl in the end.”

But there was a ‘but’.

“But I have to say, I did feel all the English characters were ludicrous stereotypes. The film portrayed the England as full of nothing but obnoxious, race obsessed toffs who live in huge Georgian estates. It was a wholly negative and false portrayal of my country and culture.”

My Pakistani friend shrugged and chuckled. “Now you know how we feel all the time.”

Africa on Film

I was pleased to see Forest Whitaker win the award for Best Actor at this year’s BAFTAs. It is indeed, as the critics have said, a compelling portrayal of the dictator Idi Amin.

Remembering a few reviews of The Last King of Scotland, the principle criticism of the film was the slight incongruity of the Dr Garrigan character, a fictional Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy. Why do we need the “white man in Africa” cliche to understand Amin and his rise to power? Why indeed, did the film-makers prioritise Garrigan’s adventure? Why not just call the film Amin and centre every single scene around Whitaker?

The same charge was levelled at Blood Diamond. This time the setting is Sierra Leone, and its brutal civil war. But, what’s this? We have Leonardo DiCaprio, white and tanned, in the lead role! He plays a South African mercenary, befriending a fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) who has lost his family after an attack by the RUF. Lo and behold! DiCaprio the Action Man takes the initiative, rescuing a rare pink diamond and Hounsou’s disparate family into the bargin, before being martyred in the final scenes. How come (they say), yet another film about Africa ends up being about the white man?

In fact, I think the structure and message of Blood Diamond positively demands white characters. It is, after all, about how the global trade in diamonds exacerbates regional conflicts. “If people knew that the diamond on their finger cost someone their arm, they wouldn’t buy it” says one character.

If the white characters are present so European and American audiences “have someone to relate to” then the effect is different in the two films. Blood Diamond draws the white audience into the problem, and castigates them. By contrast, The Last King of Scotland would have been far more challenging if the central British character had been the seedy official from the High Commission (played by the delightfully odd Simon McBurney). His dialogue alludes to the fact that the rise of Amin was aided and abetted by the British… but this aspect is left unexplored. Instead, we see James McAvoy have an affair with Amin’s wife. It portrays the white man as innocent and niaive, the black man as tribal, brutal.
Continue reading “Africa on Film”

Saddam's Death: The Revolutionary's Cut

Saddam on the GallowsOf course, in the past few days, we have been presented with a more sinister example of how new technology is creating a ‘digital revolution’. The official film of Saddam Hussein’s hanging was undermined by alternative footage, videoed on a mobile phone.

The BBC report on how these cheap and portable cameras are being used as a key weapon in the propaganda war is not news to me – I had to watch several hours of insurgent-filmed shootings and bombings in order to find suitable footage for inclusion in the Black Watch video design. To watch unsuspecting marines wander haplessly into a sniper’s cross-hair is chilling. When they are hit, they fall quickly.

Despite the unpalatable subject matter, I think there is an interesting point to be made about how film and video is used here, which is the importance of the sound-track to moving images. In the case of Saddam’s hanging, notice how a particular audio track totally changes the tone of what we see, and the emotions evoked. Film makers and TV producers constantly manipulate us in this way.

An interesting aspect of the commentary that has surrounded the emergence of this bootleg video, is the ‘winner-takes-all’ conception of truth, and history. When the official video of Saddam’s demise was released, it was considered an accurate historical record. How can the camera lie? When the grainy bootleg emerged later, it replaced the official video as the definitive ‘truth’ of the event.

We would do well to consider the possibility that this video is unreliable too. The footage is grainy and shot from a distance. We do not hear the more muted of Saddam’s mutterings, nor the words of those standing right beside him at the moment before death. I have not watched the video all the way through to its grim finale, but I understand that there are cuts in the timeline. What was missed? It is essential that we remember that the footage has been released by someone who wishes to foist a particular historical narrative upon us, one obviously informed by a different agenda to the Iraqi Government. With this in mind, other questions arise.

  • Might not Saddam’s pious recitations at his moment of death – the invocations of Mohammed that we did not hear on the ‘official’ recording – actually enhance his image, rather than humiliate him?
  • We do not witness what happened immediately before the footage was shot. Perhaps Saddam or others provoked the abuse, and the now-famous taunts were more out of anguish than vindictiveness
  • Are we sure that the audio was not doctored or enhanced before its release? Were the names of other leaders chanted, in addition to Moqtadr Al-Sadr?

These new fangled technologies, generating their subversive, low-resolution footage, have become the thorn in the side of those wishing to control a political situation. There may never be another time where a government can control the media as it did during previous conflicts. But the new technologies are just as suceptible to abuse by the purveyors of propaganda as the old.

Primary sources can be illuminating, but they can also be decieving. This historical constant remains true.

Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, calls the execution a ‘lynching‘. (via The Daily Dish)

Casino Royale; or, Product Placement Doesn't Work

Casino Royale is a back-to-front kind of film. The most exiting and original action sequence, through a building site in Madagascar, is at the top of the film. The main villiain is killed by some other bad guy with twenty-five minutes left to run, leaving James to tack randomly into Venice, for a final shoot-out with some low-level henchmen we have never seen before. You only take kudos for ditching the traditional story-telling arc, if an alternative makes the film more captivating. Here, it is just puzzling, since the legacy of previous Bond films means we are all awaiting a spectacular show-down. When it comes, it is too late, too short, and without cathartic closure.

Bond is known for his brand-name gadgets and vehicles… but I think the producers fall off the tight-rope in Casino Royale:

“Is that a Rolex?” says Vesper.

“No, an Omega” says James Bond. This prompts loud, derisory guffaws from the audience, and James’ smirk suggests he may, too, realise how crass he is behaving. We tolerate him driving a particularly fast car, or using a certain laptop. But does he really need to boast about his brand-names? Perhaps this trait is part of the more ‘unsophisticated’ and ‘rugged’ Bond which Daniel Craig is meant to portray.

Flight 93

I have always worried that a movie titled Twin Towers would become inevitable at some point. A woman working in Tower 1, say, with her fiance in Tower 2. Together with his brother the fireman, they hurry up the steps when everyone else is rushing down… starring Ben Affleck, and an array of computer generated reconstructions of the destruction.

Flight 93 is a different sort of film, I hope. It is the story of the people who overcame the hijackers of the plane which was on its way to Washington and the Capitol Building. However, The Daily Dish thinks it is too soon for a movies about their actions:

Sometimes, the greatest deeds, like the most monstrous acts, are best left unrepresented. They stand alone. They demand to be left alone. One day, commemmorate. But do not so swiftly represent. Shakespeare often left the greatest moments in his plays off-stage. They have more power there.

I imagine that one impact of their actions is that it is now virtually impossible to use a passenger aircraft to perpetrate an act of mass terrorism. This is not because of increased security on the planes, or better, tougher surveillance at the airports. Rather, it is because the fact of 9/11 changes the attitudes of the people on board hijacked planes. While the passengers of Flights 11, 175 and 77 believed that they might escape unharmed if they sat tight, the passengers on Flight 93 were under no illusion as to their fate. Using aeroplanes as a weapon of mass destruction became obsolete at half past nine that morning, while Flight 93 was still in the air.

Syriana

I was keen to see Syriana at the weekend. The film won a best supporting actor award for George Clooney (it was not, as is sometimes stated, for his role in Good Night and Good Luck). Clooney is a rather divisive actor, bless him, and many people took exception to his rather sanctimonius Oscar acceptance speech.

Tim Newman lives in Dubai, and he posts his thoughts on the oil industry and all things related at Desert Sun. Last week, he took Clooney and the makers of Syriana to task over some glaring factual inaccuracies in the film. It is quite an interesting insight into the film, but I fear on many of the points Tim might be missing the point. Many of the inaccuracies – which I looked out for when I saw it on Saturday – are clearly plot devices of the most basic kind. In reality, a US oil company may not plaster its logo over a refinery in the Middle-East… but taking such a liberty allows the film-makers to establish a link between two apparently disparate plot-lines. The strapline of the film is, after all, “everything is connected”.

And this mantra, this thesis, does hold water, even if the film presents an illiterate take on the oil industry. I do not see anything particularly radical, or left wing in this assertion. Indeed, I am reminded of an article by Nicholas Boles, Director of the right-wing Policy Exchange think-tank, which was published in The Times less than a month before the war in Iraq began. In “A perfectly moral case for fighting for Iraq’s oilfields”, Boles pointed out that a stable Middle-East is essential for the stability of western economies, (and therefore third world countries too). Yes, we meddle in the Middle-East. And yes, it is a good thing.

The characters in Syriana say much the same thing. For them, US control of the oil supply is obviously a necessity, and of obvious national interest. They truly believe this, even if the prime motivation is money. Not even the more morally upstanding characters, such as Jeffry Wright’s lawyer, or David Clennon’s Attorney General, refute this.

What these characters do refute, however, is the suggestion that Syriana is awash with stereotypes. Bennet Holiday (Wright) in particular is difficult to pin down as either a good guy or bad guy. Likewise with Matt Damon’s character, energy analyst Bryan Woodman, who we sympathise with due to the death of his son, but who nevertheless leaves his family to follow a lucrative and career making contract. The arrogant play-boy Prince Meshal is at least pro-West, while his more idealistic brother Prince Nasir looking like he may become another Osama Bin Laden by the time the film closes. One might expect Clooney’s character to save the day. He does not.

I was most struck by Chris Cooper’s character, oil man Jimmy Pope, who persuades lawyer Holiday not to delve too deeply into the workings of the oil business. He is obviously guilty of bribery, but (within the confines of his board room, obviously) he admits as much openly, and is somewhat incredulous that this should be considered wrong. Of course they bribe people! How else would they get the oil? And film asks the question of us, too. This is our reality (says another character), and if we want it to continue, then we must not just accept that bribery happens. It is actually desirable.

These exchanges are echos of interviews that writer/director Stephen Gaghan had with real oil industry executives. In a very interesting podcast interview with Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Gaghan explains how he researched and then constructed the film. During his travels and interviews, he was reminded how easily an economic balance, or simply the balance of power, can be tipped one way or another. Unlike his previous film Traffic, the idea behind this latest offering was to show, through carefully chosen transitions, how small, and connected, the world is.

I think Syriana succeeds in this respect. When it asks “Imagine if 30% of America were unable to heat their houses…” it reminds us that our governments should and must be concerned about global oil supply. The most telling line in the film is when two lawyers celebrate their role in the merger of two companies:

“You just visited what someday soon could be the most profitable corporation in America… Provided we don’t start running cars on water”

Contrast this with the following:

And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources — and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.
State of the Union 2006

President George W Bush knows that the only way out of the mess he finds himself in – we find ourselves in – is to move onto a better source of energy, one less adulterated with blood. If Syriana can persuade people in the United States (and elsewhere) of this imperative, then I think we can be tolerant of its inaccuracies and stereotypes where they exist. The message is a sound one.

Muddles of Narnia

I have not yet seen the new film adaption of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and I have not read any of The Chronicles of Narnia since I was a child. So I will leave the debate over whether the books are evil Christian propaganda to others. Tory Convert takes issue with Polly Toynbee’s criticism of the books and the film, and makes some interesting points on moral agency, and the link between religion and culture.

I have just one point to make about The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, something that has been bothering me for ages: If Narnia is a Christian allegory, what on earth is Father Christmas doing in there? Who or what is he metaphoring? Do Narnians celebrate Christ’s birth, or not-yet-saviour Aslan’s birth, or what? It looks like the inclusion of a big name star, just to draw the crowds…

Murderball

Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an advance screening of Murderball, which opened in the UK yesterday, 4th November. The film follows a group of young men competing in international ‘Quadraplegic Rugby’ competitions, described by one of the players as essentially “bumper cars for wheel-chairs”. It is a fast sport, which the film depicts well with many of the shots from ‘chair-cams’. Our tendancy to think of quadraplegics as people to be treated with awkward pity is totally debunked, as the players swear, shout, and intimidate their opponents. The frequent clashes which overturn the chairs (and their occupants) is an extremely cathartic experience.

Speaking after the screening, co-director Henry-Alex Rubin admitted that the movie was almost ‘ready made’, with a set of strong characters and storylines already in place. The rivalry between the USA and Canadian teams is twisted by the fact that the Canadian coach is Joe Soares, an American who ‘defected’ to Canada after being dropped from Team USA. An early scene depicts three men, all wheel-chair bound, having a drunken argument. “How does it feel to betray your country” says one to Soares. A better set-up could not have been scripted.

Murderball is sentimental in places, but never over the players’ disabilities. It is this robust approach, combined with an uncomprimising wit, whcih makes the film so unexpected. Crucially, the music by Jamie Saft is beautiful, binding the scenes in together in just the way a good sound-track should. This is a surprising documentary that could well receive an Oscar nomination.

document 3: Human Rights Film Festival

Our location is Nice n’ Sleazys on Sauchiehall Street, oppposite the CCA in Glasgow. We have just watched a set of short films at document 3, the International Human Rights Film Festival.

Runaways follows a group of Afghani refugees as they make their way to the border with Tajakistan. Although the subjects are subsisting in a manner that would not have looked odd a thousand years ago, the film is very much of the 21st century. Before the advent of digital technology, a lone film-maker could not have ’embedded’ themselves so unobtrusively into a group of people. A little girl helps her toddler brother over the mud. A young man pushes his veiled mother onto a donkey, then pushes the donkey like a pram out over the plains. These silent vignettes portray the simplicity of the group’s goal – to keep moving, and survive.

Laura Waddington’s Border manages to capture a similar state of mind. Out in the fields around Red Cross Sangatte camp in northern France, we watch the desperate refugees as they try and smuggle themselves through the channel tunnel to England. When they are caught and sent back to the camp, they return to try again the next evening, as if they are clocking-in and clocking-off at a factory.

The clandestine attempts to abscond are captured by a digital camera on its most extreme ‘night setting’. This mimicks a very slow shutter speed on a film camera, and the result is a grainy, sepia image which constantly strobes at only a couple of frames per second. The people we see are mostly in the shadows, which fits with the conception of the refugees as an under-class, a set of ghosts that move among us unseen, submerged. However, after half-an-hour of this, the lack of clarity in the picture becomes slightly tiresome, and I found myself wishing in vain for some daylight shots, or even some proper, infra-red night footage. Accompanied by the sombre narration (the authors of which clearly believing it was far more profound than it actually was), the final ten minutes seemed more like a conceptual art project than a film with substance.

Better the short simplicity of Arrival, a short description of one man’s entry to the UK at Gatwick Airport. Albino Ochero-Okello narrates his own story, and the directors let his words paint the picture of a man so scared that he leaves behind everything in the world that matters. The images serve as a backdrop, and the contrasting sequences of train journeys in England and East Africa enhance the sense of travel and distance. I just wish the same strobe effect we had seen in the previous film had been abandoned. These are documentaries, not music videos.

The visual style of this triumvirate contrasted sharply with the clean presentation of the fourth and final film, which was also the shortest. Unconstrained by the need to be wandering over marsh-land, scrambling through ditches in the dark, or leaning out of a train window, Bon Voyage instead concentrates on a single shift at work, of a single immigrant worker. Each image has been carefully story-boarded, and the extra effort to set-up tracking shots pays off. The result is a perfectly framed montage. Clearly, asking the central character to tell their own story is the way forward with these kinds of films – A woman who cleans toilets at Montparnasse Station wistfully recalls her time in Africa, and wishes she was in a place with status, comfort, and money. As with the other films, she reminds us that many emigrations are not made voluntarily, and that most people who find themselves seeking asylum never expected their fate to be thus.