Category Archives: Politics

London Film Festival 2018/7

If yesterday was a marathon, today was a double marathon! I had not fully taken on board that the first film was three and a half hours long. Then they added a fifteen minute interval (which says a lot about the decision of the director) so my scheduling became critical.

The plan

The Plan that came from the bottom up is a documentary about labour relations in the 1970s, seen through the lens of the Lucas Aerospace company. Director Steve Sprung clearly believes in “slow cinema”. There was a huge amount of mood setting, relevant once or possibly twice but not more. The film started in Lisbon, in a terrible fog and then there was a billboard which stated in three languages, Portuguese, English and Chinese, that “you can buy this view”. Following that there was an equally magnificent aerial view of London, with the legend “London, open for business”.

I do not want to trash this film as it is important, both for its message about top down industrial management, about the level of government payback to big business (leaving aside the bank bailout of 2008) and how this affected both the workforce and manufacturing in Britain.

The talking heads were all one-time workers at Lucas. Now retired, (actually they were sacked) but who, when they were shop stewards created a cooperative committee who tried, but failed, to persuade the management that the workers were able and willing to diversify production to more community based products – like wind turbines. Unbelievably, Lucas Aerospace felt that this did not fit with the company image and turned it down, the workers also created a proto-type of an electric bus that could run on rail and road. Also vetoed, although it would save millions in under-developed countries because it would run on concrete, rather than rails, what’s not to like? But no, Lucas preferred making killing machines.

With substantial editing this would be, as it is described above, “a gripping essay”, reflecting on the darker side of capitalism. What is really astonishing though, is the level of behind the scenes collaboration between the Labour government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and the management of these vital industries.

There were figures, which I did not copy down, but which showed that after a turnover of tens of millions, what with cost of production and Labour government subsidies, Lucas Aerospace paid only £470,000 to HMRC in tax. Does anyone else immediately think of Amazon and Starbucks?

I wish I could say this was a must see. Maybe a four-part-series on television. Because what it has to say about our choked up cities, about climate change and industry, and the death of manufacturing, is important; because there are people out there who have ideas that would help, if only they had been listened to in the 1970s!!!

It was a rush to get to the next film, which was a shame and this was redoubled by the fact that my neighbour (not the friend I was with but on the other side) seemed oblivious to the fact that a garlicky, chilli wrap followed by smelly, crunchy tacos are not suitable fodder for the cinema. I felt like asking her if she thought she would starve if she waited to eat until after the film.

Bisbee

Bisbee ’17 was not exactly the film I thought it was going to be. 2017 makes it one hundred years since a mass deportation of striking copper miners and other supporters was effected in Bisbee.

The town decides on an re-enactment. This film is the result. And while shining a light on the trauma of a single town, is probably a good thing for the town, I suspect that there would have been better ways to do this for the cinema. It was fractured and over-sentimentalized, which rather drowned the horror of what actually happened.

In July 1917, over 2000 people, nearly all of them Central Americans and Eastern Europeans, were transported into the desert in cattle trucks and left to die. No amount of re-enactment is going to bring to life the absolute inhumanity of that act; yet Bisbee survives – with the visible scars of copper mining all around them and the Mexican border just a short distance away – what better reminder is there?

Finally tonight a beautiful French film set in Paris and India. Two men get off a French Republic flight and are greeted by François Hollande. In spite of public denials, these two are hostages freed with a slush fund, held under wraps for the French Government.

This is another film with a female director, Mia Hansen-Love. Beautifully realised and filmed, but a bizarre choice of music – as Gabriel wanders around Indian cities, throbbing with colour, noise and traffic – we are hearing Shubert – why?

Maya

After a few weeks, young Gabriel goes off to India, a country where he grew up until his parents separated. We travel to India with him and it is utterly gorgeous, as he also travels. Starting from Goa, where his godfather has a hotel, he travels throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Maya is both a love story and a commentary upon what tourism is doing to India, to the farming community and to the still unspoiled places, with unscrupulous developers forcing sales of land and houses by fair means and foul. And possibly a gibe at the French government whose aid programme is dwarfed by the funds paid out to rescue French hostages.

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London Film Festival 2018/6

A marathon three film day, meaning atrocious diet of coffee and Maltesers, plus a hurried sandwich, but I would not have missed any one of them.

First up was a fictionalized account of a South Korean spy working in North Korea. This was one of the only South Asia films in this year’s list, most of them have been hived off into a separate film festival of their own, which follows hard upon this annual London Film Festival, by which time I am filmed-out for a while. Pity, as those are the films I used to choose most.

The Spy

This was a brilliant start to the day. Although my knowledge of South Korean politics was limited, so that possibly some nuanced chicanery passed over my head, this was a spy drama of immense tension and interest. It will certainly lead me to do a bit of post-film research since the story, largely true though fictionalized, was of immediate interest in view of the current situation on that peninsula, right now.

But even without the relevance of today’s situation this was a marvellous look at the inscrutable East, being at its most opaque. Who was on to the bigger picture and who was not? Which of them was on the side of honour and which was the snake in the grass?

Brilliant acting, vibrant and astonishing glimpses of Korean politique and possibly even pictures of North Korea – though since the credits were not translated at all, it is impossible to know where exactly the film had been made.

The second film I am also glad to have seen, although it was a filler for a film I wanted to see but could not get tickets – a situation I might address later.

Putin's witnesses

This rather intimate picture of the Russian leader, is of Putin visiting his old school teacher in St Petersburg. She had twice been primed for this visit, the first time when Putin was meeting the British Prime Minister – Tony Blair, on that occasion for some inexplicable reason he failed to turn up, though his security turned up in advance anyway. The second occasion Putin was there for a funeral of his political mentor, not Yeltsin but someone else.

A great deal of this film was made before the country really knew who Putin was, and before Yeltsin’s sudden announcement on 31st December 1999 that he was retiring. Putin took over as Acting President from that moment, though the elections, at which he got 52% of the vote, were some months later.

He arrives with flowers and kisses. The genesis of this visit comes from an idea presented by the film’s director – Vitaly Mansky. Mansky is a well know and highly respected Russian documentary maker and he and his team got intimate and extraordinary access to both Yeltsin and Putin, especially before Putin actually became the Russian leader.

This was a thought provoking film, not least because in spite of being close to Putin, being invited several times for quite intensive interviews while Putin explained himself, Vitaly Mansky and his family now live abroad and not in Russia. At the Q&A Mansky made it clear that his exile was voluntary, but during the film, his commentary also made it quite clear that opposing the present leader can lead to significant difficulties and sudden death.

Manksy’s decision to leave with his family came after the Ukraine debacle.

Finally, a touching and tragic film about a family split by religion and ideology. Sami, the son of the title is seen suffering from acute migraines, for which there seems no obvious cause. But we know that all is not quite as it seems.

Dear Son

The father-son relationship is tender but complicated. Sami is clearly lying to his parents, who think he is studying for his baccalaureate. When he vanishes, Riadh finds that he is beginning to lie to Nazli. This is a family torn apart in a devastating and emotional roller coaster. The acting is superb, both parents show deep and convincing tenderness for their son, who acts like many another moody teenager – but with tragic consequences.

 

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London Film Festival 2018/2

UnsettlingThe first film that I saw today was a documentary, Unsettling. The clue is in the title, since this was an exploration of how people feel living, as they do, in the West Bank settlements in Israel/Palestine.

Iris Zaki set up three cameras and had several conversations with young people who had either been born in Tekoa or had moved there. The cameras were deliberately unmanned, she set them running together, two on the face of the subject and one on her. In the Q&A she revealed that the conversations went on for up to an hour or an hour and a half, and covered numerous topics: dating, childcare, schools and also the feelings of the settlers, their awareness of the Palestinian village just nearby, and whether they met each other.

There are panoramic landscapes and pictures of the settlement and indeed of the Palestinian village nearby; the inevitable queue of workers at the Tekoa checkpoint; plenty of barbed wire. Houses tenaciously clinging to the hillsides, like their inhabitants.

It was very important for Iris that the conversations were not conducted like an interview, which was part of the decision not to have a cameraman. The table with two chairs was outside a local shop, which also seemed to sell coffee and other drinks.

This is an important film because it does give a very open view of the vast differences of opinion between the people living in this one place. Tekoa was settled first in around 1978, and deliberately invited both strictly Orthodox and non practising Jews to live there. Now those people are elderly and it is their children whom Iris most wanted to speak to.

She rented a flat in Tekoa; it is clear from the beginning of the film that she is not entirely welcome and it does take quite a while before anyone will engage with the project, but when they do, one can see what a very complex, diverse and difficult situation they have to deal with.

Some people are fearful, some arrogantly entitled, some conflicted themselves – one young man who was not religious actually felt bad about living there, but the schools were good and his wife had family and friends, so he decided that they could live there, but not in a new house – in other words he was not prepared to advance or enlarge the existing settlement; on the other hand, a young woman who had grown up in Hebron had no empathy for the previous inhabitants of the land, they were Arabs and they had no business to be on “our” land; there was another remarkable woman who had even been attacked and stabbed by an Arab – this she saw as a message from God, a way of making her think differently and to act differently, and so she and her family are actively seeking rapprochement with Palestinians, indeed after the attack a group of Palestinians came and prayed in her house and asked for forgiveness; the shopkeeper who had let Iris set up more or less on his premises, had grown up with Arabs, his family farm was mostly worked by Palestinians, even to this day.

While filming, a Rabbi and his family were shot at, the Rabbi was killed and the mother and two children were seriously injured; then Iris discovered that her neighbour in Tekoa was their eldest daughter. This too, put another perspective on the film.

This is a thought provoking film. It is provocative but not a polemic. Unsettling indeed.

The Old Man

This is brilliant and there are so many reasons why everyone should aim to see it. The casting is unparalleled. Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek had never acted together before, indeed hardly knew each other and yet the rapport between them is tender and authentic; the cops are a wondrous bunch, straight out of Keystone school of policing, but Casey Affleck as the detective, John Hunt, is understated, determined and finally frustrated.

While filming was actually going on Robert Redford announced that he was retiring and if this is really his last film, it could hardly be better. It is an all round heist caper, based on a true account that Redford read about in the New York Times and thought would be fun to make.

The cinematography is brilliant at evoking the times, but also captures something of the essence of Redford’s entire career. Quite outstanding and a highly, exceptional and poignant swan song. Do not miss it. UK distribution will start on December 7th.

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More journeys, but not mine

Two quite different and extraordinary books. The first a mixture of historical fact, myth and magic coupled with a searing currently relevant story of a family escaping from Syria. How might that work?

The contemporary heroine is a synaesthete (another – See Red Sparrow) and the book in partly set in Homs (See – Sea Prayer). Which considering this book was selected at random is slightly odd.

Salt and StarsIn The Map of Salt and Stars, the two stories are sectioned together in pairs. So in the historical-myth-magic section we follow the adventures of Rawiya, a young girl who leaves home to become apprentice (as a boy) to the twelfth century scholar and mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi engaged by Roger II of Palermo to make a map of the known world and in the contemporary section we follow the story of Nour.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has skillfully woven the historical strand with parts of the stories of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights and also the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. These myths or fairytales are combined in a wonderfully starry tapestry following the actual known progress of al-Idrisi and his companions around the lands bordering the Mediterranean.

Rawiya’s partner in the contemporary world is Nour. She has grown up in New York, but on the death of her father, her mother and two older sisters return to Homs, and a quasi-uncle Abu Sayeed. The situation changes in Syria and the family are forced to flee, with devastating consequences. Nour, bolstered by her father’s wonderful story telling (as described above) treads courageously through the journey, in her head following in the footsteps of Rawiya.

The salt of the title are the tears that are shed along the way; but in all circumstances good people look to the stars hopefully, for stories and for comfort. No one who looks at the stars can be truly bad. This is what Nour/Rawiya firmly believes and it is borne out in her adventures.

But this is not all sweetness and light. There are passages in both sections that are unbearably tragic, and losses in one section are inevitably mirrored in the other, in much the same way as the exhibitions of tremendous courage and survival.

FrazierVarina is a book of a very different complexion. Charles Frazier has returned to Cold Mountain country; this time following the flight of Varina Davis away from the Federal troops and bounty hunters with a gaggle of children, not all of them her own. Accompanied by two faithful coloured retainers.

Varina is the wife of Jefferson Davis, upon whose head there is a bounty, and a suspicion that they are complicit in the death of Abraham Lincoln, and therefore guilty of murder and treason.

They are far away to the south before this small party hears about this; Jefferson has still not joined them and better it were by far that he had not.

This is historical fiction of the highest quality. A beautifully constructed story built upon the few details know about Varina and about her husband. Reconstructed over a period of weeks when one of the children, now grown up seeks her out to fill in the gaps in his own knowledge of himself, when he can only remember fragments of that terrible time.

So the sections switch from Saratoga Springs in 1906 to Varina’s youth in 1842, and the events of the American Civil War between about 1865 to 1879-93 as remembered by the two of them.

My knowledge of American history lags far behind that which it should, in spite of Gone with the Wind and other books. But Frazier brings it into focus in all its horror, messiness, mud and stink; the tragedy and betrayal of the African Americans; the brutality of the war itself and the unforgiving nature of the winners. It is all here and it is all pretty horrifying.

Read and learn.

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A Book for Giving

It is not Christmas yet, but you might get copies of Sea Prayer ready for anyone with a heart. It is a short book, the best prayers are. It is not too expensive at about £13. It is exquisitely beautiful and painfully relevant.A Sea Prayer

Khaled Hosseini shot to fame with his first novel The Kite Runner, about a young boy who let his friend down in a crisis, and never really recovered. Hosseini’s later books also dealt with loss, family crisis, pragmatic choices and all of them dealt with emotional pain.

Inspired by the images of Alan Kurdi, a three-year old, whose little body was found on an Italian beach, this book sends up a prayer to the indifferent sea, for Marwan. His father stands on the edge of a moonlit sea, praying for a safe passage to a better life.

The sadness, as the father recalls his home, is palpable. He wishes that his little son was older, would remember the beautiful things about his homeland, rather than the mortal difference between dark blood and bright red blood; that he would remember the olive and fig trees and his grandmother’s cooking rather than the dark cellars with too little to eat or drink; that he could remember the sound of bleating goats rather than the scream of dropping bombs; but above all the father’s prayer is:

Pray God steers the vessel true,

when the shores slip out of eyeshot

and we are a flyspeck

in the heaving waters, pitching and tilting.

easily swallowed.

Because you,

you are precious cargo, Marwan,

the most precious there ever was.

I pray the sea knows this.

Inshallah.

You can only just see it on the far left of this part of the double-spread illustration, but there is a tiny overloaded speck of a boat, on the surface of this wild, swaying, indifferent sea.

sea prayer illus

The exquisite watercolour illustrations by Dan Williams, move from glorious, painterly, golden hues of vibrant wild flowers, olive trees and busy markets through a dread-filled palette of greys, browns and blacks into this sweeping, moonlit, green sea.

Nothing could be more impactful.

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/4

2018 BLL BurnsMilkman by Anna Burns: I had heard and read a lot about Milkman before actually reading the book, and nothing that I had heard or read prepared me for how dense it was. It is a first person narrative, set in an unnamed town, fully of unnamed but identified people.

The time is clearly Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the place maybe Belfast, but if so it is not entirely recognisable, there is no mention of the docks or the sea, for example. The narrator belongs to a fairly large family: ma, da (deceased), first brother, second brother (deceased), third brother and fourth brother (run away over the border); there are also sisters and first-brother-in-law and third brother-in-law and the “wee ones”, three younger sisters.  There are neighbours, the maybe-boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody (not the boyfriend), the milkman and Milkman.

It is a narrative that begins at the end and circles back to the same ending. There is violence, suspicion, betrayal, death (violent and accidental). There are those “over the water” who are in this city: the soldiers and others; there are those on the side of those “over the water” like the police. Then there are the informers and the renouncers – both sides have these, both “our side of the road” and those on “the other side of the road”. And there is a great deal of menace and rumour and gossip.

There is one shocking episode that is scarcely credible, but must be true, I fear. Partly because it would be hard to make it up and partly because if you did, there would be an outcry and a lawsuit pending. It concerns the killing of all the dogs and runs from page 93 through to page 100, it involves the British soldiers killing all the dogs because they barked and gave away their positions, then having killed all bar one, they left them with their throats cut in “the entry”, presumably one of the safe roads into the “our side”.

The narrator explains, digests, digresses, thinks and reads while she walks, generally novels written before the nineteenth century. She is aloof but also considered; she thinks a lot about being a maybe-girlfriend and whether or not she wants to join coupledom; her maybe-boyfriend has the same thoughts but until now they have never coincided at the same moment, so it hangs in there unresolved.

Then there is a rumour that she is going with Milkman; she isn’t, although she has met him – or rather he has sidled into her life in a less than straightforward manner. He draws up beside her in his van, but she will not get in; he runs beside her in the park and makes threatening remarks about maybe-boyfriend and then he “runs into her” after a French lesson, but she thinks he must have been waiting for her unseen. He upsets her, she half knows what he wants but is repulsed. He is a known renouncer, a known terrorist and he is married (she thinks). He appears to know a great deal about her, her family, her habits and her maybe-boyfriend.

The writing is dense in the sense that the paragraphs are immensely long, they represent her thinking and her way of relating this to an imaginary friend (the reader probably); it is not precisely stream-of-consciousness because it is also actually narrative, without it we could not possibly know what was going on. There are six chapters but there could equally be ten or five, the breaks come slightly arbitrarily though generally starting with encounters with Milkman or post-Milkman encounters when she is trying to ingest what has happened.

Certainly the writing captures explicitly the tension which must have prevailed everywhere in Northern Ireland at the time; the local rules which if broken could end in tar and feathers, knee-capping, beating or death; the kangaroo courts held in out of the way sheds or hutments; the curfew; the suspicion of neighbours, of “the others”; the surveillance. It must have been nearly intolerable and then to add to the mix the innuendo, the rumour and the gossip. This is all there on every page, so that you must stop and take a breather.

Then finally there is a beautiful love story which lifts the whole tenor of the novel into another plane; wonderfully and delightfully revealed in the last chapter. Sheer joy and relief!

Do I think this will make it to the shortlist? The answer is yes.

My shadow book is an out-and-out love story; a debut novel by Anne Youngson.

YoungsonMeet Me at the Museum is an epistolary novel.  Initially Tina Hopgood writes to a Professor Glob, the finder of the Tollund Man but he is no longer there, being as it were 104 had he still been around. But the Curator of the Silkeborg Museum writes back and there develops over a period of about a year and a bit, an intense friendship.

In tone it is not unlike 84, Charing Cross Road, an epistolary memoir.  Helen Hanff wrote to a bookseller in London at this address and over time they created a warm and rewarding relationship, though they were never to meet, as Frank Doel died before Helen Hanff ever came to Britain, their correspondence lasted over several decades.

This novel is more intense, as the letters go back and forth by email attachment.

It also reminds me a lot of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, because Anders Larsen, the curator (who is fictional) writes quite a lot in his letters about the Tollund Man and the artefacts that are found that relate to his time.

Tina Hopgood describes her life on an East Anglian farm and he describes his life as a curator and widower. Their letters gradually draw out more detail and become more intimate and then right at the crux Tina has to make a serious decision.

Will their relationship on paper survive, and will she go to meet him at the Museum?

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If we throw away the key…

Two legal volumes hit the top of my TBR pile together. In Your Defence by Sarah Langford and The Secret Barrister (author unknown for obvious reasons).

 

Both books, written by professional barristers have a desired agenda: to present to the general public a picture of the justice system from the point of view of the prosecuting or defending bench.

These two books are not Scandi-police procedural novels, they are a genuine attempt to get us, the benefiters of a good, honest and just legal system, to understand better what is actually happening in court.

The Secret Barrister is a cry of alarm, using many exhaustively detailed reasons why our justice system is being steadily undermined, the author is desperately trying to get us to wake up. Fuelled by lurid newspaper reports we spend an unusual amount of our attention devoted to complaining about the National Health Service while at the same time our Justice system is being financially squeezed out of existence.

A country in which justice is eroded and enough people cannot see that justice is being done, will eventually take matters in its own hands: vigilante groups; rag-tag revenge gangs; summary local justice may follow, and that will mean anarchy.

In a single stroke of the Chancellor’s pen, the tax on beer was reduced by a penny, while the tax on cider and spirits was held level at the same time that the budget for the Justice system was slashed by an more or less equal amount. This does not make any sense.

The Secret Barrister asks why that should matter to us? The answer is that one day it might be you or me. If we were prosecuted, whether innocent or guilty as charged, we would want to have proper representation. But that, especially in the civil courts is becoming exceeding expensive, and beyond the reach of a growing proportion of the population. This book, though, deals specifically with the criminal courts, where legal aid is also steadily being eroded so that even middle income people are having to find the wherewithal to defend themselves privately.

In Your Defence, heartily endorsed by Helena Kennedy QC, is of a different kind. This is a book which, using an amalgam of disguised cases, demonstrates examples of how the law deals with different situations. Each chapter begins with an extract from different Acts of Parliament which are effective in law. For example: Children and Young Persons Act 1933. In this chapter, we look at a particular trial (which is not one trial but a simulacrum of many similar) from the defence barrister’s engagement, through to the trial itself and its outcome. The amount of time is takes to mount a defence, to defend and as well as to counsel the defendant. Each chapter has one defendant standing for many, and disguised so that there is no possibility of true identification.

But read in tandem with The Secret Barrister, it is a window on to a world that most of us hope never to visit.

Just as the NHS is there for those in need from the cradle to the grave, so the justice system should be also, and is not. If your chosen (or unchosen but real) lifestyle has led you to rely on the health service to get you back on your feet, you would not be impressed if the doctor was able to say, on your arrival in his surgery, “this injury/illness is a direct result of your actions, pay for the remedy yourself”. But as The Secret Barrister points out, this is very much the case in the courts. You may well find yourself funding your own defence, and if you have enough but not a huge amount of money and few assets you may find yourself in the claws of a very inadequate level of professional assistance, of failing that have to defend yourself (litigant-in-person) which might be disastrous, all because you and your spouse of partner are not eligible for legal aid.

Everyone should know about this and this is one way to find out. The next step is to do something about it. Letters to your MP, anyone?

 

 

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