Monthly Archives: May 2007

  • Great Expectations – David Lean – UK 1946

    adrin neatrour writes – What shines out of this Dickens’ adaptation is David Lean’s preoccupation with enchantment… Great Expectations – David Lean – UK 1946   John Mills; Alec Guinness; Joan Simmons (young Estelle); Valerie Hobson (old Estelle)
    Viewed 20 May 07  at home on VHS video


    Vistas of Enchantment
    What shines out of this Dickens’ adaptation is David Lean’s preoccupation with enchantment.  The notion of the spell gives to the film its form which comprises a movement through of a series of  sets which are conjurated as heavy gaseous atmospherics through whose thickened air shamans emanate and  direct powers proper to their space.  The light has a frozen luminous quality.  It is a world of statues.  It is unchanging.  In Great Expectations each of the succeeding settings from the mist enveloped opening landscape of the Thames estuary through to the great high court is conceived as an atmosphere of psychic imprisonment.  The object of the film is little  concerned with the banality of  narrative, more with the idea of how each place castes its own spell and how the persona are not so much individuals but almost automata whose actions and reactions are functions of  the environments in which they are trapped.  Each location castes its own spell and each character moves as a fabled being through the life of the film.  The film is alive because its settings like a series of snares trap everyone.  It is a dark faerie world that operates through the cold fascination of the child rather than the equivocation of the adult.  A place where people do not fall in love but rather bewitch each other.  

    David Lean’s creation of a faerie world is due to his vision and ability to unify the key components making up the atmospherics of enchantment.  The sets and costumes haircuts and hats all have an other-world quality that is of course offset by low key dramatic expressionistic lighting.  The acting style that he commands is an intrinsic  part of the crafting. The actors occupy their roles lightly almost as if they were mediums occupying only temporarily their bodies with external gestures and mannerisms. There is, of course, plot.  But the way in which Great Expectations is constructed devalues its importance.  Instead the film heightens and intensifies the idea of movement from world to world, space to space examining and dwelling on the nature of each place for the behaviour of those who have strayed there.  The end of the film is of course no end: Pip and Estelle, Pip having broken the spell of Mrs Haversham’s house, flee her world.  There is no promise in their flight that they will do anything other than either create another enchanted space or ( like Laurence of Arabia) die from want of enchantment.  Those who have experienced the faerie magic and danced to the music (however demented and exhausting) are forever doomed to seek it out again.  This is something David Lean seems to have well understood and the insight provides a thread that runs through all his films.

    Perhaps David Lean was the sorcerer himself in the manner of the old school of British film makers.  Someone whose work was to bewitch, but who understood that the power to enchant is severely locally circumscribed.  It cannot happen in the maelstrom of change: enchantment needs conditions that have a timeless quality in which there is no consciousness of the passage of time.  (Those young folk taken by the faeries are away but for a night but return old, sometimes after the passing of centuries)  Lean’s Laurence of Arabia certainly has this quality which film takes place in the magical environment of the desert, a setting in which only God and the wind and sand are constants and timelessness is part of the landscape. O’Toole like the best of actors in Lean’s films seems to occupy a body( or should it be a swath of flowing robes) rather than possess it, and in Arabia, the filmic Laurence finds the setting in which his powers of enchantment are fully realised and released.

    In Great Expectations Mrs Haversham of course has created and lives in one such timeless environment.  She has stopped the clock at the time when she was betrayed.  Everything is frozen in the statuesque light.  From this timeless space, like the bad faerie, she entraps the young unsuspecting souls in her net of malevolence priming them to replay her own psychic traumas for eternity. Like a time machine Great Expectations moves from setting to setting from the marshes to the solicitors office the forge and Court of Law.  It is not a movie that incorporates time as a medium per se but one which penetrates and gives visual form to archetypal places whose enchantment occupies us as much as we occupy them.
    adrin neatrour

  • Cairo Station – Youssef Chahine – Egypt 1958 78 mins Fariq Shawqi; Hind Rostrom

    adrin neatrour writes: Coming off the rails – The concerns and tensions realised in Cairo Station are embedded naturally into the film’s setting at the very junction of life in 1950’s Egypt – Cairo Station – a crucible for the contradictions and strains experienced by a rapidly changing society.
    Cairo Station  – Youssef Chahine – Egypt 1958    78 mins  Fariq Shawqi; Hind Rostrom
    Viewed Lumiere Cinema London 12 May 2007 ticket price £6-00


    Coming off the rails
    Chahine’s movie is a melodrama in an adapted neo-realist form that has an assemblage of concerns sustained by a circuitry of social tensions.  The concerns and tensions realised are embedded naturally into the film’s setting at the very junction of  life in 1950’s Egypt – Cairo Station – a crucible for the contradictions and strains experienced by a rapidly changing society whose population is exposed for the first time to completely novel external stimuli imported from the West.   The exposure takes place within a deeply conservative religious social matrix which at this moment is without coherent response beyond conditioned distrust.  Individuals are left free to make their own responses and precarious adjustments to the new psychic demands of Westernism. 

     The focus of the action revolves around two groups: the male porters in Cairo central station and the women soft drink vendors who sell their drinks illicitly without a license directly to passengers on the trains.  These groups operate within the setting of Cairo station which location is the core of the film, a direct visual referent to the movement and upheavals of people, transforming their lives creating new possibilities new dangers for Egyptians.  The locomotives themselves, hissing blowing extracting power out of coal and steam, are the engines of change.  Wrenching the peasants from the land and transporting the middles classes to new fields of desire and delight.  The rail tracks criss-cross multiply and divide lead to and from everywhere diverting directing attracting and expelling. For the bourgeoisie these tracks are empowering allowing them the better to exploit and multiply new opportunities. Chahine’s main focus is to chronicle the new constant of endless movement of people from the country to the town, the relentless pressure of the periphery upon the centre.

    One of these pressures is exemplified in the unbridled public appearance and behaviour of the women vendors.   In their work none of them wear scarves and they are possessed of  a primal sensuality that is typical of their class status and age group throughout Europe but atypical in rural Egypt from where they originate.  It is an image however that one suspects that has been imported into this culture through foreign influences – European and American films – projecting public images of woman at odds with traditional Islamic beliefs. These women of Cairo Station are earthy and coarse flaunting their bodies playfully as they make their way through the trains selling soft drinks.  There is one scene in particular that is telling.  The main woman character having boarded a train in the station, ends up dancing in one of the carriages as a travelling American bebop group let rip.  Her dance is unabashedly and unashamedly modern western and physical, and close to the male foreigners emphasises her female anatomy. In Italy or France it might be accepted: but in an Islamic country it is endemically problematic.  Chahine has wired this scene into his film because it is the point at which the relentless outer movement of people finally communicates itself to resonates and intensifies in the female body.  And it is at this point, the issue of female sexuality, where the Western form of the modern would comes off the rails in Egypt.   The dance ends when her boyfriend, one of the porters, sees what she is doing, chases and catches her, and gives her a good beating. 

     It is this same vendor’s displayed femininity that triggers the main chain of events in the film.   One of the characters a recent immigrant who is lame and works at the station selling newspapers covers the walls of the hut where he lives with Western style pin-ups.  This masturbatory environment is paralleled by his obsession with a sex slaying case that has blanket coverage in the newspapers: a young woman’s severed body has been found in a trunk by the railway.  The lame news seller latches onto the soft drink vendor, whose physicality overwhelms him  and whose life becomes reduced to his desire to possess her in the same way that he possesses his pin-up girls.   Unable to persuade her to return his ‘love’ because ‘she’ plans to marry one of the porters, his obsessive  masturbatory urges overcome him and he sets out to trap and kill her as a way of completion and actualising his fascination with the dead woman in the trunk who is now psychically fused with his frustrated object of desire.  The cripple’s plan  miscarries.  He stabs the wrong women and is eventually chased and trapped outside the station shed on the very tracks that have led him to Cairo.

    At this moment when the killer is disarmed and captured – the film’s final sequence – Chahine as director/ writer orchestrates an extraordinary ending to the action so that the film becomes both a provocation to and a manifesto of modernism.  The killer is not arrested and taken away by the police.  It’s the emergency psychiatric services that have been alerted and who apprehend him, strapping him into a straight jacket before bundling him away.  Chahine refuses to see his killer as a simple perpetrator of wrong as would almost certainly be the case in a Western film.  Chanhine refuses to demonise the newspaper seller; to cover him with the mantel of evil; the killer is  a victim of forces that have deranged him.  And it is important to note that throughout the film the lame seller is never simplistically villainised; in Chahine’s treatment of him there is always a residual affective sympathy.   Chahine’s statement is the prescient observation that in a real and meaningful sense in the coming maelstrom of change in Egypt it would have to be understood that all were victims, the quick and the dead.   
    adrin neatrour

  • Turtles Can Fly – Bahman Ghobadi – 2004 – Iran – Iraq – France: Soran Ebrahim; Avaz Latif

    adrin neatrour writes – Intruders in Paradise: Ghobadi’s film uses a milieu and a state of affairs that has become familiar from TV news coverage of Africa and the Middle East: the tent cities of refugees. Ghobadi shows the wounds of his people, but what he points to are the subtle but no less damaging dislocations of the psyche. As the title implies Turtles Can Fly is a fable.
    Turtles Can Fly – Bahman Ghobadi – 2004 – Iran – Iraq – France: Soran Ebrahim; Avaz Latif
    Intruders in Paradise
    To probe and tease out the object of his concern Ghobadi’s film uses a milieu and a state of affairs that has become familiar from TV news coverage of Africa and the Middle East: the tent cities of  refugees. These have become such a normalised backdrop to the pictures from disaster and war zones that I for one haven’t given them real thought.  I see the familiar images of serried rows of tents and food doled out from the back of trucks.  Focusing on the manifest physical conditions that characterise the camps, the compression, the unemployment, the lack of infrastructure and amenities, the reliance on food and medical aid etc ,  I think that at least these people have shelter and food:  they’re surviving. What I haven’t thought through are the deeper, less apparent but no less real psychic costs of the refugee camps: the consequences of smashing most  of the normative linkages that give shape to people’s lives.    Except in paradise and hell we exist in and through time.

    Ghobadi’s film takes place at a very specific moment: 2003 – three weeks before the US invasion of Iraq.  Ghobadi as a Kurd with compassion for his people has produced his film from within the people  – a refugee camp on the mountainous Iranian border area of Iraq.  Turtles Can Fly is a drama played out in a real camp with the inhabitants in the cast.  The film has a core documentary aspect which in itself gives the film authenticity in relation to the hard and harsh conditions which people endure.  But it is not these conditions per se, the privations and the risks they engender that are Ghobadi’s main concern here – graphically illustrated as they are.  Turtles Can Fly is about what happens when a people’s relationship with time is broken.  It is a statement about living in alienating timelessness: about the consequences of lives lived outside the past, outside history and without a sense of the future.  Lives in which all the landmarks physical and psychic are all in an eternal present – in a way a sort of paradise.  Ghobadi shows the open wounds of his people, but does so with dignity and without indulgence.  What he points to are the subtle but no less damaging dislocations of the psyche.  As the title implies Turtles Can Fly is a fable.

    The refugee camp is a deterritorialised location – wherever it is  – Dafur, Jordan, or in this case Kurdistan where the people have fled from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  The deterritorialisaton is not just dislocation of place, of spacial and personal relationships.  The camp exists in an alientated relationship to time.  The camp is outside history in the sense that it exists outside the stream of time, it is a world in brackets.  Psychically it is world of old men and children. They with no future: they with no past.   It is a world locked into an everlasting omnitemporal present.

    Whilst the old men sit and watch TV waiting for the news of the American liberation, it is in the domain of the child where Ghobadi locates his story.  The children who are the subjects of the movie stand not in opposition to a world that is structured according to social privilege – as in Bunuel’s Olvidados –  but in opposition to a world that is governed by time, by memory of the past and anticipation of the future.  Both the children and the rolling breaking news programmes of the satellite tv channels watched by the old, occupy a continuously evolving present. Outside history.  The main character is called Satellite, a boy of precocious ability and the natural leader of the band of children, one of whose skills, which is much in demand, is the installation of satellite tv equipment.  

    Children are generally natural inhabitants of the now, the present, the everlasting summers of a certain notion of Paradise which can be understood as a sort of infantile conceit.  The camp children released from the constraining bonds that tie them to the social fabric, revel in the liberation of an unending present.  To the children the wreckage and destruction of war is a world in which they are at home.  Their present consists in playing in the hulks of blown up tanks and the splintered artillery pieces.  Collectively they have no memory that these were the instruments of the destruction of their communities: for the children they are wondrous toys and dens in a real adventure playground   As children they are happy to earn money collecting and selling unexploded land mines. It is all part of the fun. When the mines detonate and the children are killed or lose limbs, the memory is marked in and on their bodies but is absent from consciousness.  As children of the camps their condition is to live outside the stream of time. 

    Ghobady’s moral fable concerns what happens when there is a rude intrusion through the  portals of this infantile Never Never  Land. A disturbance in paradise caused by forces marked by time, by the past and the future, in the form of a brother and sister. The woman child, Agrin carries the past with her. She is both a personal and collective history of collective brutalised treatment and personal trauma.  Her death in the opening sequence and the chain of events that precipitate her suicide break the spell of the eternal present the veil of enchantment occupied by Satellite. Agrin’s armless brother has the gift or curse of foresight which enables him to see the future: which gift  forces Satellite to recognise the limitations of the rolling news present and recognise that existence is the stream of time. 

    There are scenes in the film which is never sentimental which have a heightened poignancy in particular the relationship between the armless brother and the child of his sister.  But the weight of Turtles Can Fly bears down upon time and the demands that time make upon us to understand what is happening.  In the scenes where Satellite comes together with Agrin and her brother, you can feel the claim that the past and future make on the present.  Claims which if unmet lead directly not to paradise but to hell.

     As the film ends we and Satellite see the arrival of the American soldiers.  It is time  to understand that the days in  paradise are over.  It is time for time to get real  to relink the past and the future through the present.    
    adrin neatrour

  • Thoughts on The Masters Golf from Augusta – BBC – 6-9 April 2007

    Adrin Neatrour writes –
    Were an uninitiated observer – say from the planet Mars –to watch a round of golf being played by two men at the Masters, would that observer understand that what he was watching was in fact a sporting contest? To judge by the intoned whispered BBC commentary you might think that what was taking place was some kind of religious ceremony. 

    Thoughts on The Masters Golf from Augusta – BBC – 6-9 April 2007

    Adrin Neatrour writes –
    Were an uninitiated observer – say from the planet Mars –to watch a round of golf being played by two men at the Masters, would that observer understand that what he was watching was in fact a sporting contest?  To judge by the intoned whispered BBC commentary you might think that what was taking place was some kind of religious ceremony.

    After watching some play at the Masters 07 on TV I thought a little about what I had observed.  Looking at the golf on TV with a naïve eye what seems to be happening is that small groups of men are walking round a large park.  Sometimes large crowds are watching them. The men are not in any particular hurry. They stroll over the ground never breaking out of a certain relaxed stride.  They are all smartly dressed in the sort of casual clothes you buy at a shopping mall.  Some of the men carry large bags full of clubs; the men who use the clubs walk unencumbered. They stop from time to time and take a golf club out of its bag and strike a small white ball lying on the ground.  They keep hitting their ball until they eventually get it into a little hole that has been drilled into a very smooth sward of grass.   At this point they collect the ball and begin the process all over again. 

    Looked at from a certain point of view golf seems not so much a sport as rather a particular sort of statement endorsing a particular sort of life style: the suburban life style.  It comes across as a ritualised expression of suburban etiquette, a carefully played out enactment of how suburban people should interact with each other.
    Sport(in the modern sense of the word) is something else.

    Sport is an activity in which individuals engage in rule bound opposition and competition. What is striking about golf is that these characteristics are minimalised.  The players are not in head to head contest as in running or swimming events: the players do not square up to each other like gladiators such as wrestlers or tennis players or the team games such a football and cricket: the players do not contest for mastery of a bounded terrain – in the sense that they can manipulate the play area aggressively to the disadvantage of their opponent – as witness sports such as snooker or croquet.  Golf might be thought to resemble field sports or gymnastics where opponents neither contest shoulder to shoulder nor face to face.  But these sort of sports are characterised by taking place in a closely contained area, a pit, where all the contestants are bound together within a circle of competitive intensity.  These sports also in general are characterised by explosive action of short duration.  Golf shares few of these qualities.

    In golf the action, the execution of a shot may be explosive (or not as the case may be – putting is a gentle touch stroke).  But the game is a series of events taking place over the duration of about three hours during which the men walk through 18 holes laid out in a park, which is a diligently maintained space that represents the triumph of land management – landscape – over nature.  The characteristic feature of the sport is that the contestants spend most of their time within the bounds of the game simply strolling engaging each other in occasional pleasantries and always behaving towards each other with the utmost decorum,

    On the surface there are few signs that this is a contest – even at the top level of the professional game. The men walk from hole to hole: each plays his own game and tries to get his own ball home.  There is little sense of urgency or of competition. You might if you did not know better suppose that what you were watching was some sort of charming male ritual, perhaps connected with fertility or even the church…..

    At this point we have to take account of the suburban housing estate.  In England and the US it is probably no accident that golf courses and the game itself developed and increased in popularity with the spread of suburbia.   In the typical well to do suburban estate the houses are ideally all detached, set back from the street and fronted by tidy manicured gardens whose characteristic feature is either a smooth sward of lawn or gravel, bordered with flower or herbaceous beds.  Where the houses face each other there is a broad road between them, or where, as in modern developments broad roads are too much a luxury even for the upper middle income brackets, the houses are set at angle to each other so that none directly overlooks another.  To the untrained uninitiated eye the houses all look somewhat similar.  The cars parked in the drives mostly look new and gleaming and if you catch the dwellers on their non work days they wear smart casual clothes purchased at the a local shopping mall.  You might think that was it. Groups of similar looking structures occupied by groups of similar looking people who are minding their own business.   The estate design minimises sound spill between the units and sight lines between the houses do not facilitate easy visual monitoring between the units.  This isn’t a community in the traditional sense but community in its modern incarnation: a group of people brought together because they all share a defining trait in common: in this case the people are brought into community by their shared ability to buy into a neighbourhood that has a high price tag.  A community that has as a consequence of its elective nature, an innate sense of social status.

    But these status conscious inhabitants are generally highly intra competitive.  Underneath the surface of the monochrome estate there are often intense rivalries  taking place between individual units for  claims to public acknowledgment of status within the community.  Competition in suburban communities tends to be understated – barely admitted to.  Victory does not go to those who flaunt conspicuous consumption or their wealth.  Victory goes to the understated display related to life style.  Ostentation and vulgar symbols of wealth earn fewer status points than having the right expensive but conservative car, holiday in the right places, send children to the right schools, belong to the right clubs.  Nothing announces these signifiers as competition, but covertly (occasionally overtly) there is a competing ethos once you live there and understand what is going on.    

    Seen in the context of the suburban life style I begin to understand golf as a sporting contest, understated in form but real in substance.  Golf is an extension of the suburban estate ethos, a  life style that has adopted golf as its preferred form of sporting expression.  From the outside of the estate you really see very little, what is happening is a closed off utterance.  You see a group of unexceptional large brick houses, you see two guys watering the lawn. On the golf course the competition is not face to face, there is no overt agonistic display. no triumphant rictus or fist, no verbal aggression.  It is closed utterance.  But competitive it is, as two men walk a golf course in each others affective company, interacting politely and each taking it turn to play their ball. Just as competition exists on the suburban estate across all sorts muted indicators that are  familiar and accessible to the urban anthropologist rather than to the sport’s fan. 

    What we have on the estate is a situation in which competition is incorporated into the life style itself, unstated but always present to the extent that it is a constant frame of reference for the inhabitants who have deeply internalised the rules of their status competition. By extension there is a similar ethos in golf as the preferred form of recreation of suburbia. It embodies a form of competition that is not directly visible, being a product of a lifestyle that in itself is intensely competitive whilst at the same time taking pains to deny that there is any competition (We’re all very friendly here!)  In golf with its handicap system everyone should end up with more or less the same score; the real competition is mediated through a series of social and individual testings which coalesce into pressure situations in which the individual has to demonstrate to his opponent that he can pass muster.  Golf is not so much won or lost as a match but as a test of character, a test of showing that you are a person of sufficient self control to be a worthy game playing inhabitant of suburbia.  It’s a pressure thing about control under pressure.

    Even at the pro level golf is not a game played with a raw visceral self.  Its played with a mask.  Sports often reveal the undisguised and naked aspect or face of the individual.   Defeat and victory release strong emotive forces that tear the social mask away from the individual.  In golf the test seems to be whether one can keep the mask on all the time.  To walk from tee to tee from ball to ball from green to green as if nothing very much was happening.  To stroll across the park exchanging pleasantries and coded barbed comments without reacting to being in the game.  Golf mimics the rituals of the estates from which it recruits.  At the barb-b-q or Christmas party the overriding concern in interaction is with face.  To grin smile and nod and laugh at the right cues and to be prepared to defend one’s status with appropriate gesture or form of words should it be subtly threatened undermining of one’s status.  Golf like suburban life is played with a false self.  A self that is construct of status and the primacy of self image.  A round of golf like the company dinner party is ultimately a test of the robust nature of this false self, and the true object of the game as it has developed in its suburban ritual, even at the highest professional level, is to maintain this false self at a high level of operative efficiency.

    This analysis shows golf to be a highly unusual sport in particular at the professional level where code of conduct is highly enforced (other sports of course have this – snooker for instance, but snooker players operate in a pit where the competition is direct and aggressively intended towards the opponent and where interaction with the opponent is not a necessary feature of the competition). The professional golfers are all very nice people who would be welcome as residents in any up market suburban housing enclave.  For the professionals the self of emotions fears and desires is reined in and kept under control. They play with the mask an idealised self constructed out of suburban norms and value systems and this self, regimented in the etiquette of middle class niceties is what we see in professional competition on the golf course.
    It is no surprise then to understand that the golf course is also a special type of recruiting environment, able to inform the examiners if the applicant is one of us – able to sustain appearances under pressure able to perform with a false constructed self.

    At this point I haven’t mentioned that the TV coverage of the Masters, which like all  golf coverage fully accords with the mores of the game.  The live commentary is delivered hushed tones in the reassuring rounded tones of middle England.  The voices are respectful of everyone: the players, the organisation, the spectators and comply fully with the etiquette of  the formal  dinner party.  The coverage and commentary are in relation to current TV and media norms in a sort of time warp, adopting a style and tone of reverence that are of an era when the media knew its place – as servants.  It is interesting that the anchor studio role of Gary Lineker was criticised in many quarters – in particular it is said by the Masters organisers who didn’t like his style.  Lineker’s attitude was in fact entirely traditional. His problem both in accent and tone was that he looks and sounds like that phenomenon known to all exclusive estates, an arrivist who didn’t make the appropriate expressive moves and gestures to disguise his provenance.  His crime was the old fashioned social faux pas of not having the decency to cover up or at least make his origins (working class footballer) unobtrusive. 

    As a final note on a point already alluded to, the golf course is a certain type of park.  It is a high maintenance environment (one that is increasingly perceived in arid regions as destructive of environment on account of its demand for copious quantities of water) that is a faithful reflection of the idealised suburban world which supports it.  It reflects a suburban view of nature: it has all the constituent parts of the natural world: shrubs, trees, plants, flowers and grasses(of which few people know the names).  But this swath of nature is benignly ordered trimmed strimmed and managed. It is a non threatening environment and is part of the  order of things that exist for the enjoyment of life style. 
    adrin neatrour

  • Days of Glory (Les Indigines) – Rachid Boucharab – 2006 France Belgium Algeria

    You’re in the army now….
    This is a war movie with an angle – the angle being that the group of buddies whom we follow are members of a regiment raised in Algeria and comprising of native Algerians. They are in effect fighting for the colonial occupying power, and their propensity to enlist and fight was engendered through ignorance poverty and a desire perhaps to get outside the enclaves in which their French masters and the Pieds Noirs{‘Algerians’- of European origin) have sequestered them.Days of Glory (Les Indigines) –  Rachid Boucharab – 2006 France Belgium Algeria; Sami Naceri – Roschdz Zei – Bernard Blancan
    Viewed  21 04 07 Tyneside Cinema Ticket Price £6-20

    You’re in the army now….
    This is a war movie with an angle – the angle being that the group of buddies whom we follow are members of a regiment raised in Algeria and comprising of native Algerians.  They are in effect fighting for the colonial occupying power, and their propensity to enlist and fight was engendered through ignorance poverty and a desire perhaps to get outside the enclaves in which their French masters and the Pieds Noirs{‘Algerians’- of European origin) have sequestered them.

    The original French title of the movie is more interesting that the one they have given it for the US and UK theatrical circuit.  ‘Natives’ is probably the accurate translation of the original title – Les Indigines –  and it points up the ironic nature of the film’s account of how native Algerians fought to liberate La Patrie, the motherland from the Germans 1943-1945.  For ‘the Natives’, notional citizens of France, read; expendable cannon fodder. At this time Algeria was a department of France but Algerians, of non European extraction were second class citizens, who volunteered to fight for abstract political ideas (liberty equality fraternity)  from which they were, by virtue of their race (dirty arabs), excluded and for the freedom of a country which was remote and in practice, hostile and contemptuous of them.  The film plays up the contradictions endemic in this situation by developing these ironically counterpoised ideas in a number of characteristic sequences: the love affair between the arab liberator and French woman which generates sexual tension and suppressive counteraction: the fucked up and unjust discrimination endemic in the army – the denial of best rations and leave to the arab soldiers – the denial of promotion and recognition of bravery;  and the fact that the French army cynically regarded these troops as more expendable than their true blooded white Gallic counterparts with the consequence that the Algerian regiments were assigned the most dangerous and  hazardous operations with resulting heavy loss of life and limb.

    But in some senses these psychic conditions applied to many of those fighting on the allied side against the Germans.  The regiments raised by Britain in Asia of course, but also perhaps many of the American troops, the farm boys and slum dwellers of the big northern cities, and the black Americans. There is a sense in which they were not fighting their war, and motives and reasons for these groups fighting would have had similarities to their Algerian counterparts. They certainly shared some of the prejudices and vicious if not lethal discrimination experienced by the Algerian regiments, in particular those who were Afro-Caribbean.   Though all US troops will have received the same pay, many  in particular the Afro Caribbean’s if they survived the war, returned to a country whose socio political structure was in critical ways,  alien.  War certainly in recent times is often if not generally soldiered by the underprivileged and lumpen populations who have least claim on the privileges of the socio-political entities for which they fight.

    Aside from Les Indigines as a ironic observation and a polemical demand for the  correction of the mean  neglect of and denial of full pension rights by the French state to these soldiers( a point that Les Indigines by highlighting their situation, helped to put right  by restoring to the ex-soldiers full pensions – although belatedly when most will have been dead) the film is disappointing. It is just another war film.  Its well shot and the action sequences are realised with some effect.  There’s no sense of otherness, there is no entering into another point of view, there is no sense in which we see a world of different subjectivities.  The film remains firmly fixated on the exterior.  Les Indigines feels like it is missing a dimension.  We don’t get any feeling of how this experience is moulding  these men, making them perceive the world in a different way.  Les Indigines is worthy both in intent to help correct an injustice and as a buddy realisation but otherwise like most war films limited in ambition.
    adrin neatrour

  • Babel, dir. Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu

    A World Within Ear Shot by Tom Jennings
    Film review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 8, April 2007.A World Within Ear Shot  by Tom Jennings 
    [film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 8, April 2007]
    Babel, directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu
    This third collaboration with writer Guillermo Arriaga concludes Iñárritu’s depiction of contemporary collisions of fate, upping the stakes from class divisions in Mexico City (Amores Perros, 2000) and suburban US ruminations on the meaning and value of existence (21 Grams, 2003) to Babel’s worldwide web of violent correlation. Here a Berber peasant family are framed as terrorists when an American tourist is accidentally wounded, derailing her husband’s attempt to salve their unhappiness, while back home their two kids and illegal nanny fall foul of border police after attending a Tijuana wedding. Interspersed with these escalating disasters, a well-off Tokyo deaf-mute juggles frustrated teenage sexuality, grief at her mother’s suicide and the neglectfulness of her father – whose generosity, it transpires, originally set the story in motion. Drawn in by acute cinematography and sympathetic performances, the deft manipulation of narrative fragments and jumbled timelines prompts the viewer to ponder contrasting worldviews and life-chances.
    These diverse melodramas across the planet are woven with the pointed McGuffin of power from the barrel of a gun; common threads being desires and conflicts associated with love and family. Then, disparities of wealth and mobility massively influence both the scale of fulfilment that can realistically be sought and the consequences of mistakes and misfortunes. So, when a subsistence lifestyle encounters modern Third World realpolitik, embryonic imaginings of a fuller, safer future are stillborn. Meanwhile, the neo-colonial service economy vampirises its serfs in a callous class apartheid; whereas the relatively affluent are blind to the human costs of what they take for granted. Insulated by consumerism, their self-obsession allows them neither to connect meaningfully with each other nor avoid trampling over the less fortunate upon whom their comfort depends.
    However, the miscommunication hinted in the biblical title flows not from faulty translation between cultures or linguistic systems, but the contradictions of underlying social and political subtexts – the conceptual frameworks shaping our understanding and action. Events hinge on the characters’ negotiations of the corresponding institutional discourses which regulate lives and constrain potential, yielding misery for rich and poor alike – the texture of which varies considerably, with outcomes more tragic for those whose interests are marginalised most. Babel may be scarcely able to capture the deep structures of power radiating globally through social fabrics, but such ambition is rare in a mainstream cinema preferring simplistic conspiracies and cartoonish heroics. It’s also much subtler than the fluffy liberal marketing hype suggests – though the latter hoodwinked the critics who, in seeing only pretension, merely confirmed their own.