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Mixed Media: Films

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© Chancers or hostages? Film stars Choi Eun-hee and husband Shin Sang-ok.

The Lovers and the Despot

directed and written by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan (95 minutes)

Kim Jong-il, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea, was a bit of a film buff. He was desperate to create a film culture whose excellence the world would acknowledge; that would be much better than anything South Korea could do. North Korea, though, only ever made films extolling the greatness of the Supreme Leader. So what’s a Supreme Leader to do? Kidnap South Korea’s best talent?

First, film star Choi Eun-hee. Then her ex-husband, film director Shin Sang-ok. Kim is very respectful, Choi is placid, but Shin plots to escape, not quite like Steve McQueen, but he does manage to climb onto a train, which unfortunately just chuffs around a circular route. Shin delays his escape plans, writes to the Supreme Leader, persuades him he wants to make great films. And he does. Or at least, freed from financial constraint, better than the films he made in South Korea.

Nicely illustrated with clips from Shin’s films, official news film – not least scenes of mass crying that Kim instigates – and recordings of Kim that Choi claims they secretly made at huge risk, Choi spills the beans on life with the Supreme Leader.

How much of it is true? Did they decamp in the first place because they were in serious debt and their careers in the South were at a dead end? You decide, if you can.

★★★★ ML

The Confession

directed by Ashish Ghadiali (90 minutes)

This extended detailed interview with Moazzam Begg, one-time prisoner in Islamabad, Kandahar, Bagram, Guantanamo and Belmarsh, focuses almost entirely on the seated Begg’s face, arms and hands. There are few illustrative film clips and photographs – here is a man under unyielding scrutiny.

The son of a Birmingham bank manager, he speaks carefully and concisely. His intellectual seriousness and curiosity, especially about Islam and religion, global political conflict and justice, and his independent-mindedness are quickly evident. They have landed him in a lot of trouble, though. At first his carefulness may seem rehearsed, even evasive. He’s certainly, since his arrest in 2002, had a lot of time to think.

He makes the point that he’s a Birmingham boy: a Muslim, but one that went to a Jewish primary school and is a firm believer in a multicultural Britain. Begg sees the wider context, is increasingly convincing, and is even generous about the US, praising his Guantánamo guards. He is actually very English, even a naïve believer in ‘fair play’, who still seems shocked by his treatment at the hands of MI5 and the Birmingham police, but defends the concept of ‘jihad’.

It would to many, including MI5, be inflammatory, but he defends the theological rightness of the term against those who present it as holy war. Jihad is, he argues, a community’s right, and even obligation, to self-defence; but never the right to offend, to violate, to abuse. Begg comes over as principled and consistent ever since, as a youth during the war in the former Yugoslavia, getting involved in charity work to help besieged Bosnian Muslims.

Of course, a 90-minute doc is far from conclusive. But here is even more evidence that suggests the British and Americans really didn’t know what they were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that human rights weren’t on their list of priorities.

★★★★ ML

New Internationalist issue 495 magazine cover This article is from the September 2016 issue of New Internationalist.
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