Argentina's Cristina Kirchner sails to victory

Photograph by Ed Stocker.

It’s no great suprise that Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner won Sunday’s presidential elections. Local and international media have long predicted that her re-election would be relatively uncontested – and no last minute hiccups stopped her steamrolling to victory, with 54 per cent of the vote, as activists and party henchman gathered to hear her acceptance speech in a Buenos Aires hotel.

What’s really been of interest is watching CFK (as she’s known here) win the charisma battle hands down. It even seemed that journalists covering her campaign for the country’s main news channel, Todo Noticias – owned by Grupo Clarín, a media conglomerate openly hostile to the government – had momentarily been sucked into the curious blend of glitz, glamour and graft that Fernández represents.

She definitely has something. Of course this mustn’t detract from the serious problems within Argentina. Inflation is unofficially around 25 per cent (the government has other ideas), corruption is still rife (the country continues to fare badly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index) and the government is spending money like it’s going out of fashion.

Growth is admittedly high, with the IMF predicting a rate of 8 per cent this year – making it the fastest growing economy in the world after China. But doubts about its sustainability remain.

When Fernández speaks, these questions are relegated to second place. You see, this wasn’t an election built on ideas or policy. No laws in Argentina force candidates to debate with each other – which means Fernández decided not to even mention her opponents. Or much solid policy for that matter. She didn’t need to. With an uninspiring opposition bent on digging up economic dirt and fear in order to win votes, the incumbent could strike a positive note. Appeal to Argentines’ sense of nationalism or the country’s potential and you’re onto a winner.

It’s the optimistic tone that she’s done so well, especially since the death of her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, who had a fatal heart attack last year. She’s stepped out of his more confrontational, Hugo Chávez-cuddling shadow and become more of a president in her own right. And a head of state that has gone for a calmer, more compassionate discourse. Fights definitely still exist – but if they’re going to happen then she’ll get her party henchman to dirty their hands.

What she possesses is blend of weakness and strength. No speech of hers goes by without her husky voice quivering a little and looking like she’s about to break down in tears. She speaks to people in an informal way, gently scolding the crowd when they started booing the mention of right-wing Buenos Aires mayor, Mauricio Macri, at Sunday’s victory speech. ‘Don’t be like that,’ she said. ‘I’m going to get angry.’ It’s a combination of populism and maternalism that fascinates people and, of course, draws comparisons with Eva Perón (exactly what Fernández wants).

Argentinians seem to accept that corruption is part of politics; it’s a case of whether you are more or less bent than your predecessor. They might find fault in Fernández – and recognize that all is not completely rose tinted – but they also believe that things won’t be better with any of the current alternatives. Speaking to one Argentinian, he mentioned his salary had tripled in the last two years. Although this isn’t the case for all, standards of living are rising and salaries (certainly in the private sector) are outpacing inflation. Social spending is up and poverty is down.

Argentina seems to have an ability to push the self-destruct button, often manipulated by international financial bodies in the past. Fernández is prepared to stand up to these institutions – but let’s just hope she doesn’t surge forward blindly in her final term if the growth fiesta comes to an abrupt end.

Mohamed Al-Daradji

Mohamed Al-Daradji talked with Ed Stocker

Photo by Ed Stocker

‘I just want to make films – I’m a filmmaker, not an insurgent or a soldier.’ Mohamed Al-Daradji’s sentiments are normal enough; he’s a director after all. But when it comes to making movies in his Iraqi homeland, it’s never an easy task. Reports of kidnappings, suicide bombs and violent confrontations have long been the mainstay of news programmes that beam back reports to a largely numb Western hemisphere. But what if there were another Iraq? An Iraq where, against all the odds, something positive was taking place? Striving to show an alternative vision of his country, Al-Daradji is at the forefront of the push to re-establish the arts within Iraq and to stimulate a cinema industry that once ranked amongst the most established in the Arab world.

Take a stroll through movie history and there are plenty of flicks wrapped in a cloak of intrigue, inflated by tales of mysterious happenings and dangerous liaisons. But nothing can compare with Al-Daradji’s experiences filming his first feature in Baghdad in 2004. The 31-year-old’s normally animated face glazes over when asked about the shoot. ‘It was not easy,’ he confides. ‘There was no electricity, no petrol, no money, no food and sometimes no place to stay in the desert [where we filmed].’

His city had shape-shifted beyond all recognition in the decade that he’d been in Europe – first in Holland as a film studies student and then Leeds, England, where he completed a Masters and set up a production company. Seeing the crumbling buildings, grieving families and lawless society affected him deeply. ‘It was shocking – it hit me hard seeing the change,’ he says. ‘This was not the city that I had left.’ And he was about to experience the lawlessness first-hand.

On 17 December 2004 Al-Daradji and his crew were surrounded by armed militia, lined up against a wall near the Tigris river and accused of being puppets of the interim government and US military. Al-Daradji thought he was about to die – his crew had been badly beaten and his sound man shot in the legs – but a whir of police sirens scared off the attackers (Al-Daradji calls it a ‘miracle of God’). At the hospital they aroused the suspicion of a guard who handed them over to a Shi’a militia, working with the Americans. They were then interrogated for 10 hours before being passed on to US troops. ‘There was an Army general,’ Al-Daradji says, piecing together the chain of events. ‘I asked him to contact the Dutch embassy or the coalition force who knew about me. Then he hit me saying, “Shut up, you fucking Al-Qaeda; shut up, you fucking insurgent”.’ Al-Daradji and his production team were detained for five days until the Dutch embassy negotiated their release.

There were other incidents – one of the armed security guards protecting them was killed at a checkpoint minutes before they arrived. But Al-Daradji refused to back down. The result was Ahlaam (Dreams) a fictional drama about two patients in a mental asylum and the doctor that cares for them, based on real experiences. Footage skips from 2003, on the eve of the American strikes to topple Saddam Hussein, to the same three protagonists five years earlier. It’s a bold, mature piece of cinema about the horrors of war and the everyday people affected by it. Al-Daradji’s films abhor violence but he insists they don’t try to preach politics. ‘I never speak about politics,’ he says. ‘But of course you see my political point of view through the human element.’

And it’s the ‘human element’ that Al-Daradji wants cinema audiences to take away with them. When we meet, the director has just returned from six months in Iraq filming his latest work, Son of Babylon. The movie, again set in 2003, is about a Kurdish grandmother who travels through Iraq with her grandson in search of her soldier son, missing since Iraqi troops withdrew from Kuwait 12 years earlier. Whereas Ahlaam is a bleak and deeply shocking neo-realist film, Al-Daradji says there are glimpses of hope in this latest offering. ‘When you see Son of Babylon you’ll be like “Wow! This is not Iraq”,’ he laughs. ‘All the people who saw the rough cut said that.’ Why? ‘Because it’s different from the Iraq you see on the news. It’s a human Iraq.’

Al-Daradji is passionate about the future of his country. He talks with regret about the decline of the once buoyant state-controlled Iraqi film industry, lamenting the pitiful cinema audiences and ubiquitous pirate DVDs selling on street corners in today’s Baghdad. But there’s clearly local interest. In April 2007 more than 3,000 people came to see Ahlaam when he screened it at the capital’s National Theatre. ‘It was a huge success,’ he says proudly. ‘They applauded the film about 25 times during the screening.’ The director plans to nurture further the rebirth of interest in film by touring the country with a mobile cinema later in the year, showing the handful of Iraqi films that have been made since 2003.

But it’s when he’s shooting a film that he provides the greatest inspiration to young Iraqis wanting to follow in his footsteps. Employing an all-Iraqi crew of trainees, he uses the occasion for hands-on teaching. ‘They work and we teach them at the same time,’ he explains. ‘So sometimes we stop shooting and explain to them why we do something, they ask questions and at the weekend we have a meeting and talk about it.’ He’s also brought in Canadian and European directors to provide further training and organized a series of workshops in Jordan. Al-Daradji says three Iraqi films are scheduled this year alone, and there are other active directors – based in Europe, where the majority of their funding comes from – such as Oday Rasheed and Qusim Abd.

There’s a restless energy and determination about Al-Daradji and he insists there are many more stories about the Iraqi people that an international audience must see. ‘Iraq needs a lot of films; there are so many stories that each Iraqi could potentially make 10 films. Imagine if 28 million people made films?’ With him at the helm, we might just get to see them.

Ahlaam (Dreams) was released on DVD in April 2009 (see the film review in NI 422). It won the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award in 2008.
Son of Babylon will be shown at film festivals later this year and released in 2010.

Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir

Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s latest is an animated docudrama in which the director and his friends play key roles. One night, in a bar, a friend tells Folman about a recurring dream in which 26 vicious dogs are chasing him. The two decide that the dream is connected to Israel’s war with Lebanon – in which they both served in the 1980s. Eager to find out about his involvement in a conflict of which he has little recollection, Folman seeks out fellow former recruits and sets their animated testimonies to real audio recordings. What follows is a personal and moving study of selective memory, repressed feelings and the folly of war. This compelling film, with its vivid cartoon format and potent techno-rock-classical soundtrack, gives a fresh approach to understanding the massacres that took place in Beirut in 1982. Nothing can prepare you for the shocking coup de théâtre with which the film ends.


Youssou N'Dour

Youssou N’Dour talked with Ed Stocker

In an age when the mass media prefer to focus on Africa’s wars and famines, Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour is a beacon of positive energy. No African artist has done as much to raise awareness of the continent’s problems and bring about change; the list of humanitarian agencies and social projects bearing his name is exhaustive. And yet for many in the West at least, he’s still only remembered for ‘7 Seconds’, a 1994 chart-topping duet with American singer Neneh Cherry.

At home in Dakar, N’Dour’s beaming, boyish face looms over the congested traffic from billboards dotted around the capital. When he returns from his many international shows, he’s welcomed back as a hero and saviour. His music has come to define the sound of Senegal, fusing traditional West African music and storytelling with Western pop. Lyrics tackle everything from love and religion to emigration, sanitation and cultural pride. He’s hailed as a spokesman for Africa and, according to Time magazine, one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

‘I am proud to be an ambassador for Africa,’ the singer says. ‘It happened quite naturally through my travels and meetings. For many years I’ve been absorbing my continent’s problems and I’m delighted that through my music, my voice has been heard and listened to.’

N’Dour has long promoted reputable causes through his tours. In 1985 he organized a concert for the release of Nelson Mandela, later bringing out an album in the South African leader’s name. He played a lead role in the 1988 fundraising concerts organized by Amnesty International – Human Rights Now! – touring the world with performers including Peter Gabriel and Sting. More recently he played at the ‘Make Poverty History’ Live 8 concerts in London, Cornwall and Paris. The touring provides a chance to reconnect with the African diaspora: ‘I love seeing my Senegalese brothers and Africans at my shows, whether in New York, Stockholm or Australia. They create a great atmosphere and really take part.’

His social work has focused on helping young people in particular. In April 1991 Youssou N’Dour was named an Ambassador of Goodwill by UNICEF and, among many initiatives, played a benefit concert in Dakar in 1994. In 2001 he launched the charity’s Global Movement for Children and the ‘Say Yes For Children’ campaign in front of 40,000 people in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou.

On top of his work with UNICEF, N’Dour recently formed his own foundation and Youth Network for Development. It has focused on issues ranging from malaria to children’s rights. One project, La Bourse d’Étude Adama Diop, has created a support fund for young girls from poor backgrounds to help get them into further education. Started in the 2003/2004 school year, the aim is to provide girls with three years’ education after they’ve completed their baccalauréat, part-funded directly by N’Dour. He also launched Joko Inc in 2000, a company aiming to help young Senegalese people connect with the outside world through the internet, opening a series of Yoko internet clubs the following year.  ‘As I always say,’ the singer asserts, ‘I am above all an artist, but one who takes high and strong positions.’

N’Dour has done much to democratize the Senegalese airways through his recording studio and record label, Jololi, founded in 1997. It’s an attempt to give autonomy and self-determination back to African musicians, shifting some of the power away from the American and European record labels that continue to dominate African music. ‘When I created Jololi, the goal was to distribute African music from Senegal,’ he says, ‘because local groups don’t all have the chance to go and sign abroad. I have a studio, they record their albums there and Jololi produces, distributes and promotes these albums. I don’t personally take charge but I’m proud of [our] catalogue of artists.’

But it’s on celluloid, not CD, that N’Dour’s most recent projects have focused. Last year he made his acting début, playing freed slave Olaudah Equiano in Amazing Grace, a film charting the lead-up to the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807. His sombre role in the film is a far cry from the energetic, animated N’Dour that we see in Return to Gorée, his latest project – a documentary. Initially premiéred at the London Film Festival, the film shows the singer travelling from the former Senegalese transit island of Gorée – and back – along the old transatlantic slave routes, collaborating with American and European musicians and demonstrating how modern music, in particular jazz, is undeniably linked to African slaves and their descendants. While it would have been easy to focus on the painful realities of the trade, N’Dour explains this would have been missing the point: ‘Despite the historical horrors, the strength of this film rests with the natural and spiritual aspect of what we all experienced through this adventure. We are positive artists – we tell a story, we don’t comment on it.’

But there have been occasions when the Grammy award winner has been prepared to make more political statements. In 2003 he cancelled a tour of the US in protest at the Iraq war, saying it would send out the wrong signals and be ‘inappropriate’ to visit. More recently he got involved in a Spanish campaign aimed at dissuading young Africans from making the perilous journey to Europe in makeshift wooden boats; his detractors accused him of being a puppet of European governments’ attempts to stamp out economic migration. Does N’Dour see himself as a politicized musician in the vein of Bono or Bob Geldolf? ‘I am an artist and a human being,’ he replies. ‘Today everything is political – all our acts and all our words – but I don’t belong to any political party.’

Nonetheless, Dakar’s rumour mill abounds with suggestions that N’Dour intends to enter politics. Last year, the singer confirmed an interest in the capital’s mayoral position and, having recently moved into the media world, the means are clearly there. ‘Music has a great power,’ he says, ‘but I don’t look to find solutions in the place of politicians. I ask politicians questions and I demand a response.’ And when N’Dour asks, people pay attention.

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