Abouna (reviewed in NI 352) is that rarest of things: an African film we have the chance to see. Set in Chad, it follows two boys' efforts to trace their father who's abandoned his family. It is tragic, gently paced and poignant, and has the bonus of a soundtrack by Ali Farka Touré. Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's focus on everyday life and his use of non-professional actors follows the lead of Iranian cinema, of which Hassan Yektapanah's Djomeh (reviewed in NI 344) is a fine example. It focuses on a desperately lonely Afghan refugee working on a remote dairy farm, and it too resists a simple resolution. Brazilian Walter Salles' Behind the Sun (reviewed in NI 344), on the other hand, unwinds the tragic fate of dirt-poor farmers exhausted by work and a blood feud. A film that never takes short cuts, never gives anyone less than their due, it stings with the sweat of labour.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Canongate, reviewed in NI 348) stands out from everything else. We gave it five stars - and a few months later the book went on to win the influential Booker Prize. The eponymous Pi is a 16-year-old boy who, due to a series of not entirely implausible misfortunes, finds himself adrift in the mid-Pacific, sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. This wonderful book may not make you believe in God - as the publishers rather grandly claim - but it may well give you faith in the redemptive powers of fiction.
Also warranting the five-star treatment was Michael Moore's Stupid White Men (ReganBooks, reviewed in NI 346) - a humane, deeply serious, and joyfully hilarious assault on the band of white men and their corporations who rule us all. If you believe it's not possible to be angry, hopeful, funny and informative at the same time you will be confounded by this book. And if you need further encouragement, the media empire of Rupert Murdoch tried to censor it, then shelve it.
Two records share the honours - and neither are shy about their politics. Le Tigre's Feminist Sweepstakes (Chicks on Speed, reviewed in NI 343) takes an energetic swipe at the various phobes around and is a wake-up call to those made complacent by modern living. A punky, electro feel gives this New York City band the best-sounding manifesto any day.
The other winner is The Fire This Time (Hidden Art, reviewed in this issue) the double CD that Grant Wakefield has put together with like-minded artists who don't think bombing Iraq to smithereens is sensible. Unbeatable for its sheer devotion to truth.
The Fire This Time
Three years ago camera operator Grant Wakefield came across a book called The Fire This Time. Written by the former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, the book was a warning to the US Government that its position on Iraq was untenable and unconscionable. Wakefield travelled to Iraq with filmmaker Miriam Ryle and began gathering the material that we hear on The Fire this Time.
It's in two parts. The second disc features 13 (mostly unreleased) tracks from the cream of electronic music: Aphex Twin, Orbital, Higher Intelligence Agency. It's all good, atmospheric stuff. But it becomes extraordinary when used as the underlay for the history of Iraq that's presented on the first disc. If this sounds dry: it isn't. The Fire this Time is rather like an audio play and the stories it tells are horrifying. We all know the recent history of Iraq - and Wakefield is no apologist for Saddam Hussein - but the CD's dramatic build-up to the Gulf War and its aftermath is remorseless.
'Say Hello to Allah' - named after a US message on a bomb - is chilling. A pall of ambient silences hangs over the next track with the tinny voice of a man speaking.
Iraq, by the time this is printed, may be the site of a war that Wakefield and the musicians - together with all the learned statespeople whose quotes are archived here - believe is fundamentally wrong. What's more terrible is that, as the sources for The Fire this Time make clear, it will be a war sought by US interests. 'We think the price is worth it,' runs a Madeleine Albright soundbite. 'Why?' runs its answer.
Jerusalem isn't going to win grizzly old country man Steve Earle any fans among the Bush administration, but then again, never has a record been so designed not to. Topics are various - as you might expect from the former hellraiser who in recent years has become a vocal opponent of capital punishment - but Jerusalem's main focus is on 'the American Way' and the fact that Earle doesn't like what he's seeing.
This has led some commentators to label Jerusalem an anti-patriotic album. The truth is anything but. Earle's politics stem from a post-Vietnam patriotism that asks difficult questions at the right times. Bruce Springsteen's name is often coupled with Earle's but the range of Earle's music extends beyond the forging of American mythologies.
Even so, Jerusalem wraps its messages in familiar paper. 'John Walker's Blues' - the song where Earle places himself in the mindset of the Marin County boy who joined the Taliban - has the same solid R&B attitude you associate with the Stones. 'Shadowland', the vagabond song, has the capacity to summon up shades of Patti Smith's punkier moments. But it's in the lyrics that Earle really hits home. His duet with Emmylou Harris, 'I Remember', is a subtle recollection of lost love, while the album's title-track takes Old Testament imagery of war to anticipate peace. Small wonder the Bush guys think Earle's a subversive.
The Screaming of the Innocent
This is a remarkable novel by a woman who already has a string of outstanding achievements to her name. Unity Dow is widely known for her distinguished record as a campaigning human-rights lawyer and she is currently Botswana's first - and only - female High Court judge.
In this, her second novel, the author has taken up the contentious theme of the ritual killing of children - a practice highlighted by the still-unsolved discovery of a child's torso in the River Thames in London last year.
The crime of abduction and murder of Neo Kakang, a 12-year-old girl, is carried out by Disanka, a successful businessman generally agreed to be a pillar of the community; a 'good' man. His accomplices are the village's sub-chief and the ambitious and scheming deputy head of the school. The police inform Neo's mother that she has been killed by wild animals and it seems the men have committed their foul crime with impunity. However, five years later Amantle Bokaa, a young and idealistic government medical trainee makes a chance discovery that points to human involvement in the child's disappearance and ignites a fight for justice in which the ordinary people of the village take on the authorities.
This well-written and extremely readable novel combines an affectionate portrait of rural Botswanan life with a brave and necessary challenge to an arrogant patriarchal society. It makes an important and timely contribution to our attempts to understand how acts as atrocious as child murder can be committed by those in power and condoned by the apparatus of the state.
A Guide to the Perplexed
Gilad Atzmon is an Israeli profoundly unhappy with the description and a fervent anti-Zionist. His politics were formed by his experiences serving in the Israeli military and he now lives in London in 'voluntary exile'. In his début novel he sets out to provoke strong reactions and, given his subject matter, doubtless he will succeed.
The book is set in the year 2052. Forty years after the destruction of the state of Israel, its people have experienced a new diaspora and its cultural legacy is a fading memory. In Germany, an organization called the Institute for the Documentation of Zion is formed to sift through the remaining fragments in an attempt to puzzle out the self-destructive paradox that was Israel. Among the documents it unearths is the autobiography of Gunther Wünker. His journal covers Israel's final days and tracks his development from an idealistic childhood to his disillusion during national service and his eventual exile in Germany, where he becomes a decidedly priapic academic and develops the alternative philosophy of 'Peepology' - voyeurism taken to extremes.
Atzmon attacks a range of targets - Zionism, racial stereotypes and military lunacies - with mixed results. He combines black humour with wilful provocation in a way reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, as in his description of a kibbutz as a place where 'every member contributes as much as he can and gets very little back'. A Guide to the Perplexed is feisty and pugnacious; it will enrage as many as it delights but I suspect Atzmon would be equally happy with either reaction.
A Map of the Gardens
For Gillian Mears, it's all about the warp and weave of human relationships: making a birthday cake for a neglected child, protecting a loved one, making a trek to Tibet in the hope of healing, escaping from an abusive employer.
In her evocative collection of stories, most of which are based in the screen-door-squeaking Australian countryside, you can feel the sting of the sun as you turn each page.
What keeps the pages turning is Mears' ability to present the self-doubt of the characters as they rise above the humourless responsibilities of adulthood. Gently revealed are those things we need to grapple with and those we need, for a time, to forget.
Mears has acutely observed people's strengths and idiosyncrasies. The stories' deeply sensuous tone portrays lives of dependency and co-dependency, shadowy sexual relationships and an ongoing interest in the discrepancy between public and private behaviour. She teases out the ambiguities of the complex passage between the realms of inner and outer, public and private worlds; the uneasy balance between the secrets of private existence and the expectations and obligations that exist outside.
The unique world of each story is skilfully crafted and Mears is quick with the unsettling analogy. There is more than a nod towards the surreal and there are moments that may appear too self-important. However, it's a pleasure to read.
As Mears was preparing this anthology she was suffering from the onset of locomotor ataxia, the loss of strength and co-ordination in walking. Many of the characters in her collection are losing or have lost their mobility. All, in one way or another, are still travelling.
Suleiman's mostly silent comedy - the first Palestinian film to be distributed across Europe - is a bold, original, sometimes puzzling dramatization of contemporary Palestinian life.
It opens in Nazareth, Suleiman's birthplace in Israel. Teenage boys chase a man dressed as Santa Claus and stab him. Another man throws refuse sacks into his neighbour's garden. Another stockpiles bottles on his rooftop to use as missiles. Yet another, opening his mail at breakfast, keels over with a heart attack.
Tying together the disparate scenes is the character of 'ES', played deadpan by Elia Suleiman himself. It's while visiting Nazareth's Christian hospital to see his father - the heart-attack victim - that he incidentally encounters other characters, such as the bottle-thrower and the wounded Santa Claus. Some of the scenes even occur inside his head as when, driving from his Jerusalem home to the hospital, he throws an apricot stone out of the car window. It explodes and annihilates a roadside Israeli tank.
The film's final strand is the thwarted love between ES and a woman (Manal Khader) from the West Bank town of Ramallah. Prevented by Israeli restrictions from travelling to each other's towns, they meet and hold hands in parked cars near the Al-Ram checkpoint.
Suleiman brilliantly uses symbolism - a strong current in Palestinian literature and poetry - both in cathartic fantasy, as in Khader's wonderfully unexpected and upbeat Ninja offensive on an Israeli attack helicopter, and, obliquely, in the surreal and Tatiesque scenes of everyday life. For Israeli Palestinians, fantasy helps maintain sanity, but Suleiman can offer no solutions to their plight. This is a very bitter comedy.
Summits may come and summits may go but before long they're usually forgotten altogether. As a reminder of what the issues were in Johannesburg and to provoke discussion, you can't do much better than watch this short (30-minute) film. It sets up the antagonists in stark, even crude, contrast. Particularly worth watching are the South Africans in Alexandra township, just five miles from the conference centre. It's not that they don't have the right word for the Summit: it's that the word is 'bullshit'.
11' 09" 01 - September 11
This is a collection of 11 shorts by 11 filmmakers from 11 countries. Each is about the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Each is symbolically 11 minutes, 9 seconds and 1 frame in length.
Most of the films are political and all resist the Bush regime's co-option of events. Ken Loach looks back nearly 30 years to 11 September 1973, the date of the American-sponsored coup against Allende's democratically elected Left-wing government in Chile. Mira Nair (director of Monsoon Wedding) challenges the Islamophobia that swept America. Based on a true story, her film is about a New Yorker of Pakistani origin who is missing after the attack. The authorities accuse him of being a terrorist on the run. In fact, as a police cadet and emergency volunteer, he had hurried to the Twin Towers to help in the rescue and had died in the buildings' collapse.
Clearly people across the world sympathized with America's loss and suffering but several filmmakers appeal for reciprocity, for acknowledgement that Americans are not uniquely victims. As one Chilean exile says in Loach's film: 'We will remember you. We hope you will remember us.'
Veteran Claude Lelouch's drama about two New York lovers, perhaps the best of the fictions, eschews politics altogether. Sean Penn's fantasy one-hander simply looks at a lonely widower already struggling to live with his loss. Penn describes his film, simply focusing on the human implications of loss, as a political rejection of Bush's bellicose exploitation of the tragedy.
Three months after the first anniversary, this moving and thought-
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.