Best Of The Year
This year’s top films were about love – but not romance. My Architect (NI 370) was Nathaniel Kahn’s uniquely moving film about buildings and the visionary architect Louis Kahn, his father, who never publicly acknowledged him. The Story of the Weeping Camel (NI 370) by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Fatorni was a Mongolian documentary-style feature about camel herders’ efforts to persuade a camel to accept and suckle its calf. Captivating, unidealized and with the look and feel of real people in their own environment, it worked beautifully. Writer-director Amma Asante’s first feature, A Way of Life (NI 373), provided serious and subtle insight on blighted teenage lives and the background to an act of racist violence. This was an impressive and mature début from a talent to look out for. Finally, in his inspired documentary, Super Size Me (NI 368), Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s, beloved by millions, for a month and had doctors monitor what it was doing to his body. Gratifyingly, the junk food industry hated the film and McDonald’s profits continue to fall.
In The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo Ndebele (Ayebia Clarke Publishing, NI 369) a quartet of South African women await a return that may never come. Into the women’s conversations comes the most famous waiting woman in South African history, Winnie Mandela. This book expertly blends fact and fiction, imagination and history in a moving and powerful exploration of the experiences of South African women. MG Vassanji’s family saga The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (Canongate, NI 373) centres on Vikram Lall, born in Kenya of Indian parents and destined to be reviled as ‘one of Africa’s most corrupt men’. From an uneasy vantage point his family observes the rise of the Mau Mau and the end of British colonial rule. This was an engaging epic, querying the role of the individual in determining the tides of history. With Another world is possible if... (Verso, NI 374) veteran campaigner Susan George tackled the crucial question of the global justice movement: ‘under what conditions is another world possible?’ Impelled by incisive clarity, George’s contribution was welcome indeed. Paul Hewlett, a new writer from New Zealand/Aotearoa, used comic fiction to tackle similar issues. His début novel Moonzoo (Fictionland, NI 368) is a tale in which benign aliens visit earth to purchase Antarctica. This fast-paced satire on ownership, collective responsibility and political morality was fresh, funny and asked all the right questions.
A man and his son tramp through the autumn countryside with little or no money. The son is eager to press on to a new life. The man, unsure, seems content to take his time. They’re walking from Moscow to Koktebel in the Crimea, where the man was once based at an aerodrome, and where his sister now lives. They sleep rough, scrump apples, look for work. A railway worker offers them a room for the night and food. A suspicious old man lets them stay, to replace his roof.
This is a benevolent, gently paced, simply plotted road movie. The damp landscape is particular, but their separate, overlapping journeys are universal and personal. The camera shows us what they see and how they feel – when drowning in torrential rain, or contemplating a hovering bird, a symbol of the journey’s end. Koktebel is a beautiful film, about love and independence, which resists sentimentality and any easy resolution.
Ben is an uptight office worker who hates his neighbour Gus, a huge, hairy, insecticide-spraying farmer in a dirty vest. When Ben gets sacked, he flips and attacks Gus. Trapped under Gus’s new tipper-truck, both are crushed and paralyzed from the waist down.
Ben takes off for Finland to see the one thing that still means anything to him – motocross. Gus is going that way too – to claim compensation from Aaltra, the makers of the tipper-truck.
Writer-directors Kervern and Delepine – who write and act in the French Spitting Image series – play Ben and Gus. They’re good at physical comedy – there’s little dialogue – and showing how difficult it is to get around by wheelchair. But of course, Ben and Gus aren’t just wheelchair users. They are first of all people – and often horrible. Ben steals someone’s electric wheelchair. Gus mugs passers-by.
Don’t see Aaltra because it’s the first wheelchair road-movie. See it because it’s a funny, original and irreverent movie about an odd couple who happen to be disabled.
Pepsi and Maria
Adam Zameenzad is rapidly gaining a reputation for highly imaginative and boundary-crossing fiction. His sixth novel is set in an unnamed South American city, a place of sadism and corruption, unimaginable desperation and routine brutality. This is a place where the police gather for a convivial drink before setting out to murder street children, and teenage mothers pacify their hungry infants by giving them glue to sniff. The reader is catapulted directly into the heart of this nightmarish world as two street kids, Pepsi and Maria narrowly escape an attack by Caddy, a psychotic police officer whose obsessive mission is to hunt them down and kill them.
It gradually emerges, as the story is told in the perpetual present of life on the street, that Pepsi is the illegitimate, disowned son of an important politician and that Caddy’s ‘street cleaning’ crusade goes beyond personal zeal and involves the presidential ambitions of his political master. The resourceful Pepsi has a mission of his own, which is to return the kidnapped Maria to her home in the rubbish-tip slum ironically called ‘Heaven’. The children call on the aid of the community of the dispossessed and a face-off ensues between those who have nothing left to lose and those who view everything, including children, as commercial commodities.
Pepsi and Maria is a beautifully crafted, multi-faceted book; at once a highly dramatic and gripping thriller, a vivid re-imagining of the clichéd Magical Realism genre and a searing indictment of the ways in which self-righteous moral certainty lead to a ratcheting-up of cruelty and inhumanity.
American Dream: Global Nightmare
The vagaries of copydates mean that I am writing this review in the dismal wake of the election of George W Bush as President of the United States, following his selection by the Supreme Court four years ago. The civilians of Fallujah are dying in uncounted numbers in the supposed preparation for Iraqi ‘democracy’. In American Dream: Global Nightmare the respected cultural commentators Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies advance the thesis that the bloody Pax Americana being imposed on the world is the result of serious delusions deep in the American psyche.
They propose 10 ‘Laws of Americana’ and structure their book around a discussion of how these laws are sold to the US people and, by extension, the rest of us, through the medium of film, from Drums Along the Mohawk to Universal Soldier.
Much has been made of Bush as a ‘wartime President’ but, as the authors point out, all American elections are wartime elections. The country, bought and sold by a corporate élite, is on a perpetual war footing; fighting actual wars against such mighty powers as Iraq and Afghanistan, and permanently engaged in an endless series of domestic ‘wars’ on drugs, AIDS, crime and the conveniently inchoate enemy ‘terrorism’.
This is a first-rate primer on the myths America sells itself: its presumption of infallibility; its ignorance and indifference to the needs and priorities of the rest of the world. We are all being driven on a mad charge to oblivion and, whoever is President of the world’s most destructive force, this urgently needs to change.
Bin Laden in the Suburbs
Few of us would choose to bathe in bile. But we seem to have little choice but to be bathed in the media bile that daily constructs the ‘Arab other’ as the pre-eminent folk devil of our day. Radio shock jocks and talkback hosts, TV current affairs and newspaper opinion columns are awash with it.
How do news media and popular culture shape the ‘Arab other’? What does this teach us about national identity and global politics? Bin Laden in the Suburbs shows us how social anxieties feed on each other in a chain of moral panics, and how these in turn nurture the politics of fear and exclusion.
The authors show how current values, brittle with fear, are stitch by stitch unpicking the thread of multiculturalism not only in Australia, but in the UK and North America as well.
Military metaphors predominate in reporting Arab crime and those committing such crimes are reported as young men ‘lost between two cultures’, thus laying easy blame on the ‘failure’ to assimilate.
This is an empowering book because it gives readers the skills to overturn such shrill nonsense. It moves between global and local events to show how news reports and political reaction misrepresent and mislead, demonize and distort, and how wise words from the well informed can foster not exclusion of the other, but its embrace. Robust, fair and accessible, Bin Laden in the Suburbs is an excellent source book to pull the plug on the media bile of otherness.
Many have tried similar recipes – take a bit of Arabic, French, street slang, and throw into a hustling mix of rai, rock guitars and electronics – but only Rachid Taha can cook up something as intoxicating as Tékitoi? Break the title down to its syllables – ‘T’es qui toi?’ (Who are you?) – and you realize that Tékitoi? is an album that not only asks questions of its listeners, but makes some assertions of its own.
For one – as the singer makes clear in a limited-edition interview DVD that accompanies the disc – Taha is French, Algerian, Muslim. And he says it with a choice of sounds – punk included – that makes his advocacy all the greater. It’s no surprise to find that a tribute to The Clash in ‘Rock El Casbah’ (Brian Eno and U-cef making guest appearances) throbs with the same heart as the English group’s original, or to find songs that compare monolithic cultures to one-party states.
If this sounds heavy going, it’s not. Tékitoi? has a rolling gait that draws you into Taha’s city streets. If it’s ever reminiscent of the roads Manu Chao walks so well, Taha has his own landmark: guitarist Steve Hillage. Powered by great blasts of sound delicately interspersed with lute motifs and sweeping strings, ‘Safi’ (Pure) and ‘Meftuh’ (Open) accelerate with wild enthusiasm. The real velocity is saved for the closing moments with the spacious percussion of ‘Dima’ (Always) and ‘Mamachi’. Like classic Chicago house transported to the the kasbah, it’s crazy but it works.
Inspración – Espiración
One of the pleasures of the Gotan Project is that their tango-based music is as slithery as the dance itself when it comes to categorization. Yes, Inspiración – Espiración, like the 2001 La Revancha del Tango album that inspired it, is pure Argentinean passion but it’s also dubby, funky, sad. It is as if the Paris-based Gotan trio were digging down to the roots of a music that began in Africa and is here modified with a contact with jazz, electronics and reggae.
The end result is a much-varied album that builds suspense into its heart, right from the supple Piazolla ‘Cite Tango’ that opens the CD. Gotan’s Philippe Cohen Solal has franchised out the task of remixing La Revancha to a host of luminaries, including Calexico, Pepe Braddock and the Anti-Pop Consortium. No easy job this, considering that the first album featured such important Argentinean exiles as Nini Flores and Gustavo Beytelmann. But they’ve risen to the occasion. The Peace Orchestra approach ‘The Man’ with such delicacy that its new electronic percussion sighs beneath the accordion tune, while Calexico’s take on ‘La del Ruso’ is filled with the twang of empty prairies. For a tenser mix, Anti-Pop’s rap on ‘El Capitalismo Foraneo’ seethes with anger at those who circumscribe human freedom. To underline the mutation that all variations and remixes imply, Gotan – or rather Braddock – finish Inspiración – Espiración with a spinning radio dial. We hear the whoosh of interference, some snatched voices and, finally, the crackling recording of an old-school tango. It’s a nice touch.
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