Marx, where did all your revolutionaries go?

Christian Labhart_passion

Passion - Between Revolt and Resignation

Christian Labhart

Christian Labhart

Switzerland

«I was sure of this: we would never be like our parents.» Christian Labhart is recalling 1968 in Zurich, the city in which he grew up and which felt the waves of counterculture revolution that had erupted in protests around the world. The Swiss director narrates his own reminiscences throughout Passion – Between Revolt and Resignation, which had its World Premiere at Visions du Reel in Nyon. The diaristic documentary is a decade-spanning reflection on the political earthquakes of his lifetime and his own ebbing and flowing relationship to activism, meaningful community engagement, and the vision of a more just organisation of society. It is both highly personal and a survey of moments that defined massive shifts in public consciousness around the globe, from Chernobyl to the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. What to do, when rebellious youth reach the age of the parents they defined their worldviews against, and their optimism for change has not been borne out by positive transformations around them?

Cataclysms and revolts

As a young man, Labhart’s newly embraced leftist convictions drew him to teaching jobs and a fascination with anti-authoritarian education models, as well as a stint on a communal farm run by seven people. We revisit snapshots of him demonstrating against nuclear energy in 1977. His description of himself in his hand-knitted sweater and Birkenstocks fitting in with the like-minded protesters is gently self-ironising as much as it is nostalgic for an idealistic youth. Reality, after all, did not keep step with their dreams. As he says: «We agreed on the utopia of a classless society, but not how to get there.» The violence of the militant Baader-Meinhof Gang in their targeting of former enthusiastic Nazis, the perceived failings of communist ideology in the East as the Berlin Wall fell, and the contamination of radioactive ash floating over Europe from reactor meltdown at a Soviet power plant, problematised these considerations all the more in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as the left found their peaceful idyll elusive.

Reality, after all, did not keep step with their dreams.

Passages from the work of seminal thinkers punctuate these more personal reflections and archival footage of cataclysms and revolts that have shaped the current era. This somewhat haphazard assortment of excerpts reflects shifting thought currents of Marxist thinking. A 1939 poem of gathering storm clouds over Europe (To Those Who Follow In My Wake) by playwright Bertolt Brecht, passages from Guy Debord’s 1967 critique of commodity fetishism Society of the Spectacle, and parts of a letter terrorist Ulrike Meinhof wrote from an isolation cell all feature, with post-industrial financial crisis and the notion of fear of refugees as intrinsic to capitalism entering the most recent flow of ideas through passages from Franco «Bifo» Berardi’s Poetry and Uprising and Slavoj Zizek’s The New Class Struggle.

As Labhart confronts our latest problems of new conflicts, and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean as have-nots struggle in an unequal global order, he confesses to battling the cynicism that comes with a sense of helplessness. More than a decade ago he turned to filmmaking, hoping to change reality by representing it (he is behind documentaries on many of Europe’s pressing issues, from the Kosovo war to Greece’s crisis under austerity). The opening line of Brecht’s poem, and the film, returns to our mind: «Truly, I live in dark times!» Have we moved forward at all from this sentiment from 1939? With the focus widening across decades, implicit is a recognition not of progress or liberation but cycles, and with the election of a string of oddballs and demagogues from Trump in the US to Sebastian Kurz in Austria, a possible darkening of a future with fascism again on the rise. «What used to be considered extreme right-wing thirty years ago is now mainstream,» the director points out.

«anger against injustice / Makes the voice grow hoarse»

The right side of history

Contradictions within himself and the question of whether the now-married father has slipped into a more «bourgeois» complacency bother the director; his realisation that while he welcomes Idomeni refugees in principle, he might not be ready to give up his house to them. But as a young generation fed up with old dictators rises up in Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul he feels his inspiration returning. We see them in the streets beating on pots, a sound of resistance that resonates with all struggling for dignity. The essential role of the internet in orchestrating the 2011 Arab Spring and shifting the framework of activism is not delved into here, in a film more concerned with locating an unbroken thread in the human spirit to revolt, than pinpointing what has made recent protest different. Economic greed and fascism might eternally return, but then surely too do the means to overthrow them, and grit to outlast them. And such revolt is not simply the province of the young. Even if the times stay dark, the film ultimately suggests, being on the right side of history and fighting in one’s own way might just be enough to make a life worthwhile. Even if «anger against injustice / Makes the voice grow hoarse», as Brecht’s poem says.


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Anatomy of a protest

Those Who Remain

(Celle qui restent)

Ester Sparatore

Laure DahoutGiovanni PompiliPatrick AndréGeneviève Lemal

France, Italy, Belgium

Only the film’s end titles provide the tragic historical coordinates – 504 Tunisian migrants who left for the Italian coast during the Arab spring remain missing to this day. In Those Who Remain, Om El Khir – whose husband is amongst the missing – tells their story.

Om El Khir enters the film as an acousmatic voice; first, behind a black screen, then, from a semi-closed turquoise door without lock or handle. We then see her from behind, simultaneously talking on a mobile phone and also to her children in another room. In the third shot, she sits on a sofa, holding a large framed photograph of a man’s face in her lap, whispering to her youngest child to give him a kiss. The child does, embracing the photo, whispering, «Dad».

Om El Khir Ouirtani
Om El Khir Ouirtani

A woman’s work

From these early shots, viewers learn the two most important things about the film – the father in this family is missing, and the mother is constantly forced to do several things at once. One of its more peculiar qualities is how the emotions of care, fear, love, and friendship are visualized by showing women at work – cooking, making a bed, unpacking her children’s clothes.

One of its more peculiar qualities is how the emotions of care, fear, love, and friendship are visualized by showing women at work

Om El Khir Ouirtani
Om El Khir Ouirtani

Om El Khir manages to take care of her children, from their basic needs to their education, while simultaneously organizing the women’s struggle to find their missing husbands and sons. Her very first words indicate she is also involved in organizing the shooting of the film. Yet, this focus on work is not a personal trait. It also is not the result of the director’s efforts to hide the act of observing. In fact, one of her children regularly peeks into the camera, and we hear visitors remark, «Ah, you are filming, please go on». This focus acknowledges the historical fact that multi-operability is a distinct feature of the way women work – they work all the time. The female director, at the advantage of the female gaze, brings this to the fore.

We are on the other side of the migration.

Gradually, the world beyond the initial family’s immediate living environment is laid out – a modern-day Tunisia where the objects of technological progress, digital television, printers, and mobile phones, intertwine with traditional customs such as circumcision and ethnic clothing – where sandy beaches and dirt on the street mixes with the polished corridors and glass walls of official buildings. We are on the other side of the migration. As children play in shallow pools of water by the sea they cheerfully pretend a nearby abandoned wooden box is a boat, and they have successfully reached Lampedusa.

Those Who Remain. Director: Ester Sparatore
Those Who Remain. Director: Ester Sparatore

A people’s protest

It is truly fascinating how the film manages to provide all the necessary information by mere observation of ordinary activity without commentary, titles, or direct address to camera. We learn everything through Om El Khir as we follow her on errands, at meetings and street protests, observing and listening to organizational discussions, quarrels amongst the activists, and misunderstandings about locations. The narration is meticulously structured in two parallel directions. We get to know Om El Khir more personally through the film – she becomes more relaxed and we even see her playing in a band and dancing. Simultaneously, the fight for information about those who are missing becomes more public.

The film manages to provide all the necessary information by mere observation of ordinary activity

The initial behind the back approach repeats several times throughout the film, but in different contexts. First, we follow her walking through private spaces – at home, with family and friends. Second, as she visits public spaces, beaches, the squares where activists protest, the bars where they meet for coffee, and third, as she walks through the cold white corridors of official buildings. In one of these meetings, the people waiting in vain to know what happened to their family members put their pain into words as they explain why they decided to block traffic on the bridge. We see them on the Bizerte bridge, holding up posters with portraits of the missing, sitting in front of cars, facing their fellow citizens who want to go on with their errands. They scream, «Give us back our children!» until they are drowned in the police sirens. Such graduate elaboration serves to justify the protesters’ actions not by the authorities, but to the audience, this provides a unique analysis of a people’s protest.


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Our cherished NATO

nato_at_to

Isn’t it all a big sham in the end, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization? Secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg insists for its member nations to raise their defense budgets. And President Trump, NATO’s chief promoter, asks for a doubling from two percent of the GDP to four. Is this how we are going to celebrate the 70 years anniversary this April, applauding two of the well-paid lobbyists for the arms industry?

The fresh report, NATO at Seventy, from Harvard Kennedy School is subtitled «An alliance in crisis». The world’s «most successful alliance» apparently confronts its most complex challenges ever. Really? Yes, some are afraid that the American president might not acknowledge «article number 5» – the «one for all and all for one» of the 29 member nations. Also, there are the challenges of bio-weapons, information weapons, and artificial intelligence, which will lay claim to 20 percent of defense budgets to cover costs of surveillance, intelligence, and new tech. A third challenge for NATO is the EU, The African Union, and The Arab League – which they want to get more deeply involved in the race.

On its 70-year birthday, the NATO-led military-industrial complex can congratulate itself with a world that spends more than 1800 billion dollars in preparation for war – so as to make the world a more peaceful place. NATO makes for half of this. The U.S. alone spends almost 600 billion dollars (3.5 percent of their GDP) in preparations for war, and China comes next (they have doubled their spending the last ten years). Russia is next in line, spending a tenth of the US, while Norway spends a tenth of that, about 6 billion dollars a year.

The core values «democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law».

In our increasingly militarized world, the motivating powers are Russia, especially after their annexation of the Crimea, and China – even if most enlightened people see these countries as being more concerned with defense than offensives.

(Photo: Olivier Douliery, AFP, NTB Scanpix)

What is supposed to justify NATO’s enormous expenditure are the core values of «democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law». Well, NATO could have exerted pressure on countries like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, whose democratic values are faltering. But the US, being the leading nation of the NATO are signing enormous arms contracts with Saudi-Arabia, a country whose military spending almost equals that of Russia. And as Jon Hellesnes writes in The NATO Complex (2019), the US as the leading nation of NATO has initiated a series of offensive wars, where international law is transgressed, while prisoners and civilians are tortured. The superpower has conducted a series of extralegal executions by drones. And Russian collusion with US elections? According to Hellesnes, the US has meddled with 66 elections since WW2. Here the US clearly breaks with the second of the core values.

And liberty?

Well, the «alliance of free and sovereign states» (like Norway), are expected to give their support whenever called upon. But if one happens to disagree with the US or the interests of the greatest powers, there is no tolerance for supporting liberation movements in the third world, for instance. The feudal lord creates vassal states. At the government level in Norway, there is accordingly no mention of the many destabilized and destroyed countries resulting from de many US interventions – where war was supposed to make peace – like Iraq or Libya. The latter is a great shame for Norway who not even today dares to acknowledge how deceitful and meaningless the bombings were.

And rule of law?

Skogmo (photo: Truls Lie)

NUPI recently presented the book Visions of an improved organization of the world. Progress and counter-forces, written by the experienced diplomat Bjørn Skogmo. Drawing upon his 43 years in foreign service the retired Skogmo talks about how the US with Kissinger’s linkage and NATO has attached smaller states like Norway.

As a Norwegian counterbalance to powerful alliances and blocs, Skogmo used to work to promote a more multilateral cooperation in order to harness conflicts and the abuses of the superpowers – through binding agreements and rule of law.

I asked Skogmo if he would take on the challenge of describing a future scenario where Norway makes a bold move stepping out of NATO. A delinkage – possibly replaced by a Nordic or European defense alliance. The diplomat answered. «The possibility of a delinkage from NATO, that’s something I can’t really assess. It is a political question, both here in Norway and for others. We can, of course, dream up such scenarios, but whether it is politically possible or desirable, needs to be debated politically. And my book intended to spur debates.» Well, he should have been bold enough to describe a Norway outside NATO – the need for diplomatic solutions rather than military wastefulness and destruction is more pressing than ever.

«Out of NATO» has been NY TID’s (Modern Times) stance, and looking back to NATO’s 20 years anniversary in this Norwegian newspaper (our predecessor Orientering), the position was firm already in 1969; criticism of the Parliament’s attitude to NATO (Finn Gustafsen of party SF); an unfortunate military cooperation (writer Tore Linné Eriksen); Norwegian espionage towards Russia (military agent Svein Blindheim) or criticism of the base policy, which is now abandoned.

We know that Russia and China aren’t democracies. But is the US better, where President Truman dropped nuclear bombs on Japanese cities despite their negotiations for peace – as a demonstration of power and to break with the Soviet Union. And President Clinton who in the 90’s broke the deal (Bush/Gorbachev) of not surrounding Russia. It should be obvious where we find the aggressor who makes the military budgets soar.

Unfortunately most people wish to live under the protection of NATO – unknowingly deceiving themselves. On the 70th anniversary we might do well in reminding ourselves of Orwell’s 1984: In the novel, the enormous concrete buildings of the Department of Truth carry the following inscription: «War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.»


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A mosaic of pain

When she was just a child, Clarice and her siblings moved to The Netherlands because their home country of Liberia became too unstable and unsafe to live in. Their father, a man named Martin Gargard, stayed behind. Clarice grew up seeing him every now and then, when he visited the family in The Netherlands. She always loved him and was always a «daddy’s girl», but deep inside she always wondered what his work back in Liberia, during its two civil wars, was about. Daddy and the Warlord is a mesmerizing and very personal journey, following Clarice in an increasingly tense search to find the truth and to understand who her beloved father actually is and was.

A Mystery Game

The film feels like an emotional and cinematic version of a mystery game, the kind where players enter different rooms and spaces and asks questions, the sum of which lead them to a new realm. This is what happens to Clarice, her reality gradually changes as she meets different people, asking them what they know about her father and his role during the civil wars.

Daddy and the Warlord. Director(s): Shamira Raphaëla

The scenes of her encounters are mixed with close ups of black skin and body details of black people, their memories of war narrated in voiceover. These images feel surreal and the people’s voices are at times just whispers. Their words go deep. Each story feels imprinted on their bodies and in their minds, as each memory is linked to intense emotion, sound or sensation. Their sum is the mosaic of pain left behind by war.

The story of the Liberian Civil Wars is complicated, connected to the country’s tribal and ethnic structure, and also to its past. Liberia was founded by freed African-American slaves in the early 1800s, but the indigenous never reconciled with the newcomers.

The film feels like an emotional and cinematic version of a mystery game

The country was under the rule of these Americo-Liberian colonizers until the 80’s, when Samuel Doe took charge by killing the serving American-descended president. The first war began in 1989 when Charles Taylor, a man whose father was Americo-Liberian and mother indigenous African – returned to Liberia from Ivory Coast, together with 100 rebels (forming The National Patriotic Front of Liberia) to oust Doe’s repressive regime. He joined hands with a rival warlord, Prince Yormie Johnson, who killed Doe, but soon enough Johnson and Taylor turned against each other. What followed was seven years of civil war.

A mad war

ECOMOG, the West African peace-keeping force, eventually stepped in. Nigeria offered Johnson asylum, and Taylor held election in 1997 winning 75% of the vote. Yet, this election brought more violence at a scale beyond imagination, a mad war fueled by drugs, with child soldiers, violent rapes, and stories of cannibalism. The violence only ended in 2003. More than fifteen years later, Taylor is in jail, but most warlords and people directly responsible for the bloodshed were never tried for what they did. And as the film unfolds it becomes clear that Martin Gargard is one of them.

Daddy and the Warlord Director(s): Shamira Raphaela, Clarice Gargard

He tells his daughter he worked for the government, as an engineer for Telecom Liberia. He doesn’t lie, but the facts he does tell are selective, not truly explaining his involvement and the implications of his actions in the war. Yet, the more people Clarice meets and the more places she visits, the more suspicious details surface. Most of their answers are as cryptic as her father’s, but they become like breadcrumbs guiding the way. There is mystery in the air through all these moments, and slowly the obvious starts to take shape until the picture becomes so clear it cannot be ignored or forgotten.

The scenes of her encounters are mixed with close ups of black skin and body details of black people

At the beginning of the film, Clarice says she finds it important to know the truth and put things in perspective. This is the version of her who does not know much at all. In her eyes, her dad is very dedicated and passionate about his work, very idealistic, and a do-gooder. Her love for this aging man, much shorter than her and with kind eyes, is so evident it is inflicting. But the more she finds out about him, and the more her affectionate image of him changes, the more silent she becomes, until all the truths knocking down the ideal of her father are too painful. Yet, the truth is in the open, it cannot go away, it is just there.


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Diversity

– Emilie Bujès, what is the overall theme or focus of 2019’s edition of Visions du Réel?

– From this year on we will no longer organize the Focus program (films and projects from one country). The concept seemed a bit too reductive and not very relevant for 2019. Instead we decided to look towards countries with less (strong) cinematographic structures. We went for instance to Burkina Faso and to Indonesia this year, and came back with films and projects. The idea is to aim for diversity to support developments of projects. But it is also to financially support filmmakers and producers who, for example, cannot attend the festival and its market.

– The Maître du Reel this year is Werner Herzog. He will spend several days at the festival to introduce films and give a masterclass. We will screen 14 of his films to give the audience the chance to dive into his work.

Emilie Bujès

– Are there some particular criterion or aspect you look for in the selection process?

– We work in a small team, only six people. We have no pre-selectors. The team has an overall image of what we want to do and express. And our main criterion is cinema. Important political topics often belong of course to cinema of the real – but we are first of all looking for authors that try to communicate their view of a specific topic, no matter which one.

VOD platforms should be as open as possible to authorial approaches.

– Do you have a documentary that was seminal to your interest with the genre?

– The work of Werner Herzog definitely is essential in my interest in film in general. His films, both fiction and documentary, cover a great spectrum of forms and subjects – they are very impressive in regard to how much he stretches things without losing coherence in his oeuvre.

– Can you think of a film that had political or social impact in recent years?

– Last year we presented Srbenka (by Nebojša Slijepčević) – a very important film in terms of politics. It was afterwards screened in Croatia thanks to its international success – a politically sensitive film then appeared in the country of which it is about.

– Where do you see the documentary landscape progressing in the next decade?

– While countries like the Czech Republic have festivals attended by many young people, other countries are struggling to reach younger audiences. Festivals need to be attractive for them, so they watch films that are hard to access. VOD platforms with some documentaries should also be as open as possible to authorial approaches. Non-fiction films are also more and more shown in those large fiction-based festivals – so cinema of the real is not a sub-genre.


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When your country is against you  

Just let the black and white cinematography and unobtrusive sound design grow, let the characters gradually reveal themselves; give yourself time to think and wonder because you can feel the cameraman’s own attention is unhurried and sharp. The editor is generous: it takes time before you’re sure you’re in New Orleans, time before someone’s name is spoken, and time before you feel this film may be a way to frame fear and anger without becoming, in itself, an angry film.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? was shot in 2017. Trump had just come into office, and for a while nothing focused hearts and minds in some communities like the numbers of African American men shot and killed by police. This film does not try to recreate that rage. Instead, it shows us the ways in which the fresh murders call up a fear that reaches back two centuries, and how awareness is not enough to overcome repression, let alone heal the pain people carry around inside themselves for a lifetime. «No justice, no peace!»

What is a true documentary?

How true to life is what we experience here? Minervini has shot his best-known films in different parts of the American south, in communities that are marginalised by poverty and that are way out in the countryside. Stop the Pounding Heart immersed us in a family of fundamentalist white Christians in Texas. It won awards, but was also talked about because it was thought that the romantic relationship between two young people was engineered for the sake of the film. What can documentary be allowed to be before it’s pushed into fiction (and a completely different funding, festival and competition stream)? The problem could be with the semantics not the film itself, and with managing audience expectation. Is this what should be happening with Minervini’s latest film too?

Most of the time the camera is locked onto the faces of people who are ready to let us in.

What You Gonna Do …? feels authentically anchored in the reality it wants to share with us. It samples different ways people who are part of the poorest African American communities in New Orleans resist white power. We are feeling them breathe. Most of the time the camera is locked onto the faces of a handful of people who are ready to let us in.

Community protection

The leading personalities in the film are all women, for example Judy who is trying to save the bar she rents; two young half-brothers are the exception. The space that Minervini gives the women and children is uncluttered, scattered with older men who are an undefined part of their lives – they are seen helping fix the bar or repairing a bike or embroidering a Mardi Gras costume, one man singing the soft refrain «sew, sew, sew,» as the needle in his fingers gets pulled through the cloth.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? Director: Roberto Minervini

A support group, in Judy’s trust, shares pain and fear: the trauma is in their DNA Judy says. It’s the history of white colonialism says another. These days black men being killed by police or by suspected KKK militants catalyses new outrage. The New Black Panther Party for Self-Defence uses an oath of allegiance and self-discipline to attract new recruits. They organise because the risk is real, and when a black man’s head is left on a porch, no one believes this is black on black violence. The Panthers visit the neighbours living next to where it happened to offer protection. Two or three Panthers with military rifles keep watch on the edge of the lawn.

Awareness is not enough to overcome repression.

The Ku Klux Klan has been spray-painting cars, walls. The police are not trusted. If you know Minervini’s The Other Side, the white paramilitaries training in the backwoods of Louisiana, What You Gonna Do …? is its complement. Together it’s like Minervini is showing how war could be waged by the poor and powerless against one another, lines drawn solely along racial differences.

Be home before the streetlights go on

Long scenes inside homes or between friends include the two half-brothers; the oldest one, 14, teaches the youngest, about 10, how to face fear and defend himself. We first meet them in a house of horrors, the little boy doesn’t want to go further but the older one pushes him on. «I got you!» he says. «Nowadays, people don’t fight, they like to shoot,» says the oldest, and he means a gun, not a camera: learning to throw a punch can still work if you’re 10, but it’s not enough at 14.

When a black man’s head is left on a porch, no one believes this is black on black violence.

They wander over the train tracks together, play in industrial fields and walk home down the deserted street just around the block from where people were shot a few days ago. Their mother implores them not to wander down the wrong path: she gets them to repeat, over and over, to be home before the streetlights go on.

No matter how beautiful the cinematography or how much research and presence the director invested, I am curious to know how much the subjects of the film were shepherded, how much was their own idea, their own chosen gesture. Some of the dialogue can sound a lot like the people are speaking for the camera instead of only to one another – the fly-on-the-wall artifice is micro-thin. But as a finished film it recalls black and white photojournalism of the 50s, the sound is natural in spirit (some fine sound editing has been done that you won’t, and shouldn’t, notice), and it stays with you, character by character.


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Lost outside time

I have seen nothing, I have seen all Yaser Kassab

I have seen nothing, I have seen all

Yaser Kassab

Syria

«[And your new movie] will be judgemental? »

«No. Not really.»

«And so what’s your aim?»

«I was just thinking that… Now that the winner won…»

«As long as you ask: Why?, you are criticizing.»

«And is that a problem?»

«Criticize is not rational.»

«What do you mean?»

«We don’t have the right to criticize.»

This is the voice of the filmmaker and main character on the phone with his father. It could also be the voice of any Syrian on the phone with anyone. He says, «the winner» for even just saying «Assad» may get you in trouble. That is what peace looks like in Syria.

Sometimes while walking, you mistake unknown passers by for friends killed years ago

After more than 500,000 dead, 6 million refugees, 7 million IDPs, reconstruction costs estimated up to $300 billion, you still cannot even write, «The Assad regime». In Rome, London, New York, and other western media centres, editors replace it with: «The Assad government». For the world, he is the legitimate president of Syria, but for sure not for Syrians. They are either dead, away, or keeping silent.

First, they denied the dead

For those of us who have experienced the war, and still do today, sometimes while walking, you mistake unknown passers by for friends killed years ago. Speaking of Syria is not easy. It never has been, honestly. Because the left wing – that left wing that was supposed to support the Arab Spring, the Syrian revolution, and beyond – sided instead, more or less openly, with Assad; an enemy of Israel and the United States, and so a friend. For years, it totally overlooked the war, until Russia stepped in with relentless airstrikes and, on the ground, the infantry of propaganda. Whoever stood against Assad was accused of being al-Qaeda. Even the White Helmets, the rescue teams who recovered wounded from the rubble with bare hands, under the light of lighters. Even 6-year-old Bana al-Abed, who tweeted from Aleppo with her mother, was accused of actually being in Turkey. For any photo, any corpse, we were told: It’s a doll. It’s all staged. First, they denied the dead, then, their very existence.

Damaged buildings in the Syrian city of Raqa. © Delil souleiman / AFP

While we were getting bombed, and bombed, and bombed by Assad and the jihadists, for the world, Syria was nothing else. Yet, it has countless Yaser Kassabs –  engineers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, filmmakers – ordinary Syrians. Syrians like us. Who, for years, have been saying to each other: now we have really seen it all. Then, when mortar fire was replaced by missiles, missiles by jets, jets by gas, gas by siege, by death from hunger: No. We had seen nothing. Every time. For years, there was no end. And there still is not.

The present sinks into memory

Today Yaser Kassab, 31, a former student of Economics at the University of Aleppo, lives in Sweden. He lives «on the edge of life», to put it as the title of his first film, about his escape from Syria to Lebanon, and then to Turkey – all while on the phone with his family left behind in Syria, as still, years later, he remains. In this short film, the only difference is that he is not in Turkey anymore, but in Stockholm. Still, the Skype connection is always the same – slow and shaky. On and off. It makes you feel lonely, lonely and pointless, and lost outside everything. Most of all, lost outside time, as if you were stuck. Stuck waiting for you-don’t-know-what behind the windows of grey suburban Sweden. Its brick homes in the dull autumn, with no light and no leaves, turns into Syria. The present sinks into memory. Yet, he can’t go back. Like all young men, he would be enlisted for two years of military service. Before going through a border, he would be required to go through a reconciliation commission – only those who commit not to oppose the government anymore, in any way, are allowed to return.

Only those who commit not to oppose the government anymore, in any way, are allowed to return.

I have seen nothing, I have seen all Director: Yaser Kassab

Even this might not be enough. Several senior commanders have pointed out that, regardless of what the government decides, the army will not forget, nor forgive. Assad also does not fear anything or anyone and has already started the reconstruction with all the world queuing for contracts, for business opportunities. And so, while in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, more than 2 million Syrians are still under barrel bombs. Elsewhere, time has come to move away the dead who are buried everywhere. This is what Yaser Kassab talks about with his father who reminds him of World War II, saying: It was nothing, by comparison. There were sirens, he says. You could run into basements; once airstrikes were over, you could get out, but here, no. Here, airstrikes were relentless, he says. Ruthless. We weren’t just collateral damage; we were the true and primary targets.

In Syria, not even dead do you get peace

With their brutality and beheadings, jihadists have drawn all attention but of the 500,000 victims of the war Assad’s forces have killed 92%. Now, he is even displacing the dead. Relatives have to dig them out and take them away. Quite often, bones get lost, or mixed up.

In Syria, not even once dead do you get peace. You may have thought you had seen all. Instead, you had yet seen nothing.


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Molenbeek through the eyes of children

Gods of Molenbeek

Reetta Huhtanen

Hannu-Pekka Vitikainen

Finland, Belgium, Germany, 2018. 73min

How does one talk about a film that feels a little too perfect, too clean, maybe even too thought-out? A part of me wants to shake it up a bit, welcome a few rough edges in the way pictures meet pictures.

Elegantly-crafted Gods of Molenbeek does everything right, uses imaginative visual ledes, shot from the point of view of young children, but it can feel like so many films that have a dozen producers and funders involved: ironed out and cleaned up. It is a great example, however, of how to introduce all sorts of thoughts about God, gods and eternity to a young audience.

The Finnish director, Reetta Huhtanen accompanies two boys, and sometimes a girl, all about the age of 6, who discover different ways of thinking about and worshiping god(s), and speculate about what happens after death and other cosmological matters.

The boys live in the same building and toodle around in the courtyard below, never seem to be still, and chatter away.

Aatos and Amine are deep thinkers, bright and curious. Though neighbours, they come from totally different backgrounds. Aatos is Finnish and Chilean, he speaks French, Finnish and Spanish and attends a Steiner school; Amine comes from a observant Moroccan Muslim family, possibly attends a public school, and is seen in a classroom learning Arabic ( it isn’t uncommon in Brussels for Arabic to be available as an elective language in public schools).

So what does childhood look and sound like for children growing up in a densely populated, multi-ethnic neighbourhood that has been labelled by the hot press to be a centre of jihadist activity? The director responds by keeping her point of view as close to that of the boys, as possible.

Molenbeek is felt day to day in this film, from the perspective of the children.

Filming children can be tricky business especially if they are very young; all the power lies with the filmmakers. Gods of Molenbeek is a best-practice example of how to film children with respect: they have room to express themselves, the camera doesn’t exploit moments of distress – the lens doesn’t pry unfairly – and the camera is usually lower than the children’s heads with the lens often tilted upward, making them look powerful. The boys sparkle together. French is their common language, but they share neither religion nor mythologies.

From peace to turmoil

If you’ve been to Molenbeek, the modest Brussels neighbourhood where they live, then you know that it is layered with people who have their roots all over the world. The large and visible Muslim population is not uniform, and many, many Moroccan families can trace their migration to Belgium to the middle of the last century, when Belgium recruited labourers for its mines and industry.

The ordinary truth is the strength of neighbourly ties and friendships that make it possible for people of different faiths and ethnicities there to get along.

Gods of Molenbeek. Director: Reetta Huhtanen

In Molenbeek, life can be in your face. The sidewalks, as in the rest of the city, are narrow and uneven but the density is typical of poorer neighbourhoods; little greenery is on the streets, but typically in skinny backyards or the courtyards shared with multiple dwellings. Arabic is heard faintly in many of the film’s outdoor scenes, on the same level as the din of children playing a block away.

Meanwhile the boys bounce between languages, sometimes with a parent teaching them their religion or when play-acting a nordic god; Aatos’ other friend, a girl who doesn’t believe in God at all, chooses instead to call it all Nature. And so, Molenbeek is felt day to day in this film, from the perspective of the children, to be an accepting place where no one, it seems, is just one thing.

We are carried along from shot to shot by the charm of the children’s minds.

That is the big story in this film. There is hardly any explicit conflict, per se – only discovery – and we are carried along from shot to shot by the charm of the children’s minds. Then comes the drama that punctuates the year: a wave of bombs that leaves many dead and wounded has ripped Paris and Brussels.

Extra military vehicles roll on the street, a soldier or policeman in riot gear, armed, checks a school backpack; a radio speaking the news (added to a shot later?) relates what’s what. It seems a perpetrator comes from the quarter or has found refuge here. How big is this network?

Gods of Molenbeek. Director: Reetta Huhtanen

But it’s Brussels after all, and a whole neighbourhood has been slandered: people who live in Molenbeek, all kinds of people, demonstrate in defence of their quarter; Muslims especially join their other neighbours in front of the cameras, side by side, against «Terrorism.»

And yet, the film doesn’t expand this trauma to adult size: Gods of Molenbeek relates it in the way the boys themselves seem to experience it. The demonstrations come and go, and soon it doesn’t really touch them directly, though the radio continues to drop news updates softly into the ambient sound. This is a fine calibration for the director and editor to have made.

Gods of Molenbeek is a best-practices example of how to film children with respect.

One feels the hand of the director on this film, perhaps guiding the topics the boys bring up with one another (lots and lots about God), perhaps steering where, how and with whom they play (off to the woods; out to buy fabric for Poseidon’s cape; off to the mosque together). But the friendships feel authentic, the conversations between the kids natural, as if this were a play-date with film crew, where the camera is just taken for granted and soon ignored. It’s a lot harder to achieve this than it looks!


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No nation without culture

Daymokh, The Ancestral Land

Masha Novikova

Netherlands

The Chechen folk-dance troupe «Daymohk», ostensibly the principal subject of this documentary that bears the same name, was founded in 1999 by choreographer Ramzan Achmadov, to give Chechen traditional culture a chance to regenerate in the midst of war. At the time, the capital Grozny was a shelled-out wreck, and the troupe performed all over Europe.

Daymohk is now sponsored by the Chechen state («No nation without culture», the first President of the Chechen Republic once said) and the group’s founder wants to have a dance clip made to show Europe, with which the troupe has lost contact, that they are still vibrant. He explains how dance is an essential expression of Chechen identity.

Daymokh, The Ancestral Land. Director: Masha Novikova

Daymohk means the Motherland to Chechens, and it evokes a long history of wars to defend it. Here, it is also the name of a large dance troupe of young Chechen youth – boys and girls – who train hard meet the founder’s high expectations.

War(s) from two perspectives

The way Daymohk opens, one might think this is going to be a film that uncritically praises traditional Chechen folk culture and the Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. The latter is there to keep the Russia Federation’s southern border intact and Chechnya within it, using his version of conservative Islam and macho, cultural politics to hold on tight.

I don’t know the director Masha Novikova’s earlier films first-hand, but she has lots of experience with people in the margins of war, and she has also made a film about Anna Politkovskaya – the Russian journalist who was murdered in 2006, and so, all sorts of things went through my mind in the first part of the film. Are we really going to spend 90 minutes watching how a folk-dance troupe makes a video-clip? Or listen to endless praise for Ramzan Kadyrov?

Ramzan Kadyrov

The life of the choreographer of the «Daymokh» troupe, Ramzan Achmadov, began in exile; his parents were among the 400,000 – 500,000 people of people deported from Chechnya during World War II in 1944. The expulsion was part of a massive forced settlement program, approved by Josef Stalin, which affected millions of non-Russian Soviet ethnic minorities from the 1930s until the 1950s.

Achmadov‘s family was rounded up and sent to Kazakhstan in 1944. When they returned to their home in 1956,  they had lost everything.

Out in the hills with the 2-man crew shooting his film, Daymohk’s founder tells a bunch of boys to retrieve «old» shields and swords (buried ten minutes before) from inside a famous stone watchtower that soars above rolling hills. These were the weapons the knights used; this is how they fought; you are their descendants.

Fortunately, Novikova really opens up the film when she juxtaposes material shot recently, with a lot of archive of the same family during the war and its immediate aftermath two decades ago. The old material was shot with two cameras often recording simultaneously but from different points of view: the same space and movement, the same people.

In the new film this archive is displayed with the two frames on the screen, close but not touching. It literally expands the experience to become even more vibrant. What do we see?

An unshakeable love for their country

In the war, Achmadov’s home was one of the small, plain, flats high up in an apartment block surrounded by other blocks. Water had to be collected in buckets downstairs. What stands out is how the women dressed back then: Aiza, Ramzan’s wife, wore a simple, traditional hair kerchief tied at the nape of her neck.

«I used to wear short skirts, as short as I could make them». She even cut her school uniform to be as short as possible. «My mother asked me if she should shorten it even more».

Daymokh, The Ancestral Land. Director: Masha Novikova

In the same old footage, their almost-adult daughter throws a jacket over her own top and skirt, lets her long hair swing down her back in a thick ponytail, steps into high heels, and joins friends dressed much the same way to go to school it seems.

Now the family lives in a spectacularly large, new house, with few – but posh –furnishings made to local taste. There’s money here, it feels austere, too clean; Achmadov drives a Mercedes SUV. The same daughter is now a culture advisor to Kadyrov; their son is in a ministerial position. The women are fully covered, their hair hidden within scarves long enough to drape over their shoulders. A new ideology rules. This is the code.

Kadyrov came to power after his father was assassinated in a bomb attack in 2004. The treasure in Navikova’s work is how she critically reveals the structure of strong-man rule while recording praise for the leader. She progressively gives you the feeling there is a lot going on just below the surface, perhaps not exactly in Achmadov’s home, but that she cannot express explicitly without compromising her lead subjects.

The TV is always tuned to the government channel, to endless reports of Kadyrov; his picture is everywhere, of him alone or with his father, or with Putin; his scrawny, pre-pubescent son wins a boxing match with a knock-out in 14 seconds.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov

Aiza, Ahmadov’s wife, asks: how many kids can you fit in a car? In the war they were just three, they could escape, but now she has grandchildren, it’s too many for the car; she’s anxious. «Life can bring you anything.»

Thus the film becomes more interesting once you get past the opening, Chechen code of honour, and drone-shot landscapes.

As the film ends, the off voice returns, oh this unshakeable love of country. Young girls, in full costume, bring us across a hanging bridge to a row of shields and swords stuck in the ground. The girls, in tight, disciplined formation, pivot slowly as they wrap their shawls around the weapons. This is how women used to force warring parties to make peace, goes the lore.


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Orbán’s politics of fear in Hungary

Hungary 2018

Eszter Hajdú

Sandor Mester

Portugal, Hungary, 2018. 82min

8 April 2018, a general election was held for the Hungarian parliament. The current party in power, the right-wing Fidesz Party led by Viktor Orbán, won the election and gained a further five percent lead. More than 49 percent of the votes were in favour of Orbán and Fidesz. Almost 20 percent of the votes went to the self-proclaimed «national conservative» but in actual fact neo-Nazi party Jobbik, which supports Orbán. In other words, the election was a clear victory for the far-right in Hungary’s political landscape. Orbán’s Fidesz Party now holds 133 of the 199 seats in Parliament, while Jobbik holds another 26. The remaining seats are divided between four small centre-left parties unable to form any real political opposition to Orbán, who, since the election, has cranked up the rather unique mix of neo-conservatism and mercantilism that defines his political project.

A politics of fear

Eszter Hajdú’s film Hungary 2018 follows opposition politician Ferenc Gyurcsány’s campaign leading up to 8 April when the votes are tallied and his defeat is a fact. Gyurcsány now leads the small centre-left party Demokratikus Koalíció (DK). From 1994 to 1998, and again from 2002 to 2010, he was the Prime Minister of Hungary during a period of social democracy after the wall came down. In both periods his government implemented several neoliberal reform packages, privatisations and austerity measures. The film, however, does not offer much insight into Gyurcsány’s own political position and role in the political development of Hungary since 1989. Its focus is instead on Orbán and Fidesz, with Gyurcsány functioning more as a contrast to Orbán’s harsh xenophobic campaign. We follow Gyurcsány at election meetings and in conversations with members of the public, all of whom complain about the cutbacks and hateful politics of the Fidesz government. Fidesz, however, remains the protagonist of the film, crosscutting between Gyurcsány’s campaign and Fidesz election meetings with various ministers and other high-ranking Fidesz politicians lashing out against migrants and refugees, the EU and George Soros.

The election was a clear victory for the far-right in Hungary’s political landscape

The film brilliantly discloses how the Fidesz Party has reduced Hungarian politics to a politics of fear with its conspiracy-like portrayals of the alleged threats to the country. One conspiracy theory is based on the EU and the Hungarian-American investor George Soros. Soros advocates open borders and thus, according to Fidesz, threatens to flood Hungary with refugees and effectually destroy the country. The same story is hammered in. There is no talk of social policies, the economy, education, or tax policies; Hungarian politics centres solely on the external threats to the nation. It is almost a parody to hear ministers in the Fidesz government tell their supporters that you can hardly find a single white person in Paris (the implication is that Paris has been taken over by «black Muslims»).

Hungary 2018. Director: Eszter Hajdú

The political agenda is this: Hungary should be a white Christian nation. This means closing the borders to refugees and immigrants that will «degenerate» the Hungarian people. Orbán poses as the steadfast defender of the Hungarian people and its Christian family values, and even of the Hungarian soul. He dismisses the foreign idea of «multiculturalism», which he claims is merely a continuation of a godless communism, as well as the liberal ideals of freedom that the EU tries to impose on Hungary. The EU, in turn, is actually no more than an instrument in the hand of George Soros, the evil demiurge who in all conceivable ways is trying to bring down Hungary. The Fidesz politicians certainly don’t mince words: Soros is Jewish, he is what they call an «international Jew», and his aim is to contaminate the Hungarian people’s soul with a godless hedonistic antinational ideology. And he is using the EU, NGOs and the western media to bring about his evil plan.

Ultra-Capitalism

The political campaign of the Fidesz government resembles a postmodern caricature of the Nazis anti-Semitism – and it seems to be working. The similarities to Donald Trump’s «Make America Great Again» campaign are obvious. In both cases we see post-fascist political agendas giving promises of a national renaissance. For these post-fascist politicians democracy is merely a means for demonising the enemy and mobilising support to their quasi-totalitarian politics. Trump has declared war against the mainstream media, but in Hungary life is easier: Orbán directly or indirectly owns all sections of the mainstream media, and can go about unabashedly spreading his propaganda through their channels. In the film, then, Gyurcsány appears almost as a distant voice from an already lost public sphere. There is no room for dialogue or rational debate. Instead we see a liberal democratic politician trying to run an election campaign as if the democracy has not already been transformed into a totalitarian society.

The political campaign of the Fidesz government resembles a postmodern caricature of the Nazis anti-Semitism – and it seems to be working.

One of the film’s strengths is that it gives a poignant portrayal of how elections function in quasi-dictatorships. The film shows us nothing less than a caricature of an election campaign in which the winner has already been chosen. Hungary finds itself in a political situation where the opposition cannot properly act as an opposition, where a farcical politics of fear has replaced any real political discussion, and where the political alternatives have been limited to none (democratically speaking). The state apparatus and Hungarian politics now fully enmeshed, the election campaign is without substance.

It appears that if we are to see any kind of change, it has to come from the streets

Hungary 2018 shows a political system that no longer makes room for the opposition in Hungary and Europe. It appears that if we are to see any kind of change, it has to come from the streets – perhaps as France is experiencing with The Yellow Vests. And indeed, Hungary is already experiencing a wave of protest. 12 December last year the Orbán government passed a law enabling employers to demand 400 hours overtime a year from their employees, without having to pay them until three years later. The law has resulted in massive demonstrations in several Hungarian cities. The racist politics of fear that lies beneath Orbán’s ultra-capitalism may have hit a social democratic wall. Perhaps the blow will open the door to an anti-fascist and even anti-capitalist resistance in Hungary. Time will tell.

 


 

Translated from Danish by Sigrid E. Strømmen


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