Lost in translation

Me, not the movie

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Not that young of a plutocracy

Quote of the day:
In the United States at the present day, the reverence which the Greeks gave to the oracles and the Middle Ages to the Pope is given to the Supreme Court. Those who have studied the working of the American Constitution know that the Supreme Court is part of the forces engaged in the protection of the plutocracy. But of the men who know this, some are on the side of the plutocracy, and therefore do nothing to weaken the traditional reverence for the Supreme court, while others are discredited in the eyes of the ordinary quiet citizens by being said to be subversive and Bolshevik.
(Bertrand Russell)

That quote is from Russell's Power, a great book on the different kinds of power in political systems. I am totally convinced that the American political system is more of a plutocracy than a democracy, but before reading that book I was under the impression that this shift towards plutocracy is relatively recent (post World War II). Russell's words confirm the writings of Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark and others with respect to how plutocratic the US is. However, those words were first published in 1938, and they refer to a constitution that is centuries old. Opposite to what I thought, it seems that the United States of America has been a plutocracy by design, and from day one.

I have to admit that the American constitution and its protected plutocracy are none of my business as an Egyptian citizen. What really concerns me is that the American political system is being promoted as "Democracy" in the Arab world. In spite of all the claims that the US is not pushing hard enough for "Democracy" in the Arab world, a significant shift from military dictatorship to plutocracy can be obviously noticed in the Egyptian political scene in the last few years. After decades under military dictatorship, which was the price we unwillingly paid in return to national independence and some attempts towards social justice, we are now back to square one in the name of that "Democracy" the US is trying to feed us on a silver platter. Well, the silver platters all went to the haves, and as usual, the have-nots already forgot how silver looks.

The road to true democracy in the Arab world is blocked by a lot of barriers, the most significant of which is the American hegemony on the region. As a matter of fact democracy and independence of that hegemony are a "buy one, get the other for free" deal, but for such an offer we will have to pay a lot.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Yesterday I watched those 11 short films, probably for the 6th time since their release. Although I already own a copy of the DVD (the most expensive DVD I ever bought), I couldn't resist a public screening that took place where I live. Feeling the reaction of the audience, and listening to their different interpretations, is as important as watching the films themsevles in my opinion. I had some comments on individual segments, and here they are, starting with the more thought provoking:

1. Shohei Imamura (Japan): This is the only segment that didn't mention September the 11th at all. I believe it is inspired by Kafka's Metamorphosis, only with a Japanese soldier turning into a human snake after returning back to his village shortly before the end of World War II. It is a condensed cinematic portrait of how war degrades human beings, with a conclusion stating that war can never be holy. Imamura is condemning war in all shapes and forms, and in that regard I think he equates terrorism with conventional war.

2. Sean Penn (USA): Probably the most controversial segment, especially among American audience. The old lonely American man whose alram clock didn't go off on the morning of September the 11th(CIA? FBI? NSA? you name it). He was only awakened by the sun light coming through his window for the first time as one of the towers shadowing the sun collapsed. His wife's flowers suddenly flourished due to the light filling the room, but that light also brought him the sad truth: he is all alone and his wife was still alive only in his imagination. Those mixed emotions at the end of the segment are probably the way Penn feels about the attacks on that day. A lot of tears were shed on the loss of innocent lives, but also that incident was supposed to enlight Americans in a way. Aside from all the connotations, the script and cinematography are probably the best, in my opinion, compared to the other segments.

3. Ken Loach(United Kingdom): The way Loach links September the 11th 1973 in Chile and that same day of 2001 in the US is the key to to his film. He mourns those who died on 2001, while reminding the American public of the 30,000 who were killed in Chile 28 years earlier as a result of the coup against the democratically elected president Salvador Allende and his leftist government. The coup led by one of the most notorious war criminals in modern history, Augusto Pinochet, was financed and planned by the CIA. Ken Loach quotes George W. Bush saying that the attacks of September the 11th were against "freedom", and then he dives with his camera 28 years back in history through gruesome documentary footage of bombings, torture, killings, and Henry Kissinger congratulating Pinochet on his new pro-America regime. Loach's film is mainly based on edited documentary footage, but still it's one of the most powerful and enlightling, especially to those who actually believe in the American efforts to democratize the Arab world.

4. Danis Tanovic (Bosnia-Herzegovina): We now move to another human tragedy: the refugees of the Bosnian war. A group of Bosnian refugees, mostly women, who demonstrate on the 11th of each month in the main square of their village. One of them still refuses to unpack her boxes, believing that she will be back home soon. On September the 11th, and as they are getting ready for their monthly demonstration, they hear the news on the radio. After some reluctance, they go on with their silent sad demonstration, both for their own cause and for the victims killed in the US. It is a clear message to all human beings suffering from all kinds of injustices: don't put your resistence on hold only because the US decided to turn the whole world into a chessboard for its game against terrorism.

5. Claude Lelouche (France): A romantic relationship between a mute French woman and an American tour guide. The relationship between the two is ending right before 9/11, with a typical break-up dialogue, this time in sign language. Most of the segment is semi-mute, with only faint sounds to immerse the audience more into that silent relationship. It is as if Lelouche is putting the shaky political relationship between France and the USA on the screen, where the two countries have a lot in common, but one side feels more superior, while the other lacks the power to fully express herself.

6. Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso): Yet another human tragedy, this time in Africa: poverty and a plethora of diseases overshadowing everything happening in the outside world. A bunch of school kids who thought they saw Osama Bin-Laden hanging around in their little town. They only care about the 25 million dollars reward for catching Bin-Laden, and they innocently imagine how that sum of money would help cure thousands of people in their country of their diseases. Ouedraogo again tries to point out that the world is full of problems, and the billions spent on the war on terrorism could probably solve a lot of those problems if spent the right way.

7. Mira Nair (India): The first thing I noticed about this segment is that the Indian director chose a true story of a Pakistani family living in New York to base her film on. Salman, a Pakistani-American young man, disappears on September the 11th, and because he is a Muslim, the FBI starts to investigate the possibility of him being a terrorist. Six months later the remains of Salman are identified at ground zero, and it turns out that he rushed to the World Trade Center towers as soon as he heard of the attacks to participate in the rescue efforts, but he ended up losing his life right there. It's a straight-forward story about the legalized racial profiling which became the norm in the US after 9/11.

8. Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran): A village of Afghan refugees in Iran right after 9/11. The only landmark of the village is the chimney of a brick factory. The refugees in that village heard that the US decided to attack Afghanistan, so they start making bricks to build a shelter. The young kids working in the brick factory are then gathered by their teacher who told them about the attacks on New York. The kids innocently started to argue whether it was God who caused the destruction of the two towers. They keep arguing, even during the minute of silence they were supposed to observe for the victims. Makhmalbaf actually calls her segment "God, Construction and Destruction", and she was able to put that theme in a set of simple and innocent dialogues between the kids.

9. Youssef Chahine (Egypt): Chahine's segment was so confused, which probably reflects his, and many Arabs', personal mood after 9/11. He put the questions he has been asking himself in the form of a dialogue between him and an imaginary US Marine who was killed in Beirut almost 20 years earlier. The loss of innocent life hurts him, but at the same time he holds the US government responsible for a lot of crimes worldwide. He acknowledges the fact that American civilians are innocent, but he also highlights their collective responsibility for their governments' actions because of their democratic right to choose their governments. This segment can be viewed as yet another part of Chahine's 4-part cinematic autobiography, probably the most confused, and confusing.

10. Amos Gitai (Israel): This is a hysterical segment taking place at the site of a suicide bombing in Jaffa, currently a part of Tel-Aviv. Again, because of the condensed nature of those films Gitai used the hysterical movement of his cast, ambulances and the camera to immerse the audience into the suicide bombing scene they have before them on the screen. At the very end, the live TV reporting of the bombing is interrupted because of the 9/11 news coming from New York. It is as if Gitai is saying that 9/11 will overshadow Israel's war on terrorism. If that was really what he meant, time has already proven that he was wrong.

11. Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexico): This is the mirror image of Lelouch's segment: sound with almost no picture at all. It's a black screen most of the time, with sudden short glimpses of people jumping from the towers. Throughout the segment we hear people screaming and news broadcasts in different languages. At the very end, we see the towers collapsing and then the segment ends with "Does God's light guide us or blind us?" written on a bright white background in Arabic and then translated into English. It seems like Iñárritu wanted to dedicate his black segment to the Arab world, but the bad news is that this kind of films doesn't sell there. When we want to watch something black, we just watch the news.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Arrivederci America

The first time I listened to that song by Alessandro Safina my very basic knowledge of Italian didn't help me much with understanding the lyrics. A few days later, when I read the English translation, I realized I will have the exact same feelings one day in the future. That day finally came, so I'll tell Safina speak on my behalf.

A short excerpt of the song can be found here. Lyrics and music are by G. Pintus and R. Musumarra.

Lyrics in Italian:

Stelle stanotte a nordest
Brilla la neve sui monti
E nel silenzio che c’è
L’eco di colpi potenti
Torna del fondo di giorni lontani
Che ormai non mi appartengono più

Ora son solo anche se
Io sono stato di tutti
Non è un problema per me
Ho visto tempi più brutti
Che ho attraversato perché il mio destino
Lui si, era più forte di me

E ho vinto anche in America
Io che non so parlare
Che avevo solo muscoli
E fame da sfamare
Arrivederci America
Ti ho stretto tra le braccia
Anche se ogni vittoria poi
Segnava cuore e faccia

Molti hanno scritto di me
Mille parole nel vento
Son diventato un eroe
Senza volerlo un esempio
Ma il mio corragio era solo paura
Ed è lei che ha combattuto per me

Arrivederci America
Sei stata miele e sale
Mi hai dato pianto e musica
Sei stata il bene e il male

Qui le giornate scorrono e come piano si consumano
Ma il vento sale su dal mare, parla di te, mi fa ricordare

Arrivederci America
Ti ho vinto e ti ho perduto
C’è sempre chi ha più muscoli
Per ricacciarti indietro
Arrivederci America
È l’ultimo saluto
Arrivederci ma è un addio
Al sogno che ho vissuto

Lyrics in English:

Tonight the stars lie in the Northwest
Snow is sparkling on the mountains
And in the silence that reigns
The echo of mighty throbbing
Comes back from the long lost days
That I can no longer call my own.

Now I'm alone and even if once
I belonged to all,
My solitude does not distress me.
I've seen worse times
And have surmounted them because
My destiny, yes, was stronger than I.

Even in America I have conquered
I who lack the gift of speach,
Possessing only muscles
And the hunger to end my hunger.
Arrivederci America
I have held you tightly in my arms
Even if my every victory
Cost me heart and soul.

Many are those who have written of me
A thousand words in the wind
I have become a hero
Though I wished to be no one's ideal.
For my courage was all but fear:
And my fear did the fighting in my stead.

Arrivederci America
You have given me the bitter and the sweet
The sun and storms.
I have lamented you and sung to you.

Here the days fly by and like me they are slowly consumed.
But the wind rising over the sea speaks of you, and I remember.

I have conquered you America
Even if ultimately I lost
Someone always comes along with bigger muscles
To shore you up again
Arrivederci America
This is our final goodbye
Though I say "see you next time" I bid a final adieu
To the dream I have lived

Friday, May 06, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

As usual in my movie related posts, I don’t try to write a review, but only my personal impressions after watching the movie. When it comes to impressions, I have to admit, Sir Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven went beyond my expectations. William Monahan’s script explicitly says it all: the crusades were all about wealth and property, the crusaders slaughtered almost everyone in Jerusalem when they conquered it, and Salah-ul-deen (usually referred to in European literature as Saladin) gave the Crusaders a safe passage out of the city when he took it back in 1187. The movie was concluded by remarking that about 900 years later peace in the Holy land is still as elusive as it was back then.

The script overly romanticized life in Jerusalem under King Baldwin the Leper, trying to give some credibility to its title. This was probably needed to highlight the essence of that title: peaceful coexistence of different beliefs. This was also balanced out by adequately vilifying the hawkish characters of Reynald de Chattilon and King Guy de Lusignan. Apart from that, the script was mostly faithful to the documented history of that period.

Although I don’t put much weight on the Academy Awards, I think both Sir Ridley Scott and William Monahan deserve at least a couple of Oscars for this movie. Monahan's script was brilliantly made into a 145 minute movie by Scott, with almost every single scene being a master scene. He paid a lot of attention to minor details, which I think made a big difference. Of course those who are more familiar with Arabic culture will notice some of the usual pitfalls of Hollywood movies dealing with Arabs. The one that irritated me most was the prayers talking place during the Adhan (the call for prayer, which is supposed to come before, and not during, the prayer). Also the very brief dialogues between Arabic characters were taking place in English, although the Arabic language was used in lots of scenes (sometimes in a modern Moroccan accent). However, most of the European Knights, Hospitallers and Royals at the time were not English speaking either (most of them were French). It seems like English was decided to be the neutral tongue of the Kingdom of Heaven, not by Sir Ridley Scott, but by Hollywood.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Interpreter

It seems like Hollywood suddenly found out that Africa has more than jungles and hidden treasures. After Hotel Rwanda, here comes The Interpreter, a political thriller that still had some faith in the UN. In return, the UN finally allowed the cameras into the UN building in New York, which makes this movie unique.

But again, whenever a Hollywood movie deals with politics, you can smell a hidden agenda behind the scenes. The imaginary African country of Matobo, with its brutal dictator who started as a freedom fighter, would ring a bell with anyone familiar with the recent propaganda campaign against Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. With both black and white citizens, and a flag very similar to that of Zimbabwe, Matobo was just a politically correct alias for Zimbabwe. The bad news, at least for the script writer, is that many movie goers in the US never heard of Zimbabwe. But who knows, maybe CNN, NBC and Fox News will fix this in the near future.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Adieu Bonaparte

Was it a mere coincidence that I watched Adieu Bonaparte, Youssef Chahine's mid 80s movie, twice during the invasion of Iraq 2 years ago, and on two different TV channels? As most of Chahine's movies, Adieu Bonaparte is not that popular with the audience in the Arab world, and thus you don't see it on TV that frequently. Taking into account that all what I can get here in the US is 9 Arabic TV channels, I couldn't overlook that coincidence, if it was one.

This controversial movie tells the story of Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798. It has been criticized heavily by Egyptian movie critics who saw it sympathetic to the invasion. Some critics blamed it to the French co-production, while others blamed Chahine's political views, especially that he was also the script writer.

Most probably critics expected a reel dedicated to vilify everything French while glorifying the brave Egyptian resistance to the invasion. At least this was the typical theme of the very few Arabic movies that dealt with colonialism. In that sense, Chahine didn't fully disappoint them. The movie showed both the brave resistance and the colonial brutality. Chahine's sin though was that he went beyond the typical clichés and tried to honestly analyze the whole situation, and that's where the real brilliance of this movie resides.

The plot focuses on a microcosm of the Egyptian society at the time: a family with three youthful sons. The eldest believes the French are waging another Crusade on Egypt, and it's the responsibility of the Egyptians to side by the Mamluks, who have been exploitively ruling Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan, in front of the French occupation. The middle brother is taken by the French culture and technology, and believes that the Mamluks are no better than the French. Between the two extremes, the youngest is always lost and distracted.

In spite of their differences, the three brothers join the Egyptian resistance in Cairo. They were all against the occupation, but they still maintained their differences when it comes to the French culture. The middle brother befriends a French officer, who is more of a pacifist intellectual than a soldier, and he frequently visits the French barracks together with his younger brother. The dialogues they have reflected the cultural intercourse that implicitly took place between the Egyptians and the French during those years.

If you replace the words "Egyptian", "French" and "Mamluks" from the previous paragraphs with the words "Iraqi", "American" and "Saddam" you will see why I watched that movie twice in a couple of weeks when I was supposed to spend that time watching the war coverage. The resemblance really struck me at the time. It's the same story of choosing the lesser of the two evils: the Mamluks and the French on one side, and Saddam and the Americans on the other. Napoleon Bonaparte claimed to the Egyptians that he came to liberate them from the injustices they suffered under the Mamluks, and he was definitely right about the injustices and suffering part. More than two hundred years later, we now know that the whole thing was about the strategic location of Egypt, and Bonaparte's campaign was just one move in his big chess game against the British empire at the time.

Now that Saddam is together with the Mamluks in the trash heap of history, do any of the three Iraqi brothers still believe that "liberation" tone? And in the 21st century superpower single-player (so far) chess game, what will be the next move? During the cold war the biggest fear in the Arab world was of becoming chess pieces, so how do we feel now being just a part of the checkered board with pieces from all over the world stepping on our necks? And the checkering continues...

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Falling of Baghdad - 2 years later

Everyone who followed the invasion of Iraq must have at least one war scene pinned in her/his mind. For many, this was the dramatic scene of American soldiers toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in front of the world press (most of which were embedded with the coalition troops). For some others it was the scene of the American flag covering the head of that same statue of Saddam, and then quickly replaced by an Iraqi flag for the sake of political correctness. For black comedy fans, the scenes of Muhammad Saeed Al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi information minister at the time of the invasion, were definitely the most remarkable.

For me, a much less popular scene summed up the whole Iraq war thing. It was the scene of some patients of a mental institution wandering in the streets in front of their looted asylum. Yes, the looting went beyond the museums, palaces and libraries; it even reached crazy houses. The doctors and nurses had to flee the place, and of course after the equipment and furniture got looted the place was left wide open for the patients, maybe for the first time since they got in there. I can't forget those baffled eyes of the patients, probably confused and asking themselves: Which side of the fence is more insane?

As everyone knows by now, by the time a whole city was being looted, the only Baghdad buildings that were guarded by the coalition forces were the ministry of petroleum and the ministry of interior. The documents in those buildings were definitely more important than thousands-of-years-old monuments, rare books and mentally retarded patients.

One more thing, a little bit off-topic though. At one of the press conferences during the war, a European correspondent asked the American forces spokesperson about the carpet bombing of several areas of Baghdad, and if the alleged weapons of mass destruction sites could be accidentally bombed. The answer of the Pentagon spokesperson was that those sites were all known and avoided.