Thursday, December 31, 2015

US vs. Them: The Perceived Threat of the Other

Religious wearing a "We're right" sign while holding the Bible
Beginning in our infancy, we instinctively learn to separate the self from the other. The infant notices that there is indeed a physical separation between them and their mother. With time, this separation of the self increases and crystallizes into a unique identity.

This separation is encouraged more in certain cultures like the West with its focus on individuality and reason, while Eastern culture with its collectivist outlook may prefer harmony and unity over the fragmentation of the self. Be it as it may, one can analyze what the separation consists of alongside its inherent criteria as well as its possible consequences.

Physically speaking, where does my body end and the body of the other begin? This seems to have relatively clear marked lines as I can claim that this pound of flesh is mine and is visibly separate from yours. To protect my own body I may ask the other, among other things, to give me some physical distance, which may be broken by loved ones.

Poetically speaking, we overcome or annihilate the physical separation with our lover, an act that is often portrayed as a mystical union in Sufi tradition, for instance. In that sense, the touch of the lover will connect my body with hers. It is only in love-making where physical distinctions completely blur and the body becomes one. Put differently, the body of the one merges with the other, becomes indistinguishable and creates a new unified entity.

But separation does not exist only on a physical level; there are also various types of psychological separation. This can still exist within those same aforementioned lovers where each holds onto a separate identity. But in psychological terms, we may identify with particular groups and as a result extend ourselves beyond the self. For instance, we often see those who belong to our family as part and parcel of our identity.

This circle can be extended to include friends and acquaintances and social, national and religious groups. Moreover, I may identify myself with my city, my country, my religion and even my local hockey team, that is I perceive a connection between me and all the others who belong to those groups. During hockey games, fans tend to easily set themselves apart through their clothing and paraphernalia, while in other situations people carry around pin-flags or wear crucifixes.

Groups serve a number of functions. They can be a way of escaping ourselves and our sense of loneliness. We feel as islands upon ourselves, but the extension of the self towards others helps us alleviate some of those lonely feelings. This can also be a manner of protecting ourselves both physically and psychologically. By being one within a group of people, we sense strength and support, and people are more likely to help someone they perceive as similar to them than a complete stranger.

And in these situations who can be seen as a threat here? The enemy is, in fact, the “other.” In that sense, anybody or anything that represents something other or something different from us can be perceived as a threat. For instance, imagine a family party in which there is a person who does not have any ties to your family. That person, due to his difference, may be looked upon as suspicious; although he can never fully become one with the family (unless he chooses to marry one of the other family members), he can manage to override the differences by showing everyone that he is, essentially, either similar to them (culturally, professionally etc) or that he is, despite his differences, not a threat to the status quo.

The desire to create and belong to groups has been existent since our hunting and gathering days. Basically, our cave ancestors did not want to risk their lives for others unknown to them nor did they wish to provide food to those that did not belong to the group. In each of their clans, they sought also protection from any external threats, which could come in terms of animals or other humans / groups.

It turned to be a good idea to expand the group by creating alliances. Even that is a selective process. If your group is having an alliance with mine and intermarriage would foment and fortify the link between the two, then, ipso facto, this also meant and implied that there are many other groups that are not belonging to mine; they are different to the ideas, values or any other characteristics that I cherish within my own (now extended) group.

Alliances have been an important tool in politics too. We form groups with nations and ideologies that are essentially similar or at least not seen as combative to our worldviews. For example, there are a number of contracts, contacts and organizations ranging from NATO to OPEC and even humanitarian groups, such as Unicef or Médecins sans frontières.

The alliances can be political in nature, or else ideological. In fact, the common dividing factor in the past century was based on political ideology. It was the ideals of communism pitted against those of the West; this clash is often portrayed as socialism versus capitalism. In today's world (years after the Fall of Communism), these distinctions are made based on religion mostly (although religions are used as political and propaganda tools by either party) and so broadly speaking the Middle East is thrown against the West, Islam apparently bumping heads with Christian values (while Islam itself has its own divisions and clashes between its Sunni and Shiite brands).

When we identify with one of the groups and exclude the other, we feel stronger and more accepted within our group, whereas we distrust any member of the other group. The problem is that these perceptions of the other - often based on hearsay - are almost always flawed by being too simple, one-dimensional, stereotypical, and even grotesque.

The Western idea of Muslims is highly distorted, and they are portrayed as forms of caricature, the same way (or even worse) Hollywood movies present the bad guys. This distortion goes both ways and also applies to the other group, i.e. the US being referred to as the devil incarnate.

What then happens is that there are a number of misconceptions that, in turn, give rise to outward prejudice and open violence towards any member of those groups. In Canada, the fact that wearing religious clothing could be a contentious issue among the voters can be only seen as troubling.

The West cannot pride itself on its values of liberty and acceptance by simultaneously attacking some of its own members that belong to other religions. The speeches by Donald Trump are essentially not that different from the radical hatemongers he tries to disassociate himself from, and that people on either side of the spectrum do not fully notice this is alarming, if not downright terrifying.

What can or rather needs to be done in this situation? This is, of course, harder said than done. The turmoils seem to be beyond control and terrorism threats seem to be around any corner. But to generalize and put everyone in the same sinking boat cannot be the right path.

Too see the folly of such thinking, just imagine the following analogy: it would be like claiming that the extreme Christian right speaks for all of Christianity and for all Christians across the globe; one cannot throw together and discriminate against all shades and forms of Christians from radical to liberal believer due to one marginalized and defecting (defective?) group.

This focus on religion harks back to the age of the Crusades. Yet to have this today in our modern age is inexcusable. We have at hand not only knowledge and experience, but also technology to safeguard ourselves from such fallacies.

In the past, people believed those distortions because they not only lacked education and literacy but also they did not have much actual contact with people of other faiths. Moreover, they did not have the Internet. We are at a much more advantageous position and cannot claim ignorance to our defence.

One way to dispell the myth of difference as a threat is to actively engage with others. Segregation only increases distrust and suspicion, but what people in the West should do is to actively reach out for those of different faiths. They can also start reading about Islam itself and see for themselves that this religion (like most) is being distorted and manipulated by those extreme voices.

In fact, I think we should follow Alan Watts' timeless advice in his speech on social conformity “Everyone must play” and see our lives with all its contents and structures as a game. We should stop taking ourselves, our religion, our nation, in short, our “group” so seriously and start seeing it as a form of role-playing.

In any game, you cannot force others to play with you. If they are different, they will have their own game and play by their own rules. Nor do we have to play the same games. We can still say to them that we accept them and have respect for their game, but essentially it is not ours to play; neither group ought to force the other to play something they have no wish or desire to play. That way, we can eliminate conflict and increase tolerance and acceptance.

Finally, diversity is not a threat but an opportunity and even a sign of strength. We cannot claim to be an open society and then exclude others. We should see beyond the scopes and limits of our own group and learn to understand the other and have compassion for them.

We should be flexible enough to know that our group can be extended and that there is indeed room for others; we should not permanently shut our doors but give the “other” a chance or opportunity to enter, should they wish. Chances are once we see them as fully-fleshed and feeling humans instead of grotesque and one-dimensional cardboard figures, we will see similarities between each other and not feel threatened anymore.

Monday, December 28, 2015

1965: Tariq Ali on How The Times Are A-changin'

British-Pakistani Journalist Tariq Ali with raised fist and a microphone
In the fall of this year I had the unique chance and honor to attend a talk by Tariq Ali, the renowned British-Pakistani journalist and film-maker. His talk was hosted by the Simon Fraser University in a series highlighting the revolutionary year of 1965. The main impetus was also to celebrate and raise awareness about the university that was turning fifty, having established itself in that particular groundbreaking year.

When the Simon Fraser University was founded, in those years of social and political upheaval, history was considered a controversial subject. Many were reluctant or had become hesitant to adopt a grand narrative, a lens with which to interpret historical events partly due to the eroding effects of postmodernism.

At the same time, some popular outlooks, such as the Marxist view, were fragmented, and later in shambles or re-boot mode after the Fall of the Communist party. But as Tariq Ali points out, we must see events in their context. The traditional Marxists had in the heydays a number of flaws and deficiencies, one of them being the exclusion of women and persons of color.

Notwithstanding, Marxism was the grand narrative for quite some time, and SFU in the 70s was a refuge or breeding ground for those same Marxists. Marxism in its different shades and hues is still (or perhaps even more) relevant today in a world that is seeing its paradigms shift towards globalization, the new all-embracing and overriding single narrative.

All this has occurred due to the history of capital that has, in turn, led to today's uncharted capitalism. This type of capitalism is not bound by the state anymore, but it is, on the contrary, strictly controlled and reinforced by state power. 

Do we really need democracy then, Ali asked the crowd of most likely different generations and hues of Marxists in attendance.

The question is, of course, rhetorical, if not downright cynical. Our current elected politicians and their respective political parties are nothing but puppets whose influence and impact are limited to unimportant or generally insignificant issues; anything they decide or vote upon will not affect or haunt the rulers at the top. 

Ali has written extensively on Bush and Obama, and one of his main claims is that despite our mainstream perception to the contrary there is indeed rather little (or not enough) separating the two leaders from each other.

Why are people not asking for better living conditions? For example, in the past, especially in Europe, there was a political and social ambiance that had unchangeable projects and a clear philosophy at its core. There seems to be a widespread amnesia now regarding these social topics but in the past, people were not ashamed or afraid to ask for free public education and public housing.

That we see it as normal and commonplace nowadays that education will cost us money and that many people in the world who do not have money are excluded from this privilege, hence making education an effective monopoly, that is, another form of capital control, all this is something we have come to accept without doubt or hesitation.

But it does not and should not have to be this way. Another problem of the political project of globalization is the fact that these ideas and feelings of helplessness are transported and implemented into other countries changing their structure and ideology.

The media is in decline and at the same time front and centre of all of this. In the past, notably during the Vietnam war, the media was functioning as a legitimate voice, and opposition was often expressed. 

Astonishing and shocking images of the war were shown and transmitted over television, while the first massive demonstration took place in 1965, an unprecedented event in the history of the United States. 

Nowadays, mass media is to a large extent controlled by those at the top who use it as a means of forming and shaping us into the citizens they envision and to transmit messages that suit them and their monetary purposes best.

Through preambles and digressions, Ali would return to his topic and focus at hand, the year of 1965. This was the first time after the Civil War where the issue of race had become of central importance. In this veritable struggle for freedom, there was also repression against black leaders; Malcolm X was assassinated that same year.

In fact, Ali talked to Malcolm X at Oxford, and the black leader told him that he did not think they would meet again; he strongly believed they were out to kill him. Malcolm X was not exactly sure who because he had many enemies at the time. The leaders were unhappy with his path, and most likely the tone of his messages, and they were also nervous about the reforms that the black communities were seeking.

Unfortunately, these issues are still not resolved yet despite having a current president of color at the helm. There is deep racism at the core of the United States, and events like what happened at Ferguson only highlight this. 

Furthermore, that somebody like Donald Trump can get so much attention and coverage in the media and, what's worse, support from the population is a clear sign that something is seriously wrong with the current American consciousness.

Tariq Ali then looked at wars and foreign policy. They are a great time for removing governments, he claimed. He gave the India and Pakistan war as one of the examples. This war had supposedly occurred over the city of Kashmir, but was more about the rule of dictatorship. The Pakistani knew they were going to lose that war, but went along with the suicide mission for a possible change of government and policies.

Another focal point was Indonesia, which was seen as the biggest threat to the United States due to its Communist government. The CIA was in league and plotted with right-wing generals to carry a coup d'état. Within those weeks, 1.5 million people had died marking it as one the largest genocides in human history. Most of the killers showed little to no remorse as can be seen in the brilliant but shocking and devastating documentary The Act of Killing (2012).

All the slayings in Indonesia left a huge political vacuum and so the radical Islamists entered. They are still quite active after the events of September 11, so echoes of history never go away. History does not repeat itself, but rather has small-scale revivals.

In the past, the general consensus had been that communism and fascism are the same thing, but this is not true. Communism and fascism became prevalent particularly before the Second World War. An interesting and a conveniently overlooked fact regards Churchill who in the 1920s and 30s was himself antisemitic and supported fascist ideas. 

Mussolini, for instance, was seen as a good, strong and viable force to fight against the Jewish Bolsheviks. In fact, Mussolini's biography sold very well in England showing his popularity and the resonance of his ideas within the general populace.

Hitler also found support among world leaders at first and was considered an effective means to fight against communists. Churchill, for instance, gave Hitler's book Mein Kampf a good review, while in his own country Hitler was perceived as a tremendous boon in 1939.

But it comes as no surprise that Hitler was a difficult and unpredictable person to work with, to put it mildly. Soon enough he turned his guns versus the West itself. He took Europe first and then had his eyes on England. 

In fact, the French generally collaborated with Germany; contrary to popular belief, the French resistance was tiny. The controversial film Lacombe, Lucien (1974) by Louis Malle revealed some of those unpleasant aspects about French society in the years of the Occupation.

One of the reasons the French did not offer much resistance was, according to Ali, because antisemitism was a great force in France during those days. And if we look at Scandinavia, only the Norwegians put up a fight against the Germans, while Denmark was taken rather quickly. 

Sweden, on the other hand, was never occupied and worked with the Germans although they were supposed to be seen as neutral. Goebbels was given an honorary doctorate in Lundt, an event that does squash any possible claim for neutrality in this matter.

Ironically, the allies had to eventually accept help from their sworn enemies, the Russian communists. The same Russians who had been initially regarded as a security threat ended up being a strong asset against the surge of the Nazis. 

Shockingly, after World War II, 70% of Italy's most powerful positions and 60% of Germany's were kept by people who had a stake in those troublesome times. Many of the old nazis re-entered the field of politics through various means and parties.

Is there any hope in all of this? Ali claims that there are a number of issues that show some promise. One of them is great cinema that has come as a result of those upheavals and changes. He singled out a number of film-makers, such as Godard, in particular his revolutionary and experimental film Pierrot le Fou (1965), as well as Fellini with his criticism of consumerism, and the works of Francesco Rosi. Ali claimed that the shift in culture is a herald for better things to come.

Furthermore, he pointed out that the Occupy movement was the first sign of real awakening in the US and that we have to continue to make political demands, or else we will be forgotten. 

History is constantly in motion, he said and it doesn't simply end although we are living in bad times. We still have hope. At the end of the talk, the speakers blasted that same uplifting message with a nasal voice singing The Times are A-changin' and I stumbled out of the hall tired and bewildered.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Kiarostami's Close-Up: Masterful Weaving of Fact and Fiction

Freeze frame of Iranian film by Abbas Kiarostami
When approaching a film by the internationally acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, I am generally very cautious. His films are known for being very, very slow (imagine a snail in slow-motion) and generally uneventful in terms of plot (watching paint dry may be more action-filled). 

Notwithstanding, there is a deep and profoundly affecting humanity contained within and revealed through his films that can be even life-changing. In other words, his films may be at times hard to sit through, but in the end, we are, more often than not, left amazed and grateful for the experience.

With this cautious but hopeful mindset, I entered his 1990 movie entitled Close-Up. I decided to watch it because it is hailed and celebrated by known filmmakers around the world, including Martin Scorsese, while it did make the cut as one of the 50 greatest movies of all time by Sight and Sound in 2012. 

Up to that point, my favorite film of Kiarostami had been Taste of Cherry (1997), which on its release had been curiously panned and was even hated by renowned film critic Roger Ebert, although later he adopted a somewhat softer tone. I also watched one of Kiarostami's more recent (abroad) efforts, the film Copie Conforme (2010), which I found interesting but not as impressive as his Iranian films.

Yet even the latter film showed some of the director's trademarks. There are long conversations often filled with poetry taking place inside a car alongside a continuous interest, if not obsession, with the blurry lines between fact and fiction, or rather cinema and fiction. The title itself Copie Conforme meaning “Certified Copy” directly references this theme; that is, the film is a copy or replicate of reality (and incidentally his latest movie is called Like Someone in Love (2012): although I have not yet seen the film, the “like” part of the title shows us that it must include the recurrent theme of reality versus appearance). 

But if cinema is a copy of real life (and love), it is at the same time more real than life in that it expresses a wide range of experiences that are often not visible to the naked eye or lens of ordinary life. Indeed Kiarostami's philosophy of cinema is not as far-removed but equally dense as, for example, the opera. In fact, traditional operas from their well-known Italian masters, most notably Puccini and Verdi, often serve as a magnifying glass that enlarges life and exposes the vivid and colorful emotions and passions underneath our seemingly mundane existence.

The opera (and Kiarostami's movies, as a rule) are rather self-conscious about these acts; the music swells and the singers/actors swoon to (over)expose human sentiment and passion, and the viewer, as well as the composer/performers, are fully aware that this is merely a stage of actors putting on a show.

In Kiarostami's films, there is almost always the reminder that this is a film we are watching when he deliberately exposes himself and/or his crew. The fact that the cinematic world is artificial does not, naturally, take away from its often life-affirming message about our daily lives.

So it came as little surprise that Kiarostami would be interested in the real-life case of a so-called swindler or impostor who posed as the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and who was hence sued by the swindled family to be tried for his acts of impersonation.

Kiarostami must have loved the fact that we have here the double of impersonator/actor versus the real-life director. The reason why he was (mis)taken for the director was their physical resemblance. But why would this man do something like that? What was his motivation? Money? Fame? Or both?

To give us the backstory, Kiarostami got real-life people to play and re-enact what had happened beforehand, the most notable situations that led them to this endpoint. So while the trial is a work of documentary in that it documents the conversations plus reactions and decisions of all involved, it is also a film since the director Kiarostami is not only physically present throughout with two cameras and his minimal crew, but he even guides events by directing questions to the accused and by also providing the occasional commentary to all involved in the court case.

In the meantime, the filmed and “artificial” scenes of the past are a visual representation of how everything had occurred giving us a better understanding of the proceedings, the trial itself, and its subsequent verdict. Since they were shot with the original people acting as themselves, the movie is further blurring the lines between documentary and fiction.

The judge, who was asked permission to film the trial, looked at first baffled regarding the request. Why, there are more interesting and dramatic cases than this one, he insists. There are cases of homicides and other more serious crimes, and the judge believes that they would be more deserving and fitting to cinematic aspirations and exposure than a simple case of fraud, but none of those cases are of interest to our director.

Then ensues one of the most thrilling court dramas I have seen. This is not Matlock or any of the suspenseful Hollywood films, nor is it the widely celebrated but in comparison much inferior A Separation (2011) by another talented Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. This is the real case of an enigmatic poor man named Sabzian who could possibly face a prison sentence for his actions involving a well-to-do family.

Slowly, we see his motivations come to light, and the way it happens, I was reminded of Sidney Lumet's brilliant examination of jury proceedings behind closed doors in his seminal 12 Angry Men (1957). In fact, the accused did not mean to cause harm nor to rob the family as they believed, but it started with a misunderstanding. We are shown a flashback, which was evidently shot after the event with the real participants, in which Sabzian is sitting in a bus reading the screenplay of Makhmalbaf's (!) The Cyclist (1987).

The passenger beside him is a woman, in fact, the mother of the well-to-do family Ahankhah who asks him about the book, and Sabzian eventually and rather impulsively claims that he is the director himself. The woman impressed with sitting next to the famous and respected director asks him a number of questions, including why he is taking public transport, and somehow Sabzian has an appropriate answer to all her questions.

As a humble director, he is a man of the people and, in fact, he is also scouting for possible subjects and actors for his upcoming movies, Sabzian channeling his idol Makhmalbaf explains to the woman. Taking into account his physical resemblance, his eloquence, and his thorough knowledge of the director's oeuvre, the woman is not only convinced of his identity but also intrigued and says that she would like her sons to meet him. He complies and considers that he might even put them in his next film, and she gladly gives him her address.

Why did he impersonate the director? A possible answer is that he essentially and existentially identifies himself with that man's works. Sabzian claims that the movies Makhmalbaf has made are about poor and ordinary people like himself, that he had watched them various times, and that he constantly saw himself and his life with its sorrows and suffering reflected there on the screen. At the same time, because of his physical resemblance, he had even previously pretended to be the director because all of a sudden he was given respect, something which he lacked in his real life.

In his day-to-day life, he saw himself as a penniless and insignificant person, but when he assumed the identity of the director, people's view of him abruptly changed. What he said and thought suddenly mattered, and in fact, they even followed his instructions. At one point, he asked one of the family members to lend him some money, which he then purportedly used to buy something for his own son. He adds that a famous director like Makhmalbaf, i.e. the role he was playing, could not possibly be poor.

Sabzian's personal life was also nothing special. He was a devout person, but his wife had divorced him. His mother is present at the hearings pleading for the good nature of her son claiming that he did not put up a fight against his divorce and had fully accepted his wife's decision. He had no intention of robbing the family of their money and he had fully intended to pay the young man back the money lent to him.

The judge also seemed quite sympathetic (opposite to how Muslim clerics are often portrayed in Western media) towards the accused and his mother; he immediately dismissed the accusation of intended burglary; the family had thought that Sabzian wanted them to come out (to lure them out) and see one of “his” (meaning Makhmalbaf's) movies in order to steal all the belongings from their house. This was immediately dismissed by the judge as implausible and unfounded.

In fact, after listening to all participants, the judge put the ball back into the family's court claiming that it was up to them; if they wanted to drop the charges, he would fully comply and that in the eyes of the court, this man was misguided in his actions, but had not meant to do any harm. The family agreed and said that they would do so should the man accept his faults and apologize for his actions.

Two scenes of this movie are some of the most moving I have ever seen on the screen. One is when the director is examining Sabzian's desire to be a director; the man claims he merely wanted somebody to tell the world the story of his life. Then Kiarostami retorts, so you want to be an actor, not a director, and the proof there was the fact that Kiarostami was indeed acting as a director and had done so successfully.

Yes, Sabzian said in tears. He wanted people to know of his real suffering, to expose himself the way he is inside to the world outside, and they see him not as a swindler but as a feeling and tender man. His dream would be to have a role playing himself, the way he is deep inside. Well, claims Kiarostami, is this not exactly what you are doing right now, and a teary-eyed Sabzian suddenly realizes that he has just done so in front of the camera.

The second moment is at the end of the movie when Sabzian comes face-to-face with the real Makhmalbaf, and he cries. Makhmalbaf consoles him and gets on Sabzian's motorcycle to go to the family's house for a surprise visit. On the way, there are issues with the sound, and we hear Kiarostami's concerns that one cannot at times hear their conversation. Is that scene mere acting and pretending on the part of the director to make it seem more realistic and documentary-like or was there indeed a technical problem while shooting? Considering the fact that they cannot re-shoot a documentary scene, this could be the latter case.

But Kiarostami instead gives us glimpses of their motorcycle ride with an added soundtrack. Finally, they get to the door of the family who will come to meet both at the same time, the real-life director and his well-meaning impostor, the real and the fake, the true and its copy.

And the film ends with a wonderful freeze frame on Sabzian's face holding a flower as a sign and gift of reconciliation. This might have also been a nod to Makhmalbaf's own The Cyclist, which also ends on a freeze frame of the main character, a film that was also highly respected by Sabzian.

Now as a final question, I would like to consider the following: Did Sabzian not put on a double act? In fact, he is good at acting and making the family believe he is the director, but did he not play with us and make us believe that he is a good and innocent man? Did he not put on a show for us the viewers? Or was his performance real, as he himself claims?

Is the movie real? If so, to what extent? Is it a documentary or is it a film? Does the trial not become a work of fiction due to the presence of the camera? Does the director not have too much say and control, and hence, is he not changing the court proceedings in his own favor? Would Sabzian have been acquitted without Kiarostami's presence and interference?

One thing that is for sure is that this movie not only made me think but also made me rethink the work of this brilliant Iranian director. This was not only thoughtful and moving but also a thrilling and entertaining experience. No wonder it is considered one of the best movies of all time because, in reality, and truth be told, it fully merits its mention on that list.