My review: divorce italian style

watched ‘divorce italian style’ (1961) which is supposed to be a dark comedy. was completely turned off by the overwhelming misogyny and mean-spiritedness of the film. yes, i know it’s supposed to be ‘satire’ but, once again, punching down against women in a dangerously patriarchal society/world is hardly funny. 

so much is cringeworthy in the film: the mustache and unibrow added to mastroianni’s perfectly good-looking wife in order to dehumanize her, the fact that the hero is a 37-year old lech lusting after his 16-year old cousin (they end up together), how the teenager’s uncle (her mother’s brother) is also stalking her, the lech’s recurring day dreams of his wife falling into a vat of boiling chemicals or being sucked into quicksand, the constant sexual harassment of the impoverished, dishevelled maid (who doesn’t seem to mind so much), the off-screen/cold-blooded/inconsequential murder of the wife, and on and on. 

i get that it’s an attempt to lay bare the ridiculousness of a conservative, catholic, macho society but is there no way to unpack cruelty, oppression, violence, and sexism, then by reproducing/laughing at cruelty and misogyny? 

there’s also an undercurrent of racism against southern italians throughout the film.

i had the same issue when re-reading gabriel garcía márquez’s ‘love in the time of cholera.’ rather than being impressed by the hero’s persistence in pursuing ‘true love,’ i was unsettled by his compulsive consumption of women, how rape is presented (or invisibilized) in the book, and how black women are outrageously sexualized. (what i wrote is in comments)

it’s not just sexism, it’s also racism. for example, when i think of ‘breakfast at tiffany’s,’ the image that comes to mind is the ‘yellowface minstrelsy caricature’ served up by mickey rooney as mr yunioshi. 

many times, partaking of mainstream culture feels like negotiating a minefield.

my review: au revoir les enfants

saw ‘au revoir les enfants’ for the third time and loved it even more. there is a simplicity and natural rhythm to it that’s incredibly difficult to orchestrate and capture on film. it’s unaffected.

there is a universality to the film. although it’s semi-autobiographical (louis malle went to a boarding school during the german occupation of france in the second world war), the film at its core is about difference. how it seduces and threatens, how it must be rooted out and disappeared, how it’s delineated and construed by power.

there is also an important socio-economic subtext to the story. the rich are so easily beautiful. even children seem to sense it.

the scene at the end, when children are picked out of a school assembly (their names read from a list), and asked to separate from the group and go stand against a wall, is a clear comment on the arbitrariness of who is deemed valuable or not, who ends up on the right side of the state or not, how easy it is to cross that liminal space, and how war intensifies the good vs evil binary. without intrusive music or sentimentality, ‘au revoir les enfants’ moves deeply. on hbo max and youtube.

COVID-19 is a practice run for climate change

great piece by my friend kate. a couple of sentences i would love to reframe:

‘It is a national security risk even when we ourselves don’t face famine. Droughts in one country displace refugees, who cause political disruption and a rise in nationalist violence in others.’

rather than look at a crisis in another country (climate change or pandemic related) as a ‘national security risk,’ we need to focus on/feel the cost of a catastrophe in terms of human suffering and the impact on our planet.

refugees are not the cause of disruptions, they are the effect of wars and climate change activated by rich countries. similarly, the cause of nationalist violence is not refugees, it’s white supremacy, which is an important part of this equation.

this is why i don’t believe in borders – because they allow us to separate and otherize based on geography and the economic privileges we aim to protect.

Kate Kressmann-Kehoe: …the pandemic and climate change are both threat multipliers: They amplify existing problems and bring previously hidden vulnerabilities to the surface. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc not just in the restaurant industry, but in the education system, pharmaceutical supply chains, global scientific research and more. It is highlighting economic inequities and racism, from the lack of the option to work from home, to higher death rates. More here.

unorthodox – my review

everyone’s been talking about netflix’s ‘unorthodox.’ i watched the mini series recently and i agree, it’s well written, well acted, well produced. it certainly grabs u from the get-go and keeps u interested all the way through.

there are some unsettling scenes and cringeworthy situations, but there are also moments that move and inspire, in particular the protagonist’s love of music and her need to express that dizzying sense of emotive freedom. it’s always satisfying to see a woman come into her own anyway. i get all that.
but as a muslim, who’s used to the west’s obsessive depictions of muslim women escaping their oppression, i am sensitive to certain tropes that others might not recognize.

i could easily imagine a similar netflix series (and there might be a dozen or more already) involving a muslim woman breaking away from her exotic/bizarre (not legible to western audiences), patriarchal/religious, sensational/shocking milieu, and the collective sigh of relief and exhilaration that it would produce in western viewers, along with plenty of self-righteous indignation.

for the women in question, whose stories are being shared, their journeys are arduous, hopeful, and steeped in unquestionable power. no doubt about it.

however, i cannot help but note the self-congratulatory, give yourself a pat on the back framing of this genre of drama.
the politics are never too subtle and sit so well, so cozily, with representations of the ‘sacred space’ occupied by first-world democracies, the ones with a superior, universal, liberal culture that loves progress, gay people and women.

‘unorthodox’ hit so many of those typical binaries that are supposed to help us differentiate between what’s civilized and what’s not.
eating pork is esty’s first discovery of the west’s attractive irreverence. it reminded me of an article i read recently about la fete du cochon in france which is used to celebrate french traditions and seen as pushback against muslim immigration. just to illustrate how bacon symbolizes western enlightenment.

i think perhaps esty ended up drinking alcohol as well which is also read as a mark of emancipation.

the club scene is a typical portrayal of a repressed character from a backward culture, uninitiated in the mind-bending freedom of drugs and collective grinding, who learns to finally relax and concludes the night with an empowering sexual encounter.

esty is becoming ‘liberated’ before our eyes, checking off each box on the white feminist checklist of things to do, in order to go from object (baby-making machine) to free agent with tons of individual freedom.

i’m not criticizing any of these actions in and of themselves (eating pork, drinking alcohol, clubbing or casual sex). women are allowed to make these decisions in whichever way they deem fit. but when they’re combined into a stereotypical, white feminist manifesto, i have to mention how recognizable it is, to us the ‘other’ people whose cultures are constantly measured against this very specific and predictable criteria.

just some thoughts:)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco


Nathan Heller: The Last Black Man in San Francisco was funded in part by Kickstarter and was drawn from Jimmie Fails’s own experience: he did grow up poor in the city, and his family did once live in such a house. In that sense, it’s a report on an African-American presence that truly is fading—the percentage of black residents in San Francisco is less than half what it was in 1970, and sits today around a measly six per cent—and it captures the experience of displacement, of travelling among spheres in which you have increasingly little say or stake and trying to blend in. At Sundance, the film won a directing award and a special-jury prize, and it captured viewers’ imaginations as a human window onto the city’s rocky transformation. Fails and Talbot have been friends since late childhood, when Fails was in a housing project and Talbot was living nearby, and they made the movie while living in Talbot’s parents’ home. Their film is frank not only in its portrait of the real-estate pressures that make San Francisco a shorthand for self-stifling unaffordability but in its reports on the habits and moods of the place. From the platinum-hued outdoor light to the rollicking skateboard rides across town, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” feels of San Francisco, and its characters are vivid with the offbeat pursuits that give the city’s residents their bizarre glow. In the world of the film, as in real life, everyone is bound by a common anxiety, and the movie gently suggests that many middle-class San Franciscans can see aspects of their own displacement panic in the black experience of Jimmie Fails. The fear is not just that you’ll lose your place in town but that the place will lose all memory of you.

citizen kane is boring

so coming back to an earlier discussion about why i don’t think ‘citizen kane’ is the best film ever made. first of all, i have an issue with top 10 (or even top 100) lists. they’re mostly created by self-righteous critics/arbiters of taste who think they’re better than everyone else and since their opinions are sold as such (expert, valuable, sacrosanct), the film/artwork’s rating becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. if such lists were compiled more organically, bottom-up, they wouldn’t be static or anachronistic. also, films/art wouldn’t be assessed eternally through the lens of white heteropatriarchy, which is so very tired.

as a friend pointed out, citizen kane’s cinematography, camera angles, structure and writing might have been inventive for its time, but our response to art is visceral – it’s not some kind of intellectual calculus, rather an emotional response. i’ve never been able to watch the entire film, all the way to the end. it doesn’t engage me.

if u think about it, why should an american film made by a white man in 1941 be universally accepted as the best film ever? my repository of favorite movies doesn’t have room for ‘citizen kane.’ here are a few films (in no particular order) that work much better for me. pls check them out if u haven’t already.

Garam Hava by M.S. Sathyu
This 1973 Indian feature by first-time director M.S. Sathyu takes place in the days immediately following the Indo-Pakistani partition, as a Muslim shoemaker (Balraj Sahni) in Agra, India, tries to resist the prejudice and economic pressure that tempt him to abandon his family business and emigrate to Pakistan. Sathyu brings a naturalist touch to this detailed family drama, shooting in color and on the streets, often with a handheld camera.

Charulata by Satyajit Ray
Satyajit Ray’s exquisite story of a woman’s artistic and romantic yearning takes place in late nineteenth-century, pre-independence India, in the gracious home of a liberal-minded, workaholic newspaper editor and his lonely wife, Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee). When her husband’s poet cousin (Soumitra Chatterjee) comes to stay with them, Charulata finds herself both creatively inspired and dangerously drawn to him. Based on a novella by the great Rabindranath Tagore, Charulata is a work of subtle textures, a delicate tale of a marriage in jeopardy and a woman taking the first steps toward establishing her own voice.

Close-up by Abbas Kiarostami
This fiction-documentary hybrid uses a sensational real-life event — the arrest of a young man on charges that he fraudulently impersonated the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf — as the basis for a stunning, multilayered investigation into movies, identity, artistic creation, and existence, in which the real people from the case play themselves. With its universal themes and fascinating narrative knots, CLOSE-UP — one of Kiarostami’s most radical, brilliant works — has resonated with viewers around the world.

In The Mood For Love by Wong Kar-wai
The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo
Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa
Scenes From A Marriage by Ingmar Bergman
Miss Julie by Alf Sjöberg
Titus by Julie Taymor
Away From Her by Sarah Polley
The Sea Inside by Alejandro Amenábar
Moonlight by Barry Jenkins
Una mujer fantástica by Sebastián Lelio
Bab’Aziz by Nacer Khemir
Korkoro by Tony Gatlif
The Double Life of Veronique by Krzysztof Kie?lowski
Forever by Heddy Honigmann

i could go on:)

parasite – my review

‘parasite’ is hard to love. it’s a dark comedy full of grift and grotesquerie. the characters are complicated – neither heroes nor villains – and so they don’t offer the kind of clarity or predictability that we expect from american films. as a piece of art, the film is a masterpiece of meticulous structure, powerful performances, blunt metaphors, and unapologetic political commentary. class struggle, the lack of worker solidarity, climate change, the violent and precarious nature of capitalism, and the vulgar society/culture it spawns are all addressed sharply in the film. it’s a bold questioning of south korea’s neoliberal restructuring (IMF-style) and its present-day hyperconsumerism. bong joon-ho has much to say and i cannot wait to hear more.

barbican concert: a baroque ensemble

i have to write about yesterday evening. amra and i decided to attend a #barbican #concert, by a canadian period-instrument, #baroque #ensemble: ‘#tafelmusik: love and betrayal.’ it moved seamlessly from dynamic instrumental works by #handel and #vivaldi to #opera. the absolutely astonishing canadian #soprano @karina_gauvin stunned with such moving performances that one forgot the world. 
when she sang handel’s ‘ah! mio cor’ something was unleashed inside of me and all the emotions i’ve been experiencing over the last few weeks came crashing down. the tears wouldn’t stop. i was afraid i’d start to cry uncontrollably, and was relieved when the concert shifted pace.

such is the power of brilliant #music

the concert took place at #miltoncourt concert hall, owned by the #guildhall school of music. what an incredible space. wood plays a central role in the hall’s design – sapele, which is often used for making instruments, produces both beautiful acoustics and aesthetics. even our clapping, which was constant and vigorous, acquired unparalleled resonance. 
it was one of the most unforgettable concerts of my life. thank you #london
@tafelmusikbocc @guildhallschool @barbicancentre

in this world

recently, i made my students watch michael winterbottom’s ‘in this world’ a hands-on, many times unscripted, documentary-style film that follows the arduous (and ultimately tragic) journey of two young men (jamal is only 15) who risk everything and travel from a refugee camp in pakistan to iran, to turkey, to trieste in italy to london. some parts of their journey are more harrowing than others, but one that’s particularly unforgettable is the long voyage on board a ship (from turkey to italy) during which they are locked along with others in a dark, suffocating, metallic container. most don’t make it out alive. 

we discussed the film in class and some of my students made such brilliant comments i have to share.

they were surprised by the corruption of the bureaucracy (officials had to be bribed at every checkpoint), the cultural and linguistic mosaic they didn’t expect (sometimes w/i the same country), and the rationing of food in refugee camps (they said they felt nauseated by comparing it to how much food is wasted here in the US). they couldn’t believe that jamal had such a good head on his shoulders at such a young age, yet they laughed at his jokes and his desire for the largest scoop of ice-cream – reminders that he was just a child after all. they talked about how billions are spent on war against some of the most vulnerable people and they also connected the fate of the two boys they got to know in the film to 9/11 and america’s response to it.

they made some out-of-the box connections, e.g. to the underground railroad – how people have always taken risks, journeyed, and secretly crossed borders to escape oppression and make better, safer lives for themselves and their families. they noticed how jamal and enayat were welcomed by kurdish villagers who helped them get to turkey, and thought about the generosity of a people who don’t have sovereignty themselves, but will do everything they can to get someone else ‘home.’ 

finally, they shared how refugees and immigrants (‘migrants’) are mostly invisibilized and how seeing them up close thru the film moved them in unexpected ways. we also read warsan shire’s poem ‘home’ and fady joudah’s ‘mimesis.’ rather than ask them to write an analytical essay on the film, which is what we usually do, i asked them to write about one leg of jamal’s journey in the first person, to tell me his thoughts and feelings but also details related to the situation he is caught in. i just read some of their responses and i’m blown away. i feel like we’ve hooked into something here. something profound.

Our own remarkable histories

I remember when Laila Lalami came to Rochester many years ago to read from her 2005 book, ‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits’. I’d been a fan of her writing since her days and so I went. During the Q&A someone asked her a question about how feminism evolved in North Africa by trying to understand its ties to western feminism, because how else would Moroccan women know about their rights? Laila was visibly annoyed and had to take a sip of water before she responded. I never forgot that question. This ridiculous notion that feminism is a western idea.i’m reading Urdu poet and writer Fahmida Riaz’s book, ‘Four Walls and a Black Veil,’ and in the foreword Aamir Hussein talks about how “poems such as ‘The Laughter of a Woman’ and ‘She is a Woman Impure’ celebrate femininity in ways that French feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray were to do. Just as Ismat Chughtai prefigured by several years Simone de Beauvoir’s theoretical configurations in ‘The Second Sex,’ so too Fahmida wrote fearlessly about blood, milk and the waters of birth before her western contemporaries began to formulate their theories of women’s writing as grounded in bodily experience, and most certainly before she could have been exposed to their writings.”I

I read Chughtai’s seminal, semi-autobiographical Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) in English, a translation by Tahira Naqvi, some years ago and was blown away by its power. In her foreword to the English translation, Naqvi writes, “it was Ismat Chughtai who, fearlessly and without reserve, initiated the practice of looking at women’s lives from a psychological standpoint. This brings me to the interesting parallels that one can see between ‘The First Phase’ in The Crooked Line and the section titled ‘The Formative Years: Childhood’ in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir’s pioneering work on female sexuality which appeared in 1949, four years after Chughtai’s novel. As a matter of fact, there are certain portions in Chughtai’s novel that seem to be fictionalised prefigurations of Beauvoir’s description and analysis of childhood playacting and fantasy; it seems as if Chughtai and Beauvoir were drawing on a common source. In both works, feminine experience is explored from childhood through puberty and adolescence to womanhood, these being the stages in the development of a sense of self that finally results in an acceptance of sexual impulses and subsequently leads to the awareness of a sexual identity.”

And of course, we can go back to ‘Sultana’s Dream’ a feminist utopia imagined and articulated by Rokeya Hossain, a writer and social reformer from Bengal.

Rokeya Hossain was born in 1880, Ismat Chughtai in 1915, and Fahmida Riaz in 1946. All three women were Muslim and Brown (South Asian). This is just a small bit of history (literature), so much more can be found in the non-white, non-western world. And confining ourselves to what’s written only, is egregiously short-sighted – so much is passed down through stories and diverse oral traditions.

I hope that my daughter and all the brilliant young women I consider to be my daughters, sisters and friends, will read these women and learn their own remarkable histories.

gentleman jack

i’m loving ‘gentleman jack,’ a show based on the diaries of ’19th century landowner anne lister who returns to her home to transform its fate – and with plans to marry a woman.’ written by the brilliant sally wainwright, the main character is played with dynamism and sensitivity by suranne jones who injects her own spunk into the entire project. still left thinking why LGBT actors don’t get cast in LGBT roles. such roles are few and far between, and i’m sure LGBT actors do exist.

reminds me of how i saw The Orphan of Zhao by the royal shakespeare company, when i took a class in theater. all the main characters were played by white actors. when asian actors complained, they were told that the casting was based on merit, to which an asian actor remarked how sad it was that asian actors were not even good enough to play themselves.