My review of Lessons of the Hour, a video installation by British artist Isaac Julien, inspired by the life of Frederick Douglass, on view at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester until May 12th.
‘Although I agree that photographs of brutalized bodies, especially when they belong to oppressed communities, dehumanize and normalize further violence, prioritizing sanitized visuals over rougher, less agreeable sounds and images can also be tricky. It takes away a lot of the discomfort that real talk might induce in an audience. It makes art easier to digest, but one has to question its message, its gloss, its commercial invincibility.’ More here.
‘capernaum’ is a hectic, brutal, relentless journey into the slums of beirut and the lives of its inhabitants. it reminded me of ‘dirty pretty things,’ a film about the underground world of illegal immigration, set in london, in which chiwetel ejiofor’s performance blew me away. ‘capernaum’ too has its share of stunning performances, especially by children including the film’s remarkable protagonist zain al rafeea, a syrian refugee, and boluwatife treasure bankole who delivers the most unbelievable performance by a toddler in film, ever. shot with documentary style realism, the film addresses poverty and violence head-on, thru the lens of those who are the most vulnerable.
however, the final message of the film is unsettling. many times, in films that expose the pathos of poverty, there’s a speech at the end, something to leave the viewers with, a resolution of the tragedy they just witnessed. we saw ken loach’s ‘i, daniel blake’ recently and he follows the same convention. but whereas loach’s films humanize the poor and are strongly critical of the systems that produce and sustain poverty, nadine labaki’s ‘capernaum’ ends with a patronizing scolding, a decree to the poor not to produce so many children.
although 12-year-old zain is a compelling character, his parents are shown as dickensian villains, selfish, heartless and irresponsibly fertile. rather than question the system that produces such people, labaki is satisfied with this skin-deep portrayal.
in interviews labaki has said that the film is universal and that it ends with a challenge to audiences to confront their complicity. yet the connections to imperial wars (the mass dislocation and humanitarian crises they produce) and their impact on neighboring countries in the middle east, already struggling with their economies, are missing from the film. that context would have been a brave, and much needed, addition.
Laura Chekow: Interesting…. I will have to marinate on this as I was very impressed by the director’s dedication to the vulnerabilities of the characters without adding gratuitous drama, adrenaline, or even heroism, particularly (the latter being a tendency among overly enthusiastic storytellers who can’t seem to restrain themselves from heavy-hand syndrome). I absolutely thought of “Dirty Pretty Things” as well. And my friend and I laughed over the thought that the infant in this film definitely deserved an Oscar nod for Supporting role!
Mara Ahmed: Yet there is constant drama, as zain moves from one hellish situation to the next. it’s become a kind of genre. apart from dirty pretty things, i also thought of slum dog millionaire and films shot in favelas or the french banlieues. some of these are more stylized than capernaum, but always there’s this fast paced, compressed, shockingly violent almost frenzied visual drive-thru/overview of what is perceived as the very hectic and brutal lives of marginalized people. i wish these films would take time to tell us more complete, well-rounded, deeper stories. just witnessing the grittiness is not enough. these stories need to be anchored in the politics and socio-economic realities that make them possible. otherwise it’s a kind of consumption.
there is straightforward moralizing in the film – court scenes are always used as a platform. but i wish that rather than lectures on how hard poverty is (the mother and father both make speeches) this message was embodied in the lives we are shown, which could have been more multidimensional. decontextualization is a political act.
and of course, the central lecture on good parenting and birth control is so patronizing, so problematic. i cannot believe that more people didn’t react to it.
we watched oscar-nominated, animated shorts last night and i fell in love with this animated film from ireland. the writer-director, louise bagnall, explains how she wanted to explore the different stages of a woman’s life and the idea that identity is so dependent on memories. it moved me to tears. i was able to find the entire 10 minutes-long animation on youtube. here it is.
like dr zhivago, cold war too is a love story stretched to the limit by its when and where. but polish writer-director pawel pawlikowski can streamline drama with such beautiful precision, that we are left with a jewel. a perfect piece of visual music. i agree with reviewer a. a. dowd when he describes the film as “a haunted romantic epic in miniature, like a novel written with the careful, precise economy of a short story. tracking the ups and downs of a tumultuous love affair against seismic shifts in the cultural landscape, it condenses 15 years of plot and history—spread out across four countries situated on the fault line of the 20th century—into a spare, elegant 89 minutes.” his earlier film, ida is equally excellent.
three strong performances, a tough unsentimental script, wide lens/fisheye lens/mind bending cinematography, constant movement and power play, a loose interpretation of history, a particularly hilarious dance, and yorgos lanthimos’s usual obsession with the absurd. i recommend the favourite.
solid discussion on the “diversity advantage” at the gandhi institute today. it took more than 6 months for me to put this community event together (it was free and open to the public), along with a preview on wxxi’s connections. getting the panel together and negotiating its constantly fluid, evolving make-up was challenging (thank u kristin for being such a trouper and jumping in – i owe u one), finding a venue that made sense, getting some money, bringing food, promoting on social media and otherwise, figuring out how all our disparate pieces would fit together, and then writing my presentation on the complex work of edouard glissant took time and energy. but hopefully, to the frequent question of “why do we need these discussions?” we could submit, “because we might learn something new, meet the other, hear from the other, and change the way we think and act?” possibly.
we learned about ecology and how diversity endows plant and animal systems with resilience. we also learned how some of those ecological principles and habitats can help us design better urban environments. we learned about ableism as a system of segregation and how more intelligent/inclusive design can create public spaces that enrich all of our lives. we learned about the beast of racism and how it disrupts and distorts our most intimate as well as collective experiences. finally, we talked about the work of an incredible martinique poet and philosopher who offers us a language to imagine a world different from ours. by using ideas such as creolization, archipelagic thinking, relation and opacity, glissant allows us to wrap our minds around what could be.
my film, A Thin Wall, tries to imagine a decolonized south asia, in which our common past and pressing present would allow us to break through the colonial framework we’ve been stuck in for the last 70 years. if only we could see through the thin wall that separates us, we would recognize some of our sameness. the last words in the film, which are echoed by my indian co-producer (i was born in pakistan, on the other side of the border) and friend Surbhi, are: “nothing happens, unless we dream it first.” dreams are important.
thx to my valiant co-panelists luticha doucette, mary scipioni and of course kristin hocker, to maria engels our host at the gandhi institute, and to all those who came and added their presence to our dreaming.
watched “lazzaro felice” last night. a beautiful film that charms and surprises. lazzaro, the film’s main character, has the head of michelangelo’s “angel with a candlestick” and a guileless kindness that’s just as otherworldly. storytelling as magic, unmoored from constraints of time and space. on netflix.
Alan Scherstuhl: Alice Rohrwacher’s work unites a passionate interest in social realism, in the hardships faced by people on the streets and in the fields, with a daring refusal to be held by the rules of narrative realism.
roma by alfonso cuaron. based on intimate memories of his childhood, especially cleo, the family’s nanny and housekeeper, who’s played by the luminous yalitza aparicio, a non-actor. a breathtaking, expansive film, beautifully shot, with wonderful details. the house, stunning soundscape, and street scenes reminded me of lahore. no wonder i loved mexico city. with some heartbreaking, hard to watch moments and a script that’s always interesting, shifting, multivalent. no music at all. the best film i’ve seen this year. written, directed, shot, co-produced and edited by cuaron himself. if only we could all recreate our childhoods with such haunting eloquence. on netflix.
“panorama” the new episode of the romanoffs is a love letter to mexico city. the zócalo, diego rivera’s mural at the palacio nacional, teotihuacan, the unending layers of history, archeology, and culture. reminded me of our unforgettable time there, 3 years ago. loved the last scene. with a song by regina spektor.
Muneeza Shamsie: The quietness with which Hussein portrays turmoil and self-doubt adds to the power of his stories such as the tight, intricate and moving ‘Lady of the Lotus’. This multi-layered tale vividly recreates Karachi in the 1950s: its elegant parties, cultural evenings and soirees. Hussein interweaves brief jottings from the diaries of his gifted mother, Sabiha Ahmed Hussein, capturing her profound love for classical music and her singing lessons by famous maestros. The narrative is skilfully constructed through a series of vignettes in the first- and third-person, which weld past and present to great effect, to tell of creativity, self-expression, self-doubt and loss. A brief reference to her longing for rain — so rare in Karachi but so abundant in her native Malwa, India — imbues the story with a myriad of metaphors, including an intertextual engagement with the famous Malwa folk legend which gives Hussein’s story its name. Music as an innate expression of the human experience also runs through ‘The Hermitage’. Here, the loud joyful singing of a nun and the painful soaring voice of a monk, juxtaposed against the disciplined, traditional chanting of their colleagues at a monastery, release the abbott Siddhant’s suppressed memories. More here.
Am so very moved by and thankful for E.C. Salibian’s attentive, honest, and profound writing about my work. Published in the first issue ever of the Rochester Beacon (a group of veteran journalists and others with deep ties to the Rochester community providing local news coverage and analysis), the article quotes/mentions so many people I love and am grateful for. This gives me more pleasure than anything. Thank you Nilofar Saleem, Saleem Murtaza, Aitezaz Ahmed, Gibran Ahmed, Mimi Ahmed, Muhammad Shafiq, Cat Ashworth, Rajesh Barnabas, Mariko Yamada, Joyce Edwards, Surbhi Dewan, Donna K. Khorsheed, and Tonya Noel ♥
#massmoca was predictably brilliant: #lizglynn #sollewitt #spencerfinch #dawndedeaux #lonnieholley #louisebourgeois #robertrauschenberg and #jamesturrell’s #hindsight (complete darkness) and #intothelight (where one is surrounded by, almost squeezed into, changing, throbbing, vibrant color – i could feel and smell the color on my skin, as palpable as a fine mist) – how i love art ♥
So “A Thin Wall” is on IMDb but I hardly ever visit the page. Today I was surprised to find a review for the film, by someone called krasicki. The review made me laugh because it’s so obviously written by a white male. It’s not just the name. It’s the deep discomfort with a non-linear narrative and multiple elements that move back and forth and collage stories without the expected concrete structure that will hold ur hand and lead u to an unambiguous conclusion. It’s the need for traditional history, written mostly by (white) men, rather than a collection of oral histories gleaned from the experiences of women for the most part. The reviewer’s racial/cultural sympathies are obvious in how he criticizes the film for “demonizing” the partition (how does one celebrate the displacement of 20 million people and the killing of another million?) and “largely blaming” the British. Lol. The final condescending blow comes in his description of the film as “Indian Kitsch.” Such colonial pettiness. He’s only written one review on IMDb. I’m glad the film got to him so badly 🙂
i saw Beatriz at Dinner for the second time last night (free on amazon) and i cannot believe that the film has not garnered more attention. it’s such a subtle but precise take down of capitalism. the film has been described as being about the 1% or about trumpism. it’s so much more. it’s about white privilege, it’s about class, it’s about immigration, but it’s mostly, overarchingly about capitalism and its centrality in western culture. reviewers have talked about “class polarization” but to me the unevenness or discomfort created by the coming together of different socio-economic classes, at a dinner party, is not so much about some kind of communication gap (if only we could all dialogue), rather it’s an exposé of the arrogance, vulgarity and violence of capitalism foregrounded against cultures from elsewhere, in this case a small town near acapulco whose mangroves provide a beautiful, calming visual contrast to the crass agenda of the dinner party. i also felt the weight of patriarchy throughout the film. the women in the film are much warmer, more human, yet they are happy to take a backseat and support their husbands in their big-boy, big-money capitalist ventures. the protagonist, beatriz, is played by salma hayek, who is unrecognizable in this film. a masseuse and healer from mexico, whose family was displaced by a big american hotel that failed, she has a strong connection to nature and people, and can feel others’ pain sharply – a skill that is obviously missing from the room (and perhaps from mainstream american society). hayek is absolutely stunning in this film – the first time that we get to fully experience her many gifts. she sings a lovely song, towards the end of the film which, for a minute, seems to break through the greedy business at hand and move the other guests, but they recover soon enough. the film’s end has been criticized but it made sense to me. it’s a way to return to the mangroves of another time and place, a way to circumvent displacement.
Amos Oz, Israel’s most beloved writer and intellectual, was here in Rochester a few weeks ago. He gave a lecture on “Zionism: Conflicting Dreams” at the University of Rochester which provoked many thoughts and emotions in me. I wrote about it. It was published by Mondoweiss today. More here.