Soldiers of Cinema

After a long bout with cancer Roger Ebert passed away this week. His wit and humanism will be greatly missed, as will his capacity to bring films one would not otherwise have heard of to light and a greater audience. Much of this blog looks at problems throughout the world and strives for insight and solutions into these problems. Art and film have the capacity to bring us together and step over boundaries that all too often keep us apart. So, in honor of Mr. Ebert, this week I’m taking the time to talk about some of my favorite movies from the Near East and South Asia region that I have had the privilege to view. Perhaps a viewing can encourage us to approach old ideas in new ways or even bring forth wholly new modes of thought.

To begin with a classic, The Battle of Algiers takes us into the world of the Algerian War of Independence. Like many of the wars occurring today, the Battle of Algiers was not a clean fight. It was a war of café bombs and brutal reprisals. This film portrays both the French counter-insurgency effort as well as the revolutionaries with an unparalleled vision. In this type of war no one gets out cleanly. From the perspective of the counter-insurgency, Colonel Mathieu presents the stark choices for those involved in intervention, “Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer “yes,” then you must accept all the necessary consequences.” And the consequences are severe. Ben M’Hidi explains the rationale for terror, “And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.” This film is both a technical and thematic triumph and a must see for anyone interested in the intricacies of terrorism and insurgency.   

Keeping with the theme of insurgency, but moving to the present, the Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers documents the difficulties in conducting war against non-conventional foes. Interviews with all the surviving members of Shin Bet form the bulk of the film. The film takes us into the underworld of Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians as the Shin Bet regales us with tales of cell phone bombs and surgical air strikes. However, it also shows us the lack of strategic planning that hinders any movement beyond military actions. In the view of the interviewees, all too often the means are the ends. For a more thorough review, check out my previous post on the film.

Lebanon explores the minds of a tank crew sent to fight in southern Lebanon in 1982. Almost all of the action takes place within the tight confines of single tank as soldiers struggle to figure out why they are there and where they are going. Perspective on war is examined in depth here. The view from the tanks camera serves as a metaphor of the soldier’s view as the war continues. While the view from the tank is initially pristine, it slowly becomes corroded and cracked as the vicissitudes of war take their toll on both the soldiers and us, the viewers. War may start out with clean objectives, but it very rarely maintains that clarity of vision over the course of the conflict. One can see this difficulty in American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan only too well.

Incendies, while French made, gets a mention here as it explores the fallout of the Lebanese Civil War for two siblings as they search to find the real story behind their origins. It is difficult to speak too much without giving away too much of the film, but the effect on the survivors of war is on clear display here. Even those who were not directly party to the conflict suffer damages that confuse their identity. This is a true exploration of the human effects of conflict.

As a final look at war, we turn to Waltz with Bashir. In Bashir, the director explores his memories of the Lebanon war via interviews with his compatriots who fought alongside him. The primary questions surround the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Who knew what was going on? Was there any way to stop it? What is the connection between those two? Yes, war isn’t pretty, but this movie explores how facts change on the ground based on your position and location at a given time. However, while perspectives change, the bodies remain.

Moving away from the Middle East we turn our eyes towards Afghanistan. Osama was the first film to be created in Afghanistan since 1996. It represents the first Afghan attempt to explore the country in the era of the Taliban. Specifically, the tale centers around the life of a young girl who tries to pass as a young boy named Osama in order to provide for herself and her mother who are no longer allowed to work under the strict gender regulations of the Taliban. The façade begins to fall apart when Osama is recruited by the Taliban and taken to an all-boys school. The film provides a window into the torturous life Afghans, particularly women, suffered under the Taliban.

The confusion wrought by modern borders is explored in Marooned in Iraq. An Iranian Kurdish film, the plot centers on musicians (Kurds from the Iranian side of the border) searching for the bandleader’s first wife in 1991 as thousands of Kurds poured across the border into Iran fleeing the conflict next door. Although the film has a serious subtext, it uses comedy to achieve its goals. The motley crew winding their way through the mountainous border region bickers and continues the search for family, both new and old, in the ruins of Iraq.

A perhaps more well-known film, Persepolis, tells the story of a young girl growing up in revolutionary-era Tehran. The complexities of the revolution are laid bare through the idiosyncratic view of a teenage girl struggling to find her own identity. There is no love lost here for the Pahlavis, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Opposition groups and their members continue to disappear and the Iran-Iraq War continues to rage as young Marjane searches for the latest rock-and-roll bootlegs from the United States. The film shifts focus as Marjane is sent by her family to Vienna for study. Over time Marjane finds it difficult to fit in either in her native Iran or newfound Europe. Indeed, we can never go home again.

On a lighter note, one cannot look at the cinema of the Near East and South Asia without mentioning Bollywood. While I am far from an expert on the intricacies of Indian cinema, were I to offer an introductory piece it would be Lagaan. In the time of the Raj, a small village is being destroyed by the burdensome taxes imposed by a truly mustache-twirling British Captain. In response, the villagers challenge the Raj to a game of cricket in order to avoid the taxes. If you have no idea how cricket is played, as was I before watching the film, you will certainly understand it after watching Lagaan. The performances are all wonderful, the songs are excellent, and the simple plot provides a window into a utopic vision of Indian unity. A lot of the films I have discussed here are weighty and at times difficult to watch. Not so with Lagaan whose airy tones provide an excellent counterpoint and proof that not all great cinema be ponderous and dark.

On the other hand, if we want to experience the darker side of India we need look no further than Salaam Bombay!. The poverty of India’s underclasses is on full display here, without the storybook ending of the more well-known British film Slumdog Millionaire. A child is abandoned by his parents to the streets of Bombay (the film was made before the name change to Mumbai) and attempts to fend for himself in a world of drug addicts, prostitutes, and police. While there are moments of hope in the film, there are no easy answers provided to what exactly should be done to help. This is a world where you have to take even the smallest of victories and savor it as long as possible before the hammer comes down. Some criticisms of Slumdog focused on its romanticization of poverty. This is not the case here and the film does an incredible job capturing the despair and grime of the slums.

Moving to Egypt, which has a vibrant film scene, we find The Yacoubian Building. Few movies capture the stagnation of Mubarak-era Egypt as this film. There are multiple storylines going on within the confines of the film as we explore the life of an aging libertine, a poor woman seeking to provide for her family, a janitor’s son with dreams of joining the police force, a gay journalist, and corrupt businessmen to name a few. Corruption and the decaying nature of society form the backdrop as each character strives to live the best they can. The portrayal of homosexuality was particularly revolutionary for an Arab film, although one cannot exactly call the film wholly open on the subject. If you want a serious look at the societal malaise that eventually led to the fall of Mubarak, it would be hard to find a better entry point.

A final film, also from Egypt, is Terrorism and Kebab. One of my personal favorite movies, Terrorism and Kebab followed the attempts of Ahmed to change his children’s school district and finds himself frustrated by the intricacies of El Mogamma, Egypt’s massive bureaucratic edifice on Tahrir Square. If you have ever seen the movie Airheads, the plot will seem somewhat familiar. As Ahmed gets more and more frustrated with the bureaucracy’s unwillingness to do anything he gets into a fight with the guards and accidentally gets ahold of one of the guard’s guns. Suddenly, everyone assumes Ahmed is a terrorist and the plot goes from there. An incredibly political comedy that somehow got past the censors in Egypt, Terrorism and Kebab is a comedy that tackles the same issues as The Yacoubian Building, albeit with a more humorous eye. The film stares into the abyss of corruption and decrepit institutions and guffaws its resistance. It may be difficult to find a version outside of Egypt, but if you can it is most definitely a must see.

All the above movies pushed me into the life I lead today. For example, the years I spent living in and ruminating on Egypt were crystallized in the two previous Egyptian films. They even gave me hope for the future – they continue to do so. The existence of some of these films shows a people not content to be stifled by their experience, but instead one aching to tell their story, to be heard. Diplomacy can take many forms and a country’s voice via film can spread very quickly. While I may never get the opportunity to metaphorically share a movie with Mr. Ebert again, I will always be able to look forward to new visions unfolding the world over.

Mr. Ebert was, in the words of Werner Herzog, one of my favorite directors:

The good soldier of cinema. I kept calling him that and he kept calling me that. He saw in me a good soldier in cinema. I said you are even more. He was a wounded soldier. He was ill and struggled and was still plowing on relentlessly. And that was completely and utterly admirable and I love him for that.

Let’s all be good soldiers of cinema. I’ll see you at the movies.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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