Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Book Review: I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti
by Carmen Nge

Over the years, I have managed to wean myself off fiction. Perhaps it’s because I’ve read too many novels and works of literature to speak of and got tired of dawdling through meanderingly beautiful prose that took me months to finish. Occasionally, though, a book comes along that threatens to destabilize my recent stance. Niccolo Ammaniti’s I’m Not Scared is such a book; it is also proof that novels can be every bit as agile, gripping and visually crafted as any film. (Of course, it comes as no surprise that Ammaniti’s novel has since been made into a movie by Italian director, Gabriele Salvatores)

Originally written in Italian (and translated by Jonathan Hunt), I’m Not Scared is like a frenetic bike ride along the lip of a ravine, at full speed and with worn-out brake pads. As early as the first 20 pages into the novel, we are already careening precariously out of control, caught in the maelstrom of a young boy’s pre-pubescent world-view, where adventure, adrenalin and imagination are the touchstones of what it means to be alive.

Nine-year old Michele Amitrano is Ammaniti’s earnest and courageous protagonist—an Italian boy growing up in Acqua Traverse, “a place forgotten by God and man.” With its five houses and a pot-holed road running through its middle, this “country hamlet” is the epitome of rustic simplicity. But its golden, undulating wheat fields deceive with their sweet-smelling bounty.

In the hottest summer of the century, Michele literally stumbles onto a secret that rips him out the cocoon of childhood into a reality that he is unable to fully grasp. He becomes enmeshed in a crime that forces him to re-evaluate his friends, his family and a world of class inequality and economic disparity—where prosperity and happiness come at the expense of someone else’s suffering and pain. It is impossible for me to reveal much more than this, for the book’s ability to suck you in hinges on a secret that unravels as quickly as a biker’s mountain descent, yet sustains its narrative stamina throughout the rest of the gruelling, scorching journey. Niccolo Ammaniti’s book is one you will want to read in one sitting because its adroitly constructed narrative arc is so beguilingly hypnotic.

Ammaniti’s gift is also his economical prose: his ability to visualize a scene and to paint it with remarkable candour and clarity by using layered, uneven brush strokes. His story about Michele’s surprising summer is a child’s tale, told by an adult whose sensitivity, perception and thoughtfulness are still vigorously youthful. Furthermore, I’m Not Scared concludes with an ending that is as complex, unexpected and satisfyingly open-ended as the life of a blossoming adolescent.

Niccolo Ammaniti has been hailed as a bright new star in fiction’s firmament. I’m Not Scared is why.

This review is not published yet.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

11'09"01 : Cinema Catastrophe
by Carmen Nge

Every American post-September 11 will likely be able to tell you where they were and what they were doing when the World Trade Center was hit by two hijacked airplanes and then crumbled to Ground Zero. Everyone else in the world who knows of America and New York will more likely than not be able to tell you the same. In this age of visual dominance and media conglomeration, American hegemony has become absolute. In a world where George Bush’s every tic becomes international news, to escape from events American feels like a guilty holiday because somewhere in the back of my mind is the awareness that falling behind on what’s happening in America is falling behind on what will happen to the world. The reach of American foreign policy has never been so vast, so uncompromising, so blatant.

Perhaps that is why I steered clear of anniversary commemorations of 9/11 this year. But the screening of 11'09"01 at the Asia-Europe Institute (AEI), University Malaya on the 8th of this month—in part to honor the third anniversary of 9/11—changed my mind.

I had heard about this film when I was in New York last year but had no opportunity to see it because it only enjoyed very limited release in a handful of urban, art house locations and university film theatres. Comprising 11 short films by 11 filmmakers from 11 countries, 11'09"01 is the brainchild of French television director, Alain Brigand, who invited the filmmakers to conceive of a short segment, each lasting 11 minutes and nine seconds within the cinematic frame. The idea eventually culminated in a remarkable film that garnered praise and acclaim at film festivals around the world but never made it to the big screens across America. Some have denounced it as anti-American while others berate the narrow-mindedness of film distributors and exhibitors in the United States for its lack of wide release. The truth is that the film contains no unified message and proclaims no universal dictums and this is precisely why it should be seen. Despite Bush’s valiant attempts at painting the world in black and white extremes, 11'09"01 shows us that history is never so categorical or clear-cut.

The films of Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran), Danis Tanovic (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Amos Gitai (Israel) and Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso), illustrate exactly how the lens of history is very much subjective; perceptions of 9/11 across the world are as uneven and nuanced as American understanding of world events. And if truth indeed comes from the mouths of children, then Makhmalbaf’s piece, which opens 11'09"01, is a curiously whimsical but nevertheless insightful debate about God, religion and tragedy.

A young Afghan schoolteacher tries to explain to her kindergarten age student refugees that an event of great significance has occurred in America but they are oblivious. They are more intent about a villager who fell into a freshly dug well and a neighbour who broke his leg than the destruction of the World Trade Center. As their teacher grow more and more exasperated and impatient, the children gleefully chortle, chuckle and debate whether God can fly airplanes and if he would want to create new people after destroying old ones.

The delightful honesty and directness of children are echoed in Ouedraogo’s short film about a young African boy who spots Osama bin Laden in the streets of his village and discovers that the latter’s capture could yield him a handsome US$25 million reward. Together with his friends, they imagine using the money to cure his sick mother and to rid the world of AIDS, meningitis and a whole host of other illnesses and poverty. They contemplate giving the money to their elders but then dismiss the thought because the older folk will only spend it on “wine, women and cigarettes.” Thus begin their hunt for Osama, trailing him along dusty pathways and meandering riverways, capturing him on film as he prays, and chasing him all the way to the airport, brandishing their spears and guns. Their earnestness underlies the urgency of their mission: "Osama, come back! We need you! We need that money!" they cry when he boards the plane, beyond their grasp.

The two films convey, with remarkable simplicity and humorous candor, how the events of 9/11 must be understood in the context of a world where poverty, sickness, war and death is lived daily but elicits no global attention. In an interview with Alain Brigand, Ouedraogo says: “Like all Africans, I was shocked by the violence of the (9/11) attacks. Like them, I felt sympathy, for the pain of the families and for the American people. I am also waiting (like all Africans everywhere) for the same surge of solidarity with an Africa beset by malaria, AIDS, famine and drought.” By turning our eyes away from the spectacle of the World Trade Center towers, the filmmakers ask us to consider other human tragedies occurring elsewhere with greater frequency and higher casualties.

Taking this impulse one step further, Ken Loach invites us to consider a tragic event perpetrated by the same America that now cloaks itself with the shroud of victimhood. Loach’s film is a mini-documentary about a September 11 few people today are aware: the day in 1973 when the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende was overthrown with the backing of the Nixon administration. The black and white footage of the bloody coup, the reign of terror of puppet leader General Pinochet, and the 30,000 deaths that followed, give us a glimpse of the kind of terrorism that the United States has inflicted upon the rest of the world on a calculated, concerted basis.

According to Loach, his short film aims "to point out the irony of the situation that on September 11, 1973, the United States had inspired a terrorist attack. In fact, there is a case for saying that the major terrorists of the second half of the 20th century have been the Americans." The Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine and Shohei Imamura from Japan would agree. Both directors give us films that interrogate and challenge the naked aggression of the U.S., whether propagating Zionist tendencies in Palestine or dropping the A-bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Films set in the U.S. convey domestic dramas but are less charged with overt political implications. Mira Nair (India) explores racism and anti-Islamic sentiment in the streets of New York after 9/11, while Frenchman Claude Lelouch tackles an unusual subject: a deaf-mute’s experience of the tragedy. The lone American representative, Sean Penn, presents a beautifully shot, aesthetically somber and devastatingly poignant elegy on the state of American consciousness.

His is a film about a pudgy, elderly man who goes through the mundane routine of the everyday firmly trapped in the illusion of his wife’s presence. He spends time talking to her, laying out her clothes and gazing at her flowers even though she has since passed away. When the towers collapse, his dark, dank apartment—overshadowed for years by the looming symbol of American economic dominance—is miraculously bathed in a golden light and the once dead flowers on his windowsill burst into bloom. Faced with such beauty, he can only weep for the pain of his wife’s death becomes all too real.

Penn’s film is a provocative and philosophical engagement with American public consciousness. Like his film’s protagonist, the American people have grown fat and complacent, living in a world of illusion propped up by financial might and superpower status. When 9/11 happened, Americans were faced with an event that blinded them with its impact and consequence. In a sense, Penn captures the bittersweet aspect of what it means to be a conscious human being—it gives us sight, it allows a new bloom of ideas, but it also causes us to grief because we know that we can no longer envelop ourselves in the safety of illusion.

Perhaps no segment denies us the safety of illusion better than Alejandro González Iñárritu’s haunting experimentation in the limits of formal cinematic expression. His film is almost exclusively a blacked-out screen; we only hear sounds—actual sounds and voices taken from the within the World Trade Center and on board the hijacked flights—but we see nothing but flashes of people throwing themselves out of the WTC windows, committing suicide in the most public arena imaginable: live simulcast television.

Iñárritu explains that the images he used of the people falling is “as a metaphorical representation of Icarus. It was not only this man but all of us who were falling. I put the tower collapsing as a metaphorical representation of the Tower of Babel in which everyone speaks a different language and no one can communicate with each other, thus, the collapse of a romantic idea of global civilization.”

If, according to Makhmalbaf, “the process of globalisation is more reliant on the power of image-making than anything else,” then Iñárritu consciously resists the lure of such an overdetermined process. Instead, he shows us that the power of our collective imaginations is far greater than we have been socialized to believe—perhaps even powerful enough to alter the course of history in the long-term.

In the final analysis, it is impossible to discuss 11'09"01 as a single entity because each short film segment has its own character, creative impetus and cinematic style. But there was no denying the extent to which, taken as a whole, the film assaulted me with the kind of visceral, unabating intensity that left me numb and speechless when I exited AEI’s auditorium. A great many in the audience remarked that 11 films were too much, too intense for too short a time. Initially, I felt the same.

After a time, and upon reflection, I realized that we give in to American hegemony, we become complicit in perpetuating its spread because the heterogeneity of the world is too much to consider. War, death and catastrophe in Iraq, Russia, Indonesia, Palestine, China and turmoil in our own backyard have become too much for us to take in, to discuss, debate and consider as citizens of the world. So we retreat into the needless, inconsequential ‘too much-ness’ of life given to us by capitalism’s lifeline: consumer power. We like that there are too many choices in the supermarkets, too many programs and channels on television, too many discounts to count at too many malls to visit, offering too many sales to occupy our free time. We welcome this ‘too much’ because it saves us from having to consider the overwhelming effects of imperialism and globalization in all other facets of our lives.

After all, isn’t it ironic that George Bush’s clarion call to the American public after the tragedy of 9/11 is to ask them to shop? Catastrophe meets commerce—capitalism never had it so good.

This piece was published in the October 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge

The Asia Europe Institute at University Malaya screens international films every Wednesday for free at 8:30 p.m. For an updated listing, please check out:

Friday, September 10, 2004

Book Review: Persepolis and My New York Diary.
by Carmen Nge

Iran and Canada: East and West. Two women. Two stories. One medium.

In a world populated mostly by men, Marjane Satrapi and Julie Doucet are two female graphic novelists/comic artists who have solicited the kind of critical praise and adulation once reserved for the crème de la crème of comics: Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb. Respectively citing both men as influences, Satrapi and Doucet wield a powerful tool in their work: truth in images. With all of the candor and grittiness of Spiegelman and Crumb, both women have managed to narrate and illustrate the story of their lives in a style that fuses intimacy and distance, self-awareness and self-absorption.

Heralded as “one of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels since (Spiegelman’s) Maus was released in the 1980s,” Satrapi’s Persepolis (her first book) is a bestseller in France--having sold more than 120,000 copies--and has been translated into five languages. Julie Doucet, widely regarded as one of the top female alternative comic artists working today, has had 5 of her graphic novels translated from her native Canadian French and published in countries such as Japan, Germany, Italy and Finland. Although highly respected in the comic book world, the two women, both in their 30s, have had very different career trajectories and their books, Persepolis and My New York Diary, are also lessons in contrast. Satrapi and Doucet’s drawings are vastly different—the former has a spare, minimalist, contrasting black-and-white style whereas the latter fills her panels to overflowing with overlapping shades of black and grey. They are testimony to precisely how varied and divergent women’s stories can be.

Born in 1969 in Rasht, Iran, Satrapi grew up in Tehran and studied at the Lycee Francais until the age of 14. She is, however, no ordinary Iranian for her maternal great-grandfather was the last Emperor of Iran, deposed by the late Reza Shah. Persepolis traces her life as the only daughter of committed middle-class Marxist parents and a family of intellectuals and dissidents. Set entirely in Iran, the novel ends with Satrapi’s departure to Vienna, sans her parents, who see no other alternative for their daughter in the repressive Khomeini regime.

Using jet-black China ink and atypical drawing implements: plumes and brushes used for Chinese calligraphy instead of the more conventional markers and pens, Satrapi considers herself old fashioned. Her illustrations have been described as “child-like” but in this writer’s view, they are anything but. Her simple, clear lines and her bold, assured depictions of Iranian society, history and politics exhibit a style that is minimalist and uncluttered, economical and effective—hardly the work of a child. Satrapi allows her images room to breathe, cleverly highlighting the dramatic contrasts of black and white by distilling each panel to its essentials. Here is a graphic novelist unafraid of white space, unafraid of the unadorned.

This confidence of style and clarity of visual perception give precocious young Marjane—the book’s protagonist—wisdom, antagonism and forthrightness that is unusual in a child of ten years. What is most refreshing about Persepolis is, however, the strident, opinionated and courageous voice of a girl growing up in Tehran—a rare encounter in today’s world of male-dominated comic book heroes. This is a child who grew up reading the Quran, and devoured books about Palestinian children, Fidel Castro, the Vietnam War and the revolutionary luminaries of her home country: Dr. Fatemi, F. Rezaï and H. Ashraf. Her favourite comic book was entitled “Dialectical Materialism”!

For a comic book to be openly critical of the Iranian monarchy and the subsequent Islamic republic is perhaps not as inflammatory as one that puts Marx and God side by side in a panel and remark on how alike they both look, except that “Marx’s hair was a bit curlier”. Satrapi’s willingness to discuss the problem of the inequality of the social classes, to reveal the cruel and barbaric actions of the ruling regimes, and to denounce God when all hell broke loose in her country makes it understandable why she now lives in Paris, certain to never reside in Iran. Precisely because Iranian history is told from the perspective of a child, Satrapi’s graphic memoir is infused with an unaffected, non-didactic, tell-it-like-it-is sensibility that demands attention and belief.

In a recent public reading in Boston earlier this month, Satrapi explained that for her, one of biggest difficulties in comics is depicting movement because “to draw movement you have to know anatomy and we weren’t allowed to see naked people to learn anatomy.” The power of Persepolis, however, is not the depiction of bodily movement but the dynamic energy of ideas, the vibrant and kinetic mental and philosophical movement that takes shape in the foreground of the novel. To her credit, Satrapi manages to successfully portray mobility by using a stylized method of drawing fleeing street protestors, fist-raised crowds of political demonstrators, and weapon-wielding police and military personnel. It is a style that de-emphasizes verisimilitude in favour of visually communicating a united, homogenous mass of people with common aims and aspirations.

At the same time, Satrapi does not elide the facts of history either. Events such as the deaths of 400 people in a fire at the Rex Cinema at Abadan and the sequence of massacres following the slaughter of anti-government protestors at Jaleh Square on ‘Black Friday’ are masterfully and artistically illustrated. It is Satrapi’s concern about imperialist history and the events within her country that propel Persepolis to widespread critical acclaim. Here is a comic artist who chooses the genre of autobiography to tell a tale with political and historical significance of an international scale. By so doing, she has effectively turned the navel-gazing genre of graphic memoirs on its head.

Julie Doucet is a comic artist of the other extreme. Immersing herself in the post-feminist, punk ethos of the Western graphic novel, she roots My New York Diary in a visual rendition of the autobiographical that is so blunt, so seamy and sordid, that it makes one nauseous.

Doucet’s graphic novel is as raw, revealing and raucous as they come. Her dense, inky, messy style is symbolic of the confused, untidy and fragmented life she leads as a naïve, gullible anti-heroine. If the protagonist in Persepolis is schooled in the clear-cut contrasts of dialectical materialism, then the bedraggled young woman in My New York Diary is a victim of postmodernism’s overabundant, jumbled excess. Every panel in Doucet’s book is completely filled with people, objects and more objects. In fact, in light of capitalism’s free market consumer over-indulgence, it is ironically befitting that every panel contains more garbage than this writer has ever seen in a comic book.

As readers, we have no respite from this product onslaught; try as we may to focus on the characters peopling the book, our eyes inevitably get drawn to the mismatched flip flops thrown to the side of the coffee table strewn with beer cans, soda bottles, cigarette butts, drawing implements, writing instruments, plates of half-eaten food, pieces of paper with doodles. Light bulbs hang loosely against peeling wallpaper covered with thumb-tacked pictures and picture frames at skewed angles; cracked and curling linoleum take over the floor space in dingy, cramped apartments while heaps of refuse and flying debris colonize the streets outside the dilapidated buildings. My New York Diary is Doucet’s grim, confessional, no-holds barred autobiography and she spares us no white space of relief.

As a wide-eyed art student ready to experience creativity and sex, Doucet gives herself no glory in this fairly depressing novel. She finds herself falling into bed with one lecherous man after another, each one more gross and needy than the last. The New York depicted here is characteristically grimy and dark, infested with the kind of crime, fear and trash one usually associates with the pre-Rudy Guiliani era. Like Satrapi, Doucet is brutally honest but her honesty is bleak and unrelenting. This is America’s urban response to global capitalism. Set in the late 1980s, it is also Republican politics at its worst.

Doucet’s art is weighed down by the stuff of life and the heavily inked panels feel claustrophobic. And because Doucet illustrates a world that is intimately self-absorbed and narcissistic, we feel trapped in a reality we do not fully understand. Rather than blame the artist for providing us with no context for this carefully crafted New York life, perhaps we should point the finger at a world that affords her little perspective to deconstruct and excavate the bubble within which she lives.

This piece was published in the September 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge