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.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

War and Peace: Four Films

by Carmen Nge

December 15, 2004 marked the first night of film discussion at AEI, after a packed house for Samira Makhmalbaf’s latest cinematic endeavour, At Five in the Afternoon. The group that gathered in a circle was of a modest size and the dialogue that ensued was at times halting, at times steadfast and only occasionally heated; war and peace are clearly subjects that do not invite easy digestion.

From the grainy black and white palette of Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark film, Battle of Algiers, and the spartan icy white landscape of Marooned in Iraq to the tongue-in-cheek black humour of Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land and the somber, haunting quiet of At Five in the Afternoon, this month’s screenings at AEI gave us more than enough occasion for reflection.

The Battle of Algiers, which kicked off December’s War and Peace series of films, reminded us—with a great deal of cinematic restraint—that the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib is a silent salute to European colonialism’s brutalizing military power. The fact that Pontecorvo’s 1965 film easily calls to mind our war-inscribed present is both eerie and disheartening.

Charting the rise and fall (and rise again) of the Algerian resistance movement in colonial Algeria under French rule, the film is a highly affective portrayal of anti-imperial struggles waged by ordinary native Algerians against their white settlers. The resistance, led by the FLN (Front de la Libération Nationale OR the National Liberation Front), is revolutionary for it includes men and women, adults and children, and in so doing, results in the kind of grassroots anti-colonial struggle that penetrates all sectors of society.

Frantz Fanon, perhaps the most famous non-Algerian writing about the resistance movement in his adopted homeland, wrote in The Wretched of the Earth that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.” Pontecorvo’s grippingly honest film is testimony to the truth of Fanon’s assertions. We do not only see the fist of colonial might pounding into the stone facades of the Arab quarters, killing countless innocent civilians, we also witness the tactical moves of a disenfranchised people with nothing to lose.

With disarming precision, The Battle of Algiers re-enacts the bombing of French civilian targets in public places, such as coffee shops and banks. Such guerrilla strategies are reminiscent of the Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories, as well as more recent attacks in Iraq by civilian Iraqis against American soldiers.

It would seem that colonialism and its military apparatus is still alive and well in numerous corners of the world. At the same time, however, organized resistance struggles have not dwindled. Despite his harsh and gritty portrayal of Algeria under French colonialism, Pontecorvo gives us a rare glimpse of hope en masse towards the end. The death of key players in the FLN does not equal the death of the struggle against repression and foreign occupation. The desire for self-determination needs no leader.

No Man’s Land is a lesson in contrast. If Pontecorvo tries to show us the truth of colonialism then Tanovic tries to show us the farce of war. The civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina at its height in 1993 is theatre of the absurd at its best. Two soldiers—one Bosnian, the other Serb—are awaiting their proverbial Godot: the United Nations.

Caught in the crossfire of Bosnian and Serbian frontlines, the two men are accompanied by a third: a Bosnian soldier, wounded and lying on a special kind of dirty bomb—one that bounces up when detonated, killing everyone within a few hundred feet. As the 2 soldiers bicker, point fingers and even shoot at each other, they await a UN bomb specialist from Germany to save them from their fate.

The UN becomes the object of Tanovic’s derisive black humour. Ordered not to intervene, UN peacekeeping forces come and go without any sense of purpose, bowing down to the whims of ineffectual UN high command, who are more interested in appeasing the media than they are in handling the curious dilemma before them.

The film exposes the not-so secret affair between the media and the United Nations, and mocks at how both routinely dupe the other, unaware of their own internal failings and hypocrisy. Caught in the middle are the soldiers who fight a battle that knows no solution. Locked in a paradigm of accusation and hate, the Bosnian soldier eventually kills the Serb and, ironically enough, is himself killed by a member of the UN peacekeeping force.

The final image of No Man’s Land is a stroke of cinematic genius. The remaining Bosnian soldier, lying on a bomb that will explode as soon as he moves, is left alone in the trenches—the media thinks he has been saved, the UN abandons him without remorse, and his partners in war are dead.

The absurdity of war knows no solution. Its victims are the thousands who are caught in the crossfire between peace and politics, between hope and senselessness. The future is a time bomb waiting to go off because war promises nothing but more death in store.


Both Pontecorvo and Tanovic take us into the heart of war, into the thick of insurgency, counter-insurgency, brutality and senseless violence. Alternatively, Samira Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi takes us to the hinterlands of war’s bleak after-effects.

In Marooned in Iraq, Ghobadi leads us on a road trip that delivers Kurdish music and mayhem with a generous dose of comedy. A famous musician, Mirza, manages to convince his two sons, Barat and Audeh, to follow him on a mission to find his lady love, Hanareh—who is blessed with a beautiful voice and an even more elusive presence.

In an interview, Ghobadi confesses that Hanareh is not the focal point because the goal of the film is to take us on a tour of Iraqi Kurdistan and to expose the consequences of Saddam inflicted cruelty onto the Kurdish community. We witness the effects of bombings, thievery, smuggling and chemical warfare by Iraqis against the Kurds. Orphaned children with impish toothy smiles share screen time with round-bellied and thickly-mustachioed Kurdish musicians. And the Kurdish women—old and young—are simultaneously vocal and opinionated, cantankerous and difficult.

The face of Ghobadi’s Kurdish community demands our laughter as well as our empathy because they are irrepressibly human and undeniably humane. In the face of suppression, state-sponsored purges and great poverty, these homeless people continue to laugh in the face of their perpetrators and to joke about their own plight.

The music in the film is reminiscent of Emir Kusturica’s carnivalesque Underground (1995), to which Ghobadi acknowledges cinematic debt. Kurdish music, according to the director, is one of the liveliest in the world and in his film, he uses it to give his characters soul—it awakens and energizes them, even in the face of death.

But like all good road movies, Marooned in Iraq never leads us to a clear destination. Hanareh is never found, father and sons take divergent paths away from one another, and the future of Kurdistan is unknown.

The enigmatic future of war-torn nations seems to be a central preoccupation of the last 3 movies in the War and Peace series. Apart from The Battle of Algiers, the rest of AEI’s December offerings ask us to not only ponder a possible future for these countries—the former Yugoslavia, Kurdistan and Aghanistan—but also to question the notion of possibility itself. What does it even mean to imagine a future? Is another world possible?

Samira Makhmalbaf attempts to answer this question through the vehicle of a burqa clad and white high-heeled Afghanistan woman, Norgeh, who dreams of becoming her country’s next President.

Her 3rd film, At Five in the Afternoon is Makhmalbaf’s decidedly feminist take on contemporary post-Taliban Afghanistan. In her film, women attend school, they are free to move about beyond the confines of their homes and they can show their faces if they please. Talib men, like Nogreh’s father, must look away and beg forgiveness for their sins if they were to accidentally cast their eyes on an unveiled woman. Women are no longer responsible to cover themselves in the company of men; instead men are the ones who have to take responsibility for their gaze.

With a cast of non-actors, Makhmalbaf manages to give us penetrating insight into the psyche of a young woman and the community within which she lives. Nogreh is a woman who desires the impossible—to be the first woman President of Aghanistan—and who dares to articulate her desires in a schoolroom of peers as well as to a male poet, who is enamoured by her ambition and steadfastness.

But she spares her father the pain of knowing the truth about herself; she continues to maintain a charade of Muslim female piety and decorum because she does not want to anger him and she also realizes that he is too old and has suffered too much to be able to deal with this additional trauma.

With memorable images of graceful burqas billowing in the wind, against a desolate, arid landscape, Makhmalbaf paints us a picture of Afghanistan that is both feminine and masculine. A recurring motif in the film is the image of Nogreh, a solitary female figure emerging from dark, interior confines into lighted exteriors—symbolically representing Afghan women’s transition from the orthodox Dark Ages into post-Taliban enlightenment.

Full of symbolic significance, Makhmalbaf’s film invites us to imagine a new future that does not promise men at its helm. The final sequence of At Five in the Afternoon is a revealing one: the Taliban regime, represented by the two old men, is tired and despondent—one of them has even declared the “God is dead”; the future of patriarchy, represented by Nogreh’s nephew, is dead.

What remains are the two women—one aspiring to be President and the other, her sister, mourning her dead child and husband—who walk together in search of water, with which to sustain them for the onward journey. They head towards the promise of water but the film ends without showing us if they indeed found it. Nonetheless, their courage keeps them going, keeps them from giving up like their elders. Armed with each other and a once-unimaginable aspiration, these two women literally walk into the final frame with nothing but hope and resilience.

Perhaps, these will be enough.

This review appears in the December 2004 issue of the Asia-Europe Institute newsletter.


Blogger shazyra said...

i am sorry to say that i miss two of the screenings especially five at noon. i just want to add a small imaginary piece to the final sequence where both women hand in hand went out to seek water. what if behind both walking women, a huge black shadow (or red and white stripes, pick your choice) looms behind them, casting yet another dark possibility to the uncertain future of Afghan.

P/S-Carmen...don't marah ek? U knw me and my wacky ways but i do have a reason of suggesting that imaginary piece.

December 29, 2004 10:51 AM

Blogger carmen said...

Don't worry G, I take marah. :-)

I will have to look at the ending again. I don't remember the looming shadow but I do not doubt many possible readings to the final scene. I just tend to be a bit more optimistic, in a kinda feminist vein.

Thanks for the response though. Anyone else remember the ending and want to comment?

P.S. I am just super thrilled to get a real comment to what I wrote! :-) Thank you.

December 30, 2004 12:24 PM

Blogger GEE said...

Hey Carmen, I am motivated by u (sub-consciously)to come up with my own blog. so go and check out my humble-blog- Miss ya!

January 07, 2005 10:01 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i miss your classes carmen! your blogs are so long. unlike mine. hehe. I have to much to express but too lazy to be typing it all out. i bet you have been reading my class' rantings of our IA's on the circle. Waking up is so torturing! ah... will be going to an art gallery 2moro. i hope i dun get lost. darn sungai buloh.

#christina of absolutely chrys|er (being lazy enough to log i clicked the word anonymous :P)

January 10, 2005 6:36 PM

Blogger chrys|er said...

you serious about reading my dictionary-like IA story?
If you are still keen. Do mail me your email address by clicking on "about the girl" on my blog and then email me!

# am trying so hard not to promote my 'book' actually.

January 14, 2005 12:45 AM

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October 09, 2005 6:21 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone has days when they are down, worn out, general anxiety and just not feeling all that happy.

That's OK, you need to have days like this, otherwise how would you know when you are happy. You need to have something to contrast your happiness with. What is black without white?

Even though you know that sadness (general anxiety) is a part of life, let's try to make it a small part of life.

With that said, here are a few tips to help you feel better when you are feeling down in the dumps. They are easy to do, easy to practice every day and they work!

1. Stand up straight, sit up straight. When your body is in alignment your energy can flow and when your energy is flowing freely, you can flow.

2. Smile! Yes, just smile. Easy to do and effective.

3. Repeat positive affirmations. Things like "I feel good", "Positive energy flows through my body", "I see the good in all".

4. Listen to some music that you like. It doesn't have to be anything specific, just something you enjoy. Certain types of music work better than others, but experiment and see what works for you. Studies have shown that Classical music and new age music work best.

5. Take some time out for yourself, relax and read a book, do something for yourself.

6. Meditate. Meditation is an excellent habit to develop. It will serve you in all that you do. If you are one who has a hard time sitting still, then try some special meditation CDs that coax your brain into the meditative state. Just search for "Meditation music" on Google or Yahoo and explore.

Our outside work is simply a reflection of our inside world. Remember there is no reality just your perception of it. Use this truth to your advantage. Whenever you are sad, realize that it is all in your mind and you do have the power to change your perception.

These tips will lift you up when you are down, but don't just use them when you are sad or general anxiety . Try and practice them everyday, make them a habit. You will be surprised at how these simple exercises will keep the rainy days away.

On a final note, if you are in a deep depression that you can't seem to shake, please go see a doctor. This is your life and don't take any chances. general anxiety

October 24, 2005 1:27 PM


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