London Film Festival: Target and Tahrir 2011

The last two films I went to see at the LFF were Target, a Russian film directed by Alexander Zeldovich, and a documentary abou the recent Egyptian revolution called Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician.

They don’t have distribution for Target in the UK at least, so I don’t know how likely you are to get to see it, but if you’re the kind of person who cares about such things I should warn now: SPOILERS.

Target is science fiction, from the philosophical end of that genre rather than the lasers and bug eyed monsters end. It’s set in a near future which is described in the LFF catalogue as ‘dystopian’, although I’m not sure that’s quite right: it’s quite hard to tell exactly what kind of society they live in, because the focus is quite narrowly on a group of wealthy Muscovites. There’s some sign of serious wealth inequalities, government corruption and a trashy media culture; but by those standards, Russia is probably a dystopia already. There are also hints of some kind of odd, bureaucratic, government enforced social hierarchy, but it’s never really explained in detail.

The film centres around a group of people who go out to a site way out in the Russian steppes to have a treatment which is supposed to be rejuvenating; it becomes apparent that the treatment actually stops ageing altogether, but it also makes them slightly mad: full of energy but manic and impulsive. Most of them self-destruct, including two who die and two who have to flee the consequences of their actions.

There were things to like about the film: it often looks great, for a start. One of the characters works as customs on a massive 12-lane motorway packed with heavy goods vehicles travelling between Europe and China, which looks spectacular on screen. And the landscape out on the wilds were they get the treatment looks amazing too, especially in the final shot of the film which is stitched together out of three separate shots, the first of which is, they think, the longest single tracking shot in cinema history. And there are some nice set pieces, including scenes of a trashy celebrity cooking show, manically presented by one of the main characters.

And I rather liked the fact that the film had unlikeable characters and a shortage of happy endings. Although that fact is only noteworthy because the bulk of commercial cinema is quite so incredibly conventional and limited.

But in the end 2½ hours was too long. It almost always is, really; at least at the theatre you get an interval so you can stretch your legs and relieve your bladder. Not that it was a slow film — it’s not 150 minutes of meaningful silences, thank God — there was just a lot of material. Too many subplots. And so by the end I was losing concentration and finding my stiff buttocks increasingly distracting.

Tahrir 2011 is actually three documentaries made by different people and stitched together — hence The Good, The Bad, and the Politician. The first of them, ‘The Good’, is a fairly nuts and bolts telling of what happened in Tahrir Square this spring, which combined interviews with people who took part and lots of footage filmed at the protests. It’s a fairly conventional documentary, but the events were so amazing that it is riveting to watch. Fascinating and moving.

‘The Bad’ is made up of interviews with members of the police and security services, asking for their account of what happened. Potentially that’s a fascinating subject, but it’s less successful than it could be because they obviously found it very difficult to find anyone willing to talk to them — some of the interviews are conducted in silhouette — and the interviewees are obviously very conscious of finding themselves on the wrong side of history, so they are understandably cagey and defensive.

‘The Politician’ is a portrayal of Hosni Mubarak, framed as an attempt to find out how someone who came to power as a liberal, reforming figure ended up as a dictator. It attempts to present it in a fairly tongue-in-cheek, jokey way, broken into a list of ten items with little animated inserts between them, like a Channel 4 list program. But it doesn’t really come off, and by the end I was falling asleep.

» The photo ميدان التحرير يوم الجمعه ٢٩-٧-٢٠١١ is some rights reserved by أحمد عبد الفتاح Ahmed Abd El-fatah.

Ancient wisdom

Looking through one of those advertising-funded local newsletter things, I saw there was an ad for classes in the martial art of ‘sebek-kha’. Which I’d never heard of.

So I checked google and learned that it is an ancient Egyptian martial art, said to be founded by founded by Heru-Ur (Heracles), passed down over thousands of years by a secretive lineage of Egyptian priests, and now known only to a select few. Known only to one chap running classes in a church hall in Herne Hill, to be exact.

The whole thing has cheered me up immensely.

Egypt, Libya, foreign policy and honesty

I have been following events in north Africa closely, both via the usual media outlets and Twitter (see, for example, Andy Carvin’s one-man newswire for all the latest rumours swirling around). But I haven’t said much about it on this blog because, well, it’s a complicated subject of which I am ignorant.

It has often been enthralling, even so. The spread of protests from country to country, the ebb and flow between protestors and their governments: at times like this, live round-the-clock news coverage actually makes sense. Egypt had almost the perfect revolution for a spectator; large photogenic crowds, plenty of reporters on the scene, a hint of euphoria, a frisson of danger to add some spice, and not, in the end, too many casualties. Libya has been a darker experience; the more brutal response by the regime and the effective news blackout just producing a swirl of horrifying but unconfirmed rumours swirling around on Twitter.

There have already been some extraordinary moments, like the Wael Ghonim interview,or the incredible celebrations in Tahrir Square after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Or last night’s speech from Saif Gaddafi, which was so weirdly rambling and unfocussed that the conspiracy theory, that he was just buying time for his father to flee the country, almost seems like a plausible explanation.

And it has been making me think about the way we talk about foreign policy. Because when a popular revolution peacefully overthrows the dictator of a brutal autocratic police state with a habit of torturing its own citizens, it would be nice to be on the side of the protesters. Which makes it slightly awkward that our governments have spent decades supporting the dictator. And it’s not just Hosni Mubarak; it’s Bahrain, it’s Saudi Arabia; even Gaddafi had managed to rebrand himself from mortal enemy of the West to someone we can do business with. And there’s the awkward fact that we supported Saddam Hussein until it stopped being convenient. At least we can say we definitely don’t support the Iranian theocracy… but then that did come into being after a popular revolution against a brutal dictator who, almost inevitably, was someone we did support.

The deeply murky nature of our foreign policy is hardly news, of course. What I find so frustrating is the way that we talk about it, the way that governments feel the need to gloss over all the unpleasant details right up until the moment when the regime falls, and we are shocked, shocked to discover that Hosni Mubarak was a revolting dictator all along.

It would just be refreshing sometimes to hear a politician stand up explicitly spell out the logic:

Yes, we know that in supporting Hosni Mubarak we are propping up a brutal police state. But look around at the other countries in the region: Sudan has had decades of civil war and genocide. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at war. Somalia is a failed state. Libya and Iran are even more repressive states and supporters of terrorism. Yemen serves as a base for Al-Qaeda. And so on. So we take the position, on balance, that supporting a nasty dictator is a reasonable trade-off for decades of stability and no war with Israel.

Because that argument may be right or wrong, but I don’t think it’s stupid. I don’t think it’s even outrageously cynical. Because foreign policy is a fairly blunt instrument. Mubarak’s regime might not have been our ideal choice for the kind of government Egypt should have, but then we don’t really get to choose. We certainly don’t get to control the internal policies of the country; all we can do, presumably, is to look at the government in place, weigh up the possible alternatives, and decide to support them or not.

Of course it’s a bit more nuanced than that — there are different degrees of support, there are various pressures we can apply — but short of invading, which is hardly a panacea, we’re pretty limited in what we can do. Foreign policy has to be deeply pragmatic because the range of choices is so limited.

I’m not suggesting that foreign policy has to be horribly cynical, although it clearly often is. It’s just difficult. Even if you don’t allow self-interest to trump human rights. Even if your only concern was the well-being of the people of north Africa and the middle east, you’d still probably end up supporting a few dictators. But it would just be nice if politicians would be a bit more open about it, a bit more explicit about the bargains they are making. A bit less diplomatic, in fact.

» Demonstrators Praying and Riot Police and People Should Not Be Afraid of Their Governments, Governments Should Be Afraid of Their People are © Ramy Raoof and used under a CC by licence. The shot of protestors in Tahrir Square in from Al-Jazeera.

Egypt, the cricket, and dead tree news

The current situation in Egypt has been the second thing recently that has made newspapers feel like a ludicrously old-fashioned technology.

The first, more trivially, was the cricket. England were playing in Australia, and because of the time difference, each day’s play was starting just before midnight and running until 7.30am — optimally designed to mess with the papers’ printing schedules. So I would stay up late and watch an hour or so of the match, go to bed, wake up in the morning in time to hear the very end of that day’s play and a bit of discussion from the commentators, and wander downstairs to look at the newspaper, which would have reports on the play which had ended the previous morning. So it was effectively a full 24 hours out of date. And although I understand why it was a day behind, it still felt ludicrous: like picking up the paper on a Monday and finding reports about the football from the previous weekend instead of the one which just finished.

In the case of Egypt, of course, it’s not the time difference, just a highly unstable situation. I have been following it with a great deal of interest and mixed emotions throughout the day, following the live blogging and TV coverage from the Guardian, the BBC and Al-Jazeera online. And when I wake up in the morning, the idea that I would turn to the newspaper for news just seems ridiculous; I go straight to the computer to check what’s happening.

This isn’t something new, of course; newspapers haven’t been the place to go for fast-breaking news stories since the invention of the wireless, and their position has been steadily eroded by television, then 24 hour news channels and eventually the internet. But it seems so stark now; I read the paper every day, but I’m more likely to get breaking news from Twitter.

That’s despite the fact that I actually like newspapers. I like having something lying around the house which I can pick up and browse through while I eat a sandwich. I read the columnists, I might do the crossword, I check the TV listings, maybe look at the film reviews. I will even read the news coverage, I just don’t do it expecting to be surprised.

I don’t particularly relish the idea of iPad* newspapers, even though it is clearly the obvious technical solution. I like paper newspapers. You can scribble notes on them, use them with sticky fingers, spill things on them, and split them into sections so that more then one person can read them at once. They don’t weigh much, and you can discard them when you’ve finished with them. But they don’t fulfil the same role they used to.  One way or another, they’re going to have to adapt to that. If they want to be at the cutting edge of hard news journalism, they have to be electronic. If they want to survive as paper objects… well, that’s the difficult sentence to finish. And if they want to keep making money? That’s anyone’s guess.

One thing I would say is: I’m not pessimistic about the future of news-gathering. Just the future of newspapers. There is a line of argument that, if newspapers can’t find a way to make money in the digital age, it will be a disaster, because we need journalism and someone has to pay the journalists.

Now, despite the frequently revolting behaviour of the British press (i.e. 1 2 3), I do strongly agree that we need journalism.  I have been glued to the coverage from Egypt and I admire the people who are willing to go out into the chaos to bring back that news. Newspapers are part of that; and I don’t claim to know what would step up to replace them if they all went bust tomorrow.

So this is a statement of faith, to some extent. But I just don’t believe that a technology which makes the distribution of information easier than ever before in human history is going to have the net result of reducing the amount of information available to us.

* or, you know, whatever non-Apple device eventually emerges as serious competition.

» image: Ricky Ponting, captain of Australia, looks pensive as he considers the situation in Egypt.

Egypt joke

A joke I heard a few years ago, can’t remember where:

Three agents are drinking in a bar, from the CIA, Mossad and the Egyptian secret police. After a few beers, they all start boasting about their tracking skills, and have a bet to see who can be quickest to head out into the desert and bring back a live gazelle.

The Mossad agent is fastest, and within a few hours he’s back at the bar with a gazelle tied up in the back of his truck. An hour or two later, the CIA man turns up as well. But many hours pass and eventually they head off and look for the Egyptian secret policeman.

They find him around the corner with a big stick, thrashing a donkey and shouting: “Come on, just admit it, I know you’re a gazelle!”

Links

MLT

I went to the British Museum with my sister because, having been on a Nile cruise recently, she’s keen on all things Egyptological. It turns out that the process of preparing a body for mummification is a lot like making dry-cured bacon.

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