By Daniel Lindvall
‘We think the price is worth it’, answered Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the United Nations, when asked on 60 Minutes in 1996 whether she could justify half a million children dying as the result of the sanctions regime against Iraq. But despite embracing genocide as a strategic tool – ostensibly for removing former US ally Saddam Hussein from power, but predictably resulting foremost in the suffering and disempowerment of the Iraqi people – Albright is never referred to in ‘polite society’ as an ‘extremist’. On the contrary, as a ‘Clinton Democrat’ she is a representative of the western civilized mainstream against which ‘extremism’ is measured. A kid, overcome by anger at this state of things, who picks up a stone during a demo and lobs it at a fully armoured riot policeman – now there’s an ‘extremist’ for you. As this example should indicate, ‘extremism’ is a term unusually well suited for a bit of enlightening deconstruction. In fact, any remotely serious discussion of the term cannot help but question the assumptions underlying its most common usages.
For this reason I was intrigued and delighted when learning that the twenty-first Stockholm International Film Festival, held late in November, was devoting its ‘Spotlight’ section to the theme of ‘Extreme Politics’. Ten films, ranging from disappointing silliness to near-brilliant drama, were on the programme. British Four Lionssquarely fell into the former category. This comedy about a small group of ‘Muslim terrorists’ aims at presenting ‘the Dad’s Army side to terrorism’ and wants to reveal its human dimension according to director Chris Morris. But despite not being wholly without nuances it ends up confirming the belief that terrorism is a Muslim/Arab thing, whilst not being any more funny than the average, forgettable telly sitcom. This is particularly unfortunate as it is the only film in the selection dealing with the subject of terrorism.
Everything Will Be Fine– a Danish thriller penned and directed by Christoffer Boe – starts out promisingly but ends in a cop-out. A scriptwriter accidentally comes into possession of photos of Danish war crimes in Iraq and finds himself a prey of the state security apparatus eager to cover things up by any means. But the political storyline gradually dissolves and turns out to be, apparently, merely a figment of the protagonist’s overworked brain.
French drama Of Gods and Menis based on real events that took place in Algeria during the civil war of the 1990s. A group of French monks living in a monastery in a remote part of the country come under increased pressure from Islamic rebels (in reality, possibly a group infiltrated by the state security services, though this is not mentioned in the film) until they are eventually kidnapped and beheaded. As a psychological study of the shifting relations between the monks, as they argue over whether to stay or leave, the film is outstanding, but there is also something frustratingly paternalistic in its attitude toward Algerians. The latter are presented as either child-like rural semi-dependents of the monks, corrupt army officers or religious fundamentalists. In one scene an army officer – a clearly unsympathetic character – trying to persuade the monks to leave, mentions the history of colonialism as an important background to today’s troubles, a suggestion that the monks and the film rather smugly brush aside.
Equally superficial, on a historical level, is Alex de la Iglesia’s latest film, The Last Circus. This is fantasy as pseudo-political allegory at its very worst. The film seems to say that the Spanish Civil War was not a conflict between fascism and anti-fascism, but between those who wanted war, on both sides, and those who didn’t, whilst making the organizers of the defence of Madrid in 1936 into the moral equivalents of the Franco officers leading the attack. Enough said.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is a more than three-hours-long documentary of the life of the late Romanian dictator, made up entirely of archive footage, including the home videos of the Ceausescus themselves. Out of this material, director Andrej Ujica has crafted an archetypical story of the rise and fall of a dictator. As Romanian Stalinism breaks down, Nicolae and wife Elena, cocooned by sycophants and secret service men, gradually lose touch with reality until, facing their kangaroo trial in 1989, it is probably in all honesty that they simply cannot believe that they are not the loved mother and father of a happy nation. The many sequences showing the couple greeted and feted by western dignitaries and Third World dictators alike make up a wry comment on the nature of international relations, as well. Autobiography is another example of the high quality of contemporary Romanian cinema.
Iranian-British film-maker Rafi Pitts wrote, directed and plays the lead role in The Hunter. Shot in and around Tehran, this is a revenge film with a 1970s feel. I kept thinking about Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974) throughout. However, here the violence is anti-authoritarian and levelled from below. Ali (Pitts) is a downtrodden watchman in a factory with a prison sentence in his past. Forced to work nights he has far too little time to spend with his family. When his wife and daughter are killed in a shoot-out between police and demonstrators he snaps and randomly kills two policemen in revenge. The film was shot before the violence that followed the 2009 elections and Pitts insists that its theme is ‘universal’, a depiction of a ‘Kafkaesque situation’ that ‘relates to many countries’. Whether this ‘universalism’ was by choice or necessity the result is a well-made thriller pointing to the ‘extremism’ inherent in working conditions recognizable from almost any contemporary society.
The South African drama, A Small Town Called Descent (written and directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka) also points to the ‘extremism’ of social conditions lying behind extreme, violent reactions, here the brutal attacks on Zimbabwean immigrants. Qubeka portrays a society where justice and social rights remain denied to the black majority, corruption and state violence flourish and a white former general can still act as king of his hill, running his farm labourers without a trace of any regrets or change in attitude. The film combines a tongue-in-cheek stylishness, partly due to its idiosyncratically jazzy soundtrack, with social drama, in a way that shouldn’t work but at least for this viewer, certainly does.
But the two strongest films of the section were Tanya Hamilton’s feature debut, Night Catches Usand the Italian documentary Draquila – Italy Tremblesby Sabina Guzzanti. The former shows how a family and a Philadelphia neighbourhood fall apart after the decline of the Black Panthers. The film takes place in 1976, when the FBI campaign of assassinations and bogus criminal charges has crushed the revolutionary movement and paved the way for religious fanaticism, drug dealing and intra-community violence to take the place of hope and political struggle. I exited the cinema thinking that this was the historical tragedy that came to repeat itself as farce with the empty promises of Barack Obama.
Yet, it is in Draquila alone that the accusatory finger is firmly pointed at a western, ‘democratically elected’ leader, Silvio Berlusconi. When an earthquake demolished the historical town of L’Aquila, taking some 300 lives, the political and economic establishment surrounding the prime minister stood poised to exploit the situation. In a schoolbook example of ‘disaster capitalism’, laws and normal procedures are swept aside with the help of the all-powerful, public ‘Civil Protection Agency’, as the shocked population is driven from the remains of their homes to make place for profitable redevelopment. Guzzanti efficiently combines biting satire with a clearheaded presentation of the events. My only fear is that the buffoonish character of Berlusconi will draw the audience’s attention away from the fact that the extremism we see here is simply a picture of business-as-usual in today’s world, from New Orleans to Kabul.
Finally, a few words about a Swedish documentary, Thank You, Goodbye, Go Home, that was screened as a work-in-progress, clocking in at less than an hour. With rampant privatization, growing inequality and a 10 per cent official unemployment rate, Sweden has gone from a symbol of ‘social democracy’ to a nation like any other. The latest step in this direction was the election to Parliament, last autumn, of our own far-right, xenophobic party, the Sweden Democrats (SD). As the established ‘labour’ movement – Social Democrats, ex-Stalinists, the union bureaucracy – has long since abandoned any alternative vision to the ‘only road’ of neo-liberalism, this came as no surprise to any intelligent observer. Where hope leaves, hate fills the void. Thank You follows a handful of SD activists during the election campaign. It observes without openly analysing. But seeing the frightening ‘normality’ of these neat, overgrown Stepford kids highlights how very ‘normal’ extremism has become in our times and, vice versa, how very normal are the ‘extreme’ actions this sometimes provokes.
The Stockholm Film Fest should be thanked for providing its audience with an opportunity to reflect over these issues.
This text is also the editorial of Film International 49, vol. 9, no. 1, 2011, an issue devoted to the theme of ‘Gangsterism and capitalism’ – two concepts every bit as difficult to disentangle as those of ‘extreme’ and ‘non-extreme’ politics. Out soon.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.