Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 14, 2014

Honour; Half a Yellow Sun

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

One of the problems I’ve had with Rotten Tomatoes over the years is its binary rotten/fresh ratings system. Since most of the films I review are carefully weighed in advance to ensure that the chances of a rotten are remote, I tend to avoid rating something as rotten unless it is the Hollywood films I receive by the bucket-load at the end of the year in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting. Trust me, nothing gives me greater pleasure than awarding a “rotten” to “Django Unchained” or “Gravity”.

Documentaries are naturally the easiest to rate as “fresh” since the topic generally outweighs all other considerations. For example, when I saw the great “Return to Homs”, I could care less about the shaky camera work since much of it was done by revolutionaries using modest HD video cameras similar to the ones you would take on vacation.

Ultimately it is independent narrative films, especially “foreign”, that the fresh/rotten categories become so inadequate. Even the star method used by Netflix is an inexact tool. What does it mean to award 3 stars both to a Latin American film made on a shoestring budget and a Hollywood action blockbuster that costs $50 million to make?

That was the quandary I faced after seeing “Honour” and “Half a Yellow Sun” yesterday. Both films have big problems but are worth watching. They will get a “fresh” rating despite the fact that they could have been much better. In the outside chance that the directors or screenwriters check in on Rotten Tomatoes, I hope they find my criticisms useful since they are offered in a friendly manner.

“Honour” refers to honor killings, a subject that found supreme expression in the Turkish film “Bliss” that I reviewed in February 2014. Shan Khan’s film (his first) is not quite up to those standards, a function I suspect of its being targeted to Muslim audiences in London rather than art houses in New York or the Sundance Film Festival. Khan sticks to Bollywood conventions of using one-dimensional villains rather than “complex” ones that raise interesting questions about the human psyche of the sort found in a Dostoyevsky novel. The Pakistani mother and her cop son who are trying to kill their sexually liberated daughter who seeks to elope with a non-Muslim man from Punjab are pure and palpably evil, the kind that a theater audience would hiss in days of yore.

If the film caters to working-class Pakistani expectations, there is plenty there as well for British audiences who lap up Jason Stathem action films (I suppose that is all he does.) Paddy Considine plays an ominous-looking, tattooed bounty hunter hired by mom and her son to track down their wayward daughter. Although nobody is scarier looking than Stathem, Considine probably came a lot cheaper since he is much more of a supporting actor—and a damned good one at that. He makes the film work in many ways. He can act circles around Stathem. Just watch him in “The Cry of the Owl”, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel.

Also very good is Alysha Hart as Mona, the young woman determined to be free of patriarchal chains. As is the case with everybody else in the film, she is entirely believable as a character even if the film takes wildly improbable turns, such as for example her decision not to go to the cops when her mother and brother’s attempt to strangle her fails.

If nothing else, this interview with HeyUGuys (http://www.heyuguys.co.uk/interview-shan-khan-honour/) demonstrates that Shan Khan knew exactly what he was up to:

Q: Where do you feel Honour sits with the rest of contemporary British thrillers?

A: We’ll, I’d like to think it sits right at the top, but unfortunately that would be wishful thinking on my part. I’m glad that people are seeing it as a thriller and not seeing it as an issue-based movie, so that’s a really good thing; a great big tick, because it’s a very dangerous topic to deal with in many different ways, and one of those is that [it has] to be a worthy movie, and we’ve done everything we could from the conception of the script to make sure that it was worthy and it wasn’t just a thriller. So where does it sit? You know man, I’d like to think it’s a good ol’ thriller, and it’s in the tradition of nice thrillers from the seventies, like, not to compare myself with the great filmmakers like Robert Redford and whatnot, but at the same time I like those movies. That’s what my influence was. Especially Marathon Man and All The President’s Men, French Connection; these were great movies that were thrillers but they also had the message, and you didn’t feel like you were being hit over the head with a big issue-based hammer. So that’s certainly the intention. Where does it sit? It’s not a gangster movie, you know, none of that, so I’d like to think you’re going to pay your money, you’re going to be entertained.

Q: Do you feel like the film should entertain rather than educate, perhaps?

A: I think that’s an absolute given. This is the entertainment business, I think documentaries and things like that are for dealing with the subject matter – we can deal with the subject matter, but I think there’s a mistake to try to do much in terms of educating. Education? Yes – but only in sparking the debate. That’s all. We’re in the entertainment business, that’s what I’m up for, that’s the movies that I liked. I like my Captain Americas, I like Jurassic Park as well. But I want my movies to be a bit more than that. A wee bit more.

“Honour” will be available on VOD on July 7th and a theatrical release soon afterwards.

“Half a Yellow Sun” refers to the flag of the ill-fated Republic of Biafra that existed from 1965 to 1970 and that became a poster child for groups like Amnesty International and Oxfam. After the military government began killing Igbos, a largely Christian southeastern ethnic group, they retreated to the territory that became known as Biafra. This occurred 5 years after Nigeria became independent and set the pattern tragically for other spasms of ethnic cleansing that were directly attributable to colonialism’s cynical cobbling together of ethnic groups that had little in common. When oil, gold, and diamonds enter the equation, the fratricide is increased geometrically.

A 2006 novel by Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie served as the basis for the screenplay. A NY Times review described the novel:

The novel centers on twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, members of the Igbo elite. Physically and temperamentally dissimilar, they struggle with an on-again-off-again mutual loyalty crosshatched with mistrust and betrayal. The twins also gravitate toward very different men: Olanna becomes the mistress of Odenigbo, an expansive intellectual and Pan-Africanist who teaches at a provincial university, while Kainene falls for Richard, a bashful, awkward but principled Englishman who takes up the Biafran cause. Rumors of war, then all-out conflict throw this privileged foursome’s world into disarray — along with the very different world of Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy, who comes from an impoverished rural village.

Unfortunately the film emphasizes the personal relations at the expense of the social and political issues that were important to the characters. You can get a flavor of what is in the novel but scarcely reflected in the film from this excerpt:

“Of course we are all alike, we all have white oppression in common, Miss Adebayo said dryly. “Pan-Africanism is simply the most sensible response.”

“Of course, of course, but my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe,” Master said. “I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”

Professor Ezeka snorted and shook his head, thin legs crossed. “But you became aware that you were Igbo because of the oldie man. The pan-Igbo idea itself came only in the face of white domination. You must see that tribe as it is today is as colonial a product as nation and race.” Professor Ezeka re-crossed his legs.

I only wish there were more scenes of Igbo elites sitting around discussing politics than those of the principals jumping into bed or on the run from Nigerian soldiers. Then again, of course, such scenes would not be so nearly as “cinematic”. If nothing else, the film whets your appetite for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel. With Nigeria’s ethnic and religious divisions becoming as newsworthy as events in Uraine—another nation with linguistic and ethnic divisions—it is high time that people like us get up to speed. As the most heavily populated nation in Africa and one soaked in oil (and blood), and one more example of Thomas Friedman’s “miraculous” transformation produced by globalization”, it is worth getting to know better.

By no means a perfect introduction, the film, which opens on Friday at the Quad in New York, is a good place to start.

 

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