Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 9, 2015

Four new films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

“Dukhtar” (Daughter) is a Pakistani film that ironically follows the same plot as “Mad Max: Fury Road” but that leaves it in the dust—a metaphor appropriate for the tale of women escaping from warlords in a truck driven by a sympathetic man. Where “Dukhtar” uses the chase as a way to show people fighting for their humanity, the Mad Max film preferred to show them as little more than Warner Brothers cartoon characters.

Two rival clansmen in a remote and mountainous area of north Pakistan have been feuding for many years just like the Hatfields and the McCoys, with blood spilt on both sides. When the two warlords sit down for a possible way of ending the feud, one proposes that a marriage from one’s daughter to his long-time rival would finally bring peace. The only problem is that chieftain is in his sixties and the proposed bride is ten years old.

When Allah Rakhi discovers that her daughter Zainab has been promised to the old warlord, she absconds with the child for parts unknown. With her husband’s henchmen in pursuit, her only recourse is to take to the open road with her daughter and hope for the best. In a remote and lawless region of Pakistan, that best is not very good.

Not long after mother and child barely escape capture, the film cuts to a “jingle truck” barreling along a dusty road in a valley beneath the rugged mountains. This vehicle is common to India and Pakistan and incorporates a folk art in which the owners adorn it with a vivid multicolored paint job, bangles, baubles and just about anything else that sparkles.

When the driver stops by the side of the road to check the pokey engine of his work of art on wheels, he spots Allah Rakhi and Zainab on the top of the truck. He orders them down and begins to give them a tongue-lashing. When mom spots one of her husband’s gun thugs heading toward them, she begs the driver—named Sohail—to conceal them from her pursuers, which he does. Despite his gruff exterior, he refuses to allow two women to be degraded or worse.

Sohail takes up their cause and does everything in his power to protect the child from a predatory man even though he will be risking his own life in the conflict. Director and screenwriter Afia Nathaniel, a graduate from the Columbia University film department, obviously is familiar with the adventure movie canon. Sohail is a variation on so many Humphrey Bogart appearances in  films where he plays a cynical and hard-bitten loner who decides to act selflessly in pursuit of a higher goal. Whether it is “Casablanca”, “Key Largo” or “The African Queen”, the character is basically the same and completely lovable.

Sohail is played by Mohib Mirza, a veteran Pakistani actor who is very good at playing the same kind of character, in this instance a veteran of the jihadist campaigns in Afghanistan that he joined when he was only 15 years old. When he saw only the hands of a woman in Kabul, he followed her down the street and fell in love with her instantly. Her early death from an unnamed illness left him alone in the world and without a purpose except to drive his “jingle truck” along Pakistan’s dusty roads for a modest income. When the two women come into his life, he rediscovers what it means to care about other people.

Despite the absence of flame-throwers, bombs, armor-plated trucks and motorcycles, and heavy metal music, “Dukhtar” is a lot more terrifying than the latest Mad Max. The reason for this is simple. When you operate on the basis of reality rather than a Roadrunner cartoon, it is a lot easier to empathize with the characters facing danger.

In addition to the story, the cinematography and film score for “Dukhtar” are about as striking as I have seen in any film over the past few years. Apparently the director coordinated the action of 200 extras in sub-freezing temperatures. It is obvious that she had a powerful vision of what kind of statement she wanted to make in this groundbreaking film. It is too bad that George Miller, the director of all the Mad Max films, lost that ability some time ago.

In an email I received from the film’s publicist, the director is quoted:

The seed of the film is inspired by the true story of a mother from the tribal areas of Pakistan who kidnaps her two daughters and seeks a new future for them. The story resonated with me deeply because in Pakistan, I come from a humble family of very strong women, women who have endured extremely tough lives in hope of a better one for their children. So while studying Film Directing at Columbia University in New York, I penned a fictional screenplay for this road-trip thriller. The mother’s journey into the unknown would raise important questions about the price we are willing to pay for freedom, dignity and love in a time when modernity, tradition and fundamentalism have come to a head. In the ten years that it took me to make this film, I became a mother to a daughter myself and the issue of child marriage became even more personal. Every year, around the world, nearly 15 million girls lose their childhood to marriage and for me this is an unacceptable reality. And so the determination to make the film and have it seen by audiences never left me.

“Dukhtar” opens at the Cinema Village in New York today and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles next Friday. It is not to be missed.

“T(error)”, a documentary that opened two days ago at the IFC Center in New York, tells the story of how the FBI entrapped a Muslim. At first blush, it would seem to be covering the same ground as the “Newburgh Sting”, a documentary I reviewed in August 2014 (https://louisproyect.org/2014/08/04/three-documentaries-of-note-4/). But what distinguishes this new film and recommends it particularly to a left audience is the willingness of a paid informant to be interviewed throughout the film as he carries out a provocation in Pittsburgh against one Khalifa Ali Al-Akili, an white American convert to Islam who was the FBI’s target for more than a year.

At the beginning of the film director Lyric Cabral (an African-American woman who co-directed with David Sutcliffe, who is white) reveals that after she met Sharif the paid informant under circumstances that are not detailed he agreed to be filmed. Given his background, one might suspect that he could make some money out of the project.

Sharif is like many people who become snitches. When he was arrested for robbing token booths in 1987, the cops made him an offer that he probably couldn’t refuse. After they discovered that he had been a member of the Black Panther Party in the early 70s and was a practicing Muslim, he was offered a deal. Early release from prison in exchange for entrapping Muslim radicals, including one Tariq Shah, a Harlem-based jazz musician and martial arts instructor who used to work with Betty Carter and Ahmad Jamal. He is now in prison serving a 15-year term for supposedly telling Sharif that he was willing to train al-Qaeda members in hand-to-hand combat. For his part in setting Tariq Shah up, Sharif was paid handsomely.

Unbeknownst to Sharif, Cabral lined up Khalifa Ali Al-Akili as well. In the final thirty minutes or so, he and Sharif play cat and mouse with the mouse understanding full well that he was the intended victim of a sting.

This compelling documentary is a must-see both for the political lessons it draws about how the FBI operates and as psychological profile of a man who lives in the ethical lower depths. It is a reminder of the malignant forces we will have to deal with as class tensions continue to heighten in the USA.

Also playing now at the IFC is “Winter on Fire”, a regrettably underdeveloped documentary about the Euromaidan protests that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych and the wars in Eastern Ukraine that finally seem to be dying down.

In its favor, you can say that it is filled with stunning images drawn from many different cameras during the struggle between protestors and cops. For many people who never bothered to look at the material that was uploaded to YouTube, the film is a vivid portrait of the street fighting, the words of the participants, and so on. But it is disjointed and lacking in any sort of political analysis. It does not explain why Ukrainians rose up nor does it address the divisions in the anti-oligarchic ranks between democrats and ultrarightists. Nor does it shed light on the machinations of the men and women waiting in the wings to rule Ukraine in the name of a gentler oligarchic regime.

The Ukraine story is crying out for a substantive documentary that explains why there was such hostility toward the Russians. I imagine that 9 out of 10 Americans, maybe even 95 out of a 100, have no idea that millions died when Stalin imposed a forced collectivization. The film would also explore the circumstances that led to a nationalist movement that welcomed Hitler’s invasion until it became clear that he saw both Ukrainians and Jews as untermenschen. If you come to the film with modest expectations, you won’t be disappointed.

Last and surely the least there is “Steve Jobs: the Man in the Machine”, the third film I have seen about the Apple founder in the past couple of months.

With a script by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame (or infamy), practically the entire film takes place in the hallways, dressing rooms and auditorium of the various places where Jobs’s breakthrough products were revealed to the adoring masses in a well-orchestrated dog-and-pony show.

So the drama, such as it is, consists of—for example—Jobs (Michael Fassbender) warning his lead programmer Andy Hertzfeld thirty minutes before the demonstration of the original Macintosh that if he couldn’t get it to say “hello” over the machine’s speaker that not only would he never work for Apple again, he would never work again period.

And so it goes with the introduction of the Next machine, after Jobs gets booted from Apple, and then the IMac. The verbal confrontations continue with John Scully, Steve Wozniak, Jobs’s ex-girlfriend, their daughter Lisa that he claimed he did not father, and others. All conducted at a breakneck speed and with very little sense of a story that reveals anything about Jobs other than as a martinet.

Sorkin probably never understood how limited this kind of narrow focus would be. The film consists nearly entirely of dialog between two characters face to face, if not in each other’s face. Perhaps he thought that there was something compelling about the Next computer’s architecture. I can only say that despite having spent 44 years as a programmer and being very happy with my second Macbook, it was like watching paint dry for me.

With much less fanfare, Alex Gibney’s documentary and Joshua Stephen’s narrative film “Jobs” that starred Aston Kutcher are far better. Sorkin has never made a film that I found at all interesting. As was the case with ”The Social Network”, his biopic about Mark Zuckerberg, he is fixated on his character’s unpleasantness. That’s not something that I expect from a film, even if in reality Zuckerberg and Jobs were total pricks. For an alternative to this kind of filmmaking, I recommend “Citizen Kane”, the type of film that could never be made today for a variety of reasons. In fact even when Orson Welles was alive, he could not make that kind of film himself today.


  1. Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” is an amazing story, a story about a Hollywood that no longer exists. A great quote about Antonioni: “an architect of empty boxes” Doubt that Welles liked “The Red Desert”, either

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 10, 2015 @ 3:55 am

  2. I’ve never seen a Sorkin film, but it is worth noting that it is possible to make films about unpleasant characters that still humanizes them and engages the audience. A lot of great directors have done it. Perhaps, the problem with Sorkin is not so much that he focuses upon the unpleasantness of people, but that he defines people by exclusive reference to it?

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 11, 2015 @ 5:36 am

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more about your review of this film. I thought it was way to narrow in focus and rather tedious at times. Check out my review when you get a chance.

    Comment by Jordan Rose — October 27, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

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