Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 7, 2016

Films from Iraq, Syria and Iran

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:46 pm

Over the years I have seen many documentaries about Third World countries that were invaded by the American military or its proxies such as the Nicaraguan contras but none comes close to achieving the artistic and political power of Abbas Fahdel’s “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” that is distinguished by the insights of a brilliant director born in Babylon, Iraq. It consists of two parts, the first filmed in his country on the eve of the American invasion and the second in the first few months after it had occurred. Together they add up to 334 minutes and I can only say that I hungered to watch parts 3 and 4 if they existed. Unlike any other films in this genre, this is the very first—at least that I am familiar with—that is made by someone who is a native of the land suffering from invasion and occupation.

By analogy, think of what might have been possible if a Vietnamese director had access to relatively inexpensive digital cameras in 1965 and interviewed the peasants who had been forced into strategic hamlets as well as the intellectuals in Saigon who could speak for the country’s nationalist yearnings. But also imagine that the director had included not just the suffering of his countrymen but also their culture, their humor and the values that had sustained them for millennia. Fahdel’s friends and relatives, who had been victimized both by Saddam and by the American occupation, are the voice of the Iraqis we have never heard. They are cultured, wise and sardonically witty about the conditions that have been forced on them. Among them is the star of the movie, the director’s 12-year-old nephew Haidar who is wise beyond his years and appealing enough to be featured in a Kiarostami film.

I suspect that the title of the film has the same irony-tinged purpose as Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” that turned the tables on D.W. Griffith’s racist epic. With the Islamophobic TV series “Homeland” and the Department of Homeland Security that supposedly protects us from al-Qaeda, Fahdel reminds us that Iraqis were and are the ones truly committed to the freedom and dignity of their own nation. With 9/11 being made an excuse for the invasion of Iraq, we are absolutely required to understand how Iraqis lived and what they believed. Sitting through part one of “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” will allow you to get past the stereotypes and see how people lived in Baghdad in their daily lives under extraordinary conditions.

You see the extended Fahdel family preparing for the invasion as if it were a category 4 hurricane like the one that just plowed through the Caribbean. They put tape on the windows, store food and medicine and even go so far as to dig a well in their back yard in case the water stops flowing to their home. We see Haidar doing his shift on the hand-pump when his older sister arrives home from classes at the local college. He scolds her for not relieving him but she only smiles in response since he is obviously accustomed to giving her a hard time—affectionately.

While he is on the job making the sure the family has a supply of water, a group of girls practice using diapers as a gas mask. They have heard that if you put charcoal in the diapers, it will allow you to stave off an American poison gas attack. All the while they laugh at each other wearing diapers on their faces.

A day trip to Hit, a small city on the Euphrates river, introduces us to a middle-aged man who was born a Jew but converted to Islam in 1980 because his Muslim friends and neighbors treated him with affection and respect. He was so enthusiastic about converting that he persuaded a number of Jews to convert as well. One of the local Muslim men who is chatting with Fahdel says that he relies on the former Jew for advice on how to pray.

While much of part one consists of memorable scenes such as these, there are also many scenes of the city’s vibrant street life with its assortment of food bazaars and used book sellers in the Baghdad neighborhood favored by intellectuals and bohemians—those at least who have not been thrown in prison by Saddam. Conversations with the street vendors fills in the social fabric of a city whose immense visual appeal is captured by the director’s camera.

Throughout part one we get a sense of how detached Saddam Hussein was from reality. The Fahdels sit in their living room watching the news each evening as the clock is ticking toward Zero Hour. There are constant references to “our Father Saddam”, a cult figure whose grandiosity makes the North Korean Kim dynasty look modest by comparison.

In part two we see the devastation wrought by the American invasion that for most people living in Baghdad represents a total breakdown of law and order. Despite the impression we have of iron control of the streets by the American military, it is much more like a dystopian urban nightmare where criminals have free rein. If some of you may remember how Donald Rumsfeld shrugged his shoulders at the looting of museums, there is another aspect that was never reported on in the American media.

Saddam had emptied the prisons before the invasion to shore up public support for the regime but never bothered to distinguish between those who were political dissidents and those who were common thieves. It was the thieves, not the political dissidents, who ruled Baghdad in year zero. Carjacking and burglaries were such a frequent occurrence that law-abiding citizens armed themselves with AK-47s to protect their families. Cab drivers were preyed upon both for any cash they had on hand and for their cars that could be used for getaways in robberies. Fahdel’s relatives say that even though Saddam was a monster, the streets were safe.

If you were not the victim of a carjacker, you had to worry about an American military that viewed every Baghdad as a potential threat. Fahdel speaks to a number of families whose houses have been destroyed by tanks or helicopters even though they were not part of the resistance and just as often owned not a single weapon.

With his ties to the city’s cultural elite, we are taken on a tour of the trail of destruction the invasion left. One relative worked for state radio for 35 years. He and Fahdel survey the wreckage of the building that was responsible for airing nothing but music and news. What kind of “advanced” society would wreak such havoc? A man who worked as an actor the in film industry for many years takes Fahdel to the state film institute that has been blasted by gunfire and bombs. Tripods have been melted to the floor and film cans are strewn about the floor. The actor holds up a half-destroyed reel of film and remarks that its loss is a loss of the country’s history. When you destroy its culture, you not only lose the past but the possibility of building a better future.

The cultural and intellectual elite of Baghdad figure as the film’s narrators since it is they who understood how the country had been misruled for decades. One man describes the elite as schizophrenic since they verbally praised Saddam at work in order to not only keep their job but avoid being “disappeared”. It was only at home that they were able to pour out their grievances. “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” is their film and we are deeply grateful to Abbas Fahdel for giving them a voice.

“Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” opened yesterday at the Anthology of Film Archives in NYC and it is the one film that you should see this year since it is not only a masterpiece about the particular tragedy of Iraq but also an antidote to the Islamophobia that not only has infected the Republican Party but that casts a pall across the political landscape in general. With Hillary Clinton having voted for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is essential to listen to the heart and soul of a Muslim nation. I was struck by the similarities of the Baghdad wise men and women in Fahdel’s film with so many of the Syrians who were dominant in the early days of the revolution. They, like Fahdel’s friends and relatives, are the best hope for the Middle East.

Opening today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, “Theo Who Lived” is the story of Theo Padnos, a free-lance reporter who was abducted by al-Nusra in Syria in October 2012 and held captive for two years under abominable conditions. The film consists of him recounting the life he led in various improvised jails with daily beatings and accusations of being a CIA agent.

Mostly, Padnos blames himself for allowing this to happen since he trusted a couple of men he met in Istanbul who assured him that they would sneak him into Syria to interview the FSA. It turned out that they were al-Nusra supporters who had neither his interests nor the revolution’s at heart. While al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, was by no stretch of the imagination as savage as ISIS, you are left with the impression that they are useless to the revolution except for their fighting skills that is a double-edged sword. Every feat they carry out in battle only gives them the credibility they need to suppress other currents in the struggle and make unity across class lines more difficult.

While most of the film focuses on Padnos’s ordeal (he was released after two years when Qatar arranged a prisoner exchange no doubt enhanced by the captive’s ability to bind with al-Nusra’s leader who apparently became convinced that he was no spy), you find yourself wondering what made him tick.

The Wikipedia on Padnos mentions that he studied Islam in Yemen and Damascus, has a PhD in literature from the U. of Mass., Amherst and is fluent in Arabic and Russian. He wrote a book titled “Underground Muslim” about his studies at the Salafist academy in Yemen. One can only say that if other reporters had such a background, the media would be a lot more trustworthy when it comes to the Middle East.

If you are not in a position to see “Theo Who Lived”, you at least owe it to yourself to read the fascinating article by Padnos that appeared in the NY Times shortly after he was released by al-Nusra. This description of the bonds that were developing with the group’s leader should give you an idea of how it was his own native abilities that saved his life rather than a ransom that the USA never would have supplied:

Suddenly I found myself standing at the edge of the desert with the Man of Learning [al-Nusra’s leader]. He gave me a suit of jihadi clothing, told me to blend in with his fighters and promised me that once we got to Dara’a, a city near the eastern edge of the Golan Heights, he would send me back to my family.

We traveled in the same car. He talked to me about the difficulties of being a mujahid, or Fighter on the Straight Path of God. One afternoon early in our voyage, he told me that the world misunderstood him. “It must be difficult when the whole world wants to kill you,” I said. “Plus all the problems now with ISIS. And Bashar al-Assad probably wants to kill you, too.”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s true. But ISIS are the worst. They have made me very sad.”

On March 1, 2016 Nabil Maleh died at the age of 79 from lung cancer. Described in the NY Times obituary as a “giant of Syrian cinema”, this was his country’s counterpart to the men and women featured in Fahdel’s film, a man forced into exile in 2011 for his support for the revolution. The Times obit states:

His 2006 documentary “The Road to Damascus” was prescient in examining conditions that led to the 2011 uprising. In it, Mr. Maleh’s crew travels around the country interviewing ordinary Syrians, who discuss the poverty and corruption that had resulted in an exodus from rural Syria to Damascus, with job seekers and their families settling in ramshackle housing on the city’s outskirts. The film was never shown in Syria.

That film is not available online but you can see his 1972 film “The Leopard” about a poor farmer who stages a virtual one-man revolt against the feudal aristocracy that still ruled Syria as late as 1946, the year in which the events that inspired the film took place. A Jadaliyya article on Maleh discusses the film:

Released in 1972, The Leopard captivated Arab audiences and introduced Syrian cinema to the global stage. The film is set in 1946, as the French Mandate forces scaled back their presence, and local feudal landlords, aghas, took their place as oppressors. The Leopard opens with, and periodically returns to, a close-up of the protagonist’s scowling face set against a raging sea, as a haunting voice-over draws on Syrian folk ballads. In the second scene, shot in silhouette, Abu ‘Ali’s wife, Shafiqa, asks why he has acquired a gun, now that the French have gone. Abu ‘Ali avoids the question, but the answer quickly emerges: Syrian landlords, backed by soldiers, demand more tribute than the peasants can afford after a bad harvest. The hero resists, is arrested and beaten, but escapes to the hills, staging guerilla attacks against the new forces of tyranny. Comrades from his days fighting the French try to join him, but Abu ‘Ali turns them away. This is his fight alone.

While the native bourgeoisie took over for the French eventually, the oppressive conditions in the countryside never came to an end. It was certainly Maleh’s understanding of these realities in 1972 and in 2011 that forced him into exile.

Finally, there is “Under the Shadow” that also opened today at the IFC Center in NYC. With an Iranian director and cast, it is virtually an Iranian film although its subject matter made it impossible to be produced in the Islamic Republic since it is a horror movie with affinities to Japanese and Korean films about haunted houses but more specifically evokes the nifty Australian film “The Babadook”.

But the real horror was the war between Iraq and Iran that serves as the backdrop for the film. Living in Tehran under constant threat of missile attacks from Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) are getting ready to take refuge in the countryside while her husband is away serving as a medic on the front lines.

As that day draws near, things start to get weird in the apartment after Dorsa loses her favorite doll. Things start going bump in the night and Dorsa develops a malevolent streak that frightens her mother.

The cause, according to a superstitious neighbor, is an evil spirit called a Djinn that was raised by an Iraqi missile that landed on a floor above them. Unlike most horror films, there is very little violence or shock effects. It is mostly about creating a strange atmosphere that hearkens back to early horror films such as Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People”.

In the press notes director Babak Anvari relates the inspiration for the film:

I was born and raised in Tehran in the early years of the revolution and during the Iran-Iraq war it was mandatory for my father to serve as a doctor for a month each year in the war. The months when he was away were like hell for my mother. She recalled how truly afraid she was during those times, despite efforts to keep herself together. Nowadays she blames herself for how timorous my brother and I were, believing that she unconsciously passed her fears on to us during that time. Conversations with my mother reminded me of my childhood fears and anxieties and ultimately sparked the idea behind Under the Shadow. Although Under the Shadow is a work of fiction in the genre of horror, many key elements of its plot have been taken from my own experiences, stories I’ve heard and people I knew.

If you can’t make it to the IFC, you can look forward to it showing up on Netflix soon or watch it now for only $6.99 using the link just above. It is a very fine genre film with just enough insights into Iranian society to set it apart from the average flick.

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