Terrorism, a war criminal and the Middle East

Foreign films abound this summer, with several that concern the Middle East in various ways.

Lebanese-American filmmaker Ziad Doueiri brings Yasmina Khadra’s novel “The Attack” to the screen, and his movie has spawned some controversy in the Arab world.

The film focuses on Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian-Israeli surgeon, and begins when he is receiving a distinguished medical award, the first Arab to be so honored. After his acceptance speech, events catapult. He is called to the hospital as dead and wounded children and adults are brought in after a suicide bombing. Sometime later, he is taken to the morgue to identify a body — that of his wife, who ultimately turns out to have been the suicide bomber. Never having known about her underground activities, he is horrified and spends the rest of the film searching for answers, even venturing into dangerous Palestinian enclaves. 

Although the plot rests on a terrorist act, Doueiri insisted that his film is not fundamentally a political one, but is, rather, a love story, and a story of betrayal, about a man who worships his wife and wonders how he could be married to a woman for 15 years and not see any sign of who she really was.

However, because of its narrative and the fact that the film is set in the Middle East, the politics of the region are ever present. Doueiri, who said he comes from a liberal, secular Muslim family, said the story does not favor one side or the other in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is this evenhanded approach that has caused him problems in Arab countries. The film was originally financed with funds from Qatar and Egypt, and some from France and Belgium. The director recalled that, when the film was screened in Toronto, the Qatari delegation was not comfortable with the weight given to the Israeli perspective.

“They took me to the side and said, ‘We’re sorry to tell you, but we’d like to remove our name from the film.’ And when I asked why, they said, ‘Look. This is a sensitive time for Qatar right now. We’re involved in several wars. We’re financing wars. We’re being scrutinized. We’re in a very tough position, and we do not want to open [an] unnecessary window on us right now. And your film might do that. So, we’re going to take our name off.’ ”

To make matters worse, Doueiri added, “Lebanon just banned it [from being shown] a couple of days ago. We didn’t try with Egypt yet, but Lebanon has banned it, and Lebanon was, like, the most promising place to show that film.

“Just because I show the Israeli perspective,” he continued, “just because I work with Israeli actors, just because I shot it in Israel does not mean I turn my back on the Palestinians. This is how they are seeing it. They are seeing that I have committed treason.”

Subsequently, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the Arab League has asked all of its 22 members to boycott the movie. The Times also reported that the filmmaker’s wife was told she would be arrested if she went ahead with a private screening in Beirut, so that screening was canceled. According to Doueiri, Jews have been much more supportive of his movie.

“The Attack” will be released June 21.

Abdihakin Asgar and Pilou Asbæk in “A Hijacking.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Another terrorist act occurs in “A Hijacking,” a Danish film by writer-director Tobias Lindholm, in which Somali pirates seize a cargo ship and hold the crew for ransom.

Lindholm, whose father was a seaman, commented that the film is a particularly Danish story because all Danes have at least one family member who works at sea.

“Then, with the hijacking of the Danish-owned freighters Danica White and CEC Future in 2007 and 2008, I became aware of the reality of piracy in the Indian Ocean, a reality where pirates earn millions of dollars and where seamen are held hostage for months without any influence on their own fate.”

The film centers on the ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), a loving family man anxious to get home to his wife and daughter; the engineer, Jan (Roland Møller); and Peter (Søren Malling), the CEO of the shipping company. Refusing to allow an expert to deal with the hijackers, Peter bargains with Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the spokesman for the Somalis, who insists that he is there merely to translate and negotiate but is not one of the pirates. 

The original act of hijacking is never shown, but tension mounts as negotiations for the ransom go back and forth over a period of months between the company headquarters in Copenhagen and the ship, where conditions gradually deteriorate and food becomes scarce. Because everyone on board feels the effects of the siege, there is a section in which the hostages and the pirates bond over a meal after Mikkel manages to catch an extremely large fish.

The piracy has profound psychological effects on everyone involved. By the end, Mikkel is clearly suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, while there is a deep crack in the armor of the usually cool and controlled Peter.

Underneath the specifics of the story, Lindholm finds a more universal issue. “Piracy is a symbol of the conflict between rich and poor in the world today. And I believe that is a theme that the film is exploring.”

“A Hijacking” opens June 21. 

Golshifteh Farahani in “The Patience Stone.”  Photo by Benoît Peverelli, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

A different form of terrorism, the often-violent oppression of women in orthodox Muslim society, is at the core of the allegorical film “The Patience Stone.” The script is adapted from the novel by Afghan expatriate Atiq Rahimi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière.

The setting is an unnamed Middle East country, which some critics have speculated is actually Afghanistan, where different factions are at war. A woman (Golshifteh Farahani), alone with her two young daughters, cares for her comatose husband, giving him sustenance through a feeding tube. 

Desperate for money, she regularly visits her aunt, a prostitute in a brothel, who gives her advice. The aunt relates the story of the patience stone, saying that if you tell your troubles to this stone, it will shatter when it is full, and it will free you.

In a monologue that stretches throughout the movie, the woman unburdens herself to her unconscious husband, making him, in effect, her patience stone. As she gives voice to her confessions, tells her secrets, her anguish, her rage and her agonizing memories, the untenable position of women in Muslim societies becomes intensely personal and palpable.

The Patience Stone” opens Aug. 16.

Cédric Kahn, left, and Pio Marmai in “Aliyah.” Photo © Carole Bethuel

The Middle East is the destination for the main character in the French film “Aliyah,” taking its title from the term for the immigration of Jews in the Diaspora to Israel. Alex (Pio Marmai), a young French Jew, makes his living dealing dope, and he is constantly called upon to help his hapless brother, Isaac (Cédric Kahn). His mother is dead, and his father (Jean-Marie Winling) is indifferent to him, so Alex feels alone and alienated. At a family Shabbat dinner, he is reunited with his cousin, Nathan (David Geselson), who has just returned from serving in the Israeli army and plans to open a restaurant in Israel. Sensing an opportunity for a fresh start in life, Alex persuades Nathan to include him in the venture. But, in order to come up with the necessary money, he has to do one more cocaine deal.

“By reading a lot about it,” director Elie Wajeman is quoted as saying in the press notes, “Making a trip to Israel, and meeting people, I understood that many people who make aliyah don’t do it because of ideology or religion, but simply to run away — from troubles, sorrows, disappointments or sometimes from the law. It’s as simple as that.”

At the end of the film, Alex is in Israel, but he doesn’t speak Hebrew and spends his time working, or alone. Again, Wajeman is quoted: “One might think that his situation is even worse than when he was alone in Paris. But I don’t see it that way. He stands by the window, his whole being open to the world.”

“Aliyah” is scheduled to open June 21.

Barbara Sukowa in “Hannah Arendt.”  Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

The Holocaust hovers over the film “Hannah Arendt,” about the German-Jewish philosopher who escaped from a detention camp in France and found her way to America, where she became a college professor and writer. When Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents and put on trial in Israel, Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) covered the proceedings for The New Yorker magazine. German director Margarethe von Trotta focuses on this period in Arendt’s life, using news footage from the trial. She also depicts the controversy that erupted when Arendt claimed in her five-part series of articles that Jewish councils had been helpful to the Nazis and that Eichmann was a mere bureaucrat, a very ordinary man who was not motivated by personal ideology or anti-Semitism but was obeying what he thought to be lawful orders. Arendt is credited with coining the phrase “the banality of evil.” 

In telling the story, von Trotta reveals a certain sympathy for Arendt’s position.

“For me, as a German,” she explained, “the trial and her conclusion is very important, not to make these criminals innocent, really not, that was a big misunderstanding in the moment she wrote the articles, but to ‘understand,’ which has nothing to do with ‘forgiveness.’ ”

But Alan Rosenthal, a writer, film director and professor of communications at Hebrew University disagrees with Arendt’s view of Eichmann. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Rosenthal cites the Sassen tapes, which contain conversation between an ex-SS officer named Willem Sassen, and Eichmann, who made this comment: “I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire. I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist. … I am only sorry for one thing. That I wasn’t tough enough. That I didn’t fight these interventionists. Now you see the damned results. The creation of the State of Israel and the re-emergence of the race.” 

Von Trotta said she is aware of the tapes and feels Eichmann was merely boasting. “My interpretation is: He was hiding for several years from the time he left Germany, nobody knew who he was, he lived a very humble life then, and since he has always been a careerist and proud to be part of the very important people of the Nazi movement (you have to read what he tells about the Wannsee-Konferenz, where he describes with pride that in the end he took a cognac with [Reinhard] Heydrich.) … he was happy that there came somebody to whom he could show how important he was and what a real fanatic, because he believed that the interviewer was one, too.”

“Hannah Arendt” opens June 7.

Also of interest:

“One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das,” opening May 31, is a documentary about Jeffrey Kagel, a young Jewish man from Long Island who once sought fame as a rock ’n’ roll singer but decided instead to move to the Himalayas in search of enlightenment. After struggling with depression and addiction, he became Krishna Das, often called “yoga’s rock star,” a famous spiritual teacher, chant master and one of the best-selling singers of Indian devotional music in the world. 

From left: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin and Andrew Dice Clay in “Blue Jasmine.” Photo by Jessica Miglio © 2013 Gravier Productions, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“Dirty Wars” opening June 7, is an expose by journalist Jeremy Scahill of America’s Joint Special Operations Command, a secret military unit in charge of covert operations. According to the press notes, the unit’s activities are “unknown to the public and carried out across the globe by men who do not exist on paper and will never appear before Congress.” 

“Nicky’s Family,” opening July 19, reveals the unknown story of how Englishman Nicholas Winton spearheaded the rescue of 669 Czech and Slovak children, most of them Jewish, before the start of World War II. Winton is still alive and turned 104 on May 19. 

“Blue Jasmine,” opening July 26, is Woody Allen’s latest endeavor, described as “the story of the final stages of an acute crisis and a life of a fashionable New York housewife.” So far, little is known beyond that, but Allen has assembled a stellar cast, including Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Louis CK, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay and Peter Sarsgaard. 

“The Act of Killing,” opening July 26, is a difficult documentary in which director Joshua Oppenheimer films former death squad leaders in Indonesia, who proudly re-enact for the camera their murdering of suspected communists as well as ethnic Chinese and intellectuals during the right-wing military coup of 1965. 

“Wadjda,” opening Aug. 30, is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first film by a Saudi woman, writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour. A 10-year-old girl living in Riyadh wants a bicycle so she can beat a neighbor boy in a race. But her mother forbids it because Saudi society preaches that bicycles are a threat to a girl’s virtue. The girl then tries to raise the money herself.

Agnieszka Holland: Grappling with humanity’s contradictions

Agnieszka Holland, director of “In Darkness,” has always been intrigued by the contradictions and extremes of human nature.

“I always wonder at how fragile and how strong we are, how evil and irrational under some circumstances, and how brave and compassionate at other times,” she observed in a phone call from Prague.

Rarely were the extremes as visible as during the Holocaust, and that’s why it will continue to fascinate writers and filmmakers, even as the actual events recede into history.

“We still don’t have the answers to some of the basic questions,” Holland added. “How could the Holocaust have happened? What are the limits of human behavior?” It follows that, counter to the Never Again slogan, “this can happen again at any time.”

One of Holland’s first films to gain international attention in 1985 was “Angry Harvest,” about a Polish farmer who shelters a Jewish woman during the war, followed later by “Europa, Europa,” in which a Jewish boy becomes a German army mascot as the perfect Aryan.

Both films won Oscar nominations, and, in 1990, she wrote the screenplay for “Korczak,” based on the life of the Polish-Jewish doctor who established an innovative orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and voluntarily joined his charges on the final journey to Treblinka.

Holland was born in Warsaw in 1948 and got her professional start in the Polish film industry. She is now a truly international director and writer, equally at home making movies in Poland, Germany, France and the United States (“Washington Square,” “The Secret Garden”).

Her mother, Irena, is still alive, but her late father, the journalist Henryk Holland, was Jewish and escaped to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

Agnieszka’s paternal grandparents were shot and killed on the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. After her father returned to Poland, he was arrested by the communist authorities, and he died in 1961.

“My father never once talked about his experiences, or how his parents died. He never even mentioned their names,” Holland said. “That was not unusual. For many years after the war, no one really wanted to hear the survivors’ stories, not in Poland, or in Israel or in America.”

When she was 6, Agnieszka learned about her background from her mother, who aided the Jewish resistance and fought in the 1944 Warsaw revolt against the German army, one year after the Ghetto Uprising.

“I came home and told my mother that at the playground someone had called me a Jew, and what did that mean,” Holland recalled. “So my mother told me about my father’s background and told me to be proud of it.”

For Holland, her half-Jewishness is “part of my biography and identity, and, unlike many of my colleagues, I never hid it,” she said.

But after three Holocaust-themed films, Holland decided that she had reached her limit and twice turned down pleas to direct “In Darkness.”

She relented only after the producers dropped their plans to shoot the film in English and accepted her demand that the actors speak in their characters’ native languages.

Of all her 34 films, she found making “In Darkness” particularly demanding, both psychologically and physically. Asked if she might make another movie set against a Holocaust background, she quickly answered, “never,” then paused and changed to “well, maybe.”

In any case, she is not abandoning her exploration of human limits under extreme pressure. She is now filming “Burning Bush,” centered on the Prague Spring of 1968, when attempts to liberalize the Czechoslovakian regime were crushed by Soviet forces.

Asked about the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Poland, Holland marveled at the changes during the last few decades.

During the Nazi occupation, many Polish “saviors” were paid handsomely by desperate Jews, but then turned them over to the Nazis, Holland said. Many genuine Polish rescuers kept their good deeds secret even after the war, so as not to incur the wrath of their neighbors.

“Now the situation has changed completely, and Poland has the least amount of anti-Semitism of any European country,” she said. “Now it is a sign of distinction to say that you have Jewish friends.”

Post-Palin Depression

A therapist I know — OK, since you dragged it out of me, my therapist — told me that I’d be astonished if I knew how many emergency calls she got the night that Sarah Palin gave her convention speech.

Actually, I wasn’t that surprised. Judging from the number of unnerved post-Palin phone calls and e-mails that I got, I wonder why I didn’t think of calling her myself.

Why was it such a psychic downer? Movement conservatives might gloat that it was because Palin kicked Los Angeles liberals in the kishkas, made unanswerable arguments, strutted her Super Woman stuff, and — worst of all — signaled their inevitable defeat come November.

I don’t think so. For one thing, we all know that Election Day comes after the High Holy Days, which means there’s plenty of time before the book on McCain/Palin — the Book of Life, that is — gets written. Who shall win, and who shall lose is still (theologically speaking, anyway) up for grabs.

For another, there’s no evidence that the independents who were the key targets of her speech are buying what Palin is selling.

I don’t doubt that some people experience a presidential campaign as one long audition for the show that will be playing on their television sets these next four years. But I’m hoping that the 5 percent to 10 percent of undecideds in the 18 battleground states who will swing the Electoral College more resemble the savvy mass audiences of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” than voters for the next “American Idol” or the mob in “Coriolanus.” Why should a single performance by the governor of Alaska, or even several of them, bedazzle millions of otherwise skeptical Americans into throwing away their bull—t detectors? The historic disapproval ratings of the incumbent president are continuing evidence that the American mainstream has soured on the culture wars’ politics of group against group and the rest of the ressentiment at the heart of Palin’s message. So what accounts for the panic Palin provoked?

Part of it, I think, is that we catastrophize. By “we,” I don’t mean liberals. I mean the many functioning neurotics among us who think that a doctor’s every “hmmm” during a physical is a portent of tragic doom; who mentally extrapolate from routine family conflicts to irreparable ruptures; and whose pessimism is relentlessly fed by cable news, which — in order to hang on to our attention — portrays every freeway car chase as a potential shootout; depicts every global brushfire as the start of World War III; and shouts, “Breaking news!” so frequently that the scary music that accompanies it is itself enough to spike the nation’s blood pressure.

This is not just a Jewish phenomenon, though a few thousand years of expecting to be scapegoated, persecuted, exiled or killed certainly contributes to the melancholic gene Jews are known for carrying, the optimism of a Ben-Gurion or Sandy Koufax notwithstanding. No, this gloominess is a nonethnic worrywartism, arising from the fear and sensationalism fanned by politicians and news media alike.

This is not to say that putting Sarah Palin one melanoma from the presidency would mean good times. It would be more like James Dobson with nuclear weapons. But while her Rovian apparatchiks are stoking the worst among us with passionate intensity, it’s not inevitable that the best will lose all conviction in the voting booth.

When a political candidate convinces half a country to hope again, it’s a double-edged sword. The endorphins and neurotransmitters that wash our brains when we welcome the future instead of dreading it are as powerful as any drug. It’s like love. Unless you let your guard down, unless you permit vulnerability to trump cynicism, you rarely can get what you want. That’s why Howard Dean or John Edwards or Hillary Clinton were, for many people, so thrilling to support. That’s why hardened political operatives call that kind of enthusiasm “drinking the Kool-Aid.” That’s why, when the fall comes, it’s so painful.

But my therapist, if I understand her, has another take on this. She thinks that people identify too much with candidates. Their ups have become our ups; their downs, ours as well. And by identifying with them so closely, we inevitably make ourselves vulnerable to outside factors, to forces we can’t control. And the more political media we consume — on cable, online, on e-mail, on radio, in print — the more we cultivate the illusion that we ourselves are actual political players, that our advice is urgently needed, that everything depends on our counsel.

I’m totally guilty on this charge. “Go negative!” I yell to Obama and Biden when I see them on my screen. “Put McCain on the defensive! Go after his strength! Make the POW thing irrelevant to the presidency! Destroy the ‘maverick’ charade! Call their lies lies!” But my tirades, instead of making me feel better, only underline my powerlessness to second guess the campaign’s strategy or reshape its tone and message.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of every single citizen in a democracy. Registering to vote, giving money, going door-to-door, expressing our opinions: there is plenty that each of us can do, and the collective action that comes from that commitment can move mountains and make history.

But there is a difference between pitching in and hitching our psyches to the day-to-day vicissitudes of campaignland or to the news media’s breathless “narrative” of the horse race. One is about us, and it is within our power to control what we ourselves do. The other is about them, and it is a kind of annihilation to cede our identity and our well-being to people outside ourselves, whether those people be candidates and commentators — or audiences, critics, velvet-rope guardians, fashionistas, studio executives, admissions committees or that hottie over there at the bar.

As for me, I’m trying to unplug. I’m still reading the papers, but I’ve gone cold turkey — well, room-temperature turkey — on cable (except for C-SPAN and “The Daily Show”), blogs (except for a few), radio (except for NPR) and every other source of political news that I thought I was obligated to mainline in real time 24/7. If I fall off the wagon, maybe there’s some 12-step group for media addicts I can join, or a 1-800-TVDETOX hotline I can call. All this may make me a lesser media yakker, I know, but think of the dough I’ll be saving on therapy.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly, and his