Occupy The Square

See The Square (al-Midan), a documentary film directed by Jehane Noujaim following a circle of associates drawn together by the events of Tahrir Square in Cairo from the ouster of Mubarak up through the ouster of Mursi.  It’s currently available for streaming on Netflix and is showing in many cities in the U.S., which will probably increase due to its Oscar nomination.  The film’s three principal protagonists represent three of the constituencies that participated in the Revolution – Ahmed Hassan, a working-class youth down on his luck who transforms into a first-class revolutionary orator; Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was imprisoned and tortured for that association during the Mubarak era; and Khalid Abdalla, a fairly successful British-Egyptian actor from a family of Egyptian dissidents.    Around these three are a number of other revolutionary figures – Pierre, whose apartment overlooking the square becomes a revolutionary salon with a great filming vantage point; Aida, a social-media activist; Ragia, a human rights lawyer; and Ramy Essam, a musician who becomes the Arlo Guthrie of Tahrir Square. 

The film is not a history lesson.  In fact, it provides almost no context at all, other than the experiences of the people in the film.  It’s also not a global analysis.  There is no discussion of the international dimension of the Arab Spring, or even just the overall demographics of the Tahrir Square protests.  Everything is seen from this one slice of the movement.  This narrow choice, however, is what helps the film transcend the specifics of its events and highlight more universal themes, such as the tension between secular and religious visions for the state, the intersection of the media and political power, and the development of revolutionary consciousness.

 

One of the fascinating things about the film is how the expatriate Egyptians, such as Khalid and the filmmaker, see through the duplicitous character of Egyptian military leaders, while local Egyptians, like Ahmed and Magdy, have trouble finding fault with the military.

The most important element that prevents the documentary from becoming just a hymn of praise for a bunch of plucky social-media savvy liberals is the arc of Magdy, whose conflicted relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood adds layers of depth to the story.  In defiance of Brotherhood orders to stay away in the early days of the protest, Magdy comes to the square and develops a friendship with Ahmed, sharing stories of the wrongs done them by the regime and the promise of national unity represented by the diverse protesters, crossing lines of gender, economics, education, and religion.  We see the friendship strain, but survive, the growing divide and increasing violence between the Brotherhood and liberal revolutionaries after the ouster of Mubarak.  But when Mursi in turn is called upon to step down towards the end of the film, Magdi makes a reluctant choice to stand with the Brotherhood.  In the moment that I found the most striking in the film, he says that if the Brotherhood cannot stay in control of the government he fears that he and many others will once again be jailed, tortured, and possibly be executed as part of an outlawed group.  His frustrating and tragic inability to imagine a politically pluralist state stems from his own very real experiences of exclusion and brutality.

Noujaim may be familiar to some as the director of the film Control Room, a documentary about al-Jazeera and its struggle to cover the war in Iraq.  Both films share a desire to explore ways new media forms can challenge the state’s and military’s management of information and propaganda.  Like al-Jazeera, the You Tubists and Twitterers of The Square remain aware of the power of emotional spin and access to the public.  The space of Tahrir Square serves as a metaphor for so many things in the film, but one of the strongest resonances is with the new public space of the internet.  The revolutionaries choose to record everything and play the videos back to others to galvanize opinion.  And through Khalid’s frequent Skype chats with his father in Britain, we see ways in which the revolutionaries can harness the trans-nationalism of the net to make an end run around the Egyptian military’s attempts to control and limit access to information.  Noujaim’s comments during an interview with Jon Stewart reinforce the idea that occupying webspace may have been as important as occupying physical space to creating possibilities for more voices to be heard in Egyptian politics.  But aren’t those voices primarily those of tech-savvy urbanites with friends outside Egypt?  The film acknowledges the question from time to time, but too often falls back on the discomfiting argument that the intelligentsia must sometimes stand in as the voice of the voiceless.  For better or worse, this is often the crux of the liberal conundrum.

Like a lot of Americans I’ve spoken with, I’ve sometimes been disappointed about the progress of the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere.  The military seems back in control again, so aren’t Egyptians essentially back at square one?  The film’s unexpectedly upbeat answer is an emphatic “No!”  In a society that for more than 30 years had been inculcated with the idea that political participation is dangerous and ineffective, being able to affect significant change at least 3 times in the last 2 years has indeed been revolutionary.  The film’s protagonists are often ambivalent about the actual changes that occurred, but they are not ambivalent about the political empowerment they’ve felt.  The illusion of the state’s infallibility and inviolability has been shattered, as has their stranglehold on information.  A door of protest has been opened that will not be easily closed.

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Argo between Scylla and Charibdis

I think I might be reading too much Daily Kos and Huffington Post because I went into seeing both Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, two A-list Oscar-nominated movies dealing with America’s relationship with the Islamic world, expecting to have my Islamophobia outrage meter go off the charts.  But it didn’t happen either time!  Is Hollywood learning?  Or maybe Hollywood just doesn’t want to wade into the strange right-wing politics of the Islamophobia Industry.

Since I wrote a response about Zero Dark Thirty, I thought I’d weigh in on Argo.  First of all, I enjoyed Argo immensely.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  “Enjoy” is probably not the word I’d use to describe my experience with Zero Dark Thirty.  “Disquieting” would be more appropriate.  Strange fellow that I am, though, I like it when my movies disquiet me, make me think and reflect on the world in a new way.  In short, Argo is a little more of a formulaic Hollywood thriller with its beats in all the right places.  It does this well, though.  So, while Zero Dark Thirty was a rough experience that earned my respect after reflection, Argo was a rollicking good time that gave me a little more pause on reflection.

Sahar under examination

SHOW DON’T TELL

Argo really isn’t Islamophobic.  Its depictions of post-revolutionary violence, by all accounts, are fairly accurate.  There were vengeance squads and a generous supply of the Angry Muslim MobTM shouting “Death to America.”  And the movie doesn’t forefront the religious dimension, so I want to give credit where it’s due.  But it does nothing to encourage the audience to reflect on its stereotypes about Iran and Iranians.  We are told, in an animated prologue and in a few opening snatches of dialogue, about the reasons the revolutionaries hated America, reduced mainly to the CIA-backed coup d’état against Mossadeq and (re-)installation of the Shah in 1953.  But we don’t see any of the cruelty of the Shah alluded to in the prologue reflected in the lives of the characters.

In fact, the movie’s main flaw is the lack of character development.  The only character we really learn much about is Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez, who is working through his relationship with his estranged wife and son during the plot of the movie (a page from Spielberg, perhaps?)  We learn tidbits about the Houseguests (the six rescued embassy employees), but not really much to make them different from one another, except for the one couple that has doubts about the scheme.  Characters in a narrative are made known through their choices, but very few choices outside those of Mendez are ever shown to us.  Even the Canadian ambassador, who arguably makes the most fateful choice of the plot, does so off-screen.  Why not a scene depicting a discussion with his wife about the pro’s and con’s of harboring American fugitives?

One other choice comes to the fore, and that is the choice of the Canadian ambassador’s maid, Sahar.  When questioned by the Revolutionary Guard, she decides to stick to the story that the Houseguests are Canadians and have only been in the house a couple days, thereby throwing the villains off the track.  We see her again at the end of the movie crossing the border into Iraq, so at least we know she got out (on the eve of the devastating Iran-Iraq war).  What a missed opportunity!    She would have been the perfect vehicle for exploring the conflicted relationship Iranians have with their revolution.   We don’t know why she made the choice she did.  We know nothing about her family, her background, and how she has been affected by the Revolution, other that the fact that people getting shot makes her upset.   In fact, for most of the movie, we are led to suspect that she might betray the Houseguests.  Surely a dialogue between the ambassador’s wife and the maid would have fleshed out both characters (From what I’ve read, the ambassador’s wife did an awful lot herself to aid the mission, at great risk).

All other Iranian characters are amazingly flat.  The Revolutionary Guard are unambiguously villainous (OK, I’d concede they’re pretty yucky in reality, but universally so?)  And the everyday Iranian is depicted as a volatile fanatic, such as the scene in the bazaar with the enraged photographed man, which apparently did not actually occur.  On a side note, Iranian Shi’ite attitudes toward image making and photography are radically different from those of the Taliban, who only used photography when they felt it would aid their ideology.  Yeah, it adds drama, but it also adds to stereotypes.

Non-aligned hero?

THE POLITICAL DIMENSION

Let’s face it.  The war drums are pounding for a confrontation with Iran, even though many analysts warn against it, even while the current Israeli regime tries to ramp it up.  I don’t think many people doubt that Iran does indeed want nuclear weaponry and that their threats against Israel are credible (although perhaps only in the pressure of desperation).  But while many Iranians are very dissatisfied with their government, violent revolution or foreign invasion is not something most want to go through again anytime soon.  Recent assessments have suggested that the average Iranian isn’t as anti-American as the state-sponsored anti-American chants after state-required Friday prayers would suggest.

The Iranian situation is far more complicated than either Iraq (dictator with small elite class) or Afghanistan (already in a state of civil war).  It’s a theocracy, but its nexus of power is not focused on one person or class, as the tensions between unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and elected populist President Ahmadinejad indicate.  Ahmadinejad’s term limit will end in 2013, when there will be a new elected president.  It’s not clear if the nuclear ambitions of Iran derive from the President’s or the Supreme Leader’s office, but the politics of Iran are complicated and factional.  There are multiple parties, within certain theocratic limits. Will new diplomatic options open up next year?

There have been few opportunities to educate the American public about the incredibly complex situation in Iran.  Argo, as a big-budget A-list actor production, had a real platform to fill this void, and it decided not to.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I’ll chalk this up to lack of vision rather than a deliberate attempt to obscure.  If you want a more nuanced view of revolutionary Iran, take a look at Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography Persepolis, also a film.  It represents the view from the Iranian left, a victim of both the Shah’s regime and the revolutionary regime.  I’d also recommend the writings of ‘Ali Shari’ati, a leftist-religious dissident who died before the Revolution, but is certainly one of the fathers of the Revolution.  He’ll make you understand the passion behind the revolution more than anyone else.  Rejecting Khomeini’s vision doesn’t mean we have to make the Shah look great.  Argo, while being a fun time, made the choice to not make us think about this complexity.  Perhaps that tells us something about Affleck’s character.

Half Past Midnight

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty: Who’s really the one in solitary confinement?

I had been reluctant to see Zero Dark Thirty. Despite having seen the glowing reviews, I had also read an awful lot about its severely problematic assessment of the role of torture in uncovering the key intelligence that, after years, eventually led to bin Laden’s courier. Of all the hideous things America has done to itself after 9/11, the rampant use of torture and indefinite detention in Guantanamo and other places has been the issue that upsets me most – on a daily basis, in fact. So, let’s just say I went into this with a pretty hefty bias, expecting it to be a piece of jingoistic, Islamophobic, triumphalist claptrap. However, I don’t like trashing movies without seeing them, and, boy, did I want to trash this one.

But I can’t. It does have exactly the problems the negative critics and historians say it does. But it’s also a complex, multivalent movie. I’m convinced that what I took away from the movie was profoundly different from what the frat boys and VMI cadets who were in the audience on a Saturday night took away. But I suspect all of us will be thinking about this movie for a long time.

The scene that had Obama’s interview condemning torture playing on the TV in the background was one of the few chuckles offered by this movie.

But let me be clear. The assertion that torture was instrumental in finding bin Laden is not just a false premise of the movie. It is the central premise of the movie, reiterated again and again and again, all the way up to one of the final scenes where a child is compelled to identify the dead body of her father, bin Laden. But oddly, this premise is what allows the movie to hold up a mirror to the American audience. For the most part, it doesn’t preach or force you toward a particular stance on torture. My views on torture have certainly not changed or even been challenged, and I suspect that some in the audience more tolerant of enhanced interrogation techniques feel the same way. I don’t even think that is the movie’s intent.

“Zero dark thirty” is a military designation for 12:30 AM, the time of the raid on the Abbottabad compound. But it also designates the amoral tone of the movie: half past midnight. The audience is plunged into an insular world of spooks without context. For the first half of the movie, the only things we see are interrogation scenes, the group of about half a dozen intelligence operatives strategizing interrogation, or terrorist attacks. After the first couple unexpected explosions, you become conditioned to realize that if the camera strays from the CIA universe, something’s about to blow up. Despite being set in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rarely do we see any of the characters engaging the locals, who are glimpsed from time to time in the background. Green zone to black site to green zone.

Interestingly, I think it’s this de-contextualization that allows the film to avoid the trap of Islamophobia. The only Muslim religious activity we are shown is a CIA administrator praying in his office. The Angry Muslim Mob just makes one brief cameo appearance. Religion doesn’t even come up in the interrogation scenes, as far as I recall. Other than assumptions brought in by the audience, there is barely anything to even suggest that the terrorists are Muslims. In an era where Hollywood uses a brief shot of a minaret as a cipher for “OMG, terrorists are nearby,” this film deserves a lot of credit for effectively removing Islam from the center of the discussion about terror.

While bin Laden’s followers are antagonists of a sort, the true antagonist in the second half of the film is the very context that had been avoided in the first half of the film. Political roadblocks, bureaucratic (and male) bravado, and the weakening will of the American public to condone torture continue to confound the heroine, albeit indirectly. I say antagonist, and not villain, because the movie permits us to wonder if perhaps applying the brakes might be warranted. Maya may be the heroine, but her obsessive monomania makes Inspector Javert look like a flighty dilettante.

Most reviews talk about the incredibly graphic and incredibly long torture scenes (although I imagine those scenes are barely half as graphic as the real thing), but the early scene that really stuck with me is when Maya, Jessica Chastain’s character, arrives at her desk in Pakistan for the first time. She notices the thick dust and grime on the desk, makes a half-hearted attempt to brush it off, sighs, and then sits down. She and the other characters can turn off any sense of ethics like a switch, and it is only the shutting out of context which permits this. The movie doesn’t tell us if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does show us that it has had a very steep price. It asks us if the price was worth it and allows us each to provide our own answer.