Tag Archives: politics

Route Irish (2010)

10 Sep

Ken Loach has doggedly ploughed his own furrow since ‘Cathy Come Home’ (1966) shamed a nation; though he continues to be more highly regarded amongst cineastes in the rest of Europe than on his home soil. Whether you agree with his ideological leanings or not, the sheer breadth of Loach’s oeuvre has to be admired: his work encompasses subjects as diffuse as the Irish war of independence – ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ (2006) – the present-day troubles – ‘Hidden Agenda’ (1990) – the machinations of rail privatisation – ‘The Navigators’ (2001) – and the plight of undocumented workers – ‘Bread and Roses’ (2000) – as well as raft of films that deal with the struggles of everyday people. For better or worse, there is a political bent to everything Loach does.

Which makes it all the more surprising that ‘Route Irish’ is Loach’s first feature to address the ‘War on Terror’ – he provided the British segment for the film ‘11’09’’01 September 11’ (2002) – though he comes at the subject from an oblique angle here, delving into the murky world of ‘private security contractors’ and their role in the Great Game.

Fergus (Mark Womack) is one such contractor; he returns home for the funeral of his old friend and fellow contractor, Frankie (John Bishop), with whom he was as close as a brother. Frankie was killed in Iraq on the infamous Route Irish – the ‘most dangerous road in the world’ from Baghdad airport to the heavily fortified Green Zone – in the employ of a contractor who lauds him and his kind as ‘unsung heroes of our time’, ‘patriots’ and ‘soldiers of peace’. Fergus, who recruited Frankie, isn’t convinced by the contractor’s explanation of how Frankie met his death. He comes into possession of Frankie’s mobile, which unearths a video that contradicts the official story and forces him to investigate further.

‘Route Irish’ is shot with the subtle, egalitarian élan for which Loach is rightly lauded, pulled off with the easy assurance of a master. Once again working with cinematographer Chris Menges and writer Paul Laverty, Loach has fashioned a gritty conspiracy thriller that lies somewhere between Alan J. Pakula and Roberto Rossellini. Loach’s camera hovers in the middle distance throughout, this unfussy approach ceding centre stage to the story and its message.

Actual footage of the carnage in Iraq is used to ground events in reality: bodies dragged from buildings and pulled from rubble, ripped apart by gunfire from above and brutalized on the street. Menges’ photography brings home the horror of the mercenaries’ activities and strips the violence of its rhetorical power, while Laverty’s screenplay is typically well crafted, strenuously researched and brimming with angry insight; the dialogue has a firm grasp of the argot but lays down an informal pitch, the narrative pregnant with cumulative presentiment.

Loach has never had much use for stars – unless you count Eric Cantona – preferring instead to cast actors who fit the roles. Womack is a familiar face to British TV viewers, appearing in many long-running series, and his gutsy performance here hints at greater things to come. Fergus was the facilitator of Frankie’s happiness and pain, and Womack devastatingly conveys the weight of remorse and recrimination Fergus must carry; living in a sparse, unfurnished apartment that is a perfect metaphor for his desolation. Stand-up comedy’s current flavour-of-the-month Bishop brings his everyman charm, and surprising intensity, to a brief role, and Andrea Lowe provides impressive support as his widow, her grief quickly transitioning to anger.

‘Route Irish’ articulates the toll of PTSD on military personnel, and the difficulty its sufferers have in readjusting to civilian society, with greater lucidity than ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009); which, for all its acclaim, veers towards bathos at times. There is a danger of the Iraq/Afghanistan paradigm being reduced to a handful of hackneyed tropes, its survivors reduced to sitcom stereotypes like the ‘Vietnam Vet’: there are a lot of essentially good men trapped in impossible situations, their sense of duty exploited, which makes this and the ever-dwindling number of films like it crucial to our understanding.

‘Route Irish’ is an important story, well told; something in increasingly short supply, positing that our kneejerk, strong-arm strategies to curtail extremism are guaranteed to lose hearts and minds, mutually assured destruction. Iraq is shown to be a Wild West where cowboys of all stripes operate with impunity, blinded by the spoils of occupation; the Cradle of Civilisation debased by an efficient, quotidian death machine. Much to the chagrin of his detractors, Loach has lost none of his fire, and long may he continue to hold power to account.

 

Route Irish Premiere, Cannes, 2010

The Arbor (2010)

25 May

Described by Shelagh Delaney as ‘a genius straight from the slums’, Andrea Dunbar is best known for Alan Clarke’s adaptation of her play, ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ (1987) – which has been dismissed in many quarters as a bawdy romp, but is actually a daring piece of social realism with shades of Nouvelle Vague playfulness. Like Delaney, Dunbar was a teenager when she began documenting the social deprivation she saw around her, detailing lives blighted by poverty and despair with unprecedented frankness. But Clio Barnard’s film is not simply a biopic; it also sheds some light on those affected by Dunbar’s life, and in doing so tells a story as dark and compelling as one of her plays.

Barnard opted for a distinctive technique to tell the body of the story, having actors lip-synch the voices of significant figures from Dunbar’s life. This is interspersed with open-air performances of scenes from Dunbar’s plays, with the denizens of the Bradford housing estate where she grew up watching on, and recreations of the events recounted. Dunbar is shown in clips from TV documentaries, a spectre hovering over events, but the film centres on her youngest daughter, Lorraine.

The most startling thing about ‘The Arbor’ is its depiction of Dunbar. This is not a hagiography which sets out to mythologize her life, sanitize her actions and cement her position in the pantheon of literary greats – with a family estate overseeing its passage. Dunbar’s relationship with her children is depicted exactly as it was: distant, neglectful and violent. Her alcoholism is not used as an excuse to mitigate her behaviour; the film explores the worst and best facets of her personality with equal candour, depicting her as both victim and villain. By learning how she impacted those closest to her, we get a picture of who she was and what inspired her work that a sober appraisal of her oeuvre could never achieve.

‘The Arbor’ is a stylistic triumph; its technical elements combining to create an all-pervading mood of sadness, remorse, anger and hopelessness. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s photography is integral to the establishment of the despondent tone which looms over the housing estates where Dunbar’s creative energies were sparked, capturing the brutal utilitarianism of the backdrop; with Harry Escott and Molly Nyman’s ambient score striking a downcast note throughout.

Casting the actors to mouth the words was essential to the film’s success, and those chosen excel in doing so, replicating the cadences of their subjects to the point of total immersion. Majinder Virk is excellent as Lorraine, Dunbar’s mixed race child. In a heartbreaking synthesis of craft and content, Virk articulates the pain of Lorraine’s abandonment and descent into drugs and prostitution with control and conviction. Elsewhere, Natalie Gavin and Jimi Mistry shine in the performance segments, while Christine Bottomley, George Costigan and Neil Dudgeon bring their gift for depicting the everyday to bear on their roles.

‘The Arbor’ has a scope which belies its relatively slender premise, addressing social issues as well as analysing the place of theatre in society. The film posits that the work of writers like Dunbar takes on the status of a dispatch for an upscale audience, providing an insight into places and lives from which they have insulated themselves; the creator indulged like a noble savage by the cognoscenti.

Barnard, a contemporary of Dunbar’s, cleverly merges Dunbar’s thematic concerns into her own, exploring the inarticulate rage that fuels racism and the plight of communities buffeted by the effects of Thatcherism. ‘The Arbor’ not only provides an overview of Dunbar’s life and work but puts it into historical context; the urge to dramatise her life presaging the public confessional that is a central component of the blogosphere.

You might want to look behind you.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

6 May

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ director Davis Guggenheim and ‘Simpsons’ writer Billy Kimball collaborate for this investigation of America’s troubled education system. In 1999, Guggenheim made ‘The First Year’, a documentary about five young teachers struggling to adjust to life in an inner city public school. Ten years later, he is a father who drives past three public schools on his way to the private school where he has chosen to place his kids. This served as the impetus for Guggenheim and Kimball to explore the lives behind the statistics, interviewing notable figures and following children from across the economic spectrum to get some sense of the tangled, imbalanced nature of the situation.

Despite years of ‘lip service and political bickering’, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act of 2001 was intended to curb the gradual decline of America’s public schools, which had been amongst the best in the world until the ‘70s. Of the top thirty developed countries, America is 25th in maths and 21st in science. Eight years later, and the achievement gap continues to widen; the rate of child literacy and numeracy in certain parts of the country is as low as 12%. Certain inner city schools have been branded ‘dropout factories’ with a consequent rise in the prison population, costing the state $33,000 per year, per inmate – enough to pay for private schooling, with $24,000 left over for college.

Like ‘Sicko’, ‘Waiting for Superman’ addresses a domestic issue with global implications; the American model, for better or worse, is still looked upon by certain ideologues as an ideal to which they must strive – when America sneezes the world invariably catches a cold. For international viewers, the film is a chilling window into a world where opportunity goes hand in hand with inequality. Education is indicative of a wider trend where a child’s prospects are largely determined by the economic stability of their upbringing, the drivers of social mobility cease to function and the cycle of deprivation is reinforced. It is a tragedy to see the plight of children like Daisy, a precocious girl who wants to be a vet, and Bianca, who can’t graduate because her mother has fallen behind on the tuition fees.

Bill Gates sounds a note of caution on behalf of the business community, outlining that high-tech industries require a highly-skilled, well-educated workforce, and that demand is rapidly outstripping supply in this regard. But the picture is not entirely grim; there are those who are trying to prevent schools from failing the communities they serve. Geoffrey Canada’s story is an inspiring one; an educator with a vision for ‘education in the nation’, he established the Success Academy in Harlem, an area with twice the unemployment rate of the rest of New York. Canada is an expansive, charismatic figure who refuses to give up on kids who have been given ‘the short end of the stick’ by a ‘cold, heartless world’, and the results he has garnered for his pupils speak for themselves.

Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, is a somewhat more divisive figure. The chancellor of DC public schools – an area that provides a microcosm for the system as a whole – Rhee admits that the majority of kids in her district are getting a ‘crappy education’. However, her reform plans – firing thirty principles, cutting four-hundred jobs, closing twenty-three schools – are met with suspicion by the public and anger by the unions. One of the film’s major failings is its refusal to take Rhee to task on how her closure plans would affect the already poor communities in which these failing schools are located, and to simply paint her as a victim whose bold vision is crushed by a pact between organized labour and the political elite.

Unfortunately, the minuses outweigh the pluses, both stylistically and ideologically. ‘Waiting for Superman’ belabours its often obvious points; documentaries work best when they are succinct, and losing ten minutes from the running time would have helped – clips from ‘School of Rock’ and ‘the Simpsons’ only serve to trivialize its argument. There are some conspicuously staged moments, dramatic inserts and overly composed tracking shots that remove one from the reality of what is being depicted, while the animation used to present statistics has an air of condescension about it, as if the viewer cannot be trusted to assimilate the information without a jaunty graphic.

‘Waiting for Superman’s’ broad, glossy emotive sweep fails to take into account a number of pertinent issues, such as the rise of corporate sponsorship in public schools and the role of faith schools. Whether or not these omissions are part of a concerted pattern of obfuscation is unclear, but any authoritative study of the issue cannot fail to take these factors into account. The film presents a jaundiced view of unions, suggesting that their campaign contributions are aberrant, rather than standard practice for any corporation or organization, and implies that teaches are ‘disincentivized’ by job security and need inducements in order to perform better. The assertion that funding is not a problem is one of the film’s most ludicrous contentions, given the dire conditions captured in the ‘academic sinkholes’ they visit. Its intentions may be honourable, but for whatever reason, ‘Waiting for Superman’ shies away from some of the more contentious root causes and incipient problems of this increasingly unfair, arbitrary state of affairs.

Guggenheim and Gates on 'Oprah'.

‘Collapse’ Review Link

20 Mar

Collapse (2009).

F.T.A. (1972)

5 Jan

Before she hawked cosmetics, became a workout queen or married a billionaire media mogul, Jane Fonda was ‘Hanoi Jane’, a Hollywood radical whose heated polemics against the Vietnam war made her a bête noire of the right and propelled her to the upper echelons of Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies’ list, joining Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Gregory Peck and Bill Cosby. She was branded a traitor for visiting Hanoi as the conflict’s endgame was unfolding, resulting in ‘F.T.A.’ being withdrawn from theatres after just a week.

Keen to escape the dynastic shadow of their famous name, the Fonda siblings actively engaged with the burgeoning counterculture and developed a social conscience which informed the work they did. Such flagrant partisanship was anathema to their venerable father, a small-l liberal who condemned his errant progeny for their extremism. The more they became associated with their activism, the more it was conflated with their onscreen personae.

‘F.T.A.’ – standing for Free the Army, or Fuck the Army – is probably the clearest expression of this synthesis. The film follows Fonda, Donald Sutherland et al. on a tour of military bases on the Pacific Rim, performing ‘political vaudeville’ for the dejected GIs fighting a protracted and increasingly unpopular war – sound familiar? Satirical skits and politically charged balladry from the likes of folk singer Len Chandler are interspersed with testimony from the ‘grunts’.

Depending on your political leanings, you’ll either find ‘F.T.A.’ an inspirational reminder of a time when dissidence was deemed the only moral recourse, or an infuriating example of privileged dilettantes jumping on the bandwagon and feigning solidarity with small sections of the military for career gain. Nevertheless, ‘F.T.A.’ is a valuable social document, capturing the disenchantment of those soldiers who believed the ‘red menace’ to be a flimsy pretext for an imperialist intervention, and that in their desire to escape poverty and/or serve their country, they had been exploited.

Much of the content of the show relates to the daily lives of the troops, which no doubt articulated their frustrations but obviously mitigates its impact and appeal to those on the outside looking in. Granted, these shows were never intended for a mass audience, but it does feel like listening to a string on in-jokes one isn’t privy to. Some of the most affecting moments in ‘F.T.A.’ are those involving the soldiers themselves, ranging from militant inner city blacks who feel a kinship with the Vietnamese to small-town Southern boys whose eyes have been opened by the grisly realities of war. The film would have been more coherent if it had focused on these interviews, rather than using them as a bridging device for the travelogue segments.

The trip to the US base in Okinawa provides a wider perspective for the political landscape in South-East Asia. Much like Vietnam, the strategically important island is a pawn in a wider struggle, passing from one sphere of influence to the next. The scenes in the Philippines are a powerful allegory for US economic imperialism, capturing slum dwellings in the shadow of a Coca-Cola hoarding and a totemic giant Coke bottle planted by the roadside. ‘F.T.A.’ is at its best when it is documenting the interaction between the bases and the life surrounding them.

Sutherland is a brooding, ornery presence, highlighting what a perfect fit he was for Hawkeye Pierce in ‘MASH’ (1970). Reciting passages from Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ (1939) in his sonorous, lyrical timbre, Sutherland brings a sombre air to the merriment, lending gravitas to the revelry. One of the more paradoxical moments occurs when a group of hecklers interrupts Sutherland – it struck me as bizarre and left a sour taste that rather than engage these dissenting voices, they are swiftly ejected for presenting an opposing viewpoint.

‘F.T.A.’ has much to say about the double standards of the military hierarchy and how the prejudices and iniquities of wider society are writ large on the chain of command. There are tales of racist invective being used with impunity, female soldiers being told that they are there solely to provide entertainment for their male counterparts and officers living in conspicuous opulence. This polarity is a microcosm for the upheavals occurring at home, where opposition to the war dovetailed into class, racial and generational tension.

Whatever the intentions of those involved, the F.T.A. tour serves to remind us how timid and cosseted today’s young entertainers are, shying away from using their influence to stand up to injustice. After all, dissent is a bad career move.

Hanoi Jane in full revolutionary mode. Don't worry, she's a born-again Christian now.

‘C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America’ Review Link

21 Dec

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004).

‘South of the Border’ Review Link

21 Dec

South of the Border (2009).