Saturday, January 31, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

There were moments when Slumdog Millionaire swept me away. Everything good that has been said about its cinematography is true, and the A. R. Rehman soundtrack with more than a few numbers by the incredible M.I.A. makes watching this film a memorable experience.

The two brothers at the heart of the story are played by three sets of actors as they grow up. The youngest are the best, worthy successors to the cast of Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay. But there is a horribly jarring moment when the next pair, playing the adolescent Jamal and Salim turn up on screen sounding like they were enrolled at Cathedral, played tennis at the Willingdon and had NRI cousins. The truly puzzling thing is that they have not yet made some Cinderella ascent up the socio-economic ladder because they are still orphaned street kids doing what we are meant to think of as long, gruelling shifts in the kitchen of a restaurant somewhere in Mumbai.

The most unforgiveable aspect of this film is its complete, utter and total inattention to language, to the fact that English is an Indian language but one that is spoken with varying degrees of fluency, and different cadences, accents and intonations in different class locations. (This is something that is incredibly difficult to capture on film, although Nandita Das's Firaaq comes close to doing it best, particularly in the way the upper-middle class characters move from Gujrati to English in mid-sentence).

Now I'm quite prepared to be told a rags-to-riches story that explains how two kids from a slum acquired these markers of class distinction in their adolescence - indeed that is the real story here, not how one of them won a game show after he started speaking English like, well, like me. OK Mr. sociology lecturer, I can hear you say, consider for a moment that Danny Boyle may have been trying to pay tribute to Bollywood, where everything is possible on screen. Possibly, and indeed that offers a way in which to enjoy this film (I loved Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge for exactly that reason). But having heard Boyle claim in a BBC interview that he was perturbed by the description of his latest work as a 'feel good' film and had made it in the best tradition of British realism, I struggle to see this as Bollywood in English (a la Gurinder Chadha's disastrous Bride and Prejudice). And even Bollywood for all its escapism, doesn't violate class rules without some account - however strained - of social mobility. By the time I had accustomed myself to the Cathedral School brats playing grown-up games in the abandoned Tulip Star hotel, they had grown up again - this time morphing into (at least one) British Born Confused Desi struggling to suppress his natural accent on a trip home to his Indian relatives.

You cannot mess with English in India, particularly in a Mumbai slum. Surprisingly, books have managed this much better. Surprising because of course they don't have the luxury of subtitles or dubbing. There have been three big Bombay books with slum plots in the recent past: Gregory Roberts's Shantaram, Suketu Mehta's Maximum City and Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. Of these, the credibility and integrity of the first two are aided by the fact that they are memoirs/travelogues by English-speaking visitors (or in the case of Mehta, returning natives) to the city. Even when characters who would not normally speak English do so in these accounts, we are prepared to accept that given the intermediation of the English-speaking author-as-reporter. Perhaps also the very medium of written text regularly places greater demands on the imagination, so that we are more willing to suspend disbelief, as compared to cinema which we expect (I expect?) to be more 'real'. But Chandra's Sacred Games is a masterpiece in this regard, in its ability to put English in the mouths of those who would not speak it without violating the reader's sense of credibility. Part of the trick here is his skilful peppering of dialogue with Hindi, Marathi and Punjabi words - untranslated, but so clearly embedded in a context that would allow a non-speaker of these languages to guess at their meaning. Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies attempts a similar multilinguality - multiple Englishes, but also Bhojpuri - although there is a great deal more explicit translation in his text. I am reminded here also of Peter Carey's resolute refusal to translate Australian slang in his novels (no one told me what a chevy was when I was growing up reading American novels, he once shot back at a questioner at Hay-on-Wye). English translations of work by the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o also regularly contain untranslated Gikuyu words, whose meaning has to be guessed from context. But even whatever one loses in momentary incomprehension in these works is more than compensated for by the experience of being immersed in a place as it is - not translated for the foreign reader.

Danny Boyle has it much easier. He could so easily have made a film mostly in Hindi. But Slumdog leaves you with the feeling that after the first few scenes, he got tired of working with actors in another language and took the easy (for him) route. Unfortunately this makes things difficult for an audience, struggling to reconcile what they know about a place with what he tells them. The tragedy of this film is that it begins in a blaze of promise and then leaves you shaking your head in disbelief, desperately willing the characters onward on their incredible journey, but knowing that when you leave the theatre the world will look the same.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

inauguration day

i am glad i was alive today. the best pictures were not of him. the best words were not his. they came from the incredulous little old ladies of birmingham, alabama, who could barely believe what they were seeing. one managed to whisper, tears streaming down her face, of segregation and the marches and dogs and colored fountains and the klan and lynchings and colored toilets and bussing and fighting to go to school. goodbye to all that.

PS - if you listen very carefully, aretha tells someone to shut up towards the end of the song. brilliant!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gaza II: the ground invasion

13/01: An Amnesty researcher apears to suggest that higher precision capabilities bring with them a higher level of a duty of care.

They have extremely sophisticated missiles that can be guided to a moving car and they choose to use other weapons or decide to drop a bomb on a house knowing that there were women and children inside. These are very, very clear breaches of international law.


8/01: An Israeli writes of how he was shocked to learn that the government has allowed in humanitarian aid as a way of fending off international pressure to stop the assault: 'Not unlike raising animals for slaughter on a farm, the Israeli government maintains that it is providing Palestinians with assistance so that it can have a free hand in attacking them.'

Any hope that the silver lining in the current crisis might have been a hastily forged unity among the Palestinian factions is belied by this account of how Hamas is continuing its crackdown on Fatah members, in addition to executing collaborators and 'common criminals'.

It was chilling and disturbing to hear the Israeli Ambassador to the UK on BBC Hardtalk, contrast what he seemed to regard as the hellish fanatical Gaza with the prosperous booming West Bank. Listening to him, it became increasingly clear that this is Israel's game plan. In public, Israel denies that it wants to bring about regime change, insisting only that it wants rocket firing to stop. But sometimes spokespersons slip up and suggest much more maximalist designs: the elimination of Hamas - either ontologically (they simply don't exist any more) or by rendering them politically irrelevant via the discontent of the people of Gaza (who, it is hoped, will restore their allegiance to Fatah - which the Israelis now speak of as if it were a model interlocutor).

I really have no sense of what is happening in the West Bank. I was disturbed to hear, from dear S, of reports that there had been minuscule protests in Ramallah. There could be many reasons for this. People may simply be too preoccupied with the imperatives of life to have the luxury of protest. Or Fatah may be actively discouraging any meaningful expressions of solidarity. But it boggles the mind to think the Fatah may actually be pleased by the decimation of Hamas. I think I have a very naive view of national liberation politics in which I assume that despite all their differences, the factions in the liberation struggle manage to forge a tactical alliance till the big goal has been achieved. Then they fall upon each other to share the spoils of victory. In the case of Palestine, the big goal has not been achieved. Instead, Oslo heralded a sort of half-victory, or what Edward Said (I think) called, much more cynically, the right to kill mosquitoes and collect garbage in an archipelago of bantustans. Which is what leaves me incredulous: *this* is what they are fighting over?

But perhaps that is a misstatement of the situation. Perhaps running the PA is enough of a prize, enough of an incentive to engender this sort of infighting and disunity. After all, even before the carrot of the quasi-governmental authority of the PA was dangled before the liberation movement, there had been much infighting between factions. Arafat was able to triumph in that struggle through a combination of ruthlessness and cunning. (Unfortunately he seemed to believe that the skills that served him so well in the liberation struggle could also be useful in government - hence the encouragement of factionalism and his own position as a sort of Caesarist figure who was indispensable, could mediate, take final decisions. The result was chaotic, incompetent, clientilistic government. This is all *very* familiar stuff. The tragedy of Palestine is that it happened too early. Before the prize was won.)

There are other things to be depressed about: UNRWA has suspended aid operations in Gaza, and the ICRC reports a horrible incident in which four children were found abandoned and crying near the dead body of their mother.

And I have had more stray thoughts about the laws of war. It's well known that Katyusha and Qassam rockets are crude weapons that cannot be targeted at anything. Hamas fires them in the full knowledge that they will hit civilian installations, but it doesn't - can't - target anything in particular because these weapons aren't guided projectiles. It is therefore incorrect to suggest, as Israeli spokespeople have been saying, that 'Hamas targets our kindergartens'. Again, it's worth repeating that while kindergartens have been hit, it's wrong to say that they have been targeted. Israel on the other hand has sophisticated technology that enables it to punch in GPS coordinates before firing. The UN says that it reported the coordinates of all its facilities, and they have still been hit. Given this great discrepancy in technological capability, it seems to me that Israel bears a higher degree of moral culpability for civilian deaths because it has a greater capacity to avoid them. If you think this is a spurious argument, I would appreciate being told. It's possible that anger has sent my moral compass spinning out of control.


7/01: Hugo Chavez is the first head of state to have lodged a decisive public protest against this.

If Israel thinks that our suffering from this siege will make us hate Hamas, they are wrong.



21.21: THIS is absolutely despicable. Even if Israel thinks Hamas is cynically positioning its fighters behind human shields in civilian locations, it cannot be right under any moral framework to go ahead and bomb those locations in the full knowledge that there are civilians there, and then to simply say 'It's Hamas's fault'. This is not 'collateral damage'. There is an intentionality and a certainty to these acts that puts them closer to wanton murder. I am aware of the doctrine of double effect, which just war theorists will no doubt use to justify these acts. But I think this incident dramatises everything that is sickening about the very doctrine.


What we are witnessing is nothing less than the toppling of a democratically elected government (by another democratically elected government - it will be interesting to see how democratic peace theorists worm their way out of this one). It looks like Israeli objectives are hardening even during the course of the campaign.

I have been wondering about the marketing of this campaign: Tzipi Livni is of course in the forefront, as is Avital Liebowich. It's interesting how the Israelis tend to trot out blonde blue-eyed US/European accented spokespeople to explain their utterly reasonable actions to the world (e.g. the Australian accented Mark Regev). When was the last time you saw Mizrahim representing Israel on international TV? See here for more on the gendered marketing of the IDF (sexy women on the English website, praying men on the Hebrew website).


5/01: Joseph Massad on ei on the long history of Israeli-Arab collaboration, of which the Gaza massacre is only the latest episode. Why have we heard nothing out of Mahmoud Abbas and the PA?

'When Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was asked point blank by al-Jazeera's anchorman if Israel had an arrangement with Arab regimes to commit the Gaza massacres, she refused to answer and finally denied such an arrangement existed but could not help but affirm that there are those in the Arab world who "think" as Israel does and that Hamas is their enemy as it is the enemy of Israel.'

Monday, January 05, 2009

In case you're wondering why I didn't turn up at school, I'm in a sort of no man's land between ill and well. And blogging is about the only thing I can do lying on my side. I hope you're all going to the Gaza demos.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

time out: che

The only other film I've seen Benicio del Toro in is Traffic, and it was only when I got home that I realised that like Che, it had also been directed by Steven Soderbergh. There are some striking parallels between the two films. Both are about the relationship between the US and a Latin American country - Mexico in Traffic and Cuba in Che. In both films, the director uses a light filter to distinguish the action in different settings. In Traffic, Mexico looks like a normal place, while the US scenes are shot with tungsten film with no filter, for a cold monochromatic blue feel. In Che, Cuba looks like a normal place, with the US scenes all shot in black and white with a vintage feel to them as if you were looking at old newsreel. I think this is about more than simply distinguishing story lines to help the viewer along. It's no coincidence that the US looks like an artificial, manipulated place in both films, with the other location coming across as warmer, multicoloured, human. The point is perspectival: from the perspective of Mexico/Cuba, this is how the US looks.

del Toro is fabulous. This is an older Che than Gael Garcia Bernal in The Motorcycle Diaries, but somehow also a more credible one. It's possible to see how someone like this (warm, humane, cold, ruthless, driven, dedicated) could have become one of the leading ideologues of one of the world's most successful revolutions. I like that scenes are often accompanied by a voiceover reading from Che's writing on guerrilla war, demonstrating that warfare of this kind is not only a military activity but also a political and intellectual one. Perhaps the line that stays with me most through the whole film is his reply to a reporter's question: what is the one quality that a revolutionary should have? Answer: love. (I'd highly recommend the section on Che in Robert Young's magisterial Postcolonialism: an historical introduction.)

Che is a deely polarising figure and there will inevitably be reviewers who think that the film is too sympathetic to him. I don't think the film sets out to provide a disassionate balance sheet. It's more like an immersion experience: what was it like to be in the Cuban foco? What sort of person joined it and why? And once you did, what did you need to do to win?

Oh and I love that the best actor award at Cannes, which del Toro won, is called the Prix d'interpretation masculin.

Friday, January 02, 2009


3/01: Karma Nabulsi on life in Gaza these days. Journalists, lecturers, professors of phonetics. All burying their dead. This is a Gaza we never see. People like us.


2/01: Yea, happy new year. An intriguing piece on ei that suggests that the real Israeli objective in Gaza is to coopt Hamas and to get it to collude with Israel in the same way that Fatah does.

In practice that would mean taming Hamas rather than crushing it. Whereas Israel is trying to build up Fatah in the West Bank with carrots, it is using the current slaughter in Gaza as a big stick with which to beat Hamas into compliance.
Israel apparently hopes to persuade the Hamas leadership, as it did Arafat for a while, that its best interests are served by cooperating with Israel. The message is: forget about your popular mandate to resist the occupation and concentrate instead on remaining in power with our help.

This sort of makes sense to me. That Israel is not aiming at the all-out destruction of Hamas is suggested by the weird phrases it uses to describe the objectives of its current campaign - e.g. 'changing the security situation in southern Israel'.

Israeli human rights organisations are recording harm caused to civilians on this blog, which is beginning to read like a roster of war crimes. Photographic evidence from B'Tselem of the IDF's inability to distinguish between rockets and oxygen cylinders (which, presumably, are desperately needed in hospitals?).

Did you hear Tzipi Livni on TV saying 'there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza'? Sara Roy, writing in the LRB, on the situation in Gaza: not enough food, cooking gas, banknotes, power, diesel, water, sewage treatment. 'How can keeping food and medicine from the people of Gaza protect the people of Israel?', she asks. What is the definition of a humanitarian crisis?


31/12: If you have been missing Palestinian or Palestinian-friendly perspectives on the current crisis, go to The Electronic Intifada. If you read one thing today, let it be this searing indictment of Fatah, Arab governments, and yes even Hamas.

...unnamed sources close to Abbas have been leaking to The Jerusalem Post that if the Hamas government in Gaza falls, PA forces could step into the breach. [5] These are the same forces which the Post revealed earlier this month were "taught over and over again" that they were not being trained to "learn to fight against the Israeli occupation." Rather, according to US Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, who is overseeing the training of the new PA security forces, it was to focus on "the lawless elements within Palestinian society" (i.e., Hamas). [6] This revelation is hardly surprising and confirms reports over the past year in the US, Israeli, and Arab press of complicity between PA forces with Israel, the US, and the governments of Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia to topple the Hamas government and destroy its militia. It is also consistent with the actions of these forces in the PA-ruled West Bank, where Hamas members have been rounded up and arrested with frequent accusations of torture and at least one reported death in custody.
Nor has Hamas offered a viable alternative for most Palestinians and they are not blameless in this murderous assault. Their rule of Gaza bears all the hallmarks of their Fatah predecessors: long on rhetoric and short on achievement. Moreover, Hamas has behaved precisely as Fatah did in Gaza during the Oslo period and as it currently does in the West Bank, including arresting and torturing political opponents. Indeed, Hamas has been saved from its own myopia by the ruthlessness of those aligned against it, as the siege has provided the movement with a convenient excuse for its shortcomings. In an interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday, Hamas' exiled leader Khaled Meshaal called for a "third intifada." As has been demonstrated repeatedly in Palestinian history an intifada without a unified leadership or a strategy is doomed to fail with dire consequences for the future. Merely calling for an intifada is not the same as planning and preparing for one. If Hamas is to be a viable alternative to Abbas, it must decide if it will continue to adopt the policies and rhetoric of past Palestinian leaders where every failure is an achievement and every disastrous defeat a victory. Otherwise, they have similarly sacrificed their people on the rocks and shoals of tired slogans and empty promises.

So, an updated list of Israeli objectives might look something like this:

1. Destroy Hamas militarily
2. Hope (stupidly) that Fatah will step into the resulting political vacuum
3. Look good for the elections.
4. Exorcise the ghosts of Lebanon, 2006.

Who advises these people?

More Gideon Levy, speaking truth into what feels like a void where no one seems to be listening:

Our finest young men are attacking Gaza now. Good boys from good homes are doing bad things. Most of them are eloquent, impressive, self-confident, often even highly principled in their own eyes, and on Black Saturday dozens of them set out to bomb some of the targets in our "target bank" for the Gaza Strip.

They set out to bomb the graduation ceremony for young police officers who had found that rare Gaza commodity, a job, massacring them by the dozen. They bombed a mosque, killing five sisters of the Balousha family, the youngest of whom was 4. They bombed a police station, hitting a doctor nearby; she lies in a vegetative state in Shifa Hospital, which is bursting with wounded and dead. They bombed a university that we in Israel call the Palestinian Rafael, the equivalent of Israel's weapons developer, and destroyed student dormitories. They dropped hundreds of bombs out of blue skies free of all resistance.


30/12: Remember Olmert's temporary lapse into sanity? Why do people in government, Mossad, Shin Bet start to sound reasonable in retirement, or on the verge thereof?

Yossi Alpher, a former official at Mossad and a military commentator...was critical of the tough economic blockade Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip in recent years, limiting imports to humanitarian supplies and preventing all exports, a policy that has all but wiped out private industry and brought Gaza's economy to collapse. "The economic siege of Gaza has not produced any of the desired political results," he said. "It has not manipulated Palestinians into hating Hamas, but has probably been counter-productive. It is just useless collective punishment."

He said that in future Israel would have to choose either to recognise Hamas was around to stay and to talk to the movement, however unpalatable that might be for most Israelis, or to fully reoccupy the Gaza Strip, topple Hamas and bear all the costs involved.

I can't yet tell whether this crisis will cement some sort of unity between Fatah and Hamas. In some bits of this report, the West Bank sounds a world away, almost as if the reality of a 3-state solution were sinking in.


18.02: Everything about this war is so depressingly familiar, so predictable, so in accordance with a script you have seen before. You almost know beforehand that Gideon Levy is going to say the most courageous, sensible things. And that few in power are going to listen to him.

More clarity on Israeli objectives. I'm going to update the shopping list as I go along.

1. Destroy Hamas militarily, even if you strengthen them politically.

2. Look good for the elections. (If the current Defence Minister and the current Foreign Minister are going to be leading rival parties into the election, are they going to sing from the same songsheet over the next few weeks? Or are we going to hear contrasting versions of what-I-said-should-have-been-done when the campaigning begins?)

3. Exorcise the ghosts of the 2006 defeat in Lebanon; signal to enemies that Israel is not a paper tiger. (Of course Israel runs all the same risks this time around, though the 'lesson' of 2006 it seems to have learned is that it needs to be more ruthless.)

On a different note, perhaps I was too harsh on the international press earlier. There are some strong pieces in the Independent - Fisk as always, and Johann Hari, whose piece seems to corroborate Amira Hass's claim that there are people in Hamas who accept the existence of Israel:

According to the Israeli press, Yuval Diskin, the current head of the Israeli security service Shin Bet, "told the Israeli cabinet [on 23 December] that Hamas is interested in continuing the truce, but wants to improve its terms." Diskin explained that Hamas was requesting two things: an end to the blockade, and an Israeli ceasefire on the West Bank. The cabinet – high with election fever and eager to appear tough – rejected these terms.

The core of the situation has been starkly laid out by Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad. He says that while Hamas militants – like much of the Israeli right-wing – dream of driving their opponents away, "they have recognised this ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future." Instead, "they are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967." They are aware that this means they "will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original goals" – and towards a long-term peace based on compromise.

Why isn't someone writing this in 10-foot high letters outside Whitehall and the White House? Instead, we get these nauseating mealy-mouthed statements appealing for restraint on both sides.


13:46: Israeli objectives seem utterly illogical to me. Even as Israel decimates Hamas as a military force (something it is doing an excellent job of), it strengthens it as a political force. Or it creates the space for something much more monstrous.

As usual, Ha'aretz bravely publishes opinion that one could not dream of reading in the stupid, supine international press. Read this column by Tom Segev; and Amira Hass actually tells us something important that no one is bothering to mention: Israel's policy of assassination has targeted Hamas politicians who accept the two-state solution. So much for the argument that Hamas (all of it) does not recognise the existence of Israel, that there is no one to talk to, and all those usual canards.


I am sickened by the nakedly opportunistic behaviour of Israeli politicians. Everyone to the left of Likud wants to look tough on security for the February elections, and bludgeoning Gaza into oblivion is a good way of demonstrating this. Otherwise, it is unclear why Israel thinks this particular assault? attack? massacre? is going to decisively end rocket attacks on Sderot and other cities in the south.

The university, a television station, a mosque, the Interior Ministry - nothing, it seems, is off limits. I don't understand why police stations are being attacked (and of course police stations are going to be in the midst of civilian areas; where else are they supposed to be?) Tzipi Livni has the gall to say Palestinian civilians should leave places where Hamas officials and fighters are known to be located. Gaza is 41 km long and 6-12 km wide. Exactly which part of it is safe and devoid of an official presence?

The international media should stop using Orwellian language like 'disengagement' and 'truce' because these have never been realities in Gaza. The Israelis pulled out their military, but the territory has been blockaded for over 18 months, a democratically elected government has been boycotted. The plan has been to starve people into submission, so that they turn against Hamas and possibly back to what was beginning to be seen as the incompetent, corrupt and collaborationist Fatah. This is a policy of state terrorism, because like the non-state terrorism that is unfailingly brought to our attention, it ignores the distinction between combatants and non-combatants; it indulges in mass collective civilian punishment with a view to achieving political objectives.

Most worryingly from the broader geopolitical point of view, statements made by the various local actors and regional powers in response to this crisis fall into that familiar pattern reinforcing the great divide in Middle Eastern politics between Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran, Syria and the March 8 alliance in Lebanon on the one hand, and the US, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Fatah and the March 14 alliance in Lebanon on the other.

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