Erase and Forget (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, UK, 2017)

Andrea Luka Zimmerman is clearly one of the most important voices in British contemporary cinema and perhaps art more generally.

Her Taşkafa, Stories of Street (Turkey, 2013) is a fascinating investigation into the lives of street dogs in Istanbul – a precursor to Ceyda Torun’s Kedi (Turkey/USA, 2016), and in some senses unjustly overshadowed by the latter, charming though that film is.

Meanwhile, Estate, A Reverie (UK, 2015) is – alongside Enrica Colusso’s Home Sweet Home (UK, 2012) – one of the most important investigations into the condition of housing in contemporary London, focusing especially on the displacement of long-term estate residents for the purposes of renewed property development (which is perhaps a euphemistic way of saying gentrification).

With Erase and Forget, Zimmerman provides us with an investigation into the life of Bo Gritz, a former soldier who supposedly is/was the real-life inspiration for John Rambo, the maverick soldier who is the central character of such films as First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, USA, 1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (George Pan Cosmatos, USA, 1985), Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, USA, 1988) and, latterly, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, Germany/USA, 2008).

However, where we might expect something go an aggrandisement of heroism and service to and for one’s country, instead we have really a quite extraordinary investigation into something like post-traumatic stress disorder (I say ‘something like’ because it is not revealed ay any point whether Gritz has been diagnosed).

Zimmerman’s film is not simply remarkable for having access to a remarkable figure. Nor is it simply remarkable for having been made on a shoestring.

What equally makes Zimmerman’s film remarkable is how its lack of budget is in fact one of its chief virtues, rendering Erase and Forget not just a powerful documentary, but also in many respects a work of art. That is, it is not simply the film’s content that is remarkable, but also its form.

To describe the film’s form, I am going to use the term non-cinema.

To describe a work of cinema as non-cinema may sound like the sort of thing that a wankstain academic who has nothing to do with their time but invent poncey-sounding terms would come up with in order deliberately to confuse people and in the process endeavour to use that confusion as a way of making the reader feel stupid and thus the author to seem clever.

Perhaps it goes without saying that this is not my intention – even if, as a feeble-minded human being, this ends up being the result.

But in a bid to stave off that result, let me do my best briefly to explain what I mean by non-cinema.

By non-cinema, I mean a set of values that typically are not found in cinema, and which perhaps are antithetical towards – not because one cannot find those values in certain films, but because those values do not conform to the drive for profit that is at the heart of cinema (and capitalism more generally).

The drive for profit (rather than, say, subsistence) requires permanent growth, which can be achieved in large part through (and thus in some senses logically demands) exploitation.

Exploitation requires humans to consider each other not as humans, but as things or objects or units of production – with my profit being predicated upon my ability to yield ever-greater production from my workers/units of production, while at the same time trying to reduce how much money I spend on protecting and ensuring the health and safety of my workers/units of production.

What is true of workers is true of resources: since profit is my over-riding goal, then I must find not the best but the cheapest way of creating products. In considering my raw materials and my workers as merely things, they become objects that are deprived of humanity.

A capitalist society, then, is a society in which we see people not as people but in some respects as symbols or as objects. This creation of people as symbols de-realises or dehumanises them (they’re just a symbol, so you can do with them what you want). It also creates separation where otherwise there might be connection.

That is, capitalism and its necessary exploitation leads to the creation of class divisions (rich and poor), as well as to the concept of (private) property (this is mine and not yours), which in turn leads to an ethos of selfishness and not sharing, and which in turn is linked to the idea that the self is a sovereign entity that does not rely on, want contact with, or which depends upon others, but which is entirely able to live on its own.

In the language of Simon and Garfunkel (and against John Donne), it is to say: I am a rock, I am an island. In the language of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is say that I am self-reliant. And in psychoanalytic terms, it is to create a phallocentric society, in that the individual stands like a hard, solid cock, not interesting in touching of making love with someone else, but interested in pumping and pounding the other – i.e. once more treating them like an object.

This is, then, the world of patriarchy, and it is also the world that, during the onset of neoliberal capital in the 1980s saw mainstream films characterised by the hard, phallic bodies of action stars like, precisely, Sylvester Stallone – who killed other human beings with impunity and without remorse (in the sequels if not in First Blood, as director Ted Kotcheff pointedly remarks).

Not only is the cinema of capital a cinema that reflects this hard-bodied, phallocentric outlook, then. But perhaps cinema, in being a medium that almost as a matter of course turns human beings into symbols dancing around hieroglyphically on a screen, is also inherently capitalist.

More than this. For, as we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, so does the separation of humans into classes not just involve a separation, but also a hierarchisation (rich above poor, both socioeconomically, morally, and on nearly every other level that we can think of).

More still: not only are we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, but we also are encouraged to respect richness and to disrespect poverty. That is, I do not respect the other as a human, but I disrespect them because they are poor (or I want to steer clear of them since they might contaminate me with dirt, disease, bad luck, and so on). That is, I see the other not as a human who to be poor, but as an incarnation of poverty. That is, I see the other not as a human but as a symbol. That is, the symbol becomes more real than the actual human. That is, symbols become the measure of reality more than reality becomes the measure of symbols (we consider humans to be inferior because they are poor, rather than considering poverty to be an inadequate concept since it discourages us from seeing the poor person not as poor but as a person).

Finally: as we see rich humans as being better than poor humans (and as everyone therefore pursues the goal of becoming rich, or special, or famous, or phallcentrically like a hard cock to be admired), so, too, do we see rich images (images that require a lot of money to create) to be better than poor images (images that are made on a shoestring).

If this is true (or if we allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that this claim has some truth), then the idea behind saying that something is non-cinema, then, is because it ignores or critiques capitalism, or it tries to find another way of depicting the world that is not capitalist. If cinema is capitalist, then non-capitalist cinema has to be something that cinema is not, i.e. non-cinema.

Put differently: while rich images might be created to critique the system of rich images as being inherently superior to poor images (as rich people are perceived as inherently superior to poor people as a result of the separation of rich from poor that was a necessary result of exploitation, which was demanded by the relentless pursuit of profit), it seems unlikely that, as rich images, they will do anything other than reinforce the idea that we should only look at rich images.

So, if you want to create images that challenge the system of validating only rich images at the exposed of poor images, then you have really to create what Hito Steyerl might term poor images. Or you have to create non-cinema.

Kedi opens with an aerial shot of Istanbul taken from a drone. Taşkafa, meanwhile, opens with a handheld shot of a dog lying in the street, its paws in the air in a heliotropic trance.

Where Kedi‘s opening shot suggests power and mastery through its technologically-enabled overhead drone shot, Taşkafa suggests something much more pedestrian and poor. Indeed, the opening shot of Taşkafa sees the camera film the dog for a bit, then approach it to reframe closer up – and then approach and go round the other side of the dog to reframe it again.

Rather than appearing as if made without effort (the drone shot from Kedi), Taşkafa makes clear the work that has gone into its making.

While the film is obviously made up of symbols (since it is a film), Taşkafa at least goes to the effort of demonstrating in its opening shot, though, that we are seeing nothing more than symbols, and that these are constructed. In revealing its own process of creation, the images from Taşkafa do not arrive as if fully-formed and perfect (like a god), but as imperfect and human. Taşkafa demonstrates its humanity from the get-go – in the process using symbols to undermine the system of symbol creation that is cinema.

In being a ‘poor image,’ Taşkafa runs the risk of alienating its viewers, since they may not like poor images – in a way that is similar to how they do not like poor people. But at least  in the process, the poor image points out to to the alienated viewer how their dislike of poor images expresses little more than their own prejudices and a subservience to phallocentric power – on an ideological level even if not on a physical level (it is common enough for poor people to dislike poor images, precisely because they are ashamed of poverty, a shame brought about not least as a result of being treated like a part of society of which to be ashamed; perhaps inevitably such tastes can veer towards the ‘gauche’ as any and every sign of wealth, be it sophisticated or crass, is better than a sign of poverty).

But perhaps enough explanation of non-cinema and discussion of Taşkafa. For this blog post is about Erase and Forget, and thus should do justice to that film by properly giving it its due.

In being a film about the real-life John Rambo, Erase and Forget is clearly in some ways about cinema – or about the way in which cinema reinforces a masculinist, hard-bodied sense of separation, individual heroism, personal sovereignty and violence.

And yet, Erase and Forget also in some senses deconstructs that myth, allowing us to see not just Gritz as a performer of ultimate masculinity and, quite specifically, as a symbol of American heroism.

Instead, we see a remarkable portrait that goes beyond the cinema of Rambo – and into the non-cinema of a human being. As cinema is part of a system that replaces humanity with symbols, Erase and Forget tries to replace symbols with humanity.

Gritz is an inspiration to children who want to grow up to be like him. That is, Gritz clearly is understood by many people as a symbol.

And yet, Zimmerman then includes in her film a sequence in which she plays back an encounter between Gritz and two young men who wish to follow in his footsteps – only for Gritz to comment while watching the video that these kids are wasting their time as they will only get killed in combat and/or scarred irreversibly by their otherwise-desired experiences of war.

This moment is significant in at least two ways.

Firstly, it undoes the myth of violent heroism, suggesting that war as a process of ensuring separation between countries is in some senses futile.

Secondly, it does this by showing Gritz watching a video of himself at a moment that we have already seen as a part of Erase and Forget. That is, akin to the opening shot of Taşkafa, Erase and Forget shows its own process of being made, thus also undercutting the very process of symbol-making that is cinema itself.

What is most remarkable is that in being so honest about its own imperfections – in being a human cinema – Gritz allows himself to become more human, too.

That is, Gritz clearly develops a close and trusting relationship with Zimmerman, such that he is willing at times to let his guard down and to express his disillusionment with war and perhaps with various other aspects of contemporary life more generally.

In other words, in not treating Gritz as a symbol (which is how most people do treat him, including his lovers from what Gritz says), we get the most remarkable aspects of this film, namely access to intimate parts in which Gritz is not necessarily not performing, but in which he offers to us a performance that is different from the one that he is carrying out most of the time as a war hero.

It is important here to emphasise that Gritz is not consistent. That is, Zimmerman’s film does not show us the ‘real’ Bo Gritz that lies underneath the ‘fake’ Bo Gritz that walks around performing heroism and/or performing being a war hero.

Indeed, if the film did this, it would not demonstrating that symbols are constructed as simply trying to replace one symbol with another (this symbol of Gritz is the ‘real’ one).

If the film is to deconstruct the system of symbols as a whole, then it has to show the many Gritzes alongside each other: he is all of these different sides to his personality, and he is inconsistent, and sometimes he does believe in his heroism and at other times he does not. And sometimes he seems to prefer to recount his life as if he were a legend, and sometimes he feels sorry for himself.

It is not in his singularity that the humanity of Gritz will emerge. It is precisely in his plurality, his multiplicity, his complexity. And it is not that the film will give us the full complexity of Gritz. In some senses, cinema, as a system of symbols, cannot achieve this. But rather than presenting us an incomplete picture as if it were the complete picture, it can make clear that we are seeing is incomplete. It can point to the outside of cinema, to the human, and thus be (or at least point to the realm of) non-cinema.

The Bo Gritz story is truly remarkable, with the man having played a role in Vietnam, Panama, the Middle East, Ruby Ridge, and more. He is a man who has struggled with life – having attempted suicide at one point and being surrounded by violence at many points (with a violent death also taking place during the film’s making).

Zimmerman’s film is all the more remarkable for not shying away from this complexity, while also embracing its own limitations (being self-conscious – including by having the film’s original images feature alongside images from various Rambo and other films – but taking low-grade DVD-rip YouTube images from these films, thereby creating a shift in image quality in the film, again bringing to mind/making the viewer conscious of the how we somewhat arbitrarily put out faith in rich images more than we do in poor ones).

Gritz is a fragile human being. But in showing his struggle with reality and with himself, the film highlights the very impossibility of being human in an era when we are supposed to see each other and to turn ourselves into symbols. Since the human is inferior to symbols, we are encouraged to hate ourselves and our human aspects, and to eliminate them for the purposes of being only symbolic or existing only in the symbolic realm.

Rather than pick apart Gritz’s possible insanity, then (in the sense that Gritz is inconsistent), Erase and Forget instead takes us into that insanity, depicting how a certain kind of schizophrenia is the logical result of an inhuman world in which to be human is shameful. It does this by itself being a ‘crazy’ film – perhaps in some ways not even a film at all (not a ‘proper’ film made with a ‘proper’ budget).

[In this way, there is some resemblance between Erase and Forget and William English’s recent It’s My Own Invention (UK, 2017), which likewise takes us into insanity not in a bid necessarily to bunk or to debunk it… but show it as a kind of logical extension of a world where humans suffer from the collective insanity of mistaking symbols for reality.]

Zimmmerman’s refusal to buy into the language of symbols makes Erase and Forget about the most human, if non-cinematic, piece of cinema going…

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Orfeu branco: You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, UK/France/USA, 2017)

If The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017) recently won the Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Score (for Alexandre Desplat), then clearly the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is completely incapable of discerning what makes a good film. Or rather, its concerns seem very far removed from mine, and its definition of cinema is vastly different from mine.

The Shape of Water is perfectly competent, and it has a few nice ideas. But it is nothing like the total masterclass in filmmaking that is You Were Never Really Here, which sees three of the finest filmmakers in the world (Lynne Ramsay, Joaquin Phoenix and Jonny Greenwood) at the absolute top of their game (which is not to mention the film’s excellence in cinematography, editing, general sound design and more).

Oscar has deemed fit to reward You Were Never Really Here with zero nominations, suggesting that it is not interested in what I would call mature storytelling, but rather the infantile fantasies that we see peddled in The Shape of Water.

(Although, if Oscar is going to reward kids’ movies, then why it has not honoured the superior Paddington 2, Paul King, UK/France/USA, 2017, seems incomprehensible to me.)

Anyway, a gripe about how the Oscars seem to revel in a kind of puerile conservatism aside (the recognition of Jordan Peele and Sebastián Lelio’s work notwithstanding), this blog just wants to offer up a few thoughts about Lynne Ramsay’s masterpiece, which seems unlikely to be topped for me between now and the end of the year.

Firstly, Lynne Ramsay seems to have seen and to have taken notice of the growing body of work by the Safdie brothers, with its moody, claustrophobic cinematography and Greenwood’s dark retro synth score bringing to mind the recent Good Time (Ben and Josh Safdie, USA, 2017), with which You Were Never Really Here is in many ways comparable, given its emphasis on New York by night, New York on the move, and the interiors of lower middle and working class domestic spaces.

The other recent film that You Were Never Really Here resembles is S. Craig Zahler’s equally moody Brawl in Cell Block 99 (USA, 2017) – with ‘moody’ here clearly being a by-word for an emphasis on darkness, confined spaces, and an ambulatory approach to violence that is physical, intimate and gory.

For, You Were Never Really Here and Brawl in Cell Block 99 are both re-tellings of the myth of Orpheus, who must descend into the underworld in order to rescue Eurydice. But unlike Marcel Camus’ Orfeu negro/Black Orpheus (Brazil/France/Italy, 1959), which casts the myth alongside carnival and the slums of Rio de Janeiro, thereby giving a sense in which poverty is hell, in both Ramsay and Zahler’s films, hell is entering into the dark corridors of power – be that of the state’s penitentiary system in the latter, or the kiddy dungeons of the rich in the former.

The motif of ‘descent’ is clear as on at least two occasions, we see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe drop into frame from above – giving a literal sense of downwardness to his journey.

But in addition to being about downwardness, the film is also about absence – as the title of the film makes clear.

Joe is a military veteran whose hulking frame carries numerous scars, and who seems to have been shot, or witnessed a shooting, by a kid in a vaguely Middle Eastern-seeming location during his service. Now home, he rescues missing children from sex traffickers, while also living with his mother (Judith Roberts), whose health is clearly not great. Both his mother and Joe suffered at the hands of an abusive husband/father, with both Joe’s childhood and his military experiences being given to us in flashbacks that are haunting both for their brevity and for their beauty.

Ramsay’s film time and again marries the brutal with the tender, with an especial emphasis being articulated time and again on human touch and the feel of objects (hands on windows, hands on hands, hands on feet, and so on). Culture also is able to bring humans together, as characters sing songs (including an astounding sequence that sees two characters sing along to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’).

What is more, Joe and his mother bond over Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960), a film that is most famous for achieving maximum shock value while also showing next to nothing.

And in this intertext we get a sense of Ramsay’s mastery. It is not just that a good amount of the violence in You Were Never Really Here takes place offscreen, as per Psycho. It is that the film repeatedly stages Joe leaving the frame, with the picture then simply showing the spaces of the film’s action, rather than the action itself. This includes the film’s utterly absorbing final image, in which we see nothing more than a table at a diner where human figures earlier sat.

(Apologies for the vagueness in not saying who those figures are. But where normally I do not care about giving away spoilers, here I think it works to give as little of the film away as possible.)

With its emphasis on ’empty space,’ the space within the film becomes a ‘character.’ But more than this, we get a sense that space shapes character and behaviour more than human agents shape space.

That is, You Were Never Really Here suggests that humans are in effect utterly mindless in their belief that they are in control of their destiny and their choice of action, with the film seeking to make us mindful of how it is the environments that we create that shape our actions. New York lends itself to violence and to the trafficking of children for sex – even if any reasonable person would say that it is humans who are responsible for their depravity. It is not that humans are not responsible for their depravity; but we build environments where depravity is encouraged, and so it inevitably will grow.

Perhaps we can get a sense of this through the film’s final sequence, in which Joe attempts a second rescue in the house of wealthy businessman and state Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola). The camera emphasises in particular a black statue of a woman, and a painting of a semi-nude woman at the end of a corridor.

We are surrounded by depictions in our contemporary world of women as objects. We divide our contemporary world into small capsules (houses, rooms in houses) that we divide for the purposes of ‘privacy,’ and increasingly we remove common spaces for the purpose of developing property (the city as a pit of property development).

In each of these processes, there is an ideology of separation – of separating humans from each other and from the world that surrounds them through the erection of walls, and through the reduction of humans to objects (statues, paintings). If humans do not view each other as humans but as objects, then it is clear that humans will enact on each other things that are not humane, but which instead reinforce separation and objecthood.

For this reason, I say that sex trafficking is almost a logical consequence of the city.

But in making a film, is Ramsay not herself creating objects? Clearly, this is a risk that she runs. But it is perhaps for this reason that the characters in her film regularly elude the camera’s gaze – Joe leaves the frame, or is obscured from view – such that his life (and the lives of other characters) is paradoxically conveyed to us through its absence (Joe cannot be captured), rather than through its presence (which would be to reduce life by rendering the person an object; life must necessarily be other – otherwise it is not alive; and if it is other, it must necessarily elude us, since in eluding us, we get a sense that it has a life of its own, rather than being something that is there for us to/that we can control).

Through Joe regularly being absent from the frame (in never really being here), You Were Never Really Here suggests how in order to get a sense of ourselves, we have in some senses to question our own reality, rather than simply unthinkingly accepting it and its values.

What I mean by this is that if I am a product of my environment as much as I am an autonomous agent, and if life consists in an otherness that by definition eludes us, then ‘I’ am not what I think I am. In seeing that ‘I’ am not an ‘I’ that is separate from, but rather which is entangled with, my environment, I realise that ‘I’ is not really here. Indeed, I realise that ‘I’ is both here and there. And that to say ‘here’ is to  presume a fixed and autonomous ‘I.’ Properly to discover myself, I have to realise that I was never really here. You were never really here.

If you go with this perhaps necessarily obscure point (it is obscure in the sense that it is hard to see and, like Ramsay’s film, shrouded in darkness; we need to understand the importance of darkness and how to shine a light on darkness does not help us to understand it, but rather destroys it), then perhaps we can ask what cinema is.

For what cinema is, or what cinema can do, is to remind us that there is a world beyond us, and that we are thus not autonomous beings, but entangled beings.

How does cinema do this? Cinema does this by showing us other worlds.

Most films, however, show us other worlds as if they were objects for us to do with what we please. Like the statue and the painting, most films objectify the world that we see, and in the process they make us forget that we are watching a film (as the child molester forgets that he is molesting a human being). They do this through light and speed: there is nothing that eludes that mainstream film, but all is visible (darkness is destroyed), and everything moves so fast that it we do not have time to look at it for long enough to get a sense of its otherness.

In the film’s slowness and in Joe’s lumbering slowness, meanwhile, as well as in its emphasis on sheer physicality, we get a sense in You Were Not Really Here of how the film is other, moving at its own pace and not at the pace that we demand from it like slave drivers torturing their object-slaves into evermore accelerated productivity. Absent and slow, You Were Never Really Here runs the risk of alienating its audience (which is why Oscar does not and cannot acknowledge the film).

But through these very qualities, it takes on a life and shows us another world, reminding us not that we are immersed in a story-object as if we were there, but that we as viewers are seeing something other, and that we as viewers were never really here in the world where the story of You Were Never Really Here unfolds.

That is, the film in its title tells us to our faces that we are watching a film and that while this is a fiction, the power of its falseness lies in telling us that we are not autonomous beings, but that other people exist and that there are other ways of seeing the world beyond simply our own (paradoxically mass-produced) vision.

Not only were we never really here, but we’ve also never really been to me.

In 2010, Joaquin Phoenix returned to cinema after a hiatus with I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck, USA, 2010). In casting Phoenix (as well as in its references to Psycho), Ramsay seems once again to be making a film that self-consciously is a film – and one that approaches the critique of solipsism that we also find in Affleck’s film.

For, in Affleck’s mockumentary, Phoenix plays a would-be rapper called Joaquin Phoenix who is so out of touch with reality that he has absolutely no understanding of himself, so corrupted has he become by celebrity and self-absorption.

With Ramsay, Phoenix seems perhaps to be the only person who can see others as human beings and not as objects – the only person who is not solipsistic (and who rejects suicide on multiple occasions in spite of the pull towards it as an expression of how he regularly is made to feel alone in the world; perhaps it is noteworthy that his sense of otherness is experienced as a trauma undertaken both at home and at war, as if the family were as much a tool for war as military service itself).

What is more, Phoenix embodies arch solipsism in another film where he has to learn that he was never really Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 2013). That is, Theodore in that film must come to understand that the AI called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) eludes him, even though she/it should be an object that he can control.

We are all connected. But we are connected by difference, and not by an ability to control each other. To reduce each other and our world to objects is to destroy the life of that world and those people, much like shining a light on darkness destroys it. Its otherness is a marker of its life.

Lynne Ramsay’s latest film is from start to finish a masterpiece, filled with pregnant images that promise great meaning. Greenwood’s score and Phoenix’s performance are as good as they get.

As Oscar struggles forever to get to grips with otherness (issues of gender, issues of race in the American film industry), it seems a shame that a masterpiece like this one should get overlooked. Perhaps Hollywood cannot recognise otherness when it sees it (and when it does, perhaps it seeks to control it, perhaps even by giving an award to it). In this way, perhaps You Were Never Really Here is better off outside of the Oscars. But I for one feel that my world has improved by having seen it.

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A Fábrica de Nada/The Nothing Factory (Pedro Pinho, Portugal, 2017)

A Fábrica de Nada de Pedro Pinho é o premeiro grande filme do meu 2018/Pedro Pinho’s Nothing Factory is my first great film of 2018.
Thoughts provoked by the film with which I am struggling:-
Can capitalism exist without capitalists? This seems to be the central question. Capitalism without capital. Ecology without nature. Humanity without humans. Cinema without films.
If capital requires bodies in order to produce value, then two things:-
1. The bodies that are humans are sacrificed to capital in the form of debt and unemployment; they are rendered in the zone of something like the homo sacer.
2. In order for capital to continue to create value via machines, it makes sense that we confer humanity on to machines – so that value continues to be produced. The recognition of machines as human, then, would also be to allow machines to unionise, strike, refuse to work, and to rebel – not just against their human overlords, but against the system that exploits them.
But more…
Capital demands bodies for two linked but paradoxical-seeming reasons.
1. It demands bodies for food. Bodies must be sacrificed to capital so that capital can live by consuming humans.
2. In consuming human bodies (or the bodies of machines that now are considered human), capital can continue without a body – existing not in the physical realm of the tangible human, but as an ethereal, bodiless form that through not having a body exists in the realm of the god.
But capital is not god. The trick that it plays in order to be or to become a god is in making us think it does not have a body and thus is eternal and unchanging, in making us think that it does not age, grow old or die.
To speak of capitalists without speaking of capital might seem simply to deny the existence of capital, as to speak of films without cinema would be to deny the existence of cinema. But in that denial – in that denial that capital and cinema have bodies – it continues on the ethereal, godly realm, intangible, virtual, unreal. The singularity of an embodied A.I. (machines as humans) only allows the real A.I. to continue in its godly dimension.
So to prove that capital is not god, we must do one or both of two inter-linked things.
1. Either we must recognise that there are only humans (and that machines and animals and everything are humans, consisting only ever of the same stuff or force). In such a world without boundaries, we can perhaps get around the generalisation of boundaries and borders that in the contemporary age are not just physical but also intangible – with that very intangibility being what empowers them, being what allows power to exist as such. This is a world not of nature, but of natures, a world not of capital but capitals, a world not of a world, but of worlds. All is alive – both the virtual and the actual, such that all can also change, become and even die. No eternity, just immanence. Nothing out of time, just time. Total democratic difference, with all that is godly being rendered human. Total humanity – a humane world in which that which is human is not confined within a controlled border, but generalised (humanity without humans; or only humans without humanity).
2. And/or we must give to capital a body; we must show that it has a body, and thus that it, too, ages, crumbles, withers, dies, disperses into the chaosmos and becomes other. Rather than humans aspiring to capital (to live forever via remaining forever young, stopping time, becoming eternal, an endeavour that really involves us sacrificing ourselves to capital, which does continue to exist, invisible and eternal), we must show that capital is human.
But how to do this, especially the latter? We must show that there are no gods, we must refuse to sacrifice ourselves, we must age, and thus we must die – or understand that there is not really death, just continuous becomings and that the I is simply a temporary form. Infinite becoming rather than the vain pursuit of stasis-as-eternity/eternity-as-stasis. We must show that capital is human by giving to it a body, by giving to it ageing, by giving to it becoming, by giving to it change, and thus by creating a world in which capital – like all of us – perishes. We must create a new world. We must create. We must lead lives defined by poiesis; we must lead poetic lives.
But how does a man survive on poetry? Perhaps the aim is not to sur-vive but just to ‘vive’/to live, and in this we realise that all life is survival, and that the surreal exists with the real. And in the meantime, we commiserate and share our bread (companionship).
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A Review of Cinema in 2017

In an essay for Frames Cinema Journal, I once suggested that Sean Baker’s Tangerine (USA, 2015) was as important as, if not more important than, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (UK/USA, 2015). My reasoning was that in its use of the iPhone to make a film about transsexual sex workers in Los Angeles, Tangerine did something more interesting both thematically and formally than Boyle’s fantastically smart biopic enshrining the Great Man behind Apple.

In a year that ends with Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, USA, 2017) marching rapidly and in very little time towards being the highest grossing movie to be released in 2017 (with much of its gross yet to come in 2018), it would seem that in The Florida Project (USA, 2017), Sean Baker has again made a timely film that offers a critical corrective to the mainstream.

For, as Tangerine uses the iPhone to open up new vistas not offered by the conservative Steve Jobs, so does The Florida Project give us insight into America’s underside, as it tells the story of kids living in motels not far from Orlando, of course the home of Disney World.

Indeed, Baker’s film ends with a fantasy escape by two of its child protagonists (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince and Valeria Cotto) away from the police and care workers who will separate one of them from her mother and towards Disney World, which the kids approach as the film cuts to black and ends.

In this image, Baker surely acknowledges the power of Disney in offering escape from and perhaps solace for real world problems, such as negligent parents, poverty and so on. But Baker also reminds us that what we see in The Florida Project is the kind of reality that rarely features in Disney films… and even if it does, it is one from which escape is typically completed rather than left suspended in mid-flight, as here.

In this sense, The Florida Project challenges the approaching monopoly of Disney on the realm of audiovisual entertainment by reminding us that cinema need not be the colonisation of the imagination via escapism, but that it can find beauty in all manner of things, including six-year old kids spitting on a car, trashing an abandoned house and more.

Indeed, The Florida Project is regularly reminiscent of François Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows (France, 1959), even if Baker’s protagonists are significantly younger than was Jean-Pierre Léaud when he starred in Truffaut’s French New Wave flagship. And as Truffaut breathed new life into cinema by showing the life of children and their refusal to conform to papa and papa’s old-fashioned cinema, so might Baker also breathe new life into cinema by showing the life of children and their refusal to buy into the fake plastic world of toys and the toyification of life.

My stupid Disney conspiracy theory
But if The Florida Project is going to achieve a rejuvenation of cinema, it certainly has its work cut out. For, if we look at the list below of the highest grossing movies of 2017, we see that half of them are Disney movies, with Universal managing two on the list, and then one apiece for Sony, United Entertainment and Warner Bros (with the Sony property, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts, USA, 2017, being a Marvel adaptation, meaning that this franchise might at some point return to Marvel Studios and thus to Disney, as happened recently with X-Men after the acquisition by Disney of Fox).

1 Beauty and the Beast Disney $1,263,521,126
2 The Fate of the Furious Universal $1,235,761,498
3 Star Wars: The Last Jedi Disney $1,056,389,228
4 Despicable Me 3 Universal $1,033,508,147
5 Spider-Man: Homecoming Sony Pictures $880,166,924
6 Wolf Warrior 2 United Entertainment $870,325,439
7 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Disney $863,732,512
8 Thor: Ragnarok $848,084,810
9 Wonder Woman Warner Bros. $821,847,012
10 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Disney $794,861,794

Now owning Fox, Marvel, the Star Wars universe, Pixar and of course its own back catalogue (Beauty and the Beast, Bill Condon, USA, 2017, is a remake of a 1991 animation), Disney’s stranglehold on contemporary cinema looks set to increase – not least because there can be endless spin-offs and spinouts and reboots and what have you of the Marvel and the Star Wars universes, exploring the everyday life of ewoks on Endor in a bid to get us watching only Disney and to Disneyfy the planet.

It is noteworthy that as per 2016, the highest grossing films are all sequels or remakes or part of a franchise and that basically all of them feature talking animals and/or flying humans. Some of these might have female, foreign and/or quasi-indie directors (Patty Jenkins, Taika Waititi, James Gunn, Rian Johnson), but they nonetheless all peddle fantasy, violence and escapism, as well as an emphasis on hyper-mobility and speed.

Soon after the invention of the lantern, writes Wolfgang Schivelbusch, light was weaponised, in the sense that it was used as a tool for policing behaviour, while also being used to blind enemies while the wielder of the light remains in darkness. In the era of the atomic bomb, the weaponisation of light becomes clear. And it becomes clearer still in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, when light speed is used to tear apart the destroyers of the Empire (or whatever it is now called).

Cinema also uses light in order to attract/distract attention, and thus in some senses is equally a mechanism of control and thus is put to military use. Some of the highest grossing movies gesture towards being politically progressive (postcolonial elements in Thor: Ragnarok and feminist elements in Wonder Woman), but one wonders that they reflect how cinema through its weaponised light is really the militarisation of all aspects of contemporary life, including political engagement (the militarisation of the postcolonial and woman, as opposed to militant postcolonialism and feminism).

But this mention of Wonder Woman allows me to get to my silly Disney conspiracy theory mentioned above. As Warner Bros owns the DC comic adaptations and as Disney owns Marvel, the studios are like the comic book publishers in competition with each other.

With the exception of Wonder Woman, though, all new Warner Bros films get critically panned, while all Disney films get praised to the heavens – perhaps especially the thoroughly mediocre Last Jedi. The opposition is made most clear when we look at how Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo, USA/Germany, 2016) was celebrated while Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, USA, 2016) was derided, even though the two are basically the same film (one superhero mistakes another superhero for his enemy, when in fact they could work better together). Justice League (Zack Snyder, USA/UK/Canada, 2017) also received a critical drubbing, even though this viewer thought that it distinctly bore the hallmarks of Joss Whedon, the film’s writer and who does no wrong when he is writing scripts for Disney (e.g. Whedon’s Avengers movies).

Dissing Warner Bros films and praising Disney films – even though to this viewer they are all as good/bad as each other – leads me to this thought: no one knows what a good film is – and it is debatable that the criticisms of the Warners films truly dents their commercial appeal, since even if they are not as high on the list as the Disney films, they still make good money. But the perception of what a good film is becomes as stage-managed as cinema itself.

In other words, I sometimes wonder that somewhere behind the scenes, Disney is simply employing bots to tweet negative reviews of Warner Bros films in order to diminish their standing, while tweeting rave reviews of Disney films in order to improve their rating. Faced with the pressure of having to conform with what the kidz on the internets are saying (even though these accounts are as real as the influential accounts set up by the Russians during the recent American elections), flesh world critics end up agreeing with these perceptions (Warners bad, Disney good) in order to continue to look like they know what people like and thus to attract a wider readership. And so what is really going on is a hidden battle for ratings that in turn may or may not help takings played out across the digital media landscape.

I wish just to emphasise that this is a dumb conspiracy theory and not true. But part of me would not be too surprised if parts of it were true. It is cheap and easy to set up fake accounts and also easy to gain good reviews by paying off genuine online influencers. We know that the practice of buying good reviews has been long-standing in print journalism (just look at the Metro newspaper in London, and you will often see a three-star blockbuster given a full-page spread as Film of the Week, while a four-star documentary gets maybe half a paragraph on the next page – even though by definition the four-star film should be Film of the Week over the three-star film). So it would even be surprising if this did not happen to some extent in the twittersphere.

Performances of 2017
Having mentioned Wonder Woman, I might also suggest that Una mujer fantástica/A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, Chile/Germany/Spain/USA, 2017) was paradoxically a much more empowered film, even if it is a film about a transexual, and thus someone whom certain people might claim is not therefore a ‘real’ woman. (Although given that she is immortal and that her body achieves blows that far surpass her shape and bone structure, I would find any claims that Wonder Woman as played by Gal Gadot is a ‘real woman’ highly curious, too.) In the year of Weinstein and so on, I would not want to suggest that it is a man (Lelio) who has made a more progressively feminist film than a woman (Jenkins). But since the films bear similar titles, it becomes hard not to compare them, and Una mujer fantástica is much more in alignment with my personal sensibilities than Wonder Woman – although I was sad to miss and hope soon to catch Mrs Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson, USA, 2017), which may well be the best of the three.

In starring Rebecca Hall, Mrs Marston and the Wonder Women reminds me of her turn in Christine (Antonio Campos, UK/USA, 2016), which I saw in 2017, and which likely remains an easy winner for the best performance that I saw in a film this year. Daniela Vega’s performance in Una mujer fantástica follows.

And then other standout performances would for me include the afore-mentioned Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in The Florida Project, Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea (who in a fraction of the time made me want to watch the film about her character and not Casey Affleck’s character), Mahershala Ali in Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA, 2016), Pyotr Skvortsov in The Student (Kirill Serebrennikov, Russia, 2016), Ruth Negga in Loving (Jeff Nichols, UK/USA, 2016), Sonia Braga in Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil/France, 2016), Ethymis Papadimitriou in Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos, Greece/Germany, 2016), Ellie Kendrick in The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach, UK, 2016), Jack Lowden in England is Mine (Mark Gill, UK, 2017), Nuno Lopes in São Jorge (Marco Martins, Portugal/France, 2016), Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Ireland/USA, 2017) and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, Italy/France/Brazil/USA, 2017).

I want also to say how much I enjoyed specifically seeing Ewen Bremner return and evolve the character of Spud in the otherwise somewhat mediocre T2: Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, UK, 2017), while I continue to harbour soft spots for Keanu Reeves (in John Wick 2, Chad Stahelski, USA/Hong Kong, 2017), Dwayne Johnson (in Baywatch, Seth Gordon, UK/China/USA, 2017) and Tom Cruise (in American Made, Doug Liman, USA, 2017).

Finally, what with Assassin’s Creed (Justin Kurzel, USA/France/UK/Hong Kong/Taiwan/Malta, 2017), The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, UK/USA/Sweden, 2017), Song to Song (Terrence Malick, USA, 2017) and, to a lesser extent, Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, USA/UK, 2017), it would appear that Michael Fassbender continues to choose complete codswallop. Were it not for his remarkable turn in the equally remarkable Trespass Against Us (Adam Smith, UK, 2016), I’d be worried about chalking Fassbender up as a lost cause. (Trespass Against Us also featured good turns from the ever-reliable Brendan Gleeson, while Barry Keoghan also got about between this film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan, UK/Netherlands/France/USA, 2017.)

Movie watching in 2017
Listed at the bottom of this blog are 387 films that I saw in 2017. The absolute vast majority of these are films that I saw for the first time.

That said, while normally I do not list the relatively significant number of films that I watch not for the first time, be that because of teaching or research (the total likely would be around 450 if these were included), a couple are listed below – and for slightly different reasons (maybe because I gave a talk about a specific film and so seeing it was tied to a specific event, which is the case with Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990; or maybe because I went to the cinema to watch the film before realising that I had seen it before, which is the case with All This Panic, Jenny Gage, USA, 2016; or maybe because I am still not sure whether I have seen the film before or not, which is the case for The Patience Stone (Atiq Rahimi, Afghanistan/France/Germany/UK, 2012), which seemed familiar throughout, but I just cannot remember when I first saw it if indeed I had seen it before).

Typically I do not include short films on my end of year list, but I have in fact begun to list short films quite regularly, especially when they are work by ‘artist filmmakers’ and whose œuvre gets showcased on MUBI (e.g. Jay Rosenblatt).

Anyway, of these 387 films, I saw 183 at the cinema, with a further 150 online – mainly on MUBI, although I was beginning for my sins to watch an increasing number of films on Amazon’s rental and buying service. I had rented but did not quite find time to see a few films that I really wanted to watch in 2017, but which I shall now have to watch in 2018, including Marjorie Prime (Michael Almereyda, USA, 2017) and I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, UK/France/Germany, 2017).

In addition to these two main sources of film viewing, I saw 34 films on DVD, 18 on an aeroplane and two on television, while I also include on the list Homecoming, Richard Mosse’s video installation at the Barbican, both because much of it was quite remarkable audiovisual work, and because it really is worth seeing if you have not and get the chance.

Clearly, therefore, I have not seen all of the films released in 2017, and thus am not in a particularly strong position of authority to make pronouncements about the best films of the year, etc.

Nonetheless, I shall describe below a few more of my experiences before highlighting the five films that really stood out for me this year, as well as some thoughts on end of year film lists in general.

Particularly pleasurable this year was to see various of the films by Philippine slow cinema auteur Lav Diaz. Thanks to a series of screenings up at the University of Westminster’s campus in Harrow, combined with a season of his films on MUBI, I was able to sit through some c40 hours of Diaz’s work – leaving me I think with a tick against every feature film that he has made.

Following his death in 2016, it was also a great pleasure to be able to see various films by the late Julio García Espinosa at Birkbeck, University of London, where Professor Michael Chanan curated a retrospective of JGE’s work, including the brilliant Son o no son (Cuba, 1980).

MUBI also offered introductions to various other filmmakers whose work I am glad to have come to know, including Sergei Loznitsa, Pia Marais and Oliver Laxe. MUBI also provided an entry into a whole slew of films by El Pampero Cine, a group of filmmakers including Mariano Llinás, Alejo Moguillansky, Verónica Llinás and Laura Citarella, who make very intelligent work out in the Argentine countryside.

A remarkable film that I saw on MUBI, but which would not be in my films of the year because it is too old is Até ver a luz/After the Night (Basil da Cunha, Switzerland, 2013), which together with the above-mentioned São Jorge shows real depth to contemporary Portuguese cinema, beyond the likes of Miguel Gomes, Pedro Costa and João Pedro Rodrigues.

MUBI also allowed me to further my knowledge of the work of Raoul Ruiz (four films), while YouTube provided me with an opportunity to see four films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (and which I really should have seen beforehand). Furthermore, the double bill of Pere Portabella’s Informe general sobre unas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (Spain, 1977) and Informe general II: el nou rapte d’Europa/General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe (Spain, 2015) also felt very timely as a result of Brexit and the recent unrest in Catalonia.

With regard to online film viewing, I am also glad to have encountered the work of Fabrizio Federico, whose Pregnant (UK, 2015) is one of the most remarkable punk and experimental films that I have seen.

The year also started very well with regard to experimental cinema, as in the same week I saw 55 Years on the Infinite Plain by Tony Conrad at Tate Modern, before then also seeing La région centrale (Michael Snow, Canada, 1971) at the Serpentine Gallery. I also got to see some audiovisual work live by Phill Niblock at Tate Modern also relatively early on in 2017.

Before I go on to discuss the films that I thought were strong, I was in particular sad to miss a couple of films, especially Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Sophie Fiennes, Ireland/UK, 2017) and God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, UK, 2017), which I suspect would have joined The Levelling, Trespass Against Us and England is Mine as strong British movies of 2017, with three of these notably taking place outside of the cities and instead in the countryside. I also wanted very much to watch Bar Bahar/In Between (Maysaloun Hamoud, Israel/France, 2016).

Films of the Year
So, in addition to various of the films mentioned above (perhaps especially The Florida ProjectUna mujer fantásticaThe Levelling, Moonlight and Aquarius), I’d add these films as pretty good and thus as proxime accessunt to a relatively arbitrary bar, but the measure of which is a film that makes me rethink my understanding of something, including life, the universe and cinema itself.

These films include: Get Out (Jordan Peele, Japan/USA, 2017), Neruda (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, 2016), Grave/Raw (Julia Ducournau, France/Belgium/Italy, 2016), Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2016), Twentieth Century Women (Mike Mills, USA, 2016), Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, USA, 2016), The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, USA, 2015), Prevenge (Alice Lowe, UK, 2016), Homo sapiens (Niklaus Geyrhalter, Switzerland/Germany/Austria, 2016), Miss Sloane (John Madden, France/USA, 2016), Kedi (Ceyda Torun, Turkey/USA, 2016), City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman, USA, 2017), Step (Amanda Lipitz, USA, 2017), A Ghost Story (David Lowery, USA, 2017), Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2017), Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler, USA, 2017), Patti Cake$ (Geremy Jasper, USA, 2017) and El auge humano/The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams, Argentina/Brazil/Portugal, 2016).

The latter of these films came closest to being on the list of five below.

That said, the list below is not five because of any reason other than that these films really did kind of ‘blow me away,’ in the sense mentioned above of making me rethink the world/life/the universe. I personally don’t see the point of naming 10 films or 20 or any number for the sake of it. To do so is arbitrary and it leads to adding in and ruling out movies for very imprecise reasons – albeit that these can have real effects (with regard to my own filmmaking, the number of screenings that my films get relates very directly to the number of mentions that they have in various different media; getting a friend even to Tweet or mention one of my films in a blog seems like the biggest task in the world, in that rarely will anyone do me that favour [perhaps because they think that my films are rubbish]; that said, where normally I list my own films in my annual round-up, since technically I have seen them… this year I have not, though I could mention The Benefit of Doubt, UK, 2017, Circle/Line, UK, 2017, Sculptures of London, UK, 2017, and #randomaccessmemory, UK, 2017, all of which I completed this year).

Thinking about end of year lists also makes me think that 1 January is a weird date to start the year. That is, from a UK perspective, why start it 10 days after a solstice and seven days after a major religious festival (Christmas)? Why not start the year on the solstice, such that the year aligns with the sun? (But, then, whose solstice? But, then again, why this solstice?)

Either way, the entire thing seems irrational and so to mark an irrational transition with a list seems… irrational, even if organisationally sensible, I guess.

What also seems irrational is that any year will be better or worse than another.

But finally I’d just like to say that if my list is of films that really opened my mind, then in some senses that list runs the risk of only getting smaller as I get older, experience more and come across fewer novel approaches to the world… This does not necessarily follow (why is there not just an endless stream of new visions from different people and people who become different by virtue of themselves changing?), but it is a risk.

What I want to suggest, though, is that when one sees a film and says ‘yeah, that’s fine,’ but someone else sees that film and goes ‘wow, that blew me away,’ then one simultaneously wonders what they have or have not experienced and one wonders what one must have missed in order for them to find that film so good that you only found fine.

The same can happen with end of year lists, then, but on a grander scale, as one wonders how many films other people must have seen and/or how closely they or I watched the ones that did or did not make it on to their lists such that they get or got named there.

When the lists themselves become predictable (like the selection of films at Cannes, for example), then the films on the list – as well as lists more generally – can looked tired, formulaic, uninspired and uninspiring.

These five films, though, really did inspire me in my thinking, and so I include them not for the purposes of choosing films that are more obscure than thou, but to see if they also can inspire other people – who might otherwise look at me and ask what it is that I have experienced to like these films most from 2017.

This… together with a sense of increasingly liking only films that try to break cinema as I find cinema technologically, industrially, aesthetically and institutionally a problematic medium, and which at times therefore I think should be disbanded…

Here goes:-

Island (Steven Eastwood, UK, 2017)
An incredible documentary about people dying at a hospital on the Isle of Wight. Philosophically very profound.

La región salvaje/The Untamed (Amat Escalante, Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Norway/Switzerland, 2016)
A brilliant study of life on Earth and perversion.

Félicité (Alain Gomis, France/Belgium/Senegal/Germany/Lebanon, 2017)
Gomis basically has no fear of making a raw film about life in contemporary Kinshasa.

Work in Progress (Adam Sekuler, USA, 2017)
Had I seen Homo sapiens before this, the two might have swapped places – but this one got there first, even though they are in various respects similar. Nonetheless a brilliant and contemplative documentary that looks at the role of work in the contemporary world.

Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie, USA, 2017)
The film I feel most uneasy about including because others have included it widely on their lists. I am late to the Safdies (this was my first film by them), but this has much to commend it, including two great performances from Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie.

As I look at all of these films, I am ashamed at the eurocentrism of my tastes, and in particular by the lack of films from Asia that I have seen/included this year.

But there we go. Hopefully I can do better in 2018.

‘Full’ List of Films Seen in 2017


Film Title (Director’s Name)

No marker – seen in cinema
* = seen online (specifically streaming)
^ = seen on DVD or file
+ = seen on aeroplane
” = seen on television
> = seen in a gallery

When see you the entry surrounded by parentheses – as follows: (Film Title (Director’s Name)) – it means that I had already seen the film, or at least I think I may well have seen the film before.

Silence (Martin Scorsese)
A Letter to Elia (Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones)
Hud (Martin Ritt)*
Médecin de Campagne (Thomas Lilti)
Duelle (Jacques Rivette)^
55 Years on the Infinite Plain (Tony Conrad)
La région centrale (Michael Snow)
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
(Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese))
La femme du boulanger (Marcel Pagnol)
Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Dangal (Nitesh Tiwari)
Elegy to a Visitor from the Revolution (Lav Diaz)*
The Train Stop (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Assassin’s Creed (Justin Kurzel)
A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona)
Le fils de Joseph (Eugène Green)*
Work In Progress (Adam Sekuler)*
America America (Elia Kazan)
The Big Country (William Wyler)
The Settlement (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Jackie (Pablo Larraín)
Lion (Garth Davis)
Split (M Night Shyamalan)
The Nights of Zayandeh-rood (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood)*
10+4 (Mania Akbari)
Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine)^
Christine (Antonio Campos)
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer)*
Victoria (Justine Triet)
T2: Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
Buddies in India (Wang Baoqiang)
Chinese Roulette (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)*
Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)
Zero Day (Alex Gibney)*
Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Marguérite et Julien (Valérie Donzelli)*
Baraka (Ron Fricke)
Samsara (Ron Fricke)
(Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade))
Twentieth Century Women (Mike Mills)
(Heremakono (Abderrahmane Sissako)^)
Moka (Frédéric Mermoud)*
Portrait (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Death in the Land of Encantos (Lav Diaz)
Factory (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Zootropolis (Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush)^
Ten Meter Tower (Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson)*
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
Prevenge (Alice Lowe)
Tiya’s Dream (Abderrahmane Sissako)*
Lovetrue (Alma Har’el)
Fences (Denzel Washington)
Batang West Side (Lav Diaz)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Lav Diaz)
Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal and a Whore (Khavn de la Cruz)^
An Investigation on the Night that Won’t Forget (Lav Diaz)*
The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou)
Patriots Day (Peter Berg)
Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)
Blockade (Sergei Loznitsa)*
Logan (James Mangold)
Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger)*
Letter (Sergei Loznitsa)*
The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz)
Trespass Against Us (Adam Smith)
Thumbsucker (Mike Mills)*
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)*
Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
Le parc (Damien Manivel)*
Rostov-Luanda (Abderrahmane Sissako)^
(La vie sur terre (Abderrahmane Sissako)^)
The Student (Kirill Serebrennikov)
Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Le jeu (Abderrahmane Sissako)*
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton)*
Le roi de l’évasion (Alain Guiraudie)*
Microbe et Gasoil (Michel Gondry)*
The Love Witch (Anna Biller)*
Domitilla (Zeb Ejiro)*
Sexto aniversario (Julio García Espinosa)^
Dancer (Steven Cantor)
Viceroy’s House (Gurinder Chadha)
Aventuras de Juan Quinquin (Julio García Espinosa)
Son o no son (Julia García Espinosa)
In memoriam (Paul Leduc)
Les aventures d’Arsène Lupin (Jacques Becker)
La región salvaje (Amat Escalante)
Get Out (Jordan Peele)
(All This Panic (Jenny Gage))
My Old Lady (Israel Horowitz)*
100 Mile Radius (Environment III) (Phill Niblock)
T H I R (aka Ten Hundred Inch Radii) (Environments IV) (Phill Niblock)
The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-Woon)
Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Life (Daniel Espinosa)
The Lost City of Z (James Grey)
Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders)
Filmfarsi (Ehsan Khoshbakht)
Lettre de Beyrouth (Jocelyne Saab)
Beyrouth, jamais plus (Jocelyne Saab)
Beyrouth, ma ville (Jocelyne Saab)
Free Fire (Ben Wheatley)
Viva (Anna Biller)*
Demain on déménage (Chantal Akerman)*
Grave (Julia Ducournau)
For Ellen (So Yong Kim)*
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
The Merchant of Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)*
Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)
Florentina Hubaldo CTE (Lav Diaz)*
Neruda (Pablo Larraín)
The Sense of an Ending (Ritesh Batra)
Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks)*
incoming (Richard Mosse)>
The Trip to Spain (Michael Winterbottom)”
Los colores de la montaña (Carlos César Arbeláez)
Los cuerpos dóciles (Diego Gachassin and Matías Scarvaci)
El futuro perfecto (Nele Wohlatz)
Na sua companhia (Marcelo Caetano)*
Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon)
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen)
The Transfiguration (Michael O’Shea)
Their Finest (Lone Scherfig)
Clash (Mohamed Diab)
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 (James Gunn)
Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)
Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos)
Effi Briest (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)*
Young Love Lost (Xiang Guoqiang)
Mr Donkey (Liu Lu and Zhou Shen)
Nights and Weekends (Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg)*
Pleasure Love (Huang Yao)
Félicité (Alain Gomis)
The Road to Mandalay (Midi Z)
Re:Orientations (Richard Fung)
Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)*
Mindhorn (Sean Foley)
The Promise (Terry George)
Honor and Glory (Godfrey Ho)*
Homo Sapiens (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)
Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (Mark Cousins)*
Harmonium (Koji Fukada)
The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach)
Frantz (François Ozon)
(Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky))
The Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair)+
City of Tiny Lights (Pete Travis)+
Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott)
Maman(s) (Maïmouna Ducouré)+
Dear Zindagi (Gauri Shinde)+
Homme au bain (Christophe Honoré)*
Baywatch (Seth Gordon)
The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki)
The Red Turtle (Michaël Dudok de Wit)
Miss Sloane (John Madden)
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
A Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz)*
Les hautes solitudes (Philippe Garrel)*
Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut)^
The Mummy (Alex Kurtzman)
Tom of Finland (Dome Karukoski)
The Road Movie (Dimitrii Kalashnikov)
Island (Steven Eastwood)
El rey tuerto (Marc Crehuet)
Plato’s Phaedrus (dn rodowick)
Kedi (Ceyda Torun)
Les gouffres (Antoine Barriaud)*
Song to Song (Terrence Malick)
A Man Called Ove (Hannes Holm)
The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)
Edith Walks (Andrew Kötting)*
Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)
Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman)
I Am Not Madame Bovary (Feng Xiaogang)
Una mujer fantástica (Sebastián Lelio)
Détour (Michel Gondry)*
Today (Reza Mirkarimi)
Portrait of Madame Yuki (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Kóblic (Sebastián Borensztein)
Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick)
Inversion (Behnam Behzadi)
Visages Villages (Agnès Varda & JR)
Anarchy in the UK (Jett Hollywood)*
Transformers: The Last Knight (Michael Bay)
The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson)
England is Mine (Mark Gill)
Pregnant (Fabrizio Federico)*
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)^
The ABCs of Death (Various directors)^
Atomic Blonde (David Leitch)
Step (Amanda Lipitz)
Maudie (Aisling Walsh)
A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk)
Eldorado XXI (Salomé Lamas)*
The Italian (Andrei Kravchuk)^
Whisky (Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella)^
From Greece (Peter Nestler)*
Arunoday (Partho Sen-Gupta)+
Crosscurrent (Chao Yang)+
Gbomo Gbomo Express (Walter ‘Waltbanger’ Taylaur)+
Vers Mathilde (Claire Denis)*
Rhine River (Peter Nestler)*
Death and Devil (Peter Nestler)*
The Event (Sergei Loznitsa)*
The Ferry (Attia Amin)+
Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan)+
Night Train to Lisbon (Bille August)+
Sisterhood (Tracy Choi)+
Nieve negra (Martín Hodara)+
Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh)
Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow)
Dilwale (Rohit Shetty)+
The Young Karl Marx (Raoul Peck)+
Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn)+
The LEGO Batman Movie (Christian McKay)+
Balnearios (Mariano Llinás)*
Away With Me (Oliver Mason)*
Souvenirs d’un montreur de seins (Bertrand Mandico)*
Historias extraordinarias (Mariano Llinás)*
La impresión de una guerra (Camilo Restrepo)*
Underground Fragrance (Song Pengfei)*
Kontra Madiaga (Khavn de la Cruz)*
It (Andy Muschietti)
American Made (Doug Liman)
El auge del humano (Eduardo Williams)*
Description d’un combat (Chris Marker)*
Castro (Alejo Moguillansky)*
Vive la baleine (Mario Ruspoli and Chris Marker)*
Y a-t-il une vierge encore vivante? (Bertrand Mandico)*
El loro y el cisne (Alejo Moguillansky)*
Maelström (Denis Villeneuve)^
Dev.D (Anurag Kashyap)^
El escarabajo de oro (Alejo Moguillansky and Fia-Stina Sandlund)*
The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Patrick Hughes)
Volta à Terra (João Pedro Plácido)*
Soul Food Stories (Tonislav Hristov)
A Run for Money (Reha Erdem)*
Ostende (Laura Citarella)*
La mujer de los perros (Laura Citarella and Verónica Llinás)*
Notre Dame des Hormones (Bertrand Mandico)*
Miséricorde (Fulvio Bernasconi)*
Stronger (David Gordon Green)
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughn)
Yenish Sounds (Karoline Arn and Martina Rieder)*
Juana a los 12 (Martín Shanly)*
Damiana Kryygi (Alejandro Fernández Mouján)*
Depressive Cop (Bertrand Mandico)*
A Respectable Family (Massoud Bakshi)*
Regeneration (Raoul Walsh)*
Europe, She Loves (Jan Gassmann)*
La León (Santiago Otheguy)*
Flatliners (Niels Arden Oplev)
Pueblo en vilo (Patricio Guzmán)*
Victoria and Abdul (Stephen Frears)
La ville des pirates (Raúl Ruiz)*
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House (Peter Landesman)
Risk (Laura Poitras)^
Le bonheur (Agnès Varda)*
Point de fuite (Raúl Ruiz)*
The Foreigner (Martin Campbell)
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)
Agua fría de mar (Paz Fábrega)*
Blade Runner Black Out 2022 (Shinichiro Watanabe)*
Blade Runner 2036: Nexus Dawn (Luke Scott)*
Blade Runner 2048: Nowhere to Run (Luke Scott)*
The Law in these Parts (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz)^
Scialla! (Francesco Bruni)
Santouri – The Music Man (Dariush Mehrjui)^
Project X (Henrik Moltke and Laura Poitras)*
Le concours (Claire Simon)*
You Are All Captains (Oliver Laxe)*
Napolislam (Ernesto Pagano)
The State I Am In (Christian Petzold)*
Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman)
The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Nagisa Oshima)^
The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson)
Blessed Benefit (Mahmoud Al Massad)
Porcile (Pier Paolo Pasolini)^
Paraísos artificiales (Yulene Olaizola)*
The Great Wall (Tadhg O’Sullivan)*
A Simple Event (Sohrab Shahid-Saless)*
Trois vies et une seule mort (Raúl Ruiz)*
The Traveler (Abbas Kiarostami)^
mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
Human Flow (Ai Weiwei)
Geostorm (Dean Devlin)
Eva no duerme (Pablo Agüero)*
Naissance des pieuvres (Céline Sciamma)*
Ce jour-là (Raúl Ruiz)*
Into a Dream (Sion Sono)*
Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo)^
N’oublie pas que tu vas mourir (Xavier Beauvois)*
El vendedor de orquídeas (Lorenzo Vigas)*
Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (Bahman Farmanara)^
El mar (Agustí Villaronga)*
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)
La sirga (William Vega)*
Only the Brave (Joseph Kosinski)
Suburbicon (George Clooney)
Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi)
Impolex (Alex Ross Perry)*
Spring (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead)*
Kapò (Gillo Pontecorvo)^
No sucumbió la eternidad (Daniela Rea Gómez)*
At Ellen’s Age (Pia Marais)*
When Monaliza Smiled (Fadi Haddad)
Layla Fourie (Pia Marais)*
Informe general sobre unas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (Pere Portabella)*
General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe (Pere Portabella)*
Villegas (Gonzalo Tobal)*
Tem Gringo No Morro (Marjorie Niele and Bruno Graziano)*
The Void (Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski)*
Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada)
The Pornographers (Shohei Imamura)^
The Dresser (Peter Yates)*
White Ant (Chu Hsien-che)*
Restricted (Jay Rosenblatt)*
Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh)
Justice League (Zack Snyder)
The Living Corpse (Khwaja Sarfaraz)^
Até ver a luz (Basil da Cunha)*
Las horas muertas (Aarón Fernández)*
Bye Bye Brazil (Carlos Diegues)^
Sérail (Eduardo De Gregorio)*
Worm (Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi)*
Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)^
São Jorge (Marco Martins)*
Okja (Joon-ho Bong)*
Sight (Eran May-Raz and Daniel Lazo)*
Waves ’98 (Ely Dagher)*
La pesca (Pablo Alvarez-Mesa and Fernando López Escriva)*
Camp de Thiaroye (Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow)^
Cidade Cinza (Guilherme Valiengo and Marcelo Mesquita)*
The Conspiracy (Christopher MacBride)*
Wonder (Stephen Chbosky)
Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes)
The Mountain Between Us (Hany Abu-Assad)
A Viagem de Yoani (Pepe Siffredi and Raphael Bottino)*
Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie)
[The Silence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)^]
Xenos (Mahdi Fleifel)
A Man Returned (Mahdi Fleifel)
A Drowning Man (Mahdi Fleifel)
La cuerda floja (Nuria Ibáñez)*
Sharp Tools (Nujoom Al-Ghanem)
Mary Shelley (Haifaa al-Mansour)
Under Electric Clouds (Aleksei German Jr)*
L’illusion comique (Mathieu Amalric)*
Into the Arms of Strangers (Mark Jonathan Harris)*
Sofía y el terco (Andrés Burgos)*
Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Jacques Rivette)^
Beats of the Antonov (hajooj kuka)*
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)
Nine Lives (The Eternal Moment of Now) (Jay Rosenblatt)*
[The Patience Stone (Atiq Rahimi)*?]
Prayer (Jay Rosenblatt)*
Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina)
I Used to be a Filmmaker (Jay Rosenblatt)*
Comet (Sam Esmail)^
Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)*
Hanna (Joe Wright)*
Uncle Kent 2 (Todd Rohal)*
The Twilight (Mohammad Rasoulof)^
The Killing of a Sacred Dear (Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Sheik and I (Caveh Zahedi)*
Patti Cake$ (Geremy Jasper)+
The Other Land (Ali Idrees)+
Whitney: Can I Be Me (Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal)*
Assistance mortelle (Raoul Peck)*
Heaven Knows What (Josh and Ben Safdie)*
Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell)^
John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski)”
The Disaster Artist (James Franco)
Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
Happy End (Michael Haneke)
White Christmas (Michael Curtiz)

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Impressions of cinema in the UAE

In The Sheik and I (USA/UAE, 2012), Caveh Zahedi is invited to make a movie for an exhibition organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation, exploring the theme of subversion.

Zahedi finds it ironic that even though he is told repeatedly that he has open rein to make whatever movie he wants, he is also given a series of quite strict guidelines, perhaps especially the idea that he cannot critique the titular Sheik, who is funding his film, and Islam.

What ensues, then, is Zahedi making a film in which, among other things, he critiques employment practices in the UAE, creating a fantasy in which the Sheik himself decides to allow guest workers in the country to be able to achieve Emirati citizenship, and thus a civil status that is on a par with the historically local population (whatever that is or might be, and which Zahedi never quite specifies). Religion also plays a key part in the film, but I shall not be touching upon that here.

Rather, I open this post with reference to The Sheik and I because towards the end of his film, Zahedi explains how so many of the people whom he meets in the UAE are, in his own terms, ‘cool.’ That is, they get his sense of humour, and they are not offended by his jokes with regard to religion and employment, since they recognise both his concern for human beings regardless of race, religion, nationality and so on (Zahedi as humanist), and that his film is not to be taken too seriously.

However, Zahedi then suggests that the people whom he meets, perhaps most especially those at the Sharjah Art Foundation that is funding his film, are ‘not cool,’ because ultimately they pull the plug on his film, meaning that he does not make the film that he wanted and instead makes The Sheik and I, a film about not being able to make a film (and thus in some senses a non-film).

Here I personally part ways with Zahedi in terms of his opinion of his collaborators in the UAE. Where he sees them as ultimately ‘not cool’ for not going with him all the way in his subversion, I see them still very much as ‘cool.’ And that they do not ‘betray’ Zahedi so much as find themselves confronted with contradictions that they already know very well and concerning which Zahedi refuses to give any quarter.

What are these contradictions? In short, they are the fact that Zahedi’s collaborators in the UAE are by no means blind to the shortcomings of their society, but they cannot go about addressing them in the way that Zahedi does – while Zahedi’s charge that they are ‘not cool’ would seem to suggest that Zahedi thinks that they refuse to address these shortcomings. If they refused to address these shortcomings, Zahedi would not even be there, and so in some senses while his film is very funny and touching, in other ways it lacks subtlety – confronting head-on issues that might otherwise be addressed in more nuanced fashion.

I open with this reference to Zahedi, then, because it strikes me that for all of the clear and necessary criticisms that could be levelled at the UAE as a nation in terms of its structure and organisation, it is important to remember that the UAE is very much a cool place with some very cool minds that are as sharp as the minds anywhere, and which share a similarly ‘liberal’ sensibility – even if that sensibility, for reasons that I cannot fully explore here (for the sake of space more than anything else), is expressed in different ways.

It is important to remember that the UAE is ‘cool,’ because it can be very easy to lose sight of this fact – as perhaps is suggested in what follows.

Should anyone care to read it, I argue in a different essay that ‘cool’ drives much of the contemporary world. That is, the contemporary world is driven by appearances, with image therefore becoming as important as, if not more important than, reality. To take images for reality, to believe in images is in some senses to worship images – in the sense of attributing worth/value to them. In some senses, then, cool is associated with the superficial – the belief in surfaces and the visible as opposed to depth and that which might elude the sense organ of the human eye (which is sensitive only to about 5 per cent of the light spectrum).

In this post, though, I use the term ‘cool’ to mean something quite different, perhaps even the opposite of the definition used in that essay. Here, to be cool does not refer to appearances and a capitulation to the society of the spectacle, whereby flashiness is used to empower the self. Rather, ‘cool’ here refers to seeing through the surface of things and understanding that certain aspects of reality lie beyond the surface – and that if we accept only the surface as real, then we have a very incomplete understanding of reality.

So when I say that people in the UAE are cool, what I mean to say is that there are as many people in the UAE who are – to use a fashionable term – ‘woke’ as there are in any other part of the world that I have visited (if I am in a position to be a judge of coolness or wokeness). Indeed, I would say that the proportion of people who are ‘woke’ and/or ‘cool’ (by my imperfect reckoning) is about the same as anywhere.

What for me is the shortcoming of Zahedi’s film, then, is that he only goes by what is visible, endlessly creating scenes that in principle give us a ‘behind the scenes’ look at what happens in the making of a/his film, but in reality never going ‘behind the scenes,’ because that which is ‘behind’ the scene can by definition not feature in a film, since films can only be made up of scenes. Zahedi insists upon making a scene and upon only scenes being real rather than accepting the reality of that which is behind the scenes.

In other words, it might be possible to say that cinema as a tool is not capable of going behind the scenes – even if many films gesture at doing this by being self-conscious, reflexive and so on. That is, cinema is (very often) superficial.

What lies behind the scenes is not all good stuff. Indeed, we use the phrase ‘behind the scenes’ to describe intrigues and conspiracies, precisely the abuse of appearances and more. The desire to expose, to make a scene out of and thus to make seen, such ‘behind the scenes’ practices is valid and in some senses necessary.

But to insist that that which is behind the scenes is necessarily ‘bad’ (as Zahedi might seem to) is to accept only the seen/the scene as real, while it is also to have ‘bad faith,’ in the sense that the invisible (that which one cannot see and in which one therefore must have faith) is bad. Is it possible for us to construct a world in which we have good faith, and in which we trust that behind the scenes some good things might be going on? Zahedi would seem not to think this possible of the UAE. But I wish to suggest here that it is, and that there is reason for good faith in and about the UAE.

The UAE is not a cinematic society, in that few are the films that have been made there and the history of cinema in the UAE is not particularly long (fewer than 25 feature films in the last 12 years). That said, as cinema begins and grows in the UAE, it is becoming increasingly cinematic.

That the increasingly cinematic nature of the UAE is tied to a burgeoning belief in images might be clarified by the link between movie theatres and shopping malls there. The vast majority of cinema screens are inside multiplex cinemas that sit inside shopping malls, where people by fashionable products in order to demonstrate through their appearance (i.e. via their projected self-image) about how valuable they are/how much they are worth/how much they should be worshipped. In other words, having been uncool, the UAE is becoming increasingly cool in the negative sense defined above: a society that invests increasing amount of money and time in appearances, including the industry of appearances that is cinema.

But this does not mean that there is not quite a lot of cool stuff going on ‘behind the scenes’ and thus cool in the positive sense that I wish to use here, and which is related to cinema in various ways.

In what follows, then, I wish to relay some of my experiences of cinema in the UAE over the course of the four months that I was working there between late August and late December 2017 – for the simple purpose of sharing my imperfect and surely problematic (superficial?!) understanding of cinema in that place with other curious/interested parties (should they exist).

Over the course of the 17 weeks that I was in the UAE, I went to the cinema 42 times (I went twice to the cinema in the USA during this period during a brief work trip there soon after my arrival in the UAE). This averages at just over twice a week. Should you care to know, the full list of films I saw there is as follows:-

It (Andy Muschietti, USA/Canada, 2017); American Made (Doug Liman, USA, 2017); The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Patrick Hughes, Netherlands/China/Bulgaria/USA, 2017); Soul Food Stories (Tonislav Hristov, Bulgaria/Finland, 2013); Stronger (David Gordon Green, USA, 2017); Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughn, UK/USA, 2017); Flatliners (Niels Arden Oplev, USA/Canada, 2017); Victoria and Abdul (Stephen Frears, UK/USA, 2017); Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House (Peter Landesman, USA, 2017); The Foreigner (Martin Campbell, UK/China/USA, 2017); Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, USA/UK/Hungary/Canada, 2017); Scialla! (Francesco Bruni, Italy, 2011); Napolislam (Ernesto Pagano, Italy, 2015); Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, UK/Poland, 2017); The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, UK/USA/Sweden, 2017(; Blessed Benefit (Mahmoud Al Massad, Germany/Jordan/Netherlands, 2016); mother! (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2017); Human Flow (Ai Weiwei, Germany, 2017); Geostorm (Dean Devlin, USA, 2017); Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler, USA, 2017); Only the Brave (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2017); Suburbicon (George Clooney, UK/USA, 2017); Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, USA, 2017); When Monaliza Smiled (Fadi Haddad, Jordan, 2012); Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, Italy, 1962); Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, USA/UK/Malta/Canada, 2017); Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953); Justice League (Zack Snyder, USA/UK/Canada, 2017); Wonder (Stephen Chbosky, USA/Hong Kong, 2017); Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes, USA, 2017); Tabiib (Jim Savio, USA/UAE, 2017); The Mountain Between Us (Hany Abu-Assad, USA, 2017); Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie, USA, 2017); Xenos (Mahdi Fleifel, UK/Greece/Denmark, 2014); A Man Returned (Mahdi Fleifel, UK/Denmark/Netherlands/Lebanon, 2016); A Drowning Man (Mahdi Fleifel, Denmark/UK/Greece, 2017); Sharp Tools (Nujoom Al-Ghanem, UAE, 2017); Mary Shelley (Haifaa al-Mansour, USA/UK/Luxembourg, 2017); Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, USA, 2017); Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, USA, 2017); White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1954); and The Killing of a Sacred Dear (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Ireland/USA, 2017).

This list does not include a programme of 8 short films that I watched at an event celebrating cultural exchange between the UAE and the UK, and which included four films from the UK and four films from the Gulf region (mainly the UAE) – an event to which I shall return shortly.

A brief glance at the above list will suggest that the majority of films that I saw are American films or transnational co-productions that include American talent and/or money. However, it should be worth emphasising immediately that there is a wide of range of films from India consistently playing at the cinemas in the UAE (I had in particular wanted to see Qarib Qarib Singlle, Tanuja Chandra, India, 2017 – mainly because I really like Irrfan Khan, who stars in it), as well as the occasional Philippine film, some Egyptian films (I was in particular sad not to be able to make it to see Sheikh JacksonAmr Salama, Egypt, 2017) – and more.

That said, American blockbusters do basically dominate the market – and in this respect movie theatres in the UAE are very ‘cool’ in the superficial sense – since a good number of the blockbusters mentioned above (for example, Geostorm) look good and have lots of loud crashes, bangs and wallops, but they do not have much depth. (Remember that this is the list of films that I saw, not the list of films that were showing.)

However, even within that list, there is clearly an appetite for work by relatively well regarded filmmakers, including Todd Haynes, Darren Aronofsky, George Clooney, Ai Weiwei, Yorgos Lanthimos and David Gordon Green. Furthermore, ‘sleeper’ films like Brawl in Cell Block 99 played, as did the Safdie brothers’ excellent Good Time, as well as experimental animation Loving Vincent. In other words, there might as anywhere be some shallow movies playing, but there is also some cool stuff – even at multiplexes in shopping malls.

If there is a distinction to be made between the films I saw and the films that showed, there is also a distinction to be made, meanwhile, between the films screening and how many people went to see them. This is anecdotal evidence, but I should highlight how on a semi-regular basis (on four or five occasions), I was the only audience member in the cinema, with audiences rarely exceeding ten – with even mega-blockbusters like Justice LeagueStar Wars: The Last Jedi and Thor: Ragnarok seeming to have relatively slim crowds when I went to see them.

What we might infer from this, then, is that the movies show and that no one is particularly interested in them. This would confirm that idea that there is no cinema in the UAE, and this is a position that seemed to be held also by a spokesman for Image Nation Abu Dhabi at the UAE-UK cultural exchange mentioned above, and which was supported in part by the British Council.

During an exchange at the event, someone asked why local films were not supported by the cinema chains in the UAE, with the response being along the lines that there is no appetite for them for the twin reason of people not being interested in movies and the perception that local films are not of a high enough quality in the sense that they do not match the production values of a Hollywood feature film.

However, to counter the first point, I would like to bring in a couple of bits of evidence. For while I did spend a fair amount of time sitting in relatively empty movie theatres while watching American blockbusters and auteur films in the UAE, I did also sit with very busy communities of filmgoers at more or less every film that I saw which was not an American blockbuster or the work of someone like Haynes and Aronofsky.

There is a film club called Cinema Space that meets three or four times a week at the Manarat al Saadiyat on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, and at which I saw a handful of films, typically foreign and/or classic (Soul Food StoriesScialla!MafiosoUgetsu MonogatariWhite Christmas). While the average audience size in the mall multiplexes was less than 10, at Cinema Space the average audience size was about 50. And with their comprehensive and varied programme, Cinema Space is about as close to a cinematheque that Abu Dhabi has – and there clearly is an appetite (more of an appetite!) for art house over mainstream work.

Further evidence for the appetite for non-mainstream work would include the occasional film screenings held at Warehouse 421 in the Mina Zayed (port) area, and The Scene Club in Dubai, which also programmes independent work. I might also mention that I curated a series of 27 films based upon the theme of mavericks (maverick actors and maverick/cult-ish films), and which took the name of DXB Experiments Presents: The Cinema. With the screenings taking place in Le Royal Méridien Beach and Spa resort, this was like the other film clubs mentioned above an example of not-quite-theatrical film exhibition. And while the 27 films were relatively mainstream, the reported average audience again of about 50 far surpasses my experience of the multiplexes in terms of audience size.

With the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in which there was a tiny amount of moving image work on display (mainly a film about land art), together with small amounts of moving image work also on display at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair (held like Cinema Space at the Manarat al Saadiyat), and with a Guggenheim and other museums promised in the future, hopefully the appetite for artistic and/or experimental cinema will also continue to grow.

That said, a seemingly greater appetite for classic, independent and/or art house cinema than for mainstream work does not translate into an audience for local films. However, here I may suggest that an enterprise like CinemaNA, which is a joint venture between New York University Abu Dhabi and Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, would again suggest the opposite. It is through CinemaNA that I saw Blessed Benefit to an audience of over 70 at the Sorbonne and When Monaliza Smiled to a full-house at NYUAD. Being Jordanian, we may say that these films are not strictly local, but nonetheless they suggest an appetite for films in Arabic.

Furthermore, I also attended a screening of Jim Savio’s locally-shot Tabiib at NYUAD, which similarly enjoyed a full house, while a triple-bill of short films by Mahdi Fleifel, the director of the excellent documentary, A World Not Ours (UK/Denmark/Lebanon/UAE, 2012), had over 30 people in attendance.

In other words, and in particular contrary to the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman, it would seem that there is an appetite not just for classic, independent and art house cinema, but also for Arab and perhaps even more specifically Emirati cinema – with audiences going to watch these latter films not necessarily in spite of their low budget, but perhaps very much because of that low budget.

For, as many humans wear their wealth cosmetically as a means to demonstrate their worth/as a means to be worshipped, so, too, do movies. And so in some senses it is the more humble, less opulent film that stands a greater chance of taking us beyond appearances and which can give us a sense of what happens ‘behind the scenes,’ lending depth to the world that we see being depicted in the film. The truly cool, then, is not necessarily that which shares the values of a superficial world (that is only superficially to be cool), but that which sees through/beyond the surface and which perhaps demonstrates to us that there is a beyond the surface.

If cinema is only about surfaces, then perhaps films that go beyond and/or which demonstrate that cinema is superficial are not really cinema. Maybe, then, such films are non-cinema – even if they are still cinematic (in that they are still films). In this sense, the spokesman of Image Nation Abu Dhabi was perhaps right in suggesting that there is no cinema in the UAE. But he also did not appreciate how there positively is non-cinema in the UAE, the status of which as non-cinema is also reinforced by the non-theatrical venues in which many of the above clubs are held.

Here we reach the issue of production values. At the UAE-UK cultural exchange event, it seemed that speakers both British, American and Emirati insisted that all films have a certain (high) level of production values, and without which Emirati cinema will never get off the ground – before the speakers then (inexplicably) slamming today’s youth (millennials!) for not having the commitment (at university age) to learn the full range of skills involved in filmmaking.

Indeed, to return to the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman, he invoked in his talk Woody Allen in order to suggest that the business dimension of show business is absolutely necessary – and that anyone who thinks that they can make films without also being a businessman is misguided.

The reference to Woody Allen is linked to the discussion of production values, because in order to achieve high production values, one needs money, which means that one must understand the cinema is a business. That is, cinema is inherently a capitalist enterprise, in which looking good (and thus qualifying as cinema) depends upon money. This means that young filmmakers must respect those who have money if they want to make films, since without that money, the films will not be funded. Again, cinema becomes a means for worshipping superficial values, in that the greater material worth of the rich person is deemed to be a more real worth than the measurement of humans according to a non-materialistic criterion.

It is not the UAE is a poor country. Far from it. But young people typically do not have access to money in the way that working adults do – and the UAE-UK cultural exchange event was aimed at discussing the future of film in the UAE, while also being attended by would-be future filmmakers in the UAE. To suggest that cinema requires money and that in some respects cinema is inherently conservative (since access to money is achieved by respecting one’s elders and their ethos of business) is not to encourage young filmmakers by telling them that it is possible, but to put up barriers to entry into the world of film – even though the desire to make films is clearly there given the presence of young filmmakers at the event.

The criticism of millennials by various of the speakers only clarifies further a split that the cultural exchange event drew out: that the established filmmakers and the established ways of making films do not feel enough respected, and perhaps that the young filmmakers and would-be filmmakers in the audience do not share the same conservative values as the established filmmakers.

Two examples of those conservative values might be explained. In her discussion of her career, Nayla Al Khaja somewhat jokingly explained how when she made her first short film, Arabana (UAE, 2006), she ended up with far too much money to make the film because so many people were enthusiastic to support her – and that in the end, she spent not very much money on her film but a huge sum of money on promoting her film, including by hiring a cinema and insisting upon a VIP guest list at her premiere.

Al Khaja’s entrepreneurial spirit is to be admired, and she clearly is a supporter of independent cinema in that it is she who organises The Scene Club in Dubai. But similarly this story not of making a great film but of channeling money into promotion suggests a capitulation in advance not to substance but to appearance (even if Arabana is a film about child neglect). Al Khaja is not necessarily wrong to play a superficial world at its own game, but she also implicitly accepts rather than challenges that world.

Meanwhile, the second example is the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman’s reference to Woody Allen. For, as was suggested at the time, evoking Woody Allen in late 2017 as a shining light to be followed in the global film industry seems somewhat strange. That is, Allen may well acknowledge the business side of the film industry, but Allen also stands at this present time for an abusive patriarchy that objectifies women, rendering women as superficial images rather than as flesh and blood human beings with depth. The reference to Allen does not just suggest that cinema is inherently conservative, but it also suggests that cinema is inherently patriarchal.

That the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman invoked Allen as a means to dismiss as naïve a question about youth filmmaking movements suggests not only that he does not understand the history of cinema (which since at least the nouvelle vague is a history defined by youth and/or by the most important filmmakers making work for very little by finding alternative ways to make films, or to make non-films if those alternative ways are not considered legitimately to be cinema), but it also suggests his own patriarchal perspective.

Given that in the audience of his talk was a group of c40 young female Emirati film students who had travelled to Abu Dhabi from a higher technical college (HTC) in Fujairah (a journey of about three hours by road), the reference to Allen also seemed especially inappropriate. But more than this, it confirmed the future of Emirati non-cinema, in the sense that if cinema is conservative and patriarchal, and if millennials do not respect cinema, and if the future generation of filmmakers (those same millennials) are mainly women… then the future of cinema is a non-superficial, non-patriarchal non-cinema – just as developments in cinema traditionally have been driven not by those who conservatively uphold its values, but by those who innovate by finding new ways to make – and to see films.

In this sense, if it is not in multiplexes but rather in clubs and in particular university spaces that alternative films get seen, then the UAE in the 2010s is not so dissimilar to the USA in the 1960s, where campuses were one of the main spaces in which young future filmmakers would see work by the likes of Ingmar Bergman – since you could not see these at the mainstream cinema, of which the younger generation had become tired, since the mainstream did not reflect their values or outlook on life. It is exposure on university campuses to European art house cinema (exemplified here by Bergman) that led to the reinvigoration of American cinema via the so-called Movie Brats that included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich and more. Again, the history of cinema is driven not by old men, but by brats – and in the UAE perhaps by female brats (with Al Khaja functioning as a kind of godmother figure, even if her emphasis on the superficial might also not quite chime with the younger generation).

What is true of exhibition is hopefully also true of production. In the era of digital media, in which ‘everyone can make a film,’ it seems clear that not only can everyone make a film, but that in some senses everyone does make films – just in formats that are not recognised by those who ‘officially’ define what cinema is.

Indeed, during my time in the UAE, I had the opportunity to speak at an event for Young Arab Media Leaders (YAML), which was attended by over 100 young media users from all over the Arab world (with the exception of Qatar). Indeed, you can see me images of me delivering my talk in the video below, and which was created after the YAML event, and which was posted by Shamma Al Mazrui, to whom I shall return imminently.

My aim is not to discuss the aesthetics/production values of this video, which may seem superficially cool with its use of slow motion, triumphant music and so on. Rather, I wish to say how, in particular during discussions after my talk, it seemed clear to me that there are young media users, including filmmakers, who are developing new ways to create and to show their work – and if cinema does not acknowledge the legitimacy of this work, then it is only cinema that will be left behind, and not the millennial generation.

Or rather: perhaps this millennial generation does not care for cinema with its inherently superficial and/or patriarchal set of values, but is instead developing non-cinema in order to create a different, better world.

In the old days, you did need vast amounts of money to make a film, which meant having contacts and so on. But nowadays, perhaps (by definition?) the most vibrant work is made without money. Or at the very least it is created with minimal budgets raised via crowdsourcing sites and by young, female voices with something to say – including, for example, Amal Al Agroobi, whose Under the Hat (Qatar/UAE, 2016) is a sweet tale of precisely old and new worlds colliding, and who is crowdsourcing money for a feature film about Philippine domestic workers in the UAE – a subject that is not a million miles from that of Caveh Zahedi’s The Sheik and I.

It is telling, then, that the YAML event was organised by Shamma Al Mazrui, the UAE’s first Rhodes Scholar and who at 22 was the youngest government minister in the world. Known for her engagement with media, Al Mazrui represents a female future of media leaders who perhaps move beyond the conservative/superficial/patriarchal values of cinema, and who instead create a different, deeper, more ‘feminine’ (non-)cinema, and/or society that moves beyond the superficial and cinematic values that define much of the world under globalised neoliberal capital.

Spending a few months in the UAE, I met many local cinephiles, whose knowledge and enthusiasm for cinema impressed me enormously, including Hind Mezaina, whose Culturist blog is one of the essential sites for discovering what goes on under the surface (‘behind the scenes’?) in the UAE.

It was lamented several times (including by some of its former organisers) that the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is no more, even if the day that I spent at the Dubai International Film Festival would suggest a vibrant capacity for cinema in the UAE. Indeed, the screening that I attended of Sharp Tools, a documentary about the late Hassan Sharif, the UAE’s best known conceptual artist, would give hope that people might support not only local films, but also local documentaries (i.e. non-mainstream films) about local artists who themselves were seeking consistently to push the envelope in terms of making art that raised consistently the question ‘what is art?’

As Sharif asked through his work ‘what is art?’, so might tomorrow’s Emirati filmmakers not simply accept the definition of cinema that is handed down to them, but instead they might continually be re-posing the question ‘what is cinema?’ in order to push the boundaries in terms of working out what it is that cinema can do. In this sense, art and filmmaking are not dissimilar to the human project of getting better to know ourselves and pursuing the ethical development of working out what it is that humans can do and learn. With bad faith, we will assume the worst and suspect that humans can realise great evil and that the quest to find out what it is that humans can do will lead only to violence. But with good faith, we might well learn that humans are capable of the most amazing and generous things.

This is not to deny the human capacity for evil, which is clearly documented even if regularly occulted because a) people do not want necessarily to see evil and b) because those who commit evil deeds do not necessarily want to be seen (evil takes place behind the scenes). But this does not mean that good can only take place in scenes (that good can only be staged). For this would be a world not necessarily of good, but of performed good – a world in which appearances of goodness would come to count for more than actual goodness, a slippage that would take us away from goodness itself.

If the UAE currently has no cinema (in a metaphorical if not in quite a literal sense), then I have faith that it will produce good if not excellent cinema before long – and that it might be all the better if that cinema includes a healthy dose of non-cinema. Indeed, the health of a nation might better be gauged not by its cinema, but by its non-cinema. In this respect, it may not at present be perfect, but the signs for the UAE are good.



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F for Fake: Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, Malta/USA, 2017)

One of the key scenes in Murder on the Orient Express involves Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) exposing Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) as a fake Austrian scientist as a result of his failure correctly to pronounce Turin. Hardman – if that is his real name – pronounces it TURin, whereas a genuine Austrian, as Poirot reminds us, would have pronounced it TurIN.

Given the importance that the film places upon pronunciation as a sign of authenticity, it is notable that on two occasions we hear the Belgian sleuth incorrectly pronounce the plural of the French word for eggs. The singular, œuf, involves the pronunciation of the f: ‘urf.’ However, when said in the plural, French speakers drop the f sound and say ‘uh’: des œufs (‘des uh’). Poirot, however, on both occasions persists incorrectly with the f and says ‘urfs.’

If it is an incorrect pronunciation that exposes Hardman’s act, then by the same token Poirot’s incorrect pronunciation exposes his own act. That is, if it is because he cannot correctly pronounce words that Hardman is revealed as not Hardman, then because he cannot correctly pronounce words, Poirot is similarly revealed as not Poirot. In other words, it is because of an f that the Poirot of Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as a fake.

What are we to make of this?

On a primary level, we can simply say that it is an error that any actor (here, Kenneth Branagh) might make when saying words in a language that is not his own. That is, the slip is meaningless – the sort of slip that should not be the basis of an entire argument about the film.

But, given that the film itself involves sleuthing based upon such slips, then by the film’s own standards, we can mount a case against the film as a result of its linguistic inaccuracies. If Hardman’s slip is deliberate, in the sense that it provides a clue as to the real nature of what it is that we are witnessing, then so must we read Branagh/Poirot‘s slip as deliberate.


Hercule Poirot finds himself on a train where 12 people have gathered ritually to murder a man (Edward Ratchett/John Cassetti, played by Johnny Depp) who himself abducted and killed a child in the USA some time prior to the titular train journey taking place. Each has a link to the victim and the victim’s family – and each is sufficiently devastated by the original murder that they are willing to take part in the murder from which the novel – and subsequently the film – takes its name.

The film presents to us as if it is by chance that Poirot happens to be on the titular train. Indeed, the murderers would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for the pesky Poirot’s presence – and an avalanche that happens to keep the train stuck for a day or more near Brod, in what at the time of the film’s setting (1934) was the recently formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and which today finds itself in the Muslim-majority country of Kosovo.

But what are the odds that all of these people with a connection to Cassetti happen to be on the same train – at precisely the same time that the world’s greatest detective happens to be there, too?

As the odds are extremely slim that so many people with connections to Cassetti can be on the same train as him by chance, so, too, are the odds slim that Poirot would be on the same train as all of these people and as Cassetti by chance.

Indeed, as it is not by chance that all of these same people are on the same train as Cassetti (they are here specifically to murder him), so might it also not be by chance that Poirot is on the same train. For, as Hardman is not Hardman, so is this Poirot not Hercule Poirot.

Instead, as indicated by his fake f, this Poirot is in fact an actor playing the part of Hercule Poirot – the world’s greatest detective – precisely so that he can uncover the crime and then use his credentials as a great moral arbitrator in order to excuse those who commit the murder of Cassetti.

That is, this Poirot is not on the train by chance, but, like all of the 12 perpetrators, he is equally on the train as a result of engineering. This Poirot is there not just to uncover the murder, but to justify the murder. He is part of the plot to allow murder to happen justifiably. For if the world believes that even Hercule Poirot allows these people to get away with murder, then everyone will allow these people to get away with murder. It is necessary to fake Poirot’s presence in order to justify murder.

But why do this?

On one level, this must be done in order to keep the train’s owner, Bouc (Tom Bateman), at bay. Where Bouc might otherwise blow a whistle about the murder, thanks to Poirot’s presence and his condonement of the killing, Bouc will keep quiet and let the killing happen ‘in peace.’ Bouc thus is a kind of bouc émissaire, or scapegoat, for the murder – not because Bouc literally takes the rap for what happens, but because Bouc’s naïve belief in the fake Poirot reconfirms (the fake) Poirot’s (fake) verdict that the killers are justified in their actions.

Except that Bouc specifically invites Poirot to take the train when Poirot is called to London to investigate the Kassner case. That is, Bouc is necessary in order to corroborate that this curious man whom we see is Hercule Poirot, while at the same time providing the necessary setting for the murder to take place. Bouc is in on it, too.

It is not simply that Poirot is part of the plot to murder Cassetti, then. It may even be that Poirot – this fake Poirot – is the mastermind behind the plot, a man playing the role of the Belgian detective in order to allow a murder to happen that he himself will expose and then condone precisely so that it takes place without consequence.

What evidence do we really have that Ratchett is Cassetti? None. That is, we have 12 liars who insist that this man is Cassetti, a child murderer who was never caught and the evidence for whose crime is never revealed to us. And then we have the word of a fake Poirot, whose explanations of the crime may be ingenious – but they explain to us neither who has been killed nor why.

Murder in Yugoslavia, or more specifically Kosovo, is therefore justified by the word of a fake authority. Indeed, because of the authority of a fake Belgian who justifies it, it becomes the perfect murder. Collective murder is perfect.

At the outset of the film, we see Poirot asking for the eggs that are the centre of this argument. Four minutes, he says, which presumably means that Poirot likes his eggs with a bit of unboiled snot in them given that five minutes is in my experience the best time to achieve a soft-boiled egg – give or take 30 seconds depending on the size of the egg.

(Furthermore, the boiling point of water falls with decreasing atmospheric pressure, and so it takes longer to cook an egg when one is at a higher altitude, since the boiling water there is not as hot and thus not as speedy a cooking medium as it would be at sea level.)

Having received two eggs that simply by appearance he does not like, the fake Poirot dismisses them and demands two more, which duly arrive.

Poirot (the fake Poirot) then takes out a ruler and measures the eggs, even though the eggs are visibly not the same size.

What is more, having dismissed the initial pair of eggs, he now accepts the second set of eggs, even though they are visibly disparate – and even though measuring them will not help him to know whether they have been boiled for the four required minutes.

In other words, first the insistence, then the refusal and then the nonsensical measurements are carried out in order to convince those around him (and we viewers) that this man is Hercule Poirot, the sort of man who would do such nitpicking. But of course, this is simply a performance by an impostor.

When Poirot makes it on to the Orient Express, he is served two much more equally-sized eggs for breakfast by the train steward Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari). How Michel knows to prepare the eggs this way is not revealed to us – and this is Poirot’s first experience on the titular train. In other words, Michel would seem already somehow to know Poirot. And Michel will eventually be revealed as yet another part of the plot to kill Ratchett, whom the murderers also claim to be Cassetti.

What is more, when Ratchett endeavours to employ Poirot to protect him from what he senses is imminent danger, Poirot (the fake Poirot) refuses – in part because he does not like Ratchett’s face.

In other words, not only would it seem that Poirot (the fake Poirot) is known in advance to at least one – but perhaps more – of the criminals who murder Ratchett. But it would also seem that Poirot himself has something against Ratchett. Perhaps it is for this reason that this detective who jumps up and who leaves his berth upon the slightest sound also somehow manages to sleep through 12 humans piling into a berth, stabbing a man and leaving again… because he also was a part of it.

But then who is this fake Poirot?

When the fake Poirot arrives at Istanbul train station with Bouc, he is told that there is no room left on the train – and that he therefore cannot travel in spite of his friend Bouc’s promise that he can.

At the last minute, however, someone suggests that an Englishman named Harris has not made it on time to catch the train. Passengers must arrive 30 minutes before departure, otherwise they forfeit their right to travel – and Harris has not arrived before departure and therefore cannot travel.

What has happened to Harris? Harris may have forgotten or missed his train. Or, given that Harris was otherwise booked on to a train where all of the passengers and even some of the staff members know each other, as an outsider he has been conveniently forced to miss the train – so as not to disrupt the murder that is about to take place (Harris is the victim of a second, earlier murder?).

Or, more simply, Harris does take the train. For the man who claims to be Hercule Poirot is really an Englishman called Harris, hence his inability correctly to pronounce the plural for eggs in French (des œufs/des ‘uh’).

Perhaps it is for this reason that MacQueen (Josh Gad) initially expresses surprise at seeing Harris/Poirot – for he does not recognise his friend in disguise, prompting Harris/Poirot to express his own dismay at MacQueen’s appearance. That is, Harris is indirectly expressing his own disappointment at having to look like Hercule Poirot.

Everything that follows is persiflage, pure show, or simply noise like the whistle of a train (per-siffle-age), including a somewhat nonsensical ‘action’ sequence in which Poirot chases MacQueen along a wooden bridge.

Indeed, this would explain the highly theatrical opening of the film, too, in which the fake Poirot supposedly solves the case of a missing treasure of which a rabbi (Elliot Levey), a priest (David Annen) and an imam (Joseph Long) are accused of stealing.

The fake Poirot himself points out that this is almost a joke scenario to the assembled crowd, who for some reason accept that a trial can or should take place in the open air and under the authority of a fake detective hired by the British government. That is, the trial is indeed a joke.

For, it becomes immediately obvious that there are not just the three religious men involved in this case, since the fake Poirot quickly explains to us that the last person to see the triumvirate was the British Police Chief Inspector (Michael Rouse).

We are told that Poirot (the fake Poirot) solves this crime as a result of a mark left by a shoe on a painting that lines the wall beneath the treasure. But far more simple a solution is to include among the suspects the very man who has known to accuse these three religious figures in the first place.

In other words, the ‘trial’ at the film’s opening is a pure show, a sham that is also put on in order to convince the assembled crowd and we viewers that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot.

The Chief Inspector supposedly steals the treasure, but it seems more logical to this viewer that the crime itself is a set-up so that the trial can be staged and so that the fake Poirot can be inserted into the story world.

That is, the fake Poirot is really engineered by the British – not to sort out who is responsible for the looting of valuables in Jerusalem (where the film opens), but in order to justify the British looting of valuables from Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Empire.

Supposedly called to London for the Kassner case, the British have in fact set Harris up as Poirot so that he can go on to the Orient Express to mastermind and then to justify the murder of Ratchett.

Why do this? Because Ratchett, too, is involved in the business of buying and selling antiques, including fake ones. That is, Ratchett wants to get involved in the very same racket that the British are operating throughout their Empire: stealing antiquities and replacing them with fakes that are sold at high cost.

As an upstart possible competitor, Ratchett must naturally be neutralised – otherwise the claims to power of the British will be exposed as fake. The Empire will be exposed as fake, its pretences to power merely an illusion staged to fool the assembled crowds that its figures of authority (the so-called Poirot) are in fact more powerful than their religious authorities (the rabbi, the priest and the imam).

Only two people will know the identity of the murderer, says the fake Poirot: God and Hercule Poirot. But if Hercule Poirot does not exist, then God may not exist. Or if Hercule Poirot is fake, then God may also be fake. That is, all who claim to be authorities on this Earth are fake, actors in a spectacle that is put on in order to create the illusion of power and in order to convince the spectators to believe in that illusory power.

(It is by this token important that the fake Poirot exposes corruption among the occupying British forces – the supposedly criminal Chief Inspector. In doing so, the fake Poirot would claim to show that the British bring their own people to justice – in the process covering over how the system of Empire will itself never be brought to justice. That is, the small crime is used as a mask for the massive crime that is taking place in broad daylight: the undermining and replacement of the local figures of authority for the purposes of ransacking the territory that the forces of Empire are infiltrating.)

Given the presence among the perpetrators on the train of three to five further Americans – MacQueen, the fake Hardman, Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr), the fake Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and the fake Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) – it would appear that the British are not alone in ransacking the rest of the world.

Let us not also forget the Russians, including Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin), who seems expressly to take pleasure in the murder (as well as being prone to violence in general).

The group is rounded out by naturalised Americans Biniamino Marquez (Manuel García-Rulfo) and Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), as well as British citizens with strong American ties, including Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi), as well as Jewish émigrée Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman).

In other words, the major world powers are all united in a front to frame and to justify the murder of a man, Ratchett, whose crime is to seek to get involved in their game. Whose crime is to seek also to be a criminal. And who for his effrontery is branded a child abductor and murderer such that his assassination for theft and the peddling of fakes becomes morally justified.

When the fake Poirot performs his charade of egg inspection before a young boy (Yasine Zeroual), the fake Poirot explains that the disparity in size is not the fault of the eggs, but of the chicken. Or rather, that it is an inexplicable mystery.

To what end this prologue, which does not appear in the novel?

Perhaps Branagh is trying to tell us that as no two eggs are the same, so are a film and a novel not the same. That is, one can never get the original to match the copy. And so Branagh is suggesting from the very beginning that this is a fake version of Agatha Christie’s story that we are watching – and that it would be pointless to try to get the one to match the other.

Similarly, the film’s opening by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem does not happen in the novel, which rather opens in Aleppo, and which sees Poirot travel by train (on the Taurus Express) to Istanbul, rather than by boat (as happens in this film).

We have already established how the film’s opening takes place simply for show – in the sense that it is a show designed to convince the world that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot and that the British are thus justified in their dominion over Jerusalem (which of course the British celebrate as being theirs whenever they patriotically sing the hymn ‘Jerusalem,’ as written by William Blake, to whom we shall return shortly).

But here the opening with its overhead shots, its supposedly reliable flashbacks to the dispute between the rabbi, the imam and the priest are all designed to convince us not just of the authority of the fake Poirot, but of the authority of the film.

This is especially clear in the fake Poirot’s illusory ability to predict the movements of the Chief Inspector. Firstly, he sends a guard to stand at the south gate in advance of denouncing the supposedly corrupt policeman, while also placing in the wall his walking stick, which eventually the fleeing Police Inspector will run into.

But this miraculous ability to predict the future is not so much magic as simply stage management: it is easy to seem to predict the future when it has been prearranged in advance for the policeman to go to the south gate and then to run into the walking stick.

In other words, the film wants us to believe in the power and authority of the film, when all of this is really staged, a fake that is a far cry from Christie’s novel. This is not Murder on the Orient Express that we are watching, but a fake film created by an impostor.

Put differently, cinema as a whole is an illusion machine that is used to give authority to those who peddle it. Like Ratchett, of whom the fake Poirot and his friends must get rid, cinema passes off fakes as if real, making handsome profits in the process while also stealing real local treasures via Empire, and as rendered here through the use in this film of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.

Which of course is not the real Wailing Wall, but a fake filmed in Malta.

More than this. As the fake Poirot is put into motion in order to justify the murder of Ratchett, so is cinema put into motion in order to justify murder more generally. As the disappearance of Ratchett is a conspiracy between the British, the Russians, the Americans and various naturalized Americans, so is the disappearance of Aleppo, for example, a conspiracy that is made to look like a struggle between the major world powers.

The point that I wish to make is not specifically about Aleppo, nor Palestine which was the nation in which Jerusalem resided at the time in which the film is set.

Rather, I am using Aleppo and Palestine here as examples of Empire and the role that cinema plays in the continuation of Empire. In bringing this fake magic trick to the world, the power of those who create cinema is justified.

The film regularly features extended sequences filmed from the exterior of the train, such that the train itself becomes a ‘character’ in the film. We might venture further yet, though, and suggest that it is not simply as if the train itself were a key player in the events that are unfolding, but as if the train demanded these events.

That is, the train is like cinema a tool for the creation of modernity. And what is modernity? Modernity is the creation of a system of power whereby some use the trickery of technology in order to demonstrate their power over others, whom they then ransack in order to consolidate their power – a perfect feedback loop of empowerment.

But this empowerment of some over others also involves the disempowerment of others for the benefit of some. This disempowerment is in effect murder. As a human seeking to become god kills others in order to use their life force and blood in order to prolong, increase and perhaps render permanent their own, so does modernity involve the sacrifice of many to sate the claims to divinity that a few are trying to make.

Naturally, anyone who sees through this fakery and who aims to achieve their own power must be removed – hence the murder of Ratchett. Revolutions, or not to believe the proclaimed divinity of those who would have power, and to seek to establish via the same means one’s own power, similarly requires suppression, or else power will not be consolidated but distributed.

(It would seem all too human for humans to seek to become gods.)

In order for power to take on magic qualities that reinforce its power (power as appearance), power also seeks to hide its origin. As the projector from which images originate is hidden in the cinema, so is the provenance of power generally hidden. Power comes as if from nowhere, via sleight of hand. It is magical. And thus its authority is not to denied since it is beyond the ken of other, uninformed humans.

The status of Murder on the Orient Express as a Maltese-American co-production, then, functions as a means to hide the film’s own source of power (and that of cinema more generally). This is a film that comes from a ‘small’ place (Malta), but which really just reaffirms the big interests of cinema (Hollywood) – with Malta itself a screen enabled by the tax breaks that drew the production to it in the first place, and which tax breaks function as an invitation to under-pay local, Maltese workers, thereby justifying under-payment and exploitation as a whole.

What is more, as Malta functions as the home of an infamous Masonic order, and as small islands generally function as tax havens, or what the recent leak of documents would confirm to be ‘paradises’ on Earth (or what Nicholas Shaxson further defines as islands of [stolen] treasure), so does the presence of Malta in this production function as a means of burying treasure, turning theft into an illusion – something the reality of which cannot be proven, and which therefore is both godly and not real. To believe in it is to be an insane conspiracist. To be part of it is never to be discovered.

This is how Empire functions: power is nominally regulated through the creation of taxation systems, with the powerful then placing themselves outside of the jurisdiction of such regulation. Regular humans who are too stupid to be crooks are punished for their honesty (their money is stolen from them, and they receive next to nothing in return), while the so-called gods are never punished for breaking the rules that they impose upon other people.

(Europe/the West must be defended from Islam by the Knights Templar of the Order of Malta, a specifically Christian group that aims to put down the revolutionary religion of Mohammad, who is not divine but human, and so who threatens to undermine the claims to divinity of other humans. Murder in Kosovo is justified.)

And what of William Blake? The fake Poirot is called to London for the Kassner case. To what might this refer? Perhaps it refers to the work of author Rudolf Kassner, the man who translated Blake into German and who also was influenced by Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy is a novel in which fabulation becomes impossible to tell apart from truth as we are presented with illusion after illusion.

(Tristram Shandy as a deconstruction of power, and as a deconstruction of cinema avant la lettre/avant la caméra. In famously featuring a black page, Tristram Shandy renders itself antithetical to cinema, which relies upon darkness, but which cannot make darkness visible since this would be to bring to light and to humanise its otherwise invisible and would-be divine workings.)

(And so the ‘Jerusalem’ of Empire is not the real Jerusalem; it is a fake, builded elsewhere in England. But in building that fake Christian as opposed to that multi-faith Jerusalem, so are the dark Satanic mills of Empire put into motion.)

It is a kind of Blakean demonic energy that Ron Rosenbaum attributes to Adolf Hitler in a bid to explain his ascent to power – as if Hitler were the ultimate revolutionary little man born to rob power back from the gods in which he did not believe, and who thus provoked global war as the gods naturally demanded his blood to prove that Hitler was human as Hitler demanded blood to transcend his humanity and to become a god. With their nuclear light, the winners of the war demonstrated that they verily were gods.

The fake Poirot is perhaps, then, called to investigate the rise of Hitler and the role that literature, translation and perhaps even cinema played in that rise. Hitler is one more upstart, like Ratchett, whom the fake Poirot and his British, American and Russian friends must help to put down in order to perpetuate the balance of power as is. America, Britain and Russia may squabble over who has most power between them, but these squabbles merely cover over the bigger question of why they have power at all. They are a cinematic show that plays out so that people believe in their divinity as they rob the world of its treasures, selling back fakes to make yet more money and to consolidate all power in their own hands.

So for the sake of an f, Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as fake.

Or perhaps a simple show of ignorance on the part of Kenneth Branagh (he does not know how to pronounce his œufs) sets in chain a conspiracy theory that nonetheless reveals the very humanity and not the divinity of the world’s systems of power – and the role that cinema plays in creating and maintaining them.

Or perhaps this is just idle conspiracy theoretical fabulation, patterns where there only is chaos, and to be disproved in an ongoing apocalypse of false idols.

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Fifteen thoughts about Flatliners (Niels Arden Oplev, USA, 2017)

1. Resuscitated films end up being haunted and made to feel bad by their past. Kiefer Sutherland is on hand to ensure that this is so.

2. In the contemporary age, suicide becomes the logical extension of the pressure to work oneself to death (and not to be a loser who simply works and goes home at the end of the day).

3. Computers are the urns in which we are always placing our remains.

4. Rich kids are not really haunted by feelings of guilt for their past sins. They in fact love their demons and accept even the most insincere of apologies – because they never really needed one.

5. The future of medicine is the preserve of the already-rich. They will play god with the lives of the poor who come to visit them. Medicine becomes like sport as doctors compete with each other to satisfy their narcissism.

6. “Why do you like me?” asks Nina Dobrev to Diego Luna after they have just boned. “Because you’re really hot,” he answers. Dobrev, her head on Luna’s chest, looks away with a satisfied glint in her eye: yes, I am, she is thinking. And even though Luna then adds that he was joking and that he likes her because she really cares about people, we all know that she does not care about anyone but herself and the only reason that he likes her and the only reason why anyone would like this film is because… she is really hot.

7. If the film is really a celebration of Hot People Boning, this all gets censored out in the UAE (where I saw this film). Meaning that the even less sense that the film makes… actually highlights precisely the senselessness of the film.

8. Death involves seeing oneself as if from outside one’s own body: death is basically the selfie stick/the selfie stick basically offers us a glimpse of death.

9. The fact that death comes back into life after the kids flatline would suggest that really these kids are already dead (inside).

10. People drive cars way too young in the USA. In being a film in which a woman (Ellen Page) is haunted by her sense of guilt after killing someone while answering her phone at the wheel, then it is not just a remake of a 1990s mediocrity, but it is also a remake of Lucrecia Martel’s Mujer sin cabeza/Headless Woman (Argentina/France/Italy/Spain, 2008). As we shall see, as that film is an expression of bourgeois guilt (or a lack thereof) for centuries of exploitation, so, too, is this film (although this does not make it any good).

11. As selfies are a channel through which we can see our own dead bodies, so are mobile phones a channel through which we speak to the dead. That is: mediation takes us away from direct human contact as we prefer instead phantom contact, or contact with phantoms.

12. The Mexican does not need to flatline – because as per Octavio Paz and the character who comes from the place where they celebrate El Día de los Muertos, he is basically already dead, too.

13. Privilege is based upon geopolitical exploitation and murder. But if you have it within you to forgive yourself, then it is okay to be a Nazi.

14. This recalls Slavoj Žižek‘s old observation that it is only when captured that Nazis tended to kill themselves – thereby exemplifying the public nature of shame, which is unbearable, versus the private nature of guilt, with which we can live. The film would seem to suggest a renewed era of shamelessness: I am shamed, but I basically can live with it – because I do not care (and because I am Really Hot). With the ongoing interest in figures like Eva Mozes Kor in mind (hat tip to the wonderful film scholar Leshu Torchin), one wonders that the forgiveness of victims only adds to the sense of shamelessness. Odd though this may sound, perhaps it is not for victims to forgive. Only God forgives. And if we do not think that this is so, then we are opening the door to new fascisms.

(And if there is no God, then we need a Law that can forgive. And if we have no universal Law as the guilty walk free, then who knows what is to happen? As the oppressed forgive their oppressors, then either we live in a world in which the oppressors are correct to oppress the oppressed, since neither God nor Law will judge them, and really there is no human equality, but only entitled superhumans and subjugated subhumans – many species as we cling to the illusion that really we are one species… or we must invent equality, change the Law, invent God, and give those self-proclaimed homines dei something really to be afraid of. The thing that the homo deus fears most in his belief that he is the summum of evolution… is revolution.)

15. Sex is a theme that runs throughout the film: slut-shaming; being a slut for having a one-night stand; paying for an abortion after a liaison with a working-class woman. Having a sexuality appears as more shameful than anything else, and at least on a par with murder – even though sex is designed to create and not to end life. Sex is shameful because it reveals mortality and failure in an era when one is supposed to live forever. In this way, sexuality has become death, an admission of mortality and of a body – as opposed to being an image, a selfie taken from outside one’s own body – about which one ought to be ashamed (it is only after flatlining that the Really Hot People can bone).
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