Lesson in Leadership

According to Wikipedia, the director of this month’s film Muhammad Rasoulof was arrested on the set of his next film and sentenced to six years prison. None of his films have been released in Iran. How frustrating and isolating it must be for an artist to have his work banned in his own country, much less be put behind bars for it. I cannot fathom why any government would wish to persecute an artist whose work exhibits such compassion for humanity.

“Iron Island (2005),  is the third film from Iran in our series entitled Films of Our Enemies. With these essays I declare my interdependence with the vast majority of humans alive on the planet today. Nothing beats travel to foreign destinations, but global cinema offers us deep insight into those cultures and provides abundant evidence of our common cause. Foreign film provides us with rich opportunities to soak up culture. I will use this film to talk about community building and leadership. That alone is reason enough to watch this film, although there are others.

I have heard some viewers of this film refer to the protagonist, Captain Nemat, as malicious. I came away thinking of him as a saint. His keen industriousness is defined by his forthright conduct and omnipotent accounting book. His spiritual dedication and maturity is evident in his instinct for swift resolution as well as his ever-faithful invocation, “As-salamu alaykom.”

The translation means, “peace be upon you.” It must be a peace loving people that imbues their most common personal greeting with that wish. Nevertheless the children in the makeshift school onboard the ship all have to ask who the enemy is. We grown-ups are really confronted with the senselessness of such concepts when children have to be taught in school who the enemy is.

While there is a Romeo and Juliet sub-plot embedded in “Iron Island,” it does not end in double suicide, because the film is not about the pitfalls of arranged marriage. It can’t be the main point.

It does, however, make the position of the story’s hero all the more sympathetic. In judging between romantic impulse and the letter of the law, the Captain is bound by the latter. Just one of many conundrums that confront a true leader.

Captain Nemat is not a schemer or a tyrant. His behavior is never heartless, even at his harshest. His intent is to sustain collective hope. Here is a role model with the responsibility for a lot of folks on his shoulders and he must angle in a number of streams, simultaneously, to fish out enough cash to keep this boat afloat. One gets the impression Nemat could go anywhere and create something fine. His genes stoked him with genius for founding sustainable communities pairing forgotten folk with abandoned machines.

A truly enlightened leader understands the greatest resource in the world is a healthy society. Here’s one that occupies itself inventing sustainable strategies for the benefit of the common good.

That boat is an allegory for sustainability and Nemat’s method, a model for survival. Underneath the shell of that rusting hulk exists a community. Cooperation is in constant ebb and flow.  Its leader is not without flaws and his model is imperfect at best, but the place is way better than no place for the majority that call it home.

The Captain is performing a supreme service. Even so, that doesn’t make their home impervious. When the speculators arrive to take it away, the boat’s inhabitants are grounded. The captain must devise a back-up plan, on the spot, under the grilling gaze of the sun. And like a true leader, so that hope may prevail, Nemat devises one.

The brazen spectacle of predatory speculators, storming the ship like pirates, evicting the its inhabitants and snatching that ashcan utopia out from under them, cranks up the contrast between greed and generosity to its most stark.

The filmmaker projects Captain Nemat as an example of how compassionate leadership can inspire and lead the collective to do its part. No matter how adrift we are or how tenuous the situation becomes, our best hope and the surest way to a sustainable future is on a path of heart.

Working Class Hero

This film and its filmmakers should also be praised for the way it so perceptively elucidates the predicament of the Middle East. What will become of these Biblical descendants? This is the end of the world, as they know it. What will keep those countries afloat after the fossil fuel boom? What is the leadership doing to assure a smooth transition for its children?  The opening sequence in “Iron Island” takes place in the dark. A pair of hands lights a match and attempts to light a lamp. But it’s not so easy. The hands are obliged to light a candle first, then find a lamp with some fuel in it. We are watching the passing of flame from one source to another, each one more technical and sophisticated than the previous. It suggests that there are degrees of industrialization that correspond with stages of enlightenment. Multiple levels of evolutionary processes are on parade in this allegory.

From my seat in the movie theater, here is the symbol (visual equivalent of words) for the role that the main character plays throughout the movie. He’s a candle, not a lamp. He is a leader, not a plunderer. He founds a cooperative, not a congregation, nor corporation or state. He is a civic genius, empowering the people he serves so that they can govern themselves. Which candidate does he most resemble in the 2016 primary election?

In “Iron Island,” it is corporate commerce that sinks their hopes. Captain Nemat sees a sustainable community. The speculators see a sinking vessel, and its value as scrap metal. Captain Nemat is clearly not a classic power broker. He’s a grassroots organizer, helping common people survive day to day. It is because he listens to folks that they give him their trust. He serves the common good by the way he aggregates the many small socio-economic contributions of individuals and cultivates them into a meek but mighty unit that can accomplish everyday living in peace.

With a beautifully staged scene of a Berber wedding on this iron island, the filmmaker manages to make us consider. Arranged marriages tend to perpetuate class distinctions, ultimately leading to racial inequality, fed by superstitions.  Some things are slow to change. The way Captain Nemat deals with the situation is meant to to remind us what exceptional character and responsibility it requires to be a positive, contributing member to society.

Rich people can always seem to find a way around these tribulations buying influence over regulations, but a poor man is held to the letter of the law. The method of punishment employed by Captain Nehmat in response to this Romeo’s mutiny is an elegant cinematic punctuation mark, an allegory, in itself. The point being that the poor are drenched in their circumstances, at the mercy of all, at the verge of drowning any minute in accelerating misfortune.

We are treated to this amazing sequence where the punished and punisher appear to be captives of the same trap. They are fatefully connected by the machinery of punishment; a ritual as old as civilization.

The boy and girl’s clandestine attachment is not central to this story, but it is essential to the message. We all dream of social harmony where family feuds are settled and racial distinctions are not distractions. One might find puzzling the decision by the director to open the story with a minor character, the lovelorn boy Ahmad, instead ofthe story’s true protagonist, working class hero Captain Nemat. The answer comes when the story closes with on a sequence featuring an even more minor character, a younger orphan who slips away, like the the baby fishes he’s been liberating that have been sucked through a small hole in the submerged hold of the boat. He is last seen returning to the sea, aimed for some fishermen’s nets that will eventually become the tools of his work.

Compassion cracks the shell of hand-me-down prejudice


The film discussed in the next two posts is from the Middle East. With the assistance of global cinema a we descendent of immigrants living in the US, such as myself, can acquire compassion for a flat-broke Palestinian youth living under occupation in the Holy Land. The film may be a commentary on the downstream consequences of genocide. It is also a buddy flick. The action might be described as the confrontation of a terrorist by a feminist or, the makings of a great love story gone to waste.

In contacting compassion for its desperate anti-hero, I do not condone what he ends up doing. The splash of compassion this movie solicits is not about giving a free pass to a jackass. It is merely a baby step toward understanding how a young man turns into one in the first place. None of what I say about him is intended to excuse what he does, but after hearing him make his case, no wonder its a death wish.

In the opening scene of Hany Abu-Hassad’s “Paradise Now” (2005), Suha, an alert, young Palestinian woman pauses in a crossroad and stares at a boarder checkpoint. She’s stradeling a modern day war zone. On this side of the fence it’s a seaside metropolitan city, the other has been reduced to a massive, concrete, tossed salad, from being relentlessly pounded on by a first rate war machine.

Smartly attired Suha strides up to a heavily defended tunnel. This border crossing turns out rather revealing. A guard standing back a couple yards raises his rifle and hooks his finger to the trigger.  She’s crossing back to Palestine, mind you, not trying to get out. Yet, before being readmitted she must hand over her bag and passport to a soldier outfitted for combat.

The soldier’s hungry gaze never lets up, except when pawing through the clothes in her bag. He checks her visa and discreetly plays a little game with her upturned palm, slapping her passport down a touch later than anticipated, disrupting the rhythm of their routine.

He thinks she’s hot. She’s chill; her gaze becomes impregnable. Ironic, is it not? How erotic interest temporarily overwhelms his prejudice. Can such notions of unreconcilable divisions make any sense at all if overlooked conveniently for the sake of sex?

Once she has cleared the fence, the day to day reality in which Suha is pressed to seek refuge could not be better described than Armageddon. That presumes you know the old stories. That crossroads and tunnel echo each other, drawing attention to symbolic potential. Couldn’t it ironically represent the birth canal of the laboring woman in the last book of the bible, at the mouth of which the dragon hovers ready to devour?

Suha is just passing through that day, a sample citizen, one of millions that clings to their ancestral home, despite an utter absence of calm. No matter what the spiritually minded young man in this story does from here on, regardless of the viewpoint we lean toward, or which consequence of his actions holds most significance to us, this film is about a young woman alive today in the Holy Land preaching non-violence in an ultra-violent place.

After Suha’s border crossing, the emphasis of the action on screen shifts to her friend Said. But the story  always belongs to Suha and by extension, the story  always remains ours. What happens to us? How does leaving a mess for the rest of us accomplish anything but more disgrace?

Suha is not the protagonist. Said, her love interest, is. So why are we introduced to her in such a loaded setting, in the opening sequence of a story if it were meant to be about him? Could be a statement about the impotence of the terrorist. If martyrs are moths, we follow this one to learn what consumes this one in flames and the other one, not. Yet the moral of the story doesn’t seem to be about some prized outcome gained at ultimate cost. But much more about who gets left behind and what gets lost.

The unravelling of Said’s life begins like this. He and his best friend hit a social and economic cul-de-sac. Getting sacked at a junkyard Palestine. It doesn’t get much lower than that. Still, in a different story all together it could have signaled a major turn around for Said when Suha comes to to fetch her car. Said applies sweet talk, suggesting she drive off in an Alfa Romeo instead. Suha extracts the essence of romance from Said and rejects all the rest.“Actually, I don’t care about cars, but the name sounds nice. Alfa Romeo.” Note the anti-materialist stance.

The scene ends with a subtle foreboding of what’s to come. “Will I see you again?” she asks? He answers, “En Shallah,” on account of his pending suicide, although she doesn’t know about it yet. “If God wills” is the translation; the significance behind those words, she can not help but underestimate, at this point. That will soon change. Her father was a martyr. Once she suspects Said’s intent, she’ll argue against it.

“There are other ways to resist than by sacrificing one’s life,” she insists. He claims to be already dead, thanks to his father, who was executed as a collaborationist.

Anyway, Suha’s and Said’s romance becomes stranded, before it can go anyplace, when Said’s religious advisor appoints him to blow himself up in enemy’s face. That story is all too familiar. It has become a regular occurrence in the news these days. I must shy away from descriptions like tragic romance or hero’s journey to explain acts of religiously sanctioned hate.

Multiple viewings of this film are warranted. From our comparatively privileged perspective, the precariousness of these peoples’ predicament is perplexing to say the least. Yet, given the human face this movie paints, it is hard to call those folk “enemy,” except for the kooks of course.

Kooks are the enemies of peace. Other than that, pretty much everywhere I search, it’s what folks want. Avert your eyes from the young lads being groomed to be terrorists, in this flick, and look between the lines. Witness ordinary poor and middle class folks going about their business under severe stress.

In “Paradise Now,” racism wreaks havoc in all directions. Everyone’s a victim. Hand me down prejudices threaten to perpetually poison that part of the world and there is more than enough blame to go around. What perverse indulgence prevents us from cultivating common ground?




Big Wheels Keep on Turning

“You leave us with the consequences.” Suha pleads for forbearance and calm. Said kisses her then flees on foot, flitting from life, like a moth toward a flame.

“Paradise Now,” is a best foreign language Oscar winning film. Whatever people want to say in critique of the lack of diversity evident in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual awards celebration, that this film took away a statue, bears witness what an enlightening influence such an august institution can still have on mass consciousness from time to time.

These films we’ve viewed this summer live and breathe the daily life of the Muslim, none more so that this one. Strip away the wall in the Holy Land, if you can. Life looks surprisingly similar to the average American, shocking as that sounds. No wonder Said’s interactions with his family at home remind me of codes and customs my puritan grandparents practiced in the mid nineteens when I was still at home.

Every film in the past five titles we’ve discussed, acknowledges the ubiquity of traditional ways in the Middle East and beyond. Long practiced, tried and true, certain codes are deeply embedded, but there is a global quantum leap to be made too, ejecting paralyzing agendas.

Materialism is one modern trend, for example, that Muslims try hard to resist in these films. Can we show some respect and not shove it in their faces? You can’t blame orthodox folk for not wanting their sons sporting corporate tattoos on their necks, nor watch their daughters to be strutting fashion runways from the moment they can walk. That stroke of modesty alone should not make them outcasts. It’s hip to be square. It seems evident, by watching these Muslim films that they’d rather not become rotten with the same insatiable lust for stuff in which they observe so much of the first world caught up. What shall we take home from this? The immature response to have would be to make war on them for daring to not be like us. On the other hand,we could stand to reevaluate our relationship to stuff.

Militaries repeatedly keep being deployed here and there to make the world safer for corporations to do business, while often making it more hazardous for the rest of us. One inevitable consequence of iron rule, once it sets in, seems to be, sooner or later it becomes a matter of honor to resist. Much of this has been discussed in previous weblogs on Open Channel Content, such as our series on Sci-Fi. Revolution is like trying to align an earthquake with a hurricane. Mother earth eventually beats everyone. In a world ruled by war, everything is always finding a balance of its own. No one can control it, no matter what. It won’t either be rushed nor slowed down once its been embarked upon, so why be so hasty to be always throwing down?

The endgame of this unsettling tragedy is envisioned unflinchingly, with a masterful tracking shot pushing in, invincibly, like death itself, zeroing in on Said’s transfigured gaze. An explosive chunk of intelligent meat sits there, fit as a flute, in the rear of a bus where he’s somehow gotten himself immersed with a batch of fresh, young recruits. They look like soldiers to us, but in Israel, because of their age, they are looked upon more like first and second year college kids are here; remember, every kid in Israel is committed to serve in the military for two years.

A uniformed boy and a girl sit close together across from Said on a public conveyance. They are flirting. The vengeful, solo, self-crucifixion Said is about to undertake will undoubtedly inflict that budding young romance with the same fate.

Which makes so much sense, since love is the other great treasure Said forfeits along with his life, in this script. If his physical body is his public sacrifice, his relationship with Suha is his private one. As good a reason as any to explain why the last thing we hear on the soundtrack is a girl’s laugh. What could be a better send off and what better way to convey all that Said is throwing away, in that penultimate frame, before the screen goes blank?


Seventh Richest Realm Blues

My initial reaction to “Sequestro Express” was revulsion. I came away with a sense of dead-end dread. After it was over, I had to go search the web for something positive about poor Venezuela. And it wasn’t difficult, especially considering their abundant rainfall feeding the rivers Orinoco and Negro.

The geographic region of Venezuela is the seventh most bio-diverse on earth. What a mother lode of security against uncertain times that is. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Long after resources run out here, they will flow in earth’s seventh richest realm.

Another somewhat less well-known gem is that the state-run gas monopoly practically gives energy away to the citizens of that country. To fill your gas tank in Caracas costs nickels and dimes. I learned this from listening to the director’s commentary track ( included with some supplemental material found on the “Sequestro Express” DVD). Not that I support the expansion of carbon economies, but for the natural resources be treated as if they belong to everyone sounds fair to me.

Likewise, everyone acknowledges Venezuelans are a country renowned for their physical beauty. This is owed to a particularly richly diverse racial fusion. Caucasian bloodlines make up only about forty percent of its population, suggesting pure white, if there ever was such a thing, is hardly attractive by itself.

A brief Wikipedia investigation turned up another nugget. There exists this bizarre meteorological phenomenon, in a land of eternal storm, at the mouth of a river where it flows into a lake. Nowhere else on the planet, supposedly, does lightening strike so consistently than in this place. Titanic storms resound through the clouds and pound the ground, day in and out , for weeks on end. It must be one of the modern wonders. Who can imagine a more shocking plot of land? So now we have something completely different that we can zoom out to for perspective, to maintain an appreciation of that distant country, whose political ideologies clash so much with the US.


Allow me to digress momentarily. I’d like to hit pause and praise the people that help purvey rare and fine films to the public. These are the somewhat invisible agents in the supply chain such as distributors, projectionists, video storeowners and festival programmers. They deserve a fair share of credit for the education we’ve received from watching fine films.

I picked up “Sequestro Express” at Video Library, Santa Fe’s last picture show, where one can still rent movies on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray. Its proprietress, Lisa Harris has helped elevate the minds of her fellow humans with her curatorial savvy for over 35 years.

Thanks to her impeccable taste in foreign films, we have spent all summer looking at cinematic masterpieces from Muslims.  Last year we were treated to seven great ones from one Soviet socialist. Another while back we watched thirteen of the finest Sci-Fi movies of all time. I rented most of them from Lisa Harris. Thanks Lisa for the many fine movie-watching experiences Video Library has helped provide.

Getting back to our movie, the three main obsessions in “Sequestro Express” are crime, cocaine, and Caracas. At least on the surface, this seemed like just one more gangster film not able to hold my interest. If you’ve read my posts, you know my threshold for brutality is low. Images of violence toward women are particularly not my taste. Even though I know it is cooked up just for the camera, it still won’t digest.

The scenario in this movie was so disturbing I had to turn it off after ten minutes. It made me afraid this hideous crime that’s recently taken hold in some low latitude metropolis thousands of miles to the south of here might actually be coming to a neighborhood near me real soon. Despite this, I was determined to feature a Venezuelan title this month in this series on films of our enemies, and there turned out to be so precious few from that northernmost South American nation, I eventually slid this one back in to the player and gave it another glance.

We will continue with Venezuela’s “Sequestro Express,” in the next post…

On Keeping Friends Close and Enemies Closer

I’ve been feeling a need for a change of hemispheres for the next installment in this series on films of our enemies. This batch of dispatches has not been easy to write. It’s my intention not to offend anyone, but things discussed here can be taken for ways other than those intended. Even making the choice of which films are chosen for the series presents a challenge.

Who are our enemies? Terrorists are, we are taught, but terrorists come from all countries and cultures. I’m reviewing films from places that are our enemies in the eyes of the State. So I’m not the one picking sides, my government is. When I analyze films of our enemies, I’m looking for similarities more than differences. The message reinforced by all of them, as far as I’m concerned, is why can’t we be friends?

No matter where filmmakers aim their lens, the overwhelming impression is that people are people everywhere. For instance, why do we consider the thugs in this film our enemies? They appear on one hand as a potent threat, but the story invites us to look beneath appearances, so that we might even take pity on this gang of bloody Caracaqueños, sighting common enemies instead.

As the saying goes, keep your friends close and your foes closer. I was not up to date on which countries in this great, bulging planet my country’s most pissed at, so I scooped up a few low hanging statistics. There are other ways to distinguish a snake from a hiss, but “enemies of America” is something anyone could search the Internet for a list, so that’s what I did.

It goes without saying Russia and Iran are foreign countries that make American kids nervous. That Mexico is considered an enemy threat, I would not have guessed. One of our most trusted trading partners is a nemesis? The place where millions of us vacation every year, we have reason to fear? What more complicated world could there be?

Before my research, I thought surely Venezuela abided higher up the list of terrorist threats, at least, ever since the reign of Hugo Chavez. But, since he’s been out of office for a few years now, Venezuela is pretty far down, as far as risk to the US goes, according to the latest list.

Nonetheless, it makes sense to review “Sequestro Express,” in terms of criminal trends that pose potential threats to the U.S. Latin America has been more thoroughly integrated over the past several hundred years, in our culture, than the Muslim orient ever was. Religious extremists aside, what’s to stop extortionists and racketeers from places like Caracas from working their way up here, if their precious cocaine trade were to disappear.

Caracas is been ranked the world’s most violent place. A hundred violent deaths a day is not uncommon. By contrast, Chicago just recently set an extreme trend with 50- some in one particular weekend. Does that make the average Venezuelan my enemy? I doubt it. The worst character in this sordid drama could be part of a barbarian invasion or just some unlucky bloke acting out his frustration while coming under increasing economic strangulation. One of the things that shocked me in this film is the way the nihilism of the urban youth in capitalist America seems so exaggerated against the backdrop of socialist Venezuela.

The majority of drugs that leave Columbia are consumed in Venezuela. I learned that on the director’s commentary track as well. Things began to deteriorate there with an epic demand for narcotics in the US began to swell. Nevertheless, like gas, cocaine is not a high profit trade on the streets down there. Both cost about a twentieth what it does here. so kidnapping is where the money is. It’s like nab or be nabbed down there, I guess. Now, watch this movie and ask how does someone stuck in that economy steer clear of that mess?

The film’s outlook is so bleak, in terms of where the story begins and ends, I think escaping through one’s art was the best alternative director Jonathan Jakubowicz would able to come up with. Of course, not everyone can do what he did.

It’s such a human trait to undertake drastic measures when pressed. I’m composing this series to prove that the majority of us act for the common good, naturally, whenever we’re inspired to do our best. Each one of these films, in its own way, has proposed that decent folks, under too much stress, on the other hand, can be turned into kooks, leaving wreck and ruin behind to the rest.

Films like this place the sicknesses of society under a magnifying glass. Subjects reviewed on Open Channel Content are chosen to alert and inspire individual to invent remedies for whatever ills become exposed in filming these stories.