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.

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…

Mystic Crystal Revelations

When the image become so loaded, so ravishing and mysterious that you can no longer remember the one that immediately preceded it, then you are probably watching a movie by the next director featured in our series.

From Dryer to Von Trier, bookends of Danish film history, we pan east across the map. The equivalent to any other filmmaker that ever lived, Andrei Tarkovsky has been on my mind the entire time we’ve focused on the Danes. I did some catching up on Von Trier’s and Dryer’s films last winter and can’t help now but speculate on ways that Lars has emulated Andrei and how Carl Theodore informs both.

There are several more films by the Danes that will likely be pulled in to this series. I left off, in the last post, with the latest film by Von Trier who seemed to be employing the very material his story was fashioned to criticize. This makes us somewhat confused as to its intent. Whether or not he intends to do so with his latest double-bill, he provokes enough outrage for some of his audience to question his taste. Ironic how the scenes in his film that people condemn the most, by description at least, are less heinous than the majority of films by say, Martin Scorsese. From “Raging Bull” to “Casino,” we we’ve complimented that master for his vividly portrayed, ruthless protagonists, all of them misogynists.

One could argue misogyny is one of Scorsese’s key preoccupations. Throughout more than half of his prodigious output, he depicts the brutalization of women with unflinching detail. Anyone might argue this point, saying it is not his camera but a certain subspecies of male human being that provides the imagery; his camera just records it. That doesn’t matter to Lars Von Trier. What does is the fact that, while Marty’s martyrs are mostly married to their oppressors and resisting valiantly against the odds, Lars’s leading lady in “Nymp()maniac Vol II” is lusting for the lash and therefore, in league with her violator. Doesn’t that make Von Trier’s (2014) opus, at least in principle, less violent than the domestic bullying of Scorsese’s American gangsters? I’ll move on from this now until someone comes forth with a response. And now for our feature presentation.


It’s relatively easy to study Tarkovsky’s film output. He made two shorts, a documentary and seven fictions. He directed a few stage gigs as well. His father was a poet, as was Bertollucci’s, coincidentally. Tarkovsky, the younger, authored a book as well, “Sculpting in Time (1986) expounding his theories of art and cinema. He died young, like another filmmaking prodigy, Jean Vigo. Vigo was a favorite influence of Tarkovsky’s. Their names are frequently mentioned together. Vigo’s career was even shorter. Besides abbreviated lives, making poetry with cinema is their common bond.

I was introduced to Tarkovsky’s work only about a half dozen years ago with “The Mirror” a Kino Video release on DVD. His fourth film, I’ve watched it more than all the rest. At first viewing, the narrative line seems to be all over the place. As I’ve gotten to know it better, I find it quite intuitive to follow, but the burning forest house in the beginning and the wind-swirled, milk and lace finale leave such lasting impressions, its hard to remember what else happens. Every one of Tarkovsky’s films contains virtuoso passages; surreal, metaphysical dreamscapes designed to repeatedly reset our attention to a state of awe.

“The Mirror” has been labeled Tarkovsky’s most personal film. Some have called it the most beautiful ever made. It incorporates his theories about sculpting time. At the mid-point of the film we are treated to some fascinating documentary footage that seems rather remotely related from what is spliced on either side of it. Clips from a tactical balloon demonstration over an aviation field somewhere inside Russia may seem befuddling at first, especially since it is found footage inserted abruptly after a rather comical passage in which the boy’s Spanish uncle reenacts the climax of a famous bullfight. But what better collision of images would illustrate the sinister alchemy that converts the wonder of childhood memories into the wounds of war? Witness all that military personnel gazing skyward, looking like a yard full of children at play.

In each of his films Tarkovsky leaves amble room in his story for audience interpretation. None more so than this film. Lapses in chronology, character and location occur throughout “The Mirror.” Events unfold in such deliberate dislocation they are not easily committed to memory. He’s not a storyteller in the classic sense. The director was fascinated with capturing eternity and the evanescent in single cinematic moment. For him that is stuff just waiting to be carved out of time, preserved and repeatedly played as a virtual present in our future.

At the same time, he often builds up the his most vivid sequences with themes and elements borrowed from previous virtuoso passages. It’s interesting to think of Tarkovsky’s work like a progression of  symphonic compositions. He uses dripping water like Mozart uses woodwinds. He was in no hurry either. He’s known for extremely long takes that require everyone involved to think carefully about before hand and rewards the patient, alert viewers in his audience.

Case in point, in the opening scene of “The Mirror” a powerful wind blows through a field starting in the background and rolls like a wave over the grassy field into the foreground, connecting the man and woman elementally. It’s a ravishing moment, brimming with passion and possibility.. The couple stand about fifty yards apart. The man turns around and looks at the woman acknowledging the wonder of such a sign, coming from nature at such a moment. The woman is trapped in the past and doesn’t acknowledge a thing. The wind, however, will not be denied and asserts its presence like a spiritual entity, throughout the rest of the film.

Let us pause and expose the layers of preparation that were put in place in order to achieve that stunning effect. It might have required a whole array of wind machines set next to each other, just off camera, turned on and off in impeccable succession to make that wind look like nature’s work. We’re talking about a synchronized dance between camera, crew, tools, actors, the director and nature.  How many in the audience are aware of this well-oiled mechanism while it is happening? Nearly none I’d guess. It was quite an challange, no doubt, but Tarkovsky lets us take it for granted.

There is a prologue to “The Mirror,” a mock television documentary featuring a soviet hypnotherapist curing a young boy of a bad stutter. If “The Mirror” is about memory, and the first frame sums up the entire film in a flash, then how does a speech impediment resemble toxic memories and how does the filmmaker perform the service of a hypnotherapist.

Almost any filmmaker could relate to hypnotism with regard to the art of filmmaking. It’s obviously on Tarkovsky’s mind. He challenges an audiences limitations, time and again, commanding our attention with enigmatic set ups, then exciting our subconscious with a subtly mutating, profoundly transforming sequence of images. These are often achieved in one long, slow take that makes a single statement, standing our expectations on end, then inside out, stopping the world, confronting us with timelessness just long enough for an unforgettable brush with transcendence…

To be continued…