Muslim blogs

Films for the #MeToo Era: The BFI London Film Festival 2018 Round-Up

The Platform - Thu, 11/10/2018 - 14:12

This year’s festival begins with a promising selection of films in an era of bolder social debates

The BFI London Film Festival kicked off last night in ambitious form, with Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen’s female heist drama, Widows. After the violent deaths of criminal gang members, their widows assemble to arrange a robbery aimed at paying off their dead husbands’ debts. An all-star cast includes Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo. Planning the heist leads the women into unexpected conflict with municipal politics, and election candidate Colin Farrell, who is simultaneously fending off both his father’s political legacy and an unexpected challenge from a section of Chicago’s black community. In earlier times, this kind of social panorama would bring to mind the novelistic sprawl of Dickens or Balzac, although the source material here is courtesy of Linda La Plante. The screenwriter is Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, and the backdrop of urban decay in Widows most immediately seems to recall the TV series The Wire.

I won’t reveal whether the heist is successful, but I can tell you that McQueen only partly pulls off his job. A dramatic plot and an intelligent artistry add many effective touches, alternating, however, with too much directorial tricksiness and some clumsiness in the attempts at social commentary. One wishes McQueen had planned things as well as his characters have, who discuss in one scene how much weight their bags can take, for he has stuffed too much into this film for my liking, and the seams show signs of wear and tear.

The other headline gala screenings include the world premiere of Stan & Ollie, an account of the late career of two film comedians played by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly. Yorgos Lanthimos returns for his third entry in four years after The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer with The Favourite, a period drama set in an early 18th-century Britain at war with France. The Favourite offers another strong set of female leads. Queen Anne is played by Olivia Colman, her friend Lady Sarah by Rachel Weisz, and Sarah’s cousin Abigail by Emma Stone. Weisz and Stone compete for the queen’s affections in a film that has been described by the festival organisers as “riotous”. This promises a surprising development for a director who came to prominence with the Greek film movement known as the “weird wave”.

A few films that we at The Platform anticipate with great excitement include Lizzie, the true story of the case of Lizzie Borden, who in 1892 became the main suspect for the axe murder of her father and stepmother, in an affair that may now be reconsidered in light of repression and patriarchy. Assassination Nation promises a revelry in violence, rebellion and other wicked delights, as a group of schoolgirls update the tale of the Salem witch trials in a high-school drama for the #MeToo era.

In a more sedately sardonic vein, Marielle Heller’s Can You ever Forgive Me? continues the new Hollywood trend for retro 1990s with a tale of the literary forger Lee Israel. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of a novel by James Baldwin, as well as the Coen Brothers’ multi-episode film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Alfonso Cuarón’s black and white vision of 1970s’ Mexico City, Roma, are more of the big releases we eagerly anticipate.

Scaring us perhaps for some of the wrong reasons, Luca Guadagnino’s release of Suspiria promises a ‘feminist’ update of Dario Argento’s 70s’ horror classic. Although its screening is still to come, the Call Me by your Name director has reportedly created a sepia-toned two and a half hours – which I fear may replace the lurid delirium of the original with a film aimed more at being the subject of cultivated dinner-party conversation than the unleashing of disrespectable energies of horror. On the other hand, Knife+Heart, a serial killer film set in 1979 in the world of the gay porn industry and starring a wondrous Vanessa Paradis, was the outstanding entry of the pre-festival press screenings. Disco, dildos and death have rarely gone so well together.

Finally, the festival will provide the opportunity to see a number of acclaimed non-English language films that may be difficult to see otherwise on the big screen. Italian director Alice Rohrwacher offers us Happy as Lazzaro (I don’t know why the UK distributors didn’t translate the name as ‘Lazarus’). Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree, on the other hand, continues the Turkish director’s transposition of Chekhovian drama into cinematic realisations of the poignant complexities of unsatisfying relationships, thwarted minor ambition, and the stifling nature of small town life in modern Turkey.

Image from here

Categories: Muslim blogs

On the Kavanaugh/Ford Affair

Imam Zaid Shakir Blog - Tue, 02/10/2018 - 06:38

I do not support the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. My position, however, is based neither on the accusations nor the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I believe that Judge Kavanaugh perjured himself in the Judge William Pryor situation, and that he has proven to be too politically partisan to sit on the Supreme Court. While there are those who will argue that the charge against Judge Kavanaugh in the Pryor issue does not reach the level of perjury, I personally believe that Judge Kavanaugh lied under oath and that nominees to the highest court in the land should be held to the highest standards of truth.

As for Dr. Ford’s accusations, they cannot be used as evidence against Judge Kavanaugh. That is so for a number of reasons. I will confine myself to those which are rooted in Muslim teachings. We read in the Qur’an, “Those who bring charges of sexual improprieties against chaste women, then fail to come forth with four corroborating witnesses, lash them eighty times and never again accept their testimony. Such are truly corrupt” 24:4.

This verse raises several important points of discussion. First of all, Islam does have a high standard to establish proof of sexual impropriety, however, that standard, as clear from this verse, is immediately set to protect the honor of women. It is extended to include that of a man.

Secondly, some may argue that the accusation intended in this verse is that of fornication and that Dr. Ford is not accusing Judge Kavanaugh of fornication. This is true, however, an air of extreme caution should be maintained in slanderous cases involving sexual improprieties less grave than fornication or actual rape. This is affirmed by the verses immediately following the one in question. These verses involve those who started a campaign to impugn Aisha (God be pleased with her) suggesting she had been romantically involved with a young man who honorably escorted her out of the desert after she had become separated from the Prophet’s caravan (peace and blessings upon him) after the Battle of Bani al-Mustaliq.

The gravity of becoming involved in such slanderous campaigns is made clear in those verses, which are referred to as the verses of “Ifk.” We read:

“Those producing a slanderous imputation are a clique among you. Do not think [O believers] that it is bad for you; rather, it is good for you. Everyone (involved in spreading this calumny) is liable for the sin they themselves have earned, while the principal instigator will have a grave punishment. Why is it that when the believing men and women heard it they did not think well of each other and say, ‘This is an obvious lie!’ ‘Why did these accusers not bring forth four corroborating witnesses?’ In that they have not brought forth witnesses they are liars in the sight of God. Were it not for the Grace of God and His Mercy in this world and the next you would have been afflicted with a great punishment for what you involved yourself in. You unleashed your tongues in [spreading such imputations] and spoke with your mouths what you had no knowledge of. You took [such scandal-mongering lightly] while it is extremely grave with God. When you did hear it, why did you not say, ‘We have no right to speak in this matter, gloried are you O God! It is pure slander.’ God admonishes you that you never again engage in such an affair if indeed you are believers.” (24:11-17)

These standards of truth constitute essential teachings in our religion designed to help insure that our societies remain sane and governable. The honor these verses are designed to protect is real, as are the condemnations they issue, as well as the punishments they threaten. If anyone can randomly produce vile accusations against anyone they please, and the only standard of assessing the veracity of those accusations is our subjective feeling concerning the credibility of the accuser or the accused, none of us would be safe against the impugnment of his or her honor.

In light of the teachings of our religion, which also forbid the behaviors laying at the root of this crisis, it is not our place to jump into the raging debate surrounding this aspect of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, as there is not a single soul among us who can confirm that Dr. Ford is telling the truth.

Does this mean that we say are to viciously attack her as some have done? No. It means we are to remain silent and if we choose to speak it should be along the lines of the skepticism mentioned in the above-quoted verses and not with a voice of blind acceptance. In that these verses were immediately revealed to protect the honor of a woman, such an approach would be even more fitting had such slanderous charges been brought, by way of example, against the likes on Justices Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor during their confirmation hearings.

It is a disservice to our people, both Muslim and American, if we join every polarizing controversy without giving any thought to clearly instructive teachings existing in our religion as to how we should approach such issues. That is so because were we to adhere to our principles of conduct we could offer alternative approaches to those sincerely searching for a viable middle ground from which to approach the many burning issues challenging our society.

Such is the case here. We do not dismiss Dr. Ford’s allegations out of hand because we believe Judge Kavanaugh is or has always been such an upstanding individual that such claims are automatically too preposterous or inconceivable to be countenanced. We do, however, demand that she produces corroborating witnesses. Were she to do so we would say she has a legitimate claim which we could support and rally behind. Since she has not we silently avoid voicing any opinion on the issue and if we do speak we do so with a skeptical voice. Other than that we can pray for her and urge her to be patient.

As for those who argue that in the name of justice we must do more than merely pray for her, I would respond that sometimes our hands are tied by the nature of the issues confronting us and that is all we can do under the circumstances. If this were the case for one greater than all of us, how could it not be our case in some instances?

When witnessing the torture of a woman, Sumayya, along her husband, Yasir, and their son, Ammar, the Prophet (peace and blessings of God upon him), realizing there was nothing he could do at that point, urged her and the members of her family to be patient: “Patience, O family of Yasir! Verily, you are promised Paradise.”

Before anyone reading this unleashes accusations of me attempting to pacify our youth or empower oppressors, let me say that this response is not always the case. If we, however, accept as a default position that we are to never urge patience and prayer in vexing situations, when our Lord has commanded us to seek His help with patience and prayer, then we have capitulated to ideas of activism and justice totally divorced from a view of reality that includes God, Heaven, Hell, Divine pleasure and punishment and otherworldly redemption, or we interpret those realities in ways which subordinate their understanding to materialistic conceptual frameworks alien to our religion.

Hence, I sincerely pray that God comforts and protects Dr. Ford and her family and if there is truth to what she alleges that corroborating witnesses come forth. Furthermore, if Judge Kavanaugh’s honor is to be impugned let it be based on what can be unequivocally confirmed from his words or actions and not on the uncorroborated accusations of others, be they male or female. May God bless us all.

Photo image: J. Scott Apple White, Associated Press, at Houston Chronicle, September 27, 2018.

Categories: Muslim blogs

Crazy Rich Asians: Colonial Curiosities and Exotic Fantasies

The Platform - Sat, 29/09/2018 - 19:57

A landmark in ‘Asian’ representation on screen turns out to be less than revolutionary

* Contains mild spoilers

Many Asian Americans proudly turned out to support Crazy Rich Asians (CRA), the first Hollywood studio release with an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club (1993). Despite this pride, activists, writers and scholars from the US, Pakistan and notably Singapore, where a majority of the film is shot and set, have rightly criticised the film for ignorantly celebrating Chinese Singaporeans while not recognising that they are the dominating racial group in the country. Sangeetha Thanapal writes, “The term Chinese Supremacy, most adequately embodies this state of affairs. Racial supremacy by its nature will confer unearned advantages on a particular race – in this case the majority Chinese Singaporeans who are privileged in every aspect of Singapore society […] Minorities only exist in the periphery of the film. Why is this being lauded as revolutionary?”

The term Asian American began to be used in the rising student movement of the 1960s as a self-determined political category that encompassed immigration and labour exploitation, and fought against racism and imperialism. Given this context, CRA’s disregard of the various subjugated Asian and Indigenous people in Singapore seems particularly galling. I use this word in particular – galling – as not only is this hypocrisy annoying, but it also alludes to another meaning of the word: to be worn down by a combination of friction and adhesion between metallic surfaces. Notably, the metals can be different kinds or the same. This disconnect between how the film is celebrated among some Asians in the US while being reviled among some Asians in Asia reveals how the category ‘Asian’ is suffering some wear, by having to encompass political collectives, artistic representations and the diasporas in places as varied as the US and the UK, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Uganda, as well as other Asian countries like Singapore.

Crazy Rich Asians puts a strong emphasis on visual pleasure. Be it glistening wet Asian male torsos, silk chiffon extravaganzas, or gilded brocade wallpaper, the film’s excess is articulated from a position of Asian Americans being denied access to properly indulge in their beauty. Asian ‘things’ – often in the absence of Asian people – have been integral to US cinema, from the design of early 20th century movie palaces to every genre picture: fighting styles in action movies, influences of manga in animation, and science fiction set design. Often this has taken the form of Orientalism, which makes Asia a space of exotic fantasy. Most glaringly, this has led to yellowface or whitewashing of characters so they can be played by white actors.

CRA goes to great lengths to provide an affirmative response to Hollywood’s history of Orientalism. One way is to show Asian people adorned in fashions by Asian designers. Another is to give specificity to the locations it shoots, as well as the Chinese diaspora in Singapore. Unlike the fake Asia of Hollywood backlots, here we have on-location shooting, which often serves as tourist promotion, and even some actors who have connections to Singapore. There are also some scenes that remain untranslated as a way to define a specific Chinese diasporic audience.

Still, amid all these different calls to specificity, I was struck, as Thanapal notes, by the complete absence of Malay and Indian minorities. The Chinese in Singapore are the economically powerful majority – and as frantically laid out in the film by the character Peik Lin (Awkwafina) – came there in the 1800s when it was “a jungle” and built this magnificent real estate empire. Following the scene where she quickly goes through this history through a map on a designer handbag, there is a moment of panic as she and Rachel get lost in a jungle on the way to a party. Out of nowhere, a turbaned brown bearded face emerges in the passenger-side window and then a similar one appears on the driver’s side as well. The women scream in what is a slightly comic moment, as the men in uniform direct them to the private gate where an exclusive party awaits them. A few jokes are made about the men’s bayonets, but we never see or hear from anyone that looks remotely like them for the rest of the film.

The writer Edward Said connected Orientalism with the colonial project of cartography – another visual rendering of colonised space, and a way to make lands that were depicted as alluring, treacherous and mysterious in painting and literature become better known. Significantly, colonial maps did not provide the empirical objective to counter to the exotic fantasy – rather, all these creations supported one another. In response, CRA is an attempt to give a different kind of rendering to spaces and people that have only been seen as dirty, dangerous or exotic. It uses a space where Chinese migrants have cultural and economic power to launch an argument back to over a century of cultural degradation, humiliation and erasure facilitated by the US and Hollywood. While this could have taken the form of a film where the cast of CRA burns every film or comic book with Fu Manchu, accompanied by the excellent CRA soundtrack, instead we are asked to imagine, as Mark Tseng-Putterman notes, “a quintessentially Hollywood – which is to say, white American – story” with Asian faces.

Part of this wilful fantasy is achieved by beginning the film with Eleanor and her family being callously discriminated against by racist London hoteliers. The joke of the scene is that her family immediately buys the hotel, supplanting British wealth with that of the Chinese Singaporean elite. But in focusing on this moment of British racism, which invokes a longer history of British colonialism that affected many different kinds of Asians, we never confront the particular evil of white American racism and specifically that of Hollywood, which makes this film the first in 25 years that every Asian American person and their mother has to go and support (literally, I took and saw several photos during its opening weekend of Asian folks and their mothers). In having a laugh at the uptight white Brits, we also never fully contend with the depths of racism perpetrated by the Chinese in Singapore, whose wealth and dominance is not called into question. Unsurprisingly, this racism is historically connected to collaboration between the Chinese upper class and British colonials.

Even in this film’s new map of the Asian diaspora, it is clear that the enigmatic function of the “Orient” is still deflected onto other (brown) bodies, creatures, landscapes – if only briefly. Whenever we are reminded of “the jungle” – or what Singapore was – we have to put it alongside the narrative of strong, enterprising Chinese immigrant families, and their settler mindset of dominating indigenous people and suppressing the growth of wild animals and plants. This is made literal by the spectacular and fearsome taxidermy tiger in Eleanor’s family mansion. While Rachel is slightly unnerved by the creature, her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) simply jokes that he and his sister would hide their cigarette butts there. Recalling how tigers were exhibited by colonisers to mark their conquering of land, this tiger similarly authorises the Youngs with power over the country, and also diminishes the presence of other Asian people, essentially making them curiosities to display and later neglect, ridicule and waste.

Photo credits: Warner Bros

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Handmaid’s Tale Fails to Challenge Patriarchy

The Platform - Sat, 22/09/2018 - 19:28

The Handmaid’s Tale leaves no room for moral ambiguity in its characters, nor does it present a timely challenge to patriotism.

During its two seasons The Handmaid’s Tale, the series created by Bruce Miller for streaming service Hulu, has become a sort of manifesto for the feminism connected to movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up. A quick look at its plot shows why.

In its dystopian world, inspired by Margaret Atwood 1985’s novel, infertility has reached a peak, and the fundamentalist cult that takes power in the US (renamed Gilead) decides to endow every powerful couple with a handmaid to provide offspring. This takes place through what is hypocritically called “the Ceremony”: a ritual rape in which the “commander” (the handmaids are given a sort of patronymic based on their name, so the protagonist is called “Of-Fred” or “Offred”) engages in intercourses with the handmaid. All this is in the presence of his legitimate partner, who is supposed to maintain eye contact with him while holding the handmaid’s hands. Soon we discover that, behind their pious surface, the commanders indulge in guilty pleasures like illicit sexual relations with the handmaids, or occasional escapades in the secret brothels where those women are kept. The critique of the regime, in other words, is in its hypocrisy, rather than its political aims.

The morbid and undercover sexuality of the commanders is compared to the consent-based and “natural” one of their opponents, as described by Meghan O’Keefe. This is shown by the moments in which Offred (Elizabeth Moss) remembers the sex she had with her previous husband, and the depiction of her relationship with an Eye, a secret spy in the Republic of Gilead, who becomes her ally. This juxtaposition between “perversion” and “nature” is the very position of the regime that the series outwardly condemns – and the same binary applies to biological parenthood, which Offred often uses as a weapon against her commander.

Moreover, the commanders’ sexuality is violent, humiliating and objectifying for the women, but it is also part of the spectacle offered (pun intended, by the show itself of course) to the viewer. In a sequence in season one in which Offred is brought to a brothel, we watch a typical makeover scene, where Offred transforms from her usual monastic handmaid’s outfit into a conventionally attractive woman – not dissimilar to Moss’ red carpet looks at the show’s many awards.

The strategy of condemning while titillating is nothing new in the media. It is precisely what happens in The Handmaid’s Tale, both when it comes to sex as when it comes to violence, as stated by Lisa Miller, who describes the series as traumatising and gratuitously painful. So why has a series that exploits the graphic depiction of abuse gained such popularity among supporters of the #MeToo movement? As Miller writes: ‘the reviewer Willa Paskin noted that watching season one made her feel “almost virtuous,” she wrote, “like diving into a winter ocean.” (…) Wanting to envelope myself in that virtuousness again, in solidarity with the women on screen, I continue to watch.’ Watching (and suffering) establishes a bond with the women on screen, one of closeness and identification with the victim. Such identification, though, has worrying implications.

The first is the paradoxical effect of reassuring the viewer, by giving no space to moral ambiguity. As in a gothic fairy tale, the heroes are good and the villains are evil, with no room for subtleties nor psychological depth. More importantly, the heroes are such in virtue of the coercion they experience, or of the agony they have to endure. As in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Calvary is the only path to redemption – and to the audience’s empathy and admiration. Despite her questionable choices and mistakes, we are always supposed to sympathise and identify with Offred to justify her flaws, due to the oppression she is experiencing. The problem with this is that it seems to confer a redemptive power on pain. The same pain is inflicted on the viewer from the sound, in which the whispering of the characters is set against the suffocating soundtrack, to the dark-blue/dark-red cinematography which underlines the oppression of the protagonist. The aim seems to be the visual mortification of the spectator in a typically puritan concept of guilt and redemption, which is expressed by the “virtuousness” to which writer Paskin refers.

These ideas of nature and pain are not the only problem. The series’ position towards nation and nationalism are more pronounced under Trump’s America. We’ve witnessed how intersectional feminist reactions to Trump have extended beyond simply rejecting female oppression – they address the way the US has used its democratic ideology to hide deep social, ethnic and racial cracks. But instead of the show unpicking the very democratic processes which liberals believe makes America “the greatest country in the world”, The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that “exported democracy” from Canada is the biggest hope for Gilead’s rebels, in what is a naive trust in international diplomacy and in patriotism (“stars and stripes forever, baby” plays the clandestine resistance’s radio).

All these aspects mean that the series is less an opposition, but rather a form of “reaction” to recent events. A reaction to media products that hide women or show them only as sexual objects, that demands of its female viewers to agree to watch this painful violence, because at least this violence is acknowledged. A reaction that demonstrates that time is indeed up for patriarchy. It highlights the reactionary character of a narrative that tries to condemn patriarchy, while still being mired in its puritan and nationalist ideology – and how much more radical the overthrow of such an ideology needs to be.

Image from here

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