Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Good Life Elsewhere

The Good Life Elsewhere written by Vladimir Lorchenkov, Published by New Vessel Press

Vladimir Lorchenkov’s darkly comedic and brilliant novel The Good Life Elsewhere is a perfect example of the phrase “The grass is always greener on the other side”. As such, it is an appropriate book for our times even though it was originally published in 2008 (in Russian) prior to the English language translation in 2014. In our current world, headlines mention people migrating from their country to another in massive numbers. Of course, politicians are using these headlines as a means to increase fear and gain votes. None of these politicians are bothering to ask why people are looking to come to their country. None of these politicians will ever bother to watch Pedro Pinho’s essential film The Nothing Factory (2017) which asked the vital question of what work means in modern society. The film showed the closing of factories in Europe as some of those factories moved eastwards due to the owners' need to increase their profit (ahem, capitalism). Yet, the owners may or may not realise that their move eastwards is only temporary even though that temporary time could be decades. One day, everyone will have enough of material X that these factories make. Then, no one on this planet will need X. What then? Who is thinking of how to ensure the workers have meaningful work or their skills are properly used? Not the factory owners and certainly not the politicians. The workers are then left to fend for themselves. Eventually, poverty and desperation force some of these workers to seek their life elsewhere and they dream of migrating to the promised land which is what Lorchenkov’s book accurately captures.

The promised land in Lorchenkov’s book is Italy, a country that becomes an obsession for Serafim Botezatu and his fellow residents from Larga, a village in Moldova. Italy, at all costs! The book goes on to describe some of those details in wicked delight even though that humour is built on top of tragedy and sadness, some of which include suicide, broken hearts and murder.

“Verily, the people were expecting a miracle. Once the Italian rulers beheld them, so said the people, two hundred thousand children, yearning for the embrace of their mothers and fathers, then the heart of Rome would surely expand and grant every Moldovan the right to work in Italy without a visa and to bring with him whichever of his loved ones he desired. And only the children, free of turpitude, could give the Moldovan people something to replace the Holy Sepulchre; only they could grant us our innermost dreams.

Only the children could deliver us the blessed land of Italy.”
— page 174, The Good Life Elsewhere

The book is specific with regards to Moldova and its situation with respect to neighbouring Romania and the rest of the European union but the sentiments are universal. In one instance, the book expands its scope and compares the plight of Moldovan migrants to Mexicans as two characters argue which migrants are harder to catch. Yet, many references to Moldovans could easily be replaced with other nationalities across Latin America/Africa/Asia or regions where people make the difficult and dangerous journey to another nation, legally or illegally, to seek a better life. What happens when they get there? Usually hardships, disappointments and tough jobs. To compound matters, there is always the distrust of the locals who easily jump to blaming the newcomers for taking jobs. Israel Adrián Caetano’s 1999 film Bolivia captures this rage perfectly. The following is the description of the film I wrote back in 2008, which coincidentally is the year of Lorchenkov’s original book publication.

An illegal Bolivian works in a local cafe/pub. Some of the local patrons include taxi drivers, including one who dislikes the Bolivian. Everything the Bolivian does is wrong. For example, when he brings a bottle of beer from the freezer, he is scolded for not bringing a cold bottle, even though he returns and brings a second bottle from the exact same freezer. When someone dislikes another person, no matter what the other person does is wrong. Simple fact of life. It is equally true in any part of the world. It appears to be only a matter of time when emotions will boil over and they eventually do. Beautifully shot in black and white, Bolivia gives a glimpse of the frictions that exist in daily life. While the Clashes are started by government decisions regarding employment and immigration, the prices are always paid by ordinary citizens. If a poor nation shares a border with a richer nation, then illegal border crossing will occur. But if the apparently rich nation does not have enough jobs for its own citizens, then anger is directed at the newly arrived persons. The newcomer is always blamed for the misfortunes of a nation. Amazingly, one can walk the streets of Canada or USA and hear similar sentiments. Bolivia is shot in Argentina but it may take place in any part of the world.

Newcomers get vilified in whichever nation they land in, even though most of them end up doing jobs that locals don’t want to do. Lorchenkov’s book even addresses this statement with a cold dash of realism. As two characters at the Italian Consulate in Romania discuss:

“What’s sickening is that Moldovans seem to think without them we’ll sink, because, as one cheeky laborer told me, there’ll be nobody to clean up our shit.”

“Thank you. I told him that nature doesn’t abide vacuums. Where there used to be two hundred thousand Moldovans, now there’ll be two hundred thousand Moroccans, Albanians, Serbs, Poles, or whoever else. There’s always somebody to clean up the shit. What’s your opinion?”

Some newcomers are more vilified than others yet history often forgets. The history of Canada and USA is packed with cases of newcomers that were once hated but now considered a fabric of their respective nation. The hate keeps shifting every few decades to a new group of migrants from another nation. The core problems as to why the migration takes place is never addressed by the nation whose citizens want to leave or by the nations who want to prevent those newcomers from entering.

Despite all the problems they face, the characters in the book, including Serafim, persist in their quest to make it to Italy after each failed attempt. For Italy is happiness. Their dreams of going to Italy has a very Beckettian flavour to it where the characters are often waiting for someone to take them to Italy or Italy is their “Godot”, for Italy will make everything better. The dark comedy in the book, especially the ending, has shades of Emir Kusturica’s Underground while some of the absurd sequences recall Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land and the mud of the village brings Béla Tarr’s cinema to mind.

The original came out in 2008, the English translation in 2014, yet the book is as relevant today in 2018 as when it was in those previous years. Given the way the world is going, the book will always be relevant and essential to each new generation.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2018

My contribution to the 2nd Allan Fish Online Festival.

Aristotle’s Plot (1996, France/UK/Zimbabwe, Jean-Pierre Bekolo)

I selected Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Aristotle’s Plot because at its core, this film is about that vital debate of commercial vs artistic cinema, the blockbusters of Hollywood vs a nation’s local cinema. The film also offers the chance to discover a unique voice from African Cinema. Jean-Pierre Bekolo is not a well known name even though his debut 1992 film Quartier Mozart gained some recognition on the film festival circuit. The energetic and humorous Quartier Mozart combined folklore with some jaw-dropping moments. Still, the debut could not have prepared for what Bekolo attempted next in 1996 with Aristotle’s Plot.

At a running time of just 68 minutes, Aristotle’s Plot packs a lot of ideas and memorable dialogues about the meaning of cinema. The story features two characters on opposing side of the cinematic debate, a local gangster who consumes only Hollywood action films and a struggling independent filmmaker who wants people to care about African cinema. The gangster goes by the name of Cinema because he claims “he has watched 10,000” films. His rival is a filmmaker named Essomba Tourneur (E.T for short) who prefers to be called a Cineaste. The difference in view between the two is shown early in the film after Cinema claims to have seen 10,000 films, E.T counters and asks “oh yes, but how many of them were African?”. To which Cinema replies “very few” before going on to add that he doesn’t think much of African films. That debate about the worth of African cinema is repeated on a few occasions and highlights that locals flock to Hollywood films but stay away from African cinema. Even a local policeman claims to have never seen a single African film but is aware of Hollywood stars.

Cinema and his gang hang out at Cinema Africa where they watch non-stop Hollywood action films. Inspired by those action films and characters, his gang members have names such as Bruce Lee, Cobra, Nikita, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme. E.T is dismayed that locals identify more with Hollywood than local culture or stories. With assistance from the police, E.T is able to wrestle Cinema Africa away from the gang and starts showing local African films. As it turns out, his showing of African films doesn’t find many interested people and one screening only has a single person turn-out. Upset at the loss of their Cinema Africa, Cinema and his gang have grand plans of creating their own new Cinema. However, they still long for those action films they used to see and attempt to regain their old Cinema Africa resulting in a final stand-off.

The entire film is one long running joke which doesn’t spare both commercial and artistic cinema; the film pokes fun at commercial cinema and its endless sequels or characters who can’t be killed and even takes a few jabs at the pace of events in some artistic films. As a result, there are many lasting images and dialogues which linger long in the memory. Perhaps, one of the most memorable images is watching E.T cart reels of his film in a shopping cart.

This brilliant yet simple image symbolizes the problems of making an independent film, where a director is forced to be a beggar in order to complete their work. The film also evokes Godard and is a bit early for its times. Back in 1996, Hollywood didn’t dominate multiplexes and box-offices around the world like it does today. The distance between Hollywood and local cinema has only increased in the last two decades since this film was released. The character of E.T is now a reality in a majority of nations where local filmmakers struggle to get their films seen.

The entire film can be seen here.

Cross-published on Wonders in the Dark.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Past, present and future

A trio of books that outline the past, present and possible future. Two fiction, one non-fiction. Perhaps, in the future, all will be considered non-fiction with the exception that the dates were incorrect in two of the books.

1. The Plot Against America (2004 book) by Philip Roth

It imagines an alternate history when FDR loses to Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 elections. Lindbergh is a good friend of Hitler and decides to keep America out of WWII, letting Germany and Japan take over the world. Right-wing and fascist sentiments increase in America because the president helps spread hatred in the county. There is even one incident which shows how American Nazis work with KKK to carry out an assassination.

Over the last decade, I picked this book up several times but never read it. I wish I had read it a decade ago because it is a completely different experience reading it now. Many aspects are chilling and accurate given what has happened in the last year.

2. American War (2017) by Omar El Akkad

Set decades into the future, where an American civil war between 2074-2095 separates the country. The southern states which insist on using old fashioned fossil fuels break off from the rest of the nation causing many Americans to live in refugees camps between newly formed borders between states.

The book leans heavily on the melodramatic side with images conjured out of post-apocalyptic worlds shown in "The Walking Dead" and other works such Cormac McCarthy's "The Road. Still, since Omar is a journalist by trade, there are some astute observances that are going to be viewed in a new light given recent events. The division he talks about is already there without the physical border separation.

3. The Age of Anger (2017) by Pankaj Mishra

Incredible in scope, Mishra outlines how recent right-wing ideas have roots that go back centuries. He focuses more on ancient European society but also looks Asia and America.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Best Films of 2017

Similar to 2016, global cinema in 2017 kept pace with current events and created works that reflected society. There were multiple films released in 2017 that covered the plight of refugees and the struggles they face (69 Minutes Of 86 Days, Aqerat, More, Human Flow, The Other Side of Hope, Reseba, Taste of Cement) while some films showed the harsh economic realities of our world (Félicité, The Florida Project, The Nothing Factory, Western). This year’s Cannes festival unveiled three timely films set in Russia that gave a glimpse into Russian society (A Gentle Creature, Closeness and Loveless). All three are very different films yet all look at the larger Russian society by highlighting the impact on a family/spouse when a male member is absent. In addition, there were new works from established master directors although Hong Sang-soo outpaced everyone else by releasing three films in one year, which is an accomplishment even by his prolific standards. Of the numerous worthy titles to choose from, this list is restricted to 17 films, all of which are 2017 titles.

1. Zama (Argentina co-production, Lucrecia Martel)

Lucrecia Martel’s long awaited cinematic return is a feast for the senses and brings a fresh perspective to the colonial life. Packed with delightful references to cinematic and literary characters ranging Godot to Kurtz to Aguirre and even the legendary Gabbar Singh. This is filmmaking of the highest order!

2. A Man of Integrity (Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof)

Rasoulof cleverly uses a single man’s struggles to depict larger issues around corruption and politics in society. The film is set in Iran but the story is universal.

3. Western (Germany/Bulgaria, Valeska Grisebach)

A smart variation of a traditional Western film genre that illustrates the east as the promised land for riches instead. The guns may be absent but horses and masculinity aren’t.

4. Life and Nothing More (Spain/USA, Antonio Méndez Esparza)

A remarkable and urgent film that gets at the core problems regarding racism in America. By using a single incident around a playground, the film shows the cycle of fear that leads to a violent reaction and subsequent excessive force by law officials.

5. Cocote (Dominican Republic co-production, Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias)

A creative blend of fiction and documentary which effortlessly mixes different film stocks (colour, black and white) and contains different camera styles, including an immersive 360-degree pan. The end result is a scrumptious film that hails the arrival of an exciting new voice in international cinema!

6. A Gentle Creature  (France, Sergei Loznitsa)

Loznitsa brings a sharp documentary eye in depicting the prison system in Russian society while layering the work with Kafkaesque notes, satire and even opera.

7. Closeness (Russia, Kantemir Balagov)

Based on a true story, Balagov nicely uses a 4:3 aspect ratio to box the screen in thereby showing the closeness and tension among different ethnicities in the Caucasus city of Nalchik.

8. Lover for a Day (France, Philippe Garrel)

A lovely mix of French New Wave and contemporary sensibilities.

9. The Nothing Factory (Portugal, Pedro Pinho)

Starts off as an absurd comedy, shifts gears to become a documentary and ends as a musical. The documentary portion of the film is brimming with ideas where the film looks at the end of capitalism and shutting down of factories across Europe. The film poses relevant questions about what work means in modern society.

10. Taste of Cement (Germany/Syria/Lebanon co-production, Ziad Kalthoum)

A poetic documentary that depicts the lives of Syrian workers who are working on high rise towers in Beirut. The documentary smartly interweaves the construction of the buildings in Beirut with the destruction of the workers’ homes back in Syria. The film also features some of the most inventive framing and camera movements of the year, including some dizzying views of Beirut.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical order):

Aqerat (Malaysia, Edmund Yeo)
Faces Places (France, JR/Agnès Varda)
Félicité (Senegal co-production, Alain Gomis)
Newton (India, Amit Masurkar)
On Body and Soul (Hungary, Ildikó Enyedi)
The Other Side of Hope (Finland, Aki Kaurismäki)
Wajib (Palestine co-production, Annemarie Jacir)

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, UK/Ireland/USA, Yorgos Lanthimos)

There was constant murmur and whispers at many of the scenes during the first hour. Finally, a person behind me gave up the pretense and spoke loudly so that everyone in the cinema could hear: "I don't get this movie". You know what a lot of people don't get? The economy. So let's look at that.

Certain nations, including Greece, were negligent when it came to their economy. Some locals with no experience whispered that things would get bad but the experts and the men in power didn't listen. They continued to drink and make reckless decisions. Slowly, some parts of the economy became paralyzed. Different organs of society started to fail on a regular basis. The experts gathered in rooms, dressed in their suits, and discussed the problem. According to them, nothing was wrong and things would get better on their own. No one wanted to do open heart surgery. Nobody wanted to cut off the limbs, nobody want to start from scratch. So the experiment continued and still continues. It isn't only Greece but all across the world these financial experiments continue.

In a year of allegories in cinema, Yorgos Lanthimos has signed his entry.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

Few quick thoughts.

1. Similar to SICARIO, the landscape shots in Villeneuve's film are their own narrative. This time, Roger Deakins' camera explores landscape with the eye of Edward Burtynsky. As a result, the ruins echo an older communist era with the words of 'Ozymandias' hovering over it.

2. The entire work is also garnished with touches of Tarkovsky and K's journey is akin to going through the desolate Zone. The communist ruins connect the dots further.

3. Nicely illustrates limits of our technology, from glitches in transmission to problems syncing up. Connections fail, images can't be rendered fast enough, data stores can be wiped. The reference to paper surviving isn't a coincidence.

4. Memories. Real vs Implanted. Manages to draw a line towards the dreams in Philip K. Dick's original book.

Monday, October 09, 2017


MOTHER! (2017,   Darren Aronofsky)

I looked at my watch and counted down the seconds because I knew what was coming. The TIFF press screening of Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! was just over and I expected the usual tweets. Sure enough, right on cue, came tweets dismissing the film and calling it garbage. A few more angry tweets appeared. I waited and then as expected, a tweet praising the film. Less than 30 minutes later, a tweet came out referencing where the director called the movie about "climate change". Then another, "hey guys, there are Biblical references. Does that change things?".

In less than an hour, the whole range of reactions had taken place regarding the film. I smiled and headed off to my next screening. These reactions were normal for any Aronofsky movie and I was glad to see that nothing had changed.

The film references the Bible and even climate change but the scope is much bigger than that. The scope is the entire history of our planet, from creation to evolution to destruction, and then like a loop, starting all over again. The movie is about what we humans do to our planet, how we use religion to divide and fight, how wars take place, both world wars and civil ones, how organized gangs take out humans, how government organized disappearances take place, how we blindly believe in someone's words, how we end up consuming and destroying the very thing we claim to love.

Of course, such scope and the manner with which it is presented opens the door for plenty of ridicule and negative reaction. Yet, there are moments which make it hard to dismiss the work. For example, the segment of the unfolding of our planet's history is a roller coaster ride where the camera goes from room to room and documents all the horrors of our society in unflinching detail.

The film is all about allegories so here's another one.

A famous soccer player steps up to the penalty spot. The crowd is expecting a goal yet the player blasts the ball over the crossbar. Silence. Complete shock that how such a player could have blasted the ball so high and far from the goal. Years later, fans don't remember the goals that were scored but still talk about that one player who blasted the ball over. That miss ends up being more spectacular than the goals scored.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Cinema of Cool

Baby Driver (2017,  Edgar Wright)

Black Shades. Music. Fast cars. Heist. Cool gangsters. Smooth talkers. Attitude. More music. Extremely intelligent sounding dialogues. Money. A girl, always a girl. For a change, some coffee.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017, D.J. Caruso)

Neymar. Cool stunt, all for a soccer game. Extremely intelligent sounding dialogues. More cool stunts. Money. Lots of weapons. Exotic locales. For a change, an international cast, featuring Deepika Padukone, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa. Of course, the father of coolness, Mr. Samuel L. Jackson is there as well.

The Fate of the Furious (2017,  F. Gary Gray)

Bigger cast, increasing with each film. Of course, fast cars. Exotic locales. Weapons. Loud explosions. Women and Men with attitude. Like last few films, all about a family.

John Wick 2 (2017,  Chad Stahelski)

Quality suits. Tailored expensive fabric. Cool lighting. Atmosphere. Weapons. Bullets, lot of bullets. Blood. Attitude. Money. Expensive tastes. Characters made to appear extremely intelligent. For extreme coolness, the presence of Morpheus to exchange some witty dialogue with Neo. For a change, it is Neo who offers the choice to Morpheus.

Four completely different movies yet all united by their ability to claim ample room in a multiplex. Of course, these four have to pounce on whatever space remains after the Super hero movies have come and gone.

All four vary in their quality. Baby Driver is the most refined of this group and has the acclaim of many critics while John Wick has its fans. The Fast and Furious movies have their admirers as well.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is also a refined film, albeit a video game/war movie hybrid.

All these films drip with style yet are hollow in their core. Once the layers of style are removed, there isn't any substance.

This is cinema now. It sure ain’t dead but these movies are certainly trying very hard to kill it.

The rich strange doctor

Doctor Strange (2016,  Scott Derrickson)
An arrogant rich man lives selfishly and feels he is invincible. One day, his reckless driving causes him to get into an accident. This accident does not cause him to do any soul-searching. Instead, he blames everyone else around him for not helping him. He has enough money to pay for his treatment but when his money runs out, he blames the health system. Then, he learns that he can be cured by Asian medicine. So he travels to exotic Nepal. There, he finds others like him. He never associates with the locals, nor eats with them. He is cured and in turn he learns how to travel around the world for free. He learns how to travel without going through airport security or sitting in an airplane. He also learns how to steal books from libraries.

He is given a gift for being selfish. Then, he is given a chance at redemption, to erase his entire selfish life by one act of goodness. He saves the world and is made an instant hero.

How does he repay the world? Does he help the poor and needy? Does he start a company to offer health services to those who need it?

Of course not! He opens a private service to help rich privileged super heroes like himself. His first job is to act as a mediator in a family despite between Thor and his brother.

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Dunkirk (70 mm, of course): deserted town. No civilians. Just soldiers. Why? Because a war is being fought. Money and resources poured into saving the land from the other. And then, more money to get soldiers back home and to feed them.

The film is an immersive experience that places the viewer in the chaos and noise of war but there are some moments which quietly highlight the logistics around war that are not as apparent in other war movies. These moments are the best aspect of the film as they emphasize that when WWII took place, nations and cities shut down. Daily lives were disrupted and resources were diverted towards the all consuming war. Regular industries were converted into making gears for war. However, these quiet moments won’t be praised. Instead, the accolades will be directed at the thrill ride that has been made, complete with a video game perspective, a ticking clock embedded in the soundtrack with a few edits meant to heighten the experience. Real lives were lost but now it is entertainment. In the IMAX cinema screening, people stuffed their face with popcorn, drank pop and took it all in.

Have we learned anything from history? Of course, not. And on it goes. Real wars continue, more horrific than the past. War movies get made. Their technical qualities improve, their point of view gets refined but no one actually cares for the lessons that lay between the cuts. No large scale war has taken place since WWII but many small scale wars have taken place and are continuing to do so. The machines that were put in place in WWII were never shut down but grew into different segments.

Sunday, June 04, 2017


For the most part, it was a lackluster European season. There were limited moments of beautiful fluid football provided by players of Monaco and Dortmund. Then there was the emerging talent of Dybala who weaved around the pitch as if opponents didn't exist. With these exceptions, everything was as normal. Season after season, it has been all the same.

Then yesterday something extraordinary happened. Mario Mandžukić scored a goal for the ages. Not Ronaldo, not Messi. Mandžukić initially appeared to have blocked himself into a corner, with no angle to shoot at. Then he produced a moment of magic. His goal made it 1-1, opened the game up and led to a thrilling first half.

Mandžukić's goal is being called one of the greatest in the Champions League. It is being compared to that brilliant 2002 volley but it does fall short of that 2002 goal, which was scored by Zinedine Zidane. Yesterday, Zidane the manager, not the player, led Madrid to victory.

Not much is said about Zidane the manager. That is because he doesn't say much. He lets the players shine and quietly stands on the side. In a way, it is refreshing to see that from a soccer manager. Many other managers have made the game about themselves yet Zidane quietly leads his team to success.

Sid Lowe’s article sums up Zidane’s achievements nicely.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

A New Dictator

History has shown that many dictators followed a similar pattern regardless of which country they lived in. The dictators were once seen revolutionaries and hailed as heroes. These revolutionaries promised to usher in a new bright future. However, after they were in power for a period of time, things began to change. The revolutionaries did not like any opposing voices and did their best to quieten any dissent by whatever means possible. Then, they slowly started consolidating power and eventually turned into ruthless dictators who did anything to ensure they could rule for as long as possible.

This is how dictators have been known to exist in the political world. The sporting world has been run differently, especially with regards to football/soccer managers. It has often been said that being a manager of a soccer team is one of the most stressful jobs there is. The Hungarian coach Béla Guttmann once famously said “the third season is fatal”. His words have proven true on so many occasions where diverse managers like Arrigo Sacchi, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have not stayed at a club beyond 3-4 years. Sacchi transformed AC Milan but left after 4 years. Guardiola stayed at Barcelona for 4 years and left Bayern Munich after 3 seasons. José Mourinho may have an incredible winning record but the strain on his face has been apparent after 3 seasons at most clubs. In his first stay at Chelsea, he lasted just a few months into his 4th season while in his second stay at Chelsea, he never finished the third season. Mourinho stayed at Madrid for 3 seasons while 2 each at Inter Milan and Porto. There are a few examples of managers who stayed for decades at one club such as Guy Roux who stayed at Auxerre for a staggering 44 years and oversaw the development of many young players. Then there is Alex Ferguson who famously stayed at Manchester United for 27 years and ensured his team were always winning a trophy. There surely won’t be any managers like Roux and Ferguson in the game anymore as the high pressures of the modern game ensures managers are never far from being fired from their job. It does feel like managers are just a few games from being fired and can’t ever get into a position where they wield complete control and get into a position of absolute power.

As always, there are exceptions. In North London, history is being written where the game’s first modern dictator has emerged. Arsène Wenger has now been manager of Arsenal for 21 years and he shows no sign of wanting to leave. He is one of the highest paid managers in the world for a club that charges some of the highest ticket prices (if not the highest) in Europe. Wenger has never won any European trophy (he has overseen defeats in the finals of Champions League, Cup Winner’s Cup, UEFA Cup) and has not won a league title in 13 years. On top of that, he has overseen humiliating defeats to Bayern Munich (5-1, 5-1, 5-1 for 3 straight games), Manchester United (8-2, 6-1, 4-0), Chelsea (6-0), Barcelona, AC Milan (4-0) to name just a few. Yet, there is no one in the Arsenal board, including the owner, who wants him to leave allowing Wenger to have absolute power. Any fans who oppose the manager are told to shut up and “support the team”. Articles are published which keep repeating that Wenger is the best person for Arsenal and that there isn’t any other manager who can do a job like Wenger. There is a clear split in the fan base where some fans are loyal to Wenger and others who want him gone. The situation at Arsenal resembles what happens in a nation ruled by a dictator where media publishes propaganda singing praises of their dictator, where opposing views to the dictator are shut down and loyalists of the dictator blindly support whatever decision the dictator makes. Of course, in a political dictatorship, the opponents are imprisoned or tortured or made to disappear. This doesn’t happen in the case of the soccer club where opponents are free to return to their homes or walk away from supporting their team. However, it is not easy to walk away from a team that supporters have cheered for decades.

There is on end in sight of Wenger’s dictatorship. All signs point to him staying even beyond the two year contract he has signed until 2019.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Allan Fish Online Film Festival

Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures (2005, Brazil, Marcelo Gomes)

Allan Fish was a pure cinephile who spent countless hours hunting down precious films from all corners of the world. He wrote about many such discoveries at The Fish Obscuro section on Wonders in the Dark. Of the many titles he covered, one that sticks to my mind is the 1964 Brazilian film Noite Vazia by Walter Hugo Khouri. This is a remarkable film whose discovery I owe solely to Allan. The film is unlike any of the other Brazilian films of the Cinema Novo that I have seen and is far from the rugged Brazilian landscapes of Glauber Rocha’s cinema. In fact, Noite Vazia feels closer to the sentiment of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni.

In order to pay tribute to Allan’s review of Noite Vazia, I opted for Marcelo Gomes’ Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures. This selection brings Brazil, Italy and England together from my perspective. Marcelo Gomes’ thoughtful Brazilian road film reminded me of Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore. As for the English connection, I discovered this film at the BFI London Film Festival which was the first international film festival I travelled to. The film and the BFI London festival kickstarted my love for global cinema and film festivals, a path that eventually led me to find the Wonders in the Dark website and get to know Sam and Allan.

The road film has a special place in cinema and over the decades we have seen some stellar films all set on the road where the main character takes a journey in their car or a motorcycle. The act of taking the journey on a long road leads to a transformation and a change in the character. Sometimes the character goes looking for change in order to escape from their current life. This aspect certainly applies to Johann (Peter Ketnath) in Marcelo Gomes’ film. Johann is a German who has moved to Brazil to escape the conflict back home. He makes a living by driving across the vast Brazilian countryside selling Aspirin, a new medicine as per the film's setting in 1942. It would have been difficult for Johann to sell aspirin to people used to rejecting change but he comes up with a clever sales tactic of using the alluring cinematic medium to make his sales. This is where Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures has shades of Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Star Maker albeit with a slight variation. In The Star Maker, the salesman is a cheat but in Gomes' film, Johann is not a cheat even though his methods portray him as a mercenary. Along the way, Johann picks up a local (Ranulpho played by João Miguel) who wishes to leave his village life behind and head to Rio. The two become good friends and Ranulpho travels along with Johann by working as his assistant. But then the War that Johann escaped from finds its way to Brazil and Johann has a difficult choice to make – to return to Europe or continue his free spirited way. The movie shows how different people’s idea of freedom varies and what makes one person happy can be torture for another.

One of the most striking aspects of the film is the cinematography. Gomes and cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr. overexposed the 35mm film reels thereby creating a bleached look to the film. Watching the film in a movie theatre conveyed the heat and brutality of the scorching Brazilian countryside. Unfortunately, this striking aspect of the visuals doesn’t come across in the online version of the film as the colours are muted and not as sharp as they were in the cinema. Still, it is a film worth viewing in any manner whatsoever.

English Subtitles: The original English subtitles are not present with the film but you can select the Auto-translate subtitles feature by clicking on the Settings Icon. This does mean that the auto-translated English subtitles are not as good as the official released version.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Border Crossing

Desierto (2015, Mexico/France,  Jonás Cuarón)
Signs Preceding the End of the World, written by Yuri Herrera

For the last year, much of the news has been around illegal border crossings. This has not only been about borders in North America but around the world. However, the North American borders have gotten more attention due to the talk of building a wall costing billions of $$$. Buildings walls doesn’t come close to addressing the question for why people illegally cross the border in the first place. If the nations on both sides of the border were equal in every aspect, then there would no need for people to make illegal border crossings. Walls don’t highlight the financial burden people impose on their family to make such an illegal border crossing not to mention the physical and mental hardships associated with such a journey. Each border crossing is a gamble, a throw of the dice not knowing the outcome.

Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto depicts the dangers that come with such an illegal border crossing and what he has shown makes for grim viewing. The film gives ittle to no backstory about each character but it is evident that each person has their own reason for making the dangerous journey. Once the characters cross the border, the characters become prey to a man who drives a truck with a confederation flag. The man doesn’t believe in law and order and considers it his job to protect his nation’s border by killing as many border crossers as possible. The film was released back in 2015 but it is easy to know in real life which candidate this man would have voted for in 2016.

Desierto is a hunter-prey film with little dialogue and its most significant moments come when the camera pulls back to depict the vastness of the border, the vastness of the rugged landscape that is enough to defeat a person without any human intervention. It is in these moments of the border’s visual depiction that the film forms a bridge to the poetic depiction of the border crossing in Mexican author Yuri Herrera’s remarkable book Signs Preceding the End of the World. Herrera’s book is just over a hundred pages and moves at a fast breathless pace. The plot is creative and delightful but the book’s genius is how it abstracts elements related to the border crossing, both to the people making the journey and the objects they carry. In a few words, the book highlights the importance each person has with the objects they take:

“Rucksacks. What do people whose life stops here take with them? Makina could see their rucksacks crammed with time. Amulets, letters, sometimes a huapango violin, sometimes a jaranera harp. Jackets. People who left took jackets because they’d been told that if there was one thing they could be sure of over there, it was the freezing cold, even if it was desert all the way. They hid what little money they had in their underwear and stuck a knife in their back pocket. Photos, photos, photos. They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.”

Desierto depicts this as well when Gael García Bernal’s character takes a teddy bear with him on his border crossing because it was something given to him by his son.
Herrera’s book also addresses how the border crossers are perceived. The following words are universal and could apply to countless people who make their dangerous journey across the border in search of a better life:

“We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.”

Maybe one day people will figure it out. One day, people might understand why people illegally cross the border and work on a solution that eliminates the need for people to make that journey. This is not only a North American problem, but one that is found all over South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Any place where one nation is economically better than its neighbour will lead to illegal border crossings.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The New Ozymandias

The beautiful game. Oh the cliches. The truth is that the game stopped being beautiful long ago. No, I take that back. The televised game stopped being beautiful long ago. The beautiful game still exists, far away from one that is shown on tv. The beautiful game can be found in streets around the world, dirt fields, bumpy/patchy open areas or any section of space that is transformed into a make-shift soccer field.

There is beauty in the movement, there is beauty in the passing, there is beauty in that perfect pass that is conceived in the mind but is yet to materialize. And finally, there is the ultimate beauty in a goal, the move that started it leading up to the ball ending up in the net. Joy for the team that scored and despair for the other. The ultimate emotional soap opera.

It is with these eyes that I once viewed the game, both on tv and on those streets far away from any cameras. But the game on the tv changed, slowly at first, and then rapidly. The movements became faster coupled almost with the fast pace of cash being poured into the game. Money does not always translate into wins even though the common perception is that the winning team is the one that spends the most. Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City banished that belief back in 2016 but that was a rare occurrence in the Premier League which seems to only distribute titles among a select few. 

They also say that money buys quality. But what is quality? In a 90 minute game, that quality only shows itself for 2-3 minutes and usually it manifests itself in a single goal. But a 1-0 win is still a win. And that is all that matters. A single goal.

4-5-1. The end of the beautiful televised game started with that. The suffocating formation used by two coaches to drain the game of any quality. 0-0 games. 90 minutes of 0-0. Nothing happened in those games. Now, 4-5-1 does not directly imply 0-0 but it is all in the execution. But two managers in England, one Portuguese, the other Spanish, used this formation in the most negative game killing manner possible. And then others followed. Then that formation eventually went away but the idea of game killers and negative players remained. Sure, 0-0 went away for the most part but somewhere along the way, attacking players, especially centre forwards started disappearing. The tradition centre forward is an endangered species in the game now. Most teams lust for a defensive midfielder in lieu for an attacking player.

As the money poured in, only a few teams were left competing at the top. The European Cup was once a tournament where a team could emerge from the shadows and steal a win. But slowly, the big clubs wanted to be there all the time. And so the Champions League was born. Teams who finished 2nd to 4th in their domestic league wanted to be there all the time. Such is the case of Arsenal.

For Arsène Wenger, going from an unbeaten championship season to 4th became the norm. The Arsenal board told Wenger that he had to ensure 4th every year until the new stadium debt was paid off. Prior to this requirement by the board, Wenger proclaimed that Arsenal could dominate English soccer like Ferguson’s Man Utd. Clearly, Ferguson didn’t take that well because he stayed in the game long enough to ensure no one could ever match his trophy haul. Ferguson delayed his retirement and found new ways to keep bouncing back and winning titles. Man Utd and Ferguson were Wenger’s rivals but after 2004, Wenger found a new rival in the foreign money coming into the league. Wenger was irritated by the new money that flowed into the English League and that likely reminded him of the bribery that took place in the French League back in the early 1990’s. The influx of money meant that Wenger changed his ways. His goal changed to be only 4th by spending as little money as possible. In doing so, Wenger would forget his own target of dominating the league and winning league titles.

It has been 13 years since Arsenal last won the league. It has also been 13 years since this blog was started, with the first entry coming five days before Arsenal finished the 2003-04 season unbeaten.

So much has changed in this blog over that time, the structure, look, and content. My love for this blog has not changed in that period but the frequency of posting has gone down. That has not been by choice but by circumstances. Many posts have been written in my mind or my computer but never made it on the website. A perfect example is this post has been written in my mind many times over the last 7 years yet never actually posted.

It was January 2010 after Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Man Utd that I uttered that Arsenal would never win anything under Wenger again. In a way, I was proven wrong as two F.A Cup titles arrived in 2014 and 2015 but the league has stayed elusive. Back on that day, Man Utd raced to a 3-0 lead and for once, there were no excuses for Wenger to hide behind. Until that game, Wenger could always blame other factors for his team falling short, such as an incorrect ref decision, a nasty foul, a bad pitch. Yet, on that day, Man Utd didn’t need to foul Arsenal, they didn’t need Rooney to dive for a penalty, they didn’t need a waterlogged pitch. On that day, Man Utd showed the tactical difference between the two teams. That game highlighted that Wenger had fallen well short of Ferguson and there was no catching up.

I uttered these words to other fans but was told to shut up. The belief in Wenger was strong back in 2010. Those fans said that it was only a matter of time before Wenger would lead Arsenal to glory again. That glory has not arrived. Instead, painful defeats have arrived at such a regular frequency that it is no longer a surprise. 

There is no fun in watching Bayern win 5-1 over Arsenal every time. Of course, there is no fun in watching Bayern play anytime, anywhere. Certain members of Bayern Munich’s establishment like to think their values are above the crazy spending of the English League. Yet, Bayern have poached many players from Dortmund. If Bayern had any values, why would they buy players from their rivals and keep strengthening at the expense of their opponents? As far as on-field play goes, a player such as Lewandowski can score at will. But, he also dives when needed. There lies the problem. Talented players who don’t need to dive continue to cheat all the time. It is now a part of the game. But it should never be part of the game. Divers can be punished afterwards, even if their name is Ronaldo, Messi, Lewandowski, Neymar, Rooney.

There is also no fun in watching La Liga where Ronaldo and Messi are always in constant battle to score more goals than each other. Real Madrid and Barcelona dominate the headlines and are so big that every player in every league says one thing “It is my dream to play for [Real Madrid/Barcelona]”. The interviews are all the same. New players come and go, coaches are fired or forced out, goals are scored frequently, titles are won and the cycle continues.

Real Madrid, Barcelona represent the need to win titles at all costs while Arsenal are the opposite and represent a team that never wants to win titles at any costs. Neither situation is healthy. Yet, that is how things are. The Arsenal board and owner don’t care what happens. Wenger doesn’t care about winning and is intent on staying, like a dictator from one of those countries you read about in the news. Of course, this is how the cycle works. The man who transformed Arsenal from a boring football team into an exciting force is now also the man who has overseen its decay. He has tarnished his legacy and the bright future that he once oversaw for Arsenal is now in ruins.

I can finally say what I have wanted to say for a long time. Arsène Wenger and his stubborn ways have slowly destroyed my love for the televised game. He should have left 7 years ago, 3 years ago, 2 years ago. Yet, he wants to continue at Arsenal for another 2 years. He should not be allowed the luxury of that decision. He should not even be given another day at Arsenal.