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

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

At its core, Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Aristotle’s Plot 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.

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.