Thursday, May 06, 2021

The Dictator Novel

dictator [ dik-tey-ter, dik-tey-ter ]

1. a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.

2. (in ancient Rome) a person invested with supreme authority during a crisis, the regular magistracy being subordinated to him until the crisis was met.

3. a person who authoritatively prescribes conduct, usage, etc.:

As we are living in a world where dictators are causing chaos, an update to the old Dictator novel post is required. The one difference between these fictional dictators and the real dictators is that majority of the fictional ones came to power via coups. Whereas, most of real ones were elected. People lined up to vote. They called it democracy. Although, it is hard to see example of a proper functioning democracy anywhere in the world. Instead, we have dictators in power. They aren’t even in disguise and don’t hide their intentions. Of course, the media doesn’t use the word dictator when referencing these people but instead uses ‘strongman’ or ‘strongmen’. Interestingly, the usage of the word strongman has roots in Latin America when originally the term used to refer to dictators was caudillo, “a type of personalist leader wielding military and political power”.

Caudillo-->strongman-->dictator-->strongman. A circular reference but important nonetheless because when it comes to the Dictator novel, one has to start with Latin America. The "father of the dictator novel" is attributed to be the Argentine Domingo Sarmiento:

“In 1845 he [Domingo Sarmiento] wrote Facundo, not a novel, in fact, but a novelistic portrait of a local strongman, and an excoriating indictment of the brutal regime of President Juan Manuel de Rosas during which thousands died. Facundo had an urgent purpose: to argue for a more enlightened, (preferably European) style of government. Argentines must choose civilisation over barbarism, said Sarmiento, who became president himself in 1868.” — Miranda France

Even the wikipedia entry for “Dictator Novel” calls this a genre of Latin American literature. In terms of origins that is true but over the last decade, many examples of African and Asian literature have emerged with regards to this genre. Of course, outside of fiction, Latin America and Africa have given us plenty of real-life dictators but in recent years, Asia, Europe and recently the United States have put up their contenders.

The following is a listing of of fictional and non-fictional books about dictators and strongmen by regions/continents. Grouping by region also allows inclusion of books by European/North American authors who have set their books in Latin America.

Latin America 

The presence of real-life dictators certainly helped fuel the Dictator Novel genre in Latin America but it was also an initial literary idea that Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa discussed about. As per Miranda France’s article:

It was apparently on a pub crawl through 1960s London that Carlos Fuentes proposed to Mario Vargas Llosa that they collaborate on a book of dictators. They and fellow “Boomers” would take a chapter each to write about their favourite despots. Julio Cortázar, for example, would profile Evita.

That book never materialised, but more novels did. The year 1974 saw “dictator novels” from Alejandro Carpentier, Augusto Roa Bastos and García Márquez himself. Later offerings came from Luisa Valenzuela and Tomás Eloy Martínez.

After those initial offerings, many others were published including one by Llosa as well.

Books arranged as per published dates:

1. Facundo, Domingo Sarmiento (1845, Argentina)

It starts here.

2. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (1904) 

This is set in the fictional South American country of “Costaguana” but clearly influenced by happenings in other Latin nations. The inclusion of this book is due to the theme but it is hard to determine whether this book influenced other writings on Latin American Dictator Novels or not.

3. La sombra del caudillo (The Shadow of the Strongman) by Martín Luis Guzmán (1929, Mexico) 

This book, about the post-1910 Mexican revolution, clearly set the ball rolling for the Dictator Novel genre.

4. Tyrant Banderas by Ramon del Valle-Inclán (1929) 

A huge influence on the portrayal of Latin American dictators but the book didn’t start out as depiction of Latin America. As per Alberto Manguel’s introduction in the NYRB Classics English translation of this book:

After suffering censorship under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, who ruled Spain from 1923 to 1930 (Valle-Inclán was briefly imprisoned for this anti-Rivera opinions), he decided to transfer his depiction of Rivera’s tyranny to the wilder Mexican landscapes he had known, in part to use elements of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, in part to feel free from documentary constraints when speaking about his homeland. Not only Prime de Rivera and Porfirio Díaz served to create the character of Santos Banderas. In a letter to the scholar Alfonso Reyes, Valle-Inclán explained that it was “a novel about a tyrant with traits borrowed from Dr. Francia, Rosas, Melgarejo, López, Porfirio,” all Latin American dictators.

5. The Green Child by Herbert Read (1935) 

This is one work that stands out from all the other books in the list because it is more than just about a dictator. The book is a fascinating blend of sci-fi, fantasy but the middle section of the book is about an accidental dictator. The description shows what a perfect good hearted dictator would look like or if someone became a dictator by accident. The final segment is best read without knowing any description because one can see the influence of this section on many films over the last few decades.

6. El Señor Presidente (The President) by Miguel Ángel Asturias (1946, Guatemala) 

Inspired by the real life 1898–1920 presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, this is often cited as the second most vital novel in the genre after Martín Luis Guzmán’s entry.

7. No One writes to the Colonel by Gabriel García Márquez (1961) 

A novella instead of a novel.

8. The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes (1962) 

Not related to a specific dictator but the structure recalls other books included in this list. The story is around the memories of Artemio Cruz who recalls key events from his life. Such a technique can be seen in other books where dictators lay on their deathbed and recall their early childhood or key battles. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Iranian novel The Colonel is one such example.

9. I, Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos (1974, Paraguay)

A hugely vital book of the genre that was inspired by the Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia.

10. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez (1975) 

Not directly based on one person but a combination of various real-life dictators including Franco, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (Colombia) and Juan Vicente Gómez (Venezuela).

11. Reasons of State by Alejo Carpentier (1975)

12. The Lizard's Tail by  Luisa Valenzuela (1983)

13. The Peron Novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez (1985)

14. The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez (1989)

Fictionalized account of the last seven months of Simón Bolívar,

15. The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

Set in the Dominican Republic and is about the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

16. The Dictator And The Hammock by Daniel Pennac (2010)

Africa (arranged by published date):

1. Children of Our Alley by Naguib Mahfouz (1959, Egypt) 

The inclusion of this book is stretching the definition criteria for this list. The story doesn’t deal with an actual or fictional dictator/ruler but instead depicts traits that one finds in societies where dictators rule. The book is about strongmen who control the alley. These strongmen and their ways can instead be likened to gang leaders but their portrayal highlights larger issues of violence, tyranny and methods to repress people. Such traits are found in societies where dictators rule often by employing multiple strongmen/gangs to suppress people.

2. Kongi’s Harvest by Wole Soyinka (1965/1967) 

A hugely vital 1965 play that was later published in 1967.

3. Zayni Barakat by Gamal El-Ghitani (1974) 

Mr. Ghitani, whose work was frequently published in English translations, was most famous for his 1974 novel “Zayni Barakat,” a scorching allegorical critique of totalitarianism in which a ruthless Egyptian leader’s legitimacy is challenged. -- NYT

4. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński (1978) 

Ryszard Kapuściński's book about Haile Selassie's reign in Ethiopia is non-fiction but his beautiful writing paints such a vivid picture that most fictional authors fail to achieve.

5, 6, 7. Nuruddin Farah’s ‘Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship’ trilogy, which includes the novels Sweet and Sour Milk (1980), Sardines (1981) and Close Sesame (1983). 

8. Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe (1987, Nigeria)

9. The Fall of the Imam by Nawal El-Saadawi (1987, Egypt)

10. The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden (1998) 

Giles Foden's book meshes fact with fiction in depiction of Uganda's Idi Amin and is told from the perspective of a doctor. 

11. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo by Michela Wrong (2000) 

Like Kapuściński, Michela Wrong's writing about Africa is essential reading. Her debut book highlights Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire.

12. Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (2004, Kenya)

Wizard of the Crow by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is pure magic realism in depicting the myth around an African ruler's hold on power. The book is set in a fictional country of Free Republic of Abruria but it incorporates elements that could apply to many African countries.

13. The Dictator's Last Night by Yasmina Khadra (2015) 

Focuses on Gaddafi at the height of the Libyan Civil War in 2011.

14. Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun (2016) 

A mythical tale not directly about a dictator but what happens in a society that is oppressed and how people forget things like music or a famous musician.

Asia (arranged as per published dates):

1. Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński (1982) 

Forms a nice pairing with Kapuściński’s The Emperor.

2. The Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif (2008)

3. The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (2009) 

The Colonel, by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, is a masterpiece. But reader beware, it is a dark one and doesn't offer even a tiny droplet of hope. From its very beginning to its very end, it rains incessantly. Blood is spilled, children are buried in the darkness of the night, people betray themselves and one another, ghosts roam. — Marina Nemat, The Globe and Mail

The book is told in flashbacks via the Colonel's disintegrating memory. At first, it isn't the darkness of the material that makes it difficult to read but the structure which blends past with present or reality with hazy memories. The flashbacks of the dictator recall Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz but Dowlatabadi’s material is far darker and that is understandable given the story’s setting in a regime where one is encouraged to betray one’s family.

4. The Bleeds by Dimitri Nasrallah (2018) 

The book deals with a fictional family of rulers but one can see shades of many real-life Middle Eastern dictators present in the book.

Other non-fiction books about dictators

I found all of these books insightful although in some cases, things have gotten much worse than what is outlined in the books.

i. How to Feed a Dictator by Witold Szablowski 

Szablowski covers a topic that no other writer/journalist has ever done. He tracks down the cooks that fed Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro and Pol Pot. As a result, the book gives some fascinating insight into the cultures, food (including actual recipes) and societies of the five nations where these dictators ruled.

ii. A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer 

A perfect example of a book where the “truth is stranger than fiction.” The book must be read to be believed and contains the most cinematic references than any other book on a dictator that I have ever read.

iii. The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

iv. Strongmen: Trump, Modi, Erdoğan, Putin, Duterte
Edited by Vijay Prashad

v. The End of Europe by James Kirchick

vi. A Question of Order by Basharat Peer

Thursday, April 22, 2021

European Super League

European Super League (April 18, 2021 - April 20, 2021)

It ended even before it began.

On Sunday, April 18 news broke of a proposed 20 team European Super League competition which would involve 6 teams from the Premier League (Liverpool, Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham) along with 3 from Spain (Real Madrid, Barcelona and surprisingly Atlético Madrid) and 3 from Italy (Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan). As per the reports, there would be 15 permanent member clubs with 5 others joining based on league results. This competition would take place during the middle of the week, thereby going in direct competition against the UEFA Champions League.

There was swift backlash from fans, media, some politicians, UEFA and FIFA. This uproar grew on Monday, April 19 and there were even threats of players involved being banned from the World Cup. The two German teams, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, announced that they wouldn’t take part in this new tournament and would prefer to work with UEFA. It emerged that even PSG would not take part. That was the first blow to the competition.

The next and decisive blow came a day later.

On Tuesday, April 20 Man City and Chelsea were the first two clubs to withdraw from the European Super League followed by the remaining Premiere League teams. Eventually, AC Milan, Atlético Madrid and Inter Milan signaled their intention to leave. That left only Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Super League.

The speed of this collapse was a surprise but the announcement of the Super League was not. This was not the first time talks of a breakaway European Super League have surfaced. Such talks of a breakaway competition have been in the air for the better past of the last decade. However, in the past, whenever rumours of a breakaway European Super League emerged, UEFA quickly appeased the big clubs and averted such talks by giving more concessions, revenue and Champions League places to the big 5 European Leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France). However, April 18th was the first time an actual plan was released. The timing of the European Super League announcement wasn’t coincidental either. On Monday, April 19, UEFA were ready to concede with another revamped Champions League with 36 teams instead of 32. Clearly, the big rich clubs wanted to get their intentions on the table before UEFA made their proposal. The big clubs could have been testing the waters or looking to use this threat to get more concessions from UEFA. As it turned out, the news backfired spectacularly.

The European Super League proposal was only about making the big clubs richer and creating a setup where the top teams played each other multiple times and got more revenue from TV revenue deals. The plan had no consideration for the overall good of the game. Of course, the current UEFA Champions League and domestic European league setup aren’t benefitting the health of the local game too much either. It has been clear for the last few years that changes have been needed to address the growing disparity between the big leagues/clubs and the rest of European soccer. UEFA hasn’t addressed this disparity and the big leagues/clubs gobble up plenty of revenue already. This analysis by Swiss Ramble gives an estimate about the revenue the big clubs stand to make from this season’s Champions League.

It is important to highlight that the big clubs will make all this revenue despite earning next to $0 from gate receipts over the last year. With no fans in stadiums, the big clubs still continued to earn millions from TV rights and UEFA’s distribution money for winning games and progressing further in the Champions League. This money was earned while many teams across Europe have been suffering financially and are close to bankruptcy. It is true that despite all this revenue, the big clubs have also been earning less than previously. Some of these teams have been losing money or were in debt before the pandemic. A large portion of these big club’s operating costs/revenue goes towards player salaries. Instead of taking stock of their operating costs and coming up with creative ways to reduce their debts, these clubs decided to go for a strategy that would continue their free spending ways. The European Super League would have given them instant cash, more than double what they can make from the Champions League. Importantly, these clubs would have gotten all this money without even kicking a ball and not by working to earn a spot and then actually winning games to advance in the Champions Leagues. These big clubs wanted all this extra money in the short term without giving any thought to the financial problems plaguing the game in a pandemic world. A big reason why these clubs don’t care for the rest of the teams is because they are soccer clubs in name only but are instead businesses/corporations, run by millionaires and billionaires whose only incentive is to increase profit and grow.

European Cup to Champions League to Super League

This problem of soccer clubs becoming businesses didn’t happen overnight but has been steadily taking place over the last few decades as rich owners jumped to buy soccer teams in order to increase their finances. If one had to trace the start of big money in the modern European game, a good starting point is Silvio Berlusconi’s purchase of AC Milan in 1986. Berlusconi used his wealth to buy AC Milan but in turn, the success of AC Milan also helped Berlusconi to launch his own political career and he became the Italian Prime Minister in 1994. Berlusconi also set in motion the changes that ushered in a new Champions League and set the path for this new Super League.

In the early 1990s, Berlusconi talked of a tournament where the big teams would play each other frequently. His words clearly played a part in UEFA announcing a newly rebranded Champions League in 1992 with a group stage. Although, in the mid 1990s, the Champions League only contained Champions from the different European countries, meaning one team from each participating country. The 1996-97 season was the first time when multiple teams from one country took part as both Juventus and AC Milan represented Italy. The following year, more teams from other countries were allowed eventually leading to the current tournament where the top 4 league teams from England, Spain, Germany and Italy get spots automatically along with the top 3 from France. Some of these 4th place teams haven’t even won a domestic league title in ages and one would be hard-pressed to name when they last won a league title. In order to make space for these 4th place teams, league champions from other lower ranked European nations would fight in multiple play-offs games and many league champions would never make it to the lucrative Champions League group phase. As a result, the disparity between these other leagues and the big 5 leagues has grown over the last two decades. In the current form of the Champions League, it is hard to imagine a team from Eastern Europe can ever win the Champions League. It is also improbable that a team from Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Greece can even make the final although Ajax were minutes from making the final in 2019 and Porto made the Quarter-finals in the current 2020-21 season.

Champions League and Europa League results from 2009-10 to 2019-20

Looking at the results of the Champions League over the last decade (2009-10 to 2019-2020), Real Madrid have won 4 titles, Barcelona and Bayern Munich with 2 each and a single title for Inter Milan, Chelsea, Liverpool. 

In terms of nations, that is Spain with 6 titles, Germany and England with 2 and Italy with 1. The last time a team outside of these 4 nations won the Champions League was Porto (Portugal) led by Jose Mourinho back in 2003-04, 17 years ago. Before Porto, the other team outside of these four to win the title was Ajax in 1995 with their famous young team, most of whom went on and signed for bigger teams. Marseille won the only French title in 1993 while Red Star Belgrade won in 1991.

The Europa League results aren’t that better. From 2010-20, the following teams have won the Europa League: Sevilla (4), Atlético Madrid (3), Porto (1), Chelsea (2), Man Utd (1).

In terms of nations, that is Spain with 7, England with 3 and Portugal with 1.

To make matters worse, 4 of the above winners came from dropping out of the Champions League for that season: Atlético Madrid won the title in 2010 and 2018 after faltering in the Champions League, Sevilla in 2016, Chelsea in 2013.

Combining the results of both the Champions League and Europa League, Spanish teams have won 13 titles, English teams with 5, Germany 2, Italy and Portugal with 1 each.

Of course, this isn’t enough for the big teams from Spain and England who are already dominating these trophies.

The state of European Domestic Leagues

The discussion about the Champions Leagues and even the Super League comes down to a handful of teams from Spain, England and Italy. What about the rest of Europe? A lot of emphasis is put on UEFA’s coefficient system in order to give spots in the qualifying rounds for these European Cups.

I wanted to look at the top 20 ranked teams in UEFA and have a look at the domestic league title winners over the last decade from 2009-10 to the current season 2020-21. In cases, where the current league title hasn’t been decided, I kept the range until the 2019-20 season. Looking at these results makes for a bleak picture. 

Out of 11 or 12 league title seasons, only 3 nations have had 5 different league winners: England, France and Turkey. But even in these 3 nations, a few of the different teams that won a title only did it once. In England, if you remove Leicester City’s dream title in 2016 and Liverpool’s stellar 2020 title, the last decade has been dominated by Man City with 5 titles (I am giving the 2021 title win to Man City), Chelsea with 3 and Man Utd with 2. In France, PSG have won 7 out of the last 11 titles with single title wins by Marseille, Lille, Montpellier and Monaco. In Turkey, Bursaspor and İstanbul Başakşehir have stopped the regular titles won by the big three of Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe. Although, over the last decade Galatasaray have dominated with 5 wins.

7 out of the 20 nations have only had 2 league winners over the last decade but only 2 of these nations (Portugal, Serbia) have had a close parity between the two winners. In Portugal, Benfica won 6 titles to Porto’s 5 while in Serbia, Partizan won 6 compared to Red Star’s 5. For the other leagues with 2 winners, it has been a single team league such as Germany, Scotland, Croatia, Switzerland. The single team league has also applied to Italy and France.

While winning a league title isn’t easy, repeating it is more difficult. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case over the last decade. In all these 20 nations, there has been at least one team that won two titles in a row. 16 out of these 20 nations (80%) have had teams that won 3 or more titles in a row. 10 out of 20 nations have had teams that won 5 or more titles in a row. Many of these runaway domestic winners such as Dinamo Zagreb (won 14 out of last 15 titles), Olympiacos (won 9 of last 12), Basel (8 of last 12), Celtic (9 of last 12), FC Red Bull Salzburg (9 of last 11) can’t even make a dent in the Champions League. Therefore, it is hard to imagine any other team from Croatia, Greece, Switzerland, Scotland, Austria attempting to go far in the Champions League provided they win the domestic league title and get past the multiple qualifying playoff rounds.

Next Steps

It is a sad state of affairs and the European game is already in trouble with a large disparity in between a select few teams and the rest of Europe. UEFA hasn’t come up with any ways to solve this and the Super League would have made this problem even worse. For now, even though the Super League appears dead, it may only be a temporary pause. Real Madrid’s Florentino Pérez wants this tournament and can’t understand why there was this outrage.

Regardless of what happens with the Super League and Champions League, there are severe problems with the domestic leagues. I haven’t seen any discussion about fixing the domestic leagues. If that doesn’t happen, then there will be no need for a Super League. Most of these other leagues will collapse and we will only be left with the Big 5. Therefore, the Champions League will de facto become the Super League.

[Update, April 23]

Tariq Panja and Rory Smith's essential article regarding the European Super League plan.

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Salt in Our Waters

 The Salt in Our Waters (2020, Bangladesh/France, Rezwan Shahriar Sumit)

A mysterious box. Someone was bound to ask: “What do you have inside?”

“My universe”, replies Rudro (Titas Zia).

What could the box contain? The mystery deepens as the journey continues. Finally, Rudro and the box arrive at their destination to a remote Bangladeshi fishing village. Multiple men are required to carry and transport the box from the small boat.

The Salt in Our Waters (2020)

Once the box opens, the contents are puzzling to some locals. The box contains many sculptures, some clay ones, which are mistaken to be idols by a few men. Gradually, troubling connections start. The village is in the middle of some problems related to lack of ilish fish in the waters. The village chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu) claims the arrival of Rudro and the idols are responsible for less fish in the waters thereby impacting the livelihood of the villagers. Rudro’s presence is treated with suspicion and he doesn’t help matters as he makes multiple mistakes immediately after arriving, one of the major ones being talking to the local women. He talks to the young, old, whomever he can find. He even talks with the children, which infuriates the elders and religious men who feel he is polluting the children’s minds.

On top of all, he goes off and falls in love with the quiet Tuni (a career defining brilliant performance by Tasnova Tamanna), who is an independent thinker and willing to go against her family and community.

Underneath the surface, there is an old debate in play here: old ways of doing things vs new ideas, religion vs science, blind faith vs rational thought. This eternal battle is omnipresent, not only in Bangladesh but almost all parts of the world. Credit to Rezwan Shahriar Sumit for an insightful treatment which looks at this battle on a personal level yet the film’s layered approach smartly alludes to universal social and economic problems many communities are facing due to changing environmental patterns. The film also takes time to highlight the hardships of the villagers and the daily dangers they face fishing in the choppy waters. In a remarkable sequence, Rudro feels the full brunt of the choppy waters as he goes along with the fishermen out to sea. The Chairman, an experienced fishermen, warns Rudro about the stomach churning waves but Rudro ignores the Chairman. The brilliantly filmed sequence proves to be an eye-opening one for Rudro whose perspective changes after he returns.

There is a poetic brilliance to The Salt in Our Waters which is packed with many stunning images and plenty of contemplative moments, especially when the camera observes the approaching storm and violent waters. Even though The Salt in Our Waters was released in 2020, it is an early contender for one of the best films of 2021.

The Salt in Our Waters (2020)

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Snapshots of Havana

Rooftop View

Havana, from on High (2019, Canada, Pedro Ruiz)

Following images are from the documentary.

At the start of the film, we get to witness some local's morning coffee preparation.

Street View

Some of the best images of Havana and Cuban coffee are in Drift Magazine, Volume 3.

A few other Havana images can be found on Drift magazine's instagram page.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

The Films of Edward Yang

 "Did you like the movie?"
"A bit too serious".
"You prefer comedies?"
"Not really. But it didn't have to be so sad."
"Life is a mixture of sad and happy things. Movies are so lifelike, that's why we love them."
"Then who needs movies? Just stay home and live life!".
"My uncle says we live three times as long since man invented movies."
"How can that be?"
"It means movies give as twice what we get from daily life."
-- Yi Yi (A One and a two), Edward Yang

Once again, I started at the end. Yi Yi (2000) was the last film that Edward Yang directed but it was the first of his films that I saw. To make matters worse, I saw the film shortly after Edward Yang passed away on June 29, 2007 at the age of 59. Just as I was discovering the works of one of the best directors in the world, he was gone thereby depriving the world of his talent. The extent of that loss has become more stark in the last few years especially as the status of Taiwan changes politically, economically and even socially. I wasn’t aware of any political, economic and social aspects covered in Edward Yang’s films back in 2007. These aspects didn’t catch my eye as I watched a few more of his films over the years such as A Brighter Summer Day (1991), Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986). Therefore, it felt appropriate to do a proper spotlight and watch all his features in order.

The plan was to watch all of Edward Yang’s seven features and the first short he directed as part of the omnibus In Our Time.

In Our Time (1982, Tao Te-chen, Edward Yang, Ko I-Chen, Yi Chang)
That Day, on the Beach (1983)
Taipei Story (1985)
The Terrorizers (1986)
A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
A Confucian Confusion (1994)
Mahjong (1996)
Yi Yi (2000)

Note: I couldn’t get the DVD of Edward Yang’s first feature That Day, on the Beach, which is also Christopher Doyle's first film as a cinematographer. The DVD was available a few years ago but I delayed getting it and now it is out of print. So I continued the spotlight without it.

Edward Yang’s name is associated with the “New Wave of Taiwanese Cinema” along with that of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and Ang Lee. However, as it turns out, within this New Wave of Taiwanese Cinema, there are 2 phases with Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien falling in the first phase while Tsai Ming-liang and Ang Lee being in the second phase. The association between Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang is more solidified as well due to their collaboration on Edward Yang’s early films. Hou wrote and acted in Taipei Story while also starred in Yang’s first feature, That Day, on the Beach. Both were also born in 1947 with Hou being older by a few months.

Hou in Taipei Story

However, Edward Yang’s style and themes are quite different from those of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang.

Confucius: The City is too crowded
Disciples: What can we do about it?
Confucius: “Make the people rich”
Disciples: “What comes next after they are made rich?

2,000 years of poverty and struggles later,
It took a city named Taipei just 20 years to become one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

The above words are shown at the start of A Confucian Confusion (1994) and outline one big aspect covered in Edward Yang’s films. His films, starting with 1985’s Taipei Story, depict how Taiwan’s role in the world changed. Taiwan and its capital city, Taipei, went through a technological manufacturing change starting in the 1980s. 

This change impacted the social and economic life in Taiwan with regards to jobs/career and the tension this new working life would put on relationships. That is why Yang’s films feature many isolated characters and relationships in turmoil, themes and elements often found in Western films. However, Edward Yang depicted isolated characters in a different manner than Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang. Tsai Ming-liang has shown lonely characters in his films but these characters live on their own or are seeking companionship. On the other hand, Edward Yang depicted isolated characters in a relationship or within a multi-generational family. Showing families and how different family members impact each other is a key part of Edward Yang’s films.

Yi Yi feels like the culmination of Yang’s career and all the various themes he explored in his earlier films. Yi Yi contains combines elements of Coming of age, romance/relationship/marital problems and career/economic discussions. 

A Brighter Summer Day

Edward Yang explored Coming of Age in more detail via In Our Time and A Brighter Summer Day while he depicted career discussions and relationship/marital problems in varying degrees in That Day, on the Beach, Taipei Story, The Terrorizers, A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong. Gangs and violence are missing from Yi Yi and this is an element that Yang showed in A Brighter Summer Day while Mahjong is a more detailed coverage of the gang world and violence. The Terrorizers is also book-ended by a violent aspect which is nicely woven into the story.

The Terrorizers

Put together, all these films highlight the changing nature of Taiwan historically, politically, economically and socially. The inclusion of economic aspects is also based on Edward Yang’s career and how he came into movies. 

Robert Sklar's Cineaste interview from 2000 is worth reading but these words from Yang helped illuminate some scenes in Yi Yi:

"I found a job in Seattle at a research laboratory that contracted to do classified defense projects in microcomputers. I was among the first generation of designers and applicators for microcomputers and microprocessors. "

This explains the details regarding the dialogues/scenes of computer design and venture capitalists shown in Yi Yi. Edward Yang was familiar with this computer world in real life and he found a smart manner to incorporate aspects of this tech world. Of course, to Yang’s credit, he doesn’t include any detailed technical discussions but instead uses the tech world as a lubricant to depict human relationships, how people interact with one another and what motivates some people.

Edward Yang’s films covered the first phase of Taiwan’s economic change. Now, as Taiwan is in the middle of another economic change, I thought of Edward Yang again.  What would Edward Yang make of Taipei today?  The following quotes from Amy Qin and Amy Chang Chien’s NYT article stand-out:

The relatively few people who are allowed to enter Taiwan have been coming in droves, and they’ve helped to fuel an economic boom.

The influx of people helped make Taiwan one of last year’s fastest-growing economies — indeed, one of the few to expand at all.

Steve Chen, 42, a Taiwanese-American entrepreneur who co-founded YouTube, was the first to sign up for the gold card program. He moved to the island from San Francisco with his wife and two children in 2019. Then, after the pandemic hit, many of his friends in Silicon Valley, particularly those with Taiwanese heritage, began to join him — a reverse brain drain, of sorts.

Taiwan’s leaders say the infusion of foreign talent has given a shot of energy to its tech industry, which is better known for manufacturing prowess than for entrepreneurial culture.

The economic changes in Taiwan are also changing the social life on the island. Maybe in the future, someone will document the evolving changes in Taiwan but Edward Yang covered it first. For that, his valuable cinematic contributions to the world will forever be cemented.

Other reading:

1. Jonathan Rosenbaum: Exiles in Modernity

2. David Bordwell: A Brighter Summer Day
3. Bordwell again
4. Lawrence Garcia on Yi Y

Friday, April 02, 2021

Delphine and Muriel Coulin's The Stopover

Voir du Pays / The Stopover (2016, France/Greece, Delphine and Muriel Coulin)

When it comes to depicting Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in war movies, a majority of Hollywood films focus on an individual. Such films show how an individual, mostly male, is left on their own and has to find a way to cope. This type of depiction reduces the issue to an individual problem and fails to tackle the problem on a larger scale. That is why Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s The Stopover feels remarkably insightful and eye-opening. The film, adapted from Delphine Coulin's book, shows how French soldiers stop for a three day decompression session in Cyprus when returning from Afghanistan. This three day break is meant to help the soldiers adjust to life in the real world before returning to their families. As one of the characters Marine (Soko) puts it, the government and military want to remove all bad images from the soldiers and return them only with clean images back to their families.

Given the trauma soldiers face in war, a three day decompression session isn’t enough. However, it is better than 0 days which is the case with many countries. Of course, as the film highlights, this strategy isn’t perfect. The first aspect is the culture shock of going from Afghanistan to a Cypriot beach resort, or as Max (Karim Leklou) puts it “Going from burkhas to thongs”.

The other aspect is that each person deals with issues in their own way. This is emphasized repeatedly in the film as some benefit from talking about their feelings while others prefer solitude. Then there is the aspect of what one should discuss in front of their superiors and colleagues. In the film, the sessions involve using virtual reality to put the soldiers back in the mental space of their missions. There is a psychiatrist available to observe and offer a one-on-one session if needed. The soldiers are told to be honest in what they say. However, the film shows honesty doesn’t always go down well. This is because in some cases there are unwritten military rules which are violated if one is honest about the failure of a mission or who was responsible for the loss of troops’ lives. Violation of these unwritten rules don’t result in any healing but instead may add to more problems for a solider.

Delphine and Muriel Coulin's smart script and direction, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2016, depict events in a layered manner sprinkled with humour and compassion. There is a lot of material this film covers but full credit to the sisters that they allow each issue its own space on screen. The film covers multiple characters but in a few minutes, we are able to get an accurate understanding of their differing personalities. The film is mostly filtered from the perspective of three women soldiers, Marine (Soko), Aurore (Ariane Labed) and Fanny (Ginger Romàn). Marine and Aurore are shown to be childhood friends and they get most of the screen time but Fanny’s presence is crucial and the film shows that at the end of the day, the three women soldiers have to fend for themselves against the male egos. The inclusion of a few crucial scenes highlights another complicated layer of the military with regards to the differing treatment between men and women and also how abuse is allowed to go unchecked.

The film premiered at Cannes in 2016 but frustratingly the film was not included in the Main Competition. Admittedly 2016 was a strong year for Cannes but The Stopover is one of the best, if not the best, movies about war to be ever made. It deserved to be in the Main Competition on merit and if it had been included, then perhaps it would have gotten more coverage and would have been discussed and seen by more people.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Gurvinder Singh's Alms for a Blind Horse

Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan / Alms for a Blind Horse (2011, India, Gurvinder Singh)

Gurvinder Singh’s brilliant debut film depicts the hardships that Indian farmers/workers face in their daily lives as they battle greedy landowners while living alongside pollution generating coal stacks. The film’s realistic portrayal of life in Punjab is rarely seen in cinema, as is the film's style. The film came out in 2011 but its style is not like other contemporary Indian movies. Instead, the film’s mise-en-scène is more akin to that of the Parallel Indian Cinema of the 1970s and 80s especially that of the great Mani Kaul. That is not a coincidence because the late Mani Kaul served as a creative producer on Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan.

Nods to Mani Kaul’s cinema are apparent early on from the daily morning rituals of the farmers to even how interactions are portrayed in the film. The camera only shows what needs to be shown and no dialogues are wasted.

In one quiet beautiful sequence, the local farmers visit the village leader to complain about their land troubles. A few words are exchanged. The village leader gets up, quietly walks over and brings his gun with him. That gun, which doesn’t need to be used, is a reminder to the villagers who is the boss.

Gurvinder Singh has smartly stitched in plenty of references to social, economic, health and political problems plaguing locals within the film’s framework. For example, problems about alcohol addiction (prevalent in Punjab) are part of a discussion among some locals while union protests are in the backdrop as characters are trying to cross the street.
In other films set in Punjab, one only sees lush green fields. Yet, that is not the case here. Singh and Satya Nagpaul’s camera capture elements that are absent from other Indian cinema. For example, I can’t recall seeing coal stacks in any other recent Indian film. Yet, the omnipresent coal stacks which are quietly polluting the skies and leading to health problems are a major source of power in India. Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan corrects that omission and one can see coal stacks in many scenes.

Mani Kaul sadly passed away on July 6, 2011, a few months before Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan debuted at the Venice Film Festival. In that sense, Gurvinder Singh’s cinematic gift carries the torch passed on from Mani Kaul.

On another note, Singh’s follow-up film Chauthi Koot debuted at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2015 and is a riveting piece of cinema.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Il Posto

 Il Posto (1961, Italy, Ermanno Olmi)

The great Italian director Ermanno Olmi, who sadly passed away in 2018, is more famously associated with his 1978 Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs. However, it is his 1961 Il Posto (which won the Italian critics’ award at Venice Film Festival) that is a personal favourite. The film won my 2014 Movie World Cup beating out Robert Bresson’s L’Argent 5-3. I recently revisited the film to see how it holds up.

Il Posto brilliantly depicts the journey of young Domenico (Sandro Panseri) entering the workforce with precise detail starting with the stress associated with writing an exam to nervous anticipation of a job interview to the fate that awaits when one gets the job; the dreaded office desk where a person can spend decades sitting in one spot. 

A promotion means a person moves up just one spot to a desk nearer to the front.

As Il Posto shows, this front desk has more light while the desk at the back of the room is partially dark. Using such a simple technique of depicting rows of desks lit differently, Olmi is able to highlight the hierarchy and seniority that exists in offices. Of course, a variation in other companies is that a promotion signifies moving to a better cubicle or an office with a window. 

Olmi also manages to incorporate plenty of tiny details that highlight workplace rituals and customs while portraying differences in big city life vs a smaller town. Domenico lives in Meda, a small town, on the outskirts of Milan. Time has no meaning in Meda while the pace of life slower with horse-carts still visible. However, the pace of life in Milan is faster and life is dictated by the clock. Domenico quickly learns this as he has to wake up early to catch the train to get to his job interview in Milan.

In the office, the clock dictates everything. If one is late to office, then a late slip has to be signed by the big boss.
As soon as the clock indicates lunch time, everyone rushes out to grab a bite to eat before they have to return back.
And then there is the waiting for the clock to indicate the end of the work day.
Il Posto also lovingly incorporates elements of romance and the excitement, hesitation, jealously, waiting and expectation that comes with meeting someone. Olmi’s beautiful film was made back in 1961 but it will always be contemporary as long humans have to find a job or have to seek out a companion.
I absolutely loved watching this film again and appreciated many of the details I missed seven years ago. Of course, all these details were always in the film. This line from Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory applies to my heightened appreciation:

“The film is the same….It’s your eyes that have changed.”

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

A Machine to Live In

 A Machine to Live In (2020, USA, Yoni Goldstein/Meredith Zielke)

A city is made by its people, within the bounds of the possibilities that it can offer them: it has a distinctive identity that makes it much more than an agglomeration of buildings. Climate, topography and architecture are part of what creates that distinctiveness, as are its origins. Cities based on trade have qualities different from those that were called into being my manufacturing. Some cities were built by autocrats, others have been shaped by religion. Some cities have their origins in military strategy or statecraft. — The Language of Cities, Deyan Sudjic

All cities have their own unique identity even though a city may have many common elements with other cities. When people use words such as “City of Love”, “City of Dreams” or “City that never sleeps” to describe a city, it isn’t just one aspect that causes a city to get such a label. Instead, it is the overall essence of a city and the feeling it generates that cause people to label a city. Sometimes, the description of a city is amplified by paintings, literature, films, music or political/social acts that cause people to associate a city in a certain way.

What to make of Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil?


When I first saw pictures of Brasilia years ago, my first thought was the city wasn’t real. It didn’t look like it was constructed by humans but instead felt like an extraterrestrial city. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke’s A Machine to Live In looks at Brasilia from various angles and tries to capture some of the realities, myths and cultish beliefs about the city.

A Machine to Live In isn’t a pure documentary but feels like a docu-fiction hybrid, especially since the film defies genres due to its multiple tones and cinematic references. In some moments, the film takes on a serious tone in highlighting discussions of aliens and Brasilia’s architecture. And then a few moments later, the entire tone feels similar to that of Todd Haynes’ Safe in highlighting the frauds who have their own agenda in perpetuating certain beliefs.

The film has many quotes from Oscar Niemayer, one of the chief architects of Brasilia, and the brilliant writer Clarice Lispector which lends gravitas to proceedings while the hypnotic music coupled with stellar images produces a trance like impact.

The end result is a film that aligns more with a dreamy vision of Brasilia even though the camera is looking at the real city itself and features some of the residents who toil away in the city.