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Monday, 30 March 2009

I watched The Satanic Verses Affair late last night on the BBC, and thought it was really good. Salman Rushdie isn't the perfect hero of free speech, but who is? It's a great reminder that people's real character emerge through their conflict with the world, and their ideas are shaped by this encounters, life is not a Hollywood film. Rushdie made a lot of concessions, re-converted to Islam, issued apologies, and then announced that his experiment with Islam was over and admitted that he hadn't converted out of conviction.

Hanif Kureishi came across as a more heroic figure, dismissing Rushdie's enemies as the 'bearded ones', but he didn't have to go through what Rushdie experienced. The real hero to me was Frances D'Souza entirely committed to the cause of defending Rushdie's right to free speech without compromise, she was very convincing in her defense of the principled stance that drove her and her colleagues to form the International Committee for the defence of Rushdie.

The other notable contributor to the program was Inayat Bunglawala, one of the Islamic activists who were shaped by the Rushdie affair and took their first steps in politics through the campaigns to ban the book. At the end of the program, Bunglawala admitted that they were wrong in calling for the book to be banned and for supporting the Fatwa against Rushdie. Instead, he said, they should have fought it on 'the plain of ideas'. It's an amazing admission, and shows that at least some people did learn from the whole episode.

If Islamic 'fundamentalists' manage to learn the value of free speech, perhaps the environmental 'movement' should take notice that its tactics of intimidation and accusing people of denial do not serve its cause. Who's more reactionary today, an Islamist whose willing to discuss his most sacred ideas publicly or an environmentalist who goes out of his or her way to silence opponents?

Monday, 16 March 2009

I hope this will become an online archive for lame ideas that come about because of the obsession with cultural identity. No 1 comes today from India, where Hindu activists are upset by a proposal for a 20m tall statue of Charlie Chaplin, because he was a Christian. The activists have actually succeeded in preventing the statue from being built, however I don't agree with the Times' assessment that they are 'extremists'. This label is applied too easily these days.

When cultural identity takes the place of politics, this is the kind of excess that you can expect. Such protests are motivated less by bigotry than by a sense of insecurity and a fragile identity. All over the world there are examples of how cultural identity is distorting politics and producing more examples of these lame protests. Please send in your examples to this post.
It's not everyday that I find myself agreeing with Tristram Hunt, reading his column in the Times today about controls on drinking was a pleasant surprise, until I got to the end and Hunt shows his true colours. Hunt argues that pubs should take their place at the heart of public life in Britain, and criticises measures like the smoking ban for driving people away from pubs. All very true, until Hunt says that the "...ban on smoking in public places has driven drinking back into the home, where social safeguards are absent".

Hunt is not arguing for the freedom of drinkers, he wants them to drink in public where they can be monitored and controlled, by each other and by the state. It's another version of the 'eye on the street' that institutionalises suspicion between citizens, and is abhorred by what they might get up to in the privacy of their homes. Hunt has used a similar logic in the past to argue against suburbs, again blaming them for moral degeneracy.

Hunt is not a campaigner for freedom, he's a pragmatic authoritarian who thinks it's better to monitor drinkers in public than attempting to limit their consumption of alcohol through punitive measure, simply because they haven't worked in the past. What a truly miserable view of humanity.

On a similar subject, I am trying to oppose the proposal to turn the area around the Arsenal Emirates Stadium into a Controlled Drinking Zone, a measure that the metropolitan police has asked Islington Council to consider. Very few people know what CDZs are, and what they actually mean. Effectively, this gives the police extra powers to stop you and confiscate drinks you are carrying, even if they are unopened. Either the police have developed psychic skills, or as I am more inclined to believe, they would use these powers to make their lives easier, and in the process making everyone walking with a drink a suspect.

The proposal is calculated and worded to create tension between the residents and the Arsenal fans, the fans are not being consulted only the residents are. What I found to my surprise, is that some Arsenal fans actually support this measure because they blame the away fans for bad behaviour. This is exactly the type of suspicion that such policies promote, and we should fight it.I agree with Hunt, let's put the pub at the centre of public life again, but let's remove all the constraints that have been imposed by the government and councils on public drinking to enable that.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Best description I ever heard of our manifesto: "The Fountainhead re-written by Jeremy Clarkson." Thanks to Charles Holland, the director of FAT, for that. I couldn't have thought of a better way of putting it myself. Second prize goes to Justin McGuirk in the Architects' Journal, who described ManTowNHuman as the "anti-sustainability manifesto". No link for that, you'll have to buy your own copy of the AJ for the pleasure.
Holland meant it as a critique, of course, but it's still a brilliant line. Back in October, I spoke on a panel with Holland's colleague from FAT, Sean Griffiths and I actually thought he was quite good as a speaker and he stood up for the freedom of architects. Admittedly, their stuff is a bit flippant, but those aren't heroic times. Perhaps the recession will sort that out, someone will realize that we will need genuine development and big ideas instead of messing around the edges.
Holland got everything else about us wrong. I don't think I've ever been called a conservative before, but there's a first time for everything. His grasp of politics is very shallow, but you can't expect nice white middle class boys to be Renaissance Men, that would be too old fashioned. Still, thank for the quote, Charlie Boy.

Monday, 9 March 2009

'Help' Lebanese Film and Freedom of Expression, or Christians Learn from Khomeini

‘HELP! was pasted all over Beirut in February on bright blue posters advertising the new Lebanese film addressing sex, prostitution, drugs and homelessness. But anticipation for the movie, which cost over $200,000 to make, came to nothing. The film's directors told NOW that the Censorship Department in the General Security withdrew permission for a planned screening on February 16.’ (NOW Lebanon)

With Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel', it appeared that Lebanese cinema was taking a new direction. For starters, it was refreshing to see a film that addressed the contemporary reality of Beirut and moving away from the subject matter of the civil war that had for long occupied Lebanese filmmakers. Also, the film tackled, ever so gently, some of the 'taboos' in Lebanese society, such as homosexuality, virginity, and extra-marital affairs. Lebanese audiences were waiting for the release of Marc Abi Rached's film 'Help' which was expected to be more daring in dealing with such social issues, however this was not meant to be. As Pierre Abi Saab reports today in Al-Akhbar, the Lebanese film censoring authority has withdrawn a license that it had previously issued, meaning that the film has effectively been banned.

There has been speculation since the license for the film was revoked about the reasons for this decision. One theory was that the officer in charge of the licensing the film was replaced, a bit flimsy in my opinion. Others said it was because of the nudity in the film, especially that the actress involved is the daughter of a Lebanese MP. But Abi Rached said in an interview that he stayed well within the limit allowed by Lebanese Law on nudity. The organization Skeyes, the Centre for Defending Media and Cultural Freedoms founded in memory of murdered Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, claimed that a Catholic organization had a role in the decision to ban Abi Rached’s film.

On the Lebanese Forces discussion forum, (don't ask) the contributors were in favour of showing the film, and someone suggested that it was because 'our southern Iranian neighbours don't like nudity'. (A not-so-subtle reference to the Shiite community). According to Abi Saab's piece in Al-Akhbar today, it appears that they are in for a surprise. Abi Saab attributes the decision to withdraw the license to a 'protest' made by the 'Centre Catholique d’Information', the mouthpiece of the Maronite church in Lebanon. Abi Saab does not cite any sources for his claim, but he is a good critic and a trustworthy journalist, and I would have no reason to doubt his claim.

The film apparently describes the experiences of some of the ‘marginal’ characters of Beirut, a young prostitute, a homeless teenager, and an overtly camp gay character. Abi Saab thinks that it is this character in particular that seems to have offended the church authorities most, and he might be right. Such subjects have certainly been addressed by Lebanese filmmakers in the past, such in Mohammed Soueid’s 'Cinema Fouad' and Akram Zaatari’s 'Majnounak', but those were short ‘documentary’ style films, shown mostly to small audiences. With Help, Abi Rached was preparing to take those subjects to a mass audience in a feature-length format, which might still make it to Europe before it will be seen by Lebanese audiences.

Like 'Caramel' before it, 'Help' appears to be influenced by Almodovar’s work, and certainly from the trailer available online appears to be ‘polished’ technically. It was boldly advertised through a ‘teaser’ campaign, the aforementioned Help signs did not mention the film until sometime later. All of this is significant. Whereas Zaatari’s and Soueid’s work took advantage of the small ‘art house’ context to push the limits, it is high time that the wider audience gets the benefit of a similar experience. I have no idea if Help is any good, but I would have liked to have the opportunity to judge for myself.

What is interesting about the whole episode is the extent to which the language of cultural sensitivity is being deployed nowadays. Those who argue that the Satanic Verses saga was about Islam, and its incompatibility with the modern world, are entirely wrong. It wasn’t Islamists that came up with the idea that speech hurts, in fact it was a by-product of feminism that found its way into the mainstream. Once feminism was dissociated from a wider idea of liberation and started arguing in favour of a particular experience that is distinct from the universal, it inevitably started dabbling with restrictions on speech and expression. That lesson has been learned by everyone, from cultural groups to religious organisations to gay rights campaigners, who all compete nowadays in what they see as defending their constituents from offense.

In that sense, the Catholic Information Centre is not being an outdated religious institution, but a thoroughly postmodern one. Even if it turns out that it was not behind this particular decision to ban 'Help', it has certainly led campaigns in the past against some films and books that it considered offensive, such as The Da Vinci Code. The response should be not to blame religion, but to insist that there is no right not to be offended. This is even more important when the film in question is not an imported one, but someone holding a mirror to the society he lives in, as Abi Rached is trying to do. Let’s find out for ourselves whether we can see our reflection in that mirror.

For more articles on film, see: