Dubai International Film Festival empowers female directors in the Middle East

Director Leyla Bouzid and star Baya Medhaffer receive the Muhr Feature Best Fiction award for their film As I Open My Eyes at the 2015 Dubai International Film Festival

While the region around it has descended in political chaos and religious strife, Dubai continues to flourish and prosper, becoming an oasis of harmony and progress, where the natives constitute less than 12% of its multinational inhabitants. Its international film festival (DIFF), which was launched 12 years ago, in order to enhance understanding and form a cultural bridge between East and West, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, has become a thriving hub for Arab and international cinema. This year’s edition, which opened with Golden Globe nominee Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” on December 9th and closed with Golden Globe nominee Adam Macky’s “The Big Short,” screened 134 films, out of which, over half are Arab. There is also a significant presence of female Arab directors, who are presenting 24 films in and out of competition.

“That’s nearly 30% of the total of Arab films, which is much more than the percentage -around 6%- of films made by women in Hollywood,” boasts DIFF’s Chairman Abdulhamid Juma, who is cognizant of the negative perception held in the West of Arab society and its treatment of women. “This is a build up of hundreds of years of politics and media. We don’t get insulted, instead we respond with the same medium, telling our stories in films that show ourselves as humans, like everybody else, who want to educate their children and live in peace. And hopefully when they see this information, they will change their attitude.”

Juma concedes though that the Arab society has too many problems of its own to deal with. “These are difficult times and the Arabs and Muslims need an internal dialogue. We have to be patient and do the right thing from the right angle, like promoting women directors, encourage younger generation to get into cinema,” he explains.

Indeed, nearly all the festival’s female-directed shorts and features have received support from  DIFF’s partner funds such as Abu Dhabi’s Sanad and Dubai’s Enjaz and ImageNation. These films include Palestinian Mai Masri’s “3000 Nights;” in which a Palestinian teacher tries to survive an Israeli women’s prison; Lebanese Danielle Arbid’s “Parisienne,” a coming of age tale of an Arab teenager in Paris; Tunisian Leyla Bouzid’s “As I Open My Eyes,” a story of a teenager who defies her parents in order to become a musician;  Lebanese Jihane Chouaib’s “Go Home,” in which a ballet dancer returns from Paris to her hometown in Lebanon and relives her traumatic past; Egyptian’s Hala Khalil’s “Nawara”, a heartbreaking tale of a poor maid hoping for a better life after the 2011 revolution; and Emirati Nahla Al Fahad’s “The Painted Veil,” a documentary about the source of the veil and its impact on Muslim women around the world.

All the aforementioned movies are anchored by female characters rebelling against conformity in their conservative society or against political and social constraints in order to fulfil their desires, ambitions and dreams. Drawing from real life events and defying societal taboos, these directors unravel the complexity of women’s daily existence and expose the challenges they face in all aspects of life.  Speaking to some of the hundreds of women attending the festival in different professional capacities, I’ve learned that the lives of  Arab women differ from one country to another.

Saudi Arabia actress/director, Ahd Kamel (Wajda, Rattle the Cage), for instance, was arrested and interrogated by the chastity police in her country simply because she was having a meeting in a public place with two male producers without the presence of a male relative, like brother or father. “We are ruled by ignorant fanatics,” exclaims Kamel, who is donning Jeans and T-shirt in liberal Dubai.

On the other hand, the director of the children film festival in Shariqa (an Emirati city near Dubai), Fatima Musharbak, who dressed in the traditional black robe with a scarf covering her hair, insists that she enjoys complete freedom in United Arab Emirates, expressing amazement at my suggestion that her dress evokes the thought of religious oppression. “This is our national traditional dress,” she smiles confidently. “Wearing it here, or anywhere else around the word, is my own choice.” Like young Musharbak, who travels the world, on her own, seeking films for her city’s festival, many women in Emirate hold powerful executive positions in private and public sectors. “We are not Saudi Arabia,” Fatima laughs. Actually, we would’ve both risked prosecution in Saudi Arabia for confabulating at 11pm at one of Dubai’s sprawling malls.

Yet, like the rest of the world, the movies receiving the loudest buzz at the festival are male-directed.  Those movies, supported also by Gulf funds, were Emirati Majid Al Nasri neo-noir thriller “Rattle the Cage,” about a man finding himself in police cage when he wakes up from his drunkenness; Ayman Jamal’s $30 million budget 3D animation “Bilal”, which is inspired by the real-life story of an African slave who was emancipated by prophet Muhammad and became an Islamic leader; and Golden Globe winner Hany Abu Assad’s from-rags-to-riches “Idol,” which is based on the life of the Palestinian wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza, Mohammad Assaf, who won the popular Arab version of Pop Idol in 2013 and became a sensation in the Arab world.

Evidently there is an abundance of talent in the Middle East and North Africa and plenty of resources to support it, however, Arab directors  complain that their movies don’t reach their populations, due to the shrinking number, or sometimes the lack, of cinema theatres in their countries- except in the Gulf states, where cinema has in recent years witnessed a renaissance. Hence, without the support of the local market, many filmmakers feel that Arab cinema will remain stagnant. Juma, on the other hand, disagrees.

“I see this as an opportunity,” he beams. “It means that there’s a huge potential for growth. Bear in mind that most Arab countries are currently facing survival issues, which takes precedence over building movie theatres. But once they settle their problems, we will start seeing theatres, like China, where they are building 10 theatres a day.”

In the meantime, a solution to the Arab filmmaker’s predicament was offered by Netflix, whose chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, announced in a conversation via Skype from Los Angeles,  the expansion of his web streaming service in the Middle East, promising to acquire Arab titles and work with Arab directors on film and TV projects, about contemporary life in the Middle East. “Most depictions of life in the Middle East are either historical or almost caricatures of what life for Middle Easterners would be,” said Sarandos, whose team was on the ground at DIFF looking for movies to acquire and talent to collaborate with.

“Netflix is the new face of distribution in the Arab world, giving support and a platform to a lot of films,” Juma confirms. “But we are having other problems than distribution.”

Juma is fully aware that every time an Islamist terrorist commits a murder in the west, his years of hard labour and DIFF’s millions of dollars of investment in talent and films are wiped out instantly. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic, inviting western talent to experience Dubai -Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Deneuve, Terrence Howard and Michael B Jordan were among this year’s festival guests, and traveling the world spreading DIFF’s message of tolerance and understanding among people.

 

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How Did New Technology Impact The Making of The New “Mad Max”?

With George Miller

With George Miller

When Australian director, George Miller, embarked in 1979 on making the futuristic action thriller “Mad Max” with an unknown actor in the lead, Mel Gibson, and with less than a $1 million budget and with the help of his friends, he didn’t expect the phenomenal critical and commercial success that ensued. In spite of the simplicity of the story, which revolved around a police officer avenging the murder of his wife and child by a criminal gang, the film became a landmark in the history of action cinema and catapulted Miller and Gibson to international stardom. Courted by Hollywood, who showered them with as much money as they needed, Miller and Gibson made two successful sequels: “Mad Max: the Warrior Way” in 1981 and “Mad Max: beyond Thunderstorm” in 1985. “, turning Mad Max into a cult and a source of inspiration for many directors such as James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and David Fincher.

Mad Max is chiefly known for its groundbreaking suspenseful car chases, but what distinguishes it from other futuristic movies is that the action is believable and logical, and doesn’t defy the laws of physics, in spite of being set in a fantastical post apocalyptic world, where the rules of civilization have crumpled, rendering it more accessible and visceral to the audience.

Furthermore, the film’s protagonist, Max, is a regular guy who deals with his life’s challenges and overcomes obstacles like the rest of us without resorting to super powers. And he is not preoccupied in saving the world but rather protecting himself and his family. And although it’s packed with action, Mad Max is emotionally compelling and thought-provoking, dealing with issues such as the morality of revenge, despair, solitude and nihilism.

Hence, it’s no wonder that there has been such high anticipation for the release of the fourth instalment of the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road“, which premieres in Cannes Film Festival on May 13. But the path to making this movie was long, arduous and mined with obstacles, according to Miller, who told me in an interview in Hollywood that he was ready to shoot the film in 2001 with it’s original star Gibson, but the collapse of the US dollar against the Australian currency following the September 11 terror attacks led to the ballooning of the budget, rendering the making of the film impossible. So he busied himself with directing the animation “Happy Feet,” which garnered an Oscar, until time was propitious to revive his Mad Max project at the end of the 2000’s. However, a new hurdle had emerged. Gibson was too old and his life was too troubled to be able to star in the movie, so he had to find a suitable substitute, which he eventually found in British actor, Tom Hardy, but at a cost of over one year of searching.

“When Tom walked in the room, he reminded me of Mel Gibson when he walked in the room 30 years before. Tom was six weeks old when we shot the first Max,” chuckles 70-year-old Miller. “But they are both extremely talented actors. I mean they are both creatures of the theatre and they are both very lovable and at the same time there is that quality of mystery or danger that they have got, which in a sense we see in all charismatic actors, and Tom is a guy that is prepared to try any sort of role.”

Later Hardy told me that Miller didn’t ask him to read any lines when they met, instead they talked for two hours about his theatre work, character analysis and his perspective on life. Only after contacting Hardy’s previous directors, who approved of him, did Miller offer him the role. “When I got over the immediate jubilation and excitement, I suddenly realised that actually Mad Max was synonymous with Mel Gibson, and everybody loves Mel being Mad Max, so that was a little bit daunting being the new boy at school and want to be liked,” says Hardy. But these doubts and trepidations evaporated after meeting Gibson, who gave him his blessing.

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” opens with the capturing and imprisonment of Max by the vampiric War Boys of Immortan Joe, who controls whatever is left of natural resources in a post apocalyptic world, where water, oil and ammunition are currency. Max is held in a citadel, but eventually  he manages to escape and teams up with a renegade War Rig trucker Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who smuggles out Joe’s enslaved wives and heads to “the Green Places.” Joe and his gang chase them in their bizarre-looking vehicles, engaging them in ferocious battles.

While Fury Road retains the hallmarks of the previous Mad Max films in terms of stunning visuals and thrilling cars chases, colourful characters and arid landscapes, there is a perceptible difference in its shooting and editing style. Unlike the previous films, where action was driven by the plot and character, here the action is everything; it’s thunderous, unstoppable and breathlessly fast pace, leaving little time for the characters to develop and for the audience connect with them. We don’t get the chance to spend time with Max reflecting or planning his next move and don’t get to familiarise ourselves with his foes, hence the suspense doesn’t rise from plot or from our care for the characters, but from the thrilling stunts. In addition, the slow-moving wide-lens shots that enhanced the drama in the previous films, gave way to fast long-lens shots that made the action even dizzier. Has Miller deliberately changed his style in order to satisfy the taste of the new generation of cinemagoers, who are accustomed to the contemporary CGI-driven blockbusters?

“Yes, definitely. The first change that I have noticed is that audiences in the three decades since then, can read movies faster, they can speed read movies. And that’s because of commercials and video clips and just movies in general,” explains Miller and reveals that this part of the Mad Max series is made of 2700 cuts, while the second part was only 1200 cuts. This perhaps explains why the pace of movies has doubled in recent years reaching 2000-3000 cuts/film. For instance, the original “Jurassic Park,” was made of only 950. Miller attributes these changes to the advances in digital technologies.

“Things have changed quite a lot,” Miller continues. “And I think digital technology allows you to do that. The cameras are much more flexible. You can have more cameras and lights and it’s not expensive. And if something, a bit of a light stand or another camera happened to be in your shot, you can erase it. Film can be much more polished digitally. So all these things in small increments do influence things.”

Indeed, the availability of small cameras in large numbers enabled Miller to shoot scenes from a multitude of different angles and capture over 480 hours of footage, which undoubtedly contributed to speeding up the film’s pace and enhancing the intensity of the action.

Nevertheless, unlike many of today’s action directors, Miller resisted the temptations of computer-generated special effects, which could’ve produced most of the action scenes in the safety and comfort of a lab, and remained loyal to the principles that guided him in the previous parts of Mad Max, namely shooting all the action, even the most perilous ones, on set in order to retain realism and credibility. “This is a movie in which we don’t defy the laws of physics. There’s no flying men or spacecraft; it would be crazy to take real cars and have real crashes and do them CG,” Miller remarks.

Indeed, in spite of its complexity and eccentricity, the action in the movie seems real and not illogically impossible, because Miller utilized real cars and professional stunt crew, stunt riggers, practical effects and an athletic cast. Of course, this shooting style is fraught with risks and danger and is time-consuming, given the amount of time required to plan and execute a complex stunt, which pushed the shooting schedule to 135 days in the scorching heat of the Namibian desert. “Every day was a big stunt day, many stunts, and when you are there, the heat and the dust and the fatigue sets in. So these days it’s hard for people to believe that you do this stuff. And that’s they way we shot it in the old days.” adds Miller.

The importance of realism and credulity for Miller is also manifested in his casting Charlize Theron to play one-armed bandit Furioza. No doubt that Theron’s tall figure and broad shoulders have contributed to the believability of her portrayal of a fearless warrior, who seems more ferocious than her male counterparts. But when I later spoke to Theron, she revealed that doing the movie was the hardest task she ever had to do in 20 years, because she had to work out at least one hour a day, commute 2 hours from her home to the film set and work 14 hours a day for 135 days, sometimes without sleep at night because she had to care of her baby. “Everytime I watch the movie, I see my own pain on the screen,” she chuckles. “But I knew I had to get the strength in order to get the feeling across. The physical part for me is just for my own truth. I am not a fan of scrawny  little girls kicking pretend butt in movies and I just don’t buy it, and I hate those moments in movies where the tiniest little arms are hitting a guy who is four times her size and we are supposed to believe that that happened.”

Unlike many of the contemporary action movies, that offer nothing more than frivolous entertainment, Fury Road has weight and substance, touching on overdependence on oil and weapons, and delves into sexual slavery and objectification of women.

Undoubtedly, the film will satisfy and thrill its fans, who have waited anxiously for its release for many years. Even before its release, there was a talk of a potential a trilogy. Miller doesn’t discount the idea. “We never set out to write a trilogy, but it took so long to make the movie and we started to write back stories that we ended up with other scripts that we didn’t intend to do so. So if this does well enough and I have got the appetite to go back into the wasteland, (laughs) I have other films I would like to make and we will see. But that’s entirely in the future,” Miller concludes.

So judging from the critical and initial commercial success of Mad Max: Fury Road, we will probably be indulged with two more Mad Max movies.

Is Cinema dying?

cinemaSince its release 3 weeks ago, Furious 7, has been breaking one record after another at the box office, scoring the second-biggest worldwide opening of all time ($397.2 million) behind only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, and recently has become the fastest to reach the $1 billion at the global box office. Since its launch in 2003, the car chase franchise, Fast and Furious, has collected over $3.5 billion in the global box office.

The phenomenal commercial success of Furious 7 has been attributed to the public’s curiosity in the recreation of its star, Paul Walker, who was killed in a car accident before completing the shoot. Of course, there are other factors, chiefly the thunderous special effects and the out-of-this-world stunts that unstoppably hammer the senses of the audience from beginning to end. Amazingly, in spite of their incredulity and absurdity, these senseless effects have become the most compelling and attractive elements in movies for today’s audience, who flock to cinemas seeking fleeting excitement rather than an engaging dramatic narrative that underpins the art of cinema. The question is: can we consider watching Furious 7, a cinematic experience?

Vision:

Cinema as an art is a specificity of vision, the vision of an artist -the director, who expresses his own thoughts, beliefs, ideas and emotions and engages with audiences’ sensibilities through the aesthetics of visual images. The director develops the screenplay, sometimes with a writer, and chooses his own cast and crew, whom he trusts in achieving his own vision, without the interference of a third party. This of course is not the way blockbusters, such as Furious 7, are made in Hollywood.

When I asked Furious 7’s director, James Wan, about the ambitions he had when he embarked on this project, he said: “The most important thing for me was satisfying the franchise’s fans and audience.” You hear these kind of statements from a baker or any other trader, whose goal is to fulfil the needs of his customers, not an artist who wishes to express himself through his art.

The truth is that the studio didn’t hire Wan to colour the film with his own vision or to reflect on his conception of the meaning of life, but because he had perfected the Hollywood formula in his horror movies, such as Insidious and The Conjuring, which yielded a very impressive box office figures. So all he needed to do was studying the previous Fast and Furious movies in order not to stray from the winning formula, because Hollywood is too wary of the inherited commercial risks of original ideas.

Wan had also to adhere to a screenplay that had been developed by studio writers, who receive their orders, not from the -mostly defunct- development department, but from the international marketing and publicity departments that care little for the artistic merit or integrity of the final product,  concentrating instead on its potential commercial profitability in the increasingly dominant international markets, such as China and Russia, whose audiences are avariciously  hungry for gratuitous violence, absurd action  and special effects.

This shift in Hollywood filmmaking philosophy prompted its critics to argue that what Hollywood has been making in the last 3 decades is not cinema, but rather commercial products called movies. These movies are not helmed by auteurs, but  made by groups of business executives, financiers, lawyers, publicists and marketers, who are ignorant in the art of cinema but excellent in the business of producing and selling commercial products, as they did with Furious 7, which, in spite of lacking vision and substance, has been a commercial miracle.

Substance:

In the early years of cinema, movies consisted of rudimentary scenes, like a train thundering forward or raging ocean waves or swarming crowds in a public gathering. But as the language of cinema evolved, filmmakers were able to tell stories by using actors, music, lighting, cuts in different size and of different angles, and editing to create a coherent narrative, driven by drama, suspense and thrill. All the new cinematic innovations were used to create complex characters who take the audience on a thrilling emotional journey as they endure challenging life experiences such as romance, war, crime…etc.

Of course, characters in movies can be fictitious, invented by the screenwriter or the director, and exist in an illusion of reality, but they are often drawn from the spectator’s reality and act like him in dealing with their challenges and solving their life problems, which makes it easier for the spectator to immerse himself into their world and empathise with them in their predicaments. These stories inflame emotions, provoke thoughts and enlighten the minds, and linger forever.

In contrast, Furious 7 lacks any meaningful substance or compelling characters to emotionally connect with. Instead one leaves the theatre exhausted and indifferent to the chaos that has been witnessed. Obviously, the goal of the film was not telling a story or exploring characters, but rather fleetingly exciting the audience with gratuitous digitally-enhanced action sequences.

Undeniably, cinema creates fake realities, but each reality should be based on some logical rules in order to be accepted by the spectator, and that’s what is frustratingly missing in Furious 7, which features stunts, created by computers, that defy all the rules of logic and physics, stretching the limits of plausibility beyond human acceptability, such as the head-on crash of two speeding cars, rendering them into a twisted wreckage, yet the drivers emerge unscathed and ready for a fight, or the car that tumbles from a precipice of a cliff down a steep valley, disintegrating into metal pieces yet its flesh-made passengers leap out of it in perfect physical condition as if they had just come out of a make-up session. It seems that the filmmakers were so tempted by the infinite possibilities of effects that computers can provide that they lost interest in the logic and credibility.

I am not against the fantastic, but they have to reflect the film’s reality and conform to the laws that underpin it. For instance, it’s not unreasonable to see the application of laser swords in Star Wars battles, because their use is congruent with the space reality that the director created. But the characters of Furious 7 are earthlings made of flesh and blood, not of unbreakable metal, hence it becomes harder to empathise with them when you strip them of their humanity. Therefore, instead of embarking on an emotional journey with the film’s characters, the spectator’s mind is overwhelmed by the racing cars that survive all calamities and sometime fly in the air, without even having wings.

Evidently, the purpose of these effects is not serving the film’s narrative or deepening its characters, but numbing the spectator with inane entertainment, and that was what Vin Diesel, the star and producer of the film, confirmed to me. “Our goal in this film is to innovate the newest and most complex special effects in order to please our fans.”

The Form:

As mentioned earlier, the director utilises a variety of visual tools, such as the size and angle of the shot, editing and music score, to create and enhance the drama in his movie. Sometimes, he extends the shot to give the characters time to reflect or do a seemingly mundane but revealing action in his own environment, giving the spectator the chance to connect and empathise with him. For instance, the long shot in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” in which the commander inspects his soldiers in their trenches on the front, introduces the commander to the audience through his reactions and the environment that he had to deal with. On the other hand, We can’t connect with the commander in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” when he arrives to inspect the Japanese bombardment damage because the director cuts too fast for the sake of the fleeting sensationalism, which has become the norm in the current Hollywood movies.

Furious 7 abandons the principles of visual drama and relies on the constant movement at a breathless pace,  igniting temporary sensation rather than emotions and engagement, leaving the audience with vague memory of having been briefly excited rather than the enduring contentment of scenes playing again and again in one’s head.

Hollywood:

Hollywood stands accused, by its critics, of sacrificing the art of cinema for commercial profits, deculturation of movies and the casting away of all manner of dramatic cunning laboriously built up over decades. This is not surprising, because Hollywood is not run by filmmakers but by business people, who answer to their investors in Wall Street. “My job is to keep my company profitable and ensure that my employees provide food to their families. I am a businessman, not an artist,” a studio boss tells me. His statement makes a lot of sense. Then is it right to blame Hollywood for the degradation of cinema?

Hollywood executives’ answer has invariably been: “We just fulfill the public need. As long as there is demand for our movies, we will continue to make them.” Granted, but some charge Hollywood with conditioning the young generation to find the absence of emotions pleasurable by constantly hammering their sensory systems with special effects. But one must not forget the impact of the technology and the internet that has given rise to a new generation that wants everything instantaneously without waiting. This generation demands constant excitement and is easily bored by reflection and contemplation. Will they ever develop a taste for narrative, for character, for suspense, for acting, for irony for wit, for drama? Isn’t it possible that they will be so hooked on sensation that anything without extreme actions and fantasy will just seem lifeless and dead to them?

So it seems that humanity, in its entirety, is regressing and becoming possessed by the machines that provides our needs with astonishing efficiency and speed, whether it’s supplying information via internet searches or producing sensational special effects in Hollywood movies.

Solution:

“If you want substance storytelling then go TV,” a studio executive tells me. Indeed, with their movies failing to compete with Hollywood blockbusters in cinema theatres, many of the great directors and screenwriters have moved to working on TV shows, where they find a creative environment, free of the constraints of Hollywood’s filmmaking. So will TV replace cinema for visual storytelling, and will the cinema theatres transform into special effects venues?

 

Rihanna is too busy to have a man in her life – interview

with Rihanna

with Rihanna

Pop stars are not known for being punctilious particularly when it comes to press interviews, so I was not surprised when Rihanna’s assistant announced that her boss was going to be late to our rendezvous, ostensibly because she was not feeling well. Most likely though, she was finessing her make up.

After a two-hour wait in a large room overlooking central park at New York’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, another announcement heralds Rihanna’s imminent arrival: “She is in the elevator.” Indeed, within minutes, the superstar, dressed in white and smiling demurely, marches into the room, flanked by her assistants.

Only 26, yet Rihanna is considered one of the most successful pop musicians in the world, selling over 150 million records. Many of her songs rank among the world’s best-selling singles of all time, becoming the youngest artist to rank number one with 13 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  Her work has also garnered her 7 Grammys, 8 American music awards, 11 music Billboard awards and two Brit awards. In 2012, Forbes ranked her the fourth most powerful celebrity of the year, with earnings of $53 million in the previous year. The same year, Time named her one of the Most Influential People in the World.

With such immense power comes responsibility. Something she learned last Summer when she tweeted #FreePalestine during the conflict between Israel and Gaza. The tweet attracted hundreds of reactions in the 8 minutes before she removed it, fearing a backlash, and substituted it with “I pray for peace in Israel and Palestine.”I don’t like politics,” she embarrassingly tells me when I ask her to comment on the incident.  “I don’t want to get into that,” she giggles.

Fair enough, Rihanna is here to talk about her new animation movie, Home, in which she voices the lead girl, Tip, who forms friendship with an Alien, Oh (Jim Parsons) who invades earth with his people, the Boovs, after their planet was threatened by a mortal enemy. Rihanna also contributed several songs and the music score for the movie. “I loved Tip and I adore her personality. She’s very brave, very fearless, very determined, but very sassy. I feel that I identify with a lot of those traits, especially the sass,” Rihanna laughs.

This the second time, Rihanna has starred in a Hollywood movie. Her first attempt was two years ago in Peter Berg’s “Battleship,” which was excoriated by the critics and didn’t do well in the box office. But that didn’t diminish Rihanna’s passion for acting, though she admits that she prefers working on animation.

Of course, Rihanna’s first passion was music and singing, which she has practiced since the age of 7, when she was growing up in Barbados, where she was born to an Afro-Guyanese mother and an Irish father, who split up when their daughter was 14 due to the father’s drug abuse. At 16, Rihanna was able to turn her passion into a profession when she met producer Ivan Rogers, who was on a vacation in Barbados in December 2003. Impressed by the young girl’s singing, Rogers took her to New York to record demo tapes to be sent to record labels. The first to respond to the tapes was Jay-Z, who invited her to an audition, which resulted in Rihanna signing a six-album record deal with his company Def Jam in February 2005. Immediately thereafter, the young musician relocated to New York.

“I believed it so much that it happened,” she enthuses. “It was so far from reality and so far from even being possible but then didn’t seem far, but only now in hindsight, I look back and that was a really really big dream for a little girl from a really small island.” This little girl used to obsessively watch videos and read magazines and listen to reggae and hip-hop and the music of her icons such as Mariah, Celine, Whitney, Destiny’s Child. “But I just wanted to sing,” she enthuses. “I wanted to make music that could be heard all over the world, ‘cause these women are from all spectrums of the globes so I just believed that it could happen to me.”

Rihanna didn’t wait long for her wish to become a reality. Her first single “Pon de Replay,” which she released in May 2005, charted successfully worldwide, peaking in the top five in fifteen countries, including a number two in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and the UK Singles Chart. Her ensuing albums continued to lead in the charts around the world, but it was the release of the critically-acclaimed “Good Girl Gone Bad,” in 2007 that catapulted her to the pinnacle of her profession, when the lead single “Umbrella” topped the charts in thirteen countries and remained number one in the UK to ten consecutive weeks, with sales of over 6.6 million copies.

“When I first moved to America, I was very, very ambitious and still am,” Rihanna smiles. “My drive has always been fueled by my passion for what I do. I love being creative. So whatever outlet I can find that I love and I can be creative in, I just kind of hone in on. Whether it’s designing or music or now animation. And as the years went on, my ambition was also joined by rebellion.”

No doubt that this young artist’s ambitions are limitless, evinced by the phenomenal success of her music. Her achievements have been compared to those of music giants such as the Beatles and Michael Jackson. Yet, Rihanna dismisses the idea of having reached the top of her profession. “What is the top?” She asks sneeringly. “If you ever feel that you are on top, you only have down to go and I don’t ever want to feel comfortable enough to say that.”

Indeed, Rihanna toils unceasingly whether in making music or fashion design or acting. But her immersion in her work comes at a personal cost. In spite of an overwhelming sense of loneliness that pervades her soul when she is on tours, she doesn’t have the urge to settle down with a man to keep her company and share the joys and burdens of life with her; instead she spends her free time at home on her couch watching TV. “I don’t have a lot of time to offer for a man right now so I don’t even know. It’s not even fair to pull anybody into this right now, so he would have to be willing to tolerate my schedule, if he’s man enough to do that,” she laughs, insisting that the reported romance Leonardo DiCaprio is nothing but a false rumour. “Stay off the blogs and the tabloids; they will screw you every time.”

Yet, in spite of her preoccupation with her work and international stardom, Rihanna hasn’t forgotten her humble roots and impoverished country, Barbados, visiting her friends and family regularly and donating millions of dollars to local charities and other projects. “From school life to my home and my culture, makes me who I am, and that’s that foundation that has been built for sixteen years before I moved to America, so no matter what, I always try to stay close to that and never lose that,” Rihanna enthuses.

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John Travolta: Scientology has better tools than Catholicism

In spite of his glorious success in Hollywood, John Travolta has faced tough challenges and endured tragic losses since the onset of his career. In 1977, breast cancer robbed him of his then- girlfriend, actress Diana Hyland, in 2009 his autistic son died following a seizure, in 2012 he was accused of sexually molesting a male MASSEUR, and  more sexual allegations have been pelted at him since the 80’s, yet every time I encounter him, he is invariably beaming with smiles and projecting the image of a joyous man.

In a TV interview I conducted with the Hollywood star for my BBC’s Alternative Cinema show, he unlocks the mystery of his carefree demeanour, revealing that it was thanks to his religion, Scientology, which has equipped him with the required tools to deal with life’s challenges and overcome their detrimental impact on him, personally and professionally.

“I think it’s probably my nature to begin with,” the 60-year-old actor says. “I’ve always seen the glass as half full innately. I think that’s a fact. and of course since I have the pressures of fame, my religion has helped me keep positive because it helped combat the pressure of being famous.”

Travolta entered the public eye in his early twenties, after starring in two of the most commercially successful movies of the seventies: “Saturday Night Fever (1977)” and “Grease (1978)”. Barely 24 years old, he was nominated for an Oscar for inhabiting the role of Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever,” rendering him the youngest nominee ever until then. And in 1980, his performance in “Urban Cowboy” inspired a nationwide country music craze. By that time, he was considered Hollywood’s most famous star. But this fame was not without a price.

“I was a believer in Scientology before I became famous,” Travolta says. “But I didn’t realise how much it was going to help me. You live a very isolated life so there is a price you pay for isolation, and then when you go out to live a social life, you also have the stress of everyone knowing who you are, and then you have the media as well, which is something you learn early on to put in perspective and keep it at a distance because there is no way of controlling that, but the media has a variation of interpretation of what your movie is and your personal life is, so to try to control that is like a test in futility.”

Indeed, Travolta’s relationship with the media has been tumultuous. Ironically though, the media’s hostility towards him has been precipitated by his adherence to Scientology, which has been excoriated for its alleged shady activities and charged with using threats and extortion to subjugate its members to its will. Even Travolta himself has been subjected to threats, according to a 1991 Time Magazine article, in which the former executive manager of the church, William Frank, purported that the superstar was wary of leaving the faith, lest his sexual relationships with other men be exposed by the church’s leaders. Frank reiterated his claim in the recent Sundance documentary “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and Prison of Faith,” which urged Travolta to leave his church and expose the illicit activities of its leaders.

It seems that Travolta’s religion is the problem, not the solution when it comes to dealing with the media, for it attracts undue attention to his private life. Nonetheless, he insists that Scientology is the source of happiness and that he can’t live without it.

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Sundance movies explore the terrifying impact of authority on human behaviour

Israeli author Amos Oz listens to the Voices he recorded 45 ago.

Israeli author Amos Oz listens to the Voices he recorded 45 ago.

Participating movies in the Sundance film festival are usually made on shoestring budgets and often by first-time directors, but they are rich in their substance, bold in their themes and unique in their subjects. This year, movies have touched on controversial issues such as nature vs nurture (Stockholm, Pennsylvania), homosexuality (I am Michael, D Train), teens in pornography (Hot Girls Wanted), religious cults (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) and more. One topic that grabbed my attention was the perplexing transformative impact of authority on human mind and behaviour.

My interest in the topic sparked when I saw the Israeli documentary “Censored Voices”, which exposes atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers during the 6-day war in 1967, which ended with the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai peninsula, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. The disturbing revelations were made by soldiers from the left-leaning Kibbutzim in interviews conducted with them by renown author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira, 10-12 days after the conclusion of the war. This is the first time that the Israeli army consented to release them.

While the western world was praising their heroism for defeating the “monstrous” Arab armies with an astonishing speed, the Israeli soldiers were busy murdering Arab civilians and war prisoners and uprooting villagers from their homes and creating a refugee crisis in the Middle East. One of the interviewees says: “We were told not to show mercy, and to kill as many Arabs as we can.” So they did, shooting at soldiers and civilians alike. “We saw people walking in Sinai; they were not running, so we shot them. We could see them falling, but they didn’t run. So we killed them all,” another soldier confesses.

The first moral shock hit these soldiers when they met the Egyptian captives. “They were just kids. They kneeled down kissing our feet and begging for water. They were not the monsters we had imagined. Suddenly, we started to feel bad for them, but at the same time I thought that they would’ve done the same to us, had they been in our position,” the soldier says. He also reveals that Egyptian prisoners were forced to dig their own graves before they were executed and buried in the desert.

Another interviewee says that he witnessed a paratroopers’ battalion apprehending the men in one convoy of Syrian villagers, who were forced out of the Golan Heights to Syria, and executed them, leaving the women and children with their heavy chattel and domestic animals. The Palestinians in the West Bank were not spared either. The soldiers killed anyone who dared pop his head from a window or a roof top. “I said to myself ‘they are civilians, should we kill them or not? I didn’t think much about it. Just kill! Kill anyone your eyes could see,” the soldier says.

The interviewees sounded so traumatised by their own actions, that they compared their behaviour to the Nazis, who drove the Jews out of their homes to death camps. “We are not killers, but the war turned us all into killers,” laments one soldier. Interestingly though, the film’s director, Mor Loushai, firmly rejects this comparison when I speak to her, insisting that, unlike the Nazis, Israeli soldiers feel the pain of the other side. And when I suggested to her that the Israeli soldiers were acting then in the way that Islamic State (IS) fighters do now, she was loath to compare the two. Admittedly, unlike the Israeli soldiers, IS members gloat about their crimes. But that makes no difference to the victims; who are either dead or refugees. “War corrupts the human soul,” Loushai concedes. “But you must know that our soldiers had no choice and were fighting to defend their homeland from the attacking Arab armies.”

The truth is that each side in every conflict believes that they are just in their deeds. Do the Israeli soldiers possess higher innate moral codes than the rest of humanity or are they just as flawed as everybody else?

This question was tackled in two other Sundance’s movies: Michael Almereyda’s “The Experimenter,” and Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Both movies are based on real scientific experiments conducted in the early 1960’s and early 1970’s respectively.

“The Experimenter,” tells the story of a Jewish psychologist, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), who devises an experiment in

Stanley Milgram shows that obedience is too powerful for humans to resist

Stanley Milgram shows that obedience is too powerful for humans to resist

Yale university in order to answer the question of whether we could call the Nazi soldiers, who were following orders, accomplices in the Holocaust?

There are three participants in Milgram’s experiment: the Experimenter (the authority figure), the Teacher (the volunteering subject) and the Learner (a confederate, who informs the subject that he has a heart condition). The Teacher punishes the Learner, who sits in an adjacent room, with an electric shock every time he fails to answer a question correctly.  The intensity of the electric shocks increases gradually to 450 volts (the death blow) until the Learner provides the right answer. The Experimenter instructs the Teacher to proceed in fulfilling his role in the experiment in spite of the Learner’s screams of agony and pleading for mercy. Astonishingly, 65% of the subjects continued to electrocute the Learner until the death shock, albeit they did express their dismay at the experiment. The rest didn’t stop before the 300 volts shock, which inflicts excruciating pain. Furthermore, not a single one of them deigned to check on the Learner’s well-being before they had left.

Similar results of the same experiment were observed in different countries. All subjects, regardless of race, creed or gender, acted the same way, prompting Milgram to conclude that human nature can’t be relied on to prevent cruelty and immoral behaviour, when it’s instructed by a corrupt authority. The majority of people are willing to carry out actions, incompatible with their principles or morality, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” which features a psychological experiment headed by Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), goes a step further in exploring the impact of Authority on human behaviour in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.

Twenty-four male students are selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in the prison. The guards are provided with actual prison guards uniforms, wooden batons and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact with the prisoners, who wear uncomfortable ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, as well as a chain around one ankle, and their names are substituted by numbers, which are sewn on their uniforms.

Guards acted sadistically towards prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment

Guards acted sadistically towards prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment

From the first day of the experiment, the guards, who are granted absolute power, act callously towards the prisoners. And when the prisoners rebel, the guards respond  sadistically with varied forms of psychological torture and humiliating practices, such as spraying prisoners with a fire extinguisher, depriving them of their meals, forcing them to urinate and defecate in a bucket in their cell, and then placing the bucket next to their dinner table, taking away their mattresses from their cells, leaving them to sleep on concrete, arbitrarily locking them in a solitary confinement and stripping off their clothes in order to degrade them. The prisoners react in three ways: resistance, total collapse or complete obedience, but all express their willingness to forfeit their pay in order to leave. Matters deteriorate to such an extent, the experiment has to be halted after 6 days. Disturbingly, the guards are disappointed.

At the end of the movie, a prisoner asks one of the guards: “Why did you act like an asshole?”. The guard replies: “I was doing my job, and I wanted to experiment with it, and see how far can I go. I am sure you would’ve done the same. Authority changes you.” And that was what the scientists confirmed: it seems that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants’ behaviour.

Interestingly, one of the Israeli soldiers in “Censored Voices” reveals that the authority that the war has bestowed upon him over his Arab victims filled him with a sense of invincibility, and he derived joy from harassing and humiliating them. He was surprised by their total obedience even when they were ordered to leave their own homes and do the most degrading acts, adding that the Jews also submitted to the Nazis when they led them to the death camps.

This soldier was as young as the volunteering students in the Stanford Prison experiment. Is he a war criminal, or a victim of the situation or is he just obeying the commands of his superiors? And is he different  from a Nazi soldier or an ISIS terrorist or the infamous American Sniper or a Syrian soldier who murders his own people in order to save the throne of his president?

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Clint Eastwood’s conflicted morality in American Sniper – interview

with Clint Eastwood

with Clint Eastwood

Chris Kyle was proclaimed the most lethal sniper in the US military history, with over 160 confirmed kills, most of them were carried out during his deployment in Iraq between 2003-2009, where he was nicknamed The Devil of Ramadi by the Iraqi insurgents, who put a bounty on his head. Ramadi is the capital of Iraq’s Western province, Anbar, where the US army faced the fiercest local resistance, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. In the US, however, he was accoladed with two Silver Star Medals, five Bronze Star Medals, one Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals for acts of heroism and meritorious service in combat.

The conflicting morality of Kyle’s actions is laid bare in the opening scene of Clint Eastwood’s new movie “American Sniper,” which tells his life story. Sprawled on a rooftop somewhere in Fallujah and gazing below through his rifle scope, Kyle shoots dead a child, barely 8 years-old, who is hauling grenade in his hands and walking towards a group of US soldiers, and then he blows off the head of the child’s wailing mother, when she fetches the grenade and starts towards the soldiers.

As Kyle reflects on his kill, Eastwood takes us back to his childhood in Texas, where he was born and raised by his father, who teach him how to shoot a rifle and instills in him the religious-driven American values that see the world in black and white. Kyle grows up believing that America is always right, and its enemies are evil, who ought to be crushed. Hence, when he watches the World Trade Center crumbling on his TV screen in Sep 2001, the only thought on his mind is revenge. The following day, he volunteers for the Navy Seals, where he is subjected to an intensive training programme before he impresses his training officers with his extraordinary precision in hitting targets with his rifle. He is a better sniper than his own trainer.

The US invasion of Iraq offers Kyle the chance to punish those whom he deems to be America’s foes. He is ferocious in the battle field.  His ferocity stems from his fanatical conviction that he is fighting a morally just and necessary war to defend America. Not only does he save the lives of many of US marines, who are fighting on the ground, by eliminating any danger, being a man, a woman or a child, with his rifle from a distant rooftop, he also joins them in the bloodiest and most brutal fighting, particularly in Fallujah, which witnesses the largest number of human loss on both sides.

The film is fraught with gruesome battles from the Iraq war, and horrific scenes of destruction and suffering, particularly by the local civilians, but it doesn’t reflect on the morality of the war, the questionable reasons behind it or its devastating consequence on the US soldiers and the Iraqi people. Instead, it conforms to the good-vs-evil tradition of Hollywood movies, portraying the American soldiers as  benevolent heroes, endowed with high morals, while  all the Iraqi fighters are Al Qaeda terrorists, who commit the most hideous crimes against the Iraqi civilians. There is no mention of the atrocities committed by the American soldiers against the locals or the torture in Abu Ghraib prison, or the theft of the Iraqi archaeological treasures.

Ironically, Eastwood was a stalwart opponent of the Iraq war, and still believes that it was a wrong war, which begs the question why didn’t he dwell on the morality of the war and its repercussions instead of just glorifying those who conducted it?

“What interested me in this project was not the war, but the drama in Kyle’s family,” Eastwood tells me when I meet him at a downtown hotel in Los Angeles. “And then you got the drama of being in war: life, death, suffering and destruction. Basically, conflict is the basis of drama and wars are about conflict.”

Kyle’s brother is also serving in Iraq, though reluctantly. He doesn’t believe in and criticises the war, upsetting Kyle, who fights like a crusader on a sacred mission. Kyle’s wife, who is left to raise their kids on her own in Texas, is not pleased either, and pleads with him to return home. “I think Kyle was very torn and that’s the drama of the picture,” says Eastwood, who has opposed all America’s wars. “I personally would stay with my family. But if push comes to shove, it’s hard to know, those are very hard choices to make up in your mind.”

Eastwood was 11 years old when WWII broke out, and ignited the feelings of patriotism in the hearts of the American People. “Everybody was extremely patriotic,” he quips. The horrors of war, and it consequent destructions and suffering that young Eastwood saw in newsreels, projected in cinema theatres, disturbed him and made him despise it. He was relieved when it was over, naively thinking that peace henceforth would prevail. But he was soon disappointed when in 1951 he was drafted to fight a new American war in Korea. He reportedly managed to evade fighting by romancing the daughter of an army officer, who arranged for him to stay on home soil and serve as a swimming instructor in Fort Ord in California.

“We wondered what the hell we were doing there, and I suppose in later wars, Vietnam, everybody was asking more questions: Why we keep doing this and where’s the end of it all?” Eastwood wonders. “It does question mankind’s ability to live in a peaceful way. It seems like history is not on the side of peace, which is sometimes a depressing way to look at things, but that’s the way it is. But you know, there is a good aspect to them. War is a very creative time in mankind’s history, because humanity seems to make a lot of advances, technological and everything else, due to the haste and the necessity. But it’s a shame that it’s that way.”

Even after the September 11 attacks the Hollywood superstar didn’t believe that violence was the appropriate response, and was against the US wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. “Saddam Hussein was not a popular individual, but there’s a ton of unpopular individuals around, so where do you make a judgement of going into that kind of thing? And we go over and introduce democracy in different countries and then you find out that they do not even want democracy,” Eastwood says.

Those are indeed very relevant and interesting questions, but the veteran director doesn’t pose them in his movie, and instead of examining the legitimacy of the war, he focuses on the warrior, whom he presents as a hero. “I think a hero is someone who goes above and beyond to help either his partners in the war or in the conflict. Nowadays, everybody is a hero who goes and volunteers for war, but in the old days if you got a medal of honour or something, it was a big deal. I gave a guy the Heimlich Manoeuvre a few months ago and everybody is saying it was a heroic move, and I said no it wasn’t, I just didn’t want him to spit out the beef in front of me,” he laughs.

Eastwood’s definition of heroism is conceivably valid, yet it’s incongruous with the message of his movie, in which he portrays all the Iraqi fighters, who are defending their cities, as savages working for Al Qaeda and oppressing their own people while the invading US soldiers and Kyle as the defenders of America, who are avenging 9/11 attacks and bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. Ironically, the Iraqi sniper, who instills fears into the hearts of the marines and take the lives of several of them before he is hunted down and killed by Kyle, is not perceived as a hero by Eastwood, even though he is defending his own country. “I am sure he is a hero in the eyes of the Iraqis,” he remarks.

Here the 84-year-old director falls into the convoluted American logic and the sense of superior morality, which invariably leads to the wars that he strenuously condemns. How could one abhor a war so much on the one hand, and on the other hand glorify those who conduct it and vilify those who resist them? The war in Iraq has been widely regarded as immoral and illegal, so how could one ascribe heroism to its executors? Kyle was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war, and reacted violently against whoever dared to criticise it. Not only did he not express remorse for taking the lives of so many Iraqis, he was proud of his deeds, insisting that all his victims were evil and deserved to die. But Eastwood thinks that Kyle concealed his doubts, which are subtly manifested in his body language, performed by Bradley Cooper, as he speaks to his psychiatrist near the end of the movie.

“He says I am going to my maker knowing I did the right thing etc etc, and these are all good words, but in his eyes you saw: should I or shouldn’t I or am I? A slight amount of doubt, not played cliché and broadly, but just kind of in the back of his brain. I thought that was particularly brilliant.”

Irrespective of Kyle’s feelings and attitude, his participation in an illegal war, in which he killed hundreds of people, shouldn’t make him a hero but a criminal from a legal and moralistic point of view. He would’ve been a hero, had he truly been fighting to defend the US, but he was attacking people in a country that had not been at war with his own nation. Morally and logically, the heroes in the movie should be the Iraqis who are resisting an invading army, but most likely their stories will never be told by Hollywood, which will most likely continue to portray them as savages, like the Vietnamese and Native Americans, just because their skin colour is a bit darker.

Kyle didn’t live to see this movie, which is based on his best-selling autobiography that he wrote when he returned from Iraq in 2009. He was shot dead by a deranged Iraq war veteran in 2013. It seems that even he himself was a casualty of this futile war.

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