Being human

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There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).

I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.

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Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.)  You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.

Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.

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There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.

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Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?

Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.

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I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.

The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.

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Commie Roots

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Thatcher Stole My Trousers | Alexei Sayle Bloomsbury Circus £16.99

I applied to Chelsea School Art in 1984 for its reputation, location and the fact that its prospectus arrogantly contained no photographs, a brutalism I found appealing. The clincher, though, was Alexei Sayle, the angry stand-up described in an early review in the London Review of Books as a “portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with an Oliver Hardy suit.” I’d identified him as a Chelsea alumnus in a 1983 episode of BBC1 documentary series Comic Roots, in which the thirty-ish Sayle was filmed drinking in the union bar bemoaning the “three years of total nonsense” he spent at the school between 1971 and 1974.

It was thus with some solidarity that I devoured the first chapters of Sayle’s terrific second volume of memoirs (the first, 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework, mined his family’s Commie roots and left him on a foundation course in Southport). Through parental influence a card-carrying member of the carefully named Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) since short trousers, he was drawn to London by “all the rock gigs, exhibitions and plays … I didn’t actually want to go to any of them, I just wanted to live in a place where they were on.” This will ring true to anyone who has ever gravitated towards the capital. Now 63, he writes with the wisdom of someone taking stock and retrospectively hymns Chelsea as “a wonderful and humane institution” – the Soviet-sounding “painting council” declined to throw him off the degree course after he showed them a film he’d made satirising them.

A deft writer whose short stories led Clive James to compare him to Guy de Maupassant, Sayle is a genial, self-deprecating tour guide on this second voyage around himself and not as didactic or hectoring as his high-blood-pressure comic persona might suggest. On his journey from post-graduate miasma and jobs at the DHSS and in teaching via community theatre to fame and fortune during the so-called Alternative Comedy boom at the birth of the 80s, he finds time to disparage the Arts Council for its remit “to give money only to things that were unpopular”, and the Design Centre as “an Arts Council for teapots.” He thumbnails the infant Channel 4, which gave him and his comedy pals their big break in The Comic Strip Presents in 1982, as a magnet for advertisers of “wines from Bulgaria and different kinds of cheese.” And as a former beneficiary of social housing, he remains bothered by the notion that “if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were a big baby.”

Gently mocking his own granite political convictions, he praises the “high quality of snacks” as “a little known benefit of revolutionary politics,” and sees the funny side of his domineering Maoist mother Molly sending Christmas cards in the late 70s bearing the legend “Season’s Greetings from H Block” at the time of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ dirty protests.

Like all comedians’ autobiographies, once the career takes off and the hardships fade the prose slides into a list of tour anecdotes and meetings with commissioning editors. But there is insightful reportage on location in Helsinki for his first film role in thriller Gorky Park, observing “dark green trains decorated with Cyrillic script” and “beautiful Estonian prostitutes with hair the colour of butter.” His admission to a semi-religious “sense of wonder” about TV studios is also beautifully illuminated: “the images on monitors glowed brighter than the paintings of Caravaggio in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.”

This instalment ends circa “the first summer of the Miners’ Strike,” around the time Sayle was asked to film the edition of Comic Roots that drew at least one teenaged comedy fan to Chelsea School of Art. Thatcher stole his trousers, but he changed my life.

Kindly reprinted from the Mail On Sunday, 13 March 2016

The hopeful eight

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It was with some satisfaction that I belatedly watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD, thus putting myself in the position of being able to say I have seen all eight of the pale-faced Best Picture nominees at the 88th Academy Awards. I can thus now fruitlessly compare them. They seem like as accurate a barometer of this year’s crop (and thus last year’s movies), so I am about to do just that, although what I think should win is entirely theoretical, as I am not one of the 6,300 or so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and thus hold zero sway in this regard.

What I think will win is also fluff. What do I know? I have feelings in my bones, and I am a seasoned Oscars watcher of many decades, so have some predictive form, but I don’t want to know what’s going to win. I’m glad about that. It would be boring. I like surprises. I actively want to be wrong. Despite being statistically made up of mostly old, white American men, the Academy is still capable of delivering a bookmaker-upsetting surprise; even causing a relative upset. I enjoy the start-of-year awards season and the resulting quality bottleneck, as I am usually entertained and exercised by its vagaries and waves. I relish the controversies the Oscars throw up. This year: lack of diversity. Meet the new controversy, same as the old controversy.

I don’t blame the august Oscar voters for Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Hollywood is to blame, with its deep-seated patriarchy and its demographic timidity, not to mention its unbreakable Plexiglass ceiling for women and the equivalent of “voter ID” for black actors, creatives and technicians. All of this bleeds into the reductive treatment of all Hispanics (sexy, smouldering, hot-tempered, etc. – it may be positive discrimination of a type, but it’s not so far round the dial from Trump’s rapists), although at least one of the Hopeful Eight was directed by a Mexican.

It’s the entertainment industry’s fault, not the mainly white, mainly male, mainly over-50 demographic of a club of movie professionals, which, by dint of inducting anyone who wins an Oscar and then has the ability to not die, means the Academy is full of people who aren’t black or Hispanic, and a vicious circle is hard to extract yourself from. The problem isn’t with the Oscars, or who wins them, but with American cinema itself, where people tend not to be of colour, or women, and especially not women of colour, like Jada Pinkett Smith, who is among those who’ve threatened to boycott the colourless Oscars ceremony. If I were a black actress, I’d kick up a right stink and then make damn sure I attended. Being invisible is playing into the racists’ hands.

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You keep hearing the truism that male Academy members “give the films to their wives to watch,” which may or may not explain the popularity of certain movies. I hesitate to make sweeping generalisations about what women or men want. Romantic comedies may be machine-tooled to appease women, but men also like them, and women also hate them. Equally, noisy action movies: aimed at teenage boys or men who wish they were still teenage boys, but not necessarily only appreciated by the intended gender or age group. The high nomination tally of Mad Max: Fury Road – which, by the way, is a “male” film by type (action, noise, explosions, petrol) but, interestingly, dominated as much by female characters as the eponymous male one – is a tonic. That it’s only really picking up “technical” awards (so named as if acting, writing and directing aren’t technical) – four wins out of seven at the Baftas for costumes, make-up, editing and production design – should not concern us. It’s doing well and it’s an action movie.

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Max is one of three Best Picture Oscar nominees whose poster is dominated by a woman’s face; also, Room and Brooklyn, both based on novels, one written by a woman, the other a man, one Irish-Canadian, the other Irish, which is a cheering ethnic skew. I first saw Brooklyn trailed at a tiny cinema in Bantry, County Cork, and felt the Irish love (I dislike being English and wish I was Irish). Though an Irish/UK/Canadian production by funding that’s set in Brooklyn and partly shot in Montreal, its Irish authenticity is deep, with the scenes set in novelist Colm Tóibín’s Enniscorthy also shot there, and only two of the principal Irish parts played by non-Irish actors (the bankable Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent). Since it’s about homesickness within the Irish diaspora in America, it could prick a few glands among the immigrant Academy members, but it’s not going to win.

Nor is Bridge Of Spies. I have no ill feelings towards it, but it’s a bit stolid and unsurprising. Cold War. Tom Hanks. Mark Rylance (not in it enough). Snow. Germans. Spies. It’s well enough made, but if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to invent it. (Its score by Thomas Newman is actually something of a beaut, but it’s not the equal of Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score for Carol, which, by the way, despite being a good fit for the wives of the lazy male Academy members, looks to be this season’s big loser. I don’t really get why.)

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I admire Room; its stars, its writer (Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel with precision), its director, another Irishman, Lenny Abrahamson. It will I think win Best Actress for Brie Larson, but it doesn’t feel like a Best Picture. Too gloomy. Too grubby. Too creepy. All the things I love about it. The Big Short, too, is a poor fit for traditional Best Picture thinking; I thoroughly enjoyed its manic energy, but I fear the financial crash and subprime mortgages will not sing in the minds of the panel. (“Aren’t we, like, in some kind of recovery?”)

If Best Picture is between any two films, it’s The Revenant (which I have raved about here) and Spotlight. I don’t think Ridley Scott’s The Martian is going to find much traction at the Oscars. I got it into it, but found it tonally disconcerting. Was it a drama? Was it a comedy? (It was canny of Fox to put it forward for the “Musical or Comedy” categories at the Golden Globes, where it picked up Best Film, thus unrealistically raising its producers’ expectations.) I wondered aloud if Matt Damon might pip Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor at the Baftas; that his have-a-go solo performance might sway our less macho voters. But no. There’s no beating Leo’s suffering; he’s a vegan who ate raw liver and raw fish for his art – give that man a statuette and the rest of the week off.

The Revenant is unassailable. There’s an outside chance – the “Crash wild card anomaly” (see: the year Crash beat Brokeback Mountain) – that Spotlight will beat The Revenant to Best Picture and break the Oscar algorithm. Tom McCarthy’s never going to win the Director category, as Spotlight is intelligent enough not to let the direction show (part of its consummate mastery), whereas The Revenant is something like a two and a half hour Oscar begging reel. Look! Natural light! It must have taken ages!

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I still harbour a tiny hope that Spotlight, having won Best Supporting Actor for Mark Ruffalo, might win Best Picture. It has all the hallmarks of one of those: true story, set in the past, talky, righteous, no sex, no violence (other than the violence wrought on children by priests, which we do not directly see), and an “issue” that bypasses partisan politics and shows that you have a heart. There are no shades of how much you revile paedophiles.

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As stated, I want to be surprised on Oscar night. I sort of was at the Baftas when Rylance won for Bridge Of Spies, although I suspect patriotism played its hand. (A resource in short supply when neither Tom Courtenay nor Charlotte Rampling found their way onto the Actor and Actress lists for 45 Years.) Hey, this time next year, the voting system may have been overhauled to address the existence of the past 50 years in civil rights, with Academy members who haven’t worked for the past ten years becoming ineligible to automatically vote. We already have gender-divided categories. What about categories graded for “colour”? It would make the Oscars as long and interminable as the Grammys, but perhaps it’s the kind of affirmative action the awards season needs.

What do you want? A medal?

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Happy New Year’s Honours! In fact, unhappy, as this country’s preposterous awards system always riles me when the gongs are handed out like sweets. I heard Barbara Windsor, or Dame Barbara Windsor, cooing about hers on the news and stating, for the record, that she is a dyed-in-the-ermine royalist. Fair enough. I think Barbara Windsor should wear her damehood with pride; it’s clearly the highest honour the nation could bestow upon her for her acting and charity work. For the record, I do not think Barbara Windsor should have refused her New Year’s Honour. What I do think is that the whole prizegiving ceremony is based upon a rotten premise: the British Empire. Call it an MBE if you like, Goldie, or an OBE if you like, Damon Albarn, but its full title contains the words “of the British Empire.” Remember that? Of course you don’t. When dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah turned down his Order of the British Empire in 2003, he was very clear about why:

Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised … Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way, Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-Empire.

Now hear this: I think the refusal of a medal based upon the British Empire and all the brutality that historically goes with it is a matter of personal preference. For instance, I think it is heartwarming that ordinary Britons are recognised for their work in the community, and for charity, and in the care of others – everyday heroism, let’s call it, which I understand accounts for 76% of the awards handed out – and I would not expect any of the good people today honoured to do anything other than gracefully accept. Michael Pusey, 41, who receives an MBE as the voluntary founder and head coach of a BMX park in South London, for instance, who I saw on the news yesterday. He should be proud.

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But why are we still giving out medals of the British Empire, please? They are, after all, for “chivalry”, according to the small print, and are divided up into “commanders” and “officers”, all of which smacks of colonialism and militarism. The Empire itself has been over since the Second World War. Britain hasn’t ruled the waves for some time. And when the Union flag was lowered in Hong Kong in 1997, that ought to have been the perfect time to rename and modernise the otherwise theoretically positive giving of credit where credit’s due. But there are fundamental, infrastructural and symbolic things wrong with the Honours system as it blindly lumbers on in breeches and riding boots as if Victoria is still on the throne and viceroys are still teaching the natives cricket in far-flung outposts of a global occupation built on profit and exploitation and slavery. We’re all Team GB now, aren’t we? Shouldn’t our prizes be similarly freshened up for the 21st century? If you are unable to scrub the years of blood off those medals, perhaps try a coloured ribbon, or a certificate, instead?

If the recognition being heaped upon Damon Albarn, and Idris Elba, and Chris Froome, and James Nesbitt, and Dr Michael Jacobs the consultant who treated three Britons with Ebola, was rebranded, and perhaps expunged of all the politics, it would be something we could all be proud of. Forget honorifics and titles and chivalry. Bollocks to Sir and Dame Grand Cross and KGB and all that forelock-tugging cobblers. Reward good service, beyond the call of your job description (which cancels Tory spin doctor Sir Lynton Crosby for a start), and by all means give the winners a free buffet at Buckingham Palace in their Sunday best. (I was twice invited to charity events at 10, Downing Street, and jumped at the chance to get inside the building, have a free drink and set aside any problems I had with Gordon Brown’s leadership of a busted Labour party. You can go to the Palace without becoming a royalist – Jeremy Corbyn did and escaped with his republican soul. But none of us in 2015/16 needs or wishes to be associated with the East India Company running opium out of China in the 18th century, surely?)

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If the Empire part had been ditched when Britain had to give back India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Palestine in the 40s, we might not be looking at such a long and illustrious list of recipients who turned down their Honour throughout this nation’s most creative, innovative and progressive decades in the latter half of the 20th century and into this one: (in no particular order and only a partial roll-call) Francis Bacon, John Cleese, JB Priestley, Michael Foot, Alan Bennett, David Bowie, Danny Boyle, Rudyard Kipling, LS Lowry, Michael Faraday, Alistair Sim, Mark Rylance and AJP Taylor, who understood his history. Even Keith Hill, Blairite apologist and my local MP in Streatham when Britain invaded Iraq (and yes I did write him an angry letter), turned down a knighthood in 2010, saying, “My fundamental reason is that I have never had the least desire to have a title. I don’t want to be discourteous, but I find the whole idea a little embarrassing and too much for me.” Good on him.

Luckily, even if I devoted myself to do seven-days-a-week charity work for the rest of my life, I doubt I’ll be getting the letter on my doormat, so I will never get the chance to prove that I would turn down an Order of the British Empire, but I would. I remain uncomfortable about those I admire who have let their desire to give the family a nice day out eclipse their principles. For me, the whole thing is hypothetical. Allow me to enjoy that on this tainted day.

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Ironically, the staunchly establishment Daily Mail, whose management uniquely pine for the simpler times of the East India Company and good, honest imperialism, used the headline, “TAINTED NEW YEAR HONOURS” today, using the example of Jacqueline Gold, CEO of the Ann Summers chain, as an unsuitable CBE, presumably because she reminds them that there is a thing called sex. Tainted the British Honours system may be, but not by the recognition of a strong, successful, independent woman who sells handcuffs and other bondage items for fun, rather than actual slavery.