'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, November 28, 2010

As'ad Abukhalil Reviews Carlos 

Upon comparing Abukhalil's extraordinary review of Carlos, based upon his knowledge of the Palestinian struggle with my earlier, mundane one, written in the voice of someone who related to it as a work of cinematic art, I recognized the extent to which it is possible to interweave Zionist, imperialist values within an otherwise appealing transgressive, countercultural narrative. Indeed, they go down much easier with an engaged, educated audience than the crude stereotypes associated with the neoconservatives. An audience that might otherwise blanch at them in a common, melodramatic good versus evil plot finds them more appetizing when encountered in the distanced, elliptical, emotionally subdued tones of the arthouse.

Beyond this, the facility by which a skilled director like Assayas can accomplish this task raises serious questions as to whether the standards by which the cinema has been evaluated display a Eurocentric bias, especially in regard to how the social realities of non-European peoples can be manipulated to their detriment by recourse to subjective methods of narrative and cinematography. It seems to me that a film criticism that exalts the successful execution of these methods, as well those adopted by the performers, necessarily has a tendency to diminish the significance of cultural representation. My conclusion is that, if you want to effectively propagandize among elites by means of film, you will do better to select an Assayas than a Bruckheimer. But, maybe, there is nothing new about this. After all, D. W Griffith is considered more important because of his storytelling technique than his racism, and Goebbels was well aware of this, too, if one believes Fritz Lang's story that Goebbels offered him a position as head of the German film industry in 1933 after Goebbels watched The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (which wasprompted banned by the Nazis as a threat to the public order).

Of course, the challenge is to recognize the reactionary qualities in such works, while appreciating the artistry, as Edward Said did when evaluating the literature of Austen and Conrad. Or, for that matter, what Abukhalil does himself when acknowledging the great works of orientalist historiography. In any event, here is an excerpt from his review, which I strongly recommend that you read in its entirety:

. . . I should have expected the movie would be horrible when the New York Times Magazine, which opposes Arabs and their causes except for those of Muhammad Dahlan, Salam Fayyad and Mahmoud Abbas (if they can be considered Arabs), enthusiastically praised the director and the movie’s research. This is important because I found the movie’s political feel, purely American in a racist and Zionist sense (according to the dominant American culture, so as not to generalize about the American people). The movie exaggerates “Carlos’” importance in the Palestinian revolution’s contemporary history and even in Wadie Haddad’s history of organizing. The man was only a footnote in the Palestinian people’s struggle as was Lawrence of Arabia a footnote in the lesser Arab Revolution. Assayas needed to exaggerate his role in order to market the movie: there are hundreds of revolutionaries with Arab names but nobody has heard of them. In other words, that “Carlos” was famous and Annis Naqqash unknown, indicates the skillfulness of the latter, not the former. Haddad didn’t want to create celebrities; he wanted to create revolutionaries. The revolutionary’s usefulness diminishes with fame and/or its pursuit. Old revolutionaries who lived the Jordan phase (before and after the September massacres) remember “Carlos.” In his first military courses he was notably brave, physically resilient and extremely enthusiastic. Those who trained with him in Jordan know he felt restrained by standing in line and training (it appears that Palestinian groups’ trainings were influenced by that of armies. This is a result of lack of experience in guerilla warfare. See Yazid Sayigh’s book Armed Struggle and Search for a State in spite of its right-wing leaning). Carlos used to object and demand more rigorous training. He was also skillful at shooting. This brought him attention as a fighter, not as a revolutionary leader as the movie portrayed.

Here is where the movie’s fiction starts. “Carlos” becomes a Palestinian leader and peer to Wadie Haddad himself. You see him at a meeting of Palestinian groups’ leaders called by Yuri Androbov. “Carlos’” story overshadows the negative aspects of the Palestinian revolution’s experience of attracting people of all backgrounds without exception. Opportunists, hooligans, criminals and intelligence agents joined the revolution. The revolution didn’t examine their backgrounds. A Palestinian entered a training camp in Al-Burj and saw a man training. He angrily asked the political supervisor: what is this man doing here? He was told that he was a comrade from the American University of Beirut. “Comrade?” he exclaimed. “I’ve known him since childhood and he’s an old Phalangist.” He refused to participate in the training (that “comrade’s” colleagues noticed that he completely disappeared after 1982 without trace). The revolution should have scrutinized the backgrounds of those who suddenly appeared in training camps and organization offices and asked to join. Of course, there were sincere internationalists militants but there were opportunists and criminals also.

Who decides “Carlos’” reality? It’s a relative matter. I consider him more of a rash rebel who turned to opportunism after the Vienna operation, if not before. It suffices that his name is connected to the distortion of the Palestinian revolution’s name internationally. The movie tried to depict Palestinian struggle as an opportunist, criminal and terrorist endeavor. There is no mistake that this is the movie’s message. The best proof of the movie’s Zionism is the complete absence of Israel from the plot. Israel is completely absent from criminal and terrorist operations in Europe although Israel had started terrorism in Europe by sending explosives to embassies in the forties (the otherwise serious Economist magazine erred in a recent article as it failed to mention Israel’s pioneering role in sending letter bombs). The movie showed no concern for victims among the Palestinian people and other Arab civilians in Europe or thousands of victims in the Arab world. But it wanted to emphasize for the viewer foreign victims of Arab violence (such as the scene of shooting a pregnant French woman in Beirut. One doesn’t know if this actually occurred or if it was one of the many lies the movie fabricated). During a seventies’ recording of Bassam Abu Sharif explaining the attack on the Zionist Marks and Spencer’s owner in London, the director should have informed the viewer, at least cursorily, that the reason behind burns and wounds on Abu Sharif’s face was the Zionist letter bomb from Israel, which is dear to Assayas and his crew.

Haddad targeted the owner of Marks and Spencer for funding Herut party and Zionist causes. The movie wanted to depict the Arab revolutionary as hostile to Jews as Jews (only one German objected to hostility to Jews while in reality the matter was debated among the ranks of the leadership and membership, but the director deliberately mis-portrayed Palestinian organizations and characterized them as fascist and dictatorial. Not all leaders of Palestinian groups were like Yasir Arafat, and even he was questioned by his cohorts especially in the early years).

If you watch the movie, you will quickly discover how the process of presenting the history of this period in intimate terms, as noted in my review, has the effect of creating an allegorical representation of the Palestinian struggle that omits much of its history.

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