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The Hesitant West and Other Worlds

September 11th created a fracture even in the history of film, it changed the world's imagination. In films by Wim Wenders and Steven Spielberg, the West questions its own identity, its own vitality.

Last update: 2018-04-10 10:57:20

There is a black hole in the history of cinema. A before and an after. An event we cannot set aside yet which it is impossible to show, after the exasperated television exposition branded on our memory, Ground Zero, that wound to the empire's heart that changed the world's imagination. Once upon a time there was American film and once upon a time there were all the others, those "national" films, the ones that barely stayed alive in the great hodgepodge of visual standardization, nuances of language, style, different identities. Nothing remains of all this, or better, nothing that matters. Amorous French anxiety, surviving English proletarians, the small, ancient world of Italy caught between bedroom and kitchen, the wasted Russian metropolis, Japanese yakuza and Chinese rituals: they do not matter, not even in the market. Reality is elsewhere, in a war made up of images and not numbers. On one side the Western front, on the other side the rest of the world. The attacks on the twin towers, the war in Afghanistan, today in Iraq, have uncovered unknown, foreign lands beyond the West. A world without images, a world apart. The effect was immediate. And devastating. Thus the America that narrates itself in Michael Moore's contemptuous pamphlet, winner at Cannes, Fahrenheit 9/11, is not the only America. Just as Almodovar's desperate and nihilistic Spain from La mala educación is not the only Spain. The whole West, sorrowful and in chorus, interrogates itself in paranoia and also in faith in Land of Plenty by Wim Wenders. A West without language, religion, culture: aseptic and bewildered, in the portrait painted by Spielberg in The terminal. The no man's land, in a word, is here among us. The rest is elsewhere: small, sloppy films, low-budget reality, fragments of another world. A Story without Images The phenomenon has just begun but it does not seem destined to a short lifespan. It is nourished by a situation in turmoil and especially by the new markets being opened by political and social changes. A representative case is Mohsen Makhmalbaf, spokesman for the new world. The Iranian professor, ex-member of a radical Islamic organization, discovered cinema in the 1980s. It was a revelation, the concrete possibility to tell the world about a people, a history, a nation without images. Mohsen learned quickly and immediately began teaching. He opened a school and through him his children Samira, Hana, Maysam, and his second wife Marziyeh, now famous directors, among others, discovered the strength of the story. He shot Kandahar in 2001 and won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The film came out just after the attacks and showed the world, still in shock, «the faceless women of Afghanistan», «a nation in which half of the population cannot be seen». With the war, thousands of television images made us used to the phantasms completely covered with dark clothes that walk quickly about the streets. But in 2001, the voyage of Nafas, an Afghani refugee who secretly returns to his country to prevent his sister's suicide, was an ugly surprise that forced the world to ask itself some questions. «I would have liked to shoot the film in Afghanistan», says the director, «but I was prevented from doing so. I entered secretly and saw frightening things that made me ashamed of myself, of the fact that I too had dismissed, like everyone else, the tragedy that was happening just over the border». Afghanistan is not just a passing incident. In The Apple, 18-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf had already in 1998 told about a news item which happened in a neighbourhood south of Tehran, her city: the story of twelve-year-old twin sisters, locked up and forced to remain illiterate, malnourished, isolated. She wrote the script three days after having read about the incident in the newspaper and shot the film in two weeks. Two years later The blackboard came out, which tells about the trials of a group of teachers. They are Kurdish refugees who, with a heavy blackboard on their backs, wander in search of students and a paycheck in the valleys of Iranian Kurdistan, damaged by bombings and chemical weapons. After that came Marziyeh Meshkini's Stray Dogs, currently in European theatres. The protagonists are two children who pass their days wandering about Kabul in search of food and warmth, and their nights in prison with their mother, accused of adultery by her Taleban husband who is also in prison. They are the "night-time prisoners," and there are millions of them. When the prison closes its doors to them, they are left with no choice but to commit a crime, in the hopes of being arrested. They are striking portraits, little stories of daily horror, shot quickly with little money and without professional actors. But they travel around the world. The tone is light, pleasant. An accusation, but understated. No one wants to frighten the other side of the world. This is a discretion which seems strange to Western viewers, used to strong emotions. It is immediately suspected of rhetoric, of mannerism, excessive photogenic quality. Some try different ways to open a breach in the indifference, from documentary to melodrama. In Gegen die Wand, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin 2004, Fatih Akin, 31-year-old Turk born and raised in Hamburg, narrates the journey of the impossible integration of Germany and Istanbul. A vital and angry film, that describes the new "angry ones" of the European Union, among the outdated waste of Islamic custom and the desperate modernity of a West lost to itself. A Dutch short film, just 10 minutes long, conquered the pages of the New York Times. Submission was broadcast on television and made a sensation on the first night, moving people and outraging them. Written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Somali refugee in Holland and member of parliament, it was directed by Theo Van Gogh and shows women's bodies inscribed with verses from the Koran. The film opens with the prayers of four women who beg Allah to make their suffering stop. A narrating voice tells their stories: unhappily married, raped at home, beaten and whipped, they wear on their bodies the words from Islamic law that condemn their crimes, real or presumed. People talk about provocation and intolerance. But no one asks themselves whether it is all true. Meanwhile the director, 47, already threatened with death in 2002 for a TV series, Najib & Julia, which gave rise to polemics in the Islamic community, was killed in Amsterdam by a young Moroccan. The author of Submission, Hirsi Ali, lives under the protection of Dutch police. But the West: where is it and what is it doing? Reality and its Double The West does not exist, at least judging by its cinema. Or better yet, it is lost before a situation that surprises it and passes it over, discovers a fragmented identity, but no longer knows truth as the horizon of judgment. The West is insecure. Those who have clear ideas triumph, like Michael Moore who with Fahrenheit 9/11 won over the Cannes Film Festival and the world box-office: an angry documentary that uses arbitrary techniques to manipulate facts, documents and interviews. Moore has only one idea: stop Bush from being re-elected. Thus, even though "Fidel Castro's favourite film" - who sponsored its showing in all of Cuba - is obviously a demagogic pamphlet, the champions of the politically correct applaud it. Moore's manipulations are brazen and impudent: everyone says so, from Newsweek to The Guardian. The accusations against Bush the father twist facts and dates, those against the son confuse terrorism in Iraq with suicide attempts in Israel. Everyone knows that the interview with Nicholas Berg, who was then killed by Iraqi terrorists, was cut during final editing and so on, to those truly embarrassing images of the moon over Iraq - with children happily playing in the streets - under the enlightened leadership of Saddam Hussein. But in reality it does not matter. Moore's film is useful, the purpose is clear, «the ends justify the means» writes Tullio Kezich. After fiction masquerading as documentary, a documentary that pretends to be a film. Land of Plenty shares with Fahrenheit 9/11 the choice not to show the tragedy of the Twin Towers which inspired it, but for the opposite reasons. If the irruption of reality is too great a risk for Moore, the image denied is full of dramatic interest in Wenders. Dry and strong, the film opposes Moore's thousand answers with a single question: where to begin again, after the roar and silence that marked Ground Zero and with America, the whole world? How to face the fear? It asks and begs "truth, now or later" through its leading characters: Lana, who arrives at the Catholic mission in Los Angeles after passing through Africa and the Middle East; and Paul, persecuted by the ghosts of Vietnam and the obsession of controlling the enemy, whoever and wherever it may be. The answer is the encounter between the two, uncle and niece, the latest faces of the American dream. The promised land is the spark created, the irresistible compassion that moves them toward each other and opens them to the situation of the homeless Pakistani killed in the street. This is the "plenty" sung about by Leonard Cohen in the film's soundtrack. The French stigmatise it: consolatory. No Man's Land Nor does The Terminal convince them, maybe because Spielberg was inspired by a story that is truly embarrassing for France: the Iranian Mehram Nasseri, shut up for years in the international transit room in the Roissy airport. There is a certain paranoia in the conditioned air of New York's JFK airport. Thus, when a Mr. Nobody with a foreign face arrives from the far-off country of Krakhozia, with a passport invalidated by a sudden coup d'etat and a strange language, panic ensues. Viktor Navorsky cannot enter the city and he cannot leave the airport. Without money and ID, he practically does not exist. But he does exist, and looks around for a way to survive. What he sees is the aseptic tomb of the West, a democracy of rules translated into a maze of incomprehensible signals. Reality is outside and frightening. Inside, in the illusory protection of an artificial order, there are only signs that no longer point to meaning. Orders, rules, prohibitions without an object. Spielberg's greatness is in his pure and hard American simplicity. If the desert advances, one begins with what there is: the faces of the foreigners who work in no man's land, the heart and reason that triumph over the nothingness of law. Strengthened by a promise made to his father, a secret that makes him a man, Navorsky reinvents his house, people, love. Too easy? There is no middle way, the West is at the crossroad of being and nothingness, life and death. The alternative is Almodovar, the new man drawn in La mala educación, an admirable and terrifying portrait of who we are. The Spanish director takes Dostoyevsky's motto seriously: «if God does not exist then everything is possible» and invents a cosmology without destiny, populated by paedophile priests, transsexual actors, and brothers who are killers. An identikit that makes one shudder and has made the European intelligentsia ecstatic. Let's see. Variable name, middle aged, uncertain gender. Studies: Catholic school, "psychotic" education because it induces a "sense of guilt." Profession: director or writer, that is a creative person, defined by progressive aridity of inspiration. Characteristics: accentuated libertarian, and desperate, vocation. Identifying marks: absence of passion and tears. Key word: rights (without desires). Phobias: memory, tradition, reason. Identity: none. Peculiar signs: A myopia that will bury us all.

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