Against corruption and for culture

“Documenting the Undocumented” by Huda Beydoun, 2013.

Misk Art Institute is organizing an October Arab art festival in New York and sending Saudi artists to study in California

By Rasheed Abualsamh

The sweep against corruption in Saudi Arabia began to wind down on Jan. 27, 2018, when Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman, was released from his luxury jail at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the capital, Riyadh.

Hours earlier, an interview that he gave to the Reuters news agency was posted on the internet. In the video, the prince – whose personal wealth is estimated at US$17 billion, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world — categorically denied that he is corrupt and said he had insisted on spending more time in the hotel to get rid of all suspicions. It seemed strange how he showed the little kitchen where they brought vegan dishes for his meals, since he owns a palace in Riyadh with more than 400 rooms. Alwaleed said he will return to running Kingdom Holding, which includes several cable TV networks, a record label, a stake in Banque Saudi Fransi and large stakes in Citibank, Apple, Twitter, and Lyft, among others.

News of Alwaleed’s release made the value of Kingdom Holding shares rise 10% in one day, after having fallen more than 20% when he was arrested in November.

Bakr bin Laden, the former head of the Saudi Binladin Group, was also freed last week. But the government now controls the construction company, although the Bin Laden family holds several seats on the executive board. The contractor faced difficult times in recent years, despite being hired for decades for the expansion of the mosques in Mecca and Medina. But a lamentable accident occurred in the Great Mosque of Mecca in 2015, when a crane fell during a violent gale and killed 107 people. It seems that this sealed the fate of the company, which never recovered from the accident.

In any case, the Saudi attorney general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, announced on Jan. 30, 2018, the end of investigations into the 325 people who had been detained at the Ritz-Carlton. He also announced that the government had recovered US$107 billion in deals made with the detained princes and businessmen. About 60 prisoners remain, who have refused to make a deal or admit to having made money illegally. They were transferred to Al-Hair prison, south of the Saudi capital, and will face legal proceedings.

As far as the eye can see, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has the support of the Saudi population for this anti-corruption campaign and for his liberalizing steps. Under his influence, his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, has allowed Saudi women to drive automobiles from June of this year. Until 2017, the conservative kingdom was the only country in the world that banned women from driving. King Salman also ordered the reopening of cinemas, after a break of more than 30 years, and allowed the entrance of women in sports stadiums to attend football matches.

But it is in the area of ​​culture that MBS is going further. He authorized the formation of the Misk Art Institute and appointed the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater to direct the institution. The Crown Prince already chairs the Misk Foundation, with educational, social, and cultural programs aimed at Saudi youth.

The institution has several Saudi artists on display at a museum in Brooklyn, New York, and is choosing the design for the Saudi pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. The institute will also organize an Arab art festival in New York in October, and send Saudi artists to study in California. More than 60% of management positions in the entity are held by women.

Saudi directors were very excited about the news that cinemas were going to open again in the country. Until now, they could only display their works abroad or on the internet. Now, with these cultural reforms, they will be able to show their films in local cinemas or on Saudi TV.

Saudi filmmaker Faiza Ambah, who filmed “Mariam” in France in 2015 — about the struggle of a young Muslim woman on whether to use the hijab (Islamic veil) in her public school — told me that she recently showed her film to a mixed group of young Saudis at a café in Jeddah, and then participated in a conversation with the public about the topics touched on in her film.

“The audience’s reaction was very surprising to me,” she said. “First, they understood the movie on several levels. They really were movie fans. Half the audience was female, and two girls talked about relationships that did not work out over the issue of whether or not to use the hijab,” said the director.

According to Faiza, the next exhibition of a movie in that café is already scheduled, and will be a film of another Saudi director, Shahad Ameen.

Faiza told me that she has already received invitations to show short films on Saudi TV, and that the Misk Foundation is granting funding to filmmakers in the kingdom. “The King Abdul Aziz Cultural Center in the Eastern Province is also supporting Saudi filmmakers. They called me a year ago and asked me to share new projects with them, and they wanted to support me. And a university professor who was in the audience offered to provide me her students to be interns on any project that I would execute.”

Only five years ago, this level of official support for Saudi artists and filmmakers did not exist. Film funding always came from the private sector, and even so, several Saudi filmmakers had to seek foreign funding to make their films. But now, it seems the Saudi government has realized the soft power that culture has. It remains to be seen how much freedom Saudi artists will have.

–This article appeared originally in Portuguese in O Globo newspaper.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Does Not Trivialize the Holocaust

Jack Scanlon, left, and Asa Butterfield in a scene
from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Warning: Contains spoilers!

I WAS finally able to watch the film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas yesterday and was impressed by it.

Based on the novel of the same name by John Boyne, the film, directed by Mark Herman, is yet another take on what happened to the Jews in Germany at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. But this time, the story is told from the viewpoint of an eight-year-old German boy called Bruno, who is the son of a top Nazi official.

This alone has enraged some Jewish viewers in the US, who were offended that anything having to do with the extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust could ever be explained through the eyes of the child of a Nazi.

Ron Rosenbaum, whom as I wrote earlier also hated The Reader for dealing with Nazi complicity in killing Jews in a nuanced way, and who admitted to not even seeing The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, said Mark Weitzman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center had slammed The Boy in the Striped Pajamas for trying to stir sympathy in viewers for Bruno rather than for a Jewish character.

Manohla Dargis, a film critic for the New York Times whom I generally like, wrote one of the shortest and nastiest reviews of a film that I have ever seen, basically telling readers not to go see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. “See the Holocaust trivialized, glossed over, kitsched up, commercially exploited and hijacked for a tragedy about a Nazi family. Better yet and in all sincerity: don’t,” wrote Dargis.

Was she pandering to the many Jewish readers of the Times? Who knows, but it seems to me that both she and Rosenbaum missed the whole point of the movie, which was to describe how awful and inhuman the Nazi concentration camps were. It does not in any way diminish or trivialize the suffering of the Jews. In fact, it highlights just how cruel, monstrous and cowardly many Germans were for either believing in Adolf Hilter’s ideology of hatred and genocide, or for being too weak to speak out against it.

In any event, Asa Butterfield who plays Bruno in the film, is an excellent actor. He conveyed the wide-eyed innocence of a child not yet corrupted by state ideology or the hatreds of adults. Vera Farmiga is also excellent as Bruno’s mother who initially does not know about the crematoriums at the concentration camp that they move near too in the countryside when her husband becomes its commander. She is disgusted and angered when she finds out the truth, and demands that she and her children (Bruno and his older sister) be sent away to live with relatives far from the camp.

Poor Bruno in his innocence at first believes that the camp is a farm when he catches a glimpse of it from his bedroom window. He is forbidden from playing at the back of the house, for fear that he may stray near the camp. This of course makes him more curious and he eventually manages to sneak out to the camp and befriends a Jewish boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who just happens to be the same age as him.

They talk almost every day through the barbed wire fence. At one point, Bruno asks Shmuel if he is proud of his father, and he replies that yes he is. When Shmuel asks him Bruno the same question, the protagonist hesitates for a few seconds before answering in the affirmative.

Bruno’s innocence is further encouraged when he sneaks glimpses of a Nazi propaganda film about concentration camps that his father screens in their home for fellow officers. The film, done in documentary style, is in reality a complete lie about the camps. “And here at the café they enjoy delicious and nutritious meals, after spending the day doing handicrafts or tending to their gardens,” intones the narrator cheerfully while smiley prisoners are shown going about their business. It’s as if the prisoners were at a vacation resort rather than a forced labor camp where they were starved, beaten and gassed to death on a regular basis.

The harrowing end of the movie has Bruno digging his way into the camp to help Shmuel look for his missing father, who most likely has been killed by the Nazis. Shmuel finds an extra striped uniform for Bruno to wear, and off the two go further into the camp to look for the Jewish boy’s father.

Just then the guards round up all the prisoners in the section that Bruno and Shmuel are in for a bath. Of course, this was a euphemism used by the Nazis so as not to panic the prisoners. Innocently agreeing to be herded into a special building for showers, the prisoners are ordered to strip naked. Bruno holds Shmuel’s hand as the crowd of adult prisoners press in around them and the lights are switched off. High above their heads, a German guard with a gas mask on opens a hatch and drops in the gas pellets that will kill all the prisoners below.

Bruno’s parents meanwhile realize that he is missing and go running like mad towards the fence of the camp until they find his clothes near the hole he dug. Bruno’s father rushes into the camp and screams at the guards to stop the mass execution, but it is too late. Bruno and hundreds of Jewish prisoners are all dead in the name of Nazi hatred and sick German efficiency.

Does the film trivialize the Holocaust? Certainly not. If anything it highlights the ugliness and inhumanity of the Nazis. Rosenbaum should watch the movie.

Slumdog Millionaire a Hit in Brazil

Dev Patel and Irrfan Khan in a tense scene of Slumdog Millionaire

Warning: Contains spoilers!

THE winner of 8 Oscar awards, Slumdog Millionaire, opened in Brazil on March 6, and it already seems to be a hit movie here.

I went to see it last night with friends, and the line to enter the theater stretched out of the lobby of the cinema and into the ParkShopping mall here in Brasilia.

I liked the film, especially the first half that showed the lives of two orphaned brothers, Jamal Malik (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and Salim (Azharuddin Mohamed Ismail), as they struggled to make a living after their Muslim mother is killed by rampaging Hindus in an inter-communal riot that destroys their slum in Mumbai.

Told in flashbacks by the grown Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) to a cruel police inspector (Irrfan Khan), who is interrogating him after he wins 10 million rupees on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to find out if he cheated, I found the younger Jamal Malik much more endearing and a better actor than his older self. Patel, who said in an interview on the Jon Stewart Show that it was his first time to go to India from the UK when he filmed Slumdog, seemed to have only one expression of fear and anger on his face during the whole film.

His whole love sub-text with Latika, played by Freida Pinto as an adult, was annoying and the most unbelievable part of the film.

Ankar Vikal as Maman, the creepy guy who picks up abandoned children with sweet talk and promises of food, only to maim them in order for them to bring in more money for him as beggars on the streets of Mumbai, should surely win a prize for the best villain of 2009.

Anil Kapoor, basically playing himself as they sleazy host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, should also win a prize for being one of the pushiest stars in Bollywood. He was at the Oscar award ceremonies in Hollywood last month, where he kept preening for the cameras and even had to hog the microphone when Slumdog kept winning the most awards of the night.

The soundtrack of Slumdog is excellent and AR Rahman certainly deserves the two Oscars he won for best musical score and best song.

Brazilians are lapping up the film because there is a current craze here for all things Indian. The current eight o’clock telenovela on Globo Television here is called A Caminho das Indias (On the Way to India) which is set in both India and Brazil. The Indian scenes go to great lengths to explain the caste system in India, with one of the main characters being a Dalit or Untouchable who falls in love with a pretty rich girl from a Brahmin family. Many critics of the novela have complained that it presents a distorted and exaggerated picture of India, yet the Indian ambassador to Brazil was quoted by the Correio Braziliense newspaper as saying, rather diplomatically, that he didn’t mind the skewed view of India as he understood it was only fictional and that he was happy with the interest in India that the show was generating among Brazilians.

Interestingly, Slumdog may be having a similar effect on Brazilians. After the movie during the drive home the 16-year-old daughter of my friend said she liked the film but that in India it seemed like everyone was either super-wealthy or super-poor.

“There is no middle class in India,” said Gabby.

“Yes there is,” I replied. “It’s just that this movie didn’t show them at all.”

Still, if Slumdog gets Brazilians and others across the globe interested in Indian affairs, that is a small price to pay for something so good.

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