Picture Book of the Week: Yes to a Rosy Future

Bashar al-Assad's last campaign.

“His portraits are everywhere: gas stations, bus stops, supermarkets, restaurants. On top of posters that are faded, sometimes torn, new portraits are added. Whatever their size, whether a publicity handout or a tarp covering the side of a building, they are omnipresent and picture a calm, imposing leader.”

These words, written by Christian Brändle – director of the Zurich Design Museum – in his afterward to Yes to a Rosy Future, (Trolley, £12.99) encapsulate the eerie magnetism of Nicolas Righetti’s latest photo book: a series taken during the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s last presidential campaign. Righetti left Beruit during the 2007 Lebanese conflict, taking shelter in Syria in time for the controversial May elections that saw al-Assad re-elected Head of State with a reported 97 percent of the vote. “These enormous and ubiquitous portraits were a tradition started by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, who ran Syria from 1970 to 2000”; states the book’s introduction. “The son’s ascendancy was initially marked by a notable decline of the personality cult as well as hope for a more open, democratic society.” 

Righetti’s pictures of pre-election personality propaganda, each accompanied by statements from the President’s official speeches (“I will remain the Syrian people’s benevolent son”) are a poignant lament for the “sad turnaround” of Assad’s leadership and a return to the “coercive traditions of the old Ba’ath party”. Righetti is no stranger to dictatorship, having completed previous project in North Korea and Turkmenistan.

“Such portraits allow a sovereign to be everywhere on his territory,” concludes Brändle: “A portrait makes one see and feel a set of intentions.... background, text and clothes are part of a calculated construction.”

Political iconography is inherently a facade, and after two years of brutal civil war such cheery, paternal warmth rings ever more false against a backdrop of suffering. These “photographic sculptures” are being torn down. 

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All photographs courtesy and property of Nicolas Righetti/Trolley Books

Words: Charlotte Simmonds 

"Yes to a rosy future" was the government slogan behind al-Assad's 2007 campaign. (Photo: Nicholas Righetti/Trolley Books)
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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue