Elia Suleiman and the politics of disappointment

Doha diary, part 3

The second story on the front page of Doha's English-language newspaper the Peninsula yesterday concerned the declaration by the emir's economic adviser that Qatar had no plans to sell gas to Israel. Dr Ibrahim al-Ibrahim had been challenged by an audience member on the Qatari equivalent of Question Time to confirm that Israel wouldn't be benefiting any time soon from the emirate's huge reserves of natural gas. (Gas now accounts for a larger proportion of Qatar's GDP than oil, and the exploitation of those reserves is very big business indeed. The Duke of York was here last week inspecting Shell's research centre in Doha, and on Saturday night, in the lobby of my hotel, I met a bored and rather languid lawyer for the company who's spending several weeks in this gilded prison, scrutinising contracts on several eye-wateringly substantial deals.)

Israel was also on the minds of the audience at a Doha Tribeca Film Festival "masterclass" given by the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, after a screening of his latest film, The Time That Remains. Suleiman based the screenplay on the diaries of his father, Fouad, who is played in the film with extraordinary, almost aristocratic grace by Saleh Bakri.

The first portion of the film is set in Nazareth, the director's birthplace, in 1948, as Palestinian fighters, of whom Fouad is one, are surrendering to troops of the Haganah. Many of the townspeople flee to Jordan, but rather than showing us the flight of the Palestinian refugees, Suleiman allows his camera to linger on hastily abandoned homes -- in one house, a half-eaten breakfast is left on a dining table. This reticence is the source of the film's considerable power. At no point in the subsequent segments, set in 1970, 1980 and the present (in Ramallah, as well as Nazareth), does Suleiman allow himself to be seduced by the myth-making of Palestinian resistance. The dominant note is not of anger or rage, but of melancholy resignation.

And that is the sentiment that is etched across Suleiman's lugubriously handsome face in the final act, in which he himself appears, playing the returning son as a completely silent observer of the quiet agonies of a land that it's not at all clear he still calls home. (Indeed, in the discussion afterwards, the director asked rhetorically: "Where is my homeland? Every place I enjoy is a homeland for me.")

Suleiman's temperament evidently tends towards pessimism and the ready acknowledgment of defeat (the title of the film, he said, is meant to remind us that "time is running out"). When he was invited by a journalist from al-Jazeera to send a message to the "suffering people", not just of Palestine, but of the entire Arab world, he refused. To do so, he implied, would have been inauthentic, for he "didn't suffer as a child". (At that point, I half expected Tariq Ali, who was in the audience, to intervene. Ali is here promoting South of the Border, Oliver Stone's docu-hagiography of Hugo Chávez and the other strongmen of the Latin American left, which he co-wrote with the director.)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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