Gilbey on Film: the real Oscar winners

Suffering from awards fatigue? Our film critic has the antidote.

Awards fatigue, which descends around this time each year, has been alleviated slightly by last week's London Film Critics' Circle Awards. As a voting member, I was naturally thrilled to see the award for Film of the Year go to what I considered to be the right film -- A Prophet -- and even in the other categories there wasn't much to quibble with.

Let the Right One In and Fish Tank got some deserved love, and as for Avatar . . . well, let's just say that James Cameron probably spent Thursday evening eating a hell of a lot of comfort food and sobbing himself to sleep on a bed of $100 bills. We sure showed him.

But with the Baftas behind us and the Oscars looming, the cultural nausea returns. So, let me recommend an effective antidote in the form of those websites that revisit the scenes of past Academy Award ceremonies in the interest of righting wrongs.

The internet has successfully undermined the idea that history is written by the winners, proposing instead that it can be annotated, challenged and rewritten in favour of the losers. And nowhere is this more apparent than at stinkylulu, where Oscar rematches (or "smackdowns") in the Best Supporting Actress category are a regular and stimulating feature.

Cheer as Angelina Jolie's 1999 statuette for Girl, Interrupted is snatched from her livid fingers! Then gasp as it is handed instead, after much heated and knowledgeable debate, not to the deserving Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry), but to Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense).

Applaud as Josephine Hull loses the Oscar she won in 1950 for Harvey! Then guffaw wildly as it goes to Hope Emerson, whose portrayal of a sadistic prison guard in the trashy Caged makes Nurse Ratched look like Little Miss Marker.

One smackdowner, Ken, puts it brilliantly: "Built like Foghorn Leghorn, she's six-foot-two of slow swagger, prowling around looking for the next can of worms to pry open, torturing her victims with that slow-motion chuckle from Hell. Line up, you tramps -- and salute one of the great screen heavies."

You get the gist: it's a feast for anyone whose TV is stained from all the projectiles thrown at the screen each Oscar night. In the same vein is a new and, so we're promised, regular item at mainlymovies, where past Oscar categories are replayed with added wisdom, sanity and imagination.

So, instead of Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe (both in Platoon) battling it out with the eventual winner, Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters, to be crowned Best Supporting Actor 1986, we get a far more inspired batch of nominees, including Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, Ray Liotta in Something Wild and Tom Noonan in Manhunter.

What a war of the psychos that would've been! My vote has to go to Liotta -- not just for his seductive, oddly sad menace, but for the way he wears his responsibility for changing the entire character of that fine film in its second half with such lightness.

Next to such delicious "what ifs", this year's "Cameron v Bigelow" Oscar contest looks about as exciting as Kramer v Kramer.

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.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser