Reviewed: After Saddam by Radio 4

Water water everywhere.

After Saddam
Radio 4

A programme about the pitiful state of modern Basra ten years after the US-lead occupation of Iraq found fridges stacked up in shops, useless thanks to repeated electrical cuts. The drone of petrol generators filled the air, a deafening accompaniment to the 50-degree heat. The presenter, Hugh Sykes, had no trouble digging up horror stories. A bridge very recently built is already crumbling. “Even engineering has gone backwards,” someone wailed, cursing local corruption. Interviewees openly wept. This was a stunningly depressing vision.

But then he reunited with Hamid and Matrud, two farmers Sykes had already met a decade earlier growing cucumbers in the remains of the enormous marshlands 40 miles north-west of Basra, an area believed to be the original site of the Garden of Eden. Much of it was drained into a desert by Saddam in the 1990s as a punishment to the indigenous Marsh Arab tribes, who had risen against him in the aftermath of the first Gulf war. Although satellite photographs show that some marshland has recovered – there are patches of vivid green replacing the dead brown of Saddam’s deliberate desert – the water that has come back is salty because so many dams have been constructed upstream, mostly in Turkey, and there isn’t enough flow of fresh water from the Tigris and Euphrates to flush the natural salt from the marshes. No more cucumbers, no nothing. “Never again, here, the cathedral halls which were constructed with reeds celebrated by Wilfred Thesiger . . .” remarked Sykes, with such an intense wistfulness most of the words were made on one memorable extended out breath.

Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs (1964) is more famous though less accomplished than Gavin Maxwell’s 1957 A Reed Shaken by the Wind (Maxwell obtained his first otter in these very marshes: a cub called Chahala, “the size of a kitten with a delightful malty smell”). Maxwell was Thesiger’s travelling companion but is not mentioned once by Thesiger in his account. Thesiger lamented for the rest of his life the suburbanisation of this untamed, 3,000-square-kilometre watery place. And here was Sykes doing precisely the same, using the same language, 50 years later. That’s an unusually long extended out breath –but it seems a place unwilling, despite all efforts, to capitulate fully to any destructive force.

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era