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I watched the Oscar hopefuls and every film is full of men, men and more bloody men

Oh, and moaning women. These are the films of the year, the ones that we think best capture the tenor of the times. Yet they are only interested in one half of the human tableau.

It happens that my wife and I have been preparing for the arrival of our second child during Oscar season. A lot of sophisticated, well-reviewed films have been jostling for the attention of adult cinema-goers, and given that everyone tells me that the second child marks the end of leisure, I’ve been frantically trying to see as many as possible before my cinematic experience becomes confined to one endless Frozen.

So far I’ve caught Boyhood, American Sniper, Birdman, Whiplash, and Foxcatcher. Though it’s a motley collection of themes and styles, I’ve been struck by what they have in common. They are all emphatically, relentlessly male. These are stories of male maturation, male courage, male ego, male creativity, and male madness. The males make stuff happen, and the males compel our attention. It’s the male motivations that intrigue and puzzle us. It is the male face, in all its exquisite ecstasies and agonies, that commands our gaze.

The females exist on the edges of the stories. With few exceptions, they have little of interest to say, and we can easily read their minds from limited range of expressions they’re allowed to enact. Their main role is to moan to, or about, the males. None of the movies pass the Bechdel test: not once do I recall two women talking to each other about something other than a man. There was, come to think of it, a brief sighting of that rare bird in Birdman, but the conversation quickly became a lesbian facesucking session, which is, as I understand it, the invariable outcome when women get together without men.

Whiplash: drumming men

Whiplash, over which the (mainly male) critics showered saliva, is a movie about men made up of other movies about men. Like every other cop or war movie you’ve seen, it revolves around the clash of an idealistic and talented young man and an evil father-figure. Whiplash’s variation on this flea-bitten trope is to set it in a music school, and vérité be damned. J K Simmons plays a tautly muscled jazz teacher who gets the best of out his (male) students by bullying, scorning and humiliating them. You know the type. Whiplash is a fundamentally silly film, but the worst of it is its desultory attempt at a female character. The girlfriend of our young hero – I forget her name – is beautiful, beguiling, and, inevitably, sacrificed to the manly pursuit of the perfect paradiddle. Melissa Benoist does her impressive best, but her character’s development arc can be adequately summarised in three words: enter, whinge, exit.

American Sniper: fighting men. 

Whingeing is pretty much all that women do in all these movies. In American Sniper, there are two female characters, both girlfriends of our hero, Chris Kyle. The first appears only briefly and without clothes, after screwing another man. Even she manages to get in some moaning before we take leave of her. Then there is Taya, played by Sienna Miller. Taya starts off sassy, cynical and wisecracking. As has been well established by other movies, however, sassy and wisecracking women are desperately sad inside. Our hero quickly intuits that this is true of Taya after he sees her sitting alone at a bar (another sign of emotional turmoil).

Kyle seduces Taya by hinting at a bottomless capacity for violence; she rewards him with a baby and by ceasing to be interesting. Before long she is bending his ear endlessly and tediously about being a responsible father while he tries to kill savages on behalf of America and pursue the movie’s real love interest, a hotshot called Mustafa. In Whiplash and American Sniper, we are ostensibly invited to sympathise with the women but actually to want them to shut up so that we can get back to the man-on-man action.

Boyhood: ageing men

Boyhood too suffers from the curse of the moaning woman. Patricia Arquette has rightly been lauded for her bravery for allowing herself to be seen ageing on screen. But her character is crabbed, joyless and incapable of taking delight in life, or satisfaction in her achievements. This film does contain an exception to the general rule, however. Samantha, sister of Mason, the central character, is so fully alive that she effortlessly outshines her likeable but bland brother and makes you wish that Linklater had made Girlhood (Samantha is played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei).

Foxcatcher: wrestling men

Foxcatcher doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than men, and its interrogation of the male psyche is so bleakly unforgiving that it would be impossible to call it chauvinistic. And yet it is clear who is to blame for John Du Pont’s broken soul: his mother, played, with a magnificently evil eye, by Vanessa Redgrave. The other female character, Dave Schultz’s wife (Sienna Miller again), is an adjunct to the action, a piece of narrative furniture who doesn’t rate a mention in Wikipedia’s plot summary until its end.

Birdman: acting men

Sexism in Hollywood is an old story, but it still has the power to astonish. These are the films of the year, the ones that we think best capture the tenor of the times. Yet they are only interested in one half of the human tableau. Even our most intelligent movie-makers have pushed women to the side of their stories, denying them volition, depth, vitality. Why is that? I understand that movies reflect, rather than shape, our interests; their job is to paint what we are, not what we hope to be. But women aren’t the least interesting people in the rooms I’ve been in. Perhaps a brute commercial logic is at work: are movie-goers only interested in men? I don’t buy it. Women go to the cinema as much as men, and I think women are quite interested in women. I even know some men who are interested in women, and not just in that way. Apparently they’re not making movies.

What we seem to have here is a collective failure of imagination, one that’s creatively self-limiting, not to mention unforgivably lazy. Perhaps when I re-emerge into the world of grown-up entertainment, things will have changed. Oh well – at least Frozen has a female hero.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood