in Book Reviews, Books

May Reviews

Discussed in this post: 4 Books (From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation; The Sunjata Story; Medicine Walk; and The Assault); 4 Movies (Winter Sleep; The CelebrationI, Daniel Blake; and Krisha); and 2 Documentaries (Sunless; and Daughter of the Lake).


1. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.


Every month when I do these reviews, there’s always one book that I save til last because it was so damn good and I feel it deserves a really thorough review because what it was on about was really significant stuff and I want other people to read that book, too, but then I never actually get around to writing the review that book reviews… and this month that book was From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.  Taylor and her work have been getting a lot of well-deserved attention (for example, check out the talk she did with Angela Davis, entitled “Freedom is a Constant Struggle” — starts around the 13 minute mark).  In this book, Taylor situates the #BlackLivesMatter movement within the broader currents of black struggles for freedom, exploring the twists and turns that white supremacy has undergone — including promoting colorblindness and creating and co-opting a black political class — all while staying solidly committed to devastating black folks to line the pockets of the 1% (this applies to the prison industrial complex as much as it does to the housing crisis which, Taylor explains, devastated wealth in black communities first and foremost).  The history presented is never boring or repetitive, and contained many “aha!” moments for me.  For example, Taylor explains, as higher levels of government began to cut funding to municipalities, cities became increasingly reliant upon policing — tickets, fines, and so on — to raise the money needed to make a city run.  Many cities rely on the police force for almost 50% of their budget.  This, then, sheds new light on the “work to rule” protest that the NYC police force engaged in, in response to Mayor Bill de Blasio — certainly no radical — saying something that wasn’t 100% pro-Police after the murder of Eric Garner.  I laughed at this protest, as did many others, because when there was no subsequent crime wave (as we all said there wouldn’t be), we took this to be proof that the police were having a tantrum and demonstrating that they were redundant.  However, what the police were actually doing was cutting off the money NYC needed to function (for example, in 2014, NYC made $10,400,000 per week off of parking tickets alone).  This book is filled with insight after insight — including Taylor’s remarks about where we continue to go from here, which she related to bridging race boundaries in order to unite around class-based experiences of oppression.  This was a very hopeful conclusion (at least for me).  I highly recommend this book.

2. The Sunjanta Story as told by Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute and translated by Gordon Innes and Bakari Sidibe.


A lot of literature has come out of Africa (it’s a big continent), some of it very old, some of it very new, and I have read only a very, very little bit of it.  The Sunjata story dates back to the king who founded the empire of Mali circa 1240CE.  This story was performed and passed along orally for centuries by designated story-tellers.  This small book contains two (transcribed and translated) versions of the story, with slightly different foci and emphases.  They read very much like other forms of ancient literature – old epics, like those of Gilgamesh, or certain passages from the Torah.  I found them fun but also somewhat dry.

3. Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese.


Medicine Walk falls somewhere in between The Road and Gilead (and I enjoyed it more than the latter but less than the former), although here the protagonist is much more the son than the father.  It is a story about how intergenerational trauma scars families, but it is also a story about forgiveness and understanding, and, for all its universality, it is also a distinctly Indigenous story about a people who have been colonized and not permitted to be, but who persist and who, ultimately, learn how to not only survive but be well.  The pages turn quickly but the story sets the pace and, I think, it behooves the reader to take it slow at times.  It’s a good book.

4. The Assault: A Novel by Harry Mulisch.


It struck me recently that, although half of my heritage is Dutch, I have read no Dutch literature.  I figured I should do something about that, and  so, after doing some research, I started with this novel by Harry Mulisch (which I seem to remember being mentioned somewhere before, although Mulisch also seems to be the number one author who comes up when one searches Dutch literature).  I enjoyed it quite a lot.  The story is centred upon a particularly traumatic episode that takes place in the life at the protagonist during WWII – who is just a small child at the end of the war – and what came after (even if all that came after is an extended postscript).  It’s very well written.  I like how it centralizes childhood trauma, even though (or precisely because) trauma becomes a centre that one cannot always look at, address, or even work through.  It’s recommended reading.


1. Winter Sleep (2014) directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan.


[Spoilers alert – and this is a good film to watch unspoiled.]

“But what was it about?” Jess asked me after we finished watching Winter Sleep, and I think the answer is wealth and the ways in which it destroys the lives of the poor and the souls of the rich.  I had to think awhile before coming to that conclusion and that is part of the beauty of this film – there is so much in what and when and how things are said or not said, done or not done, and each character is so well developed but bound to her or his own perspective, that it takes awhile to appreciate, not simply the beautiful tapestry Ceylan has created, but how each different thread weaves among the others in order to produce just this picture.

For example, at the end of the film, Nihal, the young and estranged wife of the protagonist, Aydin, does not prevent her husband from donating a large sum of money to a charitable campaign she is organizing – although, of course, he calls it a small amount and donates it anonymously which causes his wife to roll her eyes in both frustration and resignation.  By this point the audience understands why (and we’re also not surprised when Aydin later tells others he donates large sums of money anonymously).  Aydin is so caught up in the vision he has of himself as a good and wise and useful person (a vision confirmed by the fan mail and fawning requests he receives in response to articles he writes in the local paper which, perhaps, is his way of still receiving the kind of praise he fed on from others when he was a stage actor), that he does not understand that perhaps, sometimes, the greatest gift he could give to others is his absence.  It is unclear if Aydin actually understands this when he books his ticket to Istanbul for the winter, but he turns back and it appears that he may have always planned to turn back.  Therefore, when he comes to reaffirm his love for his wife and restate his belief that he has now learned his lesson and is coming back a new man, we know that exactly the opposite is the case.

This final profession of love and change takes place in a voiceover – a technique that was absent from the rest of the film and which bothered me when it appeared as a way of wrapping up the movie because it seemed to conflict with a film that had subtly shown so much.  Why does Ceylan suddenly stop showing through the way a person is positioned or through a seemingly polite but actually bitter and cutting conversation with siblings that escalates not like a fire but like the surface of a pond freezing in the winter, and cut to Ayden’s inner monologue?  Why, also, this monologue from a person who claims to like listening more than talking, who politely permits interruptions, and who seems always to talk about something else other than what he actually wants to say?  I think there are two reasons for Ceylan’s choice.  First, every other time Aydin has tried to wax poetic to his sister or his wife, they have mocked him (as his sister does, saying that he is still acting, cannot handle being real, and has a low threshold for self-deception) or cut him off (as his wife does who says she has heard his poetic professions time after time and they no longer mean anything to her).  Thus, in the final voiceover we hear not a new revelation about learning, love, and change, but what Aydin has always been thinking and saying to those who would listen (others have different opinions).  Secondly, then, we also see why Aydin is so incapable of changing.  Those who listen, who hold back from fully challenging and confronting arguments thrown against them, are often the most resistant to change (here, I push back against Ceylan’s more optimistic interpretation — vive la morte d’auteur!).  Granted, the night before, Aydin, in conflict with a school teacher whom he sees as a younger man trying to seduce and rob his wife, engages in a drunk war of words that, again, is not always talking directly about what the characters choose to talk about, until the teacher, Levent (whose name Aydin continually mispronounces – signaling his disdain for the teacher even as he claims to profess care) concludes by aggressively quoting Shakespeare: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe.  Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.”  Levent, in other words, both exposes Aydin’s blindness, wrought by his wealth and his commitment to the pursuit thereof (although Aydin tries to disavow this by constantly leaving the details of wealth accumulation to his underlings), while also saying, “yes, perhaps I am a threat to you but, if I am, it is because I am like you.”  However, as usual, Aydin cannot let the conversation go without feeling that he has won.  He throws back these lines: “Our infallible fate is to be deceived in everything we attempt. I make brilliant plans each morning… and fool about all day.”  Many a time a man who is drunk has spoken truths that he cannot live when sober, and so, I think, it goes with Aydin.  When he returns the next morning to his place, recites his monologue of love and sits down to finally write his history of Turkish theatre, we are not deceived into thinking his drunken words signal a change any more than his poetic monologue to his wife reveal that he can give her what she wants and needs (which, again, is his absence not his presence).  Aydin ends where he began: making brilliant plans each morning.

When Nihal looks down from her window and sees that Aydin has returned, her look is one of utter hopelessness.  But what kind of hopelessness is this?  To understand it, we have to return to the money Aydin donated to her campaign.  Although she does not prevent Aydin from giving her the money, she cannot stand to accept it but, unbeknownst to him, goes to give the money to a family who is behind on their rent payments to Aydin.  Aydin’s second in command had sent debt collectors to appropriate the fridge and TV from the family and a father, Ismael, was beaten up in front of Ilyas, his son, as a result of that event, leading Ilyas to throw a stone at Aydin’s car, leading Hadayet to chase the boy who “slipped and fell in the river” before he was caught.  Or did Hadayet dunk Ilyas in the river to punish him? Hadayet stops Aydin from being able to ask many questions on the matter and it is never known (this is another example of how Ceylin subtly raises possibilities but doesn’t feel the need to resolve them or shine a glaring light on them).  But what is known, or learned, is that the boy gets pneumonia and almost dies, and Hamdi, the Imam brother of the father, bows and scraps to try and prevent their eviction from a family home where they have lived for generations.  Ismael falls deeper into drinking – a habit that developed after he got out of jail and couldn’t find work (he had gone to jail because some young men were stealing his wife’s underwear off the line and after beating his wife he stabbed one of the men in the market).  So, when Nihal takes her money to this family, she ends up alone in a room with Ismael (who has just returned from drinking).  It’s a very tense scene.  Ismael takes the stack of large bills and says the following:

Now… let’s see… if the math is right.  Now if this amount is… for little Ilyas who risked his life to mend his father’s broken pride.  And if this is… for self-sacrificing brother Hamdi who had to go hand-kissing because he looks after five people.  And if this is for the drunkard father Ismael who got beaten in front of his son disgracing himself and his family… There’s still some left.  If that is for our heroine Mrs. Nihal who tries to ease her conscience by doling out charity to those less fortunate than her… then this money is just enough.

But Ismael will not accept the money.  He drops it in the fire.  And Nihal weeps and weeps and weeps.  Because the whole way through she has been acting towards Hamdi and Ismael exactly in the way that Aydin acts towards her and others – unaware that she is viewing herself as superior, as morally pure, as oh so useful and necessary, and as rich but in a way that is useful to other).  But Ismael responds to Nihal exactly as she responded to Aydin.  He categorically refuses her money – he takes it then lays waste to it – and he categorically refuses to perceive her the way in which she perceives herself.  Thus, the hopelessness we see on Nihal in the end is not simply the hopelessness that comes with knowing that she cannot escape Aydin.  It is also the hopelessness of knowing that when she looks at Aydin, she is looking at herself.  “It’s almost a look of disgust,” Jess said.  And it is.  And even if Nihal leaves Aydin now, she knows she cannot divorce herself from that which disgusts her.

The wealthy, despite their morals, their consciences, their utility, their ideals, and their charity, are trapped, blind, doomed, and, finally, despite their beauty, erudition, books, and accessories, disgusting.  The poor fare little better.  Ismael and all of his extended family are doomed to eviction or to another round of lost battles with debt collectors (I noticed, when Nihal when to their home, that they had managed to gain another fridge and couldn’t help wondering how long that would remain there).  But Ilyas saw his father, Ismael, drop the bills in the fire.  Ismael has been restored in the eyes of his son.  It seems likely that their sufferings (at the hands of the oh-so-moral rich) is bound to increase soon, but the only people in the movie who have a happy ending are Ismael and Ilyas.

“Why then,” Jess asked me, “does Ismael weep?”  I didn’t know how to articulate an answer to that question at first but I think I can now.  Ismael shows almost no emotion whenever we see him.  He speaks flatly, his expression hardly changes, when he tries to smile because it is the thing to do, only one side of his mouth raises and we know that he is not smiling.  Only after he has been restored does he feel like he can feel again.  And so he is finally able to grieve – all of it.  His crimes, the loss of his wife, the loss of his job, the beating he received from the debt collectors, the shame of his brother, the sickness of his son, the fact his ten year old son felt the need to defend him, a grown man and father who should be defending his son.  He weeps the way I wept when I got the Judge’s Final Order and knew I could not be separated from my children and I cried and they were tears of joy but also of grieving all that came before.  Of my own nights of drinking and of the marriage that was loved and lost.

2. Festen (The Celebration) (1998) directed by Thomas Vinterberg.


[Spoilers alert and TW for mention of childhood sexual abuse.]

A well-to-do Swedish family gathers to celebrate the 60th birthday of the patriarch, Helge.  The eldest son, Christian, whose twin sister recently died (in this country estate home, now hotel, in what turns out to be a suicide) rises to give his father a toast.  He says this:

I call [my speech] when dad had his bath. I was very young when we moved here. Times changed completely for us. We had all the space we wanted and all the trouble… we could cause in all that space. In those days this room was a restaurant. I can’t count the times my sister Linda, who is now dead, and I… played in here, and she would put things in people’s food… without their noticing… and we would hide… Then she would begin to laugh. She had the most infectious laugh you can imagine. In no time at all we’d both be howling with laughter… and of course we got caught. But nothing ever happened to us. It was much more dangerous when Dad had his bath. I don’t know if you remember, but Dad was always having baths. He’d take Linda and me into the study… as there was something he had to do first. Then he’d lock the door and roll down the blinds. Then he’d take his shirt off and his trousers and made us do likewise. Then he’d put us across the green couch that’s been thrown out now… and raped us. Abused us sexually. Had sex with his little ones. A couple of months ago when my sister died… I realised that Helge was a very clean man, with all those baths. I thought I’d share it with the rest of the family. Baths summer, winter, spring, autumn, morning, evening… Helge is a very clean man. I wanted you to know that… seeing as we’re celebrating his 60th birthday… what a guy! Imagine living a long life and watching your children grow up! And grandchildren. But you didn’t come to listen to me. We’ve come to celebrate Helge’s sixtieth, so let’s do so. Thank you for all those good years.

Everything unfolds and makes sense from this as the family attempts to push Christian out (he was always unwell, you know?  even had a stay in a psychiatric institute when he was younger) and the father manipulates things in some more obvious and some more subtle ways (for example, it seems likely that the dad held out the carrot of acceptance into his masonic lodge to his youngest son – not the brightest fellow and somewhat prone to violence – if the youngest son helped the night run smoothly, precisely because the dad had an inkling that Christian might disrupt the event and he wanted to pit his children against each other).  Other reviewers suggested that the long unfolding of events over the course of the night and into the early hours of the morning bordered on the absurd or ludicrous (maids stealing car keys and whatnot), but I think what Vinterberg does is entirely believable – it’s just that he tries to compress into a single night all the ways in which families ostracize victims and rally to the defense of abusers, especially when those abusers are such outstanding and prominent members of the family.  Everything here felt entirely believable to me (up to and including the Helge showing up for breakfast with the family the next morning after he finally stated, having never admitted to anything, “it was all that you were good for” when pressed, one final time, to say why he did what he did).  The movie, ultimately, has a “happy” ending but the isolation, strength, and stubborn persistence of Christian, the surviving twin, is what makes this possible, not the goodness of the other family members.  So it seems to go with other families, too… if they ever even come around.  Because a lot of them don’t and in most of the cases I’ve known, Christian would have been the one not permitted to join the family for breakfast the next day.

3. I, Daniel Blake (2016) directed by Ken Loach.


I managed to catch this movie with Jess in a small local theatre.  At several points, the audience laughed at the utter absurdity of the questions and comments and methods of social workers and “health care professionals” (who are neither doctors nor nurses but who work for insurance companies to determine if people are fit to return to work) but, having been involved in social services for a good many years, I didn’t find anything laughable.  Because Ken Loach did his research – this is exactly how these workers are trained to speak and it is exactly how they perform their jobs.  Granted, it really is absurd but, knowing that Loach is not embellishing in any way, makes the performance move from humourous to achingly tragic.

I, Daniel Blake is a good movie.  I think every social worker should watch it.  I think those who glorify charity but who do not do it professionally should also watch it.  It convinced me, yet again, that I backed the wrong horse and chose the wrong field of work and, yes, hell is paved with good intentions and, yes, those intentions are mine and, yes, the hell they have created is for others, not for me… but I have children to think about and a joint custody order, you know?  And if there was ever hope for a person like me in a movie, it was in the dedication of Hotel Terminus, not here.  Because Marcel Ophuls, who was only a child, a Jewish child, when he escaped from the Nazis in WWII, dedicated Hotel Terminus to a non-Jewish woman who tried (but failed) to save one of the children of her Jewish neighbours from the camps – and who am I but a neighbor but who has tried and failed in similar ways?  I, Daniel Blake shows the campiness of social work – a campiness that is not nostatlgic or retro but is about being assigned a number and made to work in order to be free.  Recommended viewing.

4. Krisha (2015) directed by Trey Edward Shults.


So, this was the only non-Cannes related non-documentary film I watched this month (after how great those 3 other films were, I’m starting to reconsider my feelings about prize winners there) but, hey, it did win the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Prize at SXSW in 2015 (along with a whackload of other awards).  Krisha is a poignant snapshot into some of the familial devastation that takes place when a parent bombs in and out of the life of her child and other family members because that parent has become consumed by trying to self-sooth with alcohol and other substances (in this case medications taken in a manner not prescribed).  Some of the scenes were very moving.  At one point, when the mother tries to reconnect with her son, I was amazed by the performance of the son — the way he sat, where he looked with his eyes, the way in which he cried, what he said and didn’t say and how he said it–it was incredible.  Only after did I learn that the son was actually the film Director, Trey Edward Shults, the woman playing his mother was his aunt, the woman playing his aunt was his mother, the house where the filming took place is the house where Shults’ grew up, and Shults’ father was so caught up in self-soothing with alcohol that it contributed greatly to him disappearing from his son’s life and dying an early death.  I then learned that a cousin also relapsed at a family get together much like the one portrayed in this film (and died shortly thereafter from an overdose).  Turns out this whole film was like a big screen family therapy session, which helps explain the pain and poignancy captured in a number of scenes.  These people aren’t really actors and they aren’t really acting.  It’s a powerful film, although hard to watch.  It plays much like a horror movie although it shows nothing more monstrous than a broken family.  I suspect Hannah Arendt would approve.


1. Sans Soleil (Sunless) (1983) directed by Chris Marker.


When you start blending ennui with wonder related to banality, you may be in the domain of the Frenchistentialists.  Despite changing his name, Chris Marker (born Christian Hippolyte François Georges Bouche-Villeneuve, because of course he was) is in that company.  Despite my affinity for this scene, I had a mixed response to this film.  The rapid transitions, accompanied by equally rapid subtitles (I only found out afterwards that there is also an official English audio version of this) made it difficult to walk away from the film with anything but impressions that were hard to hold together.  Some parts fascinated me – particularly glimpses into worlds that no longer exist now – some parts bored me.  Trying to think with it afterwards was difficult for me.  I found it uninspiring.

2. Hija de la Laguna (Daughter of the Lake) (2015) directed by Ernesto Cabellos Damián.


In 2010, the gold in Newmont’s open pit copper and gold Yanococha Mine in Peru were starting to get tapped out.  This was one of the largest and most profitable gold mines in the world and Newmont is the secondly largest gold mining corporation in the world.  However, a short distance from Yanococha, in a small place called Tragadero Grande (aptly named?), a massive amount of gold was said to exist under a handful of lakes, which would be destroyed along with a biologically diverse mountain wetland area. Newmont estimated that it would be able to mine 350,000 ounces of gold and 120 million pounds of copper every year from this region for a period of 19 years.  They estimated the project to be worth $5,000,000,000.  There was only one problem – in 1994, Máxima Acuña and her husband had bought this remote piece of land nobody wanted and they lived there as subsistence farmers, raising their children, and maintaining a close relationship with the land and water.

In 2011, Newmont demanded that Acuña and her family leave.  They refused to do so.  Shortly thereafter, armed men came and destroyed their home and their posessions and beat Acuña and one of her daughters unconscious (NB: on these histories and figures: cf. here and here).  Newmont then charged Acuña and her family with illegally squatting on their own land, and Acuña was sentenced to a suspended prison term of three years as well as a devastating $2,000 fine.

Damián does not tell much of this backstory to Hija de la Laguna.  We know that the gold mining company wants to take the gold under the lake, we know there is another mine nearby, and we know that a peasant woman owns the land and has been threatened by the mining company, but a lot of the history and details are missing.  Instead of focusing on Acuña, who won the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize, or even mentioning her lawyer, Mirtha Vásquez, Damián focuses upon Nélida Ayay Chilón, a Quechua woman who maintains a very strong spiritual and material connection with the water.  Chilón is a compelling, wise, kind, and likable person, but, upon doing further research, I feel that Damián may have somewhat misrepresented her role.  Not to say that she didn’t play an important part in the struggle – and, indeed, focusing on others involved in the struggle, like Nélida and another character, Padre Marco, instead of on Acuña or Vásquez, is a good way of reminding us that struggle is a collective effort – but I did feel a bit manipulated (the description of the film on imdb is even stranger in the claims that it makes which, I think, misrepresent the film).  Damián also steps away from the direct context of the struggle with two subthemes – the first being the devastation a mine has wrought in a region in the Bolivian Andes, and the second being the work of a Dutch goldsmith and jewelry designer, Bibi van der Velden.  The Bolivian setting offered an example of what awaited the region in Peru if the mining company won (although the under-examined Yanococha Mine – from which Chilón’s father was fired because of her activism – would have served as a very appropriate counterpoint).  The Dutch goldsmith served as a counterpoint to show how people value wealth (Van der Velden’s talk about gold commemorating special moments of life contrasts with Chilón reminding people that water is life and we can’t eat or drink gold – old Indigenous sayings from across Turtle Island that should be familiar to all of us now after Standing Rock).  Damián tries to set up some kind of struggle of conscience and compromise by filming Van der Velden attending a mining site in the Amazon and then going back to work but that doesn’t seem to come together that well.  And that’s really my beef with this movie – the whole thing doesn’t quite come together well.  The story is under-explored, the cuts are kind of choppy, and the movie seems to often be most powerful when it isn’t trying to be most powerful.  Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoyed it.  It just felt it could have been better.

The film ends with what looks like a precursor to Standing Rock.  A mixed crew of Indigenous land defenders had gathered by the Azul Laguna and riot police had come in the hundreds to displace them.  The people eat and pray and, this time, the cops do not move in but return to their buses and drive away.  Having seen how Standing Rock played out – and knowing that this is how situations like this pretty much always play out – I didn’t have high hopes.  But then I did some research and learned that, due to the community mobilization, the pressure from allies, and the strength of Acuña et al., the Peruvian courts actually overturned their earlier rulings, backed Acuña and denied Newmont (a company that Damián never names in this film) any further permits to develop the area.  Here, the people won.  So, it was wonderful to see people chanting chants we’ve also chanted in these streets (“The people united will never be defeated”) and it was wonderful, for once, to see those chants be true.

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