Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Resistance Banker (2018) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th July, 2020

The Resistance BankerThough there have been countless films and TV series about Nazi Occupied France and the French Resistance, the experience of the Dutch under occupation has been less well chronicled. The Germans easily overran the little country in May 1940 and some parts were occupied for a full five years. I remember visiting the Low Countries (as we called Belgium and the Netherlands back then) when I was a schoolboy in the mid-1960s, when memories were still vivid of the privations — especially the lack of food and heating — experienced in Amsterdam towards the end of the War. So Joram Lürsen’s Bankier van het Verzet (The Resistance Banker), available on Netflix, recounting the true story of two brothers working in banking, who manage to finance acts of resistance during the War through a series of clever schemes that raised colossal amounts of money, an irresistible draw. Barry Watsma as Walraven Van Hall puts in a great performance as the brave younger brother who is the mastermind of the activities, dashingly handsome and managing to keep a cool head until the pressures of dangerous undercover acts become too great, while Jacob Derwig plays his much more brooding and nervous brother, Gijs. Apart from the fact that the streets of Amsterdam look a little too clean and prosperous, and the people relatively healthy and well-dressed, the film really draws one into the time and place. To get the full benefit of the atmosphere and soundtrack it is advisable to watch the Dutch and German language original (with English sub-titles) rather than the slick, predominantly American dubbed version. Just over two hours long, this Dutch-Belgian co-production really keeps one engrossed with the tension of a thriller, all the time being aware that someone in the ever-growing circle of people involved in the illicit but noble activities is going to crack under torture or when their family’s lives are threatened.

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Justice for Jamal Khashoggi?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd July, 2020

Jamal KhashoggiAn important trial opened in Istanbul today, though the 20 defendants are not present. These are 20 Saudi men accused of complicity in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 when he called at the Saudi consulate to get documentation ahead of his wedding to his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. Security cameras captured him going into the building but not him leaving. Prosecutors believe that he was strangled inside the consulate, his body then cut into pieces before being taken away to be buried in secret. Initially the Saudi authorities denied these allegations, but later declared that rogue elements in the government service had bungled an attempt to remove him back to Saudi Arabia against his will. A trial in camera was then held in Riyadh at which five unnamed men were sentenced to death. No foreign observers were allowed access. The Saudi Crown Prince (and effective ruler) Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) denied any involvement, but accepted responsibility, on the principle of “the buck stops here”. The Saudi authorities hoped that that would be the end of the matter, but the Turkish authorities have been dogged in their determination to try to get to the bottom of the affair.

Agnes CallamardMoreover, the CIA in the United States announced that it thought MBS must have ordered the killing. He is not one of the 20 whose names are on the indictment sheet now, though two of his senior former officials are: Ahmed Al-Asiri and Saud Al-Qahtani. The prosecution hopes the men will be given life sentences if found guilty. One might ask what is the point, as the defendants are not in custody and Saudi Arabia is unlikely to give them up. But that question has been answered well by the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Extra-Judicial Killings, Agnes Callamard, who is attending the hearings. She said today that the light of international law will shine on what she called this “state killing”, which might encourage other countries to take action. As I said in a TV broadcast this morning, travel bans on the men involved could be implemented, though realistically countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, which sell billions of dollars worth of arms to the Desert Kingdom, are unlikely to press for MBS to be held to account. This case is of special concern to me, not just because I am a journalist covering the Middle East but also because by chance I was at a Palestine conference in London with Jamal Khashoggi just a couple of days before his fateful encounter in Istanbul. Hatice Chengiz waited in vain for him to emerge from the consulate. I pray she does not have to wait in vain for justice to be done, at least in the eyes of the world.

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The Angel (2018) ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st July, 2020

The AngelThe true life story of Ashraf Marwan — son-in-law to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and advisor to Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat — seems more like fiction than reality, as he became an agent for the Israeli secret service, Mossad, under the code name “The Angel”. He ended up being hailed a hero by both Egypt and Israel, before dying mysteriously in a fall in London. Uri Bar-Joseph wrote a best-selling book about the man, so it was only a matter of time before the extraordinary tale was turned into a movie. The Angel (now available on Netflix) is that film, with Dutch-Tunisian actor Marwan Kanzari, in the title role. Inevitably the viewer asks, why did he do it? And the film’s only partly convincing answer is that he wanted to end wars between the two states, though the money Mossad gave him was also a temptation as he was a compulsive gambler. The irony was that when he correctly warned the Israelis about the imminent Yom Kippur attack in 1973 they didn’t believe him, as previous warnings had proved unsubstantiated as Sadat kept changing his plans. Meanwhile, Marwan’s relationship with his wife had deteriorated as she believed (wrongly) that he was having an extramarital affair — a subterfuge that was part of his “cover”. In the film, Marwan smuggles weapons for Palestinian guerrillas in his diplomatic luggage (though in reality it was unknowingly his wife that did) but the scene where he delivers them, vital components removed, at the perimeter fence of Heathrow Airport is fiction. At times one is tempted to think “that couldn’t have happened!”, but the story is so counter-intuitive that some of the most unlikely things are actually true. However, for me the film falls between the two stools of a biopic and a spy thriller, in a rather unsatisfactory fashion. Nonetheless, Ariel Vromen’s direction keeps one’s interest up and the sombre hues of many of the interior scenes add to the sinister undercurrent. Kanzari’s portrayal of Marwan is sympathetic, in contrast to most of the other characters. So he does come across as a sort of angel, though one with an increasingly troubled mind.

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Selma (2014) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 28th June, 2020

Selma 1At a time when Black Lives Matter demonstrations are happening round the globe, including in British cities, it is useful to be reminded that the civil rights movement in the United States was at its zenith more than half a century ago. Laws were changed, segregation ended and voter registration for African Americans facilitated. Yet attitudes in some places, not just in the Deep South, have taken longer to alter, not least within the police force, as witnessed by the killing of George Floyd, which sparked the current protests. At the heart of the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King Jr., awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his work to further racial equality but assassinated four years later, a martyr to the cause. His struggle was far from easy, and as Ava DuVernay’s biopic Selma (available on BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks) shows, King had to stand up to resistance from within the black community as well as to hatred from racist whites. Many black rights activists, such as Malcolm X (also assassinated), believed that more radical, violent, action was needed rather than Martin Luther King’s Gandhian passive resistance. But King refused to be swayed, causing intense strains among his supporters and even within his marriage. All this comes over clearly in DuVernay’s film, which focuses on one key period in its subject’s campaigning life, the organisation of a march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital, Montgomery, to demand black voter registration.

Selma 2Symbolically at the centre of the story and the film is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River, on which the column of marchers were brutally attacked the first time an attempt to cross was made. The second time, the black ranks now swelled by white sympathisers outraged by the earlier bloodbath, King halted the column on the bridge, rather than risk further carnage. The third, successful crossing would only take place after a legal challenge and heavy lobbying of President Lyndon B. Johnson. In a film such as this where historic figures familiar to countless millions are being represented by actors the choice of actors is of course crucial. Selma stands or falls on how convincing David Oyelowo is as Dr King and for me, he carries it off splendidly, not only in delivering the preacher’s rhetoric effectively but also manifesting his character’s doubts and even occasional aloofness. He is backed by a strong cast of other players, including Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, Tim Roth as the snakelike Governor George Wallace and Oprah Winfrey as campaigner Annie Lee. Doubtless historians of the civil rights movement will find details with which to quibble. But for the average viewer this is a powerful representation of a key stage in that movement’s struggle, as well as a reminder that it is not yet over.

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The Road to Calvary ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 27th June, 2020

The Road to Calvary 1I am far from alone in turning to Netflix during the long evenings of COVID-19 lockdown, which means I have been watching TV series that otherwise I would have missed. The most remarkable, which I finished last night, has been the 12-episode The Road to Calvary, originally on Russia’s NTV. Based on a trilogy of novels written by Alexei Tolstoy — who won the Stalin prize for them, the highest literary accolade the USSR could award — the story focuses on two beautiful and emotionally charged sisters, torn from their comfortable upper middle class life in Tsarist St. Petersburg and separated by the tumultuous events of the First World War, the October Revolution and then the Civil War that pitted Reds against Whites. Both are aggressively wooed — and periodically almost raped — against a backdrop of military carnage and class conflict, the locale shifting to Samara (from which the novelist himself hailed), isolated hamlets on the steppe and finally the Bolsheviks’ new capital of Moscow.

The Road to Calvary 2 The two sisters, bound together by unusually strong sibling ties, struggle with their feelings for two suitors, later their husbands, who are ripped away by the wars and find themselves conflicted by the competing ideologies. The 2017 television series (in Russian, with English sub-titles) emphasizes the political contradictions and ambiguity of the period in a way that would never have been possible while the Communists were in power and it is the shocking cruelty, the uncertainty and illogicality of war that pervade the narrative, rather than heroism. But it is the strong performances of the four principal actors which really makes one want to know if they will survive, and get together again. No expense was spared in this lavish production making it visually spectacular, too. One gets an unforgettable view of what Russia was like a century ago, so even if the story is fictional at times it has the power of documentary, veering from great beauty to savagery.

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COVID-19: UK Consistently Shambolic

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd June, 2020

pub gardenMany pub landlords and restaurateurs in England will be heaving a huge sigh of relief this evening following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that they should be open for business again from 4 July, as long as various social distancing measures are deployed. But as has been the case throughout the Conservative government’s handling of the virus, the measure is full of inconsistencies and loopholes. Whereas it might be reasonable for anyone wanting to book a table at a restaurant to provide contact information the idea that everyone who goes into a pub or a restaurant will have to register will seem to many people concerned with civil liberties — including me — as a bridge too far. How will such data be stored, for how long and who will have access to it? Moreover, as no-one will be asked to provide an ID, it is reported, we can expect that there will quite a lot of Mickey Mouses and Bruce Lee’s turning up at their locals. But that is not the only problem with Boris Johnson’s new guidelines. Scotland does not yet think it is safe to give the green light to the hospitality sector; that is likely to come on 15 July instead. So why next week will it be safe to go out for a meal in England, but not in Scotland? Will some people just be tempted to cross the border (as used to happen when pubs were closed on Sundays in Wales?

Boris Johnson at Downing Street press conferenceThe social distancing modifications are a bit perplexing as well. Mr Johnson indicated in his briefing at 10 Downing Street that the 2 metre safe distance limit will be reduced to “one metre plus” from 4 July. Most people will assume that in practice that means one metre, and in fact if my local neighbourhood is anything to go by, people have decided for themselves that that is alright now. I understand that the hospitality sector needed sufficient notice to make necessary adjustments to their properties so they can reopen on 4 July, but many people will just decide that if one metre is alright from Friday next week it should be alright now. The whole way this is being handled is typical of the shambolic way the Johnson government has dealt with the pandemic. Lockdown was introduced far too late, meaning that maybe as many as 20,000 people died unnecessarily. And there has been no proper coordination with the devolved governments of the nations. Now the daily press conferences are going to be discontinued. I know they have become deadly dull, as there is no opportunity for really probing questioning of Ministers. But inevitably some people will wonder whether the scientists who used to be trotted out had got fed up with being used as shields to protect the government from its own incompetence.

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Downgrading DFID Is Daft

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 16th June, 2020

UK AidBoris Johnson’s Conservative government has announced its intention to subsume the Department for International Development (DFID) within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This is a seriously bad idea, not least at a time when much of the developing world is struggling with the Coronavirus pandemic. Even former Prime Minister David Cameron has criticised the plan. It was under the Cameron-led Coalition government of 2010-2015 that the United Kingdom achieved the UN target of devoting 0.7% of its GNP to international development; indeed, that percentage was then enshrined in law. But with an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson may feel that he can overturn that as well if he wishes. If he did, that would be once again singing to former UKIP Leader Nigel Farage’s songsheet. There are indeed a number of Brexiteer Tory MPs who feel, like Farage, that overseas aid is a waste of UK taxpayers’ money and that the funds should be spent at home, while others argue that if aid is to be given it should be linked to the promotion of British goods and services — in effect recycling the money back into the British economy. But one of the main discussion points in the late 1970s, when I was Secretary to the Brussels-based NGO Liaison Committee to the European Communities, was the need to move away from such “tied aid”, instead addressing the real priorities of poorer countries. To reverse that process would be a retrograde step. But so too is bringing DFID back in-house at the FCO, where inevitably it will be seen as an arm of British foreign policy. DFID has won a lot of respect for its work, often targeted at the poorest communities. But downgrading DFID from Ministry status would be taking us back several decades. This is hardly likely to win us many friends in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, where views of British colonial legacy is often ambivalent, to say the least. That is not exactly a smart thing to do at a time when post-Brexit Britain is looking to improve its reputation outside Europe. In fact, in a word, it’s daft.

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Da 5 Hoods ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th June, 2020

Da 5 Hoods 1Having loved BlacKkKlansman and several earlier Spike Lee films, I awaited the release of his latest, Da 5 Hoods (now on Netflix), with eager anticipation. The fact that it is set in Vietnam, with frequent flashbacks to the Vietnam War, in which I was a cub reporter in 1969 and 1971, had further whetted my appetite. The core story focuses on four former black GIs returning to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh Ville) to search for the remains of their fifth and most charismatic comrade in arms who was killed during an operation out in the field. At least that is their public excuse, but it soon becomes clear that the real reason is that while examining the wreckage of a shot-down US plane back then they found a metal chest solidly packed with gold bars that had been destined to reward minority ethnic guerrillas fighting against the Communists. Revisiting the country triggers memories good and bad and in a couple of cases clear evidence of PTSD. The ambivalence of their relationship with the Vietnamese — some of whom would have been on the same side, others definitely not —  adds to the tension. Flashbacks include not only the gunfight in which their buddy lost his life but also splendid recreations of the broadcasts by North Vietnam’s Hanoi Hannah, who relayed the news of the murder of Martin Luther King to eager listeners and pointed out that although African Americans made up only 11 per cent of the US population at the time nearly a third of the drafted soldiers in the Vietnam War were black.

Da 5 Hoods 2Various other historic and contemporary references pepper the two-and-a-half hours of the film, from Nixon to Trump, MAGA and Black Lives Matter. Moreover, the cinematic references (both visual and musical, including the use of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in homage to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), come so fast and furious that one is left reeling. After a fine, strong beginning, in which the characters of the four late-middle-aged men with all their quirks and differences are well drawn, the plot starts to fall apart when a love interest (surely so old Hollywood!) is introduced in the form of a young French woman working for a charity she has helped finance to combat mines and bombs who starts to get entangled with the son of one of the quartet, who has materialised in Vietnam unbidden. Things really disintegrate when the motley gang happen upon first the gold and then their fallen comrade’s remains with literally incredible ease, after which the movie turns into a sort of action thriller where they have to try to hang on to their booty despite the determination of corrupt forces to get it off them. I shan’t spoil the ending by revealing what happens next. Suffice it to say that this visually glorious epic (congratulations to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel) is sure to evoke nostalgia for Vietnam for anyone who has been there (even if some of the scenes were actually shot in Thailand), but whereas it had the chance of being a truly great film Spike Lee blew it by throwing almost everything into it bar the kitchen sink.

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Speak out against Neo-fascists, Boris Johnson!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th June, 2020

London demosThere were disgraceful scenes in central London today, as bands of far right demonstrators gathered in a show of defiance. Some physically attacked police, others made Nazi salutes in front of the Cenotaph and one was filmed urinating at the side of the memorial to slain policeman Keith Palmer. Several journalists and other media personnel also came under assault. Britain First leader Paul Golding, who is facing charges under the Terrorism Act, was out among the mob, provocatively wearing a White Lives Matter T-shirt. Surely he should be in custody, or at least forbidden to incite? One poor family quietly picnicking in the park was set upon and spat at by a marauding gang. Ever since the EU Referendum four years ago right-wing forces have been re-energised and although they claim to love Britain in fact they hate everything that Britain is today — diverse, tolerant and creative. Government politicians have been quick to criticise a rowdy minority element among left-wing demonstrators who have taken to the streets recently in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder by a policeman in the US. But they need to speak out about the neo-fascists in the streets at least as loudly. Boris Johnson is a bit of pin-up among not just Brexiteers but also far-right groups. It is vital that he condemn the latter before they recruit more people to their ranks. As we have seen in parts of continental Europe, neo-fascism is like coronavirus; if adequate measures, including isolation, are not taken quickly all too easily it can spread.

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Suburbicon (2017) ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th June, 2020

Suburbicon 1The 1950s were a period in which American suburbia really came into its own. Acre upon acre of neat little houses surrounded by unfenced “yards”, a big car in front of the garage, the wife in the kitchen and a new supermarket just a few minutes drive away. Such is the setting for George Clooney’s black comedy Suburbicon (available on BBC iPlayer for the next 12 days). The fictitious community of Suburbicon has drawn in young, upwardly mobile families from different parts of the country, but when one of these is black, the  racism that was prevalent at that time even outside the Deep South rares its head, in ugly contrast to the pastel-coloured prettiness of the environment. Yet this is not the main element of the film’s story, nor is any part of that aspect comic. Instead, the main focus is on the family whose bungalow backs on to the black family’s plot. The wife is in a wheelchair following a car accident, so her sister has moved in to help run the household and look after the young son. But this apparently quiet life is shattered when two thugs arrive and carry out a brutal attack. Yet all is not as it first seems, as the story unfolds in ever more alarming fashion, in counterpoint to moments of almost slapstick comedy.

Suburbicon 2Clooney used an old script by the Coen brothers as one of the building blocks of the movie, so quirkiness is to be expected. The setting and the cinematography are pitch perfect, but credit must go especially to the principal actors for making the film memorable. Matt Damon is the cold, calculating, puritanical yet hypocritical father, while both his wife and her superficially dippy sister are played by Julianne Moore. For me, though, the prize performance is put in by young Noah Jupe as the boy, increasingly disoriented and terrified by the extraordinary events going on around him. The one jarring note is the sub plot of the harassment being experienced by the black neighbours. Presumably Clooney wanted to emphasize the cancer that lies underneath the skin of the idyllic American dream, but it feels like a separate thread that would have worked better in a tragic film all of its own. It’s a pity, because putting the two plots together makes the film uneven and stops it from being brilliant.

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