Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Capernaum *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th March, 2019

CapernaumCinema verité has always been one of my favourite genres — so realistic and true to life that one is totally drawn into the heart of the action, whether the film is a documentary or, as in the case of Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, a fiction feature. From the opening shots of Capernaum, one is absorbed into the chaos of a poor, urban neighbourhood in Lebanon and the squalour and tensions of the lives of the marginalised and dispossessed living there. The central character of the film, a young boy called Zain (grippingly played by Zain Al Rafeea, his expression numbed by the debilitating hopelessness of his life) is at the bottom of the pile, neglected by his mother and knocked about by his father, but helping the family survive by selling home-made juice by the roadside with his siblings. When his 11-year-old favourite sister is married off against her will he snaps and runs away, finding a temporary new home with an illegal Ethiopian migrant worker and her infant son. The relationship between the two boys develops as a kind of coming-of-age for Zain as he finds himself more and more responsible for the little kid’s welfare. This situation also provides an opportunity for humour and the sweetest of moments (not least because tiny Boluwatife Treasure Bankole is an absolute natural; however did Labaki get him to do everything that he does?!), which relieves what is otherwise growing tension and a sense of imminent doom. Actually, one learns right near the beginning what violent act Zain will be driven to, so in a sense most of this justifiably lengthy movie is a story of what got him there. Even though there is a moment of light after all the darkness right at the end, one is left frozen in one’s seat as it closes, numbed by the power of it all. It is a truly great movie, worthy of all the accolades it has received.

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Kurdish Memory Programme

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 15th March, 2019

Kurds KMPLast night I was at BAFTA for the European launch of the Kurdish Memory Programme, a new national archive of modern Kurdish history. The Kurds often refer to themselves, with justification, as the largest nation without a country; although there are regional and cultural variations, including in the language they speak, they do have a great sense of collective identity, reinforced by generations of marginalisation and persecution. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I should have been the opportunity for a Kurdish state to be established, but this was prevented, with the vast majority of Kurds finding themselves living as a minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In varying ways, their cultural expression was suppressed. At the height of internal conflict in Turkey, many Kurdish villages were simply bulldozed away and survivors scattered.

Kurdistan a Nation EmergesIn Iraq under Saddam Hussein, genocide was perpetrated against the Kurds, most notoriously in the chemical attack on Halabja. But post-Saddam, it has been in Iraq that Kurds have built themselves a largely autonomous homeland. A few years ago, I wrote a book about this, Kurdistan: A Nation Emerges, with several colleagues. And it is under the shadow of Erbil’s impressive citadel that a magnifient museum to Kurdish identity, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, is taking shape. At the BAFTA event there was an interesting short filmed interview with the architect. However, the main film was a heart-wrenching documentary by about one Yazidi family and their fate at the hands of ISIS. Several perished, one girl was moved by ISIS fighters to a military camp in Syria before escaping, and the eldest son only managed to rejoin his relatives in Germany by fleeing through Turkey and joining a group of refugees who took the risk of going in a little dinghy to Greece. The Kurdish Memory Programme, involving an international team including the director Gwynne Roberts, is collecting many such stories. More than 1,000 interviews have been filmed, the testimonies featuring alongside 75 years of historical footage in an archive that is now available online.

Link:  https://kurdistanmemoryprogramme.com/

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It’s Never Too Late to Get into Television

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th March, 2019

JF and Berlaymont uildingWhen I first started out in journalism, as an 18-year-old cub reporter in the Vietnam War, I’d always assumed I would devote my career to the written word. Getting my first book contract shortly after joining Reuters News Agency in 1973 only reinforced that idea. So when I returned to London after eight years based in Brussels and was invited to apply to write current affairs scripts for BBC World Service radio that seemed a natural progression — and it was quite thrilling when I had a really topical story that then got translated by 20 or more different language services. But by the early 2000s I was being squeezed out of Bush House, partly because I was freelance (and therefore cheap to axe) but mainly because I had passed the dreaded age of 50. The BBC was ageist against men, as well as women, unless you were an institution like David Dimbleby or David Attenborough. I suspect it probably still is.

JF being interviewed full size.jpg So my career had hit the doldrums, only slightly alleviated by a whole series of invitations to lecture on cruise ships and to the vast network of women’s clubs that exists across Britain. But after I turned 60, something unexpected happened. I’d done a few TV interviews at the time of the 2003 Iraq War, but suddenly other offers to be a TV pundit on the Middle East appeared — from Middle Eastern TV stations, which value experience and white hair, unlike some UK domestic channels. So now I find most of my journalistic output is being a talking head on half a dozen or more mainly satellite channels, usually on the Middle East (never short of a topical story) but also these days often about Brexit. I can still review films, research and write books in the morning, but in the afternoons I spruce up to appear on screen. So you see, whatever anyone may tell you, it’s never too late to get into television.

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Leaving Neverland *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th March, 2019

Leaving-Neverland-DocumentaryThis week Channel4 TV broadcast Dan Reed’s lengthy two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, focusing on the experiences of two men who were at different times the pop singer Michael Jackson’s little favourites. Only many years later were they able to face up to the fact that Jackson had abused them sexually from the age of seven. Indeed, for years both strongly denied it, not least to their families, when Jackson was prosecuted (unsuccessfully) for alleged impropriety with other young boys. Even their wives did not know until depression, panic attacks and other symptoms of suppressed child sexual abuse (CSA) forced them to confront their past. The revelations were particularly hard to bear for the two men’s mothers, who inevitably blamed themselves for not protecting their young sons more. And indeed, watching this beautifully paced, poignant film one is tempted to ask “how on earth can they not have objected to their child sharing a grown man’s bed, or realised that this was far from innocent?” Two factors seem to have played an important role in the women’s blindness: Michael Jackson’s fame as a global super-star and his apparent childlike sweetness and generosity.

Both of the two men in the documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, were dazzled by the attention they received over a period of years, before the singer’s affections moved elsewhere, and yes, they loved him, even if they did not understand what he was doing to them or making them do. Unsurprisingly, some of Jackson’s family have accused Robson and Safechuck of fabrication for financial gain, pointing out that Robson had even testified in court as a teenager that Jackson did not molest him. But given that the victims of CSA often blame themselves and want to hide what has happened that isn’t unusual. Indeed, as I know from my own experience, as set out in my childhood memoir Eccles Cakes*, the secret can lay buried within one for decades, be even denied, pushed to the furthest recesses of one’s memory, until eventually it bursts out in anguish, requiring extensive therapy to achieve some sort of closure. Wade Robson and James Safechuck will doubtless receive a lot of flack for coming out about what happened to them when they were little boys, but they should be praised for their courage. And in this magnificent documentary Dan Reed has done them proud.

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Green Book *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd February, 2019

Green BookIn 1962, the southern United States was not a place that African Americans could move around freely. “Negroes” were banned from many restaurants and hotels, and they faced frequent discrimination and humiliation. To make the life of black travellers a little easier a guide to places that were open to “Coloureds” was published — a sort of paperback Michelin Guide known as the Green Book. So when the phenomenally talented black pianist Don Shirley decided to challenge the colour bar and do a concert tour sweeping through the Mid West and Deep South he wisely took a copy with him, along with a Italian-American driver — a bouncer from the Bronx, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga — who would stand up for him when things got tough, which inevitably they did. The film Green Book is about that tour and the unlikely friendship that developed between the two men. The result is a road movie unlike any other, an often comic but at times searing social critique, beautifully managed by director Peter Farrelly. The personal drama takes place on the cusp of profound political change in America, with John F Kennedy in the White House and his brother Robert as Attorney General, but the red necks who still ruled the roost in the South paid little or no heed to liberal Washington. There was a high degree of moral hypocrisy around; Don Shirley was feted for his music and played in rich men’s mansions but was not allowed to use their lavatories. The irony was that he was super-sophisticated — effete, even — whereas Tony Lip, who could go about unhindered, was a loud-mouthed tough with atrocious eating habits. The contrast between the two characters — brilliantly played by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Modensen — makes the film truly delicious, as they overcome their mutual distaste to bond, as something much closer than employer and driver. Vallelonga’s son, Nick, was involved in the writing, drawing on interviews with and letters from his father,though Shirley’s family questioned the historical veracity of some parts of the story. But if one accepts a little artistic license, this is a gem of a movie, so atmospheric of the period — a dark age that isn’t ancient history but contemporary with my own childhood.

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Celebrating Chaves Nogales

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st February, 2019

Chaves Nogales bookManuel Chaves Nogales (1897-1944) was witness to many of the catastrophic events of the first half of the 20th century, from the turmoil that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in the USSR to the rise of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, which saw the loss of millions of lives. Though opposed to General Franco Chaves Nogales was also disenchanted with the reality of the Republican government in Madrid. Instead he dreamed of a “third Spain”, as outlined in his 1937 book A Sangre y Fuego. A self-described Liberal petit bourgois, he acknowledged that he was at risk of being shot by both sides in the Spanish Civil War, so went into exile in Paris, where he worked on the book. Much of his professional life he spent as a journalist and editor, interviewing, among others, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels — dismissing him as “ridiculous, grotesque, with his tiny raincoat; the most dangerous man in Germany.” As the Third Reich cast its shadow over the continent of Europe, Chaves Nogales moved to London, where he set up a news agency in Fleet Street, did some work for the BBC and mixed with other Spanish exiles. He died in 1944, thus missing the end of the War that he longed for, and he is buried in North Sheen cemetery in Richmond-upon-Thames. His legacy has not been forgotten, however, and there is currently a very informative and attractive exhibition about his life and work in the 12 Star Gallery at Europe House in Smith Square, Westminster. It runs until 1st. March (10am to 6pm) and is a thought-provoking reminder of darker times which ultimately led to the creation of the European Union as a guarantor of “never again”.

Chaves Nogales material

 

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Beautiful Boy ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th February, 2019

Beautiful BoyI have never had the slightest temptation to dabble in drugs and I don’t have a son (nor ever wanted one). So I am maybe not the ideal person to empathise with the main characters in Felix Van Groeningen’s movie, Beautiful Boy. The story of how a father tries to rescue his 18-year-old offspring from the downward spiral of addiction and self-destruction, encountering a disorientating mixture of cooperation and resistance along the way, is based on the true-life experience of David Sheff and his son Nic, both of whom later wrote books about what they went through — the sort of survival memoir that is increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The setting (mainly) is affluent, white middle class California, especially San Francisco, with a sidebar in New York. Young Nicolas should have everything going for him, but he rebels against his comfortable, liberal home life (nonetheless fractured by his parents divorce) and after early academic and sporting success rejects the idea of college life. The film is therefore mainly about a struggle both with and inside young Nic; he is played by Timothée Chalamet, who I loved in Call Me By My Name, but who is less successful in this challenging role; at times one wants to hose his character down with cold water, but maybe that is partly the point. Steve Carell as the father, however, is brilliantly cast. One accompanies his emotions, his frustrations and underlying paternal love through each agonising development. Much of the film is shot in semi-darkness or very low light which heightens the mood of frequent despair and potential disaster, and there are long periods where no word is spoken (spoilt for me by a soundtrack of music, both ancient and modern, which I felt superfluous, even counter-productive). The characters being American, they shout at each other rather a lot. But of course, the story is of relevance worldwide. There are moments that are memorable, in a not altogether satisfactory whole; I suspect I might have preferred reading David Sheff’s book.

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The Brexit Wrecking Ball

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th February, 2019

B14E3D6B-1E23-4C31-B818-F231C26D827FThe UK airline Flybmi is going into administration, citing Brexit uncertainty as the reason; there is no guarantee they will be able to fly between European destinations if Britain leaves the EU on 29 March as scheduled. The company is just one of many that are closing or else shifting their operations to another member state of the European Union. According to experts’ figures released this week, Brexit is costing the UK £800million a week, and we haven’t even left yet. Note that this is nearly twice what Brexiteers claimed we would save through Brexit, the windfall supposedly being passed to the NHS. It seems inconceivable that the Conservative Party, as the traditional party of Business, should allow this economic vandalism to take place. But the sad truth is that the Tory party has been taken over by right-wing, xenophobic Brexiteer extremists and Prime Minister Theresa May is more interested in saving her own political skin than saving the country.

BFA67A8C-098E-4D73-828E-ADFA9A4762FABrexit is now showing its true colours: it is a wrecking ball that is smashing many of the economic gains of recent years, as well as dividing society. Just how bad those divisions are has been shown by the violent confrontations outside Parliament — yellow-vested Brexiteers assaulting police yesterday — and the fact that several female Remainer MPs have been advised to move home or else avoid travelling alone in order to stay safe. Meanwhile, Parliament has shown itself incapable of uniting behind one forward course of action and the Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has proved to be miserably inadequate and indecisive, thus failing to provide a true Opposition. No wonder a number of both Labour and Conservative MPs are thinking of resigning their party whip, with the Conservatives in thrall to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Reform Group and Labour to what Mike Gapes MP has called a Stalinist cult.

1EC0B2E1-3999-4261-A6E2-50B828249EFAOpinion polls have recently consistently shown that were there to be a referendum on whether to accept Mrs May’s “deal” or to stay in the EU, a majority would vote to remain. The People’s Vote campaign, backed by the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, is still keeping up the pressure and has called for a mass demonstration in London on 23 March, less than a week before D for Departure Day. One hopes that something significant may have happened before then — ideally extending Article 50 to allow for a People’s Vote. But it is important that people turn out in huge numbers on the March. Moreover, the organisers must ensure that EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the rest of the EU are properly represented, as they have more to lose personally than most of us.

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Bohemian Rhapsody ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th February, 2019

D5F4B5E4-7120-45A7-85F0-1EA91156D236I deliberately did not see Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody when it first came out. I’m not a fan of pop or rock and couldn’t have named one song by Queen unless prompted. Of course I knew about Freddie Mercury, the boy from Zanzibar with projecting teeth and an outrageous peacock style on stage, who died from an AIDS-related illness. But with such a crop of good films out recently, I had other priorities. However, the movie was in the selection offered on my recent Emirates airline flight — not the best way to see a film, I know — and I found myself riveted. Lead actor Rami Malek has received both awards and brickbats for his performance, but I found him credible and engaging, as well as convincing in the star’s decline. I loved the music (most of which I did recognise, after all) and I thought the long Live Aid scene really moving. It was astonishing to see an unrecognisable Gwilym “Midsomer Murders” Lee as Bryan May, displaying a talent I didn’t know he had. All in all, it’s a great entertainment (with some brilliant comic moments), as well as a  challenging reflection on the highs and lows of the popular music industry. Even an old square like me was engrossed.

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South to Sur

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th February, 2019

59A74439-0048-477A-81BB-FF109212357BYesterday I went by local coach from Ruwi to Sur, a town I last visited about 20 years ago. It only took two-and-a-half hours this time, thanks to the four-lane highway that now cuts through the barren black hills before joining the coast. There has been quite a bit of new construction in Sur itself since I was last here as well, but I was pleased to see that much of the old centre is more or less unchanged and the heart of the souk district is getting some covers for its alleys. Sur was historically best-known for its boat-building — great wooden dhows (or variants thereof) that would sail down the coast of East Africa and across to Bombay in British India. I visited one of the few remaining boatyards 20 years ago; local craftsmen had been replaced by workers from Bangladesh, though the techniques were still the same.

A582E31F-0913-44AC-8A34-3DFAE0799280So I wasn’t surprised today when I walked along the sweeping corniche and then round the bay to the (restored) old watchtower, to see Bangladeshis out with boats. Even though the weather at present is delightful, unlike the furnace that is summer, one sees very few locals about, unless they are driving a car on largely empty roads or else men going into the mosque in response to the prayer-call. The variety of mosques in even a modest place like Sur is quite astonishing. When I was wandering round one residential quarter this morning, a small herd of goats came running over to take a look at me, as if surprised to see a human out and about, Much of the Omanis’ lives, especially for the women, takes place within the four walls of their residences, many of which are substantial, though rarely as grandiose as those in some wealthier parts of the Gulf. The shopping mall culture that dominates social life in the other GCC states hasn’t really caught on here in the same way yet. There isn’t even a Starbucks outside of the capital, Muscat, which would doubtless dismay some American travellers. But there are countless Indian “coffee shops” and juice bars, serving fabulous fresh fruit juices, my two favourites being mango and papaya.

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