Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘EBRD’

Son of Saul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th September, 2016

son_of_saul_posterThe stark reality of the gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz are hard for the human mind to imagine, even when one visits the eerily empty huts that have been preserved on site. And although concentration camps have figured in many Hollywood movies — Spielberg’s Schindler’s List perhaps being the best-known example — none conveyed the true atmosphere in the way László Nemes’s Son of Saul achieves. It is a grey and brown world cut off from normal life, the air filled with smoke and the barked orders of the German SS overlords and their Polish and Jewish kapo underlings, the noise of banging doors and the shrill cries of victims arriving on transports and being shepherded to their death. The film — the director’s first — focuses on one man, Saul (brilliantly played by the Hungarian writer and poet Géza Rohrig), who is one of a team that empty the Jews’ clothes of valuables, drag the lifeless bodies to the furnaces, shovel coal and throw human ashes into a river, beyond which the “real” world exists, if only they could escape. Conversation is in brief, snatched moments, as they fulfill their gruesome tasks like automatons, all at great speed, chivied on by blows and threats. The camera rarely leaves Saul’s face, the action around him often reduced to a blur. He is emotionless, as if his mind has retreated into the innermost part of his being, until he sees a boy who briefly survives the gas chamber before being killed and whose body Saul latches on to as if it were his own son, desperately trying to locate a rabbi among the transports to give the boy a proper burial.

son-of-saulSon of Saul deservedly won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year. I saw it at a screening at the EBRD in London last night, after which Géza Rohrig (unrecognisable behind a bushy black beard) was interviewed by Henry Fitzherbert, film critic of the Sunday Express. The actor was so affected by the experience of working on the film that he got circumcised and traveled to Israel to study Judaism. He made the telling point that other films about the Holocaust tended to focus on the one in three Jews who survived rather than the two who perished, whereas Son of Saul concentrates totally on the victims. They all die, and there is a grim inevitability about that which gives the film so much of its power, making it literally unforgettable.

 

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Working in Conflict Zones

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th November, 2015

Working in Conflict ZonesThe EBRD has run a stimulating cultural programme over the last few days, but this evening there was a real novelty, in cooperation with One World Media: a panel discussion on the reality for journalists and NGO workers operating in conflict zones. Things have changed dramatically since I was a cub reporter in the Vietnam War; it never crossed my mind to wear a flak jacket then, but journalists were not a target then in the way that they have been really since the break-up of Yugoslavia. My former BBC colleague, and now Head of Communications at EBRD, Jonathan Charles, who chaired this evening’s event, had some hairy stories of his own, but the focus was rightly on the four panelists. ITV camerman Toby Nash gave moving testimony of evacuating Yazidi refugees from Mount Sinjar in Iraq, while Natalie Roberts, a doctor with Médecins sans Frontieres, drew on her experience in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere to show how both governments and foreign military forces deliberately target hospitals and other humanitarian centres. Harper McConnell is senior Director of the Eastern Congo Initiative and spoke of how to engage with people in conflict situations, while Soraya Narfeldt from RA International made the valuable point that in conflict situations good people sometimes do bad things and evil people can show extraordinary humanity. She also felt that politicians are far removed from the reality on the ground. Altogether a very stimulating panel and evening.

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Tangerines or the Children of Death

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th February, 2015

TangerinesTangerines 1Abkhazia is, I suspect, a name most Europeans half remember half forget: a breakaway region of Georgia that has been effectively annexed by Russia (despite an internationally spurious declaration of independence) with the consent of a significant proportion of the local populations; it has for years been a favourite holiday destination for Russians from Moscow and St Petersburg who want to enjoy seaside and sun. There was a vicious civil war in the early 1990s, and it is that that provides the context of an extraordinary film which I saw at a screening at the EBRD* this evening — and which is shortlisted for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Oscars. An elderly Estonian, who has stayed behind in his village in Abkhazia when most others have left because of the fighting, is helping a rather timid fellow Estonian bring in his harvest of tangerines (clementines). Suddenly there is an wartime incident, and out of the survivors the old man (beautifully played by one of Estonai’s leading actors, Lembit Ulfsa), finds himself playing host to two wounded fighters: a Georgian, who cannot bear the thought of losing Abkhazia to others, and a Chechen mercenary who is fighting on the side of the Abkhazian separatists. They hate each other, and would happily kill each other, yet as events unfold they recognise their common humanity. I shan’t spoil it by revealing more of the story, but suffice it to say that this is a truly great film, an Estonian-Georgian co-production, with dialogue in (very earthy) Estonian and Russian, with somewhat milder English sub-titles, directed by the Georgian director, Zaza Urushadze, on location in Georgia, with a total budget of just £500,000. I can’t predict whether it will win the Oscar award, though it richly deserves to do so. It is impeccably directed and acted. More importantly, it deserves to go out on general release, all round the world. This is one of those films you will not forget, and there was hardly a dry eye in the EBRD screening room tonight.

*EBRD: European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

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Abdelkader Saadoun at the EBRD

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 31st May, 2013

Abdelkader Saadoun 1Abdelkader Saadoun 2Though the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has traditionally focused on countries in central and eastern Europe and central Asia, parallel to the post-2010 Arab Awakening it has been getting involved in the southern and eastern Mediterranean as well, investing in projects, engaging in policy dialogue and providing advisory services to enterprises. In recognition of that new dimension last night the Bank’s HQ hosted a concert by Algerian-born musician Abdelkader Saadoun, who had put together an ad hoc little group of fellows from Tunisia, Morocco, Italy, Spain and Albania for the event. Rai is the most familiar North African music in Europe, but Saadoun and his band played a much more eclectic mix, drawing on traditional songs from both the Middle East and North Africa as well as blending styles, one constant thread being truly wicked percussion. The group was singing and playing to the converted, in the sense that the (free) concert had attracted both young expats from the region as well as enthusiasts of the genre, including a group of young North African women who enlivened the proceedings by ululating in dramatic fashion. As the host of EBRD the evening declared at the end, with measured understatement, the premises had never experienced anything quite like it. The event was staged in cooperation with Dash Arts, which has since 2005 been bringing exciting contemporary theatre, music and dance from all over the world to Western audiences, with a particular recent focus on Arab cultures.

Links: http://www.ebrd.com and http://www.dasharts.org.uk

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Cinema Komunisto

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 1st March, 2013

TitoCinema KomunistoOne of the lesser-known facts about Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, was his passion for movies. Almost every night he had a private screening — often with his formidable wife at his side — and he had a full-time projectionist who had to keep up the supply of suitable films. Yugoslavia itself was a major producer of films, many of them war epics highlighting the heroic struggle of the Yugoslav partisans against the Germans. Tito was happy to approve the allocation of sufficient funds for these and even chose the actor to play him in one memorable film — Richard Burton. Foreign directors and companies took advantage of Yugoslavia’s facilities so that many international features were shot there, including War and Peace. Clips from scores of these foreign and homegrown movies, along with remarkable footage of Tito and his entourage, as well as interviews with his projectionist, actors and directors, form the backbone of a remarkable documentary, Cinema Komunisto, now available on DVD. Directed by Mila Turajlic, it was screened at the EBRD headquarters this week to an appreciative audience including many expats from the constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia. It is essentially a eulogy to film-making but also awakens a nostalgia for a nation that violently fell apart after Tito’s death and the collapse of Communism. Tito was of course a dictator, a President for Life, but less awful than Stalin or Ceausescu. And compared with citizens of other Communist states, Yugoslavs had greater freedom of movement and exposure to the outside world. So Turajlic’s film is a valuable tribute to the positive side to former Yugoslavia, as well as highlighting Tito’s vanity and some of the absurdities. It also makes thoughtful broader points about the role of film in society and in a nation’s image of itself.

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Slovenia’s Visual Identity

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 3rd October, 2012

The graphic designer Miljenko Licul first made his name working for commercial and public companies in Tito’s Yugoslavia, but it was Slovenia’s declaration of independence 21 years ago that really provided him with a niche. Born in Pula, Croatia, Licul had by then been living for some time in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana and he successfully tendered for a succession of freelance contracts awarded in open competition to design what have become the visual symbols of the new state and therefore its visual idrntity. Much of his work is currently on show in the atrium gallery at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (ERBD) near Liverpool Street, pride of place being given to his design for the Slovenian currency, the tolar, some of which I still have, even though they were taken out of circulation when Slovenia joined the eurozone. They were remarkably elegant banknotes (as well as meeting the stringent requirements of difficulty to forge) and notably portrayed writers, artists and musicians, not political figures. This small central European state (which dislikes being incorrectly referred to as part of the Balkans) puts great store in style and beauty, a context which gave Licul the freedom to be creative even when designing such banal items as health insurance cards. His widow, Barbara Jaki, Director of the National Gallery of Slovenia, gave a well-deserved tribute to her late husband’s work at the launch of the EBRD exhibition this evening. Few individual graphic artists can have left such a distinctive legacy; not only distinctive of his style, but also distinctive of Slovenia.

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Slovakia and the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st April, 2008

 I spent most of this afternoon at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which hosted a conference on Slovakia’s accession to European Monetary Union, organised by the Slovak Embassy and International Financial Services London. As we heard from the Slovak Economy Minister, Lubomir Jahnatek, and the Governor of the National Bank of Slovakia, Ivan Sramko, Slovakia is on course to adopt the euro on 1 January next year. This is a remarkable achievement, when one thinks that this was meant to be the more disadvantaged half of the old Czechoslovakia, before the ‘Velvet Divorce’.

Moreover, Slovakia not only meets the Maastricht Criteria, which is necessary in order to enter EMU, it does so by a large margin on a number of issues, such as the inflation rate and public debt. As Manfred Schepers of the EBRD commented, Slovakia now finds itself strategically well placed to benefit from growth in the EU, the Balkans, Russia and the rest of the CIS. Interestingly, it is adopting the euro maybe as much as three years ahead of the Czech Republic. In Mr Jahnatek’s opinion, ‘now is the right time to join the euro, because Slovakia is very small, and its productivity is only 70% of the European average. Recently, the Slovak crown has been very strong, which has meant some enterprises have been operating at a loss.’ But being inside the eurozone should bring greater stability and a sharp increase in foreign trade and investment.

 

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