Political Film Society - Newsletter #51 - September 15, 1999

September 15, 1999


What happens to otherwise normal people when the amount of civil disorder is so rampant that authorities cannot stop the chaos? Contrast Belgradians and Beirutians in two recently Political Film Society-nominated films: In most Eastern European countries as the Cold War ended, the answer was for the leaders to resign, new leaders to rise to power democratically, and for the situation to calm down as the government was seen as reasonably legitimate. Not so in Yugoslavia, where ethnic scapegoating on all sides led to civil war. We have heard about problems in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, but what about Serbia and its capital Belgrade itself? The embargo, the corruption, the mass demonstrations, the repression, the false propaganda, and the wars have so impacted Belgradians that the presumption of civility in interpersonal relations has been totally destroyed, if we are to accept the premise of the film Cabaret Balkan, the American title for Bure Baruta (in France, Baril de poudre, and in England The Powder Keg), a Serbian film directed by Goran Paskalievic, based on the play by Dejan Dukovski. The film consists of a series of episodes in which a minor indiscretion becomes the basis for major retaliation; all perspective is lost because nobody is happy, and someone else must be blamed. Although the film claims that there are one hundred Belgradians for every police officer, we see none acting to stop the massive chaos. Indeed, in one scene a taxicab driver admits to breaking nearly every bone in the body of a police officer who months ago had beaten his testicles to impotence after catching him engaging in petty theft. We also view a minor fenderbender accident so escalates that the owner of the damaged car destroys treasures in the apartment of the owner of the other car and nearly rapes the owner's son, who was responsible for the scratch. A couple are quarreling, and a man with a gun tries to rape the woman while his associate holds her lover at gunpoint. Two boxing partners admit sexual indiscretions to each other, only to punch each other out, and plenty of blood flows. Other stories are even more grotesque. In Cabaret Balkan, a nightclub, a master of ceremonies tries to tell the horror like it is but impresses no one, since words no longer have shock value compared to the reality that anything terrible can happen to anyone anytime. The film dashes any hope that international troops in parts of the former Yugoslavia will return home anytime soon and, more profoundly, asks but does not answer at what point civilized behavior breaks down, and endless feuding and even genocide begin? Analyses of race riots in the United States, feuding in Northern Ireland, and civil war in East Timor have tended to focus on clashes between groups with opposing interests, but Cabaret Balkan presents one interpersonal encounter after another as a clash with no rational basis for compromise. The film has many epigrammatic statements, such as the repeated phrase "I am guilty" in one of the episodes. However, the most appropriate quote that comes to mind is that in Yugoslavia today there is "no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," as philosopher Thomas Hobbes stated in 1651, characterizing the English civil war (1642-48) as a war of all against all. However, there is little likelihood today, based on the film's representations, that any party in Yugoslavia can accept Hobbes's solution-a strong, central state to which all would accord respect. The film is also nominated as best exposť. MH

West Beirut, written and directed by Ziad Doueiri, tells the story of the disintegration of Lebanon from April 13, 1975, through the eyes of high school students who bridged the gap between the Christian and Moslem communities and the parents of one of the students, a Christian mother and a Moslem father. When the film begins, Tarek sings the Lebanese national anthem to the chagrin of his schoolteacher, who has all students at attention, singing the Marsellaise. It seems that Tarek (played by the director's brother Rami) and his Moslem friend Omar (played by Mohamad Chamas) commute from their apartments in West Beirut, where a Christian girl May (played by Rola Al Amin) also lives (but survives only by later hiding her cross pendant as the civil war heats up), to attend a French school in East Beirut. The teacher goes on to berate Tarek, tells him to leave class when he deliberately misspells "Monsieur," and ethnocentrically tells the class that France gave Lebanon its civilization. However, nothing seems to bother always-smiling Tarek, who observes the resurgence of the civil war from the second floor of the school, after which school is shut down. Thereafter, Tarek has words with a foul-mouthed motorist, observes Christians firebombing a demonstration of Moslems, drops a basin of water onto a crazed woman in the neighborhood to stop her verbal rage, helps his uncle when he is attacked by a greedy Moslem so-called protector of his neighborhood, and even visits a brothel located in the neutral zone between the two parts of the city. (The film contains occasional scenes of some of the major violent outbreaks during a civil war that continued until the early 1990s.) The tagline of the film is "Growing up is only half the battle." Meanwhile, his father Riad (played by Joseph Bou Nassar) calms his mother Hala (played by Carmen Lebbos) , who wants to leave Lebanon, by telling her that whatever humiliation she is now suffering would be multiplied manyfold if the family were to become refugees in Western Europe or the United States. The father eloquently reminds her that Lebanon has had internal conflicts many times before but is part of a venerable civilization, one that advanced the arts and science long before Europe, and can only be preserved by remaining. MH

Members of the Political Film Society can nominate feature films released in 1999 for awards in the following categories: democracy, exposť, human rights, and peace. Nominations close on December 31 each year, and voting will take place in the first two months of the year 2000 for the film that best raises political consciousness in each of four categories.

EXPOS…: Bastards, Cabaret Balkan, Three Seasons
The General's Daughter, Hard, Three Seasons, Xiu Xiu
PEACE: Cabaret Balkan, West Beirut