Monday, October 22, 2012

Occupational Hazards

Rory Stewart is a peculiar mixture of earnest boy scout and ruthless political operator. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Malaysia and Indonesia, he speaks fluent Farsi and in 2001 he trecked on foot across India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, relying entirely on the kindness and hospitality of the strangers who invited him to sleep in their homes and dine with their families. Occupational Hazards tells the story of his time as a Deputy Governor in the Coalition Political Office in post-Saddam Iraq.

Stewart writes clearly and concisely in crisp, clipped prose. He says what he means - no more, no less. But what else would one expect from a former diplomat. Even his account of a sustained bombardment under rocket fire is matter of fact, which does make one wonder whether he can truly be as unflappalbe as he seems.

There are several indidences during which Stewart makes it clear he is not above bending a few rules in order to advance an agenda, when he feels the ends justify the means. But because 'the ends' usually involve securing additional funding for schools building programmes in his impoverished province in the south of Iraq, our hero's manipulations seem justified. Not that Stewart is a propagandist; he does not shy away from contrasting his difficult day job with the degrading treatment of prisoners by unthinking junior army men in American military bases and specifically Guantanamo Bay.

What is given most emphasis are his day-to-day dealings with the tribal sheikhs, Sadr Islamists and Iranian-backed political parties in Maysan, located on the Iraq-Iranian border. Stewart goes to great lengths to describe the differences and draw the distinctions between these competing power groups, each group seemingly led by men who greet Stewart with exaggerated politeness in his office, but are equally as content to attack Coalition forces and indulge in gangsterish behaviour toward their fellow Arabs.

The situation sounds impossible (at least to my ears), but the brutal realities of occupation necessitate conversation and sometimes compromise with people it is difficult for a Western observer to understand. Stewart recounts these dealings without condemning or condoning, but as a fact of life for him during his 12 months as a provincial Deputy Governor. Meanwhile, developmental economists and human rights lawyers issue edicts about free markets and female empowerment. The situation Stewart describes in the tribal regions bears scant resemblance to the 'remedies' communicated by his superiors in the civilian and diplomatic corp.

The aims of the Coalition and those of the tribal leaders are ultimately irreconcilable. The Western forces who eat Big Macs and party until three in the morning inside the Green Zone are the epitome of the so-called 'Western decadence' that the Mullahs and Islamist preachers use to propergandise impressionable young Muslims. The few secular voices Stewart encounters and seems to see as the Coalition's best hope for a free and democratic Iraq, governed by the rule of law, are cynical and uninterested, scorning politics as an activity for 'bad men'.

The malign motives attributed to the Coalition - America and Britain in particular - are given short shrift. Instead, Stewart argues that the politicians and (to a lesser extent) even the generals, removed from events on the ground and with too little concern for deep-seated traditions, were in fact too fast to cede power to the Iraqi people. This is a complicated issue and Stewart offers no easy answers - a book like this can only really scratch the surface - but anyone wishing to find out more about what the intervention in Iraq looked like to a Western diplomatic insider is unlikely to find a clearer description than the one that is given in this book.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Ask and you Shall Receive

I asked a question. I suppose you deserve an answer.

They are all 'British' films. That is, according to the BFI and the government.

All 10 passed the BFI Cultural Test in 2011 and were approved by the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport on the basis of "recommendations" made by the BFI Certification Unit (UK Film Council Certification Unit until April 2011).


Dear (former Minister for Culture, Media and Sport) Mr Hunt,

Please could you explain the basis upon which you decided that (for the sake of brevity) Captain America is a British film?

I mean, let's just run through a few facts:

Captain America has an American subject matter, an American lead actor, has mostly American and continental European locations, and an American director (with Americans at the head of all the key departments). Yet, it was decided that Captain America is a British film...? Sorry, let me try that again, Captain AMERICA is a BRITISH film... Nope, still not getting it... Captain AMERICA!!!!!! is a British film...

What am I missing?

American studio money (Disney via Marvel); American subject matter (the character was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941); an American lead actor (Chris Evans... not that one!); a mix of Americans, Brits and Aussies in supporting roles (Concession 1: the leading lady is a Brit and she plays a British character); mainly American and continental European locations (it's a WW2 movie!) with a brief stop-over in jolly ol' England (Concession 2: I have not checked but can guess that the vast majority, if not all of the studio work was shot at either Shepperton or Pinewood); and an American director, an American producer, a pair of American writers, a pair of American editors, an American composer and an American cinematographer... have I missed anyone? (Concession 3: At least some, although, I think, not all, of the VFX work was done by London-based Double Negative.)

You know what? When you put like that, it is tempting to consider think that Captain America might just possibly be you know (whisper it) American.

Are a British love interest, UK-based studio shooting and the participation of a Brit-based special effects house really enough to warrant the all-encompassing British film tag? Of course, if Captain American were an American film (it is currently classed as a 'co-production') it would knock a US$370 million hole in the global box office receipts earned by the so-called British film industry...

More to follow.