Home is Where the Hatred Is: On Refugees in Worlds Apart, Desierto, God’s Own Country, and The Insult

by Daniel Garrett Volume 24, Issue 2 / February 2020 35 minutes (8730 words)

“A person is a historical reality that has many observable dimensions, although it also has some that are not observable.”
Jorge Garcia, “The Street as Art,” Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art

“You must know the boundaries to know where you stand. The boundary is / a window overlooking the world. You are neither in it, nor outside it. The / boundary is a cell without walls. The boundary is a personal camera that / selects the images it wants from the scene, so the king is not the king and / David’s slingshot is nothing but Goliath’s weapon. Is it true that the first / one to write his story will win the land of the story? But writing requires / claws to carve into rock.”
Mahmoud Darwish, “VIII,” In the Presence of Absence

“The first function of the critic is to mediate, that is to make an unfamiliar statement accessible to the reader, to the listener, to the viewer.”
Albert Murray, “Art is about Elegant Form,” Murray Talks Music

“Did you ever try to turn your sick soul inside out / so that the world, so that the world / can watch you die?”
Gil Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson, “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” Pieces of a Man

Human beings, throughout time, in despair and fear, in desperation and worry, have left one dangerous place in search of a safer place: they have been emigrants and exiles; they have been refugees. Who, and what, are we who have no place in the world? What are our ambitions, our needs, our defeats? What sustains us? Where might we find a home? Who are our allies, and our enemies? Of what use are we? In films such as Worlds Apart, Desierto, God’s Own Country, and The Insult, the viewer can see different aspects of the refugee experience: these are motion pictures of history and modernity, of money, crisis, and poverty, of isolation, friendship, love, sex, and family, of fear, pain, and rage, of oppression and liberation. The observer of cinema and culture can see the danger of fear and hatred, and the power of fellowship and love.

Worlds Apart (2015), directed by writer-actor Christopher Papakaliatis, is a good film, intelligent and resonant, photographed by Yannis Drakoularakos and edited by Stella Filippoulou: a story of nation and family, of friendship and love, of financial crises and social insecurity, of refugees. The first film directed by Christopher Papakaliatis, a popular actor and writer of cinema, television, and stage in Greece, was a romantic and humorous film about fate, possibility, and love, called What If (2012); and, very obviously, Worlds Apart, a film that offers a multi-generational social view of life in Greece, is more ambitious, more comprehensive. Much of the region of Thrace, Macedonia, Peloponnesus and Corinth, of Greece, has passed into history and literature, into myth; but Greece remains, a land of mountains and seas, of architecture and sculpture and ceramics, of controversies, food, music, politics, and soccer. In a great national archive in Greece, at the beginning of the photoplay Worlds Apart, a German man, played by J.K. Simmons of Up in the Air (2009) and Whiplash (2014), talks about love’s power—as a young man returns a book, Second Chance, to the Athens library, to the archivist (a book the archivist had given to a woman he liked, so this beginning is actually an ending)—and then a young woman suffers an attempted robbery and is helped by a young Syrian refugee (that startling act is a beginning). The two scenes, the return of the book and the robbery, are part of several stories in a beautiful and thoughtful picture, Worlds Apart, that seem separate but are actually interlocking: “Boomerang,” about the developing relationship between a Greek girl and a Syrian, the assaulted girl and the boy who came to her aid; “Loseft 50 mg,” about an anxious Greek man and a confident Swedish woman, two business people, who meet in their off-hours and achieve a brief and bristling but pleasing connection before realizing their contrary corporate association; and “Second Chance,” about two older people, one married, one single, again of differing cultures, who find soothing amiability and love. Worlds Apart may be a necessary film for our time, helping us to understand the life around us—and the disparate human lives that come to us from reports in newspapers, and on television, radio, and the internet.

After the young Greek woman, Daphne (Niki Vakali), is attacked on a dark Athens street, and is helped by an intervening young Syrian, Farris (Tawfeek Barhom), she drops her phone, which is picked up and subsequently scrolled through by her helper. The Syrian, Farris, is a sometimes Athens street salesman, and is one of several street salesmen who solicits the attention of an angry old man in his car—whom we will learn later is the Greek girl’s father, Antonis—and the old man, apparently a failure at business, talks to a group of men about hating his life, his job, and feeling betrayed by those he, Antonis, trusted. Daphne is a college student, and in one of her classes the students talk about the necessity and luxury of thinking, of being critical, in difficult times. The financial crisis in Greece has different roots: slackening economic productivity, lavish social benefits that included customary holiday and vacation bonuses and a supportive welfare system, tax evasion, increasing debt and low-interest rates, borrowing from other nations, and historical international banking reversals, and consequent demands for austerity. The bills have come due for questionable activities.

One student, one of Daphne’s classmates, talks about the rising racism in Greece: tribalism increases in times of stress and strife. People, in doubt and trouble, looking for affirmation and clarity, try to identify fundamentals: and some of them turn to blood and soil, and to notions of an ideal past, rather than reason, compassion, or progress. Most societies have people on its margins—the alienated and isolated, the foreign and the strange; artists and activists, beggars, bums, criminals, freaks, madmen, outcasts, perverts, pimps and prostitutes, rebels and renegades; and the marginal in society, those with little or no power, tend to get blamed and punished for society’s problems. The good, decent people who make the laws and set the goals of society, establishing business and its rewards, organizing rituals and routines, and dictating manners and morals, the people who wield power, are not to be blamed. When will the people who create public policy take responsibility for the results? Daphne tells her classmates that the man who helped her was not Greek, but an immigrant; and later when they see each other again, he, the foreigner Farris, follows her, Daphne, and returns her phone. She hears the news reports about Syrian refugees in Greece, and the fact that there is no coordinated European Union approach to the increasing number of refugees as a result of the war in Syria and other conflicts and catastrophes. Within Greece, as in other western nations, the increasing social divisions and pressures are encouraging fascism: a belligerently conservative nationalism, appealing to ideals of blood and soil, insensitive and intolerant to human difference, dictatorial and punishing. In the Greece of Worlds Apart, there is a raid by black-shirted men of a place where immigrants gather. Farris thinks of leaving Greece with a friend, for another country, possibly Canada; but after Farris meets Daphne again and they start a friendship, her friendship welcomes him, Farris, a refugee, a sweet boy, a Syrian visual artist, to Greece.

Daphne (Niki Vakali) is a student of politics, which Farris (Tawfeek Barhom) thinks is full of lies, dividing people. (Who could feel in opposition to Farris? Actor Tawfeek Barhom looks naive, and acts naturally, but, already, he—who was born in Israel—has appeared in The Idol, 2015, and A Borrowed Identity, also known as Dancing Arabs, 2014.) Farris must be the most benign image of Syria, a nation embroiled in civil war. I, a reader and writer, may have first become aware of the authoritarian regime in Syria when watching a film, woman director Ruba Nadda’s motion picture Inescapable (2012) starring Alexander Siddig, Marisa Tomei, Joshua Jackson, and Oded Fehr, with Siddig as a former Syrian intelligence officer, a maligned man, who returns from abroad to his country, presented in Inescapable as a surveillance state, to find his missing daughter; and with Tomei as a Syrian woman, a figure of passion and style, an old acquaintance once abandoned, who helps him. After the civilian rebellion began in Syria, and the violent government response, I, curious about current events, subsequently saw television and film documentary reports on Syria, such as Syria Behind the Lines (2013), Inside Assad’s Syria (2015), and Last Men in Aleppo (2017). Millions of people have fled Syria.

When, in Worlds Apart, Farris and Daphne begin to create a relationship, Farris takes Daphne to an abandoned airport, and an old plane in which he has been staying. Farris shows Daphne his drawings: among which is one of the god Eros. They go on a bus trip to a beach—and observe a religious procession featuring boys carrying candles. (Meanwhile the angry old man, now one of the black-shirts, Daphne’s father Antonis, played by actor Minas Chatzisavvas, attacks someone on the street, glorying in rage and force and cruelty.) Farris has begun to learn Greek for her, he admits: and, the two young people, one Greek, one Syrian, Daphne and Farris, teach each other words in their native languages. Leaving the old plane where Farris has been staying, Daphne sees other people living in the airport (Farris is one among many): Daphne sees beyond the individual to the group, beyond the personal to the social. Her hateful father complains about people living in the airport: Antonis, seeing their presumption rather than their desperation, is outraged. Farris has a chance to leave Greece but does not: he does not want to leave Daphne, and she wants to be with him. They are at the airport when a fascist raid occurs.

A father and son are at home playing a video game, when the son asks his father about the economic crisis in Greece and its effect on marriage and family (the boy has noticed that his parents have stopped sleeping in the same bed), at the beginning of Worlds Apart‘s “Loseft 50 mg,” named after an anti-depressant medication, a prescription the father, Giorgos (Christopher Papakaliatis), who feels distant from his complaining wife, goes to a pharmacy to get. Giorgos, prescription filled, visits an office, presumably a bank, to process financial forms for the payment of his various bills. Giorgos meets a woman in an Athens bar, a Swedish executive, Elise (Andrea Osvart), who is bothered by his smoking but needs an electronic charger, which he loans her before continuing to smoke—and they end the encounter at her apartment. Elise had been reading a magazine article on Eros and Soul as she arrived at the Athens airport, but Elise, attractive in an almost antiseptic way, is cool about sex, and despite their bedroom pleasure she does not want to sleep with him and asks him to go. Giorgos (Papakaliatis) is Greek, Elise (Osvart) Swedish; and she seems tough, he vulnerable. Their personalities, despite biological gender, could be read as southern femininity and sensuality (Giorgos) and northern masculinity and rationality (Elise). She, slender and sleek, precise and powerful, likes order (she complains about the music emanating from a nearby cafe); and one might go further and think of her as puritanical and of Giorgos as pagan. Yet Giorgos returns to Elise for the medication he forgot in her apartment—she throws the box out the window to him, but he persists in asking her to share drinks. Giorgos explains the medication: “Sometimes life is not that easy.” Elise, basically, says, “We live in a free world and everyone is responsible for their fate.” Their attitudes could be read as responsible practicality versus self-indulgence—and as a sign of the European Union’s perception of Greece. Giorgos and Elise go to bed again, this time for both sex and sleep. They are surprised to meet again in his corporate work office where he works as a sales manager, realizing that she is there to reorganize the company, to fire people, before a corporate acquisition, and he is one of the people whose work may be eliminated.

Worlds Apart (2015), popular in Greece, and New York, London, and abroad, touches the transcendent by grappling with, rather than evading, the grittier aspects of human difference and difficulties. Financial crises and the resulting atmosphere of siege, of insecurity and supposition, is well-captured, well-portrayed, in a well-plotted, rather than ambiguously organic, work. A male colleague asks sales manager Giorgos (Christopher Papakaliatis) to take him into Giorgos’s department, as the associate and friend is afraid of being fired if he stays in his own department, where the financial losses are irreversible. The friend says that he cannot afford to be fired (how many people can?): he has lost his home and is taking his wife to get an abortion, as they may have wanted but now cannot afford a new baby. There is an emerging tragedy there that a regimented capitalism both makes more likely and harder to see and respond to: the actual substance of life seems inessential, like excess, something to be deleted or edited. The crisis atmosphere seems reflected in a motion picture Giorgos observes projected outside the window of Elise’s apartment: the film appears to be about miserable modern mass cultural life, with the organized production capacities of modern societies making more things possible, but turning life into a grind—it is Fritz Lang’s science fiction feature Metropolis (1927). There is more bad news in the corporate office where Giorgos works, with silent screams (which extends, from past to present, the film Giorgos saw). Elise (model, actress, and film producer Andrea Osvart, playing Swedish though born in Hungary and a long-time resident of Rome), the formidable woman executive, and Giorgos talk about whether he is weak. Giorgos’s friend, who had asked for a reassignment (and whom Giorgos mentioned to Elise), is fired; and Elise, by her own supervisors, is asked to fire more people, including Giorgos—who seems a diligent and efficient worker but does not want to be the absent man to his own son that his father was to him. (Giorgos’s son comes to his office, with Giorgos’s wife.) There is a religious procession outside Elise’s apartment building, a traditional ritual that may signify meaning or mourning. Is religion a resource as well as a ritual, or an irrelevance, in a troubled time? There are increasing suicides in Greece, where the European Union’s policies—promoting cuts in the social welfare system—are considered cruel. Yet, seeing the human toll, the panic and loss and sorrow, Elise slows the firings, to her supervisors’ disapproval. The friend who asked Giorgos to be taken into Giorgos’s corporate department, after being fired, kills himself.

A German man with a bad back asks a Greek woman for help picking up his fallen shopping bag, his recent purchase; and they begin a conversation and a friendship. She compares her almost empty bag with his fuller bag, and comments about the nation’s economic crisis. He invites her to coffee—and they have coffee and talk: he, Sebastian, is an historian and a library consultant, and she, Maria, describes herself as an unhappy housewife. Maria (Maria Kavoyianni) gives Sebastian (J.K. Simmons) a patch for his back, and Sebastian—a really, really good German who has taken a library job after retiring as a professor—gives Maria cherry tomatoes, small practical gifts; and they sit on the market floor exchanging vocabulary words, a cultural and spiritual connection. (The Germans saved their money—and invested in American mortgages and Greek debt; and Maria—melancholy but open and shrewd—has had to move beyond her knowledge of German prosperity in relation to Greek poverty.) In Worlds Apart, a film both grand and gritty, the characters can be eloquent or inarticulate: as with Farris and Daphne, they, Sebastian and Maria, attempt to learn each other’s language, focusing on words that describe what they feel. Sebastian kisses Maria; and he gives her a book, Second Chance. Is there anything of lasting significance possible between them?

The German man’s new friend, Maria, a grandmother, has her family to dinner for her grandson’s birthday celebration: Maria’s husband Antonis, an angry old man, a black-shirted fascist, and Maria’s children Daphne and Giorgos, and Giorgos’s wife and child. The mixtures of characters and consciousness, of themes and tones, encompass the diversity of life. Giorgos, later, will explain to his son that sometimes adults are afraid too, as children are, and that the boy is loved even if his parents are apart. The joy of family life does not seem to last long for the old man, Antonis (Minas Chatzisavvas—whose last name is sometimes spelled without the C), who seems addicted to his own rage, and plans to take part in the further harassment of immigrants, and does, leaving blood on his clothes, which his wife sees and washes. Antonis says that Maria is ignorant of what the immigrants, the parasites, are doing; and Maria says that his violence is because he, Antonis, has failed at everything else. Antonis is blaming others for the country’s life, and using his sense of power over others to ameliorate his knowledge of personal defeat. Maria wants to leave Antonis. The fascist attack on the immigrants in their refuge at the old airport, in which Antonis participates, is full of fire and gunshots; and Daphne sees her father, Antonis, there, before she is shot: his own daughter’s blood is on his hands. Hatred finds its way home, infects family; but there is hope in friendship, in love.

Desierto

Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Desierto (2015), directed by writer-editor Jonas Cuaron, about natives leaving the land of the Olmec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec, crossing the Mexican border into the United States of America, becoming immigrants, is a genre film, a photoplay of suspense, murder, and horror, in which a man offended by illegal border crossing takes justice, or lawless punishment, into his own hands. Desierto, photographed by Damian Garcia, with sound design by Sergio Diaz and a score by Woodkid, is a motion picture full of desert beauty, and desperation and the human desire to survive, and mistaken duty and rage, and it takes the observer into the skin of migrating people who are despised, feared, and hunted, and yet brings one closer to an isolated man who hates others with a furious but efficient madness. Desierto is like a recurring nightmare: one is being chased by a malevolent force. Is there an escape? The landscape is elemental, dry and rocky, and the photography gorgeous. The plot is simple, the drama potent, the emotions roiling, with fear and the determination to survive. When and how will the nightmare end?

Works of horror allow us to see and survive the monstrous: while feeling ourselves in the presence of a danger with no actual threat to our bodies, we can contemplate the fearful, the forbidden, the freakish—and the indulgence, buttressed by distance, allows some fun. Genre films can be limited, predictable; but, sometimes, because the observer is aware of the form, the films can be infused with new content, new understandings; and Jonas Cuaron’s Desierto (2015) takes on the recent controversy regarding immigration issues, a controversy that is, actually, a recurring phenomenon that attaches itself to different ethnic populations in different eras. Immigrants have moved in large numbers from place to place at different times. Major refugee crises were created in the twentieth-century by the second world war, initiated by European dictators, in which countries were invaded and populous cities and towns were bombed; and in that century’s latter half by the independence struggles against repressive and resistant colonial European powers, with subsequent civil conflicts; and in the beginning of the twenty-first century by the tumultuous national, ethnic, and religious battles and contentions in the middle east. Of course, Mexican migration to the United States of America began in 1846 and has been ongoing: the nearness of the country and the appeal of the American dream of liberty, opportunity, and prosperity, despite the notorious mistreatment of minorities, have inspired the movement of Mexican men and women who have settled in California, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and Illinois, and found work in agriculture, construction, mining, and service jobs, among other fields, often doing the back-straining work that other Americans refuse. In class, color, and language, Mexicans represent difference to many Americans; although, by now, it is arguable that Americans should be quite familiar with Mexicans. (The Mexicans I have met seem shrewd, humble, and impatient with nonsense—but I, a citizen and consumer, am compelled to conclude that a culture that can produce Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Fuentes, Salma Hayek, Alejandro Inarritu, Benito Juarez, Frida Kahlo, Diego Luna, Jose Clemente Orozco, Octavio Paz, Jose Posada, Diego Rivera, Enrique Rosas, Alonso Ruizpalacios, Guillermo del Toro, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, has as wide a range of personalities as any.) Some people argue that poor Mexicans—who leave Mexico due to gang violence, political corruption, and poverty—cost American taxpayers in terms and education and the provision of social benefits, including emergency services; and there are accusations of criminality, despite studies that prove immigrants are less likely to break the law than those born citizens. The debate is lasting and loud, and volatile to the point of violence.

Director Jonas Cuaron, although interested in literature as well as cinema (he likes Spielberg’s Duel of 1971), wanted to make a movie that achieved an emotional, rather than intellectual connection with the film viewer, Cuaron having become aware of the legislation and rhetoric regarding immigrants a decade before making his picture, observing the rising hatred. Jonas Cuaron was interested in something other than what is now called political correctness: and, many people forget, or do not know, the decades-old origin of the term political correctness, a recognition (usually sane, light-hearted recognition) by diverse progressives that their preferred policies and practices, although humane and logical, were not always in line with instinct or personal pleasures, not even their own; it was a term of amused self-awareness that has been taken over by people who lack significant progressive political consciousness or commitment but have plenty of shallow and self-indulgent resentment regarding changing standards. Jonas Cuaron, as artist and thinker, as a film director, wanted a response beyond rhetoric and routine. The son of Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, had made The Year of the Nail (2007) and collaborated with his father on Gravity (2013); and he was pleased to work with the admired actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who appeared in Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), The Science of Sleep (2006), The Loneliest Planet (2011), Neruda (2016) and many other films. Gael Garcia Bernal, who has a gifted actor’s chameleon ability to appear beautiful or plain, graceful or awkward, as the roles require, believes in the public good, and in doing work that advances that good while exploring the ambiguities of life and art; and Bernal had made films about immigration, including Bernal’s own The Invisibles (2010), completed for Amnesty International, and director Marc Silver’s documentary _Who Is Dayani Cristal? _ (2013), about human remains found in the Sonoran desert of Arizona.

Gael Garcia Bernal

In Desierto, Gael Garcia Bernal’s character Moises is one of a dozen or so people crowded into the back of a covered truck intent on making their way into America; but the truck breaks down, and the migrants must walk, guided by near-indifferent guides (if the migrants cannot keep up the walking pace, that is their problem). Moises (Bernal), carrying a stuffed bear, a gift to and from his child, is trying to get back to his young son, who is living in Oakland. Moises and the other travelers are surprised when they are suddenly attacked from a distance by a raging rifleman, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who has moved easily from hunting rabbits with his smart, ferocious dog Tracker to hunting human beings. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was a romantic figure in television’s Grey’s Anatomy, and Jeffrey Morgan has acted in the popular serial The Walking Dead; and Morgan as Sam looks here like a beautiful man who has become a wreck—as if Sam feels himself invaded, with not only the land trespassed. Is Morgan’s Sam a shell-shocked soldier? One cannot imagine he has any companion but his dog. Sam sees the Mexican pilgrims, but does not know what is inside of them, nor what they might become—he does not see a reflection of his best self in them, and he assumes the worst. Sam, entitled and exasperated, had reported border crossers to law officers, but thinks his complaints are ignored, discounting the difficulties of guarding such large, difficult terrain; and Sam is exhilarated to take matters into his own hands. Gael Garcia Bernal has said that the true monster in the film is the narrative of hate surrounding immigrants; and the heroes are those brave enough to seek a better life, surviving the monster.

“A natural right is a right inherent to our humanity and the freedom of movement is such a right. The idea that immigration needs to be ‘authorized’ by the government flies in the face of that freedom. Immigrants who come to America seeking the opportunity to work and pursue happiness, or those brought here at too young an age to have any say in the matter, ought to be able to stay to pursue those opportunities” asserted Ed Krayewski in “There are Many Reasons to Grant Amnesty to Illegal Immigrants,” published in a 2013 issue of Reason magazine and republished in Greenhaven Press’s Immigration (Gale Cengage Learning, 2014; page 97), a book collecting different policy positions on the subject. Of course, if you do not recognize the humanity of a people, you are not likely to recognize their human rights. Whereas in the film God’s Own Country, a local yokel disrespectfully sprinkles water in the face of a Romanian immigrant, and continues to do so after he is asked to stop, and in The Insult a vengeful Lebanese citizen sabotages a Palestinian man’s work then takes him to court, in Worlds Apart and Desierto the bigots intend murder. The struggle for survival in Desierto is frightening, thrilling. The Mexican migrants have little place to hide, and they have little with which to defend themselves. They run in great heat over hills and rocks, dodging snakes and a vicious dog, in danger of being seen by a man looking at them across the barrel of a rifle. Moises (Bernal), after much of Sam’s relentless slaughter, finds himself with the tenacious Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), and the question remains as to whether they, two ingenious and resilient figures, will continue to work together, or sacrifice one for the other. Of course, the ability and inclination to make a friend, or a lover, of a stranger, of someone in an opposing tribe, has become, after Romeo & Juliet, something of a cliché; however, that remains a profound affirmation of humanity, even a necessity—society both resists and requires such proof. Yet, sometimes, the formation of an alliance with someone who is like oneself, or in the same trouble, can be as important, as profound. Even, then, survival is a mere beginning.

God’s Own Country

The best of farm work is intimate contact with nature, with the seasons, the land, and plants and animals; however, the daily engagement with what is, or has been, wild requires attention and discipline, work of repetition and ritual, and that is exhausting. The heart of Francis Lee’s excellent motion picture God’s Own Country (2017), set in Yorkshire farm country, is a Romanian worker and refugee, Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu), a handsome, intelligent, and caring man, calm and efficient, whose difference (nationality, marginality) is seen before his fine character registers. The farm worker Gheorghe Ionescu (Secareanu) arrives in town, and is met by John Saxby (Josh O’Connor), the son of an ailing farmer—and sees Gheorghe’s darker face and the shadow of a coming beard on his chin, and asks if Gheorghe is Pakistani. (The mother-abandoned country boy John’s experience is so limited that John cannot tell the difference between an East European man and a south Asian man; yet he perceives Gheorghe is other.) Gheorghe, at the small Saxby farm, is given a little, old camper to sleep in, apart from the family; and John’s father tells Gheorghe that the work is only for a week, for lambing season, and that the family is not running a home for waifs and strays. John takes to calling Gheorghe gypo and gypsy; and when the two men are in a bar and Gheorghe reacts to a local man’s hostility, the bar proprietor rudely reprimands Gheorghe. Yet, the film God’s Own Country, which presents the hardships of farm life, and suggests the difficulty of being a refugee, is a story of love and sex, of the liberation of the spirit.

Yorkshire is known to those who love it by the phrase that gives Francis Lee’s fine work of cinema its name, God’s Own Country; and it is bordered by Westmoreland, Nottingham, Cheshire, and the North Sea: Yorkshire is an old region that has been home to the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Danes; a land of families and farms, moors and melancholy, castles and cathedrals; famous for both agriculture and manufacturing as well as the stories of the Bronte sisters. _God’s Own Country _(2017), directed by actor-writer Francis Lee, and photographed by Joshua James Richards and edited by Chris Wyatt, begins in the early morning, with John Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a hard-working and habitual drunk, nauseous in a bathroom in the farm’s family home. John (O’Connor) dresses for his farm chores, drinks milk to calm his stomach; and John is reprimanded by a woman elder, Deidre whom he calls Nan (apparently, his grandmother), for his loud nighttime trips to the bathroom for vomiting. John looks dumb and numb: his chores may consist of keeping things alive, but he is withering (John could be suffering from the lack of predictable depth: a paucity of perception, pleasure, psychology, poetry, and philosophy). John puts up fencing, and checks on a heifer about to give birth (he sticks his gloved hand inside her to note how close the calf is). John attends a farm auction, selling a cow; and he eats in a diner, catching the eye of a young man there, an auctioneer, with whom John has quick sex in a cattle trailer. (John Saxby’s impoverished life may sharpen his sexual instinct, while making it difficult to see sex as anything but a bodily function.) John, at home, gives money to Nan, Deidre (Gemma Jones), from the cattle sale, and she criticizes him for not returning sooner: his crippled father Martin (Ian Hart), a man hobbled by a stroke, was alone to handle the calf birth, and the calf was injured; thus, his father makes John shoot it. These people do not speak much; their talk is direct, rough, and short, of practical purpose. Deidre cuts up Martin’s food, helpful but making the tough man seem a child again. John drinks a beer, but is warned not to drink much, as John has to go to town to pick up the new farm worker, Gheorghe Ionescu.

Whereas John (Josh O’Connor) is bored, miserable, and angry, the new worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), is quiet, watchful, but intelligent and warm. Gheorghe asks questions about the farm, and mentions the possibility of making cheese from sheep milk, suggesting another use, another source of income. John’s father tells Gheorghe that they will need him only for a week, and that they are not running a home for waifs and strays. Yet, Gheorghe puts a familiar photograph on the wall in the camper in which he sleeps: in spirit and through the simplest acts, Gheorghe is able to create a sense of home. Is the photo Gheorghe puts up a scene from his native Romania, a country I know little about? Romania has its origins in Thrace and Dacia, and was conquered by Romans; and is a nation surrounded by Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldavia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia, and was once known for agriculture and oil. What music does Gheorghe remember, what fragrances? John, who lives in the family home, is, unlike Gheorghe, not at ease, and John goes into town to drink; and when John meets an old friend, now a college girl, an earthy young woman seeking opportunity, knowledge, and love, but willing to keep their friendship alive, John, combative, rejects her invitation to a get-together. John is brought home by a townsman, thoroughly drunk, and John sleeps outside under a tarp; and the next morning Gheorghe, quick and careful, helps with birthing lambs. John complains to his father about the misery of his life (his half-conscious anger seems to come out of exhaustion rather than any sense of entitlement). The brutal demands of agricultural labor were known to director Francis Lee, who grew up on a farm in Yorkshire in northern England, before becoming first an actor then a writer and director—and winning a best director award at the Sundance festival for God’s Own Country, a work that puts experience—existence and event—at its center. Francis Lee, who admires My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), said that his actual influences for God’s Own Country were An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Bridges of Madison County (1995), and Working Girl (1988); and Lee, recognizing the rigors of farm work and the need for authenticity, had his actors, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu, work on farms as preparation for their roles as John and Gheorghe—and spend time together.

John (O’Connor) and Gheorghe (Secareanu) go on a motorbike, with supplies, to fix the farm’s fencing and tend the sheep. They stay in an old stone ruin. Gheorghe cares for a weak newborn lamb. “He’ll be a runt,” John says, but Gheorghe works to keep the lamb alive. John mocks Gheorghe’s Romanian heritage, calling him gypsy, but Gheorghe checks John for that, correcting him with threatening force. Romanians have Greek, Magyar, Slavic, and Turkish influences—and there are among them the Romany, sometimes called gypsies (who have some north Indian roots). People, such as John, think of gypsies—but they do not think of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who was Romanian, nor of Romanian poets Vasile Alecsandri, Tristan Tzara, and Paul Celan, novelists Mihail Sadoveanu and Mircea Eliade, stage and film figures Edward G. Robinson, Eugene Ionesco, Andrei Serban, and Maia Morgenstern, musicians Angela Gheorghiu and Iannis Xenakis, or painter Theodor Aman—or the recent group of painters known as the school of Cluj, named after what is one of the nation’s major cities, along with Bucharest. John, after agreeing not to offend, and Gheorghe cut and pile rock for the farm fence, and when John cuts his hand, Gheorghe tends it—carefully, naturally. The isolation of their work creates both proximity and curiosity; and it is not long before the two are rolling in the dirt, rutting like farm animals. “It’s beautiful here, but lonely, no?” says Gheorghe, looking around, as they work: Gheorghe, who has had the reserve of a stranger, can put his experience into words; whereas John, the homeboy, is inexpressive. Gheorghe’s ingenuity with farm work impresses John. Gheorghe says that when he was a child, he thought he would never leave his farm; and Gheorghe finds a way to make even an animal’s death useful. Gheorghe shows John how to make love: how to express affection and acquire knowledge and create joy when touching another person. Gheorghe, who walks the land and sees its wholeness, helps John to see the farm, and the world, a little better and broader.

The two men, John (O’Connor) and Gheorghe (Secareanu), return to the farm house happier than when they left; and at the farm house are John’s father Martin (Ian Hart) and grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones), two beleaguered people—it seems clear that John, through carrying the bulk of the work, has become the troubled heart of the farm. How long can John sacrifice himself to the farm? When does inheritance become obligation, even burden, rather than gift? What will John’s relation to Gheorghe change; anything? John wants to be with Gheorghe again, at liberty and with pleasure, but resents going out to the old camper where Gheorghe sleeps. There is a new spirit between them—adventurous, friendly, and funny. However, John’s father falls and is put in the hospital: apparently, Martin has had a second stroke. In the hospital, Gheorghe touches John’s hand, in affection and for comfort, and then John touches his father’s hand: tenderness is shared. John and Gheorghe at the farm tend the cattle, and John begins to take out his anger on the cattle but Gheorghe warns him against that. Gheorghe cooks supper for them both, and suggests staying a little longer to help with the work—until John’s father gets better; but when Nan (Deidre) returns—she who finds evidence of the affair between the two men, whereas Martin only seems to have intuited John’s warming response to Gheorghe—she says that Martin will not get better, a depressing possibility for John, who resorts to old habits: drink and impersonal sex.

What helps us to think anew, and to act differently? Sometimes love. Sometimes art. Sometimes catastrophe. Sometimes money. God’s Own Country presents the beauty of the land and the indifference of nature, the demands of farming chores done amid mud and shit, the ties and tensions of family, the rupturing effects of age and illness, the mundanity of bigotry, the unpredictability of friendship and love, the animal function of sex and sex as profound connection, and the evolution of the spirit. In God’s Own Country, with his father in the hospital, John talks to Gheorghe about staying on at the farm, but Gheorghe does not think the farm will survive much longer as it is (Gheorghe has seen failed farms before). Gheorghe says that in his country you cannot go far without seeing an old woman lamenting her children who have gone abroad. Gheorghe wonders how they might change things on the farm, make them better; but the dilemma of illness and farm responsibility and the future are too much for John, who has an encounter in the bar’s men’s room with a fey blond creature who looks like the mindless ghost of regrettable transgressions past, an act that hurts and offends Gheorghe, who leaves—going back to his regular job at a corporate potato farm, where other immigrants work too—and John goes after Gheorghe. Is the relationship between the Yorkshire farmer and the Romanian immigrant one that could grow and last, despite differences, despite the rigors of country life?

The Insult

Tony Hanna’s country Lebanon, with its Sumerian and Hittite heritages, and neighbored by Palestine (Israel), Syria, and the Mediterranean, was known not very long ago as a very civilized place, a place of cosmopolitan culture, until it was riven by battles, domestic and foreign. In Ziad Doueiri’s film drama of personal and political conflict, The Insult (2017), the Lebanese mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a handsome, hotly temperamental man scarred by political events in his youth, listens as a Christian Party nationalist cites a celebrated but now deceased political leader, Bachir Gemayel, as the assembled crowd’s president, an assertion that suggests tribal unity and social division (the authority of the actual reigning president is being deflected, if not denied). Tony Hanna is an adherent of a conservative politics that demonizes Palestinians in Lebanon, beliefs that lead to the central drama in the motion picture The Insult, disrupting Hanna’s own life and that of his wife, and the life of a Palestinian man, the lean, dignified, and even severe Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha).

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is himself a diligent worker, a mechanic with exacting standards; and his wife works as office manager and receptionist in his Beirut automobile shop, in which he commends German equipment for its quality above Chinese equipment. Tony Hanna wants to buy the apartment in which he and his wife Shirine Hanna (Rita Hayek) live, but his wife, a sensual and sensible woman, thinks they need more space, and that they might even return to his childhood home in the town of Damour. However, when a Palestinian construction foreman, Yasser Salameh, and his workers attempt to repair an illegal drain pipe running off Tony Hanna’s balcony, Hanna is angered by the initiative and sabotages the job and the men argue: the Palestinian, Yasser, calls Tony Hanna a prick and Tony demands an apology.

How many people know the history of Palestine and its people? How many people know or remember that in 1948 when Palestinians, under assault (their property stolen, their lives threatened, their histories erased), began to flee their land for neighboring states they found refuge, with limited civil rights, rather than freedom and home? How many know of the fifteen-year civil war in Lebanon, in which Palestinian militants participated? I can recall writing a paper on the Palestinians for a college course, and thinking that an important subject, which I, a student of literature, philosophy, and politics, should return to—and then years passed before I gave the Palestinians another significant thought. The arts, such as literature, film, and music, can restore memory —in their focus on existence, exercise, emotion and event. Film director Ziad Doueiri was an associate of Quentin Tarantino, a cameraman, and the maker of West Beirut (1998) and The Attack (2012); and with The Insult (2017), centered on a charged exchange between a Palestinian refugee and a Lebanese citizen, Ziad Doueiri has tried to create a motion picture that melds enlightenment and energy. With production designer Hussein Baydoun, cinematographer Tommaso Fiorilli, and editor Dominique Marcombe, Ziad Doueiri has created a work that achieves more complexity than most.

In The Insult, Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha, who won best actor at the Venice film festival) is a trained engineer who cannot work as an engineer due to the rules limiting the kind of jobs Palestinians can take in Lebanon (the professional ambitions and skills of refugees are seen to threaten those of natives); but Yasser does work as a building construction foreman. The Palestinian foreman’s boss, the project manager responsible for neighborhood repairs, apologizes for Yasser Salameh to Tony Hanna’s pregnant wife with pleasant words and a box of chocolates. Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), still angry, returns the chocolate to the project manager, who tells Tony that some people, such as Yasser Salameh, find it hard to apologize but that does not mean that they do not see their errors. Such human understanding is of little, if any, interest to Tony Hanna, who has his pride, his sense of injury, and wants an apology. When the project manager returns to Tony Hanna’s shop with Yasser Salameh, who is preparing himself to apologize (knowing further complaints may lead to Yasser being fired), Tony is listening to a hateful speech by Bachir Gemayel denouncing Palestinians. (Tony knows the speech by heart.) Yasser Salameh is repelled—and Tony sees Yasser’s hesitance and is angered again: Tony says that Ariel Sharon should have killed all the Palestinians. Yasser punches Tony, breaking two ribs, giving Tony a real injury, one observable to others; and Tony’s attending physician advises against hard work, particularly heavy lifting, for about eight weeks. Tony’s own father reprimands Tony for what he said to Yasser, for the gravity and malice of the insult. Wars are started over words like that, Tony’s father says.

Between the two men, Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), is a conflict of nationality and religion, of personal honor and pride: the nature of their fight is as old as human history. If they had met on another day, might they have found another matter about which to fight? Tony is suing for physical and moral damages. Yasser, who lives with his respectful and loving Lebanese wife Manal Salameh (Christine Choueiri) in a Palestinian refugee camp, anticipates his absence and gives his work team instructions, before going to the police and court. A firm, smart judge (actor Carlos Chahine) interrogates both Yasser and Tony about their argument and its circumstances. Yasser pleads guilty but neither man will describe the exact insult that inspired Yasser to hit Tony. The judge is probing, skeptical, and knows he is not getting the full story (Carlos Chahine as the judge dominates the scene with intellect and energy). The judge says the evidence is inconclusive and dismisses the case—and Tony, who insulted Yasser, Tony who insulted the police, now insults the judge. Tony’s hatred leads to alienation, and his alienation leads to hatred: “You—not I—are the loser. He who lives on depriving others of light drowns / himself in the darkness of his own shadow. You will never be free of me / unless my freedom is excessively generous. Then it would show you peace / and guide you home. You, not I, are afraid of what the cell is doing to me,” wrote Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (In the Presence of Absence, translated by Sinan Antoon, Archipelago Books, 2011; page 56).

However, Yasser’s life does not go back to normal. Yasser (Kamel El Basha) makes the mistake of speaking while an important official is on site at work, discussing the quality of paints, and the official recognizes Yasser’s Palestinian accent, as had Tony (Adel Karam) when they first met, and the official, though sympathetic, does not want to get in trouble for violating the prohibitions against hiring Palestinians. After Tony works and hurts himself, Tony, who is haunted by childhood memories of the civil war in Lebanon, and resents Palestinians, decides to appeal the legal case against Yasser. Tony’s wife Shirine (Rita Hayek), who tried to help Tony when he fell, delivers her baby early too. Tony hires a famous and flamboyant lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), telling the lawyer that by the time the trial is over Tony wants Yasser to conclude that Tony is worse than Ariel Sharon. The lawyer warns Tony that his original Sharon comment will be a focus of the trial, and that Tony will have to explain it.

Meanwhile, a young woman lawyer visits Yasser (Basha) and his wife Manal (Choueiri). Yasser is honest and practical to the point of being without illusions: “Everyone insults and hates everybody.” The lawyer tells Yasser that he can manage the situation, or let the situation manage him: that there is a chance he could face as much as ten years in jail if Tony’s baby dies. She wants to help, as she has seen Palestinians deprived of their rights. Yasser accepts her representation; and she, Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud), will be revealed as the daughter of Tony’s lawyer, a convolution suggesting the contentions between generations and among families in the region. Such an opposition might seem preposterous—or like the inevitable correction of a liberal generation of its illiberal predecessor. (The script was written by director Ziad Doueiri with his wife Joelle Touma, two people of differing religions, amid a marriage that was ending, apparently, while they worked on the project.) Several doctors, during the legal appeal, testify in court, offering differing interpretations of what caused Tony’s relapse and his wife’s early contractions (Shirine has had miscarriages before). Testimony reveals that Yasser is a conscientious, engaged worker of high standards, attentive to regulations, techniques, and consequences (like Tony, Yasser admires German machinery and dislikes that of the Chinese for lack of durability).

Tony’s lawyer Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh) mocks liberal understanding and defends a political leader’s hateful speeches as patriotic, adding that a lot of things are offensive in their region of the world, the planet’s recognized middle east. However, Yasser’s lawyer Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud) plays the recorded offending speech, and quotes Tony’s exact insult to Yasser, in which the personal and political and poisonous were combined: wishing Sharon had killed all Palestinians. Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud) asserts that a person can be acquitted when acting in a state of extreme distress, which Tony’s insult caused. Tony’s lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh) who argues for the right to free speech, says sympathy for the Palestinian cause leads them to be absolved of misdeeds. He says that being a refugee does not make someone noble or give someone the right to violence (when he was young, Yasser, in an area under military occupation, saw a man take food from a hungry Palestinian child, and Yasser hit the man, who was paralyzed by the encounter).

The court case has become a public forum with personal repercussions—the trial not simply of one man, or two men, but of a nation. Yasser is paid for his work as construction foreman, and fired from his job. Tony receives a threatening phone call at home, and the Star of David, a Jewish symbol, is drawn on his garage wall; and their rising alarm lead Tony and his associates to chase a motorcycle rider into traffic, resulting in an accident. There is fighting among Lebanese and Palestinian factions in the streets. The nation’s president invites Tony and Yasser to his office for a reconciling talk, but Tony, once more, resists reconciliation. Yet, after the meeting, Tony, a mechanic, helps when Yasser’s car refuses to start. “We never had a national reconciliation,” says a televised Christian Party leader, who admits that the civil war that ended in 1990 remains in people’s minds, a motivating factor, but that now is time to turn a page. Tony and his wife Shirine hear that television interview. Can Tony change? Why is Tony so angry, so obstinate? His lawyer wants to refer in court to Tony’s childhood trauma in Damour, a region that was known for its industry in bananas, where and when militant Palestinians attacked bourgeois Lebanese people, and Tony’s family fled the violence.

Damour is only twenty-minutes away, but it has been years since Tony Hanna has been there. Tony’s lawyer shows archival film of Damour, of its agricultural richness and elegant comforts, and of the past strife: in 1976, four-thousand or more fighters came, and attacked, killing whole families, before leaving. Sitting in court, Tony’s father is upset by the footage, and Tony disrupts the screening to take his father out of court. Yasser observes their pain. Yasser (Kamel El Basha), later, at night, goes to Tony’s garage, and goads Tony (Adel Karam), allowing Tony to hit him, and then Yasser apologizes to Tony. Tony visits Damour, and his abandoned family home, remembering who he was as a boy; and then Tony has a happier time with his own wife and baby. Crowds attend the last day of the trial, with many journalists; and though one man may be disappointed at the decision, there is a sense of understanding between the two men.

There is little doubt that the refugee crisis, immigration (legal and illegal), isolationism and tightening of National Borders is one of the most stressful global issues of our times. With tensions growing around the world politically and socially over these events it is not surprising that global cinema has responded, as it always has, with heartfelt, entertaining and, in some cases, even optimistic, responses to these events. Which is why Daniel Garrett’s multi-film review of recent films confronting these themes is so timely, relevant and on topic. Garrett reviews these four politically engaged films from different parts of the globe: Worlds Apart (Greece), Desierto (Mexico-US Border), God’s Own Country (Europe), and The Insult (Lebanon).

Submitted September 2018

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 24, Issue 2 / February 2020 Film Reviews   gael garcia bernal   political cinema   refugee crisis  

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