A Benghazi Resident’s Take on Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” Movie

Brave New Libya

Benghazi just can’t catch a break. As if an all-out war isn’t enough, the city is being vilified nation-wide by those who see the war as a misdirected endeavor, and the people of Benghazi are being accused of, yes, destroying their own city! I won’t point out the insensitivity and blatant ignorance of this stance. If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll be familiar with the slippery slope that led our city to the circumstances it’s in today. The war is horrific and it’s hurting us, but it was also an inevitability brought about by the same people currently pretending like there were other options.

One of the very first incidents that sparked the descent down this slope was the killing of American ambassador Chris Stevens. This event launched the start of Benghazi’s international vilification, as pundits and citizens alike decried the Libyan revolution and the international intervention that bolstered it. “We shouldn’t have…

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Panopticon Rising: Citizenfour Film Review

panopticon 2

By Louis Michel

New York – Virtually everyone in the world at some point in the past year saw Edward Snowden’s face on a telescreen. His image was ubiquitous and the information he coveted and later divulged to the world is one of the biggest releases of classified government documents in history.  Citizenfour, the new documentary directed by Laura Poitras, premiered in New York City on Oct 10th and has since shook the film world to its very core. Not only is the documentary about one of the most explosive news events in recent history, it is also a moving portrait about one man’s journey of self-sacrifice in the name of the public good. Much of it was filmed in real time when global headlines were reporting on the encounter between young “infrastructure analyst” at Booze Allen Hamilton and a few passionate journalists. Along with some contextual scenes about the NSA and other relevant activists and whistleblowers such as William Binny and Jacob Applebaum, her film mainly chronicles the initial encounters that Poitras, along with Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, had with Snowden in Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel just days before they broke the story.

The many thousands of documents released by Snowden detail how the NSA, along with Britain’s GCHQ and several other government agencies around the world, illegally and systematically collect and analysize personal data under the obscure guise of “national security,” thus invading the privacy of millions of people around the world, including various heads of state, such as Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff. In the U.S., the surveillance state that the government is constructing is an all-seeing, monolithic apparatus “whose reach is unlimited but but whose safeguards are not.” As Snowden explains, NSA programs such as Prism and Upstream take data directly from the servers of various tech firms such as Apple, Google, Yahoo, Youtube, Skype, and Microsoft. And the worst part of all, the tech companies provided full assistance to the NSA. 

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Despite Snowden’s insistence that the stories being published should never be about him the film can’t help but hone in on the soft-spoken, extremely brave, yet vulnerable 29 year old that felt compelled by his moral convictions to tell the world how the oppressive tentacles of the state are slithering their way deep into the everyday public life. In the film Snowden explains how this creeping intrusion has the effect of diminishing the functionality of democracy so much so that society is not longer made up of a social body composed of the elected and the electorate but one of the ruling and the ruled where the ruled have less and less agency over the decisions made by those in power. Despite the severity of Snowden’s situation, as the film unfolds there is a calmness to him that one only finds in someone with a clear conscious. He makes it clear that not only does he have nothing to hide but that he feels at peace with the idea that the public is now empowered to better make its own decisions about what the reach and scope of the government’s power should be. He is also unwavering in his conviction to not be bullied by the powers that be, and it is inspiring almost beyond comprehension.

Perhaps the most chilling scenes in the movie come when the viewer is able to see firsthand the real life implications of the surveillance state on someone that has full knowledge of the brute scope and power of the NSA’s unrestrained capabilities. In one scene Snowden is casually sitting on his hotel bed in conversation with Mr. Greenwald when he takes a red cloak and pulls it completely over himself to prevent any potential eavesdropping, from what it is not certain. The only thing certain is that the gaze of the panopticon is omnipotent and that is enough to encourage him to take every precaution he can. His keystrokes cannot be seen nor heard and those in the room are in disbelief that what they are witnessing is in fact not science fiction but the direct result of immense danger of unchecked political power. In a different age this would have been a type of paranoia that only the likes of George Orwell would conceive of, but in Citizenfour this truth is brought home with a terrifying realism that even one sitting in their auditorium seat will ask themselves, “I wonder if they are watching me watch this movie?”

In order for state power to be effective at negating challenges to its hegemony over the body politic it is necessary to normalize the relations of power between those who wield the tools of oppression and those that are subject to it. The implementation and duration of that power must be so frequent and so rigorous that it becomes normalized, and most importantly, internalized by the social body. If these power relations become internalized in every day behavior then it no longer becomes necessary to directly subvert democratic processes because the internalization of oppression becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon that infects the subconscious and compartmentalizes itself into the social fabric. The surveillance will thus become automatic and perpetuate itself, even in the event that a great majority of people may oppose the illegality of say, the NSA collecting data on millions of people. The insidiousness of such a powerful global power dynamic has hitherto never been created in the history of mankind. When watching this film one cannot help but wonder if the “docile bodies,” as Michel Foucault referred to them, have become so imposed upon that the tipping point to turn back the other way has eclipsed itself.

Reenacting the Past : Film review of “The Act of Killing.”

act of killing

Every once in a while a film comes along that is so powerful and unforgettable that you cannot purge it from your mind for days or weeks after, or ever.  Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary, “The Act of Killing,” is one such film. It is a  masterpiece, a tour de force that proves one film has the power to force not just a few people, but an entire nation to face the dark truths of its past. And it exists above all, to dispel the notion of good and evil and instead focus on the dialectic between the two;that we are both good and evil, we are human.

The directors, Mr. Oppenheimer and an anonymous Indonesian counterpart, along with a crew of mostly anonymous Indonesians–stick around for the credits to see just how many– went around the country interviewing former members of  paramilitary death squads that are responsible for one of the largest, most forgotten genocides of the 20th century. They then asked them to make a film about their experiences in any way they desire. What ensued is one of the most surreal, heart-wrenching poignant tragicomedies ever produced for a movie screen.

Beginning in 1965 right-wing paramilitary death squads began rounding up members of the recently overthrown, democratically elected government and murdering them. The military, led by general Suharto, with the approval of the U.S. government, murdered between 500,000 and 1.5 million “communists,” union organizers, intellectuals and anyone they felt was a sympathizer of the old left-leaning regime. In an interview on Democracy Now! Mr. Oppenheimer asked viewers to imagine today if the Democratic party was rounded up and exterminated with complete impunity.Today the perpetrators remain unpunished, even celebrated in the country at political gatherings and their local communities. Anwar Congo, one of the main protagonists of the film and considered one of the founders of the right-wing paramilitary group, Pamuda Pancasila, boasts about his crimes and experiences and recreates his own surreal nightmares with the help of other perpetrators.

There is a quote at the beginning of the movie by Voltaire, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”Adi, one of the explicitly remorseless perpetrators in the film, bluntly states that he is part of the winning side of history and because of that he gets to write his own history of what happened. He makes the point that what he took part in Indonesia was no different than what happened to the Native Americans in the United States. These issues of historical supremacy are juxtaposed with shots of Adi and his family wandering around a modern shopping complex in Indonesia doing the things that all families do. They laugh, look at electronic gadgets and sit in the food court. Knowing what we know about Adi and his role in the genocide; his indifference and conviction, we cannot help but identify with his humanity. The first presumption that comes to mind is that all monsters and sociopaths can pretend to show emotion, but this film illustrates that the truth is much more complex because good and evil are not mutually exclusive. They are symbiotically wrapped in the flesh of human experiences and the collective imagination of an entire people.

When watching this film one cannot help–especially if they are American– to contextualize what happened in Indonesia relative to what is occurring in various parts of the world at the behest of the United States. Military forces and private mercenaries are operating all over the world with impunity killing thousands in the name of security from “terrorists,” and this year’s terrorists are last year’s “communists.” Heros in uniform are unabashedly celebrated for the killing they do in their respective country’s name. We make films to lionize them, games to inculcate our youth with their values, plaster stickers on our cars, and in all of this one cannot help but draw a connection with the sentiments of alienation, denial and trivialization that Anwar Congo displays. The ghosts of Anwar’s past are inextricably tied to the ghosts of our past and thinking about the film and what it says about remembrance and reconciliation help one to make sense of atrocity and where it fits in the individual and collective psyche.

The film is an exploration into the nature of killing and impunity and the effects such things have on the consciousness of those who commit crimes of the most heinous nature. Do perpetrators feel remorse or guilt when they have committed state sanctioned atrocities in the name of security, flag and country? If the perpetrators are celebrated as national heros, at least for the dominate ruling class and by extension historical account, does feeling guilt or shame for their cruelty begin to chip away at the preponderant historical narrative? The film suggests that it does. Anwar Congo killed 1,000 people with his own two hands and throughout the film his specters rear their heads and he covers them back up with his self-indulgence and trivialities. The end of the film suggests that all of his demons are finally coming back to haunt him in full force and the viewer will undoubtedly be left with more questions than answers. Is he acting for the camera to show the version of him that the film is supposed to portray for the resolution that we all demand? Were his emotions sincere? As he leaves the killing chamber that is now a handbag store the notion that he was not truly remorseful for what he had done is the most terrifying aspect of the film and the viewer, just like Anwar, will be forced to purge that notion from their head because it is too dark to ponder.