Neerja

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“Sticks to the plane truth.”

Time to set up GirlsWithoutGuns.org, perhaps. For this film brings home that among the most courageous of heroines are the unarmed ones – especially when facing people who are not. Such is the case with Neerja Bhanot, the 22-year-old head purser on Pan Am Flight 73 from Mumbai to New York in 1986. Just before takeoff after a stop in Karachi, the plane was taken over by hijackers from the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization, who intended to divert it to Cyprus. Bhanot alerted the pilots, allowing them to escape and thwarting that plan. She then discarded the passports of American passengers, stopping the terrorists from targeting them. When they believed Pakistani forces were about to storm the plane, she opened the emergency exits, help shepherd passengers out, and sheltered children from the terrorists’ bullets.

Yep, there are good reasons she became the first female recipient of India’s highest decoration for bravery in peacetime, the Ashok Chakra Award, and the youngest ever. Wisely, the film opts for a largely straightforward retelling of the events of those 24 hours, beginning with Neerja’s exuberant attendance at a birthday party the previous evening, through her trip to the airport and the mundane processes of the early, peaceful leg of the flight, before all hell comes storming up the stairs into her aircraft. Against a solid background, the only element which rings significantly false is the note given to her by a friend at the airport: its clichéd contents perhaps explain the disclaimer before the movie, about “Any resemblance to persons living or dead…”

Otherwise, however, it seems to stick to the truth, as far as my post-film Googling has been able to tell. Yes, Neerja was a part-time model as well as an air hostess. She also had already been through an arranged marriage which failed, to an apparently abusive husband (though here again: “Any resemblance…”). But it’s her amazingly calm, yet smart approach in the face of the four hijackers that is most incredible, with death never more than a hair-trigger’s breadth away. This hellish and escalating claustrophobia of the incident is the film’s strongest suit. Madhvani plays it expertly to a crescendo, as the hijackers become increasingly irritated by what they perceive (not incorrectly) as stalling tactics by the authorities in response to demands for new pilots.

It’s likely one of those cases where less knowledge may be useful in appreciating it. For I’m sure most of the original Indian audience was already well aware of the story here; in contrast, as someone who hadn’t heard about it before, I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion, with no clue of how it would end. As we enter the New Year of 2017, it certainly qualifies as one of the strongest entries of 2016, even if – or perhaps because? – the movie goes in a different direction from the more-traditional kind of action heroines, which we usually cover on this site.

Dir: Ram Madhvani
Star: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Abrar Zahoor

2320 Days in the Jungle

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“[Crosses Colombia off holiday list]”

2320daysIn February 2002, Ingrid Betancourt was travelling through a rural area of Colombia, as part of her campaign in the presidential election for the Green Party. She was stopped at a road-block run by the Marxist rebel organization, FARC, and when they realized who they had, she and her assistant, Clara Rojas, were kidnapped. Betancourt would spent more than six years of jungle captivity with the guerillas, until she was rescued, in a startling piece of deception, by Colombian military forces. This documentary film tells her story, through archive footage and interviews with Betancourt, Rojas, other kidnappees and some of the FARC members.

The term “you couldn’t make this stuff up” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s probably apt here. The clearest example is the end, and the way Betancourt and her colleagues were freed. The authorities tapped into FARC’s communications channels and inserted an order that a humanitarian group would be transporting the hostages to meet the rebels’ leader. Except, the alleged group were actually soldiers pretending to be aid workers and journalists. They arrived, landing in a coca field with their helicopters, collected the prisoners and a couple of FARC officers, then took off, before taking the officers into custody and telling the kidnap victims, “We are the Colombian army. You are free.” [This deception was likely wise, since there had been a number of disastrous attempts to liberate other hostages by military means, ending in their death]

Many other facets also defy belief, from Betancourt’s multiple unsuccessful escape attempts through to Rojas getting pregnant by one of the guards, and being given a Caesarean section in the middle of the jungle.  It has to have been a hellish existence, the hostages being moved from place to place through the rain-forest to avoid being located by the authorities who were hunting for them – at one point, they were marched 40 days, for up to 12 hours a day. Her captors also deliberately attempted to spread dissension among their captives, in order to stop them from trusting each other and formulating escape plans. And it seems to have worked: even after his release, one of those held with Betancourt heavily criticized her, saying she was “the most disgusting human being I’ve ever encountered.” It’s always the way with documentaries; you’re never sure if you’re getting the whole story.

There’s certainly evidence of tension between Betancourt and Rojas. The former seems more actively inclined to try and escape, while the latter appears to be trying to avoid doing anything that could inflame their situation. During one of her breaks for freedom, Betancourt was spotted by a young female FARC fighter and tried to convince her they should leave together. The rebel said she understood, and that she also had a child in the outside world – but if she left, FARC would hunt them down and kill them both. I’d like to have heard more about these attempts, rather than hostage infighting, but this is still a chilling and effective story, which would make one hell of a movie.

Dir: Angus Macqueen
Star: Ingrid Betancourt, Clara Rojas, Luis Eladio Perez, Marc Gonsalves
a.k.a. Hostage in the Jungle

Skirt Day

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“Those kids became my enemies.”

skirrtdayGuaranteed to put anyone off education as a career, this stars Gallic sex-kitten from the 80’s, Isabelle Adjani, now all middle-aged and playing French literature teacher Sonia Bergerac. whose career has devolved into hell – hence the line atop this review. She’s teaching a teenage class who, virtually without exception, clearly don’t want to be there, when she finds a gun in one of their bags. A struggle erupts, and when the dust settles, Sonia has the gun, a student is lying on the floor with a bullet-wound, and a siege situation has begun. On the outside, police negotiator Labouret (Podalydès) is having a bad day himself, trying to avoid a blood-bath, while his political masters try to spin news of the unexpected hostage crisis. But inside the theater, Sonia finds that it’s not just political power that grows from the barrel of a gun: she hasn’t ever had pupils pay such impeccable attention to her lessons before…

Made in 2009, this has, if anything become even more topical in the light of the refugee crisis which has become a hot-button issue in Europe of late. For this pulls few punches in its criticism of those who adopt politically-correct policies, simply to avoid trouble with minorities. The title refers to one of Sonia’s unusual demands, a day that women can wear skirts without the risk of harassment by political or religious conservatives, and writer-director Lilienfeld is also scathing in his criticism of immigrants who don’t integrate into their new homeland (a later reveal indicates it’s the latter aspect which is most important), as well as, it appears, yelling at local kids to get off his damn lawn. It is almost certainly the case that aspects of this will make more sense to a local audience; viewers outside France have to work backwards from what’s presented, to read Lilienfeld’s view of French society, rather than the other way around. However, he is also careful not to paint the pupils with a single brush: some are every bit as aggrieved with the status quo of appeasement as Sonia – and, arguably, with greater justification.

It’s not a film without its problems. The exterior scenes don’t have anything like the same impact, and the end feels almost like the director ran out of things to say, and opted for the simplest way to tie up all the loose ends, regardless of how abrupt it might seem. But it’s still genuinely thought-provoking – not something we find often in our genre here – and even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything Lilienfeld has to say, he deserves respect for saying it in a reasonable way. Adjani, who largely came out of retirement to make this, does a great job: the scenario sounds kinda silly, yet largely through her portrayal of a woman at the absolute end of her rope, it becomes plausible enough to work. Hard to imagine anything like this coming out of Hollywood, that’s for sure.

Dir: Jean-Paul Lilienfeld
Star: Isabelle Adjani, Denis Podalydès, Yann Ebonge, Sonia Amori
a.k.a. La Journée de la jupe

Suffragette

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“Worthy, rather than worthwhile”

suffragetteI generally find that films based on historical events, which also feel the need to make up entirely fictional characters, occupy a bit of an awkward middle-ground, as if they want both to be documentary and drama. Such is the case here, with a somewhat clumsy combination of  people who actually existed, such as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison, who was fatally injured in a protest at the 1913 Derby, with an entirely made-up heroine, Maud Watts (Mulligan). She works in an East End laundry, but become part of the burgeoning movement to win women the vote, after her trip to the House of Parliament, in support of a colleague testifying there, turns into Maud having to speak on behalf of her friend. As Maud’s commitment to the cause grows, she is jailed, her marriage breaks down and she loses custody of her son, but remains unwavering in her support. Indeed, she becomes more militant, alongside chemist Edith Ellyn (Bonham-Carter), with the group moving into more hardcore methods of protest.

I can’t argue with the performances here, which are, almost without exception, upper-tier stuff: Mulligan’s transition from laundry lady into crypto-terrorist is particularly well-handled, bringing the audience on the journey of enlightenment with her. The problems are more elsewhere. That this is based on history – and well-known history at that – means there is precisely zero tension here. We know they’re going to end up getting the vote – though it didn’t happen, on even the most limited terms, until after the Great War, years after the events depicted here. So scenes like the protest at Parliament, where David Lloyd-George announces there will be no change in the law, and Maud is arrested for the first time, have little or no impact. The script also borders on the misanthropic: between abusive husbands, an abusive boss and a police officer (Gleeson) devoted to bringing the movement down, there is literally not a sympathetic male character to be found here, except perhaps Edith’s husband, who is so bland and uninteresting, you’ll forget him entirely.

The film climaxes with the events of that Derby Day, and again, the impact is diluted since we know it’s going to end in Davison’s death (the question of how intentional or accidental it was remains unanswered; naturally, the film frames it as an act of heroic martyrdom). The movie ends in newsreel footage of the subsequent funeral, without giving Maud any particular closure, and she just happens to be nearby at the time, a fortunate observer to a pivotal moment in history. A few captions fill in the blanks, and everyone heads off for a nice cup of tea. For it’s all terribly British, mostly replacing righteous anger with polite indignation, and despite Mulligan and her crew acting their crinolines off, is only somewhat successful at capturing the passionate beliefs that I sense these women actually held.

Dir: Sarah Gavron
Star: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff

Alias Ruby Blade

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“Make love, not war.”

alias_ruby_blade_posterI was, I will admit, only vaguely aware of East Timor before watching this documentary, to the extent I could probably not have pointed to it on a globe with any precision. For those in a similar position, it’s a chunk of an island just to the north of Australia, which was occupied by Indonesia in 1975, not long after the Portuguese abandoned their colony. This kicked off a long, bloody period of unrest, which ran for virtually the rest of the century, and pitted those fighting for independence against the Indonesian Army and local militia groups. Leading the independence movement, FRETLIN, was charismatic guerrilla Xanana Gusmão, until his capture in 1992. One of those helping him continue to lead the group from jail was undercover FRETLIN operative “Ruby Blade” a.k.a. Australian teacher Kirsty Sword. The film is the story of how she ended up becoming the First Lady of an independent East Timor.

At the time, she was working in Indonesia’s capital, Djakarta, as an English teacher, and also helping East Timor students there, doing work like translation, from where she gradually drifted into becoming more actively involved in their struggle. Under the guise of trips to East Timor, ostensibly for humanitarian purposes, she acted as a courier, spy, money launderer and international media liaison for FRETLIN, and also helped funnel members who were on the run out of the country, with the help of friendly embassies. Her initial contact with Gusmão was teaching him English by mail, but she eventually met him in 1994, bluffing her way into the prison by saying she was there to visit an Australian who was, at the time, also being held there. Thanks also to bribed guards, Sword set him up with everything needed to keep running things, including eventually a mobile phone and even a computer. Meanwhile, their own relationship was also growing. After Xanana was released in 1999 and East Timor became independent, the pair married, and he was elected as the nation’s first president in May 2002.

This 2012 documentary is infuriatingly vague, since it skips many of the details, for example omitting entirely incidents like an apparent coup attempt in 2008, which saw Sword besieged with their children in her home, while her husband’s motorcade was ambushed. I’d like to have heard more of the nuts & bolts about her clandestine work, and perhaps rather less footage of Gusmão in prison. The film does give a sense of the danger with some disturbing footage of actual dead bodies, and incidents such as the Dili massacre in 1991, when 250 demonstrators were gunned down by Indonesian soldiers. That incident was recorded by a documentary film-crew, whom Sword was helping, and the resulting footage proved a significant catalyst in bringing East Timor’s plight to world attention. But all told, this isn’t the documentary I would have made on the topic, being more concerned with being worthy than enthralling.

Shadow Dancer

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“The informant who went into the cold.”

shadowdancerIt’s 1993, and the peace process in Northern Ireland is cautiously inching forward – though there are some who prefer a more robust method of rebellion, shall we say. Among them is Collette McVeigh (Riseborough) whose little brother was killed by the British Army when she was 12. Along with her brothers Gerry (Gillen, whom you’ll know as Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) and Connor, she is part of the armed struggle, until a mission to plant a bomb in London leads to her capture. MI5 officer Mac (Owen) gives her a stark choice: face a long stretch in prison, separated from her children, or become an informer on her own family.  Collette chooses the later, perhaps influenced by Mac showing her it was an IRA sniper who killed her brother. But it soon becomes clear more is at play, with Mac’s boss (Anderson) apparently intent on sacrificing Collette, in order to protect another, more valuable asset.

Man, this is chilly. Just about everyone in this is being manipulated by one or more of the other characters. It is particularly successful at bringing home just how much the life of an informant must become a gurgling vortex of paranoid loneliness: you can’t trust anyone, and your life could end at virtually any moment. There’s one scene which really brings that home, where Collette is taken to an abandoned apartment, and quizzed about recent security breaches by her cell’s “compliance officer” (for want of a better job description!). She’s entirely on her own, and not even her brothers would be able to help if the truth is revealed. But she’s certainly not the only one: Mac is equally being used by his boss as a tool, and with a coldness that’s particularly chilling, since they’re supposed to be on the same side. Enhancing this, is that the viewer can see the point: it’s like a game of chess where a knight is sacrificed to protect the queen. Doesn’t make it any less painful for the knight of course, but the greater good is not necessarily painless. As a result, there are no real villains here: there are, however, a number of people who have to do unpleasant things for others, either through coercion or because they believe them to be justified. Such is the murky world of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Director Marsh is best known for his docudrama Man on Wire, about a tight-rope walker who strung a line between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 and crossed between them, 1,350 feet up. This provides a similar same sense of living on a knife-edge, and resulting ever-present peril – along with the threat of violence, which even infects something as solemn as a funeral. The double-twist ending is shocking, though I confess the second one seemed to appear out of nowhere, and appeared to offer little more than this shock value. Still, as a tense drama, this is solid enough, anchored by decent performances from all involved.

Dir: James Marsh
Star: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen

Female Terrorists

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that “A petite, blond-haired, blue-eyed high school dropout who allegedly used the nickname Jihad Jane was identified Tuesday as an alleged terrorist intent on recruiting others to her cause… LaRose, who lived in suburban Philadelphia, allegedly recruited men and women in the United States, Europe and South Asia to “wage violent jihad,” according to an indictment issued in Pennsylvania.” It’s the latest example of an area in which I find myself treading particularly carefully on this site: female terrorists.

I don’t want anyone to think that I advocate, in any way, “real” violence; long-time readers will know of the issues even the perception of such has caused in the past, and I dread to think how many alarms went off in Homeland Security with the Googling required for this piece! But there is still something transgressively – if not appealing, let’s go with “intriguing” – about the concept of a woman resorting to violence for political or social reasons. It seems such a contradiction, for the supposedly-gentler sex, the one which nurtures life, to use such means, that it demands further investigation. Of course, the word “terrorist” is more than somewhat laden with underlying meaning. In reality, the line between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” is one largely determined by whether or not you support the regime under attack, and the historical record tends to be written by the winners in such struggles. I draw no such lines here: I am more interested in the people in question than the causes they espouse.

What follows is a selection of some of the interesting characters from history, starting more than 130 years ago, and going almost to the present day. I have deliberately excluded suicide bombers from the list, even though these have played an important part in history – for instance, it was a female Tamil Tiger who killed former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. It just doesn’t seem as interesting to me, to blow yourself up for a cause, when compared to a longer-term commitment to it. I have also excluded some obvious names: Palestinian Leila Khaled, because she has been covered before on the site – and will be covered again in the future, since her autobiography is on my reading list – and also Patty Hearst, since it seems questionable whether she was truly acting of her own volition.

1. In the late 19th century, a number of women were among the active leaders of the Russian nihilist organization Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), best known for their assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1981. That was organized by a woman, Sophia Perovskaya, with another female member of the Executive Committee, Vera Figner (left) also participating. Four years previously, Vera Zasulich (right) shot and seriously wounded Colonel Theodore Trepov, the hated governor of St. Petersburg.

2. Daughter of an English baronet, and married to a Polish count, Constance Markiewicz was an unlikely revolutionary. But her political commitment, to causes including women’s suffrage and Irish independence, was deep. She was a Lieutenant in the Irish Citizen’s Army and during the 1916 Easter Rising, Markiewicz was appointed second in command at St Stephen’s Green in Dublin She supervised the setting-up of barricades, and was in the middle of the fighting, wounding a British army sniper. After being released from prison, she became rhe first woman elected to the British Parliament, though did not take her seat.

3. In Cuba, Celia Sánchez (right, with fellow revolutionary Haydée Santamaría) became one of the earliest members of the 26th of July Movement, joining the struggle after the coup against President Batista in 1952. After Fidel Castro was jailed, she became the rebel leader in the mountainous Sierra region of eastern Cuba, and was called by Castro, “the greatest guerrilla fighter and the most outstanding leader of the Cuban Revolution.” was one of the first women to assemble a combat squad during the revolution[. She was tasked with making all the necessary arrangements throughout the southwest coast region of Cuba, for the Granma landing, and was responsible for organising reinforcements once the revolutionaries landed.

4. Considered a key figure in the Algerian struggle for independence from France, Hassiba Ben Bouali joined the FLN (National Liberation Front) while studying at the university in Algiers, and became the liaison officer of Ali La Pointe, deputy chief of FLN military operations for the city. She was active in the manufacture and transport of bombs around the city, as part of a campaign now known as the Battle of Algiers, which began on September 30, 1956 when Bouali and two other female FLNmilitants, carried out a series of bomb attacks on civilian locations. She was killed the following year when French forces bombed their hideout.

5. Tibetan Buddhist nun Ani Pachen fled to a monastery at age 17, after overhearing plans to marry her off, but returned in 1958 after her father died, inhering leadership of her clan. She led a guerrilla campaign, overseeing 600 fighters on horseback against the Chinese occupying forces and their tanks, which only ended with her capture in late 1959. She then spent the next 21 years in prison, and after her release in 1981, continued to protest against the Chinese occupation, until forced in exile in India. She said in a 2000 interview, “My father taught me to ride and to shoot. I used to race horses when I was a teenager. They didn’t have separate races for girls. I raced my horse against men.”

6. Fusako Shigenobu (left, with colleague Kozo Okamoto) was one of the founders and leaders of the Japanese Red Army. She is now serving 20 years for kidnapping embassy workers during a 1974 Japanese Red Army operation, she is also believed to have played key roles in other hijackings and bomb attacks. Reputedly ordered the murder, by burial alive, of a pregnant woman colleague for being “too bourgeois.” Another left-wing radical, Hiroko Nagata, while acting as vice-chairman of the United Red Army, directed the killing of 14 members of the group by beatings or hypothermia, during a 1972 purge. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

7. At only 22, Dora María Téllez was third in command for a 1978 operation which seized control of the Nicaraguan National Palace in Managua, taking the entire congress hostage and helping trigger the fall of the Somoza regime. The following year, Sandinista units under her control fought Somozan forces for six straight weeks, before finally capturing Leon, the second-largest city in Nicaragua. Subsequently became a respected historian, but as recently as 2004, was still barred from the United States as a terrotist.

8. Donna Maguire, once called Europe’s most dangerous woman, travelled to Europe in 1989 as part of an IRA active service unit, an is suspected by authorities of a bombing at a British Army barracks at Osnabruck on 19 June, the killing of a British soldier in a car bomb attack several days later, as well as the murders of two Australian tourists mistaken for off-duty soldiers, and a British soldier in Dortmund. Was eventually found guilty of attempted murder, explosives offences and spying on British Army bases in Germany with intent to sabotage. Sentenced to nine years, she was released immediately due to time spent in prison on remand. A family friend said of her: “She was an ordinary girl on the surface, but underneath she was as hard as nails.”

9. During their struggle for independence from Spain, Basque separatist group ETA had some infamous women members. These include Maria Dolores Gonzalez (“Yoyez”), who was later assassinated by the group as a reprisal for having left. Also high in their power structure was María Soledad Iparragirre, known as ‘Anboto’, whose exploits allegedly included the murder of a Spanish army Lieutenant and a car bomb explosion against a military bus, that killed seven.

10. Nelly Avila Moreno, known as ‘Karina’, surrendered to Colombian authorities in 2008 (right), after a long career as a legend in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). One army intelligence source said, “To become a FARC leader you have to been utterly ruthless and vicious, even more so if you are a woman. Karina was both.” As a result of her battles, she was blind in one eye, lost a breast, had bullet wounds along an arm and had combat scars on her face. The 45-year old was in charge of FARC’s 47th Front, which had up to 350 members operating in the northern province of Antioquia. Sentenced to 33 years in jail, she was released in 2009 to serve as a “promoter of peace.”

  • The Baader-Meinhof Complex

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    Director Edel is probably best known in the West for the embarrassing Body of Evidence, though would rather be remembered for the much better, if incredibly depressing, Last Exit to Brooklyn. This is certainly nearer to the latter, depicting the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof group, also known as the Red Army Faction, the terrorist gang whose actions sent Germany into a state of nervous anxiety in the late 70’s. They started off at the end of the sixties, when Europe was in a state of political flux, but became more radical, engaging in bank robberies to fund their activities and then escalating to bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. The leaders were eventually caught – and I trust this isn’t much of a spoiler – dying mysterious deaths in jail, officially called suicide, but suspected by some as being extra-judicial execution.

    It’s a generally interesting, but also flawed, approach to the subject matter, because it tries too hard to be even-handed, both humanizing the group, while also being sympathetic to the establishment they sought to bring down. It’s hard to do this, while still generating much emotion, because the viewer is left not really knowing for whom they should “root”. In addition, former journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Gedeck – the picture, above, is the real Meinhof) is initially the focus of the movie’s attention, but the way things unfold (and I’m manfully avoiding any spoilers there) mean that things inevitably have to shift away from her in the latter stages. The movie also faces the inevitable problem of any film based on actual events: reality rarely, if ever, follows a three-act structure, and as a result, either the facts or the drama have to suffer – here, it seems to be the drama, with the story not so much building to a climax as petering out.

    That said, the performances are good, particularly Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin, who has been described as the intellectual head of the RAF. What makes it suitable for inclusion here is the way that both Meinhof and Ennslin are depicted as the driving forces, the engine-room of the Red Army Faction. Andreas Baader (Bleibtreu – who was also the ineffectual boyfriend in Run Lola Run) is depicted as a hot-head, and something of a hypocrite, with a taste for fast cars. It’s clear that Ensslin and Meinhof are the ones that run the group – Baader was, in fact, a high-school dropout and one of the few RAF members who did not attend university. I have vague memories of hearing reports about the group as I grew up; while it was good to have the large blanks in my knowledge filled in, this felt more like a Discovery Channel re-enactment of the RAF’s history, rather than offering anything truly cinematic.

    Dir: Uli Edel
    Star: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl

The Baader-Meinhof Complex

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Director Edel is probably best known in the West for the embarrassing Body of Evidence, though would rather be remembered for the much better, if incredibly depressing, Last Exit to Brooklyn. This is certainly nearer to the latter, depicting the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof group, also known as the Red Army Faction, the terrorist gang whose actions sent Germany into a state of nervous anxiety in the late 70’s. They started off at the end of the sixties, when Europe was in a state of political flux, but became more radical, engaging in bank robberies to fund their activities and then escalating to bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. The leaders were eventually caught – and I trust this isn’t much of a spoiler – dying mysterious deaths in jail, officially called suicide, but suspected by some as being extra-judicial execution.

It’s a generally interesting, but also flawed, approach to the subject matter, because it tries too hard to be even-handed, both humanizing the group, while also being sympathetic to the establishment they sought to bring down. It’s hard to do this, while still generating much emotion, because the viewer is left not really knowing for whom they should “root”. In addition, former journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Gedeck – the picture, above, is the real Meinhof) is initially the focus of the movie’s attention, but the way things unfold (and I’m manfully avoiding any spoilers there) mean that things inevitably have to shift away from her in the latter stages. The movie also faces the inevitable problem of any film based on actual events: reality rarely, if ever, follows a three-act structure, and as a result, either the facts or the drama have to suffer – here, it seems to be the drama, with the story not so much building to a climax as petering out.

That said, the performances are good, particularly Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin, who has been described as the intellectual head of the RAF. What makes it suitable for inclusion here is the way that both Meinhof and Ennslin are depicted as the driving forces, the engine-room of the Red Army Faction. Andreas Baader (Bleibtreu – who was also the ineffectual boyfriend in Run Lola Run) is depicted as a hot-head, and something of a hypocrite, with a taste for fast cars. It’s clear that Ensslin and Meinhof are the ones that run the group – Baader was, in fact, a high-school dropout and one of the few RAF members who did not attend university. I have vague memories of hearing reports about the group as I grew up; while it was good to have the large blanks in my knowledge filled in, this felt more like a Discovery Channel re-enactment of the RAF’s history, rather than offering anything truly cinematic.

Dir: Uli Edel
Star: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl

Day Night Day Night

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“Is it live, or is it Semtex?”

This is one of those which split the panel here. Chris was thoroughly unimpressed with its lack of a well-defined conclusion: “I knew it,” she muttered, “As soon as I saw this had a woman writer/director.” Certainly, if you are looking for a clear, structured thriller, this won’t be for you. Explanations are notable by their absence, as we learn about a young girl, preparing to stage a suicide bombing in Times Square. Who is she? Why is she doing this? What group is helping her? We never really learn explicitly. There are occasional clues, such as an Islamic-themed backdrop in front of which she is carefully posed for the traditional video, but as we never get to see the video, it’s inconclusive. We get hints of family trauma: she says her parents are dead, but later on, calls them from a payphone, and the only possession she wants to keep is a photo of a kid brother. But “Leah Cruz” – the woman whose identity she adopts, and on which she is relentlessly quizzed by the cell commander (Weinstein) is basically a blank canvas, onto which you can project whatever you want. “I have only one death and I want my death to be for you,” she says at the start; that’s as much of an explanation as you’ll get.

It is a cop-out, no question about it, and I can’t blame Chris for being annoyed: it’s both lazy story-telling and bad film-making to make the audience do all the heavy lifting, as Loktev does here. However, I tend to think it occasionally does the brain good to give it a workout, and let’s be honest, the Girls With Guns genre isn’t usually the place to find such an exercise. That doesn’t excuse the maddeningly unfinal ending, however, that is the film’s weakest moment. If Loktev had delivered a genuine conclusion – one way or the other, it doesn’t really matter – she would have been on much firmer ground. Up until then, I was willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, with Williams providing a surprisingly strong core: excruciatingly polite, yet bent on committing the most awful destruction through her 40-pound backpack [“It’s mostly nails,” says one of the cell, helpfully].

The devil is very much in the details: she clips her toenails and requests a pizza, behaving more like a college girl than someone preparing to carry out mass murder. But would any terrorist group allow its human bomb to wander the streets aimlessly, rather than heading straight for the target? Surely every minute increases the risk of capture and failure? It’s in aspects such as this that the hyper-realistic feel – no incidental music, for example – breaks down, and you are reminded that what you’re watching is just as much cinematic contrivance as 24 or Vantage Point.

Dir: Julia Loktev
Star: Luisa Williams, Josh P. Weinstein

Leila Khaled: Hijacker

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“Terrorist? Freedom fighter? You decide…”

Khaled became internationally famous in 1969, for hijacking a TWA flight from Rome to Athens, diverting it to Damascus, where it was blown up – after everyone had been taken off [this was a kinder, gentler era of terrorism]. She then underwent plastic surgery to conceal her identity, and the following year tried to hijack another plane. However, air marshals shot her colleague and captured Khaled, who was taken into custody in London, only to be released soon afterwards as part of a prisoner exchange. She returned to the Middle East, her sky-piracy career at an end, but became an icon of the Palestinian movement, and remains active in it to this day, despite travel restrictions. The Guardian wrote of Khaled in 2001,

She flamboyantly overcame the patriarchal restrictions of Arab society where women are traditionally subservient to their husbands, by taking an equal fighting role with men, by getting divorced and remarried, having children in her late 30s, and rejecting vanity by having her face reconstructed for her cause… “I no longer think it’s necessary to prove ourselves as women by imitating men,” she says. “I have learned that a woman can be a fighter, a freedom fighter, a political activist, and that she can fall in love, and be loved, she can be married, have children, be a mother.”

A fascinating and complex character, it can’t be said that much of the complexity – both hers, and the entire Middle East situation – comes across in this documentary, less than a hour long. You get a quick romp through her early history, her family’s departure from then-Palestine just after World War II, both hijackings, and then we leap forward to the present day, where she’s a mother and works for a political group. There are some interesting moments, such as where she draws a line between what she did, and the 9/11 hijackings: “I don’t agree with the murders of civilians, no matter where in the world”, and she’s been consistent in expressing that. More probing questions would have been welcome: instead, Makboul – brought up in Sweden by her Palestinian parents – admits to having been basically a fan. She interviews others involved in the hijacks, such as a stewardess and the crew, and follows Khaled on a trip to the Chatila refugee camp in the Lebanon, but the film ends abruptly, just as she asks Khaled about the negative image of Palestinians as terrorists that she helped create.

Overall, it’s a frustrating documentary, raising as many questions as it can be bothered to answer. It only scratches the surface of an icon from whom a line can be drawn to modern-day female ‘martyrs’ such as Wafa Idris, but leaves me eager to learn more: she wrote an autobiography, entitled My People Shall Live, published in 1973, so I may have to try and track that down. She certainly stands alongside Patty Hearst and Ulrike Meinhof in the ‘Hall of Fame’ for female terrorists; having had a song written about her by The Teardrop Explodes merits some extra cool points. But if you’re interested, here’s a probably better – less disjointed, certainly – interview with Khaled, carried out in 2000 by, ironically enough, the magazine Aviation Security. Leila notes the black humour there, saying she’s “looking forward to finding out what you wanted to know from me about the security of aviation…”

Dir: Lina Makboul