Movie Time and Other Cultures

I’ve hibernated this weekend — at least last night and today.  I spent several hours yesterday with friends but by the time I got home was ready for some time alone.

What have I done?  A lot of reading.  A bit of housework (mainly dishes).  No television.  But two movies ended up in the DVD player, one last night and one this morning.

Neither movie was made by a U.S. director.  Both were for English-speaking audiences.  Yet neither was about the U.S.  

I’d bought one DVD before I left for Greece, but hadn’t watched it.  The other I bought in Athens because it sounded interesting, yet hadn’t watched it yet either.

For some reason, last night and today seemed the right time to spend with these films.  For a few hours, each took me outside myself and my culture and time.  Each involved me in films based on true stories about real people and events, set in countries and times distance from my own.

First I watched Day of the Falcon, a film from 2011 originally titled Black Gold, based on a 1957 novel by Hans Ruesch called South of the Heart: A Novel of Modern Arabia.  Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, the film depicts the beginning of oil production in early 20th century Saudi Arabia.  Antonio Banderas is the best-known actor in the film, and I admit that it was Banderas who caught my eye.  He’s one of those actors who could read the phone book and I’d want to watch.  

I don’t quite know what I expected, but the film surprised me.  Beautifully photographed in Tunisia and Qatar, it depicts Arabia before unification under one ruling family.  Instead, here there are two separate kingdoms, ruled by two very different men.  One, Sultan Amar, is a very religious, traditional man; he leaves his two sons with the other ruler, Emir Nesib, as hostages. The Yellow Belt, a no-man’s land as established between them by treaty to prevent war, is the reason for the two boys being left with Nesib.  He brings them up with his own two children, a boy and a girl.  The Yellow Belt turns out to be rich with oil, and while Nesib is quick to grasp the benefits of oil production, Amar rejects the idea altogether.  Despite the different attitudes and despite the agreement that the Yellow Belt would remain unclaimed, Nesib allows  a company called Texas Oil to develop an oil field there.  Banderras plays Emir Nesib, leader of Hobeika.  

The film covers a period of at least 15 years, since the boys have been left with him that long before one of them sees their father again.

The older son, Saleh, escapes after killing his escorts, and is in turn killed.  The younger son, Prince Auda, is a bookish, thoughtful, religious young man.  He and Nesib’s daughter Leyla have been friends since childhood, and each is secretly in love with the other.  The two marry with Nesib’s blessing, but without Amar’s knowledge.  Eventually, Amar is sent as an emissary to his own father, who refuses to return him.  Slowly, Amar comes to know his own father as an authentic, well-meaning leader.  

That the modern world is not welcome in Amar’s kingdom of Salma becomes clear to Auda.  Though his own half-brother Ali is a physician, he is not allowed to use medicine because it is Western.  Yet Auda’s spirited defense of the use of medicine, using the very Koran his father’s advisers also base their arguments on, impresses Amar.  

War is inevitable, and Auda reluctantly joins his father in moving troops toward the Yellow Belt.  Nesib’s army has at its disposal every modern weapon at hand, thanks to the wealth that has come with the oil.  Auda’s troops, in contrast, rely on camels and swords, though also having guns.

In the course of the battle, Nesib’s son is killed despite Auda’s attempts to prevent this.  Auda genuinely grieves the loss.  Eventually Auda and Amar triumph, but Amar is killed by a tribesman who doesn’t understand what has happened.  Auda ends up ruling both Hobeika and Salma, reunited with his wife.  Rather than kill his defeated father-in-law, Auda decides to have him go to Houston as their representative on the board of Texas Oil.

Why did I find this movie intriguing, despite its lackluster critical reception in the U.S.?  Perhaps it is the very non-U.S. nature of the film itself.  Here is a depiction of a critical period in Arab history, focused on Arabs, in a film produced by an Arab — yet clearly meant for an English-speaking audience.

It doesn’t bash the oil company or the oil development.  Rather it focuses on the clash within the Arab world itself, between the very traditional world of Amar that resists any intrusion of the modern, and the traditional world of Nesib that welcomes the changes of the modern world as bringing benefits.  

Young Auda is the figure who, in the end, will manage to balance the two, it is implied.  

It is a romantic film, to be sure, though not in the sense of the love story, which is almost secondary to the central story.  No, it is a romantic film about the Arab past and its emergence into the modern world.  The cinematography is lush and inviting.  Yet the grime and violence of this world are not hidden.  Here we see both camels and motorcars, airplanes and oil wells, swords and tanks.  

My sense is that the producer wanted to portray a positive image of recent Arab history to a non-Arab audience unfamiliar with much about Arab history or cultures.  The diversity of the various tribes might surprise many, but here we can see the many different faces of the Arab world.  It avoids any American-bashing or British-bashing.  It simply invites those of us who are strangers to this world and culture and history to experience it for itself.  

I’ve read a number of books about the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia and what happened; I particularly enjoyed Robert Lacey’s The Kingdom and Inside the Kingdom.  After watching Day of the Falcon, I wanted to find a copy of the novel it’s based on, but it’s apparently out of print.  I will continue to search for it to see if I can get a reasonably priced copy.  And I  would like to read more.  

While it was a bit slow, it didn’t let me turn it off, either.  Perhaps the sense that a film has to be quickly engaging is a particularly Western notion.  But I was glad that I kept watching.  And yes, I did enjoy watching Banderas.  

This morning I felt like a similar experience — and so selected God Loves Caviar, a Greek film released in 2012.  Once again I found myself watching a film in English for an English-speaking audience that offered as a subject something not Western at all.  

Set in the late 18th and early 19th century, God Loves Caviar depicts the story of one man, Ioannis Varvakis, a Greek pirate and patriot who ends up in Russia as a successful businessman who makes exporting caviar the center of his wealth.  Varvakis supports Greek nationalism with his money; he wants to free Greece from the Turks and the oppression of centuries.  

A compelling figure, Varvakis fails to find happiness in his personal life, but finds contentment only when he abandons his focus on money, gives up his business, gives away his money, and then returns to Greece to fight for Greek independence.  There he is imprisoned and dies.  

Again I found myself pulled in, yet couldn’t quite follow everything.  I found that though I liked the German actor who played Varvakis, and the Russian actor who played his friend and servant Ivan, I never got beneath the surface of characters.  There were other things that bothered me, too — the ages of some characters and the time passing didn’t seem to fit at times.  There were lots of characters and lots of scenes that weren’t tied together well for me. I found myself emotionally distant.  

A Greek audience would recognize the storyline and the history here, but a non-Greek audience wouldn’t be able to follow this unless already knowledgeable.  The Greek War for Independence (1821-8) is depicted but little is explained about the people involved.  Kolokotronis, for example, one of the great heroes of the war, is depicted.  But would the ordinary English-speaking audience know who he was?

The film moves in place as well as time, from Varvakis’s home island of Psara to Russia, to the Caspian Sea, and back to Greece.  Some comments I found about the film note there are discrepancies in some costuming — that while Varvakis is from the island of Psara, he is wearing Cretan clothing.  I’m not expert enough to know whether that’s accurate.  But I was quite impressed with the costuming of the court of Catherine the Great and in general.

The Greek director, Yiannis Smaragdis, is well-known there.  Though many of the actors are Greek, not all are.  Sebastian Koch, a German, plays Varvakis.  Yvgeniy Stychin plays Ivan.  Catherine Deneuve plays Catherine the Great.  John Cleese even appears in the film as a British character somehow involved in the temporary government.  John Diego Botto plays Lefentarios, a Greek whose rise parallels and intersects with that of Varvakis, but whose alliances shift from Turks to Russians to British as needs push.   It is through him and the quick depiction of the Greek War of Independence that the role of the Great Powers is suggested, but again, I’m not sure a general audience would be aware of the history here.

Yet I enjoyed the film.  The cinematography was quite fine.  The scenery was beautiful.  As with Day of the Falcon, I think this is a romantic film, very Greek in its sensibilities.  I particularly enjoyed watching the actors who played Varvakis and Ivan.  Koch’s eyes were compelling, and from what I have read about Varvakis, his name (not his birth name) derived from the fact that his eyes resembled those of a bird of prey from the island of Psarra — known as varvaki.

I was entertained by God Loves Caviar, moved by Koch’s performance, and knew enough about Greek history to follow what was being depicted.  There were touches of mysticism, almost magical realism, in scenes depicting Varvakis’s encounters with a God-like figure who seems to guide him at times. Though not at all familiar with the story of Varvakis himself, I find myself wanting to know more about him.

In both cases, I enjoyed being taken into another culture, from the perspective of that culture.  The very nature of the films themselves reveal, I think, something of the cultures that produced them.  

It’s nice to get outside yourself and your culture sometimes.  It allows insights that come only from some kind of displacement out of the known.  

But then, that’s why I travel, too.  


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