Posts Tagged ‘movies’

A post over at Whose World Order? for ECFR after a protracted silence on that front due to travel. Am going to hammer out a few more of these over the next few days as we have quite a busy period here in Shanghai with an upcoming conference I am helping run which should produce some interesting insights that would be interesting in this format.

Shanghai View: What are you watching?

Date: 13th June 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaHollywoodSiffSoft PowerShanghai International Film Festival

The Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) got underway this weekend. Amongst the speakers that they attracted to the opening events, media mogul Rupert Murdoch made an appearance, lavishing praise upon the rapidly growing Chinese film market – from $150 million in box office takings in 2005 to $1.5 billion in 2010 – but also highlighting the still highly restrictive nature of the market to outsiders. Few outside China know that the government only allows 20 foreign films onto Chinese screens every year.

To clarify, this does not mean 20 American films (though of course the 20 tend to mostly be American), but the Chinese government only allows in 20 films from outside the nation every year to be screened legally in Chinese cinemas. These are also edited for extreme violence or sexuality, leading to some rather odd cutaways. I went to see GI Joe – not a proud admission – and at a crucial point when a character was having his face altered, it cut rather abruptly to the next scene. It took me a moment to figure out what had happened and most of the rather simple film to figure out what had taken place in the missing minute or so. The idea is to protect the Chinese public from the amoral depravity of some foreign films (something that is also practiced in Singapore for example), but also it is a way to keep out films with questionable political content. This equally applies to television, though in a more curious way since while Korean soap operas are hugely popular, western ones cannot be found on Chinese television.

An underlying logic of all this is to give the Chinese film industry a chance to develop and grow in a protected environment. The result of Chinese blocking of websites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has been to create a raft of local alternatives (Youku/TudouRenren and Weibo) some of which are now floating on international exchanges like the NASDAQ. By keeping foreign films out, they hope a domestic industry will develop that can compete with Hollywood or Bollywood. But it is unclear that this is working. In a Wikileaked US diplomatic cable from March 2007, expected incoming leader Xi Jinping was reported stating, “Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote.” In contrast he thought that Hollywood made movies well and the films “have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil.”

I feel like the demarcation between good and evil in Chinese films is usually pretty clear. But what is missing is a level of quality and diversity. Chinese films tend to fall into categories of being Romantic Comedies (with storylines like Friends), epic historical films (like the Founding of a Republic, a massive film starring just about every famous Chinese actor, that came out to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC), or elaborate special effects laden Kung-fu films (into this category I also put Sci-fi, fantasy and other such movies). Very few introspective or profound Chinese movies are released. The result is that they do not get a huge amount of airplay outside China – occasional breakthroughs do appear, but they often tend to have some heavy outside influence as well. For example, the hugely successful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a Chinese-Hong Kong-Taiwanese-American production.

Despite the availability of pirate DVDs (have a look around Youku and Tudou) this deprives the US and EU of a key part of their soft power – or at least puts it in a legal grey area. This is unfortunate as the free-flow of stories from the West to China and back is clearly one of the most effective ways to foster deeper understanding between the two. Clearly the next Chinese leader likes American movies; surely Xi Jinping can see the advantages of bringing more of these stories to the population he is about to lead.

A new post over at Free Rad!cals, which is in the middle of a relaunch. Lets hope it goes well! In the meantime, the piece looks at two films I recently saw about terrorism in the West – both worth watching. One thing I would add is that I provide a link in it to my earlier Studies in Conflict and Terrorism piece, which is behind a firewall. There are a few pieces on this site like that – apologies, but if you want to read them, use the contact form to drop me a note and I can see what I can do.

Filed under: Afghanistan, Bin Laden, ICSR, Radicalisation, UK

I have recently indulged in watching a couple of films which in different ways handle contemporary terrorism. One is serious and one is less so, but both did inspire me to think about issues around some of the questions they raise. While my aim is not to provide a substantive critique on the films themselves, undoubtedly some opinion will slip in.

First up (in alphabetical order) is Four Lions, British satirist Chris Morris’s take on Islamist terrorism in the UK. In true Morris style it is a mordant comedy which pulls no punches in highlighting the sheer stupidity and inadequacy of the majority of young men who become involved in jihadist terrorism in the UK. The men are religiously illiterate and lead meaningless lives which are focused around whatever banal things fill the average middle Englander’s day.

Clueless: Three of the Four Lions

Morris claims much of the material he has used came from amongst the reams of research into court documents and interviews he has done with people who have become involved in Islamist terrorism in the UK. I have no doubt that this is true – I have spoken to a number of security professionals who have at various points in my endless questioning about various plots and plotters highlighted to me what morons these chaps actually are. And in some cases, you really have to wonder. Omar Khyam, the leader of the Crevice plot, was busted after he forgot the bomb-making recipe he had learned and emailed his friend in Pakistan a rather blatant note inquiring about the specific volumes. Eventual “super-grass” Mohammed Junaid Babar was so discrete that he thought it would be a good idea to go straight to the hotel where all the foreign journalists were staying in Lahore and announce that he had radical ideas and was willing to do interviews about it. This landed him a prime-time slot on international TV and arrest as soon as he stepped back onto U.S. soil. Rangzieb Ahmed, the first man to be jailed in the UK for being an “Al Qaeda director,” was unclear what exactly a bidet was and thought it might be a bath for small people. And the list goes on. One case which Morris highlighted in interviews is of a plotter who snorted some TATP thinking it was cocaine – I have been unable to pin down exactly who this was and would appreciate any pointers.

But for me, the fact that they are idiots is not all that relevant. Some of them may not be all that smart, but they are nonetheless playing with dangerous toys which can lead to innocent deaths. That they have no idea what they are doing, are religiously illiterate and are buffoons is somewhat tangential if they are able to actually follow through on what they are attempting to do, albeit in their half-baked way. Morris hints at this towards the end, but it is an important point to remember when considering these people as idiots. People treated Abu Hamza like a clown who had been delivered by central casting to act as a real-life Captain Hook until it became clear exactly what he was facilitating. This is not to exaggerate the menace, but neither is it a good idea to completely dismiss it – the real point is that hopefully such satire will help demystify these groups a bit.

The second film, which is probably less well-known outside a specialist audience, is called “La Prima Linea” (translation: the first line – it was the name of the group). It is an Italian film which looks at a terrorist group that existed in Italy during the Anni di Piombo (years of lead) during which left and right wing terror groups shot and blasted their way around the country. The group was second only to the more notorious Brigate Rosse (red brigades) in number of activities and members. Based on the memoirs of one of the group’s commanders, the film does for the group much the same as “The Baader Meinhof Complex” did for the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction).

Unlike Four Lions, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and is told from the perspective of one of the leading members who relates his story from prison. It shows how the group evolved from small-time protesters, to murder and beyond. In many ways it is a story telling a piece of Italian history – but in the same way as something can be learned from examining old groups which is applicable today, the group dynamics highlighted in the film offer some lessons which seem relevant to our time

In the film we see how the group launches a massive assault on a prison to release their comrades. A rather foolhardy act in many ways, but nonetheless it does provide evidence of how strong the bonds are between the members of the group – a dynamic which is part of Marc Sageman’s “bunch of guys” theory. Much is made of the emotional bond between the individuals in the group (in true Italian style, two fall in love), and the fact that over time, the political content of what they are doing starts to lose its power and not wanting to let down your comrades takes over as a driving motivation. Early on we also see how, though they don’t think that they are necessarily going to achieve their goals, they are certain that something should be done and a vanguard needs to lead the way with action.

In an earlier post looking at the RAF, I (in a highly caveated fashion) pointed out some of the similarities between these leftist groups and current Islamist groups. This film adds some depth to this discussion in showing how the dynamics of the relationships in such groups might work – though it is unclear that current groups are necessarily structured in as hierarchical a fashion.