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Theo van Gogh: Words and Reform

Rino Breebaart

Muslim women, the very subject of the film that resulted in van Gogh's murder, may ultimately be the force that invoke proactive change within Islam.

I want to get right to the facts on this one. The filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed repeatedly in Amsterdam on the 2nd of November 2004 by a practicing Dutch Muslim of migrant heritage. Van Gogh was a popular and controversial figure long known and tolerated in Holland for his in-your-face provocation and baiting of established norms, especially religious norms. He was killed in direct response to a short film he'd made criticising the standing of women in Islam, called Submission, and his killer, identified only as Mohammed B. by the Dutch authorities, used a knife to fix a ranting and threatening tract to his chest. It was a rather brutal murder; the killer even tried to behead the corpse. Several reprisal (or rather, knee-jerk) attacks broke out around Holland against Islamic schools in the days after, but thankfully there were no further fatalities. The steno headlines gushed in from the former calm: "Islamists threaten to retaliate... Madness in Holland... Revenge bomb attacks."

The film in question, Submission (viewable online at addresses a systemic pattern of masculine/paternal authority as seemingly sanctioned by the Koran, through a monologue by a young woman driven to despair by abuse. In its rather short run of 11 minutes, it covers arranged marriage, marital and familial mistreatment, infidelity, covering up with the veil as well as covering the bruises of abuse. A narrative about the shame of submission and disappointed devotion, it's all bracketed within a prayer to Allah. Though there's a suggestion of nudity with thin veils and Koranic texts written on the actress' body, the film almost reads like a grad student's PhD submission in its discretion and mild metaphor; it doesn't go for guns-blazing criticism or deliberate hyperbole. Scripted by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Somalian refugee and now a Dutch parliamentarian, the film's strongest import is to imply a need for reform and discussion within Islam, especially addressing the women of Islam. It's stylised enough for broadcast television; it is nowhere near as explicitly infiltrating or questioning of Islam as The Satanic Verses was, for instance.

Beside the attempt at desperate symbolism with the attempted beheading of the filmmaker, it's fair to say that words play a superficial and also a symbolic role in this religiously and politically motivated murder. Politics and religion are becoming ever more entwined and weighted with power these days. I'm thinking of the victory for the broad religious Right in America's last Presidential election and the outlawing of headscarves in French schools. The murder of van Gogh points to the dangers faced by writers and reformers whose subject is Islam. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie comes to mind as a politically motivated act of extremism, but between Rushdie and van Gogh there is already a huge difference in the state of politics in the world. Extremists who illegitimately consider themselves the spokesmen of Islam are now seemingly ready to execute harshly symbolic acts, irrespective of how damaging those acts are for Islam. These acts and their words, which have little to do with the spirit and principles of Islam.

The danger in criticising any religion lay in antagonising particular views and interpretations, particularly the misguided views of radical camps and extremists. The offensiveness read into Submission, the raison d'être of the killing, one could argue, lies not only in its brush of nudity and unveiled, pro-women criticism of certain Islamic traditions, but also in its use of Arabic texts painted onto the actresses' body. Imagine an Arab director painting the Ten Commandments on a naked woman and filming her suggestively for a story set in Mississippi. Comparably to Submission, such a film would convey an extreme inability, on the filmmaker's part, to perceive the full religious and cultural context of his story, and the impact that story may have. That kind of symbolism and use of words is easily usurped by extremists.

But strangely, the reactionary rant affixed to the corpse of van Gogh by Mohammed B doesn't reply in kind about the state of women under certain traditions. The text addresses itself instead exclusively and vengefully to Ayaan Hirsi Ali; as a former Muslim, as a woman escaping arranged marriage and as a politician in the Dutch parliament. The tract betrays a virulent anti-Semitism, a specious rhetoric and sanctimonious threats in its response: a quick steno transliteration from the Dutch: "You are an enemy of Islam... The Dutch parliament is dominated by Jews... You will destroy yourself upon Islam... I am certain that you, unbelieving fundamentalist, will go down...' etc.

Mohammed B's screed brazenly reveals how misguided extremism becomes. The stronger its violence and recklessness, the more circumscribed and aggressive the language and devotion required to participate in it. This case exemplifies the blind desperation of a fundamentalist unhinged from his religion. The sad fact is that push for reform that van Gogh's film calls for (even the idea of reform within religion, or rather, of certain traditions under the blanket of religion) and religiously-inspired extremism are two tendencies that push apart any peaceful middle ground, the middle ground that intelligent and balanced art and fiction can tread so well (if provocatively), and which extremism exploits to the violent hilt. The frame and range of debate proffered is usurped for symbolic political gain. This is a rather worrisome trend in our world .

Reform of religious tradition is always a difficult and slow issue, but as such highlights the importance and value of the hard questions raised in the process, and hence the value of the writers who dare to raise them. Especially in the new political-religious climate we live in today.

Note: a breath of inspiration goes to the brave reform-writer Irshad Manji at Manji is an activist working at reform from within Islam. She is the fulfilment of Salman Rushdie's opinion (and by association, that of van Gogh's film) that it is Muslim women who will affect change most strongly.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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