Well, we’ve spent the last few months ruminating on the state of self-isolation and now here we are, living the final days of our partial lockdown. This is the weekend that marks the end of social distancing, and just when we’d started to adapt, everything’s about to change yet again.
Cafés, restaurants and places of worship will reopen at 25% capacity. Cultural activities (at least the ones run by the Culture Ministry) will resume by mid-July, also at 25% audience capacity across different venues. The curfew will pretty much be lifted (public transport will stop from midnight to 4 am every night); shops will close at 9 pm while the eateries and coffee-shops will close at 10. Strangely enough, parks and beaches are to remain closed, even though being in open spaces is safer than closed ones — but what can we say. We can only hope this isn’t the beginning of a bigger crisis.
In any case, dear readers, let’s remember that the virus is still out there, and that the danger persists. You may find yourself eager to return to your usual, pre-corona patterns with everything reopening, but do proceed with caution. In light of these controversial decisions by the government, the one thing standing between us and the unmitigated spread of infection is our own sense of responsibility.
Of course, the fact that we now have a choice — self-isolate until the figures improve or go out into the world in a desperate attempt to recover a sense of normalcy — is in itself anxiety-inducing. But that’s a whole other story, one we’ll probably devote some more time to in our upcoming issues.
For now, however, enjoy our weekly recommendations, and stay safe.
-Last week (June 22) marked what would have been Abbas Kiarostami’s 80th birthday. The late filmmaker, who passed away in 2016, was a bonafide film icon, his inventive use of the form often credited with introducing Iranian cinema to the international stage. Here, American film critic Godfrey Cheshire dives into the enchanting perplexities of Kiarostami’s celebrated masterpiece Close-Up (1990), detailing the intricate process through which the film was made, the interplay between fiction and documentary central to its structure, and how the defining features of Kiarostami’s filmmaking shine through different scenes.
Meanwhile, in this interview, conducted with Kiarostami after the premiere of his 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us, the director discusses his poetic approach to cinema, and the tension between the visible and the intangible within the realms of a film: “We have a saying in Persian, when somebody is looking at something with real intensity: ‘He had two eyes and he borrowed two more.’ Those two borrowed eyes are what I want to capture—the eyes that will be borrowed by the viewer to see what’s outside the scene he’s looking at. To see what is there and also what is not there.”
-Yesterday was the anniversary of influential French philosopher Michel Foucault’s death. For this occasion, we share his seminal 1977 book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, to revisit or read for the first time in case you have not. Another interesting read that could work as a critical companion to Foucault’s work is this interview with sociologist Daniel Zamora, co-editor of the controversial book Foucault and Neoliberalism, where he claims: “Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state.”
-Two English excerpts are now available from writer and filmmaker Nadia Kamel’s 2018 ingenious biography of her mother, enigmatically titled Born. Both excerpts are translated by Brady Ryan and Essayed Taha, and are available to read on Words Without Borders and The Los Angeles Review, respectively. For Arabic readers, make sure you also check out novelist Nael El-Toukhy’s interview with the author on the unique and layered process behind writing the book: “I initially thought I was going to make a film about Mama’s life, but over time the format changed. As you begin to grasp things while you work, the idea itself dictates the format … As I listened and recorded while my mother told her story, I realized that things were changing. It was no longer a recollection of the past, but something within her current consciousness, her very character, was moving. Until she cried when she told me about her Jewish relatives who traveled to Palestine upon the establishment of the state of Israel. That was the turning point.”
Farida Hussein recommends After Life
I suppose when we think of ways to “detox” and shed our worries on the weekend, the story of a suicidal widower who revels in discrediting others’ fragile sense of hope does not exactly make it to the top of the list. But bear with me, we’ll get there. I think.
After Life, a Netflix show brought to us by the mastermind that is Ricky Gervais, follows the underwhelming life of Tony Johnson, a small town local who has lost all hope in life after his wife Lisa lost her battle with breast cancer. Tony reluctantly goes through the motions of life very much like someone who is already dead. We see him openly express that he wants to kill himself to his friends and coworkers and we see him set the stage to end his life multiple times, only to be brought back to his miserable life by his dog, Brandy. He laments that if only she could open a can of dog food, he would have done the deed long ago.
Tony’s life often seems dull and meaningless. He works for a local newspaper where he gets the unparalleled opportunity to cover terribly thrilling scoops (not), such as a woman who decides to start a pudding business using her very own breast milk. His aging father suffers from Alzheimer’s, can’t remember his own son and incessantly asks him where Lisa is. But the thing is, Tony used to cope with all these less-than-ideal things in his life just fine when Lisa was around, which goes to show how the onset of depression distorts one’s worldview and magnifies struggles that may otherwise seem ordinary and not quite as catastrophic as they seem to him.
The trauma of Lisa’s death taints everything Tony thinks and feels. When he isn’t getting flashbacks of him pranking Lisa and damn near giving her a heart attack, he is replaying the videos she secretly recorded before her death to pass on her suggestions for him to retain functionality: feed the dog, don’t become fat, and meet another woman who is as lovely as she is (but not quite) — almost a confirmation that she wants him to carry on living a full life without her.
But despite attempts by his family and coworkers to get him out and about, Tony seems content right where he is: continuing to be an asshole until it all gets too much and he can finally kill himself. His master plan to spiral downwards, however, keeps getting derailed by little inconveniences that sneakily weave meaning into his life. People who serendipitously walk into Tony’s life and start out almost as a nuisance (an annoying postman who reads his mail, an aspiring young journalist who requires his guidance, and a nurse who calls him out on his cruelty to others) turn into unlikely friends, or even more. He also grows closer to Anne, an elderly widow who encourages him to give life another chance. This supporting cast of odd, eccentric characters provides a much-needed dose of humor to the show.
Make no mistake, though: Tony does not suddenly realize that life is beautiful and he does not recover by the sheer power of love, advice and sprinkles. He does not have an aha moment after which his debilitating grief miraculously disappears into thin air. Rather, the companionship he reluctantly receives in the unlikeliest of forms starts to create tiny little cracks of light in his otherwise-gloomy life. And this is where the show’s edge lies: it meaningfully traces the all-too-familiar ebbs and flows of recovering from mental illness, highlighting how non-linear this healing process is.
Each episode chronicles a full day of Tony’s life, and they all start out with the paralyzing dread of realizing that Lisa is truly gone. But then Tony would go about his day: he’d have a good conversation, smile, do something nice for someone (albeit sometimes misguided like doing it through threatening a child with a hammer) and the viewer would hope for him to keep it up, but he doesn’t. As the day’s noise eventually dies down, he’d find himself falling right back into his grief.
I constantly avoid TV shows and movies that trace themes that, to put it very simply, have the potential to make me sad (aka, almost anything that isn’t El-Lemby or Zakeyya Zakareyya). I was initially scared of After Life; its premise seemed like a recipe for disaster, especially under self-isolation and in light of my perpetually precarious mental state. However, contrary to what I expected, it actually served as a companion to my quarantine misery. It is a show about depression, but it is also incredibly funny, and the thoughtful ways in which it explores human suffering somehow create a sense of familiarity, solidarity and unlikely hope. It is a perfect marriage of tragedy and laughter, reminding us that the two often go hand in hand. Such is the resilience of the human spirit.
This week, we offer you four full hours of electronic music, handpicked by Ahmed El Sabbagh. Listen to the Spotify playlist below.
In the end, dear readers, we leave you with Abbas Kiarostami’s first film ever, an 11-minute short titled The Bread and Alley, made in 1970.
Until next week!