Anger Is An Energy: Responding To Paul Greengrass’s 22 July

Anger is an energy sang The Sex Pistols, and so the punk movement took flight. Behind the now cliché of a colourful mohican was a frantic energy to destroy the status-quo of the elites running culture and politics. This was a music that left everything out on stage – except, perhaps, the instruments themselves which were often thrashed past the point of breakage when the gig has reached its climax. A few bands still do this even now; it’s seen to be a signifier of having given so much to the performance that there’s nowhere left to go, a symbol of the destruction of the established order. It’s also quite good fun to watch. Like most musical genres, once punk muscled its way into deeper public consciousness it seemed to have less energy, and to be a bit tired. That’s not entirely fair, but the hardcore punk fans see neo-punk acts who remain commercially successful as bands who have sold out – many true punks look disdainfully on bands like Green Day and their fans as having somehow failed by virtue of their success. The baton of truth is held, it’s said, by bands most of us would never have heard of; in punk, and in other genres that once betokened rebellion but now command widespread attention – RnB, hip-hop, rap. And so on.

Anger isn’t wrong; it just seems to be something that can easily tip us over into wrong. One New Testament letter writer doesn’t say ‘Your anger is a sin’; it says, instead ‘In your anger, do not sin’. Anger is an energy, which left unchecked can lead us to dangerously lose control; which is why the same letter-writer also recommends that if  we find ourselves angry with someone we love, to sort it out before bedtime.

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The truth is that there seems to be an awful lot of anger around at the moment. American conservatives are angry that under Obama their America was lost. American liberals are angry at the Conservatives for spreading hate and intolerance. Progressive Christians are angry at conservative ones for supporting Trump; conservative ones are angry with progressive ones for not doing so and for accusing them of selling out the gospel. Women are angry at men for the patriarchy and the abuse and the harassment; some men are angry at women for finding a voice, other men are angry at the rest of the men for speaking up or not speaking up. Brexit supporters are angry with Remainers for demanding a new vote and with their government for selling out the referendum; Remainers are angry with Brexiteers for being Brexiteers and with their government for an indecisive process. Here in South Africa … well, it feels to me as if everyone is angry with one group or another. Apply to your own country or context several times over.

Social media is often blamed for this; and it’s true that never having to see the person you’re typing at makes it easier to get angry and nasty; or at least not having to see them in that moment … a bit like over-spending on the credit-card because it doesn’t feel like real money. If anger is an energy, it’s often a destructive one, whether it’s musical instruments, people or political unity.

Anger was destructive on 22 July, when right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 young people attending a Labour Party Youth Camp on Utøya Island outside of Oslo after detonating a car bomb in the city. Paul Greengrass’s new film, titled 22 July tells this story. With his background in television journalism, British director Greengrass is attracted to stories like this; most powerfully in United 93 which told the story of the plane hijacked on 9/11/01 that never made it to its intended target. That he managed to tell that story without nationalistic fervour, hatred or voyeurism is one of the great cinematic achievements this century. A similar eye is there in his more action centred films – the Bourne movies (3 of which are his) may be fictional thrillers, but they are ones that seem to live in a nearly-real, believable world. If a film had to be made about Utøya Island (and as someone who knows what it’s like to lose someone to terrorist atrocities, I think that’s an open question) Paul Greengrass is the man to do it. He does so with a cinema release, but primarily on Netflix, to get what he sees as an important story into the medium most likely to reach younger people.

It’s a film with clear segments. The first 30 minutes or so portray the massacre itself – the families of victims asked him to neither sanitise nor exploit it, and he achieves that. It’s a devastating half-hour, shot in the eerie half-light of Scandinavian summer; deaths and injuries are real, but not lingered on. Its cinematography is a mixture of his trademark shaken, handheld cameras which deliberately jar with some powerful longer shots; one, of a group of teenagers huddled fearfully halfway down a cliff face, is especially memorable and moving. From there the film follows two paths – the recovery of one teenager badly injured, and the arrest and eventual trial of Brevik. Throughout nothing is soft-soaped, but neither is it milked; the teenager’s recovery is hard to watch (beyond a couple of scenes which feel a little contrived or clichéd; though I’m aware we can’t know the details of his recovery process). Brevik (brilliantly portrayed) is neither mad nor cartoonishly evil; he’s coldly rational, angry and aware. The moment we all know is coming – when he walks in to court and gives a long Nazi salute – is no less upsetting for it being predictable. That’s all in the brilliance of the direction and the performance.

None of these people are the central character, though. That’s Norway itself; the country Brevik insists is on trial. Greengrass said in his brilliant and eloquent interview with the BBC’s Simon Mayo (Simon Mayo interviews Paul Greengrass) that he wanted to tell the story of how Norway wrestled with the issue of whether to let Brevik tell the court his reasons; should we listen to his anger, or should they deny him the oxygen of publicity? Is it ever right to listen to the people who do these things? Norway decided it was; and the result, Greengrass claims, is that anger is is dissipated. In that interview Greengrass cites the ongoing divisions over Brexit, the rise of the far-right in diverse countries and the political cauldron of the USA as contexts where a similar exercise in listening might be fruitful or even healing.

It sounds true and wise, and probably is. I’ve tried hard to listen over recent years, as best as I am able to practically, given my circumstances. But the thing is, I’m getting sick of it. I’m getting sick of being shouted at – metaphorically in text or in reality through someone’s voice. I’m sick of being told or thinking I might be intolerant on the one hand or racist on the other; of being theologically liberal or conservative or progressive; of being a toxic male or a weak one; of being a parent who’s too strict or too permissive. And so it goes on. If listening really does dissipate anger’s energy, or allow the wrongness of the ideas that drive it to be seen for all it is, then I’ve yet to really experience it. Maybe dealing with it once in Norway just caused it move and take root more deeply elsewhere, like some sick version of Whack-A-Mole.

What do we do with our anger, mine and yours? Unexpressed anger is a breeding ground for all sorts of darkness, of which others or the angry one themselves may both bear the brunt. There are plenty of places in the Bible, for example, where anger and lament is given a voice; but this is rare in our public worship. Saying or singing the psalms doesn’t seem to be something that works in many settings now – so maybe we need new expressions of these texts, or songs and hymns that give voice to very contemporary laments. Still, though, many Christians seems to feel that anger is inherently sinful, and that its very expression or acknowledgement will let the genie out of the bottle. What about the rest of us, though; the increasing majority who are ‘spiritual, but not religious’; atheist or agnostic? What are their options? How do we listen well, and express anger well without the cancer spreading or worsening? How do we find the strength to keep listening when we’re sick of it?

I don’t know.

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Glenn Close In The Wife: Thoughts On Being Clergy And Having A Wife

As is so often the case, the real drama is in the silences. In The Wife, Glenn Close plays Joan – a woman who had been a promising potential novelist but whose career became subsumed when she married her teacher Joe. Early in the film we come to the two of them, now relatively aged, awaking to a phone call with the news that Joe has been awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature. As the news is broken to Joe – with Joan listening in on another phone – the camera shifts to Joan. She barely moves – but her face speaks volumes, hinting at layers and depths of varied emotions that imply a kind of darkness that can’t be named, but longs to be. It’s an astonishing piece of silent acting from Glenn Close, which is echoed throughout the film by similar moments. She is attentive to Joe’s every need (both as they travel to the Nobel Ceremony, and in flashback to the early days of their relationship); but something is trying to emerge, but also stay hidden. Christian Slater plays Joe’s would-be biographer, who thinks he can see there’s a secret to come out; and we uncover it with him.

To say more would be to spoil the film; it’s often comic, but really it’s a drama about ambition and frustration, about marriage and the challenges facing the wife of a lauded man. The film’s present day is 1992; it would be tempting to say that things have changed, but I’m sure many of us can understand that in much of life they haven’t.

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At least, it often seems, they haven’t changed in the church – which is where I have worked for all my married life (save the first two years of our marriage, which was spent at seminary). When I was training for ministry (in the late 90’s/early 00’s), women had been welcomed to priestly ministry in the Church Of England for some years – though it’s only relatively recently that the glass ceiling to women becoming Bishops has been broken. Nevertheless, at the seminary I attended (chosen as much for geographical location as any theological conviction of mine), the support group for the spouses of students was very much a wives’ group. I can’t now remember the official name of the group; but there were a grand total of 0 female students training there for ordained ministry; many (though not all) of the staff and students at this conservative college did not agree with the ordination of women, and often said so – loudly and publicly. So it’s little surprise no women trained alongside me. My loss; though I suspect not theirs.

Never mind, though. Other parts of the Anglican church were better. Right? The network I was most committed to at that time contained few, if any, high-profile female church leaders. Platform speaking engagements were largely for male church leaders; women from para-church groups; or were wives of male leaders of (large) churches. These large churches were spoken of as being led by ‘X and Y Surname’ (husband and wife) where the husband was the ordained leader. The wife would often be on the large paid staff team; though sometimes not. She would sometimes be still be spoken of as leading the church with her husband, despite not being paid by the church, not having a formal input in the decision-making and only being involved in church life, like any other member of the church would be. Now it is fair to say that in this network things have got much better in these regards; I’m sure some would say there is still a way to go – but it seems much that is good has happened.

It’s true, however, that the role of clergy wife and clergy husband remain very different. My wife has been invited to chair Women’s Fellowships, sing in the choir (until someone overheard her singing), do the flower arranging. She’s not done most of it; whilst she was unable to work for Visa-reasons when we came to Cape Town, she did volunteer much time to the church; but things have long since changed. The same expectations or offers are rarely made of clergy husbands. Married women who are clergy speak often of a church’s inability to see that she must be ‘a wife, a mother and a clergywoman’; a similar expectation of a married clergyman does not exist.

The problem seems to be that inherited models of church leadership and gender roles within church and family have not kept up with a changing society. There’s also another, subtler pressure. In many churches – especially larger, suburban ones – excellence is a spoken or unspoken value. Professionals who are members of these churches work in businesses where excellence is prized; so churches have to imitate that. That’s expressed in many ways; but not least in the role of women. Either a clergy wife must be fully involved in ministry – paid, or not – to ensure it all happens; or she must sacrifice much of her time and career in order for her husband to meet church expectations. One theory goes that excellence in anything requires around 10,000 hours of committed practice; for that to be a reality someone must take care of the rest of life for the one who aims to excel. That’s almost always a woman, like Glenn Close appears to be in The Wife; doing everything behind the scenes whilst her husband is lauded across the world thanks to his 10,000 hours of labour. It never seems to be mentioned that by definition, as the man achieves his greatness thanks to the 10,000 hours given to his craft, the woman has invested the same amount of time in un-lauded areas. Behind every great man … the expression goes (the tag line of the movie is a clever play on this, especially in light of the film’s ending).

It’s patriarchy writ into the fabric of family and career, of course. The church is slowly learning to let go of it, but whilst it slowly learns the ministry of women in church, business (or wherever) suffers and stagnates as the woman’s call is seen to be to follow and enable the husband’s call. Doesn’t Ephesians say a woman should submit to her husband?

Well, it does – but that was written 2,000 years ago; and it seems to ignore that at the start of that section of Ephesians the invitation to all of us, of whatever gender, is to ‘submit to one another’. So this assumes a husband also submits to his wife in some way; in fact, so submissive is he that he is expected to be willing to do for her what Christ did for the church (to die). More of that passage is about the responsibilities of the husband to sacrifice (and to submit) and of Christ’s love for the church than is ever said of the wife’s responsibility to submit – which in any case is never defined; presumably the better to be re-interpreted within each time and place. But the Bible has usually, over 2,000 years, been written, translated, taught by and written about by men – so it’s no surprise, really, that these attitudes and interpretations continue as the norm in many places.

As a married male church leader I speak to people like me. Are we willing to submit to the calling of our wives? Are we willing to say ‘no’ to posts, opportunities or potential avenues of church life in order for our wives to fulfil their calling – as we have so often expected them to sacrifice to us. I’m not talking here about motherhood and the ‘traditional’ housewife – though not to dismiss and denigrate that if that’s what both feel is best for their marriage. For most of my ordained life, my wife has had paid employment too. She has a calling too (of course she does; every disciple does). We also need a second salary – especially now with children. So my wife follows her calling and gifts in the world; social enterprise, academic research, photography  – and other things; one of those other things is motherhood, but it’s by no means the only one. So, as sometimes she has had to say no to opportunities to enable my ministry, so I must also, equally, say no to some things in order to enable her ministry. If I were looking to move to a large, busy church (which I’m not), maybe I would have to rethink my plans because of my wife’s career and calling. Maybe a church shouldn’t be busy (or maybe even large? that’s to discuss another time, I think)? Too often I, and men like me, can be entitled in our expectation of our wives to sacrifice, to give up, to say no, for our sake. Of course, we say and think to ourselves that it’s ‘for the Gospel’; failing to notice that our wife’s calling is as much ‘for the Gospel’ (whatever that means) as mine – maybe even more so if she’s not spending all day in the church office.

This needs saying to us: male, married church leaders must say no (sometimes to the church, sometimes to ourselves), that our wives may yes to God’s invitation to them. If something we say no to must still be done, then God is big enough to cope with our no; and if the church complains … well experience seems to suggest that if the no is repeated often enough and for long enough, the point is taken.

God can cope without us; God can also cope without our wives. He can cope without all of us; but too often we have just assumed He can cope without our wives, or can only cope with them within very specific parameters. To misquote The West Wing, let’s let God be God; let’s be strong enough to say no, that our wives may say yes.

God Doesn’t Need Me: Reflections On The Children Act

 

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Over the years I’ve heard many different definitions of leadership. Servanthood, shepherd, influencer, pastor, teacher (there’s a fierce debate  – really – as to if there should be a hyphen between those last two. Only Christians could make a debate out of a hyphen). And so on. One that stayed with me – and I can’t remember where I heard it, so apologies for not sourcing – is something like this: that leadership is the art of being comfortable with the fact that you’re always disappointing somebody. I’ve found that to resonate; and I’d add to it that I’ve needed to learn to disappoint the right people at the right time. If you’re leading more than one person, then at least one person is going to be in some way disappointed with you most of the time. There are two people to add to that picture. One is the leader herself – most of us find that we often disappoint ourselves, and live with a permanent frustration that things aren’t as they could or should be – and it’s our fault (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). The other is God; if we’re in Christian leadership, then we often sit with the nagging sense that God must be a bit miffed that we’ve let Him down again (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). All of this is why Christian leaders need all of the following: close friends, people who pray for us, mentors, spiritual directors, therapists, holidays, fun, and a dog. None of these insulate us against crashing and burning; but they give us a good shot at avoiding it.

By all these definitions, Emma Thompson’s character in The Children Act – a new film adapted by Ian McEwen from his own novel – is a leader with whom most of us could connect. She spends most of the film becoming aware that she has disappointed, is in the process of disappointing or is about to disappoint someone  – not least herself. She’s a high court judge in London, ruling on cases affecting children. Many of them are the headline-grabbing, soul-wrenching moral dilemmas; which conjoined twin to let die, and the like. The case at the film’s centre is of a 17 year-old Jehovah’s Witness boy who is refusing a potentially life-saving blood transfusion. He’s days away from turning 18, when the choice would be entirely his; but by law, a 17-year-old can be forced to take treatment against his will. To help settle the case, Emma Thompson visits him in the hospital – an unconvential act that’s probably highly unprofessional, made plausible by Thompson’s brilliant, subtle performance. She makes her ruling around halfway through the film – the rest of which deals with the fallout. Alongside all this, early in the film her husband (Stanley Tucci in a quiet and humbly powerful performance) tells her he loves her but wants an affair due to a lack of intimacy.

At this point it’s worth pointing out a few things about Ian McEwen’s work. He’s brilliant, of course; he often sets up a plot with great economy and not a little wit but then doesn’t seem to know how to make it all end plausibly (prime example, Saturday; a plot which collapses under the weight of its central, clumsy metaphor). He also doesn’t appear to be a great fan of religion; and he’s not a great screen adapter of his own work. This book and film are an improvement on much of that, even if the ending still feels as somewhat contrived as it did in the book. Religion isn’t exactly given a fair-hearing, but it at least feels somewhat understood here; there’s a devastating moment (for Anglican clergy) when one character is asked ‘Are you a Christian?’, to which he replies ‘I’m an Anglican’. In that short exchange lies a thousand truths.

Whatever choice Emma Thompson’s judge makes in the cases and marital decisions before her, she’ll disappoint someone. The film ends on a touch of hope, but given all that goes before, it’s a fragile kind of hope. Clearly there are many brilliant leaders who don’t profess to know God and who survive and even flourish in the experience; for me, as a Christian leader, the question remains:  Who do I disappoint? How do I deal with my own disappointment in myself; the disappointment others feel in me; the disappointment I think God must feel? Where do I take it?

For a start, I need to take it to all those places and people (and dogs) I listed earlier. But as I said, none of these are guarantees against failure – public or private. I think the key lies in taking to heart the fact that God doesn’t need me.  I meet many leaders – myself included – who are prone to thinking God/the church/the world needs us. The truth is God needs no-one; but in his incredible, scarcely credible love and grace he chooses to involve us anyway. It’s not that God needs us; it’s way better than that. He wants to involve us. We’re not essential; so when we screw up (which we do), when we die (which we will), when we sleep or go on holiday or have fun  (which we have to – though knowing some leaders you wouldn’t know it), the world and His plan will carry on regardless.

So the pressure is off. Ever met a defensive leader, one who flies off the handle in blame or self-recrimination at the merest hint of failure or criticism? I have  – I am, or can be, one. The effect can be devastating; as a result of knowing one for a few years, I ended up with PTSD and was suicidal. That can all stem from thinking we’re needed; that God somehow relies on us. He doesn’t. How arrogant and self-aggrandising it is for me to think that an eternal God who broke the power of death would need me. No. He doesn’t need me. And that’s OK. Because He wants me and chooses me because of Him, not me. Because He loves me.

That needs to be enough for me. If I let it penetrate my soul – daily – it will be enough. And it can be enough for you also.

Leave No Trace: Rural Beauty And Trauma’s Silent Screams

One of the insidious traps of depression and trauma is that just when you most need connection with others who understand at the deepest levels what you are going through, you find yourself all the more desperate to isolate yourself. It’s a cruel trap to be caught in, and the only hope for exit is to either ask for help or to stumble across someone who’s in the same position as you.

This is the territory occupied by Leave No Trace, the latest film from director Debra Granik, who in 2010 gave us the remarkable Winter’s Bone, a slow-burn mystery set amidst the trauma of inexorable rural poverty – a film most famous for effectively launching the career of Jennifer Lawrence. The seeds of Lawrence’s success were evident in Winter’s Bone; Leave No Trace features another remarkable central performance from a young woman in the shape of Thomasin McKenzie, and it would be no surprise if her career followed a similar trajectory to Lawrence after this.

It’s another film more concerned with suggestion than statement, with relationship rather than plot at the forefront. That’s not to say nothing happens in the film – in fact the film’s events are world-shaping for the protagonists. A teenage girl and her father live, by choice, off-grid in an Oregon urban park; they suddenly find their world disturbed by outside forces, setting in motion a series of events and decisions which will forever alter their lives and their relationship. The reasons for their decision are never made fully clear; we know the mother of the family has died, but we don’t know the details of how or when. It gradually becomes apparent that the father, Will, is an army veteran harbouring deep pain from his service – but this isn’t ever fully explained. Even before life is disrupted, there are hints that they are always besieged by the possibility of disturbance; early on a pack of dogs surrounds their tent at night, attempting to claw at them through the canvass. They have to hide from police at work in the park; a trip to the city for supplies is presented as akin to a trip to an alien planet, the angular, surfaces displayed with the sheen of futurism.

BELOW ARE SPOILERS FOR LEAVE NO TRACE

Events force father and daughter from place to place, never settling – leaving places under cover of dark or taking advantage of moments of isolation to move on. Animals and their homes are important throughout this – a beehive, a rabbit briefly escaped, returned to its owner, a spider’s web – a hint of what the central characters are looking for but seemingly unable to achieve. Finally, they seem to do so – a small, isolated community within which the daughter at least seems to find a place of understanding. She assumes her father has too; but she’s wrong. Where she seems to have found what her trauma had caused her to lose, he hasn’t. He needs to keep going, keep looking, keep hoping. His buried trauma seems to compel him to a final act of isolation, wilful and chosen, potentially keeping at bay the very relationship that was keeping him intact. Is his final choice selfish, necessary, an act of self-harm, or all three of those? We’re invited to make our own decision.

The gentle but unmistakeable power of Leave No Trace lies in its long silences, which communicate much about what the characters are unable to express and into which we are invited to project our own decisions and suggestions. Are our own traumas and fears as self-isolating as those of the central characters? Whilst the off-grid life initially seems idyllic, the fact that it is effectively a life on the run from being disturbed is not presented as a romantic or idyllic choice. It’s rather the choice of people unable or unwilling to communicate their deepest needs – perhaps even unable to articulate them for themselves, let alone anyone else. Thus, for all its rural beauty  – and the cinematography and sound-design really do foreground this beauty – Leave No Trace presents us with an eloquent parable of the isolation that trauma and mental health forces its victims into; the film gives voice to the silent pain of those needing gently healing community yet unable to fully embrace it.

This is a beautiful, gentle film; but one that is no less significant for its understated nature. Will we allow the voiceless to speak, and be comfortable enough to allow their silence to speak interrupt our ham-fisted attempts to fill the void? And what are our trauma and fears, which push us into isolation at the very moment we most need relationship? It’s a film with more questions than answers, and all the better for it.

In Which A White Man Pontificates On Black Anger, or Finding Words To Respond To BlacKkKlansman

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Urgency and reflection do not often sit together – and nor should they. Usually. When an ambulance receives an emergency call, the crew don’t sit around reflecting on what might be the best treatment; they don’t pour over maps together discerning the best route to the site of the emergency. It’s all done on the fly, usually with the support of others. Other times reflection is important, no matter the apparent urgency. I may feel it’s urgent to add my thoughts to a discussion, for instance – my perspective is burning in my heart with every passing syllable, but as an introvert I frustratingly find I can’t get a word in edgeways with which to dispense my pearls. But reflect a moment: is my voice really needed? Is what I have to say really that revolutionary or perceptive?
BlacKkKlansman, the new film from Spike Lee, has arrived on a wave of urgency and hot-takes and opinion pieces. I’m a white man, and film criticism has a superfluity of people from that demographic. In all honesty there are very few people waiting for my take on it. That’s all well and good, until one sees the film. It may be set in the past but the subject-matter, the film’s extraordinary epilogue and the way that epilogue is carefully but clearly foreshadowed throughout the film make clear that this is indeed an urgent film. The end result of seeing this film is so overwhelming and moving, so urgent and clearly of profound relevance to the world in which we live, that I stumbles out of the cinema desperate to talk to someone about it. But I couldn’t. I could barely form the words to talk to my wife about it (with whom I saw it); I managed a few whispered conversations along the lines of ‘It’s great. Those last 10 minutes; wow’. But it’s been hard to articulate what and how and why I think about it all.
Then along came Serena Williams, racket smash and foul-mouthed tirade and all, to complicate matters. I found the voice to comment on that, on what I feel was racially tinged, sexist treatment of her both on court and in the media. Somehow I found myself trying to link Serena and BlacKkKlansman and Donald Trump and a few other things besides. My magpie mind rarely moves in straight lines, but still I couldn’t quite articulate it.
Here I am, a week or so on from seeing BlacKkKlansman, still unable to fully articulate a response to it. The facts are quite simple. Based on a somewhat extraordinary true story that seems too bizarre to be real, it’s the story of Ron Stallwaorth, an African-American police officer in Colorado who uses his voice on the telephone to infiltrate the local branch of the KKK in the 1970s; in a bizarre echo of Cyrano De Bergerac, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman incarnates his telephone personality. Much of it is played for laughs – and the laughs are real, out-loud, clever ones. The performances are note-perfect, pitching the comedy with just the right undertones of impending suffering. It’s in the film’s final act that the story takes a fully dark, disturbing tone – personalities unravel and events spiral out of of everyone’s control; then, in the film’s coda, we find ourselves with documentary footage of Trump and emboldened white-supremacy on the streets of Charlottesville. A character’s earlier insistence that America would never elect someone who would appeal to the KKK’s base rings in our ears, exposing the lies of comfortable liberalism in the same way as the heightened reality of Get Out did.
This is no heightened reality, however (no criticism of Get Out’s take on things – it worked brilliantly); the last few minutes of footage I had studiously avoided from seeing in detail in news reports becomes inescapable; the reality of a white supremacist in the White House exposed as a sin to lay at the door of smug white liberalism as much as at the feet of those walking the streets of Charlottesville with flaming torches. The film is a cry of rage and a call to action made all the more audible by the film’s respect for its medium and its audience – it never forgets the importance of telling a good story, of being funny and exciting. We finish on a still image of a young white woman who died in the protests at Charlottesville, her dates underlined with the maxim ‘Rest In Power’.
In truth, I still don’t know what to think or say about all this. It’s clearly Spike Lee’s best film for a while; perhaps his masterpiece (which is quite something, given his back catalogue). It’s certainly important, as much as I hate the worthiness so often associated with the word as applied to art. What I can say, though, is that this film shows me abundantly and completely that the world doesn’t need the pontificating of over-privileged white men like me. It needs us to listen, and then not act. Listen to the times, listen to the voices of the marginalised and fearful, then to do what they ask us to do. Above all, it tells us never to rest in the comfortable lie of ‘It will never happen’. It will, it did, and it is. In America, and with growing confidence in many other countries.

Stuff of The Year 2016, 1: Movies

As a new (foster) dad in 2016, my movie watching and blogging in general has been curtailed; an app on my phone has a lengthy list of ‘must see’ when South African release dates or TV schedules or plane journeys or streaming services or life in general permit  Despite that, here’s a few comments (in no particular order) about each of the films I’ve seen this year that I’m recalling with good memories at the end of 2016 (note: they may not all have been released in 2016). Where possible, I’ve linked to earlier blogs about them, and/or a trailer. I’m confident that all of these films will enhance your life; but there’s no accounting for taste … 
 
 
By rights this should be a traumatic, so painful it’s barely watchable, experience. That the film manages to do justice to the pain of the situation it portrays without ever feeling invasive or voyeuristic, is a testament to the brilliance of the direction; that it goes still further, finding beauty, hope and even transcendence is almost miraculous. Brie Larson’s central performance is extraordinary, and Jacob Tremblay as the young boy through whom the awfulness is seen puts in a turn that somehow weds maturity and innocence. It’s an almost overwhelming film; one that breathes some life and hope into a painful 2016.
 
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Quentin Tarantino needs someone to say ‘no’ to him; or at least to cut 30-45 minutes from most of his films when he’s not watching. The Hateful Eight isn’t immune to those truths; but I really enjoyed it. The self-imposed restrictions of the setting force a kind of economy (granted, not an economy of length) onto the film; the film drips with the simmering threat of violence and treachery in which Tarantino specialises. There’s a swathe of fine performances, the cinematography is brilliant. It’s been a long, long time since this prodigiously talented director made a truly great film; but this one is the most out and out enjoyable one he’s given us in many years.
 
I was fully prepared to take a tone of sneering distance to this film; especially as some mentioned it in similar tone to Kick Ass, a film which had much to admire but with which I had some significant problems (though not the ones some had). I was totally won over by Deadpool, though. I laughed, and I kept laughing for the whole film; I don’t think it’s in the same league as Shaun of The Dead, but I think that was the last film in which I laughed as much as I did in this one. Ryan Reynolds has superb comic timing; the rest of the cast know their roles, and play them well. The postmodern knowingness never alienates; the film has a surprising warmth despite the tone of the humour.
 
Due to my personal connections with this film’s subject matter, I approached it with nervous caution. I was surprised, and encouraged, to find an exciting story that does justice to the complexity of my own journey around how to respond to the terrorists who murdered m y friend. I’m a little biased to any film with Aaron Paul, and on reflection perhaps Helen Mirren was miscast; but I’m deeply grateful for a film which makes an attempt to do justice to the complexities of one of the defining issues of our era. I suspect I’ll find it hard to re-watch, but that’s no criticism; it’s simply the story of my experience.
 
This is a joy filled piece with the Coen brothers displaying the lightness of touch that lies behind the best of their comic work. As is so often the case, tremendous performances are drawn from all the players, and there are so may scenes that still linger with me months later, causing me to chuckle out loud in awkward silences when my my mind wonders. Would that it were so simple for me to just recite to you the jokes; this isn’t, though, a film of jokes and one-liners. It’s rather a delicate plot that strings together a series of brilliantly funny, carefully constructed comedic moments and exchanges.
 
Of course I was looking forward to this; I’ve always enjoyed the Harry Potter stories; I felt the films were patchy (the first two especially so). I was excited to see how her world would play out on screen without a book to adhere to. I was also apprehensive; as a new foster dad, I’d taken my 13-year old foster son to the cinema a few times this year. I don’t think he’d seen many films before coming to us; he certainly found it hard to sit through a whole film this time last year. He saw The BFG with my wife which he really liked (I’ve not caught up with it); Zootopia/Zootropolis (again, I missed it) was enjoyed. As a child who has experienced a lot of loss in his life, he thought Finding Dory was too sad to really enjoy. I wondered about Fantastic Beasts; was it too British for a boy who’s never been outside the Western Cape of South Africa, and is only just learning to read? Does he even like fantasy? His comments on coming out: “It was brilliant. It was scary. I want to see it again”. Job done; the first time he’s come out of a film with me, desperate to see it again (he has). I loved it too – much to say, joy and wonder in the right measures. Small criticisms – like the scenes inside the suitcase don’t quite work – don’t detract from this is a magical piece of storytelling.
 
An 80s (Irish) school romance-musical? Too much? Not at all. This is one of those films that you can’t help but walk away from smiling. Life-affirmingly uplifting, with proper new songs that work in their own right. If you watch this and don’t come out happy, then I’d find it hard to love you.
 
A few years ago the director of Arrival made a thriller/drama (Prisoners) that was much lauded but didn’t quite work for me. Then he gave us Sicario, an excellent thriller around the Mexico-USA drug trade. Then Arrival, which is simply wonderful. Though the plot is largely a staple one, it still kept the tension brewing and boiling; I didn’t see the resolution coming, which is testament to how engrossed I was. It demands much of star Amy Adams, who puts in a performance of depth and compassion; the soundtrack is devastatingly powerful (and, to my non-musically trained ears, unconventional); the cinematography creative – there some startlingly beautiful images that you just can’t shake from your mind for weeks to come. It recalls 2001, Momento, Inception, Interstellar and much else  – doing justice to all of them whilst still being its own vision. It’s themes are never more relevant at the end of such a difficult year; and to those of us nervous as to how this director will approach the Bladerunner sequel in 2017 now have much excitement and hope to manage.

On Holy Week, anger, and terrorists

A few months after my friend was murdered by terrorists in a Kenyan shopping mall, I was watching TV. It was Homeland, the thriller series where the lines between good and bad are blurred and the plot is only marginally unbelievable. There came a moment in the episode I found myself relaxing with that one evening where a character has a lead on a likely opportunity to kill a terrorist who was in the early stages of planning an atrocity. He pulls up alongside the terrorist’s car on his motorbike, ready to bomb the vehicle the terrorist rides in. As he does so, he becomes aware of a problem, someone in the terrorist’s car who is not supposed to be there. A child. He rides alongside the car for a while, caught in a terrible moment of indecision. Eventually he rides away, the opportunity untaken, conscience only temporarily salved.

Pre-Westgate, I would have been where most viewers would have been in that sequence – feeling the anguish, aware of the wrestle with conscience, willing him not to kill the child. But this was a new reality I was now in, one where for one week the headlines had been about my friend. There was no conscious mental process. Just this strong, distasteful feeling: take the shot. Risk the child’s life for the sake of those who will be killed. Kill the bastard. I was angry – at the terrorists for what they had done and the way it had changed me, at myself for stooping to their level, at the world for being so unredeemed. I remembered how I had felt, what I said in the aftermath of my friend’s murder: just give a few minutes alone with one of the perpetrators tied to a chair. It won’t take long.

My anger’s intensity has relented in the months since, but the wrestles of conscience don’t go away. The cinema release of Eye In The Sky presented me with an opportunity to see how, or if, I’ve changed. It tells the story of the hunt for members of Al-Shabaab (the group that murdered my friend). They are tracked by drone to a single house – the order to capture them is about to be given when it becomes apparent that they are preparing suicide vests for an imminent attack. The priority moves from capture to kill; the order to release the missile that will save innocent lives is on the brink of completion when a child sets up to sell bread outside the house in question. She will likely be killed if the missile is fired. The rest of the film is the moral, military and political dilemmas being wrestled with, passed up chains of command inside darkened rooms around the globe, all the while the clock ticking down to massive civilian loss of life. Actually, that depersonalises it. Yes, the clock was ticking – to the murder of my friend, all over again.

The film articulates most of the related dilemmas with which I have wrestled since my friend’s death. It justice to most of them, if not ever really articulating as it needs to the political complexities involved. It is a failing  – though not a significant one – that we never really grasp the geopolitical backdrop that brings countries to these awful choices. It’s economically directed, the lack of violence ratcheting up the tension to levels where you long for some sort of release. The performances are fine  – this an ensemble piece, rather than a star vehicle. Helen Mirren does fairly well despite being miscast; I’d like to have seen more of the brilliant Aaron Paul as the soldier with his finger on the button, Barkhad Abdi is consummate, and every line Alan Rickman delivers makes us ache that at what we’ve lost with his death.

The film offers no answers, no conclusions. Every option is flawed, every character compromised, every view has a valid alternative. The film asks all the questions I have … and leaves them hanging in a Kenyan dustbowl, strewn with rubble and human remains. As a leader I empathise with the personal cost of taking decisions most have no understanding of; thanks to some nameless men and women with guns I now have skin in terrorism game, complicating to previously unimagined levels a decision I’ll never have to take. Some justice systems give – for good reason – the guilty and the judge the opportunity to hear the affect the crime has had on victims and those close to them. I understand that; but now I’ve been as close to violent crime as this, I also understand why such revelations should never be the only factor in sentencing the guilty. I, for one, would be too angry to be just.

I am not by nature an angry or a violent person; though I do have a knack for breaking up violent confrontations. I’ve only ever been properly hit once – by a fan of the same football team I support, in an ironic case of mistaken identity. So it’s strange to find myself intimately involved in the moral quagmire of violence. All I’ve come to know is that my cosy neo-pacifist principles no longer sit so easily or safely  – I think I still hold them, but I hold them with alarming looseness.

I watched the film on Palm Sunday evening, the first day of Holy Week; an inexorable journey towards an act of horrific, prolonged, violent innocent suffering. That knowledge adds to the mix that mine is a Jesus who knows what it’s like to be on the end of both unrighteous anger – his murderers’ – and righteous (the anger of His Father which he took the consequences of that day). He didn’t deserve that latter anger, but He took it anyway. It says to me that, along with some alarmingly violent expressions of anger in the Psalms – there is a place for this emotion which is often the least acceptable to church subcultures. It says that innocent suffering is right at the heart of what I have given my life to; it is identified with and wept over, its cost and consequences eternally felt.

On its own, the film left me in anger – and to an extent, that’s OK. It also made me fear that maybe the terrorists win even when we capture of kill them – they’ve reduced us in some way, whether in mind or deed, to their level, even for a moment. But then Holy Week, with its complexities and denials and political blame-shifting and violence and resurrection come along. I don’t understand it any more than I used – probably less so, in fact. But the week gives me a glimpse of when this will end, and that Someone at least understands. And that, for now, is just about enough.

I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com