Thursday, 31 October 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

It took me awhile to get round to reading this book as when it first came out I was suffering from Slum Fiction Fatigue…I called it the Slumdog Millionaire Effect whereby suddenly every book, every documentary, every travel show seemed to zone in on the slums of Mumbai as though this were the only story worth telling about India.

More to the point, they are all told the same 
way. Privileged western wades into slum, hanky to nose, to witness the sorry state of the lives of the poor, emerging tearful and humble having discovered how jolly nice they all are. This is where Katherine Boo’s book is truly unique. Based on years of living (sort of) in Mumbai's Annawadi slum, what makes it such compelling reading is the way she has chosen to tell the story, through the eyes of half a dozen slum dwellers, alternating their points of view. The effect is one of strange balance that could not, to be honest, be achieved with straight reportage. 

By writing about events from the point of view of each character, Boo has managed to tell the story from within. In doing so she humanises and normalise the residents of Annawadi, showing their struggles, fears and problems are not a million miles away from anyone else's. 
There are no violins grinding away in the background as we gaze benevolently on the noble poor. Instead we are offered the individual stories of real people, warts and all. We are offered understanding. By  the end you feel you know the people in the book, can identify with them. You do not think of them as slum dwellers. They could be anyone. They are anyone.

What I also liked about this book is how well it illuminates the inequities of an economic system that sees fantastic wealth existing alongside absolute poverty, how it is seen as completely acceptable --and how systems are built to maintain it. It shows how the powerful exploit the weak, the impossibility of escape and how shameful the whole thing is. It is not just about Annawadi --it is about the whole world.

At the end of the book, Boo explains her methodology and claims to have only represented thoughts and feelings that were reported to her.  An extraordinary achievement.

Final point on the bookcover design: Dynamic, colourful shot of boy shooting through alleyways. Now where have I seen that before... 

Monday, 21 October 2013

Who's telling the story?

When I read that Francois Ozon had a new film coming out --Jeune & Jolie, to be released at the end of November-- I was thrilled. Then I saw the full page promo pic (below) and read that the subject was "a French teenager's sexual awakening".  I read on into the detail. The French teenager in question is a 16 year old girl (alarm bells starting to ring now) played by stunning French model Marine Vach (oh dear) who loses her virginity while on holiday and then becomes --a prostitute. 

Really Francois? I was expecting something a little more original from the director of the fantastic Swimming Pool and Under the Sand. Does he imagine this is the story we have all been waiting for, the one that really blows the lid off female sexuality? Are thousands of women reading about the film over their morning coffee going to nod in recognition: Yes, that's exactly how it was for me too! I lost my virginity to a clumsy German, then slept with men for cash in order to get over the disappointment and find my true self. How refreshing to finally see to it all on the big screen! 

Now, I haven't seen the movie yet, and for all I know it is a feminist masterclass on French patriarchy (Ozon has a strong track record on this, so there is still hope). But it got me thinking about the whole question of Who is Telling the Story. And why. I touched on this in my post on Samantha Lewthwaite and The White Man in Africa. In this case I am talking about who tells the story of women and girls. Why do they tell it? What do these stories really say?

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Genius of Studio Ghibli

“This looks like it’s going to be a sad one,” my daughter said as we slipped Grave of the Fireflies into the DVD machine last night. She was half right. Describing the film as "sad" is a bit like saying Einstein was clever. It was heart-wrenching, traumatic and totally brilliant.

Grave of the Fireflies is the story of children and war. There is no sugar coating to the story here, no cotton wool to protect us from the harrowing tale of two children struggling to survive in Japan in the final months of WWII. Orphaned, abandoned, forgotten, the film charts their experience in all its emotional horror. It's like Come and See for children.

The film was made by Studio Ghibli -- best known for Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away--  and is another example of why this Japanese animation studio is peerless in the world of children's cinema. The breadth of its imagination, the boldness of the storytelling and the sheer creativity of its output is unrivalled. And it takes children's movies to some very dark and difficult places.

In Grave of the Fireflies, the story is framed in a way that makes the difficult subject matter manageable for children. The story starts with the narrator, a young boy, telling us the date when he dies. And immediately we see him in rags, slumped against a pillar, and watch as he closes his eyes and falls to the ground, dead. He is not alone; there are other dead or half-dead children all around him. He is found by a policeman who throws a sweet tin in his pocket away, releasing the spirit of the boy and his little sister. These two spirits, well dressed, happy and together, begin their final journey and the boy begins to tell their story.

So right from the start, we have been given the emotional tools to deal with the story we are about to hear. We know these children will die, and we know they will be reunited as spirits, looking well fed and at peace. This simple framing makes the story of their cruel abandonment bearable. No one escapes censure; the heartless relatives, the disinterested doctor, the well-off children mocking them. The policemen who treat the dead children as so much rubbish to be cleared off the street. 

The film works on three levels: the very specific story of children in Japan at the end of WWII (the background of nationalist rhetoric, illustrated with a short scene of people fleeing while one man marches around shouting slogans); the story of children and war (and the lie of war, evidenced by the boy's sense of betrayal on hearing Japan had surrendered); and the story of vulnerable children, abandoned by family, society, state.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Samantha Lewthwaite and the White Man in Africa

Afua Hirsch writing in The Guardian today bemoans the media obsession with Samantha Lewthwaite and her connection to the Nairobi attack, charging that she is the white, western character we need to remain interested in a story that is primarily African.

She linked this to Hollywood's tendency to use of white characters to tell African stories, something that has annoyed me for years. And it is not just African stories –any Hollywood film about non-white people always has to have at least one white character in the story. This is done, the orthodoxy goes, so that white audiences have someone to “identify with”. As though we can only identify with people who have the same skin colour.

One of the worst offenders is Richard Attenborough, whose Ghandi is full of minor white characters of no interest to anyone (as though Ghandi wasn't interesting enough to carry the film). And my personal favourite, Cry Freedom, supposedly the story of Apartheid activist Steve Biko, but really about the white South African journalist who covered his story. WTF? I think the image says it all, really.

The only movie that has challenged this orthodoxy is Slumdog Millionaire. This is a western film about non-western characters without a white face to be seen in the whole film. Danny Boyle struggled to get this film distributed for that reason; who would pay money to watch a movie about a bunch of Asians, the suits argued. Er –lots of people. 

Which once again proves, as William Goldman famously said, in the movie business “nobody knows anything.” 

Friday, 4 October 2013

Does Feminism need a re-brand?

According to Elle magazine, the answer is yes. They asked three ad agencies to work with prominent feminists to Rebrand Feminism and the results are, well, kinda depressing really.

We are always being told that feminism had an image problem, particularly among young women. Why? Does Civil Rights have an image problem? Is it uncool to be anti-racist? Where does this image problem come from, exactly? Feminism is hardly a hot topic in the media, with daily coverage of it's evil ways. I can't even remember the last time I saw a grainy photo of a dungaree-weaing 70s feminist waving a placard in the paper. So where does The Feminist Fear come from?

Us old school feminists might think it all part of a dastardly plot by the agents of patriarchy to keep women from challenging the status quo, and any woman who obliges some kind of damned fool. The truth is that feminism is having a beautiful, Social Media resurgence, led by young women, with some kick-ass campaigning, initiatives like The Everyday Sexism project and websites like The Vagenda (who took part in the re-branding exercise. You can read their rationalisation here )

Which brings me to Caitlan Moran's How to be a Woman. This too was a rebranding exercise, a reclaiming of feminism from the hairy-armpit brigade. Her aim was to make feminism funny, ie cool, and extend the "it's okay to wear makeup" school of thought to porn and pole dancing and the like. It was funny in parts but  I wasn't convinced of this rebrand either --ladette feminism.

What is becoming clear is that the story of feminism is not an ancient monolith, fixed in time and space, like Stonehenge. It is alive and well and as varied as women themselves.