Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 16, 2018

Félicité; The Insult

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:36 pm

Deriving its title from the main character, “Félicité” is about the joys and sorrows of Kinshasa from the viewpoint of the lead character who is a vocalist in a rough-around-the-edges but cookin’ band. The film begins with her performing before a well-lubricated audience in a nightclub that is even rougher around the edges. Among the people enjoying themselves, and in this case over-enjoying himself, is a drunken bear of a man named Tabu who becomes the fortyish, full-figured Félicité’s love interest after coming to repair her broken-down refrigerator that like everything else in this film looks second-hand. Half the people we see on the streets of Kinshasa look like they are taking part in the largest flea market in history.

Like one of Bertolt Brecht’s powerful female characters, Félicité is a woman who won’t take no for an answer. After waking up the next day from her gig, she receives a call from a local hospital informing her that her son has been severely injured in a motorcycle spill. Within moments after arriving at her son’s bedside, she learns that it will cost one million Congolese francs to save him from losing a leg if not his life. This is only $630 but for the singer, who relies mostly on tips to survive, it might as well be a million dollars.

Toward the end of the film, Tabu, who is tying one on with her convalescent son, begins his customary, over-the-top, alcohol-infused, extemporaneous philosophizing. Among the words that pour out of his mouth might as well serve as the film’s epigraph: “Those without money live in suffering”.

As with neo-realist films such as the classic “Bicycle Thieves” and the more recent Dardenne brothers jewel “Two Days, One Night”, “Félicité” is about a desperate search. In Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece, a man struggles to retrieve the bicycle that is his only way to earn a living posting up advertising flyers. In the Dardennes film, the lead female character—a factory worker—has to persuade fellow workers to sacrifice their yearly bonus in order to prevent her being laid off. The boss told them that they had to choose between her keeping a job and the bonus. Like her, Félicité is not too proud to beg even more so because the stakes are even higher.

In one of the most riveting scenes throughout the film, she maneuvers her way past the maid who meets her at the front gate of the home of one of Kinshasa’s bourgeoisie, almost like a running back breaking through for a ten yard gain. Once she gets into the house, she is met by the owner who looks down at her balefully and demands to know why she barged in. She tells him that unless he can help her raise the funds, her son will lose a leg or worse. Like any other of Kinshasa’s upper crust, this could bother him less. He only relents after a manservant repeatedly attempts to haul her out across the floor by her legs, only to see her stubbornly breaking his grip and begging for money once again. But not out of compassion but only to be rid of her, he turns over the cash in his pocket, warning her that if she ever shows up again, he will have her killed.

While most of the film is neo-realist, there are magical realist touches that are like saffron added to a hearty stew. We see dream-like sequences of Félicité walking into a river, perhaps to drown but perhaps to be renewed as if in a baptism. There are also performances by Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste that performs in the soundtrack and in visual set pieces that are almost like interludes to break the tension. Until recently, it was the only all-black symphony orchestra in the world. Music is also supplied by the Kasai Allstars, a band that also backs up Félicité in the nightclub. The Allstars is a 25-member collective that is made up of musicians throughout the Congo that often did not speak each others language. It was an expression of a sorely needed national unity.

The 45-year old director Alain Gomis was born to working-class parents—a Senegalese father and French mother–in Paris and raised there. He told the Financial Times that he was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing works by Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, Murnau, Dreyer, and Vigo at a Paris arthouse. Sigh. I only wish we had more like him in the USA instead of people weaned on TV situation comedies.

“Félicité” showed up in New York City in October, 2017. Thanks to Amazon Video, you can now watch it for $4.99. What are you waiting for?

When I got word about a press screening for “The Insult” at the Cohen Media Group’s offices, I decided not to bother after discovering that the film was written and directed by Ziad Doueiri, whose last film “The Attack” struck me as Islamophobic even though Doueiri is Lebanese. In that film, a Palestinian surgeon living comfortably in Tel Aviv discovers that his wife is a suicide bomber even though she has been living the same kind of secular, comfortable life as him. I thought it was a bunch of hooey.

“The Insult” is a much better film but is still very problematic politically. It starts off in an apartment building in Beirut where a Christian Lebanese Phalangist Party supporter named Tony Hanna lives with his pregnant wife.

Construction workers are moving methodically down the street to fix violations to the building codes, including a gutter pipe from Hanna’s terrace that spills water onto the sidewalk below including on the head of Yasser Salameh, the Palestinian foreman of the crew doing the repairs. When he knocks on the door of Hanna’s apartment to inquire about making the necessary repair, he is told to get lost.

Following the instructions of his boss to fix all violations, Salameh bypasses Hanna and goes ahead to connect the gutter to a drain pipe on the side of the building where it can do no damage. When Hanna spots the work, he takes a hammer and destroys their work. Spotting this, Salameh calls him a “fucking prick”, thus making Hanna feel justified in not allowing anybody to touch the gutter until he gets an apology for this insult. Determined to satisfy the building codes, Salameh’s boss pleads with him to apologize, something that the generally mild-mannered Palestinian is willing to do.

Meeting outside the auto repair shop that Hanna runs, they begin to approach Hanna for what the boss hopes will be a peace treaty. But Salameh can’t help but notice that a TV set in the garage is playing a video of a Bachir Gemayel speech. Gemayel, who was the President of Lebanon in 1982, met with Ariel Sharon to plan out how to destroy the PLO. For this and other offenses against the Palestinians and Lebanon’s native Muslim population, Gemayel was assassinated by a bomb that year. In revenge for his assassination, the Phalangists worked with Sharon to kill Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Before Salameh has a chance to apologize, Hanna begins insulting him as a dirty Palestinian—echoing the inflammatory words heard from Gemayel on the TV. But when he says “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out”, Salameh cannot hold back any longer. He punches Hanna in the midsection, breaking two ribs.

From that point onward, “The Insult” becomes a courtroom drama as Hanna seeks damages from Salameh. An elderly Phalangist party leader serves as lawyer for the plaintiff while the defense is mounted by a young and attractive female supporter of Palestinian rights. In keeping with the somewhat heavy-handed plotting of the film, they are father and daughter.

A key scene involves Hanna’s lawyer showing a film to the judges that depicts the massacre of Christian villagers in Damour on January 20, 1976, where a six-year old Hanna was living with his parents. This attack that left 582 villagers dead was reason enough for Hanna to hate Palestinians. The audience is also likely to interpret this as an indication that there was brutality on all sides back then and that it was high time to reconcile. That’s probably what the largely liberal Jewish audience at Lincoln Plaza, where the film is currently showing, might think superimposing this schema on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

What is left out, however, is that the Damour massacre was in retaliation for an attack two days earlier that cost the lives of nearly three times as many Palestinians and Muslims in Karantina, a slum in East Beirut. Obviously such ethnic-based massacres are destructive no matter who carries them out but one really has to wonder if Palestinian and Muslim militias would have ever carried out such an attack if they had not been provoked.

In some ways, the film operates on the basis of the Hatfield-McCoy feuds, with Christian Lebanese and Palestinians failing to overcome past grievances. In an interview with The Middle East Institute that is chaired by Richard A. Clarke, who was George W. Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs, Doueiri explains why he made the film:

I always believed that Christians in the civil war never suffered, and that only us, Muslims, suffered. This was the myth I grew up with, but then I realized that Christians did suffer as much as we did. As an artist, it’s your moral duty to try to understand the other side, and that’s also where The Insult came from.

One can understand why this kind of Kumbaya film is being distributed by the Cohen Media Group, which also distributed Doueiri’s “The Attack”. This film company was launched by real estate magnate Charles S. Cohen, who also financed Quad Cinema, a very good venue for foreign films. In Cohen’s profile on the N.Y. Real Estate Board website, we learn that “He received the prestigious Israel Peace Medal in 2002 at a luncheon event in his honor that raised an all-time record $52.4 million for State of Israel Bonds.”

These peace medals don’t have much to do with peace. Instead they are awards usually given to big-time donors to Israel that typically are real estate magnates like Cohen. The ISO newspaper reported on a protest at their 2011 bash:

This year’s dinner awarded a “Peace Medal” to Denis Hughes, president of the New York state AFL-CIO. Hughes was director and chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank during the notorious “credit bubble” decade. It was chaired by Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and head of the Jewish Labor Committee.

Appelbaum has long traded on his image as a “progressive” labor leader to attack growing international trade union support for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Recently, he has been at the forefront of a witch-hunt that banned supporters of Palestinian rights from meeting at the NYC LGBT Community Center.

My advice is to wait until the film shows up on HBO or Showtime. As fiction, it is a taut courtroom drama that will keep you spellbound even if the politics are rather specious.

1 Comment »

  1. Louis, Gee, it’s only $4.99 from Amazon. How about encouraging people to get the film through the public library system instead of enriching one of the richest men in the world still further and increasing the growing power of one of the worst and biggest corporations?

    Comment by MICHAEL SOLA — January 17, 2018 @ 11:42 am

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