Sunday, July 31, 2011

Vals Im Bashir: Creating Memories of the Real

“Believing a film or any kind of documentary is a very subjective method. You can pretend that you do the most objective kind of film, [that] your truth is the absolute truth, but there is nothing objective in filmmaking whatsoever...” -Ari Folman, 2008

Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) is a 2008 animated film written and directed by Ari Folman. It depicts Folman in search of his lost memories from the 1982 Lebanon War. The film opens with the recurring nightmare of Folman’s old friend in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs, the same number every night. The two friends concluded that this has a connection to their Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon War. Folman confessed that he cannot recall anything about the war. Intrigued by the black holes in his memory, he decides to meet and interview old friends and comrades to help him unfold the truth about that time and himself. As he delves deeper into their accounts, the pieces of his lost memory slowly came about and reunited him with his image of the war and the massacres in Sabra and Shatila.

Although the film makes no overt claim to be an accurate historical account of the 1982 Lebanon War, its style of presentation which resembles that of a documentary through the use of multiple interviews, leads ill-informed audience into seeing the film as one. With this, the film does a significant disservice to the audience as it is misleading and deceivingly believable. The narrative is far too personal, fragmentary, subjective and is somewhat historically inaccurate to provide the absolute truth of what occurred during the conflict. Vast chunks of vital information about the war and the massacre are omitted in the film such as the negotiations between Israel Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon and Maronite Phalange party paramilitary leader, Bashir Gemayel regarding the Israeli Defense Force’s invasion to uproot the PLO threat to Israel and move them out of Lebanon. Another missing element is the effect of the war on the people of Lebanon. Viewers may not at all be left with the astonishing scale of death and destruction that the invasion inflicted upon Lebanon and its people. A further stunning omission is the failure to include any account of the evacuation of the PLO and its fighters from the camps, and from Beirut in general. The PLO fighters abandoned their camps in August which set the stage for the massacre in September with the Palestinian civilians left undefended. There are also inaccurate and false depictions in the film, one of which is the illustration of West Beirut particularly in its emphasis on ubiquitous portraits of Bashir Gemayel. West Beirut, apparently, was the stronghold of opposition to his Phalange party and militia. Waltz with Bashir limits itself to the personal narratives of Folman and the interviewees; hence it cannot be a completely reliable and objective account of the 1982 Lebanon War.

But to better appreciate the film, we shall consider first the suspension of disbelief to focus on the brilliance of the film rather than on the accuracy and truthfulness of its narrative. Waltz with Bashir is a psychodrama, more than it is a documentary, focusing on the long-term traumatic effects of the war on some of the soldiers, most of who were only in their teenage years when they serviced in the military. It is an extended rumination on the process of personal and historical suppression of memories especially by those who had already adjusted well. This is very evident in Folman as he claims to have no memory of the war. This is not unique to Folman however, for this is a shared stipulation of people caught in a post-war struggle. And as one strives to retrieve these memories, the mind may not be completely reliable for it has a propensity to convey distortions caused by retrospective memories based on events that never happened and are only imagined. Like what Ori Sivan had stated, “If some details are missing, memory fills the holes with things that never happened.” Folman, for example, is haunted by this certain vision of him, Carmi and one other soldier, rising from the sea and approaching the shore as flames of fire pour down from the dark skies. He knew that this may have something to do with the massacre in Sabra and Shatila but he’s confused whether this really happened or if his mind is just making it up. He discussed this with Sivan and they assumed that this image symbolizes the fear he has toward the massacre and that this may have stemmed from another massacre which involves his parents—the holocaust in Auschwitz.

Waltz with Bashir insists on drawing overblown parallels between Nazi Germany and Israel and on the somewhat genocide of the Palestinians by the Christian Phalangists. It even goes so far as to compare Sabra and Shatila to Auschwitz. A specific example to strengthen this parallelism is Ron Ben Yishai’s reference of what he’d seen in the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre to the picture of the Warsaw ghetto with a child raising his hands into the air. This is criticized by some and is seen as promoting anti-Semitism which is pleasing to the Germans alone. “What greater absolution could there be for the horrors inflicted by Germans on Jews during the Second World War than to find that Jews themselves have been complicit in analogous crimes?” (Rosenthal, 2009)

The film, however, is to be commended for its audacity to admit Israeli complicity in the horrible and indiscriminate massacre of Palestine men, women and children in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. It was frank in acknowledging that some Israeli officials were in early possession of detailed information about the ongoing massacre and chose to allow it to continue. Then again, Israeli soldiers like Folman had continuously shot flares to light up the night sky and indirectly facilitate the killings. They were aware that something’s going on—some even witnessed the shooting of the civilians—but chose to remain oblivious for they were complacent and helpless before directives and orders. Moreover, no one took direct responsibility. Feelings of conscience, shame and guilt are there but not the admission.

Carmi relates the account of how they, out of fear and anxiety, incessantly fired at an old Mercedes only to discover that it contained an innocent family. At a very young age, these soldiers had an ambiguous image of the war. They were uncertain of what they were doing but chose to just do as they’re told. In Folman’s recall of the first day of war, they were unceasingly shooting at the field on a tank but didn’t know who they’re shooting at exactly. These young men who should be playing ball and videogames and hanging out in new wave clubs are instead out in the battlefield, confused with what they’re fighting for. They were stripped of their humanity, morality and empathy with all they experienced—shooting and killing, dumping of bodies—in the war. Conversely, the war gives these young men a sense of masculinity—that they are fighters, heroes. This was Carmi’s driving force why he joined the army in the first place.

“I bombed Beirut everyday… at the pull of a finger we can send strangers straight to hell... Sure, we kill some innocent people along the way... If I came close to death I couldn’t say… I bombed Beirut everyday…” This scene showed how they continuously miss their target. It alludes to the soldiers’ dilemma of not knowing the genuine objectives as to why they’re at war. In the same manner, this clip shows how wars inflict harm to the innocent ones. While another scene showed the contrast of what the soldiers are thinking to what they’re doing. They were singing “Good Morning, Lebanon, too much pain to carry on.. Good Morning Lebanon, may your dreams come true, may your nightmares pass… Your existence is a blessing Lebanon…” while appreciating the scenery. Then the next clip shows the same tank carrying the same men now smashing cars and buildings along their way.

In the film, the sea had been repeatedly used to symbolize fear as in the case of Carmi Can’an, Ronny Dayag and Ari Folman. At the same time, women had been depicted as the saving grace for these soldiers. Every time they’re frightened, they seek for the care and comfort of women. While their boat is being fired upon and burnt, Carmi envisioned a giant woman taking her away to a safer place. At the same time, hidden behind a large stone amidst the attacks on his comrades, Ronny Dayag recalls how secure he was in his mother's company.

Waltz with Bashir breaks the notion that animation is just for kids. The power of its visual storytelling, along with its stunningly detailed animation and engaging musical score make it stand high on the lists of the both antiwar and animation films. David Polonsky, Art Director and Illustrator, together with Director of Animation Yoni Goodman have been successful in using a unique style of animation to capture the futility of war boldly. The original score by Max Richter adds an incredible amount of depth and emotional impact to the already challenging imagery. Overall, Waltz with Bashir is with no doubt, one of the most interesting and visually stunning films I’ve ever seen.

Finally, we ask ourselves, was the film effective? Was it able to convey the realities of the 1982 Lebanon War? In reference to the statement of Folman quoted above, a film in its own is very much subjective. The creators and producers of the film may highlight a certain perspective and greatly encroach upon the viewer’s judgment. In other words, it only presents a fraction of the reality and that there’s danger in depending on it entirely. But, as I was going through the cover of the Waltz with Bashir DVD, there in small letters, below the film’s title, are the words “BASED ON A TRUE STORY”. Now does this make the film more real?


Zohar, R.B. (2009). Waltz with Bashir: A Case Study on the Complicity of the Israeli Cultural Industry with Israeli Apartheid. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from

Gruocho Reviews (2008, December 3). Ari Folman—Waltz with Bashir. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from

The Nation. (2009, March). Commentary on “Waltz with Bashir”. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from

Rosenthal, J. (2009, February 18). Waltz with Bashir, Nazi Germany, and Israel. Retrieved July, 25, 2011, from

Goldman, L. (2009, February 22). Defending Waltz with Bashir. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from

Slone, J. (2009, March 2). Waltz with Bashir. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from

Waltz with Bashir official Website. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from

Wikipedia. Bashir Gemayel. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from en.­wikipedia.­org/­wiki/­Bachir_Gemayel

Wikipedia. 1982 Lebanon War. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from

BBC News. (Page last updated: 2008, May 6). 1982 Lebanon Invasion. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from

- Fiona Arevalo

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Die Ehe Der Maria Braun: Reconstructions of the Public and the Private

Set in a country which has seen its worst defeat following its unconditional surrender at the close of the Second World War, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) is narrative of a young woman who tries to recover from war and who eventually becomes one of the apex predators in the business food chain before meeting her rather sad and sudden end death. The Marriage of Maria Braun is first in Rainier Werner Fazzbinder’s BRD Trilogy, together with Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982), which centers primarily on women living in the years following Germany’s defeat. The film was a commercial success in Germany. It was also received numerous awards and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film. The film was considered one of Fazzbinder’s more successful works in his short but brilliant movie career.

The Marriage of Maria Braun was released only three years before Fassbinder’s death from complications arising from substance abuse.

An air raid demolishes what little is left in a German town as Maria and Hermann Braun exchange marriage vows. After a night together, Hermann is sent again to the front where he becomes a Russian prisoner of war. During his husband’s absence, Maria works as a hostess in a bar patronized by American soldiers. She then meets Bill, a Black American G.I. with whom she has an affair and a child after being told that her husband was killed in the war. Her husband then returns home and sees the two in an intimate moment. A scuffle ensues with Bill appearing to gain the upper hand before being killed by Maria. In the trial that followed, Hermann takes the blame for Bill’s death and is sentenced to prison. Maria then starts working for Oswald, a wealthy owner of a textile company whom she met on a train, as his personal assistant. She becomes very wealthy, allowing herself to buy her own house. Meanwhile unbeknownst to Maria, Oswald visits Hermann in prison and strikes a deal with him with Oswald leaving everything to the two Brauns following that Hermann moves to Canada after his release. Herman complies and lives in Canada after his release, sending a rose each month to Maria to remind her that he loves her still. Oswald eventually dies and Hermann returns home to Maria. Oswald’s will is executed and the details of the arrangement between the two men are made known to Maria. She subsequently lights a cigarette and dies.

The film is primarily seen as an allegory for Germany, the character of Maria is oftentimes likened to her country as it tried to rebuild following the destruction caused by the recently concluded war. Left with no other choice but to move forward, Maria did everything so as to provide for herself. Her setbacks did not at all hinder her from trying to achieve what she wanted for her and for her husband, whether it be a pair nylon stockings, heaps of money, or even a house. She efficiently used her “resources” to achieve her goals, even at the cost of her moral values. She found herself a provider following the supposed death of Hermann, and she landed herself a top position in Oswald’s company. In a way, the same can be said for Germany after the war as it had no time to reconcile with herself all the horrors that the war caused and instead used all her available resources to rebuild and recover. At one point even accepting American aid in the US Marshall Plan, like Maria allowing Bill to provide of her needs. It is however worthy to point out that although Maria was “fond” of Bill, she was adamant in her decision to marry her as she insists that she is already married. The same can also be observed when Oswald attempted to ask for her hand in marriage. This can be attributed to the fact that Germany accepted aid from the Allies did not necessarily mean that they embraced their brand willingly and would illustrate another example of their brand of pragmatism.

Marriage and love figure prominently in the film as one of the motivations of Maria that would justify her actions. By signing the contract in the middle of a bombing raid with her husband, Maria was deemed to commit herself and everything to Hermann, a man who was almost entirely absent in Maria’s life. Maria then lives her life all for this marriage. In the end however, it all goes haywire as Maria and Hermann were strangers again when they met again after Oswald’s death. Whether it was love or something else that made Maria so dedicated to Hermann is another story, but it cannot be denied that it was the one thing that made Oswald leave everything to Maria as was explicitly stated in his will. He also claims that a one’s great love recognizes another as Hermann agreed to their arrangement and left the country the moment he was released. Maria was also initially enchanted with love was seen in her dialogue with another hostess in a bar before he met Bill.

The movie’s use of sound was, in a way, irritating as one had to try and shut off, say, the radio so as to clearly understand the dialogue. This, however, show us how people reacted to news back then. Everyone was busy fixing their lives that they had no interest in listening to what’s going on outside their private lives. Even Adenauer’s speeches about Germany’s rearmament seemed to fall on deaf ears as Maria’s family was observably busy with other matters.

The Marriage of Maria Braun is an almost difficult film to take in all at once. It juxtaposes contrasting images, carries symbolism, employs twists, and ultimately leaves the audience hanging and wondering whether Maria intentionally left the gas knob open or not. Aside from primarily being a political allegory for Germany, The Marriage of Maria Braun ultimately tells the story of a young woman caught in the aftermath of the war who struggles for a chance at a better life.


- Lawrence Ivan Manalo

Sunday, July 17, 2011

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: Provisions Of The Normal

When we put our faith in the society and institutions therein to decide the rules of living, we can either believe we are coming at a social agreement or realize that it just leads to greater ambiguities as to where, and much more importantly how, we really draw the line on pertinent issues. This is what the story is all about. We see here all kinds of ambiguities and the processes by which we try to delineate norms and laws. It talks of going through legitimate channels in hopes of negotiating what we want. And yes, individuals who are judged as mentally unstable have the same access to it. After all, isn’t the point of them being in the asylum one of the many products of social ambiguities too?

Two logical assumptions support the existence of asylums- the first being a societal filter to segregate the able-bodied from the incapacitated and the second being a restoration, or in more grieve cases, a reset factory for a deviant individual to be possibly reintegrated to society. Strange, but with regards to the second assumption, it’s as if the focus of Milos Forman’s movie rarely lingers in the asylum’s creed of societal reintegration. Ironically enough, it presents what seems to be a case of a micro-society with its set of well-imposed conformist protocols and a small political community stricken with a dictatorship hiding behind a veil of democratic practices.

Originally based from Ken Kesey’s novel (1962), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) narrates the story of a boisterous man named Randall Patrick McMurphy whose shrewd crazy act lands him in an asylum facility under the rule of Nurse Ratched. In an environment that runs on predetermined, clockwork-precision activities, McMurphy’s find himself in a betting game to go around the rules according to his satisfaction with the ultimate goal of bringing down the nurse from her tyrannical stronghold. Beneath the surface of the plot, we could see an intricately woven context of power (or the abuse of it), social determinism, and concepts such as democracy, efficacy and finally, participation.

On a symbolic level, Nurse Ratched is deemed as the system. With an overarching power to the administration and the patients under her ward, her command goes beyond meetings and medication and trickles down to policy creation and mandates as to how every patient should conduct themselves. Such capacity is familiar to being an absolute power if it weren’t for the fact that a kind of democratic façade is under operation. It’s a façade because of the fear of standing up- or in this case, raising your hand. The overly allocated power at the nurse’s hand is an enough source of intimidation, if not the coercion at times of great need. Clearly, between Nurse Ratched and the patients, there’s a distinct relationship of the oppressor and the oppressed. This is where McMurphy’s character enters like a case of messianic complex. Whether his intention maybe noble or just for his commitment to gambling, he intends to deliver his fellow acute patients from their predicament whether or not they realize that they want to be pulled out from it in the first place.

If we analyze closely, the main problem why patients are too afraid is because of their deterministic nature. Come to think about it, the situation makes sense. These people diagnosed of being unable to thrive in a society are made to accept that they are deviant, that they do not follow or have a grasp to social norms that are given by nature. Once within the asylum, they are brainwashed that the only solution to re-enter society is to be a conformist. Thus, it comes no surprise if they wish to follow to every word of the nurse and much more to fear of going against it. The result is a clear example of how one grants permission to be oppressed and for the oppressor to gain more power. According to Ferguson (1997) as cited by Fischer (2010), “to avoid this [determinism-responsibility] problem, any explanation of how systems of domination are supported by dominators and submitted to by subordinates must avoid being deterministic in a way that implies that both those who benefit and those who are oppressed are not morally responsible for challenging and resisting those systems.”

If his mates are social determinists, McMurphy stands on the extreme opposite side of the spectrum. His character clearly portrays rebellion and nonconformism at every turn. He clashes with the system since day one and challenges to give life to their feeble democratic voting system over policies (though they seldom work) and even to break rules for his mere entertainment. Come to think of it, he is crazy in a way normal, free-minded people could be once they are stripped or denied of their duly accorded rights, even if it’s just voting for the right to witness the World Series.

The thrill of watching the film begins when McMurphy spreads what is known as internal efficacy, that is, ‘the confidence in the ability to influence public affairs’ (Norris, 2005). There are no longer silent meetings where the nurse has to prod them continuously to extract a response. Instead, speeches are done more often (and voluntarily) along side with petitions and critical questioning as to the existence of policies. They finally found there voice and demands change. If parallelized in the bigger society, such changes are barely met without resistance. Especially if there’s a dictator holding on to power. At the start of this change wave, the nurse uses soft power (through intimidation, persuasion and command of office) to keep things in order. By the time it proved to be non-effective, she resorts to hard power (force) as a last resort. This is shown by sending patients such as McMurphy, Chief Bromden and Cheswick to the electro shock therapy after finding their behavior to be ‘disruptive’. And this was seen later on too when lobotomy was performed at McMurphy returning him back to the ward as a certified vegetable for life. Of course one can argue that those things are done for purely ‘therapeutically’ reasons. After all, the asylum is meant to cure them. But when it comes down to empathizing with the experiences of these patients, it seems more harm is done than good. By this time, the scenario begins the way it started when patients couldn’t find their voice again after realizing that there’s no point of fighting with the system.

I’d like to comment too on a certain character that I find to be truly interesting- Chief Bromden. The reason for him being committed to the asylum was not mentioned explicitly. Though implicitly, it might be because of his Indian Chief turned defeatist-drunkard of a father or the World War (or maybe both). Whatever the cause is, in truth he doesn’t deserve to be there the same way that McMurphy entered the premises to escape from work farm. His background story present in the book (though omitted in the movie) gives as another content to talk about. In particular, it’s the story of how the native Indians are displaced of their natural habitat and how, to a wider implication minorities are being undervalued and mistreated by a government who works under the empty slogan of the ‘greater good’. Whether it is turning to a drunkard or being branded as insane, the issue is that these minorities are most likely to suffer ill fate at the mercy of the public majority that does not understand, or intend to understand, the way they live. It is the very reason why Chief Bromden pretended to be deaf all these years. Nobody bothered to listen anyway.

With Chief Bromden’s escape, the conclusion tells us that failure to resolve a social ambiguity may ultimately lead to individualistic pursuits- that our lives above all still is in our own hands. The system is showcased to be hopeless and unyielding. Therefore the only choice left is to break the window, run to the open world, and reclaim freedom through your own means. Who knows, away from repression, there might be better chances of re-negotiating your existence.


Fischer, C. (2010). Consciousness and conscience: feminism, pragmatism, and the potential for radical change. Studies in Social Justice, 4(1), 67-85.

Norris, P. (2005). Political activism: New challenges, new opportunities. Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics, Oxford University Press

- Liane Candelario

“One flew East
One flew West

And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

Presented by a children’s nursery rhyme (entitled Vintery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn) is an entire introductory metaphorical concept to Milos Forman’s 1975 film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are two elements that fly in oppositional combative directions that are meant to create an obvious conflict. And one, as mentioned, flies over the cuckoo’s nest (the asylum housing ‘cuckoos’) and seemingly becomes an omnipotent eye and ear to the whole mental institution. The film is set in a mental hospital but it is not a film about mental illness. The title hints of insanity but our anti-hero, Randle “RP” McMurphy is not one to be claimed to be a mental patient. What, then, must the film be exactly about?

In Cuckoo’s Nest, we are introduced to Nurse Mildred Ratched who embodies the full denotation of an iron fist and heads a mental ward where the film is generally set (except for a fishing trip sequence). We are also introduced to free-spirited recidivist criminal RP McMurphy who is to be ‘evaluated’ for his previous actions and is the primary cause of his indefinite stay in Ratched’s ward. The film is, simplistically, an allegorical statement to conformism to the Establishment, to the Man, and to the basic status quo. Here, Nurse Ratched personifies the whole Establishment while RP McMurphy obtrudes in his motives and actions his anti-establishment beliefs. Nurse Ratched, palpably enough, is the one flying to the East and RP McMurphy is the one flying to the West. This makes up the primary conflict of the whole film.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is considerably one of the greatest and most unforgettable American films of all time. I have seen it listed on almost every Favorites and Greatest lists, both mainstream audiences to film critics alike. It is great because of its simplistic approach and style and yet how it manifests the makings of a perfectly stitched narrative film. It is unforgettable because even after three decades of its conception to the film world, Cuckoo’s Nest tackled issues and themes that most likely still are relevant and contemporary in every sense of its perception and analysis.

Roger Ebert, in his wonderful review of the film, posed a necessary question for discussion: “Is One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest not a great film because it is manipulative, or is it great because it is so superbly manipulative?” Manipulative here is used in the sense of its ‘scheming’ and not of its ‘controlling’ denotation. But is it manipulative just to the audiences, generally? Or manipulative in the underlying analysis of the film’s sometimes faulty but still workable elements? Its popularity does endure the test of time because the mental patients – or rather, for some, volunteers to the mental institution – are used as mere accessories and not as real individuals to be taken in depth. It is as always remembered and sometimes even categorized a comedy because it is comical, whimsical, and unbelievably false. This strengthens the allegorical nature the film as it is to be taken as – it is a parable, and after all, the metaphorical statement is derived from a children’s folk song.

What is also most effective of the film is its keen and precise detail of its mise-en-scene. Take for example McMurphy’s apparel as opposed to the bland dirty-white uniform of his fellow inmates. He dresses himself in a way that still appears to be part of the norm, that he is indeed, not at all a lunatic that should adhere to the system’s instruction of wearing such passé-looking clothes. Nurse Ratched, however, being the head figure of the ward, is dressed in a way that it exudes a militaristic personality – with her nurse’s costume as if it were an imperative military commanding officer’s uniform, her nurse hat and her usual entrancing black cape. Also, as if acting like a separate accessory to her complete uniform is the silent nurse who acts like her ‘side-kick’ or in a better sense, her executive officer, her second-in-command. These elements -- alongside the wholly locked-up (even from their own personal dorm rooms!) and dull interiors of the mental asylum, the patients’ and volunteers’ uniforms, the glass door separation from nurses to their tending men – all elicit a kind of claustrophobic set-up that seems to choke every air of humanity of its all seemingly sane cuckoos. RP McMurphy is the only contrast to this order, in his dominatingly black apparel (his bonnet, his jackets, and his pants) and is the one claiming anarchic freedom, bringing to his fellow inmates a taste of this freedom as well.

The cinematography and the editing of every shot and reaction shot of the film is also too keen and precise that it exhibits the necessary emotions that it tries to give out all too well. At every morning group discussion, each of the inmates is always given a close-up shot introducing every reactionary emotion they give out to in varying degrees that strengthen the innate trait of every character. Take for example, Charles Cheswick who is overpowered by the inner child in his mind, always cries to get what he wants and stomps his way into tantrums. The stuttering and frightful Bobby Bibbit, however, is usually unspeakable even when the discussion upends into a ruckus. In the fishing trip sequence, McMurphy introduces each of the inmates as doctors and they react, partially in common sense (which as they are not so common at all they suddenly had have), all too humanly as if they did not have any psychological problems at all and were normal people enjoying a bogus all-doctor fishing trip. The close-ups help, especially with McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and Chief Bromden, because they all present a distinct contrast to every person’s motivation and intrinstic nature. McMurphy usually wrinkles his forehead and puts on an annoyed eyeing-everyone face. Chief Bromden, who fakes his deaf-mute condition, is seen as passive but whenever he looks at McMurphy does he only summon a mischievous smirk. Nurse Ratched’s face-time induces a stern and steely woman who does not want to veer away from schedule, organization, and formality. This effectively brings out the embodiment of every representational elements of the film: McMurphy is anti-establishment, Nurse Ratched is the Establishment, and Chief Bromden is caught up in between two forces that he remains the passive deemed-as-dumb Indian.

Being a social commentary on conformist governments and societies, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s attributing to this issue ends in what remains to be present in our modern set-up today. McMurphy has such a startling effect on his fellow inmates – always suggesting that they aren’t what they think they are at all, that the man on the street is worse off than them actually – that he isn’t much of an anti-hero at all. What remains a mystery is that despairing line that divided his will to stay for a while (until he finds out that is committed indefinitely) and act as leader-teacher to his fellow inmates and the will to escape, as he is sick of the place, sick of the rules, sick of the Establishment which is, Nurse Ratched. In the end, we find out what he chooses and what remains again, a mystery, is why he chooses to see for himself Bibbit’s bloody suicide spot rather than freeing himself from the closed and claustrophobic system. However, it is not a mystery as to why the film’s narrative chose for McMurphy to stay as they decide to uphold optimism on the Chief’s escape (which sets off a parallel – parallel in the filmic sense of the word – on McMurphy’s failed attempt and Chief’s successful one). The lifting of the hydrotherapy console symbolizes the difficulty – or even, the impossibility -- for escape from the asylum and how, in the earlier part of the film, McMurphy fails to lift it and says: “But I tried, goddamit. At least I did that.” This, however, again brings up another thread of discussion as to what exactly did McMurphy try? He tried to let his boys think in the way of his thinking – live free, even if it meant to die trying. He tried to reform the organizational and carefully worked-out instructions of the Establishment that only aimed to better their living condition in their small institution. He tried to have his boys experience a taste of the real outside world as if to introduce their reintegration to the wider view of society, that it wasn’t at all too difficult as they would think it would be. And at last, he tried to escape as if to say that his job is already done but the locked-up walls of the mental hospital devours his wish as if to say his job isn’t over yet, isn’t fully accomplished at all.

In these interlacing themes of lunacy paired with a conformist system guised in a flawed democracy, to what extent does it become a full mirroring of a larger scale of the social order? It must be then that it serves as an entire metaphor, an entire representation to a wider society, a wider institution. “Forman himself noted that the asylum was a metaphor for the Soviet Union and the desire to escape.” RP McMurphy’s character is drenched with all these desires to escape for his anarchic motivations. He does what he pleases but he dwells in a closed system. This, now, results in a chaotic turn of events that lead to his tragic end. The film has beautifully weaved a man’s tale that tells not exactly of a greater moral victory and certainly not of hopelessness and pessimism of our society’s current status, but the idea of the acceptance of one’s fate – in the sense that fate does not choose where one leads but in the better perspective that one chooses where he leads his fate to.


Ebert, Roger. (2003, February 2). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Retrieved from

Dirks, Tim. Filmsite Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Retrieved from

- Hil PetersenVargas

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Un Prophète: The Pragmatism of Identity

There can be many motifs, themes, and symbolisms identified in the complicated and almost messy film Un Prophète by Director Jacques Audiard (2009), but none is perhaps more salient than the politics of identity and prison power relations. The entire film itself focuses on the prison life of young Malik El Djebena who was all of a sudden thrown into the dirty power struggles in prison and amongst various ethnic groups. Indeed, the intricate power relations of prison and identity in the film all symbolize at the micro-level the larger social realities of contemporary French society and the experiences of the people in France as they negotiate social boundaries within the state that has been increasingly assimilative of immigrant groups and other out-groups.

Malik El Djebena is a mysterious and clueless 19-year-old boy sentenced into prison for six years for reasons not directly identifiable from the film but may be interpreted as charges of attacking policemen, for which he was accused as he was being interviewed by a prison officer before actually entering his cell. In a scene that appears to be an interview for prison classes, Malik reveals some important telling facts about his life before becoming an inmate. Having had no parents to raise him, Malik spent his childhood at an unspecified youth center until he was 11 years old, at which point he left the center without learning sufficient skills to read and write. When asked by the interviewer about his mother tongue or at least the language he spoke first, Malik does not know whether he spoke French or Arabic first. He simply answers that he spoke both. Tracing this through the lenses of psychology (Smith, Nolen-Hoeksema, Fredrickson, & Loftus, 2003), this may mean that in his early toddler years Malik was already exposed to groups that spoke both French and Arabic – either a combination of French and Arabic groups or a simple immigrant Muslim group in France. In any case, this means that Malik was most probably born in France and that, more importantly, he was exposed even at an early age to Muslim communities in the country.

The internal struggle and self-negotiation within the character of Malik El Djebena is important and salient especially in the arena of the sociological theoretical perspective of symbolic interaction. In truth, the characterization of Malik’s persona narrates the larger ongoing negotiations of Muslim culture and identity within the French society. The Muslim community in France is the largest in Western Europe, constituting five to six million or 8-9.6% of 62.3 million French citizens in 2004 by estimates of the French government (BBC News, 2005). Around 70% of this Muslim community traces its heritage to the French colonies of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia in North Africa (BBC News, 2005), spelling a high probability that Malik’s inmate nickname amongst the Corsicans – “the Arab” – is in fact a misnomer and that Malik is in fact more likely to be of North African descent. Ergo, the symbolism of Malik’s confused persona here is more or less clear: In the same way that Malik El Djebena has to come to terms with his own Muslim identity as he faces the might of the French prison, ethnic discrimination from the Corsicans, and the anger and disapproval of his own Muslim brothers, many Muslims in France today have to come to terms with their own identity as they face the pretentiously tolerant but merely assimilative French state, the increasing xenophobia amongst various groups in French society, and even the pressure of extremist Muslim forces in France (Noiriel, 1996).

As seen in the film, Malik had been initially detached from his Muslim identity most especially during his long-time slavery under the Corsican prisoners but eventually let himself be absorbed into the Muslim community. His allegiance with the Muslim prisoners towards the end of the film through his charitable donation to an imam (Islam priest) may appear sudden and unexpected at first but, once thoroughly analyzed, his allegiance was in fact a process – a negotiation within himself and a long and difficult formation of his own integrity as he spent years in prison. Throughout the narrative, Malik was exposed to kindness from Muslim individuals such as Reyeb who treated Malik kindly before Malik was forced to murder him. In fact, Reyeb was one of the first people who actually showed interest and care for Malik, promising to leave Malik his books so he can learn to read. Malik was so attached to Reyeb that he kept fantasizing about Reyeb’s existence, imagining Reyeb as his only confidante in the chaos and secrets of prison life. There was also, of course, Ryad who eventually became his business partner and his closest and most reliable friend. Malik found himself caring so much for Ryad that Malik even promised to adopt Ryad’s family after Ryad’s death as soon as Malik left prison. Aside from the kindness of his Muslim brothers, Malik was also exposed to discrimination from the Corsican prisoners who treated Malik like their slave and even forced Malik under a death threat to murder Reyeb. Malik may have therefore attached discrimination against the Muslims to the Corsicans who hated him as well, allowing for sympathy towards the Muslims. If only none of these factors were present, Malik may have continued to live without any identity or sense of belongingness to a community, having had no such concept at the beginning of the film. For example, if only the Corsicans sympathized with Malik and treated him kindly, Malik may have become more attached to the Corsican than the Muslim identity. Such experiences of Malik therefore may have fueled the process of his growing sympathy with the Muslim community.

Malik El Djebena, of course, was only one persona in the film and depicted only the confusion and negotiations of Muslims in the French society. Looking at the larger power relations going on in the film, we see as well the power struggles and negotiations of the in-prison Corsican mafia led by Caesar Luciani. The political history of Corsica, an island outside mainland France and nearer to Italy than France, is replete with occupations by various forces beginning with the Carthagians but its more modern and therefore more recent memory of colonization is marked by the political negotiations between Italy and France. Corsica was ruled by the Italian Republic of Genoa from the 1400s to the 1700s (BBC News, 2011). An independent Corsican republic was founded in 1755 by nationalists, but the island was ceded to France by purchase in 1769 (BBC News, 2011). Today, Corsica is a territorial collectivity and one of the least developed regions of France (BBC News, 2011). Its culture is also closer to Italian than French, with its language being linguistically similar with Italian and the existence of mafia families in the island (Nundy, 1993). The Corsicans therefore, with their Italian-influenced culture, have to come to terms with the various impositions of rule under the French state which continuously fails to understand the special needs of the Corsican people. This has led to a violent separatist movement in Corsica (BBC News, 2011).

Unlike the Muslims, however, the Corsicans in the film depict a success story in the beginning of the narrative. Through negotiations with the corrupted French prison system, Caesar Luciani leads a well-connected Corsican mafia spoiled by the prison guards. Unlike other prisoners, the Corsicans are allowed several liberties such as outside communication and the freedom to bully and dominate other groups in prison without punitive measures. The Corsicans, however, eventually face defeat as the Muslim community in prison grew in number and began to dominate the politics in prison particularly through Malik El Djebena’s eventual betrayal against Caesar Luciani. The defeat was also, quite ironically, fueled by the pardon ordered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Corsicans, seeing them merely as political prisoners under the growing tension between the Corsican separatist movement and the French state. Here, again, we see the connection between social and political realities and the prison politics portrayed in the film.

Finally, the film also alludes to the increasingly relevant issue of corruption within the machinations of the French government. Cited by Ezra Suleiman in 1994, the French civil service, formerly a bastion of efficiency and impressively professional bureaucracy, faces criticisms as it is eaten by politicization and problems of corruption. This is particularly important in the depiction of the French prison in the film. Clearly portrayed as a total institution – an institution of social isolation and administrative manipulation (Macionis, 2005) – the prison was trembling into corruption and bias to the powerful groups inside it. Elements of its character as a total institution were shown in the film through a regularized diet for prisoners, regularized recreational periods and areas, and even Malik’s forced stripping of his clothes and property before entering the prison. However, alluding to reality, the prison guards were depicted to have tendencies to support the Corsican mafia, for example, which had a powerful network outside the prison walls. Ergo, even the French prison has to deal with its own negotiations with the various groups existing within its walls and is, in fact, pressured to maintain its integrity despite the strength of forces subject to it. The French prison can therefore be seen as a symbolism of the larger French state, which has to come to terms with its growing Muslim community, the Corsican mafias and separatist movement, and even its own depleting and crumbling integrity in the face of politicization and corruption.

In synthesis, therefore, the narrative within the film not a narrative isolated from the larger social contexts within which the film was made. The clear social realism within the film has unavoidably turned its fictional narrative into a social and political depiction and critique of French society and politics. The salience of the film as a product of political socialization is undeniable and cannot be ignored. Indeed, as was made clear by this film, the political values and realities of the larger social context inevitably affect filmmaking.


BBC News. (2005, December 23). Muslims in Europe: Country Guide. Retrieved July 5, 2011, from BBC News:

BBC News. (2011, April 28). Regions and territories: Corsica. Retrieved July 5, 2011, from BBC News:

Macionis, J. (2005). Society: The Basics. US: Prentice Hall.

Noiriel, G. (1996). The French Melting Pot: Immigration, Citizenship, and National Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nundy, J. (1993, August 25). Corsican guerrillas take on Mafia: The nationalists demanding independence from Paris have a new aim, writes Julian Nundy in Ajaccio: tackling organised crime. Retrieved July 5, 2011, from The Independent:

Smith, E. E., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Fredrickson, B., & Loftus, G. R. (2003). Atkinson & Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology (14th ed.). Australia: Thomson & Wadsworth.

Suleiman, E. (1994). Presidentialism and Political Stability in France. In J. Linz, & A. Valenzuela (Eds.), The Failure of Presidential Democracy, Volume 1: Comparative Perspectives (pp. 137-162). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

- Juan Carlo Tejano

A 19 year old Arab boy gets imprisoned for attacking a police officer. Upon his entry, the battle between morality and survival begins as Malik receives a killing order from the Corsican Mafia in exchange of protection and his own place in the prison hierarchy. He is an antihero who murdered his own race, sought revenge on the Corsican gang and became a mafia boss himself.

A Prophet is a film about the corruption of French society manifested through its penal system. France proclaims itself as “Le Pays des droits de l’Homme” (the country of human rights) when extreme cases of xenophobia is present in their everyday lives. One issue presented in this film is the discrimination against the Arabs, evident in the racist remarks of the Corsicans. Malik, an Arab man considered to be part of their clique who is treated otherwise, and is made to do the dirty job fit for his race. He serves them food, cleans their cells and follows them around like a dog, yet he is consistently a target of racism. At one point, Malik tries to imitate their words, “fucking Arab shit”, insulting his own people. He is presented with the dilemma of embracing his Arab identity in the expense of his survival inside the prison. While running errands for the Luciani, he lingers long enough at the sight of the Muslims praying, suggesting his desire to do the same. However, there is a time when the Arabs insulted him as a pig for enslaving himself to the Corsicans. It is difficult to establish his allegiance to both races as it is often inconsistent.

But what is Malik el Djebena identity? Could we blame him for killing his fellow Arab in a total institution devoid of morality? The social norms no longer apply in a system that is filled with cold blooded criminals. The rules have changed: kill or get killed. And this is exactly how a powerful mafia boss threatened a newbie petty criminal. Of course, the need to live would outweigh the moral implications of murdering a man. Especially when Malik is confused of his identity, it is easy for him to give himself at the disposal of the gang. However, throughout the movie, his allegiance to both races can become confusing to the audience as he starts learning how to read with his fellow Arabs. This is further complicated by his companionship with Ryad and servitude to Luciani. His allegiance to the Arabs and Corsicans is conflicted throughout his 6 year sentence. I think that his loyalty to a particular race is a self-serving means of being at the right side of the fight at the right time. His identity remains as vague as his dreams and “visions” of the future.

The penal system is created to protect the society from the criminals who pose threat to the lives of its citizens. However, it must also be correctional for the reformation and rehabilitation of the prisoners for their future reintegration to the society.

However, this is not the case in the film. This institution has dehumanized Malik starting from the humiliating full body inspection upon his entry to the prison. He even brings this routine in the airport as a security guard inspects his body. His crime was not established concretely and remained vague until he killed a man. How would we know if he was a random person in the street who was taken advantage of the police? The answer is no longer important for the very institution tasked to turn him into a better citizen, introduced his innocent young mind to the brutalities of the world. It is not only the police who turn blind on the crimes happening inside the prison, but also the lawyers who represent their clients for financial reasons alone. The entire penal system is perpetuating a culture of violence and breeds corrupted felons.

The transformation of Malik comes in full circle when he murdered the leader of the mafia and his men in broad daylight. A moment of distraction on a luxurious pair of shoes in a window of a store, shows the reluctance of Malik to carry on the deed. However, his face instantaneously turned cold and dark, filled with murderous intent. Without mercy, he blew up the brains of the men and used their bodies as shield as he went for his final kill. This shows the effect of the institution of the prison and its ability to dehumanize people. It corrupts the morality and belief systems governing an individual and transforms him in a state of anarchy, who lives by the rules of the day.

However, the corruption of the Malik is a learning process. Entering a dangerous world filled with criminals and not knowing how to survive is definitely terrifying for a petty criminal like Malik. He killed a man who showed kindness and introduced education to him. His conscience keeps him company in the form of Reyeb. As he gain experience on the drug trade in prison, his autonomy from Luciani and his gang increased, allowing him to build his connections with other inmates. His deception skills reached at its peak when he got the trust of both the leaders of the warring factions. From the blade in his bloody mouth, he now kills without remorse. Reyeb ceases to exist after his transformation from the 19-year old boy to a fully-pledged mafia boss.

“A Prophet” is an award winning film not only because of its harrowing story but also because of Jacques Audiard’s ability to captivate his audience and place them inside his film. The heaviness of the conscience of Malik before he kills Reyeb transcends the screen and fills the entire room. The whole class is writhing in their seats as they struggle in the frame that could barely contain them. The tones of the entire film are in blue or gray giving off a depressing vibe to the film. Furthermore, the violence is overpowering as the bloody images remain with the audience.

- Victoria Tiangco