Sunday 25 May 2014


Most movie-goers would probably balk at sitting for three hours and 16 minutes to watch a film, but in the case of Winter Sleep by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, nearly every minute is worth it.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The movie has won the top Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in France, fitting the mould of what jury president Jane Campion called “the brave and the original”.

Campion said the festival celebrates authorship and “films with a unique vision and their own personal voice”, and she might well have been describing Winter Sleep.

Set in central Anatolia, the film explores the stormy relationship between a former actor (played by Haluk Bilginer) and his young wife (Melissa Sözen) against the backdrop of inequality and social tension.

The director uses striking imagery, subtle humour and absorbing dialogue to hold viewers’ attention, and at the end, one is left with questions about how the individual can help to improve the world.

Ceylan said that when he wrote the film’s script, he did so as if he were writing a novel, and the movie does have the expansive feel of great literature, with its themes of self-examination and personal redemption.

A scene from 'Winter Sleep'
At the award ceremony on May 24, Ceylan dedicated the prize to “the young people of Turkey and to those who lost their lives during the year” – a reference to the political protests that have shaken his country as well as to a recent mining tragedy.

Ceylan’s work was among the 18 films in competition for the Palme d’Or, with several other filmmakers also addressing social issues, politics, war and human rights. Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako presented a moving and timely drama about civilians resisting tyranny, but his film Timbuktu was surprisingly shut out of the main awards.

Abderrahmane Sissako
It did however win the prize of the independent Ecumenical Jury, which described the work as “a strong yet nuanced denunciation of an extremist interpretation of religion”.

The jury, comprising Protestant and Catholic movie experts, said its prize honoured Timbuktu's “high artistic achievement and its humour and restraint”.

“While offering a critique of intolerance the film draws attention to the humanity inherent in each person,” the jury added.

Timbuktu tells the story of a family in the north of Mali during the region’s occupation by religious extremists who have banned music, smoking and even football. Women are being told how to dress and behave and those who speak out are swiftly punished. But people still manage to resist, even in silence.

A scene from 'Timbuktu' 
The film gained much praise during the festival, which began May 14 and ended today with re-screenings of the movies, and critics commended both the director and his cast for their courage. At one press conference, Sissako broke down in tears and was applauded sympathetically by those present

“Maybe I’m crying in the place of all these people who’ve experienced these things, who truly suffered,” he said. "I consider that the people who were really courageous are the ones who experienced these events firsthand. When it’s your job to be a filmmaker, when you can do it, you have to spare no effort, you have to go even beyond what you thought you were capable of, you have to be daring enough to take risks, even if you fail.”

The poster for Charlie's Country
Another noteworthy prize went to the Australian Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, who won the best actor prize in the Un Certain Regard category of the festival for Charlie’s Country, a film he co-wrote with director Rolf de Heer.

This category highlights “different” or off-beat works and featured 20 films in competition, representing 23 nationalities. Charlie’s Country was among the films that received a standing ovation, with critics giving high ratings to its depiction of Aboriginal life and struggles.

Gulpilil plays an ageing character who, fed up with governmental intervention in his community, decides to return to an older way of life, and the film follows his tragi-comical journey. 

The Un Certain Regard top prize went to White God (Fehér Isten), a riveting allegorical movie about a mixed-breed dog who has to fight to survive after a society declares his kind of dog unwanted. The film’s Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó said his work is a metaphor for Europeans’ treatment of minorities.

Ironically, as the festival ended, far-right, anti-immigrant political parties in France and the United Kingdom garnered a high percentage of the vote in elections for the European Parliament, and Mundruczó’s cautionary tale suddenly seemed a harbinger of real-life darkness. - A.M.

For the list of all prizes, see:

Canine stars of "White God"

Wednesday 14 May 2014


When 12 cartoonists from around the world walk up the red-carpeted stairs at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, human rights and freedom of expression will also be in the spotlight.

The official poster.
The cartoonists are the “stars” of a new film that is part of the official selection of the festival, which runs from May 14 to 25 in the southern French town.

Titled Caricaturistes - Fantassins de la Démocratie (Cartoonists - Foot Soldiers of Democracy), the documentary looks at the “daily battles” that these satirists face as they use “only a pencil as weapon”, according to its French director Stéphanie Valloatto.

The film features cartoonists from Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, France, Israel, Venezuela and other countries, and follows them as they confront threats and official repression because of their work.

It profiles Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, for instance, who in 2011 was badly beaten by security forces who symbolically tried to destroy his hands.

Plastic surgery eventually saved Ferzat’s fingers, after a campaign to get him out of Syria was launched by Cartooning for Peace, a non-profit association co-founded in 2006 by renowned French cartoonist Plantu and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The organisation, which partly inspired the film, aims to foster dialogue, promote freedom of expression and recognise the journalistic work of cartoonists. 

Plantu and Kofi Annan
It was formed in the wake of protests and riots around the world sparked by Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, and it currently comprises more than 100 cartoonists representing 40 nationalities and all the world’s major religions.

Valloatto told SWAN that the group was instrumental in the making of “Foot Soldiers” because it facilitated access to the cartoonists. In addition, the movie producer and director Radu Mihaileanu had long admired the association’s human-rights work and Plantu’s campaign for tolerance. 

“Radu had the idea to do the film and he asked me to come on board because I’ve been making documentaries while he does feature films - movies that are really humane,” recalled Valloatto, known in French television circles for her socially engaged documentary projects.

Director Stephanie Valloatta
“Once I got to know Plantu and the work of Cartooning for Peace, I too was really impressed by what they’re doing,” she added. She and Mihaileanu co-wrote the scenario, and Mihaileanu took on the role of producer.

Apart from Ferzat, the documentary profiles other satirists who operate in dangerous political domains. They include rare women cartoonists such as Rayma Suprani and Nadia Khiari (Willis from Tunis), members of Cartooning for Peace.

Suprani, who works for the newspaper El Universal in Caracas, Venezuela, has received threats because of her drawings criticizing the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Both Cartooning for Peace and Amnesty International have highlighted her case.

“I don’t think the threats are based solely on gender,” Rayma told SWAN in an interview. “It’s not because of your genital organs, but it’s because you have a brain and you can think.”

Khiari of Tunisia, whose trademark character is an acerbic cat, has said that despite intimidation, one way to achieve change is to continue to protest, whether on the streets on in cartoons and blogs.

Nadia Khiari, aka Willis from Tunis
She got into cartooning because of a major political event in her country. An artist and art teacher, she launched Willis from Tunis during the “Jasmine Revolution” that led to the Arab Spring, taking her pseudonym from the name of her cat, Willis, who was born during the last speech of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“The president was there promising press freedom and a host of other things, and the absurdity of the speech inspired me to do some cartoons,” she recalled of the beginning in 2011. “Of course I didn’t know then that this would be his last speech.”

Her work also derides attempts to suppress women and freedom of expression, and some of her cartoons take particular aim at the hypocrisy of “gender politics” in the North African region.

Glez, by himself (courtesy of CFP)
In sub-Saharan African, the film looks at the work of French-born cartoonist Damien Glez, who has lived for some 25 years in Burkina Faso where his cartoons have had enormous impact. He and fellow-cartoonist, Lassane Zohoré , based in Ivory Coast, don’t hold back from lampooning political figures, and a light moment in the film shows them laughing together over some drawings.

The documentary is not in competition for any of the main prizes in Cannes, but the stories and many of the words spoken by cartoonists will stick with viewers. Michel Kichka, the Belgian-born Israeli cartoonist, probably spoke for the profession when he said: It's impossible to do a drawing that will not offend someone. 

Despite this, the film has moments of humour as well as the serious message. "We hope it will be seen by a lot of people because it may give inspiration for all of us to fight for tolerance and human rights, no matter what sector we work in,” says Valloatto.

The film opens in cinemas in France on May 28. - A.M.

For a fuller article on this topic, go to:

Sunday 4 May 2014


Caribbean countries have seen a huge boom recently in literary prizes, appointments and festivals, as governments and the public come to recognize writers’ cultural contributions to the region. But questions remain about long-term commitment to this arts sector.

Jamaica's new Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris
For the first time in 60 years, Jamaica now has a poet laureate, for instance. Acclaimed scholar and writer Mervyn Morris, 76, was named to the largely ceremonial position in April and will begin his three-year term after his investiture on May 21.

His appointment followed a competition managed by the Entertainment Advisory Board to the Ministry of Tourism, in collaboration with the National Library of Jamaica, and the Ministry of Youth and Culture. During the contest, the public was invited to make nominations and many people submitted the names of their favourite poets.

The Tourism Enhancement Fund contributed J$3.4 million (US$31,000) to the initiative, leading to queries about just how the government regards literature. Is the position to be used to create entertainment and attract more tourists, or to promote art for the nation’s sake?

Tourism Minister Dr. Wykeham McNeil said in fact that Jamaica’s Poet Laureate programme would help to position the island as a key “cultural tourism destination” by helping to revitalize the arts and preserve the country’s rich literary history.

“The project dovetails perfectly with our efforts to use programmes such as Arts in the Park, 90 Days of Summer and Reggae Month …to increase support for and give greater exposure to our local art forms, while using Jamaica’s cultural strength as a tourism attractor,” McNeil said.

The cover of one of Morris's books.
“We are therefore pleased to be giving an even greater voice to Jamaica’s literary arts through our support of the Poet Laureate Programme.  Developing the literary arts remains a key component of our strategy moving forward and this new programme will help to further bolster this initiative,” he added.

The Poet Laureate’s mandate includes promoting Jamaican poetry at home and abroad, and Morris told SWAN that he looked forward to carrying this out. “I hope to facilitate increased contact and understanding between Jamaican poets and potential audiences,” he said. “The position is an honour, and I am grateful.”

He said he planned to arrange for poets to visit schools and colleges and also hoped to persuade the media to make more space for effective poems, and perhaps for discussion of some of the pieces. 

“It is expected that, by the end of my three-year tenure, there will be an anthology of poems, including perhaps some previously featured in the media,” Morris told SWAN. 

The poet was born in Kingston and studied at University College of the West Indies and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He was a UK Arts Council Visiting Writer-in-Residence at the South Bank Centre in 1992 and currently lives in Kingston, where he is Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing & West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies.

His poetry collections include The Pond, Shadowboxing and Vestiges, and he has also edited various anthologies and written extensively on Caribbean literature.


Morris’ appointment came ahead of a slew of awards to Caribbean writers at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest held April 23-27 in Trinidad and Tobago, recognizing the wealth of the region's output.

Robert Antoni's winning novel
The three-year-old festival, which bills itself as an “annual celebration of books, writing and writers”, handed out several prizes, with U.S.-born West Indian writer Robert Antoni wining the overall 2014 One Caribbean Media (OCM) Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for his book As Flies to Whatless Boys.

Antoni said he would share the US$10,000 award with the two other finalists:  Lorna Goodison who won in the poetry category for Oracabessa, and Kei Miller who won in the non-fiction section for Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies. Both writers are from Jamaica.

Antoni said the prize was "wonderful" and "necessary" and that it was up to people in the Caribbean to define their own identity and to "take a place on the world stage".

The festival was also the venue of the inaugural Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, given to three English-language literary works for young adults. The winning submissions were All Over Again by A-dZiko Gegele, Jamaica; Musical Youth by Joanne Hillhouse, Antigua and Barbuda (manuscript to be published); and Inner City Girl by Colleen Smith Dennis, Jamaica.

Another award, which may have the greatest political impact, was the 2014 Hollick Arvon Caribbean writers prize that went to another Jamaican author - Diana McCaulay for her work in progress Loving Jamaica.

This prize recognises emerging Caribbean writers and provides opportunity for training and for their completed work to be published. For McCaulay, who is founder and CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, the prize is a boost to her environmental work as well.

Diana McCaulay
“This award brings together my activist life and my writing life,” McCaulay told SWAN. “This is the first time I’m writing specifically about my environmental journey.” 

The author of two novels and several short stories, McCaulay has been working for years to protect the environment in Jamaica and is currently in a legal battle with the government over plans to develop a transshipment port at Goat Islands – an area of unique animal and plant species. (See

Among her concerns is the lack of information that has been given to the public. “All our Access to Information requests for the technical proposal or the Framework Agreement between the Government of Jamaica and Chinese investors for this project have been denied.  We have therefore filed legal action requesting leave to apply for judicial review of these decisions,” she told an interviewer.

A court hearing is scheduled for later this month. It will come a few days before the start of Jamaica’s leading literary festival – Calabash – which this year will feature controversial writer Salman Rushdie, among an international group of literary stars from May 30 to June 1.