Thursday, May 1, 2008

EXODUS (1961)

Growing up, I would see paper-towel editions of Leon Uris’s books always on display at the neighbourhood market, always flanked by Victoria Holts, Wilbur Smiths and Danielle Steels. And I would wonder why. While size didn’t necessarily matter, the back covers would suggest vastly different contents and yet, the shop owners would unhesitatingly place the four piles together.

Deterred by the company they kept, I never got around to reading any Urises. Having watched Exodus some days ago, I really wish I had read the book, just in case it is different! The film, a 1960 adaptation directed by Otto Preminger, was a disappointment.

Exodus is the story of post-war creation of the State of Israel. The movie begins in 1947, Cyprus, with the determination of Haganah leader Ari Ben Canaan’s determination to transport the entire population of one Jewish refugee camp to Palestine.

At that time, Palestine was a British protectorate, with a predominantly Arab population. Jews, among them survivors of holocaust, had intensified their claims to a Zionist state, and in the short term, were seeking entry into Palestine. Palestinian Arabs resisted both aims, and in the absence of a solution of the former issue, the British felt it imprudent to allow the latter – i.e. immigration of large numbers of Jews into the protectorate.

Restrictions were placed on Jewish refugees to prevent travel to Israel, which, in the film, Ben Canaan was determined to violate. With forged orders he took aboard more than 600 refugees. The ship set sail for Palestine, but before it could leave the harbor, the British officials in Cyprus came to know. The harbor was sealed and the passengers asked to return. Instead, the passengers started a hunger strike. Following an impasse of several days, the British relented and the ship was allowed to sail to Palestine.

The next part of the film focuses on events in Palestine, as the British are preparing to leave and the question of partitioning the land into separate states of Israel and Palestine is being debated at the UN, and culminates in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of November 29, 1947 confirming the partition. It follows the fortunes of the Ben-Canaan family and their friends and associates.

After they land in Palestine, we are told that Ari’s father Barak is a leader in the Haganah (depicted as the mainstream Jewish organization seeking peaceful settlement of the Israel question) and head of the Jewish settlement of Gan Dafna. One of their closest family friends is Taha, the headman of the neighbouring Arab village. Ari’s uncle Akiva on the other hand is one of the leaders of Irgun, an extremist group relying on bombing British installations as its principal mode of expression. Other characters include the young explosives expert Dov, and a Danish refugee, Karen. Dov is a victim of sexual and emotional abuse at a Nazi concentration camp who survived because he was recruited as a Sonderkommando. Dov joins the Irgun and together with Akiva orchestrates a series of bombings on British installations. Karen, brought up by foster parents in Denmark has lost her mother and siblings, but believes her father, a famous scientist, is alive and in Palestine. She finally locates him, but he is by now unable to recognize or respond to her.

A series of events including the capture of Irgun members by the British, a dramatic jail breakout orchestrated by Ari, UN announcement of partition, outbreak of violence between the Arabs and the Jews, a dangerous walk in the night as 150 children from the village are taken across the mountain to protect them from Arab armies and a bloody end, with the discovery that Taha and Karen have been killed by Arab extremists.

According to Gideon Bachman [1], Exodus has achieved the status of a historical epic, despite no claims to accuracy other than the fact that it weaves in references to some ‘real’ events. One such real event is attempt to sail to Palestine from Cyprus, but the fate of that ship, the real Exodus, was different. Its passengers were driven to Germany and into another refugee camp. The film is littered with similar faux-historic, unsubstantiated episodes. This is a relevant criticism, but not the focus of this post.

The greater tragedy of the film is this: the film was shot against the backdrop of an enormously complex epoch in the history of this region, with a cacophony of issues providing any director with material rich enough for about 20 films (and posts on international law); it was shot in the region itself, and in the wake of a tremendously successful book so that it was assured of a large audience before release; it was a long film with a run time of three and a half hours; and yet there was barely a scene which engaged.

In the attempt to tell the full story of the ‘birth of Israel’ as well as a few love stories, the director glossed over the following: ethnic nationalism, territorial identity, religious nationalism, self-determination, refoulement, forced internment, terrorism, status of protectorates, buffer states, the United Nations, legitimacy of trials, rules targeting particular communities etc. This is not a laundry list conjured out of nowhere, the film actually refers to all of these issues, but in the attempt to depict all, addresses none.

So, you have a ship being forcibly prevented from sailing to Palestine suddenly allowed to go with no explanation why, beyond the hunger strike; passengers taken to Haifa and dropped off to roam at will; a UN General Assembly meeting in which the scene focuses on the votes of Panama and Peru; no explanation for why UN member states decided on partition; no explanation of the role the ever-present British regime played in the unfolding events. There were radio announcements of special curfews for Jews with no follow-up; award of capital punishment to Akiva and his cohort under a targeted provision, to which no further attention was paid.

Even worse, the film infantilized both causes: Jewish and Arab. To only mildly caricature, from the depiction it would appear that the legitimacy of one group’s cause was owing only to the record of abuse and torture under the Nazi regime, with no portrayal of their centuries-old claim to that land; while the other side’s claim was pure bloody-mindedness, not even redeemed by an iota of passion or dedication to any particular ‘cause’.

The multiplicity of views among the Jewish community was collapsed into two schools – and these barely explained - Barak’s and Aviva’s, peace loving moderates and the violent extremists. Only in one scene is any attempt made to tell a more complex tale: Barack goes to see Aviva (from whom he has been estranged for years), before he is hanged, finds himself yet unable to speak to his brother and leaves, but not before he tells his son that he cannot see his brother dying at the hands of the British. Just this one insight into a common feeling and then the scene shifts. The next time we see Barak, he is celebrating the UN resolution.

The only Arab we see is the good Taha, apart from the disembodied split second appearance of the mufti, only to shake hands with a German ex-Nazi and declare death to all Jews. Otherwise, we are expected to go along with a vague sense of poor hostile multitudes ready to kill and be killed at the first ringing of the clarion.

To get a sense of just how much Exodus manages to avoid accomplishing, one need only look at The Battle of Algiers, a film from the same period and a disturbing, emotionally wringing account, of another struggle between opposing causes. In Exodus, the vitals of Israel-Palestine conflict appear to have been shoehorned into the exigencies of an exotic love story - or three.

[1] Gideon Bachmann, Review, 14(3) Film Quarterly 56 (1961)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Passport to Pimlico

A Burgundian People and the Power and Perils of Sovereignty for Small States

We always were English and we'll always be English, and

it's precisely because we are English that we're sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!

Ealing Studios' 1949 classic, Passport to Pimlico is a hilarious take on the perils and benefits of independence for small states. Pimlico is of course a very small state – a manor house and its former grounds in London, which had been ceded to the Duke of Burgundy in mid-15th century. This charter is discovered in a buried cellar that is thrown open by an accidental explosion of a bomb left-over from World War II.

The residents of Pimlico, suffering under post-war rationing declare themselves Burgundians, free from British laws, included British rationing. To add to their joys, buried treasure is discovered. The newly declared Burgundian territory is soon flocked by enthusiastic Londoners seeking to sell and shop – though as it happens, none are carrying their passports and consequently, unable to re-enter ‘Britain’.

However the new state soon discovers also the hazards of sovereignty, as following its stoppage of a subway train at the ‘international border’ of Burgundy, it is blockaded by the British government and water and electricity supplies are cut off. The residents also begin to run out of food and water, and are invited to immigrate into ‘Britain’, but remain determined to fight for their freedom…


The issues for international lawyers? Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence has provoked fresh concerns about the legal limits to the principle of ‘self-determination’ along with the legitimacy of the instant secession and its precedential value for regions of the world. The viability of the new state is additional consideration.

Arguments on secession or ‘external self-determination’ usually devolve into a debate between the relative standing of the principles of territorial integrity and the right of self-determination. Till date, there exists no clear legal rule to determine when the latter principle may take priority over the former. The only easy cases are those in which it is possible to argue that the two principles do not really come into conflict; claims of independence by colonial countries and peoples for instance do not pose heavy legal challenges to territorial integrity.

Recognition of a state newly formed by such an act of secession is ultimately a political act, and may be a constitutive element of state-hood, though in general it is supposed to follow upon a display of conformity with the criteria of statehood described in the Montevideo Convention, viz. permanent population; defined territory; government; and the capacity to enter into relations with other States.

Recent commentary on Kosovo focuses on the peoplehood of the Kosovar Albanians and their right to a distinct territory. The arguments in favour of an independent Kosovo are its existence as an autonomous province of Serbia within the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, its efforts through the 1990s to regain this autonomy within the successor state of Serbia, and its governance through international administration since 1999. The argument against, which Chris Borgen points out, is that modern state practice normally does not extend ‘peoplehood’, and therefore the ‘privilege of secession’, to a fragment of a larger ethnic group. It could be argued that Kosovar Albanians are a fragment of the Albanian ethnic group, and thus not a ‘nation’ in the ethnographic sense.

Effective government is another concern. While the size of the state is not usually determinative of its viability - and Kosovo with a territory of about 10,000 square kilometers and population of 2 million is a far cry from Palau (459 sq. km, 20000 ppl), Liechtenstein (160 sq. km, 35000 ppl) or Monaco (2 sq. km, 32000 ppl) – according to Thomas Grant “[s]mallness, especially when exacerbated by poverty, may impede [its] independence for political and economic reasons”.[1]

Jori Duursma’s study indicates that micro-states like the three mentioned above often assign away performance of public functions like judicial dispute resolution and performance of public services like transportation and postal services to other states.[2] Depending on their location, even states with significantly larger territories than Kosovo, such as Bhutan and Lesotho are subject to physical and policy influences from neighbouring states, India and South Africa, respectively.

A profusion of small and weak states may give rise to systemic concerns. For one, each small weak state which is the member of the United Nations has a seat in the General Assembly at par with other states. If it votes according to the direction of another state, that state has acquired two de-facto votes. By counting Tonga, Solomon Islands, Palau, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, among its numbers the US was able to boast of a numerical Coalition of 49 states that supported the Iraq war. It is also possible that lack of resources or lack of capacity to utilize those resources, leading to economic deprivation could result in political instability and human rights violations, and potentially endanger international peace and security.

On the other hand, as Juan Enriquez argues that having ‘too many flags’ is not necessarily counterproductive from the point of view of particular states.[3] With a surface area of 704 sq. kilometers, Singapore for instance is an economically strong state. Slovenia, which seceded from former Yugoslavia has a strongly growing economy with a high human development index. Monaco, a tax haven, has the distinction of having the highest population density in the world.

Naturally, Pimlico makes the absurd case for peoplehood as well as for the benefits and perils associated with independence of small states. There is no analogy implied to Kosovo. But do watch…

[1] Thomas D. Grant, Between Diversity and Disorder: A Review of Jori C. Duursma, Fragmentation and International Relations of Micro-States: Self Determination and Statehood, 12 Am. U. J. Int'l L. & Pol'y 629 (1997).
[2] Jori C. Duursma, Fragmentation and International Relations of Micro-States: Self Determination and Statehood (1996).
[3] Juan Enriquez, Too Many Flags?, Foreign Policy, No. 116 (Autumn, 1999) pp. 30-49.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Film Screening: USA v. Al-Arian

Thursday, March 27th, 2008, Vanderbilt Hall Room 220, 40 Washington Square South
6:30 pm

Members of the Public may attend with ID

From the flyer:
“USA vs Al-Arian” is a disturbing film on freedom of speech in post 9/11 America and political persecution. The film follows the arrest and trial of Sami Al-Arian, an Arab-American university professor accused of supporting a terrorist organization abroad. For two and a half years Dr. Al-Arian was held in solitary confinement, denied basic privileges and given limited access to his attorneys. The film is an intimate family portrait documenting how a tight-knit family unravels before our very eyes as trial preparations, strategy and media spin consume their lives. Norwegian director Line Halvorsen has made a damning portrait of the case focusing on the trial’s emotional toll. This is a nightmare come to life, as a man is prosecuted for his beliefs rather than his actions.

The Screening will be followed by a talk with Laila Al-Arian, New York based journalist and Dr. Al-Arian’s daughter.

Co-sponsored by the NYU National Lawyers Guild, Law Students for Human Rights, MELSA, and the Islamic Law Students Association

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Moartea domnului Lăzărescu | The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Hadas Leffel, intern at the UN CCPR and Executive Director of Back From Utopia: Human Rights and Cinema in Post-Communist Societies, provides the following review of Director Cristi Puiu's take on the essential reason for which we should respect human rights, as presented in the award-winning Moartea domnului Lăzărescu. An expanded version of this post will be included in a volume on Cinema and Human Rights (eds. Koen de Foeyter, Iulia Motoc, Ema Sandon and William Shabas) to be published as part of the Cambridge University Press EIUC series in 2009.

How can we love them if they have fleas?

What do we know about Dante Lazarescu? Miki and Sandu, his next-door neighbors, would be happy to provide a detailed list of his odious habits: sloth; overindulgence in alcohol, tobacco and medication; lack of hygiene. Another vice they might mention is Lazarescu’s preoccupation with his cats, which is repeatedly criticized and trivialized. When we are first introduced to Lazarescu, even as his own body is on the verge of collapse, Lazarescu does not fail to ask his cats how they are doing. His neighbors, however, repeatedly encourage Lazarescu to get rid of the cats. They are described as filthy and disease ridden; they consume without producing. As Sandu says to one cat: “You’re nice and cozy now that you’ve found a fool.” Lazarescu counters these accusations innocently, describing his cats as undemanding: “all they need are some bones and maybe some fish to eat.”

Lazarescu doesn’t require much sustenance either. As an elderly, unhealthy man with few resources, however, he is also consuming without producing: a non-contributing member of society. He is a retired engineer from the age of Romanian Communism, a relic. His social utility has long expired and, like his cats, Lazarescu’s estimated valued worth is measured in utils in the film’s loveless world. He is inconsequential: a man as useless as the cats he is urged to discard. Why, then, do we care for Dante Lazarescu? We care for the very reasons that those around him criticize, marginalize and even punish him. In one instance, when asked “How do you feel?” Lazarescu answers: “Do you know how much I love my cats?” and he does, just by virtue of their existence. Lazarescu thus embodies the same moral principle that is so noticeably missing from the world around him: Unconditional Love. His capacity for love is neither a redemptive quality nor a personal characteristic. It is, rather, a symbolic essence that is embedded in him without any logical justification. As Puiu says, “If we split human beings into a human part and a spiritual part, [Lazarescu] is the human part, the part that dies. He's secondary.” The primary element is not Lazarescu himself, but the love he embodies. He is its object, just as he is the object of others’ neglect and misconduct.

As we watch Dante Lazarescu’s descent, we intuitively judge the involved parties’ level of responsibility for his suffering and neglect. When Mioara warns Lazarescu against causing trouble at Spitalui Universitar, he asks: “Isn’t it the doctor’s duty to take care of the patient?” The ambulance driver responds by asking him “And what is the patient’s duty?” Here, as in the film as a whole, the attention to Lazarescu’s duty inevitably causes an inattention to his rights. The question of Lazarescu’s remains noticeably implicit in the film. The only occasion that touches upon Lazarescu’s legal rights is the surgeon’s refusal to operate on Lazarescu because he has not given his consent. What should be Lazarescu’s right to informed consent becomes his duty, a duty that he is unable to perform. If it is the doctors’ duty to care for patients, throughout the film we see them putting in the minimal amount of effort possible toward its fulfillment. The gross violation here is thus not of a professional medical duty, but of a basic human one. Puiu seems to be encouraging us to examine and define the moral duty of a human being. The language of human rights discourse provides a viable answer: the inherent dignity of a human person demands that the equal and inalienable rights of all people be respected and preserved. If a human being has an inherent right to dignity just by virtue of his/her existence, is it our moral duty to ensure that this right is respected?

In order to answer this question we must reassess the justification for the moral imperative to respect human rights. Puiu’s answer is simple: the only justification needed is Unconditional Love, the love that is the essence of the spiritual side of man embodied in the Christ-like Lazarescu. Like Christ, Lazarescu symbolizes Unconditional Love and like Christ he is a victim of the human collective. Lazarescu also reminds us, however, that unlike his namesake, Lazarus, there will be no Messiah to bring him back from the dead. Even the film’s title assures us that there will be no deus ex machina to save Lazarescu. Indeed, at the end of the film, Dr. Angel is called but never appears. In a world where religious belief has no place in society’s moral compass, it would hardly be reasonable to expect miraculous salvation.

There seems to be a missing link between the morality of human rights and the Christian idea of Unconditional Love expressed in this film. When we attempt to provide logical justification for the moral imperative reflected in Puiu’s notion of Unconditional Love we fall short. Without any religious ground for fulfilling our moral duty to uphold human rights standards, the concept of inherent dignity becomes questionable. Puiu has said: "We forget we are animals…I'd like to create situations that show the animal face of the human being."[1] It seems that Lazarescu had accepted this duality all along. When Sandu asks: “Why don’t you get rid of these cats?” Lazarescu responds: “Why don’t you get rid of Miki?” By the end of the film, Lazarescu and his cats stand on equal ground: bodies, animalistic. Lazarescu’s capacity for love, however, tells a different story. He knows that the love he shows for his cats cannot be reciprocated[2], yet he never ceases to impart it.

It seems that the consistent truth of the film is that it is the capacity for love that a person innately possesses that cements human dignity. Lazarescu’s dignity remains intact: his inalienable right. If we seek to secularize this love for the sake of a stable justification for human rights morality, there is no guarantee that it will maintain its foundation. We must ask, however, if there is a need, after all, to define a moral foundation in order to establish the practice of kindness. As Dante Lazarescu shows us, love will still exist no matter how we define it. It doesn’t need much sustenance.

[1] C. Bailey, Interview with Cristi Puiu in Now, March 30 – April 5, 2006. Vol. 25 no. 31.
[2] In a moment of weakness, Lazarescu sneers: “You don’t care, you bloody animal!”