Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Film Review – Land of Mine

Posted by lucypopescu on August 4, 2017

 

Inspired by real events in 1945, Martin Zandvliet’s powerful film about Denmark’s treatment of German prisoners demonstrates that war’s aftermath can be just as brutal as the conflict itself. Fearful of an allied invasion, Nazi forces left behind two million landmines on Denmark’s Western coast and German prisoners of war were forced to defuse and clear the mines in violation of the 1929 Convention relating to the treatment of PoW.  Even more shocking, many of these prisoners were inexperienced youths who had seen little of war, some as young as thirteen.

Land of Mine opens with a brutal scene, which sets the tone for its first half.  Danish veteran Sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) picks on a German solider and smashes his face in because he is carrying a Danish flag. His hatred and contempt is palpable. Accompanied everywhere by his beloved dog Otto, whose company he evidently prefers to human contact, Rasmussen is initially sadistic and cruel towards the captives, denying them food, taunting and beating them. But it is a rite of passage for the sergeant. Gradually he softens towards the boys, finds them food at the risk of his reputation, and even plays football with then on a rare day off. Rasmussen promises them their freedom and release back to Germany after they have cleared all the mines, but another officer, Lieutenant Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), has different ideas. Things come to a head between the two men when Ebbe refuses to release the survivors.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, Land of Mine is not your average war film. While there is impressive attention to historical detail, and plenty of action, it is the quieter moments that remain with you. Zandvliet focuses on the harrowing experiences of the young prisoners and their shared humanity. The boys’ terror, combined with their hope for a better future, is heartbreakingly sad and the inevitable scenes of bloodshed and violence are sometimes unbearable to watch. Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s cinematography is remarkable. Picturesque shots of the coast line and scenes of stark natural beauty are in sharp contrast to the appalling conditions endured by the POWs and the shots of abrupt explosions that sever limbs and lives.

The two Danish leads are terrific and there are some equally great performances from the German camp. Particularly memorable are Louis Hoffman who plays Sebastian, the de facto leader of the captives, Joel Basman as the hot headed Helmut and Emil and Oskar Belton as the two youngest members of the group, twin brothers Ernst and Werner, who can’t function without each other. Land of Mine serves as a poignant reminder that revenge destroys more than it satisfies and compassion aids the healing process.

Originally published by Cine-Vue.com

 

 

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Book Review Checkpoint

Posted by lucypopescu on August 2, 2017

There is a filmic quality to Jean-Christophe Rufin’s literary thriller, expertly rendered by translator Alison Anderson. Set during the Bosnian War in 1995, Checkpoint follows the fortunes of five French aid workers. The youngest, 21-year-old Maud, the lone female in the group, has cut her hair short and wears shapeless clothes, in an attempt to be taken seriously and to repel any unwanted advances. Lionel, the leader of the mission, lacks confidence and smokes weed from morning to night. Former soldiers, Alex and Marc, recruited because convoy drivers are in short supply, have their own secret agendas. Vauthier is the most sinister and repugnant member, hired for his skill as a mechanic, who the others suspect of being a spy: “He always looked as if he were in a bad mood, probably because of his thin lips and drooping eyelids. But his little black eyes were in constant movement searching everywhere, and they were all wary of him.”

The tensions between Vauthier and the two soldiers threaten to derail the mission and reach crisis point, when it transpires that Alex has spiked the load with construction explosives for extracting coal. His objective is to help a group of refugees hiding in a mine – the explosives will stop the tunnels from flooding and help preserve their industry. It is Maud who manages to persuade the other volunteers that it is a worthwhile endeavor, and “the most useful thing we can give these people.” But there are further revelations to come. The soldiers at each checkpoint become increasingly menacing, and they are all shocked to witness the aftermath of a brutal massacre of women and children:

On the damp earth there were fifty bodies or more, lying in grotesque positions. Their arms and legs were twisted, their heads lay at a painful angle from their necks, some had their faces in the mud. On the gray mass of bodies, most of which were clothed in dull, drab garments, the only color was that of blood. 

The frequent plot twists keep the reader guessing until the end, but this is at the expense of robust characterization. Vauthier, in particularly, remains a shadowy figure whose visceral hatred for Marc is never fully explained. Their backgrounds and reasons for joining the mission are revealed through passages of clunky exposition: We learn that Maud is a risk-taker, when she recalls a childhood memory of jumping off the adult diving board and fracturing her vertebra. Alex’s feelings of alienation are a result of his mixed race background and the reason why he falls for a young Bosnian refugee ostracized because of her ethnicity. Marc’s tough exterior is down to being a “war orphan” and bullied at school. At times, Rufin’s characters feel too simplistic, their motivations implausible, and this makes it difficult for us to feel sympathy for any of them.

In the novel’s second half, the pace never lets up and Rufin raises some interesting questions about the limitations of humanitarian aid. As a founder of Doctors Without Borders, Rufin clearly wants to lift the lid on this world. He understands the futility of taking chocolate and clothing through a war scorched land when another form of international intervention is desperately needed to halt the bloodshed. The Bosnian War may be long over, but Rufin’s concerns remain just as relevant today.

A longer version of this review is published on Versopolis.com

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Book Review – A HOPE MORE POWERFUL THAN THE SEA

Posted by lucypopescu on July 15, 2017

Asylum seekers continue to be stigmatized in the media, so it is refreshing to see more books being published that give refugees a voice. We need to change the negative propaganda surrounding those forced to flee war, poverty or intolerance. A Hope More Powerful than the Sea poignantly illuminates some of the reasons why our fellow humans embark on such perilous journeys to reach Europe.

Melissa Fleming, the Chief Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, brings to life the harrowing tale of Doaa Al Zamel, a Syrian refugee. In clear, accessible prose, Fleming chronicles Doaa’s happy childhood in Syria, the early months of the uprising, and the brutal crackdown that ensued. When life in the midst of a war zone becomes intolerable, Doaa and her family seek refuge in Egypt.

They are initially welcomed and cared for by local Egyptians, but after President Mohamed Morsi is deposed, resentment towards the refugees grows and Doaa finds herself regularly abused by men on the street. Her fiancé, Bassem, also suffers from an increased hostility towards Syrian refugees. In poor health and unable to bear “a life of limbo in a country where its own citizens were facing a sinking economy, high inflation, and rising food prices”, Doaa finally agrees to accompany Bassem on a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean.

Before they reach Greece, their rusty fishing boat is deliberately rammed by a group of mindless racists. Doaa’s boat capsizes and those on board are flung into the water. Most drown instantly, some die an agonizing death as they are hacked to pieces by the boat’s propellers. Witnessing it all, Doaa keeps afloat with the help of a children’s inflatable ring for four days and nights. She clings on to two baby girls until her rescue, persevering for their sake.

A particularly chilling moment is Doaa’s realization that those onboard had been sold fake life jackets and inadequate flotation aids. Many of Doaa’s group, including her beloved Bassem, die because of this. Out of 500 people, only eleven survive the catastrophe.

One can only hope that by sharing Doaa’s story, her remarkable courage, Fleming will help people better understand why so many are prepared to risk so much in order to reach relative safety.

Originally published by the TLS

 

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Book Review – Swallowing Mercury

Posted by lucypopescu on July 15, 2017

In Swallowing Mercury, longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, Wioletta Greg explores the rite of passage of a young girl growing up in in communist Poland during the 1980s. Partly autobiographical, it is set in the Jurassic Upland, in the small fictional village of Hektary.

Wiola’s childhood experiences are related through a series of vignettes creating a vivid portrait of a rural community. Daily routines are punctuated by extraordinary events. When a rumour spreads that the Pope will drive past their village, the local women gather in Wiola’s home to make pennants for bunting from scraps of material, and toast the Holy Father’s health with homemade egg liqueur. Later, the bunting is destroyed by “the men whose task it was to destroy the decorations” (Wiola describes this matter-of-factly, not yet understanding the tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the communist state). While Wiola waited in the rain, the Pope flew elsewhere.

The villagers are as superstitious as they are religious. A red ribbon is tied around Wiola’s wrist as soon as she is born, “to ward off evil spells” and later, when Wiola faints in church, a red ribbon is tied in her hair “to break the spell.” Her mother tells her spiders are “sacred” and forbids her from killing them: “When the Holy family was fleeing from Jerusalem, spiders wove such a thick web around the road, that the swords of Herod’s soldiers couldn’t pierce it.”

The shadow of communism is ever present in the “piles of Breeze blocks” that lie beside “haystacks, apple and cherry trees” and the state-owned farms that blight the natural landscape. But government repression is brought home most forcefully when a local official interrogates Wiola at school, about her painting in a competition entitled Moscow in Your Eyes. Her ink pen had leaked over the painting, ruining it with “a viscous ocean of indigo.” The officer tries to bribe her with chocolate to tell him who had put her up to this: “Was it your parents? Or maybe the teacher who runs the art club?” Wiola, whether in fear or weary of the questions, vomits, and is finally left alone.

Greg is a poet, and there is a lyrical quality to her writing. She draws on all the senses, rendered in simple, childlike prose and deftly translated by Eliza Marciniak. Early on, Wiola describes the sun as “white and spotted like a goose egg.” As she gets older, her language and sensibility become more complex: “The air smelled of metal. An inaudible blues hummed in the web of the telegraph wires taut from frost.” The smells and taste of childhood are also brilliantly evoked though food, ranging from buckwheat blood pudding and beef roulade with cabbage to fried doughnuts and sour cherries.

The book’s anecdotal tone draws the reader in, but it is also deceptive. Take Wiola’s description of swallowing mercury, after a doctor had attempted to sexually molest her: “I put an immersion heater in a metal mug, boiled some water and dipped a thermometer into the liquid. The mercury container burst. Silver beads spilled onto the bedding. I gathered them up. I hesitated for an instant, but when I remembered Kwiecien’s face, I swallowed the balls like caplets and fell asleep.” It is an act of defiance that nearly kills her.

Swallowing Mercury is a multi-layered, prose poem of Poland’s chequered past, and Greg is unflinching in her gaze: Whether it is the family’s fortitude, the clash of church and state, or the beauty and brutality of rural life.

Originally published by www.versopolis.com

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Book Review – Threads: From the refugee crisis

Posted by lucypopescu on June 25, 2017

 

Calais was once famous for the art of lace-making; now it is better known for the groups of desperate refugees who gather in its port hoping to cross into Britain. In early 2016 the cartoonist and activist Kate Evans (who is also the author of Red Rosa: A graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, 2015) volunteered for a brief stint in the refugee camp known as the Jungle. Her new graphic novel Threads depicts the shantytown before it was demolished later that year. A ribbon of lace frames each page, the delicate threads standing in sharp contrast to the refugees’ harsh existence.

Instead of finding sanctuary in Europe, they live in limbo. Evans’s subjects are shunted between camps in Calais and Dunkirk, and she meticulously documents their helplessness, along with their remarkable endurance. Her eyewitness reportage is punctuated with news headlines about the various atrocities fuelling the refugee crisis – the Russian fighter planes bombing Syria and US forces bombing the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, for example. Evans also captures in separate cartoons the political prejudice of Theresa May, Britain’s then Home Secretary, claiming that there is no economic benefit to migration, and France’s Marine Le Pen encouraging distrust of Muslims as she addresses a rally in Calais.

The squalor of the Jungle is evident in Evans’s illustrations. Only twenty-four toilets are provided for 5,000 people, and the water tests positive for faecal contamination. The diversity of the inhabitants is represented by the ramshackle colourfulness of her sketches of them. Attempts to help the refugees, some of whom are unaccompanied children as young as seven, can be chaotic: Evans depicts aid workers trying to distribute children’s clothes, overwhelmed by lines of desperate men. Swimming goggles are dis carded as impractical and, too late, it is recognized that they would have provided a useful defence against tear gas. Evans is quick to note the Kafkaesque decisions of the authorities – on two separate occasions, refugees and aid workers are prevented from bringing fresh bread or dry bedding into the camp.

Evans also shares the pejorative texts she has received condemning her voluntary work. When one text message claims, “These refugees are safe in France where they could claim asylum if they wanted 2 shame they want our benefits too much!”, she responds with a series of stark illustrations (leached of colour, the frames increased in size) showing three refugee men being brutally beaten by unidentified assailants. One victim later remarks, “they were wearing blue suits. Like the ones that the police wear, but with the emblems torn off”.

Police brutality is seen as shamelessly open. Evans’s illustrations convey the terrifying spectacle of rows of riot police and bulldozers, and the fear of the Jungle’s inhabitants as they are tear-gassed. The author learns of one fifteen-year-old boy whose skull has been fractured, and a pregnant woman who has been slapped by police. Again and again, her narrative emphasizes the desperation of people trying to reach safety, and she includes some haunting snapshots explaining why they have fled their native countries, ranging from torture and rape to sustained persecution for being gay. The appalling threads of these people’s lives coalesce to form a bigger picture with an underlying message: we need to treat our fellow humans with care and respect, for inhumanity breeds inhumanity.

A mother herself, Kate Evans depicts her young subjects with remarkable tenderness. We’re not told about a child’s boredom, fear or meltdown – we see it. Their lives are on hold and many are battling despair. Back in Britain, the author depicts herself watching the demolition of the Jungle on her phone and remarks: “It’s more than some people’s homes that are being destroyed. It’s their minds”. Her book ends on a chilling note: after the eviction, 129 lone children disappeared from the camps. As Threads makes clear, one child is too many; 129 is a humanitarian catastrophe.

Originally published by the TLS

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Theatre Review – The Ugly One

Posted by lucypopescu on June 18, 2017

The Ugly One Park Theatre90

Marius von Mayenburg’s blistering satire about vanity and the dangers of a conformist society, written a decade before selfies, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat became a way of life, is remarkably prescient.

Lette (Charlie Dorfman) cannot understand why his assistant Karlmann (Arian Nik) is being sent abroad in his stead to promote his latest invention – an electrical plug. He is alarmed to learn that he is apparently so ugly that his boss (T’Nia Miller) won’t let him present his own work.

When his wife Fanny (Indra Ove) admits that it’s true and she can’t look him in the face, Lette employs a surgeon (Miller) to restructure his features. Suddenly he becomes irresistible to Fanny and a sexual magnet for men and women alike. He is in demand at work and by the surgeon who uses him to advertise his skills.

All too soon, however, Lette lookalikes begin to proliferate. His face and fame have become a curse and he suffers an identity crisis.

Von Mayenburg warns against prizing physical perfection over intelligence and his play retains its resonance. More than ever, people are stigmatised for being different, for not conforming to current fashions and tastes.

Roy Alexander Weise, winner of the 2016 James Menzies-Kitchin Award, directs with panache. The four-strong cast give it their all, although with a tendency to play for quick laughs.

There are echoes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Edward Albee’s black humour and, in the play’s final moments, one cannot help but be reminded of President Trump’s rampant narcissism.

Park Theatre90

Running until 24 June

Originally published by Camden New Journal

 

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Book Review – The Book of Mirrors

Posted by lucypopescu on June 18, 2017

E. O. Chirovici’s psychological thriller almost did not see the light of day. It was turned down by numerous publishers and it was only on the advice of Robert Peett, the founder of Holland House Books, that Chirovici persisted. He was eventually signed by a leading UK literary agent and has since enjoyed a competitive auction and world-wide rights sales.

The Book of Mirrors is narrated from the different perspectives of three men and focuses on the brutal murder of the renowned psychologist Professor Joseph Weider in 1987. Twenty seven years later, Richard Flynn, a former student at Princeton, sends a book proposal to a literary agent, Peter Katz, which describes the professor’s final days. Flynn was a prime suspect at the time, but no-one was ever tried for Weider’s murder and the case went cold. Katz believes Flynn’s manuscript contains a confession or holds clues to the murderer’s identity. Either way, he thinks it’s a potential blockbuster, but Flynn dies before delivering his novel. Katz hires John Keller, an investigative journalist, to pull the threads together. Keller fails to ascertain who is telling the truth and, increasingly disillusioned, passes on his findings to the detective originally
responsible for the case who is now retired and suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Does The Book of Mirrors deserve the hype? Yes and no. Impressively, Chirovici writes in English rather than his native Romanian and he has produced a strong plot which keeps the reader guessing until the very end. His three narrators, however, are sketchily drawn and the motivations of crucial characters lack psychological
depth. This is disappointing considering the book’s central theme is the cognitive neuroscience of memory.

Although there is a meta-fictional quality to the novel, the literary quotes preceding each of the three sections are slightly misleading – this is less a literary thriller and more firmly rooted in the crime fiction genre. The cover’s strapline, “one man’s truth is another man’s lie”, is an empty statement – probably the result of an over-enthusiastic marketing team.

Caveats aside, The Book of Mirrors engages on a number of levels. Chirovici delights in leading the reader down various blind alleys and keeps us turning the pages until his unexpected denouement.

Originally published by the TLS

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Theatre Review – Combustion

Posted by lucypopescu on June 18, 2017

Asif Khan, last seen at the Arcola performing Hassan Abdulrazzak’s one-man show Love, Bombs and Apples, has turned his hand to writing and his remarkable debut Combustion, about a small group of British Muslims and their response to Islamophobia, is a tour de force.

Set in modern-day Bradford, a group of Asian men have been imprisoned for grooming a young white girl for sex. The consequences for the girl and her family have been devastating and tensions are running high. The English Defence League is up in arms and has planned a protest march.

Shaz (Beruce Khan) owns a car repair garage, works hard and is looking forward to getting married. He tries to keep out of trouble, but business is suffering and his feisty younger sister, Samina (Shireen Farkhoy) is intent on speaking at the counter demonstration led by the Muslim community.

Nervous about the reaction of his prospective in-laws, Shaz tries to prevent Samina from continuing her activities with the local peace organisation and becomes increasingly controlling. Meanwhile, Samina finds an unlikely supporter in Andy (Nigel Hastings) a former EDL member who switches sides.

In Nona Shepphard’s fast paced production, Shaz’s two mechanics provide much of the humour. Cocksure Ali (Rez Kempton) has his eye on Samina while Faisal (Mitesh Soni) yearns for someone kind to marry and thinks he’d be safer in Pakistan.

Khan treats his sensitive subject with both humour and intelligence. His nuanced characters and clever plot twists keep us guessing to the end and the play’s dark denouement is truly shocking. Smart and topical, Combustion is a must see during these troubled times.

Arcola Theatre

Running until 24 June                                 

Box Office: 020 7503 1646

Originally published by Camden New Journal

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Film Review – Lost in Lebanon

Posted by lucypopescu on May 28, 2017

 

This heart breaking film  by Sophia and Georgia Scott follows four Syrian refugees as they struggle to rebuild their lives in Lebanon. Syria’s neighbour has had to cope with a massive influx of refugees – Lebanon’s population is 4.4 million and 1.5 million Syrians have flooded into the country since the beginning of the conflict. Lost in Lebanon was shot in Beirut and on the Syrian border between 2014 and 2016. During this time, Lebanon was forced to restrict its open door policy for Syrian refugees and imposed various visa restrictions aimed at discouraging Syrians from entering or staying. As the film makes clear, the result has been devastating for many refugees who have nowhere else to go and fear for their lives if they are forcibly returned to Syria.

Sheikh Abdo manages a refugee camp just five kilometres from the Syrian border. Abdo takes his responsibilities seriously and works tirelessly for his fellow refugees. Nemr is a 19-year-old high-school student who fled forced military recruitment: “My destiny would have been to become a killer or a victim.” He volunteers in the camp’s school but dreams of a better future. Reem is a former architect who now helps in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. As a refugee she is not supposed to work but spends her time trying to help those worse off than herself. Mwafak is a 26-year-old artist, also based in Beirut. Mwafak never stops giggling, but then we realise his humour is a defence mechanism, a means of survival, he is laughing at his own plight. He is proud; not wanting to be labelled a refugee he refuses to register with the UNRHC until he is forced to. Mwafak is driven by his imagination, his need to create art, and his talent. He also volunteers, teaching art to children in another refugee camp.

All four show similar commitment to the health and education of Syrian children, however rudimentary. They recognise the importance of educating the next generation and that their homeland will need to be rebuilt with love and creativity rather than hate and violence. They exhibit extraordinary resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship but the relentless fear of deportation impacts on them all with devastating consequences. Both Nemr and Mwafak consider attempting the perilous journey by sea. Nemr ponders why anyone would want to risk their lives and concludes “they’re willing to drown just to live as humans.” Lost in Lebanon contains many such shocking soundbites. At a meeting organised by Reem, one man remarks on the hell they find themselves in: “We can’t go back to Syria, we can’t renew our residency, we can’t leave by boat. Why don’t they just exterminate us and be done with it.”

If you have ever wondered what life is like for a refugee then see this film. No one should have to endure this degree of psychological torture and the West needs to demonstrate compassion rather than prejudice or indifference. Sophia Scott’s beautiful cinematography opens in a long dark tunnel with blinding light at the end and the joyous sound of children playing, calling out the name of their homeland; it ends in the same tunnel but the camera is travelling in the opposite direction with the light receding. Birds also feature; just as they are free to travel over land and sea, refugees are not. The refusal of these men, women and children to give up offers a ray of hope. A remarkable and humane film that never strikes a false note.

Originally published by Cine-vue.com

 

 

 

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Theatre review – The Plague

Posted by lucypopescu on April 22, 2017

 

The Plague After La Peste by Albert Camus

Adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett

Arcola Theatre, Running until 6 May

Box Office: 020 7503 1646

 

Albert Camus’s 1947 novel describes the effects of a plague in the French Algerian city of Oran. Some claim La Peste was inspired by the cholera epidemic that ravaged Oran in 1849, others thought it was about the Nazi occupation during World War II. This ambivalence is part of the story’s power and one that Neil Bartlett fully recognises in his engaging, multi-layered production.

Played out on a largely bare stage, Bartlett’s adaptation opens with five characters sitting behind a table at some sort of official enquiry. They begin to share their experiences. The first sign of the impending catastrophe is the discovery of rats’ corpses. Then people start to die and the authorities fail to take decisive action.

Dr Rieux (Sara Powell) works tirelessly to save lives but there are other, less scrupulous characters. Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite) is a journalist more interested in escaping the city’s lockdown to be reunited with his girlfriend than reporting the truth while Mr Cottard (Joe Alessi), a petty criminal, tries to turn events to his advantage and make money smuggling desperate people out of the city.

I was reminded of the HiNi pandemic, the Ebola outbreak and the current refugee crisis. What Bartlett draws out are the human responses to tragedy – some kind, others cruel, or self-serving. But as Dr Rieux remarks, the most merciful act is “to speak up and bear witness; to make sure that there is at least some memory of the injustices and violences that are done to people…” It’s a poignant piece of theatre with particular relevance to our troubled times.

 

Originally published by Camden Review

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