Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Book Review – Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

Syrian NotebooksIn mid-January 2012, the American-French author Jonathan Littell travelled to Homs in Syria with his colleague Mani, a photographer and translator.

They were smuggled into the city by opposition fighters with the Free Syrian Army and spent three fraught weeks bearing witness to the regime’s bombing of residential neighbourhoods and snipers picking off innocent civilians.

Littell was there to write a series of articles for Le Monde. On his return he realised that his extensive notes could also make a book documenting a pivotal moment in the conflict. Littell’s own emotional journey follows the sad trajectory of the opposition’s resistance.

At first he appears almost buoyant in his macho naming of the guns and weaponry used by both sides and their likely provenance. Littell adopts a nom de guerre, drinks whisky, the preferred panacea of hardened war journalists, and never complains about the discomfort of sleeping in bombed-out houses with the sound of gunfire all around. Gradually though, as the violence escalates, Littell starts to tire. He can’t shake a bad cough and becomes obsessed with meal times. He finds it increasingly hard to bear witness to the atrocities being committed day and night.

Listening to the numerous accounts of activists, fighters, doctors and ordinary citizens, Littell and Mani (aka Ra’id) have to sift through the information and decide what is fact and what may have been embellished. Some members of the FSA are suspicious of them, wary of it being reported that civilians have joined their ranks in case it supports the regime’s claims of “terrorism”. Others claim every death is regime-orchestrated.

A doctor describes in graphic terms how the wounded, both civilians and fighters, would be taken to the military hospital where he worked and were brutally tortured. He offers them evidence filmed on a camera-pen. “There were two torture tools,” he tells them, “an electric cable and strips of reinforced rubber.”

The YouTube videos the activists share with the journalists are gradually replaced by the physical bodies of the wounded and the dead. Littell conveys his sense of horror in stark, fragmented prose. After one particularly brutal day, his despondency is reflected in his writing and deteriorating health: “The coughing fits… undo me completely, leave me empty and trembling for a long moment.”

On his return, Littell warned Alain Juppe, then French foreign minister, that “the regime was doing its utmost to provoke cycles of sectarian violence while the FSA was frantically trying to contain them; born out of despair the Islamist temptation was growing but had yet to gain any serious ground.” Tragically, Islamic State is one consequence of the West’s inaction.

At the time, Littell was not to know that Homs would be bitterly fought over until last May, when rebel forces evacuated the city. But he clearly foresaw that “playing the extremists against the moderates” would serve President Bashar al-Assad’s regime well. More importantly, he realised that if nothing was done to curb the bloodletting, Islamist extremism would take hold.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review – La Lucha

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

La LuchaMexico has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and human rights activists to work in. Critics are often abducted or murdered with impunity. Furthermore, over the past two
decades, gender based violence reached such epic proportions: Juárez city, for example, has become known as the “femicide” capital of the world. This is the chilling backdrop to Jon Sack’s graphic novel, part of a series published by Front Line Defenders (FLD), a Dublin based international human rights organization.

The book centres on a real life figure, Luz (Lucha) Estela Castro Rodríguez, a lawyer and campaigner for women’s rights in the state of Chihuahua, considered one of the most violent regions of Mexico. In 2002, Lucha cofounded the organization Justice for Our Daughters, and in 2005 the Center for Human Rights of Women. Through her work, Sack and Adam Shapiro, head of campaigns at FLD, gained access to the stories of ordinary Mexicans who have been devastated by the murder or disappearance of loved ones and of those who have fled to the United States.

These include the Salazar Reyes family. Josefina, a wellknown activist, protested against a proposed radioactive waste site in Sierra Blanca, opposed the militarization of
Juárez, and denounced the mass murder of women in the region. In August 2008, the military abducted her son Miguel Ángel. After being tortured for sixteen days, he was released. Three months later, Josefina’s other son, Julio César, was murdered at a wedding. Josefina continued her protests until January 3, 2010, when she, too, was murdered. Her
brother Rubén was killed seven months later. On February 25, 2011, the bodies of Magdalena Reyes Salazar, her brother Elias, and his wife Luisa Ornelas Soto were found dumped along
the side of a road in Guadalupe, Chihuahua.

By using black and white comic book art – arguably more effective at drawing the reader in than a block of text describing the violence – Jon Sack immerses the reader in his subject; his representation of shootings and torture powerfully conveys that violence is commonplace in Mexico. Employing light and shade to great effect, he presents the killers as shadows – a chilling reminder of how Juárez’s faceless murderers continue to escape justice.

Originally published the TLS

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Theatre Review – Lampedusa

Posted by lucypopescu on April 18, 2015

LampedusaLast year an estimated 4,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to escape hardship or persecution in perilously unsafe boats. Despite the risk and terrifying statistics, thousands of migrants continue to head to the Italian island of Lampedusa, perceived as the gateway to Europe.

Anders Lustgarten’s vital, poignant play explores the perils of deprivation. Stefano (Ferdy Roberts) a former fisherman, serves as a coastguard, retrieving corpses from the sea. It’s “the job no one else will take”.

Running parallel to Stefano’s story is that of Denise (Louise Mai Newberry) who also works in a profession few can stomach. In Austerity Britain, the unemployed have fallen further into debt. Denise, mixed white and East Asian, funds her degree by working as a debt collector for a payday loan company. She is spat upon and sworn at: “Middle-class people think racism is free speech now,” she complains.

Stefano and Denise deal with desperate people and learn humility. They realise that migrants are erroneously lambasted as a drain on resources and welfare scroungers. Both characters start out cynical and prejudiced, but the kindness of strangers helps nurture their compassionate side.

Steven Atkinson immerses the audience in the action. Sitting on uncomfortable wooden benches, surrounded by fellow audience members, we are made to feel as though we are on a boat.

The actors emerge from our midst, reminding us of our shared humanity. Thankfully, this terrific play ends with the redemptive power of hope.

Soho Theatre Upstairs


020 7478 0100

Review originally published in Camden Review

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Book Review – The Last Pier

Posted by lucypopescu on April 15, 2015

The Last PierBorn to a Sinhalese mother and Tamil father, Roma Tearne left Sri Lanka when she was just 10 years old. Displacement, exile and migration are frequent themes in her fiction so The Last Pier, focusing on an English family in Suffolk just before the outbreak of the Second World War, is something of a departure.

On the Maudsleys’ orchard farm in Bly, “a coastal backwater”, 13-year-old Cecily is curious about everything to do with her family and her surroundings. She is forever-listening behind doors or inadvertently hearing adults talk while playing outside. She yearns to be as beautiful and grownup as her 16-year-old sister, Rose, who has many admirers.

Cecily also has a secret crush on Carlo Molinello, youngest son of a local Italian family befriended by the Maudsleys. Things take a sinister turn when an outsider, Robert Wilson, arrives in their midst, claiming he is there to work on the agricultural survey for East Anglia and plan farming efforts in the event of a war. But why does he keep giving Cecily’s Aunt Kitty a bunch of seven Sweet Williams and why is Rose so scornful of his actions?

As she has done in previous novels, Tearne vividly depicts the devastating impact of war on ordinary lives. While the Maudsleys are forced to face a personal tragedy, an indirect consequence of the impending conflict, the Molinellos have to deal with the political fallout when war is declared. Originally from Tuscany, Anna and Mario Molinello have settled in Suffolk and own a successful ice-cream parlour. Despite swearing allegiance to their adopted country, Mario, his British-born sons, and his brother, Lucio, are treated as enemy aliens.

The Last Pier features a large cast although some characters are mere walk-ons. There’s a filmic quality to how Tearne circles around her subjects before moving in for the close-up. Often her characters’ hopes, desires and disappointments are revealed to us through what is unspoken. “Children aren’t supposed to have feelings,” Cecily complains to her diary. Tearne writes perceptively about Cecily’s growing pains – her fragile sense of self, her desperate desire to catch up with her beautiful sister, her unexpressed love for Carlo, the vague unease she feels about her family – and how grief feeds guilt.

Children trying to make sense of adult lives while coming of age is a familiar story, but Tearne offers some unexpected twists and creates a palpable sense of danger lurking in the shadows. She also employs a dual narrative as Cecily returns to the family farm in 1968 in an attempt to make sense of her fractured childhood memories and to understand what actually happened during that long, hot August of 1939.

There are some typos and inconsistencies regarding dates and characters’ ages that an editor should have picked up, but this evocation of a world on the brink of change is so engaging that these minor slips are soon forgotten. The Last Pier is an atmospheric page-turner and Tearne keeps the reader guessing to the end as to the various fates of her characters.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday

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Film Review – The Face of an Angel

Posted by lucypopescu on April 1, 2015

face of an angelMichael Winterbottom’s latest feature, The Face of an Angel (2014), explores the intersection of beauty, youth, sex and violent crime. Inspired by Amanda Knox’s alleged murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Italy, Winterbottom offers a perceptive, but at times plodding, take on the media’s sensationalised coverage of her trial.

Thomas Lang (Daniel Bruhl) arrives in Italy to research and write his next film. He meets Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale), a journalist who been following the trial of American student Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt), imprisoned for the murder of her flatmate Elizabeth Pryce  (Sai Bennett). Thomas hopes to adapt Simone’s book on the case. “Make it fiction,” she urges him. “You cannot tell the truth unless you make it a fiction”. They travel to Siena together to visit the scene of the crime and attend Fuller’s appeal. Simone introduces him to the journalists and locals following the trial and attempts to teach him the various intricacies of the Italian legal system.

The more Thomas becomes embroiled in the gossip and media speculation surrounding Fuller’s alleged crime, the harder he finds it to write the story envisaged by his production team in London. Strung out on cocaine, Thomas’s paranoia and nightmares, involving cartoon monsters, stabbings and cannibalism, become increasingly fantastical (and unbelievable). These scenes sit uneasily within the film’s docu-drama framework.

Thomas’s only respites are skyping his young daughter Bea (Ava Acres), who lives with his estranged wife in LA, and an unlikely friendship with Melanie (a promising debut by Cara Delevingne), another idealistic young English student, working in an Italian bar studying arts and, like Fuller and Pryce, stunningly beautiful.

Although there is much to admire in The Face of an Angel, the topical subject, Hubert Taczanowski’s cinematography and the central performances, it’s overly focussed on the youth and beauty of its young protagonists. Winterbottom even casts an award-winning fashion model as Thomas’s “saviour”.

The frequent close-ups and fetishisation of the young women (Bennett, Delevingne and Gaunt) become irritating after a while. The motivations behind Thomas’s change of heart – he starts reading Dante and, won over by Melanie’s playful exuberance, decides that he wants to make a film about love and innocence – lack credibility and as the film changes direction the tension peters out. Obviously intended as a brooding thriller, The Face of an Angel falls slightly wide of the mark. It’s well-intentioned but an uneven crime drama.

Originally published by






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Theatre Review- Frozen

Posted by lucypopescu on March 29, 2015

FrozenBlueprint Theatre’s welcome revival of Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play follows the intertwined fates of three characters dealing with the brutal murder of a ten-year-old child.

In 1980, Nancy’s daughter Rhonna disappeared on the way to visit her grandmother. Ralph is later found guilty of her murder and six other children. He is discovered with a stash of paedophile porn videos in the lock up shed where he buried his victims. Agnetha, an American psychiatrist, suffering her own bereavement, comes to England to study Ralph and his motives. Agnetha compares the criminal mind to the “arctic frozen sea” and describes the emotionally detached Ralph as “icebound”.

Lavery’s laying bare of her three characters psyches is insightful and compelling to watch. This beautifully spare production allows the full force of her writing to take hold.

Ian Brown draws out terrific performances from the small cast. Sally Grey conveys all the anguish and fury of a mother who has lost her child to a monster. As her marriage falls apart, she struggles to connect with her older daughter. Mark Rose is terrifying as the unrepentant Ralph whose only regret is that “killing girls is not legal” while Helen Schlesinger also impresses as the cool, measured psychiatrist, adept at analysing others, but falling apart inside.

Lavery’s unsettling work has lost none of its resonance. The issues she explores are as vital as ever and this first rate production is not to be missed.

Running at the Park Theatre until 11 April

Originally published by Camden Review


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Film review – Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd

Posted by lucypopescu on March 26, 2015

1010 col movies uyghurs 9213Montreal-based Patricio Henriquez’s  compassionate film Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd (2014), follows the stories of three Uyghurs unlawfully imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. East Turkestan has been annexed to China on and off for the last three centuries and was named ‘Xinjiang’ (new frontier) in the nineteenth century. China has repressed the Uyghurs for decades and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was established in 1993 to fight for the rights of their people. In the late 1990s, many activists, and ordinary citizens fearing persecution, fled across the borders into Afghanistan and Pakistan in an attempt to rebuild their lives there. Some found a haven in the mountains, in a small Uyghur village controlled by the Taliban. In the wake of 9/11 the Americans commenced an aerial bombardment of the region and offered substantial financial rewards for those willing to aid the identification and arrest of terrorists.

In total, 22 members of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority were detained and ended up incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay prison for several years despite never having engaged in armed combat. Henriquez follows the fates of Abu Bakker Qassum, Khalil Mamut and Ahmat Abdulahad, two of whom were sold to the Americans as terrorists by the Pakistani army for $5000 each. They were sent to Guantánamo where they remained, without charge or trial, for between 5 and 7 years. The US government declared that Guantánamo detainees would be treated as ‘unlawful combatants’, rather than prisoners of war, which effectively meant that they didn’t intend to follow the principles of the Geneva Convention.

The Uyghurs were found innocent but complex US politics led to their continued detention and a recalcitrant Congress wouldn’t sign off their release. This impasse was not helped by the Chinese government continuing to claim that they were dangerous terrorists, blatantly ignoring the lack of evidence. Tragically, Barack Obama’s government couldn’t resettle them and set about trying to bribe other countries to grant them safe haven.

Henriquez’s film is largely comprised of talking-head interviews with the victims, their stalwart translator,./

, and the American lawyers who worked for their freedom pro-bono.  Frustratingly, because the US military were so careful to cover their tracks and evidence of torture there is little footage to be had from the top security detention centre. However, the interviewees’ emotional scars are evident and it is impossible not to be moved by their testimonies.

Eventually, the Uyghurs were found homes in Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador, Palau, Switzerland and Slovakia. There is no mention of compensation. As one of them points out, they have lost their best years in prison, in inhumane conditions. Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd is indeed a surreal journey through American politics, American hypocrisy and a warped justice system.

Shown as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Review originally published by

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Film Review – No Land’s Song

Posted by lucypopescu on March 23, 2015

No land's songAyat Najafi’s enthralling documentary film No Land’s Song is about his sister Sara’s attempts to stage a concert in Tehran featuring female soloists. Following the Islamic revolution of 1979 female singers were banned from performing solo in public, unless to an exclusively female audience.  Iran has a history of iconic female singers, such as Qamar al-Molouk Vaziri, Delkash and Googoosh. Now their recordings are only available on the black market.

Sara, a composer, and her friends feel keenly the loss of the female voice in Iran. She decides to plan a public concert of Persian music with singers Parvin Namazi and Sayeh Sodeyfi. She enlists the help of two French female soloists Élise Caron and Jeanne Cherhal and Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer-songwriter known for her protest songs. Sara presents the project to the authorities as an opportunity to rebuild cultural bridges between France and Iran.

In his feature debut, Germany-based Najafi accompanies his sister on a sometimes labyrinthine journey. Sara visits a traditional teashop and one man recalls the pre-Revolution cabarets and music clubs where women drank alcohol and sang freely. Whenever she attends the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance there is a blackout. Sara clandestinely records the increasingly surreal conversations. Most telling of all is her interview with a religious scholar to ask why women can’t sing solo in front of a male audience any more. He tells her “No decent man sitting in public and listening to music should get sexually aroused. He mustn’t deviate from his normal condition.” These episodes are in stark contrast to the light and colour of her Paris visits.

The French musicians Sara works with are by turn excited and frustrated by the bureaucracy of the state and its indecision about granting them visas and whether the concert can go ahead. Eventually, in 2013, the authorities decide that the foreign musicians can come to Tehran but, fearful of another Green Wave (uprising), the concert is postponed until after the presidential elections in June. When the musicians finally arrive in September, the authorities again get cold feet after Emel posts an incautious message on Facebook. Sara receives complaints that the women’s voices are too loud in rehearsal and that they aren’t taking proper care with their hijabs.

Made in partnership with Al Jazeera English and TV5 Monde, No Land’s Song is a provocative and compelling film about fighting repression and injustice with music – the featured songs are about hope, freedom and rebellion. It speaks volumes about the treatment of women and freedom of expression in Iran today and is both entertaining and profoundly moving.

Shown as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Review originally published by



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Theatre Review – Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre

Posted by lucypopescu on March 20, 2015

ShrapnelIn December 2011, thirty-four unarmed Kurdish civilians were killed in an isolated mountain village on the Turkish-Iraqi border. The group of traders and their mules had been picked up by a Predator drone. The Americans passed on the intelligence to the Turkish military who, claiming they were terrorists, gave the order to bomb them. Nineteen of the victims were children. The Roboski massacre is the subject of Anders Lustgarten’s compelling political drama, performed in English with Turkish surtitles.

Matching the number of dead, thirty-four short, fragmented scenes are played out on a traverse stage, bare except for a table and chairs. A huge screen dominates the action, depicting the convoy being followed by military drones. They include diesel smugglers Husnu (Aslam Percival Husain) and his fourteen-year old nephew Savas (Josef Altin). Throughout the play’s seventy-five minutes, the ensemble cast share the names of all thirty-four victims of the aerial bombardment. Some, we learn, were teenagers who had engaged in small-scale smuggling to pay for their education.

We’re also shown an arms manufacturer extolling the virtues and profitability of modern warfare and two workers in an arms factory, seemingly unaware that the devices they construct might kill innocent civilians. Two journalists (both played by Karina Fernandez) offer different perspectives on the massacre; one toes the party line, demonising the Kurdish people, the other attempts to report the truth.

Shrapnel is impressively acted and Mehmet Ergen’s gripping production packs a visceral punch.

At Arcola Theatre until 2 April

Box office: 020 7503 1646

Originally published in Camden Review



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Film review – Suite Française

Posted by lucypopescu on March 12, 2015

Suite FrancaiseSaul Dibb’s film adaptation of Suite Française (2014) dramatically compresses the various strands of Irène Némirovsky’s incomplete World War II novel, discovered by her daughter after her death and published to great acclaim in 2004. Némirovsky intended to write five parts dealing with the tumult of war but only completed two novellas – she died in Auchwitz in 1942. In the second, Dolce, she created a vivid portrait of a provincial French town, Bussy, through the various reactions of its citizens to the German occupation.

In their adaptation, Matt Charman and Dibb concentrate on Dolce and the love affair between Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) and Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts), a young German officer billeted in the house of her overbearing mother-in-law Mme Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas). Lucille’s husband is absent; a prisoner of war. We learn he had been unfaithful to her before its outbreak. Mme Angellier is a calculating land owner who tries to use the occupation to her best advantage. Their neighbours, Madeleine (Ruth Wilson) and her volatile farmer husband Benoit (Sam Riley), feisty Celine (Margot Robbie), the self-serving Viscount (Lambert Wilson) and his waspish wife (Harriet Walter) become secondary characters in the film, important only so far as they affect the central love story.

Fortunately, it’s a poignant and dramatic affair that holds our interest throughout. Lucille and Bruno share a passion for classical music and this is what brings them together. Before the war, Bruno had been a composer and he asks to play Lucille’s piano. As a cautious love blossoms between the pair, tensions in the town escalate. Some of the German soldiers begin marauding, chasing the French women and taunting the few remaining men. Then the townsfolk start to voice their grievances with one another and betray their neighbours to the occupiers. Bruno is increasingly called upon to dispense rough justice. Things come to a head when Kurt Bonnet (Tom Schilling) a German officer is fatally shot and Benoit is forced on the run.

While it may not appeal to purists, purging some of Némirovsky’s complex characterisation and finer detail serves the film well. Matt Charman and Dibb hold on to the spirit of the original and its uncomfortable exploration of collaboration and betrayal. Love and war are a winning combination and Eduard Grau’s beautiful cinematography, terrific performances all round, in particular the simmering chemistry between Schoenaerts and Williams, should ensure Suite Française’s box-office success as well as adding to Némirovsky’s fan base.

Originally published by


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