Lucy Popescu

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Theatre review – La Musica

Posted by lucypopescu on October 10, 2015

La musicaA COUPLE meet in hotel lobby to discuss their divorce. Both are in new relationships. The hotel, we discover, is where they first fell in love.

Jeff James and Ultz’s staging of Marguerite Duras’ poignant play (its first London revival in two decades) is certainly radical but not necessarily effective. Michel (Sam Troughton) and Anne-Marie (Emily Barclay) sit on a raised platform with their backs to the audience. Blown up close-ups of their faces are projected onto a wall. While this allows for every flicker of emotion, irritation and hurt to be conveyed in minute detail, it lessens the dramatic tension and detracts from the storytelling. We concentrate on their faces rather than the words and this is a shame because Duras writes very well about the breakdown of a marriage – the memories, regrets and darker hints of betrayal and violence.

In the second half, some of the audience have to move their chairs, others stand, encircling the couple as if they are in a boxing ring. This engenders a sense of claustrophobia – as if we are eavesdropping on their conversation – but at the same time we feel unable to take sides. Both characters are flawed and both engage our sympathy but, ultimately, we recognise, as they do, that there is no way back; the passion is spent.

Barclay and Troughton give finely nuanced performances, but their relative youth lessens the impact (and heartbreak) of a couple divorcing after many years of marriage.

Young Vic Theatre

020 7922 2922

Originally published by Camden Review

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Film review – Leave to Remain

Posted by lucypopescu on October 10, 2015


Leave to RemainBruce Goodison’s impressive feature, Leave to Remain (2013), confronts the issue of teenage asylum seekers struggling to adapt to life in London and dealing with past trauma as they wait for their permanent leave to remain. In Britain, unaccompanied minors are granted temporary asylum and are placed in foster homes or shelters.  But when they reach eighteen, their cases are reassessed and they live in limbo as they await the court’s decision which can take months, or even years. In the opening scene, a caption informs us that only one in ten are finally granted permanent residency.

 Leave to Remain is set in a shelter and community centre for asylum seekers and homeless teens run by “Uncle Nigel” (Toby Jones) who is teacher, mentor and friend to the youngsters. The film opens with Omar (Noof Ousellam), one of the more confident residents, speaking in public about his experiences. He had arrived in the UK from Afghanistan, aged fourteen, and was granted a safe haven. Now considered an adult, he is about to hear if he has leave to remain. When fifteen-year-old Abdul (Zarrien Masieh), a Hazara from the same region arrives, Omar is inexplicably angry. Gradually, it is revealed that Abdul knows something about Omar’s past that could affect his appeal. Meanwhile, Abdul has to prove his age, ethnicity and that his own tragic story is true.  Guinean Zizidi (Yasmin Mwanza) is equally traumatised. Raped when she was twelve years old, forced into marriage, she was beaten and abused by her husband and his friends and fell pregnant three times before she was able to escape. Her case is considered domestic rather than political and she is initially refused asylum.

Leave to Remain is the result of a film academy set up by Goodison and his colleagues which provides industry training for teenage asylum seekers. The script, co-written by Goodison and Charlotte Colbert, is based on real life stories and most of the talented young leads and the crew come from refugee backgrounds. Goodison offers a poignant insight into the lives of young people trying to integrate and understand an alien culture.  Wisely, he shows that their cases are not always clear cut; sometimes lies have to be told in order for them to be believed. Intercut with the refugee stories are the perspectives of social workers, solicitors, doctors as well as some less than sympathetic staff working for the Home Office. The line between documentary and drama is deliberately blurred allowing for a gritty realism and sense of authenticity. It is not all doom and gloom, however, and Goodison injects humour into various scenes. Particularly memorable are a mountain hike and the group’s attempts to stage a Nativity play – many of them are from Muslim backgrounds.  An important and timely addition to the current debate surrounding immigrants and refugees, Leave to Remain educates and entertains on a number of levels.

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Film review – Palio

Posted by lucypopescu on October 3, 2015


palioCosima Spender’s fascinating documentary, Palio (2015), is about the oldest horse race in the world. The Palio is a ruthless bareback race around the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s main square. There are two a year, held in July and August and each race lasts a breath taking 90 seconds.  Spender interviews jockeys, former jockeys now trainers, and horse owners, many of whom describe the race as “the essence of the city”.  Jockeys represent ten of the city contrade (districts) and train all year, hoping for their moment of glory. The contrade have names like The Goose, Tortoise and Snail and there is a huge amount of pageantry, as well as bitter enmity, associated with the contest.

Gradually, Spender reveals that the Palio is less a race and more a game, where cunning triumphs over equestrian skills. The quality of the horse is often less important than the strategy—horses can be rejected for being too fast. Corruption is rife and jockeys pay off each other for advantage. One interviewee describes them as “mercenaries”; another refers to the contest as “legitimate corruption. During the race, the jockeys whip each other as well as their mounts and are often violently turfed off their horses. For some riders, it clearly feels like a life or death ordeal. Likewise for the poor horses. Afterwards, losing jockeys run the risk of being viciously beaten by spectators. The winner, by contrast, is treated as a saint and is promptly taken to the cathedral, with the horse, to be blessed.

Palio is told through the perspectives of three generations of competitors. In particular,  Spender focuses on two jockeys: Gigi Bruschelli, who has won thirteen Palios and wants to break the record of fourteen currently held by the retired Andrea Degortes (nicknamed Aceto), and Bruschelli’s own protégé, newcomer Giovanni Atzeni who, at twenty-eight, believes himself to be in his prime and that Bruschelli is on his way out. The most telling commentary comes from Silvano Vigni (Bastiano), once Aceto’s rival, now friend, who was himself usurped by Bruschelli. Vigni is scathing about the corruption and Bruschelli’s current domination of the sport.

In the final segment, Spender concentrates on the two Palios that pitch Bruschelli against Atzeni. It’s a dangerous track with tight corners and the horses and jockeys are both at risk. The cruelty of The Grand National, perceived by some, pales into insignificance when compared to the Palio di Siena. Through this absorbing, sometimes disturbing, documentary Spender reveals much about Italy’s underworld, as well as the people’s passion for spectacle, their machismo, pride and their rivalry.

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Posted by lucypopescu on October 3, 2015

Beyond Mothers Monsters WhoresIn Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores Caron E. Gentry and Laura Sjoberg add to their extensive research into questions of gender and violence in global conflict. In the 2007
edition of this book they argued “that there is an international politics of violent women’s lives and that violent women’s lives constitute international politics”. Here they take this critique further and analyse in depth the traditional gender tropes used in contemporary narratives of women’s violence, from Chechen and Palestinian suicide bombers, to génocidaires in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and war criminals in Abu Ghraib.

Their main contention is that women’s capacity for political violence is no different from men’s and yet perpetrators are treated as somehow helpless or flawed females. This negates their agency. The authors set out to prove that gendered discourses dominate today’s research into, and media coverage of, the field, arguing that women who participate in violence for political ends are reductively “portrayed as ‘mothers’, women who are fulfilling their biological destinies; as ‘monsters’, women who are pathologically damaged and are therefore drawn to violence [Gentry 2006]; and/or as ‘whores’, women whose violence is inspired by sexual dependence and depravity”. These formulas, they suggest, do not take into account women’s autonomy and therefore imply that they are not culpable.

Prominent cases are examined, including those of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko in Rwanda and Biljana Plavšić, a charter member of the Serbian Democratic Party, who both helped to
carry out genocide. The authors contend that their gender was “sensationalised” and drew more attention than their actions. A “relational autonomy framework” (the recognition of human interdependence and of political and social relationships) is “a prerequisite for understanding people and their violent choices in global politics”, they say, before concluding
with a call for “subversive resignification” and further research that explores “sensed experience of conflict, sensed experience of violence, perpetrator narratives and the role of gender in political violence”.

Gentry and Sjoberg are not interested in the how-and-whys of extralegal political violence, but ask, rather: “what is political violence? What are women? What are the relationships
between those concepts?” Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores is a highly academic example of international relations feminism, and, while the questions raised are undoubtedly valuable for those engaged in the field, the book may prove less accessible for the lay reader.

Originally published by the TLS

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Film review – Tangerines

Posted by lucypopescu on September 25, 2015


tangerinesFully deserving of its Oscar and Golden Globe award nominations, Zaza Urushadze’s affecting drama Tangerines (2013) is a bittersweet portrait of cruelty and compassion in the midst of war. During the bloody conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia that erupted in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, many Estonians living in the region were forced to flee. Tangerines focuses on two immigrant farmers who have remained on their land in order to harvest a tangerine crop. A skilled carpenter, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) makes the crates, while Margus (Elmo Nüganen) picks the fruit from his orchard.

When a gun battle take place on the dirt track outside their homes, they rescue two wounded soldiers from opposing sides. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze) is a tough Chechen mercenary fighter, while Niko (Mikheil Meskhi) is a Georgian actor who left a promising theatre career because he felt duty bound to take up arms. As the pair recuperate from their wounds, under the care of Ivo, Margus and their doctor friend Juhan (Raivo Trass), Ahmed and Niko are forced to confront their mutual hatred and desire for vengeance. Gradually, though, influenced by Ivo’s placidity and kindness, they come to recognise the futility of war, the ethnic divisions that fuel the conflict and their shared humanity. Both are put to the test when random battalions of soldiers pass by Ivo’s home.

It’s a relentlessly male world. No women appear in the film, which underscores the men’s isolation. A photograph of Ivo’s granddaughter serves as a symbolic reminder of his family’s absence. The music adds an extra layer, in particular the conflicting tastes of Ahmed and Niko which causes further heated exchanges, while Niaz Diasamidze’s evocative score contributes to the elegiac mood. Rein Kotov’s stunning cinematography captures the bleakness and beauty of the terrain. Ulfsak is superb as the even-handed carpenter harbouring his own secrets and pain. Nakhashiez gives an utterly convincing portrait of a mercenary brutalised by war who, despite his macho posturing, finally earns our sympathy. Except for the gun battles, nothing very much happens until the film’s closing moments but the pitch-perfect performances and Urushadze’s careful unwinding of the story ensure Tangerines is never less than riveting.

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Film review – A Syrian Love Story

Posted by lucypopescu on September 24, 2015

A syrian love storySean McAllister’s award winning documentary, A Syrian Love Story (2015), is a searing portrait of a family torn apart by dictatorship and war. Amer and Raghda met and fell in love in a Syrian prison fifteen years ago. They were both political prisoners – Amer was a Palestinian freedom fighter, Raghda a Syrian revolutionary – and both were tortured. On their release they married and started a family. McAllister first meets Amer in 2009 and over five years follows the family’s fraught lives. After writing a book about their love story and experiences in prison, Raghda was once again detained and Amer is left to bring up their four boys alone. McAllister films them talking to Raghda during a rare phonecall. Bob the youngest cries for his mum while Kaka, a teenager, tries to make sense of Basher al Assad’s tyrannical regime.

In 2011, as the ‘Arab Spring’ infects Syria and protestors take to the streets, Amer uses the opportunity to highlight the plight of Raghda, ceaselessly calling for her release. Finally his persistence, and pressure from the west, has the desired result and Raghda is released in a small amnesty of political prisoners. McAllister continues to film the family as they are reunited. His handheld camera captures their euphoria followed by the difficulties Raghda has adapting to home life and her insomnia – she is haunted by frequent nightmares of her time in prison. As the street protests intensify, McAllister is himself arrested in Syria and held for five days. His camera is seized and because it contains compromising footage of the family, they are forced to flee to Lebanon.

McAllister follows them there and finds Amer and Raghda’s relationship is showing signs of strain. At one point Raghda takes off, leaving Amer with the children, feeling hurt, confused and betrayed. As a Palestinian, he cannot claim asylum outside Lebanon but Raghda, as a Syrian political prisoner, has the necessary status for them to be accepted in Europe. Finally, she returns to Amer and the family is granted asylum in France. Once here, the tone of A Syrian Love Story shifts. McAllister captures the bleak reality for so many refugees, having to start afresh, mourning the disintegration of a country as well as the loss of their beloved homeland. Raghda in particular feels utterly untethered – she was well known in Syria, but in France she is a nobody. As their rows intensify, Amer finds himself a girlfriend while Raghda broods, smokes and gets drunk on wine. Using frequent closeups, McAllister captures the breakdown of their relationship with unflinching honesty, to the point that it becomes hard to believe that they would allow him such intimacy. It is some measure of their courage, and a desire to show the world their reality, that they do.

The family’s emotional journey mirrors Syria’s physical collapse and the personal and political are irretrievably entwined. It may be bleak viewing, but A Syrian Love Story is a timely and necessary reminder of what Syrian refugees face today. It’s a poignant tale of a marriage breakup that echoes the agony and heartbreak of countless other Syrians who have found their homes destroyed and their lives in ruins. For Raghda, at least, it also ends on an unexpected note of hope.

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Book review – Submission

Posted by lucypopescu on September 24, 2015

SubmissionMichel Houellebecq is no stranger to controversy. In 2002, the French author faced up to 18 months in jail accused of inciting religious hatred after an interview in the literary magazine Lire in which Houellebecq was quoted as saying “Islam is the stupidest religion”. His sixth novel, Submission, set in 2022, is about France becoming an Islamic state. Its French publication coincided with the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The same day, the satirical magazine’s cover had featured a caricature of Houellebecq under the headline: “The Predictions of Wizard Houellebecq.”

In this novel, François is an academic at the Sorbonne. He is an expert on the 19th-century nihilist novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who converted to Catholicism later in life. François is suffering his own existential crisis. In the run-up to the presidential elections, two candidates are neck and neck: Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Mohammed Ben Abbes of the fictional Muslim Fraternity party. After the centre-right party and the Socialists form a coalition and back Ben Abbes, his success is assured. On taking power, women are veiled, polygamy becomes the norm and the new government initiates the southward expansion of the European Union. After the Saudis take over the funding of education, university academics like François face losing their jobs unless they are willing converts to Islam.

There are echoes of Albert Camus’s outsider, Meursault, in François’ lack of emotion and relentless cynicism. Some weeks after his mother’s death, François returns home to find a letter informing him that “the city had deposited my mother’s body in the common division of the municipal cemetery.” Later he refers to her as “that neurotic bitch”. François’ relationship with his Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, a former student, is motivated by lust rather than love and after she leaves for Israel he resorts to trawling the internet for soft porn and escort services. On his dismissal from university, with a generous early retirement package, François’ main lament is that “the end of my academic career had deprived me of all contact with female students”.

Submission, expertly translated by Lorin Stein, can be read on a number of levels. As much as it is about Islamic and political tensions in France, Houellebecq also explores the inner world of his chauvinistic antihero who struggles to find meaning in his life and seeks solace in sex. François yearns for a similar epiphany to that experienced by Huysmans. By the end, one realises that if Francois does submit, it will not be to the will of God but because he is seduced by the promise of an increased income, less work, and at least two wives.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Film Review – Rosewater

Posted by lucypopescu on September 16, 2015


RosewaterJon Stewart’s remarkably assured directorial debut, Rosewater (2014), is a dramatic reconstruction of the real-life arrest and detention of Iranian-Canadian filmmaker and journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia-Bernal). In 2009, Bahari was detained in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison accused of espionage. Although based in London, Bahari had come to Iran to visit his mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and cover the presidential elections for Newsweek. Following the landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in elections many deemed to have been rigged, there was widespread demonstrations. When these were brutally suppressed, Bahari captured some damning footage on his camera. After his film was aired, the state security officers came for Bahari who was staying with his mother in her Tehran Apartment.  He was arrested and his laptop and dvds were seized as evidence.

Stewart, best known as a former host of the American news satire television programme, The Daily Show, wisely focuses on the absurdity of Bahari’s situation and the illogical accusations of the Iranian regime. While in Tehran, Bahari is interviewed by A Daily Show presenter who jokily refers to himself as a spy. The authorities take this satirical skit as proof of Bahari’s guilt. Bahari remains in solitary confinement, except for the enforced time he spends with a “specialist” (Kim Bodnia), his torturer codenamed Rosewater because of the cologne he wears, who manages to get a false confession out of him. Despite admitting his guilt and apologising on state television, Bahari remains detained. He is beaten and endures mock executions. However, unbeknown to him his pregnant girlfriend Paola (Claire Foy) back in London and his mother have helped kick up a worldwide media storm. Even Hilary Clinton is calling for his release.

In between interrogations, Bahari takes comfort in imaginary conversations with his beloved father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani), both were in prison before him; both are now dead. It is these imaginative interludes that stop the prison scenes from being relentlessly bleak. Based on Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me, Stewart’s screenplay focuses on some of Bahari’s more humorous memories such as when he beguiles Rosewater with tales of his (false) obsession for erotic massage. At another time a baffled Rosewater watches on CCTV as Bahari dances around his cell (in his head Leonard Cohen is singing). As a result of international attention, Bahari is eventually released. Reluctantly, he left behind his driver and fixer Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) who had no such connections. Rosewater ends on a note of hope, however, with the image of an adolescent boy filming on his mobile phone the police destruction of the illegal satellite dishes he had constructed. He is documenting the truth just as Bahari had done.

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Film Review – Closed Curtain

Posted by lucypopescu on September 13, 2015

closed curtainClosed Curtain (2013) Jafar Panahi’s symbolically charged follow-up to his critically acclaimed This Is Not a Film (2012) is about state repression, censorship, depression and the intersection between art and reality. Echoes of the former Soviet Union’s ‘Iron Curtain’ are reflected in the title. The superb opening shot is filmed through the security grill of a window; an image reinforced by the bars of an iron fence directly in front of it. A car draws up. Two men approach the house. All that can be heard is the faint sound of birdsong. The first man, carrying a black bag, enters the house and we hear him set down his bag and keys. He accepts a suitcase and box of water from the second who then drives off.

As the camera’s perspective moves to the interior, the man (co-director Kamboziya Partovi) closes the curtains of the main living space. He uses black fabric, reminiscent of the hijab, to shroud the house in darkness and, it is implied, to escape prying eyes. A dog is in the black bag. Gradually it is revealed that he is a screenwriter holed up in the seaside villa with his pet dog named Boy. In Iran dogs are considered impure and, except for working animals, they are effectively banned from being seen in public. Stray dogs are routinely exterminated. One suspects that their inhumane slaughter, shown on the screenwriter’s television and watched by Boy, is also intended as a searing indictment of Iran’s policy of capital punishment.

During a thunderstorm a young man and his sister Melika (Maryam Moghadam) seek refuge in the villa. The brother leaves Melika in the safekeeping of the screenwriter, warning him that she is suicidal. He never returns. The pair circle around each other; she is curious and the screenwriter is wary, anxious that Melika is a spy. Later, thieves break in through the villa’s glass doors and ransack the place.

At this point, Panahi, recognisable to aficionados, steps into the frame and the film changes direction. Suddenly, Closed Curtain focuses on the reality for Panahi, an acclaimed auteur who is currently banned from filmmaking in his country and lives under house arrest. The closed curtain represents Iran’s censorship of cinema, its repression of creativity, as well as the state’s control of ordinary lives. The message is clear – Iran is a prison. A reminder of Iran’s previous freedom comes with shots of the seventies style home bar, where now only water is served. Shattered glass is symbolic of the state’s cataclysmic destruction of artistic creativity.

 Closed Curtain also interrogates questions of identity: where does Panahi belong – in Iran or in exile abroad, where his films are celebrated? A neighbour suggests that there is more to life than work and Panahi responds ‘those things are foreign to me.’ Melika believes suicide is better than living behind closed curtains. She comes to represent the black cloud of depression that hangs over Panahi. She fills his thoughts and tries to lure him into taking his own life by walking into the sea, suggesting the drowning of himself and his imagination.

Cinematographer Mohamed Reza Jahanpanah’s brilliant framing, the use of images on phone cameras, the playing of film backwards and the inventive use of light and shade are impressive. This is an eloquent and memorable film about an authoritarian state’s constraints on artistic expression. Since making Closed Curtain co-director Partovi and Moghadam have been banned from travelling. For anyone interested in artistic freedoms Closed Curtain is a must see.

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Review – books on reading

Posted by lucypopescu on August 29, 2015



The Reader on the 6.27


Every day, Guylain Vignolles catches the 6.27 train to a job in a factory that destroys books. He secretly  rescues pages from the pulping machine, dries them out and on his daily commute reads aloud from random sheets. He finds an enthusiastic audience, hope and an unexpected opportunity for love. The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (Mantle ), a best seller in France, deftly translated by Roz Ssvwartz celebrates the redemptive power of books.


Reader for HireIs it only the French who have a passion for writing about reading? Raymond Jean’s novella La Lectrice (Reader for Hire) was first published in 1986 and, two years later, was made into a successful film starring Miou-Miou. Peirene Press has just brought out a brilliant English translation by Adrian Hunter. In Reader for Hire a young woman, Marie-Constance, reads to a partially paralysed teenager, a widow with revolutionary sympathies and a lonely businessman with comic, erotic and sometimes disastrous consequences.


The republic of imaginationIn The Republic of Imagination, (William Heinemann) the Iranian writer Azar Nafisi (now living in the US) mixes memoir with fiction to demonstrate the importance of fiction. She underlines that ‘imaginative knowledge’ is indispensable to the formation of a democratic society and suggests that our view of fiction reflects how we define ourselves as a nation. Nafisi interweaves details of her own life with detailed readings of favourite novels from her adopted home, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.


Originally published in The Tablet





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