Syria’s War on Screen: An Exchange

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, reply by Robert F. Worth

Ruined buildings in the village of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man after a weekslong regime offensive against rebel-held areas in Syria’s Idlib province, February 12, 2020

Idrees Ahmad: The author faults the filmmakers for only briefly condemning the jihadis. Their condemnation is, in fact, proportionate to their experience: the hospitals were being bombed by regime forces, not jihadis.
Robert Worth: The filmmakers and their central characters could not have avoided coming into contact with rebel fighters; they would certainly have been aware of the abuses those fighters carried out and of the dungeons they operated. There are street scenes in both films, and plenty of footage of regime attacks, but no trace of the defenders. The filmmakers, in other words, made a deliberate choice to screen out certain inconvenient facts about their own daily lives and the cause they stood for.

The Art of Neverending Wars

Eli Jelly-Schapiro

Rafa Nasiri: War Diary 2 (No, It’s a Dirty War), 1991

The UN-managed economic embargo that starved Iraq of crucial resources from 1990 to 2003 led not only to humanitarian disasters like rising infant mortality, but also to scarcities of basic art materials and instruments. Because of the embargo, Iraqi artists began making their own paper. This urgent creative endeavor contributed to the emergence, during the blockade period, of dafatir—art books that chronicled the continuity of violence while testifying to the possibility of cultural survival or renewal.

Tom Stoppard’s Theatre of Memory

Kate Maltby

Ed Stoppard as Ludwig, Alexis Zegerman as Eva, Faye Castelow as Gretl, and Adrian Scarborough as Hermann in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, directed by Patrick Marber at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 2020

For Stoppard, this play is a personal “coming-out.” That may be a difficult concept for some American Jews to understand, but England is not America. Leopoldstadt is not so much a narrative-drama as a painful, public process of late remembering. It often feels like watching a man performing an autopsy on himself. It is a play about what it means to be English, what it means to be Jewish, and what it means to bury the latter identity in the hope of outrunning the next European genocide. For those of us who are the offspring of similar twists of family fate, Anglo-washed by the surnames of Gentile fathers or stepfathers, these habits of suppression, easy as breathing, are resonantly familiar—seeing them staged is a punch to the gut.

A Liberal in Trump Land

Jim Shultz

The Pine Street Bridge over locks on the Erie Canal, Lockport, New York

On the day that our granddaughter was born, I decided it would be nice to buy and save a copy of the day’s local paper, Lockport’s venerable Union-Sun & Journal, so I stopped in at Walgreens and picked up a copy. Its editorial page contained a ridiculous column by a local professor calling on Congress to hold up the national budget until funding was secured for President Trump’s Mexican border wall. Niagara County, for which Lockport is the county seat, voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 by a margin of 56 percent to 38 percent. So I spent my first evening as a grandfather angrily typing out a response column, and sent it to the paper. Shortly after my article was published, I sat down for a coffee with the editor, Joyce Miles, and that was how I stumbled into becoming a left-leaning opinion columnist in Trump Land.

Reading Sade in the Age of Epstein

Mitchell Abidor

Patrick Magee as the Marquis de Sade and Ian Richardson as Jean-Paul Marat in the 1967 film adaptation of Peter Weiss’s play, Marat/Sade, directed by Peter Brook

It is impossible not to think of Jeffrey Epstein and his accomplices when reading Sade. In The 120 Days of Sodom, the age of the girls delivered to the libertines “was fixed between twelve and fifteen and anything above or below was ruthlessly rejected.” And in Aline and Valcour, two libertines “keep a seraglio of twelve young girls… of whom the oldest is not yet fifteen, and is replaced at the rate of one a month.” If Simone de Beauvoir was right and Sade forces us to question “the true relationship between man and man,” then Epstein’s predations present us with an unalloyed vision of precisely how money and power twist those relations.

David Bomberg’s ‘Desire to Emancipate’

Jenny Uglow

David Bomberg: In the Hold, circa 1913–1914

Shocking his tutors, Bomberg was a blazing radical, influenced by Italian Futurists and by the Cubist experiments. Declining Wyndham Lewis’s invitation to join the Vorticist movement, Bomberg set off on his own. And it’s a shock even now, in the gloom of Room 1 of “Young Bomberg and the Old Masters,” to confront the sharp angles and singing colors of Bomberg’s canvases of the 1910s, and the great figures found in Sappers at Work, of 1918–1919. What are they doing here? It’s at once exciting and sad: all these early works, in different ways, have undertones of pain and passion, and it’s poignant to think that Bomberg never knew they would be on show here, in the National Gallery he loved.

The Bleak Humor of Tehran’s One and Only Standup Comic

Eric Randolph

“Ali” performing before a private audience, Iran, 2019

A couple of venues in Europe had offered Ali gigs, but he still could not get a visa. Visas were easy to obtain for the offspring of corrupt officials and Revolutionary Guard officers, not for oddball artists. He brushed it off, with the bleak resignation that I found among many artists and bohemian types in Iran. Of all segments of society, the middle classes had been perhaps the most cowed and crushed by the repression that followed the Green Movement mass protests in 2009. These days, they tended to stay out of the protests—the recent conflagrations have tended to be led by poorer, more desperate segments. The middle classes had learned that hope could be dangerous in the Islamic Republic. Better to make a friend of despair.

Swampland Sublime: The Landscapes of Louisiana

Zachary Fine

Richard Clague, Trapper’s Cabin, Manchac, 1870

The recent exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, “Inventing Acadia: Painting and Place in Louisiana,” is the first in nearly thirty years to attempt a survey of nineteenth-century Louisiana landscape painting, and the first ever to place the tradition within wider national and international currents of art. The show is somewhat cursed by the uncertainty of the land: many of the sites depicted in the paintings are today deforested, eroding, or underwater; the paintings themselves are among the few of their kind to have survived the constant humidity, as well as the floods and other disasters, that afflict the region; and even the museum itself sits in a part of the city that is still routinely inundated and was, until the second half of the nineteenth century, largely uninhabitable sludge.

Made in Lanarkshire, Scotland

Deborah Orr

The former British Steel works at Ravenscraig in Motherwell being demolished by controlled explosion, Lanarkshire, Scotland, 1996

Back in the 1970s, things had seemed optimistic: Motherwell was a place with a future. There was little doubt that better times lay ahead, that we were valued, the people of this fortunate country, and that everything would work out fine. And we lived in this great country, Scotland, the great River Clyde on our doorstep. Yet, in Motherwell, all was not well with my mother. Failure to be Scottish in Lanarkshire was a problem for my mum, just as failure to be English had been a failure for my dad in Essex. And in both places, I was a chimerical beast, an oddity.

And the Oscar Goes to… A Simplified Story of Syria’s Civil War

Robert F. Worth

Two protagonists of the documentary The Cave, Dr. Amani and Dr. Alaa, working in their hospital operating room, Ghouta, Syria

The Cave and For Sama may also strike a nerve with US audiences because they flatter a penitential strain among many American liberals: the belief that what happened in Syria is a stain on the Western conscience. “I cannot believe the world allowed this to happen,” the filmmaker Waad al-Kateab tells the camera. It is perfectly natural for Syrians, who were desperate for help from any side, to talk like this. But the way Americans heard it often amounted to a kind of narcissism, a belief that whatever was happening out there was a result of our own failure to intervene decisively. Perhaps America could have played a better role. It seems equally possible that the world—America included—was far too involved in what happened in Syria, and that foreign guns and money have only prolonged the country’s suffering.