Archives for category: War


A trilogy of masterpieces.

I have previously shared my thoughts on Patricio Guzmán’s first two documentary films in the series—Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button. The final one, The Cordillera of Dreams, has now arrived in NYC movie theaters.

Guzmán was present for the screening of The Pearl Button I attended in London back in 2016. He mentioned then that his next film, the third in the series, would focus on the Andes (Cordillera de los Andes), the mountains that rise above and delineate the inland border of his beloved Chile.

Guzmán left Chile in 1973, following the coup that marked the beginning of Pinochet’s dictatorship. The Cordillera of Dreams, similar to the others in the trilogy, is a philosophical reflection and meditation on the director’s estranged homeland (he has not lived there since his 1973 departure) through the lens of both landscape and history. We do not see Guzmán throughout the documentary but his presence is keenly felt through the self-narration. The cinematography—predictably sublime—moves between the majestic mountain peaks and valleys of the Cordillera and the tragic footage of the violent struggle experienced by protestors during the Pinochet regime. The mountains appear as both protector of the country that they overshadow and powerless witness of the atrocities experienced by the nation’s people.

The Cordillera of Dreams is infused with metaphor and anthropomorphisms. Guzmán states:

“Santiago receives me with indifference.”

I left my homeland by choice rather than necessity, yet I think I understand what Guzmán means. The Ireland that I grew up in is almost recognizable compared to the one I witness today from afar. When I do return to my homeland, I am no longer part of its fabric, my presence in a sense immaterial and superfluous.

Guzmán interviews writers and artists who remained in Chile throughout its turbulent times. I am in awe, not only of their courage in staying put, but also of the depth of the connection they maintain with their homeland. Although he left Chile so many years ago, The Cordillera of Dreams is indeed testament to the fact that Guzmán himself has also never truly strayed far from his beloved country.



This film will haunt me forever.

Although I had a pretty clear idea what the content contained before the screening, I was totally unprepared for the reality of its images.

Night Will Fall is a documentary that traces the story of film footage that soldiers/cameramen of the Allied Forces created when they arrived to liberate German concentration camps – including Breslau, Dachau, Aushwitz – in April 1945. A full length film was planned, produced by Sydney Bernstein and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but for political reasons in the sensitive and charged political post war atmosphere, and with the Cold War already threatening, its release was vetoed. The Imperial War Museum has now completed and restored the original film, called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, which will be screened at The London Film Festival this October.

Night Will Fall contextualises the original footage and also includes interviews with those who were involved in its creation – soldiers who saw first hand the horror of the camps – as well as with those who survived the camps. The film also includes images from German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. I see them these images again now as I write, almost unbelievable in terms of the scale of the horror and human devastation that they reveal. But undeniably believable too, as authentic archives of the reality that they depict, speaking of a truth that remains so difficult to countenance.

The archival footage shows vast numbers – thousands upon thousands – of dead bodies, cast aside and decaying in mounds amongst the living when the Allies arrived. We see bodies thrown like slaughtered animal carcasses (by SS officers who were still in the camps at the time of liberation) into mass graves. The sheer quantity of human loss and suffering defies words.

Bernstein’s aim was to create something that made the fact of what happened in those camps undeniable. To this end, he also filmed local German dignitaries visiting the camps post liberation, forcing them to witness the mass burials, to see what had been happening short distances from where they themselves had lived throughout the war. For some it was all too much, and they had to be carried away as they fainted, faced with a horror they had either been totally unaware of, or had chosen to ignore.

If we learn nothing from such human devastation, the prophecy of the film’s title – night will fall – will be realised. And have we learned? I am not sure.

I wondered afterwards why I endured a screening of such relentless horror (I wanted to turn away from many of the images). I am glad that I experienced Night Will Fall. As I watched so many of the concentration camp dead being thrown without dignity or compassion into mass graves, creating layer upon layer of death and annihilation, it felt like it mattered, at the very least, to witness and to acknowledge the suffering of the unknown and the now long dead, but who remain today, fellow human beings.



I heard the leading Israeli writer David Grossman interviewed on Radio 4 Front Row recently [], ahead of his appearance at the Jewish Book Week last week.

Grossman’s son was killed while in the Israeli defence forces in 2006. In 2012 he published his response to the tragedy, Falling out of Time, which has now been translated into English.

Falling out of Time appears to defy genre classification, and has been variously described as prose/theatre/poetry/radio play, as well as an oratorio without music. It tells the story of bereaved parents as they set out to reach their lost children.

Grossman believes that the book wrote itself. Within that process, he felt as if he had no control over what he wrote.

When asked about the uncompleted sentences within the text, Grossman responds that the book arose from a world where rules had been lost. In the face of tragedy, language itself fails. Falling out of Time was an attempt to find words for the unspeakable. For Grossman, writing this novel was his way of making the effort, and of refusing to avoid the tragedy that had engulfed him and his family.

‘I can’t understand anything unless I write it.’ While the undertaking of writing the book was not in itself therapeutic, and nor did it help him understand the death and loss of his son, Grossman did see it as a way of returning, the processes of writing, imagining, fantasising, all contributing to a ‘being in this life’.

For Grossman too, the book is about more than his personal tragedy, and extends beyond the loss of a loved one. In that sense, Falling out of Time speaks to the universal and existential experience of the mystery of life and death coexisting.


This is the title of a documentary film that I saw today, the final day of the UK Jewish Film Festival, at the Tricycle cinema.

What a cinematic gem it is, a profoundly moving and authentic piece of art, which is so affirmative, and reassuring, of the goodness that humans are indeed capable of. And more importantly, a goodness and a genuine caring of the other, which transcends that most divisive of forces, religion.

The film tells the story of Albanian Muslims who protected Jews from the Nazis in WWII. Unlike almost all other countries, Albania welcomed Jews during the Holocaust, and we hear the stories of some of the very many Muslim families who sheltered the refugees, despite the inherent dangers to themselves, as well as the those of the Jewish people and their descendants who, as a result of the humanity they received, managed to survive the war.

Albania was the only country where the number of Jews increased from pre-war, approximately 200, to post-war, approximately 2000. It remains a relatively poor country.

Albanians see themselves as just that – not as Muslims or Orthodox or Christians – but as the people of Albania, and all of whom share and enact Besa, an honour code that offers assistance to all those who knock on their doors looking for help.

Besa: The Promise is a gripping and humbling story, which concerns a nation that lost so much during WWII and even more so in the subsequent communist years, but which nonetheless holds steadfastly to the notion of kindness and and generosity towards those in need, irrespective of religion and creed.


A first experience for me, this festival, seemingly the largest european film festival, is on at various venues in London until November 17.

Thus far I have seen two great films.

Firstly, The Lady in Number 6, which introduces us to Alice Herz Sommer, who, at almost 110, is the world’s oldest pianist and holocaust survivor. She is truly inspirational. Charismatic and engaging, her optimism and enjoyment of life is uplifting. She is grateful for her life, all of it, the good and the bad, and for every day that she continues to experience. At 109, she enjoys life and people hugely, and continues to devote time and self to her greatest passion, playing the piano:

‘Music saved my life and music saves me still.’

As one of the co-producers Chris Branch stated when he introduced The Lady in Number 6, this is not a film about the holocaust, but about one remarkable person.

Secondly, Orchestra of Exiles, which was preceded by 15 minutes of wonderful live music (violin, including the very moving title track to Schindler’s List). Again, this film was much more about the good achieved by one person rather than a documentary about the holocaust. The Polish violinist Bronislow Hubermann rescued many of the world’s greatest musicians from Nazi Germany and eastern europe in the mid 1930s, facilitating their exit to Palestine, which led to the creation of the now world-famous Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Two things struck me while watching both films: the extraordinary goodness and kindness that exists in humanity and which can sometimes be easy to forget, and the power of music to enrich and to transform both the lives of individuals and of nations.


This documentary film, directed by Dirk Simon, focuses on the Tibetan movement to free Tibet.

Seven years in the making, it is an ambitious piece of work, and one that doesn’t quite deliver. The most interesting sections are those involving interviews with the Dalai Lama. His calm, pragmatic and charismatic approach to a non-violent way of living is truly impressive. This approach, which is mirrored in his followers, has, however, failed to provide a solution to the Tibetan problem, and Tibetans, both those who remain in their native land and those in exile, appear torn between their loyalty to the Dalai Lama and their frustration at the lack of any resolution of the political situation.

There are numerous comments from Tibetan activists, as well as Chinese people who seem to be equally entrenched (and totally lacking in any insight or empathy).

I was particularly struck by the non-involvement of the US (and everywhere else) when China invaded Tibet in the late 1940s. The film claims that at the time the US was trying to woo China away from Russia, and therefore did not want to jeopardise the relationship by involving itself in the Tibetan situation.

There is much passion, and distress, to be witnessed in this film. Overall, however, despite its earnestness and its well meaning premise, it felt like an overlong meandering through Tibet’s history post invasion. In terms of the movement to free Tibet, I was left with the depressing sense of a ‘political’ activism that does not seem to be going anywhere.


I have set myself the challenge of reading all the books on the IMPAC (International Dublin Literary Award) short list – 10 in total – before the winner is announced in early June.

I am currently on number three, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane. Thus far, I have really enjoyed the idiosyncratic and diverse mix.

For now, I want to focus on my first read, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.

Otsuka’s novel tells the story of Japanese mail-order brides who embarked on a journey into the unknown hinterland of America during the interwar period, and into the arms of men that they had never met, and how their lives unfolded thereafter in an adopted homeland.

A large part of the magic of this book lies in its style, which is inextricably bound to the poignancy and tragedy of the narrative that it delivers.

The style is unusual and unique. The Buddha in the Attic is not about one woman, or any named women in particular, but about many. It is a composite narrative where individual stories and happenings merge to reveal, perhaps surprisingly, something in the plural that feels even more powerful than anything an individual voice might provide.

We first meet the anonymous group on the boat that is transporting them from the Japan they grew up in to a land they can only imagine. As they prepare for their new lives, they discuss amongst themselves how they should behave in their new homeland:

‘A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exist.’

They are excited and hopeful, and also clearly desperate to leave Japan for a better life:

‘I took one look at his photograph and told the matchmaker, “He’ll do.”‘

On arrival, hope for this better life is quickly shattered. The husbands, strangers who greet them, are not what they expected:

‘They were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out of doors…’

The men are desperate too, and quickly claim their mail-order brides:

‘They took us swiftly, repeatedly, and all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.’

Thus ‘owned’, the identity of these transported women becomes subsumed in their roles as wives, workers, and mothers, their own selves disappearing in an unwelcoming world:

‘Say “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir,” and do as you’re told. Better yet, say nothing at all. You now belong to the invisible world.’

Not all managed to overcome the disappointment and disillusionment that greeted them on arrival in America:

‘One of us filled the sleeves of her white silk kimono with stones and wandered out into the sea, and we still say a prayer for her every day.’

There were few alternatives. Returning to Japan was not an option:

‘If you come home, our fathers had written to us, you will disgrace the entire family.’

We follow the cycles of their lives. Babies arrive, rarely joyously:

‘We gave birth six weeks after our husband had left us to a child we now wish we had never given away.’

Despite all this, hope continued for some until the very end, ‘Still, they dreamed’, even though they knew for certain, particularly post Pearl Harbour, that their presence in this unwelcoming land was finite:

‘And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone.’

As they gradually disappear, so too does the voice of the first person plural, shifting from ‘we’ to ‘they’:

‘The Japanese have disappeared from our town.’

It feels as if the ‘invisible world’ that they inhabited has finally engulfed them, and no trace of their ever being, and mattering, remains:

‘All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.’


This film (2011) tells the story of the impact of the recovery of three boxes of photographs, the ‘Mexican Suitcase’ of the title, that had been lost during WWII and only reappeared in 2007.

The boxes contained negatives of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), as taken by the war photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David “Chim” Seymour.

The negatives are fascinating, and essential, because of the amazing story of war that they reveal, at the frontline and with the immediacy and urgency and authenticity that photographers who were actually there at the moment of action could witness and share. Thus, the images allow us, today, to gain an unique insight into war, with all its attendant brutality and destruction and tragedy.

I had not realised that the Spanish Civil War is one of the most unspoken events in the nation’s history. It is shrouded in silence, or has been until relatively recently, and few who lived through it have chosen to speak publicly. This culture is changing, as younger generations begin to question and to demand answers on their national inheritance – one commented that the Spanish Civil War, of which he personally played no part being born many years later, was the single greatest influence on his life and upbringing.

Photographs play a unique role in both our personal and national archives. They serve to corroborate the truth of the existence of place, and of people. For many of those who died during the Spanish Civil War – over half a million people in total – no bodies have been found, and relatives, reminiscent of Pinochet’s legacy as depicted in Nostalgia for the Light, continue to search for their remains. In the meantime, the only tangible legacy they have are photographs, and the contents of the ‘Mexican Suitcase’ significantly contributes to the reality of their remembering.

All three photographers, Capa, Taro and Seymour, died during combat. Taro was killed during the Spanish Civil War, and the other two later, in the 1950s. It is now extraordinary to see the extent to which all three were involved in frontline action, willingly risking their lives for representations of the reality of war.

And thus, long after the event, we can witness, as we should, the horror of it all.