Ken Loach, rebel with a cause

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Loach in 1990

Ken Loach, a rebel, is my kind of man. Here in Europe, the British film director is an icon. Deeply political and socialist-minded, Loach has twice won the Palme d’Or, the highest honor, at the Cannes film festival. He has also won a multitude of other cinematic awards. The French love him, probably because there is no French equivalent. 

Few filmmakers bring to life social issues as vividly as Ken Loach. In June of this year, he was at Cannes promoting his latest film I, Daniel Blake, a social-realist drama about a disabled carpenter struggling with the red tape of the welfare benefits system. 

I, Daniel Blake review: Ken Loach’s welfare state polemic is blunt, dignified and brutally moving

“There are shades of Dickens and Orwell in this emphatic real-life drama.”

The film, titled in French, Moi, Daniel Blake, came out last Wednesday in France.

Loach’s film positions itself in the middle of the eating-or-heating dilemma: the story of a fictional benefits claimant called Daniel Blake, a skilled laborer and carpenter who can’t work following a heart attack.

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Loach today

“If you’re not angry,” Loach says, “what kind of person are you?”

In many ways, I, Daniel Blake can be seen as a companion piece to Cathy Come Home, Loach’s seminal 1966 film about a young family’s descent into homelessness, which resulted in a parliamentary debate and raised public awareness of homelessness. But while Cathy led to real social change, Loach predicts people will not be outraged by Daniel: they will accept it as normal that a once-working man should be cheated out of benefits by the state, or that a young single mother should move from London to Newcastle (in north-east England) to find herself a scrap of a home.

A marvellous humanity shines through the film when Daniel befriends the young single mother and her two kids. They form a front against the callous, punitive agents of the Jobs and Benefits Offices.

Classic Loach territory is exploitation, the indignity of unemployment, and the resilience and humor of working-class people. This subject matter should also resonate in the USA…and in all countries for that matter.

I myself have been on the dole more than once in France (dole that my salary contributed to when I was working.) Luckily, unemployment benefits are generous here and last for a longer time: two years. Three years if you’re over 50.

Here’s a clip from this “luminous” film:

the Breizh crêperie in the Marais

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The plan was to attend the Vintage Salon in the heart of the Marais this Sunday afternoon, but we never got there because we were detained at the crêperie. We had to line up for half an hour to get into the Breizh Café. I hate queuing, so while Monique held our place and chatted with a quartet of Trump supporters from Queens, I walked up the road and snapped a few shots.

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We finally got a table and the atmosphere was jolly. We both ordered a ham, cheese, egg and artichoke buckwheat crêpe. I had a small bowl of cider, Monique a small green salad.

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There are two kinds of crêpe – sweet and savory.  The savory ones, called galettes, are made from buckwheat flour called sarrasin. At the Breizh Café (the name Breizh, incidentally, means Brittany in Breton, the indigenous Celtic language), the secret of its success is the authenticity of their products. All products, including the butter, are transported from the French region of Brittany, the home of galettes and crepes, cider, sea-salt caramels and a dozen other delights.

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Monique’s dessert crêpe was pear and chocolate, mine was caramelized apple drizzled with salted caramel.  The both were topped with a spoonful of vanilla ice cream and a spoonful of whipped cream. This place isn’t cheap, although there are simpler, less expensive options on the menu. My dessert crêpe cost 10 euros 50, as did the savory crêpe. Clearly, the Breizh café is a once or twice-a-year event, at least for my pocketbook it is.  But you should go at least once because the service is good, the food and cider exemplary and the ambiance fun.

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Leaving the restaurant, we went to the shop next door where you can buy the products trucked in from Brittany – gorgeous butter, cider, cheese, jams, etc. They are all high quality…and expensive. 

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French rappers PNL (Peace ‘n Lové)

Their album Le Monde Chico has rocked the French music industry

Too many French suburbs are characterized by drug dealing, chronic criminality, poverty, youth gangs and unemployment. Out of one particular suburb, however, comes a phenomenon called PNL.

Despite not signing a record deal with a label, despite not doing interviews and refusing to give away information about themselves on social media, French duo PNL have topped the iTunes album charts. Their debut, Le Monde Chico, consists of 14 songs, and has rocked the French music industry. Some have hailed them the biggest music sensation in France (for 2015).

PNL – which stands for Peace and Lové – is two brothers, Tarik (29) and Nabil (27), who were born and raised in a tough housing estate in Corbeil-Essonnes, just south of Paris, an area notorious for crime. Only last month a 19-year old was shot in the head during a gang shootout there.

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French music writer Oliver Cachin says this:

“We don’t know who they are, we only have their lyrics to go on. The mystery around them has no previous equivalent in French rap.”

“Their success comes down to the atmosphere they create: a kind of melodic sadness. They deal with familiar themes – drug sales, criminality, the banlieues – but there’s something in their tone, a kind of absence, a hypnotic quality, a solitude, that’s totally different and absolutely their own. Rather than brutality, it’s a sadness that rings out.”

Growing up in the projects, Tarik and Nabil were part of an increasingly marginalized demographic. Their Algerian mother was largely absent, while their father, a Corsican pied-noir (a European who lived in Algeria under French colonial rule) is described in their songs as a gangster. Their lyrics are often peppered with Arabic. As for the rest of their biography, it’s a bit hazy although we do know that the younger brother spent time in prison for drug dealing.

Here’s a clip that received over 10 million views in under six months. Incidentally, it was filmed in the Naples suburb of Scampia (mafia-owned and dangerous.) I’m not sure why they went all the way to Naples. There are plenty of dangerous suburbs and housing projects to choose from in France (especially around Marseilles.)

In their latest album entitled “La Vie est Belle” (Life is Beautiful) we see the two artists in NamibiaAfrica. Now wealthy, they have managed to escape the grim housing projects to compose new rap songs and travel the world. As you can see, money has mellowed them. Life is now beautiful and they’ve lost their angry edge. Good for them. They succeeded in channelling their anger (creatively) to build a new life for themselves.

weekend in Lille

It’s important to have a getaway destination, a place to escape to, quickly and easily, from the congestion and pollution of a big city. And to spend time with children (and my surrogate family.)

I remember when the kids were small, I’d say to their parents “I don’t want them to grow up. I want them to stay small and innocent forever.” Here’s the eldest boy, all grown up at 15 years old, and in full rebellion. Listens to rap, talks back to his parents, thinks He Knows It All and we know nothing (reminds me of me at the same age). Sitting on his unmade bed. Oh, and permanently attached to his iPhone as if it were an extension of his arm.

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Here he was nine years ago at the age of 6. Adorable. Sitting on my knee. Knee-high to a grasshopper.

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Saturday night a bunch of his friends and cousins were over. You’ll never guess what they were doing. They were all sitting in one room, each with his or her iPhone, sending text messages and Snapchat photos to each other. “But why don’t you just talk?” we grownups said to them in stupefaction. “You know…like, a conversation??” “No, that’s boring,” was the reply.

Here’s how to empty a room full of kids fast. Put on a DVD of an old black and white film. I brought the excellent 3:10 to Yuma with me. Not the remake with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, but the original 1957 Western starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Sublimely directed by Delmer Daves. We fired up the DVD player and as soon as the film came on the kids cried – Aaaarrrrgghhhh!!…it’s black and white!!!!  And ran out of the room.

Saturday afternoon went into the Old Town of Lille with my 12-year old goddaughter. Narrow, cobblestoned streets. Great boutiques and tea salons. And the good people of Lille, called Lillois, are friendlier and more laidback than the aggressive Parisians. I might move to Lille when I retire. In fact, my ideal retirement lifestyle is this: six months in Lille, six months in Portugal (near a golf course).

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I’m teaching M. to use a 35 mm camera; she took many of these photos. We ended the afternoon in a favorite tea salon called Tous Les Jours Dimanche. We ordered hot chocolate, one with real whipped cream called chantilly, the other intense dark chocolate.

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Today I went to Lille’s Museum of Fine Arts, otherwise known as the Musée des beaux-arts.

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There’s a small porcelain collection that I like to revisit. Here’s an 18th-century cup from the north of France called “une tasse trembleuse”.

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Here’s an 18th-century hot chocolate pot (chocolatière) and cup. I wonder what 18th-century hot chocolate tasted like.

img_6760and some Delft porcelain from Holland, 1700-1750. I must visit the small town of Delft, I hear it’s charming. I really want to go back to Holland, to the Rijksmuseum again in Amsterdam (see my post) and to The Hague.img_6755

If anyone’s interested in porcelain, there’s an important collection at the Musée National de Céramique de Sèvres in western Paris.

Calais refugee camp

This weekend I’m going to Lille in the north of France. Lille is a one-hour drive from Calais, home to the largest makeshift, outdoor migrant-refugee camp in Europe, better known as “the jungle”. Charities estimate there are about 1,200 unaccompanied children living in appalling conditions in the Calais camp, exposed to abuse, exploitation and road accidents while awaiting their uncertain fate.

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Looking at these photos, one might think they were taken in Soweto or some bombed-out village in Syria. Or even hurricane-decimated Haiti. But, guess what, folks? This is FRANCE, country of Human Rights, the land of liberté-égalité-fraternité.

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Mud, misery, squalor, disease and rats. The mayor of the French port city of Calais is urging the government to completely dismantle the notorious camp as soon as possible. 

Migrants living in the notorious Calais camp dubbed the ‘Jungle’ will be dispersed among reception centers all over France “within weeks,” French President Francois Hollande said last week as he reiterated his pledge to close the facility. “There should be no [migrant] camps in France,” Hollande said, adding that the conditions in the migrant shanty town near the northern French port city of Calais are “unacceptable,” especially for those fleeing war and persecution.

Juliet in Paris says – How many years have these camps existed and for how long have they been “unacceptable”? It is only now that campaigning for the 2017 French presidential election begins does Hollande suddenly make an appearance and a declaration.

The migrants currently living in Calais will be moved to reception centers built all over France, with each facility hosting between 40 and 50 people, the French president said as he visited one of the places located in the Loire Valley city of Tours on Saturday. The centers will hold the migrants for up to four months while their cases are examined, Hollande said, adding that those considered ineligible for asylum will then be deported to their countries of origin.

Another Wall.

London and Paris have struck agreements on some issues surrounding the camp, including the construction of a giant wall – nicknamed the ‘Great Wall of Calais’ – on the approach road to the city’s port. The concrete barrier is aimed at stopping migrants from entering the UK.

The construction has been slammed by human rights groups, with Amnesty International stating that it will merely force desperate people to seek more dangerous alternatives.

Despite agreeing on the construction of the wall, and the UK paying approximately £2 million (US$2.6m) toward the project, the two sides have long clashed over how much responsibility Britain should take for the Calais crisis.

This is not a wholly French problem. Britain is equally blameworthy. Read this article in The Guardian about the frustration of Lord Dubs, a former child refugee himself, brought to Britain from Czechoslovakia on one of the Kindertransport trains in 1939 to escape the Nazis –

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/sep/05/disgrace-to-europe-former-child-refugee-lord-dubs-calais-camp

a beautiful poem

WILD GEESE by Mary Oliver

 You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

 Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

 Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

If you’re wondering who the author is, Mary Oliver is an American poet who has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Born in Maple Heights, Ohio in 1935, she attended Vassar College and Ohio State University. Here are two of her quotes –

Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
 
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

 

De Niro vs Trump

At long last, as the presidential election heads into the home stretch, and on the heels of the scandalous “lewd remarks” tape, there is now a big groundswell of anti-Trump sentiment. The New York Times is eviscerating him, as is The Washington Post (what took them so long?) This man, the deeply immoral Trump, is toast. The thing is this: he should never have been there in the first place. He had no right to be standing alongside any of the presidential candidates from day one, least of all opposite Hillary Clinton after the primaries. Trump is a deviant, an anomaly, a disgrace. Enabled by the Republican Party.

Like everyone else on this planet, I’m a HUGE De Niro fan. I’ve got most of his films in my DVD collection – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Deerhunter, Goodfellas, Heat, Casino, The Score…oh my goodness, the list is just too long to mention. In one word, Robert De Niro is a giant. He’s also, in his private life, a reserved, taciturn man. So when he speaks, people listen up.

In what was supposed to be a neutral video clip encouraging Americans to vote, Mr. De Niro sort of went off script. But he spoke from the heart.