sat 20/04/2019

theASHtray: The Island ex-President, Act(ors?) of Valor and Aung San Suu Kyi's piano | reviews, news & interviews

theASHtray: The Island ex-President, Act(ors?) of Valor and Aung San Suu Kyi's piano

theASHtray: The Island ex-President, Act(ors?) of Valor and Aung San Suu Kyi's piano

Yeah butt, no butt: our columnist sifts through the fag-ends of the cultural week

Out of office: an unfortunate reflection on Anni Nasheed's presidency

Attention! Required viewing: Jon Shenk’s Maldivian climate-change documentary, The Island President, starring one Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed in the title role.

What might be called a natural sequel - or codicil, anyway - to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, The Island President tells the story of Nasheed’s long struggle against the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his imprisonment, his exile, and his eventual jubilant ascension to the presidency in 2008 - only to discover that his country was sinking into the sea.

To lose one island may be considered a misfortune; to lose 2,000… So it’s the run-up to the Copenhagen eco-summit of 2009, and here’s a man with an incomparably high stake in the climate-change game. When Nasheed leaves the bed unmade in the morning it isn’t because he doesn’t know the cameras are on him, or because he thinks a maid will clean it up: it’s because he’s against the clock. This is politics of the most extreme kind, and our latter-day Knut wades into the Indian Ocean, in his suit, for an interview, organises the world’s first underwater Cabinet meeting, vows to make the Maldives carbon neutral, and quite literally begs the developing world’s titans – China, Brazil, India – to help reduce the carbon emissions that are steadily raising the level of the sea. “What are your options if the conference doesn’t achieve these objectives?” he is asked. “None. We will all die.”

What’s more, he does all this with a smile on his face. It is rare to find yourself warming to a politician in a documentary; but Nasheed’s irrepressible good nature, his humility and unembarrassed sincerity make one feel that here, at last, is the sort of leader that the developing world so desperately needs. The film is poignant, touching and effective (Radiohead soundtrack as standard), and if nothing else will surely play a key role in seeing Nasheed nominated for a Nobel Prize.

That, though, will have to be scant consolation to the president who just over six weeks ago was ousted by a military-backed coup.

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Start the Week last Monday was a gem, featuring a conclave of genre-benders discussing the fringes of human experience and our portrayals of it. Paul Farley, poet-author of Edgelands: Journeys in England’s True Wilderness; Geoff Dyer, author of – ahem – a recent multiply-tangential study of Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (“like asking Tristram Shandy to review a film”, quipped host Anne McElvoy, and I wished I’d thought of that!); Liz Mermin, a documentary film-maker, at the CERN laboratories; and the deeply complicated Werner Herzog, who likes to film extreme things in extreme ways, and never more than if he can throw in some albino mutant crocodiles. There was no particular remit for the session, no squabbling over the mic, and the result constituted a little artistic Hadron Collider all of its very own. I won’t bang on about it, except to say that this is cultural journalism at its absolute best, a trump in any debate about licence fees, and it’s only a shame the programme lasted a mere 45 minutes. You can, however, listen to it here until 1 January, 2099. Sweet!

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Directed and produced by Scott Waugh and Mouse (no kidding) McCoy, and featuring “active dooty Navy Seals” (instead of actors, NB), Act of Valor is ropey in all the ways you would expect. The script reads like a sequence of prompts from a bad computer game, the soundtrack is a pre-A-level pastiche of a John McCain campaign ad, and our heroes talk like orang-utans and quite naturally write everything in caps. When the Seals aren’t a-shooting, there’s abundant ersatz philosophy – to demonstrate their cuddly centredness – and an abysmally mawkish voiceover that wouldn’t cut the mustard in a CCF recruitment video.

And yet Act of Valor is not actually all that bad. The production values are high, the action scenes righteously explosive, and if the producers had been able to resist the too-easy marketing strategy of telling us their leads weren’t really actors (a shameless strategy which has of course netted them 33,000 Likes on Facebook) you’d just have figured it was a regular shoot-'em-up blockbuster. To wit: the good 20 minutes of middle-of-the-low-road trailers attached, every one a sci-fi, guns-'n'-ammo romp, and most if not all of them starring award-winning “professionals”.

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A heart-warming, if slightly irrelevant, piece in (where else?) The Independent yesterday, about the men who used to tune Aung San Suu Kyi’s piano. Of course, the piece was really about how The Lady and her supporters in the street had held up against the tyranny of the Burmese generals for the last however many years thanks to the power of music, in particular Clementi, Mozart, and – odd one this – Telemann. Journalistic types like to make big deals out of these “human interest” stories – “universal language” rhubarb, “symbol of inner freedom” waffle – and it’s all pissing in the wind, rather, the notion of overthrowing a military junta one Kleine Nachtmusik at a time (bring me the Foreign Affairs piece on how Suu Kyi broadcast coded opposition memos in her vamping, and we’ll talk). All the same, tinkling out parlour music into the hot tropical night: isn’t that a lovely, law-abiding way of saying “fuck you” to a corrupt regime?

Watch the trailer for The Island President


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