Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Are Muslims Taking The Mickey?

I had to comment on today's story regarding the Muslim Minnie/Mickey Mouse image that is doing the rounds on the internet and which has got many Muslims a bit hot under the hijab.

Naguib Sawiris, a prominent secular Egyptian tycoon and politician, retweeted a picture which was already widely circulated on the internet, of Minnie Mouse in a veil and Mickey sporting a beard. It promptly incurred the wrath of his country's Islamic community with 15 Salafi lawyers filing lawsuits for blasphemy and the mobilisation of a Facebook petition to boycott his businesses which has reached 60000 followers.

Understandably jittery about shares in his telecommunications companies Orasom and Mobilnil taking a pounding he was forced to grovel.

"I apologize for those who don't take this as a joke; I just thought it was a funny picture; no disrespect meant. I am sorry,"

Frankly, I have some sympathy with Mr Sawiris.

Have all Muslims had a sense of humour bypass? All the other religions seem to accept a bit of mickey-taking (excuse the pun) in the spirit it is intended but Muslims seem to consider themselves apart from the rest of mankind. Christians are routinely ridiculed (The Life of Brian sends up Christianity in its entirety), Jews (America is full of Jewish comedians you make a habit of taking the piss out of themselves) or Buddhists (Airplane! depicts them as bumbling loonies) seem to have no problem in self deprecating humour. They have all had fun poked at them without there being mass riots and threats of reprisals.

Trying to find the offending picture on the internet is harder then it seems. Is everyone worried they might get an unwanted ticking package in their morning mail?

This isn't the first time that the Muslim community has overeacted to harmless cartoons. Take Danish catoonist Kurt Westergaard's depiction of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb on his head instead of turban. Near-the knuckle? Possibly. Inflammatory? Probably. But enough to lead to angry protests, riots and deaths? Do me a favour and get yourselves a thicker skin.

Let's get one thing straight. I don't really have time for any of the organised religions. I appreciate that for certain people it makes their life better, a psychological crutch for those who need to give their life and death a sense of purpose. Great. Whoop-de doo, I am happy for you. Unfortunately religion has caused twice the amount of suffering that it has helped alleviate. Mankind has a remarkable knack of polluting great ideas to meet his own selfish ends.

I specifically can't stand the religions that push their doctrine in your face. I personally believe that religion should be a private thing that you do in the privacy of your home or centre of worship. Much like stamp-collecting.

So I would say to Muslims you will gain a lot more respect from society in general and perhaps gain more converts if you show yourselves as open, friendly and able to laugh at yourselves and not react with over the top threats of violence anytime anyone has the temerity to challenge your values.

And for Allah's sake get a sense of humour.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Film Review - Senna

Now there are two schools of thought concerning Formula One. Some say the breakneck symbiosis between man and machine has a beauty and intensity unmatched in the sporting world. Others like my Dad say it is colossal waste of time and money and there is no skill in "just putting your foot down"

When you see in-car footage of Ayrton Senna's car tearing through Monaco's tight roads at 200mph knowing the slightest error could result in his death you can't help thinking my Dad needs to lay off the coffee.

Senna the new film from Asif Capadia about Brazil's legendary driver is a pure joy. Playing more like a blockbuster then a straight-laced documentary its story beats anything Hollywood scriptwriters could come up with. Painstakingly put together from thousands of hours of footage some of it unseen in the vaults of F1 supremo Bernie Eccleston its authenticity is its strength. I found it utterly captivating all the way through to its emotional climax.

Whilst not quite a rags to riches story (Senna was brought up in a fairly well-off family) the film charts his progress from go-karting, through to his first F1 drive with Toleman then Lotus and then his bitter rivalry with Alain Prost which elevated F1 into the global spectacle we see today.

The battle for dominance with Prost is particularly fascinating as the Frenchman is painted as the Machiavellian schemer with friends in high places. The acrimony between the two reached such a level that Prost admits the only clause he insisted on having inserted into this contract with Williams was that Senna could never be a team mate of his.

Senna joined Prost at McLaren in 1988 and it quickly became apparent that the team was too small for the both of them. Senna's recklessness and commitment was completely at odds with the pragmatic calculating Frenchmen known as "The Professor". In an interesting exchange Prost jokingly asks Senna if the title could be drawn. Senna incredulously responds

"There can only be one winner"

With both of them driven to win they relationship degenerated to such an extent that they stopped speaking to one another and they each became paranoid about the help the other was getting from McLaren's engineers. Jealousy is an ugly business.

Things come to a head at Suzuka in 1989 with Prost knowing Senna needs a win to stay in contention forces him off at the first corner. Senna gets a push start and records a miraculous victory only to have it taken away by despotic F1 president Jean-Marie Balester, a fellow Frenchman, who disqualifies Senna for missing a chicane because of the collision.

Balestre is the film's real villain. The film implies he is in cahoots with Prost to do everything in his power to scupper Senna's chances. He moves the grid positions around to favour Prost and for the most part he makes Sepp Blatter look like Kofi Annan.

I couldn't help but snort out loud when during a drivers meeting he slams his fist down and proclaims

"The best decision is my decision!"

Senna transcended his sport. He was bigger than a racing driver. He is a messianic figure in Brazil where he is still revered. At a time when Brazilians were getting over a dictatorship and dealing with large scale poverty Senna was a beacon of hope, a source of national pride who instead of hiding is heritage when on the podium he would swathe himself in the Brazilian flag.

Religion was a huge part of Senna's life and he was accused by Prost of

"Acting like his was immortal"

He always dedicated his wins to God and felt it was fate that guided him to be the world's foremost racing driver. It is ironic that in his final tragic race at Imola in 1994 it was fate that conspired against him. The cause of the crash is still shrouded in mystery but Senna was pulled from the car with no broken bones. If the suspension strut had flown off 6 inches either side he would have walked back to the pits unaided.

There is always a danger of canonising someone as a result of their death and the film just about avoids becoming a hagiography. Senna was no saint. He was pathological in his desire to be number one and he was just as capable as Prost to resort to underhand tactics. He drove Prost off the road at Suzuka 1990 and quickly ditched McLaren when he realised their performance had been overtaken by Williams. It doesn't fit the films narrative to paint Senna as the bad guy so his "quirks" are glossed over.

Yet, despite his flaws you cannot help but warm to the man's passion as he rallied against the politics and corrupting influences of F1.

A genuinely heart-pumping, fascinating and moving film that you don't need to be a fan of F1 to enjoy. Given his premature death I was left questioning the wisdom in the maxim of whether it is better to burn out than fade away.

9 out of 10

Friday, 17 June 2011

Mexican Gladiators

If Jeremy Clarkson were to be believed Mexico is the sun-parched land of dusty streets were moustachioed layabouts in oversized ponchos are busy shoeing off flies in the shade of run down cantinas.

Having been there a couple of times I know it is beautiful place, nothing like the stereotypes, full of warm people nourished by thousands of years of history and culture.

Sadly, all Mexico positives are being overshadowed by a terrible plague of robberies, killings and rapes sweeping through the country. The grim tide is perpetrated by drug cartels that in recent years have ratcheted the violence up to unprecedented levels and transformed much of Mexico into lawless no-go areas.

Over the last few years vicious battles for territory on the US/Mexico border regions of Chihuahua and Baja California have spread inland and infected Sinaloa, Durango and have far south as Acapulco. Once a thriving international tourist destination Acapulco has suffered the indignity of shoot-outs taking place in broad daylight on its main beaches. This year 15 headless bodies were found dumped in front of one the towns popular shopping malls. This isn't the kind of getting "off their head" that most tourists have in mind and they have understandable left in droves.

The escalation of violence is mainly caused by a turf war between the La Familia, Sinaloa and Las Zetas cartels vying over important trade and sale routes. Combine this with President Felipe Calderon's decision to deploy military troops throughout the country to fight the cartels and the resulting carnage has led to a downhill spiral of death affecting local politicians, soldiers, gangsters and civilians alike.

This power struggle has led gangsters to devise increasingly extreme means to exert their dominance and intimidate their rivals. Beheadings, hangings and quartering bodies are common place.

When you thought the violence can't get any worse the inhumanity has taken a sick twist. This week The Houston Chronicle managed to secure an interview with a gangland member with connections to the Las Zetas cartel who revealed that fellow gangsters have taken to kidnapping bus passengers and forced them to into bizarre gladiatorial fights to the death for their own amusement.

Winners are said to be offered a chance to become members in what he calls

"Who is going to be the next hit man?"

Those who survive are taken captive and eventually given suicide missions such as riding into enemy turf and challenging its rivals at gunpoint.

His account is corroborated by the grisly discovery in April near San Fernando, Tamaulipas on the aptly named "Road of Death" where 200 bodies were uncovered in mass graves. Most are thought to have been dragged off buses travelling in the area. Sixteen police officers were arrested for allegedly covering up the slayings at the behest of Las Zetas. Bus companies have stopped all travel near Matamoros and eye witness accounts have detailed how blacked out SUV's have hijacked whole buses stripped its passengers naked, raped the woman and took the rest away.

Not a conventional means of attracting new members, Las Zetas also operate a more conventional means of recruiting going so far as hoisting vacancy banners over busy intersections in broad daylight. They act with such impunity it is obvious that they have a wide cross section of the police and local government in their pocket. The Department of Homeland security admit that it’s not just Mexican officials that have been bribed to look the other way.

The Las Zetas affiliate says that drug smuggling is no secret

"We don't hide it. The trick is to send someone in advance to bribe a commander so a drug load won't be bothered. "

Tales of openly off-loading tractor-trailer rigs of cocaine in parking lots are rife.

"These are not lies. Everybody in Mexico knows it."

With a healthy demand across the border in the US, an administration riddled with corruption an large percentage of its population living in poverty the huge incomes generated by the drug trade are going to continue to be an attractive proposition to many. Everyday people are paying a high price for such a dangerous combination of socio-economic factors.

It truly is heartbreaking to see such a beautiful country sink into the mire in this way.

For more information I recommend the highly informative

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Can Films Make You Evil?

This week the BBCF (British Board of Film Classification) ruled, in its infinite wisdom, not to give an age rating to Dutch director Tom Six's latest exercise in bad taste, Human Centipede 2. It is only the fourth film never to have been granted a nationwide release. It was so "rotten" the BBFC said that

"No amount of cuts would allow them to give it a certificate".

It is unlikely that Disney will be banging down the director's door to option the film as it tells the tale of deranged sexual predator who creates a twelve person human centipede by kidnapping his victims and sewing them mouth to anus. He gets his kicks when the centipede defecates and its faeces are forced into the mouth of the victim behind them. If that wasn't bad enough he rapes the woman at the rear of the centipede with barbed wire wrapped around his penis. It stars Dame Judy Dench as "Centipede Segment 3" Patrick Stewart as "The Doctor" and Adam Sandler as "Martin the Rapist". Probably.

In an e-mail to Empire magazine Six argued that adults should be given freedom of choice and that the ban was draconian and tantamount to censorship.

"Apparently I made a horrific horror film, but shouldn't a good horror film be horrific? It is all fictional. Not real. It is all make-believe. It is art. If people can't handle or don't like my movies they just don't watch them."

The BBFC argued that the film could inflict psychological harm on viewers and could potentially be in breach of the Obscene Publications Act, nanny state legislation put in place after the "video nasty" controversy in the 80's where moral guardians such as Mary Whitehouse believed that watching The Evil Dead would turn you into a brain eating zombie within half an hour.

The ban left me wondering whether a simple film, a fictional product performed by actors, has the power to subvert the minds of adults to such a dangerous degree that they would be mentally scarred or lead to them commit criminal acts?

There is some evidence of art influencing life.

Quentin Tarantino's Natural Born Killers has been linked to a number of " copycat" murders most notably those committed by the couple Sarah Edmonson and Benjamin Darrus who shot two victims after taking LSD and watching the film several times.

Deranged puppet horror Child's Play has been cited in the case of Martin Bryant, Australia's worst ever serial killer who murdered 35 people who is said was obsessed by the film and influenced by Chucky' murderous rampages. It has also mentioned to be influential in the sadistic murder of two year old Jamie Bulger by pre-teen killers Robert Thompson and Jon Venables although this seems to be more of a hysterical media join-the-dots exercise by the UK press.

Scorcese's Taxi Driver blurred the boundaries between fantasy and reality for mentally imbalanced John Hinckley Jr. After becoming obsessed with movie and assuming Robert DeNiro was talking to him directly, in 1981 he attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in an effort to impress Jodie Foster. Ahh...what Foster wouldn't do for delusional murdering stalker these days to get her career out of the toilet.

Director of Child's Play Tom Holland has argued that horror movies can only influence violent or anti-social behaviour if the viewers are

"unbalanced to begin with".

It would be a reckless libertarian fool who would argue against protecting impressionable children from extreme images of sex and violence so as not to screw up their developement but adults surely are balanced enough to realise the difference between fantasy and reality?

I say release the film, give it an 18 certificate and deny it the oxygen of publicity. Those who seek to copy what they have seen in movies are obviously mentally ill and are just as likely to start murderous ramapages by listening to the voice in their heads as they are by copying extreme films, no matter how crass.

Now, does anyone know where I can buy a good sewing kit?