It’s Only the End of the World: Armageddon, Apocalypse and the 46th Rotterdam Film Festival
“You mean… ‘Armageddon’ has already been?”
“Oh yes,” replied Bugenhagen. “As it will be many times again.”
David Seltzer, The Omen
If Donald J Trump does indeed prove to be the Antichrist—an outcome which, on current evidence, no sensible bookmaker should give more than 20/1 odds against—overjoyed satanists worldwide will rush to proclaim AD 2017 as “The Year One,” like the exultant Roman Castevet at the end of Rosemary’s Baby. This unholy speculation sprang to mind when the climax of Polanski’s 1968 classic popped up during one of the first things I saw at the 46th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR): P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ Mansfield 66/67 is a camp-as-Christmas little documentary about ill-fated Hollywood sex-bomb Jayne Mansfield, and specifically her bizarre entanglement with pre-Manson California’s #1 publicity-seeking devil-worshipper Anton LaVey.
LaVey’s carnivalesque diabolism, which attracted countless column inches back in those relatively innocent days, was of the larkishly unmenacing variety. Fifty years later, Trump’s shock success would prompt a cover of Time magazine seriously picturing the then President-elect—whose father’s middle name was, of all things, Christ—like something out of Omen III: The Final Conflict, including outsize devil-horns formed by the twin red peaks of TIME’s majuscule M. Now this particular dude is Commander-in-Chief of armed forces some 2,112,300 strong—sustained by a budget dwarfing that of the next seven nations combined—and is never far from an aide toting the dreaded “nuclear football.”
IFFR XLVI ran from 25 January to 6 February, days 6 to 17 of the Trump Administration: a period during which his Executive Order 13769, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”—a.k.a. “The Muslim Ban”—sparked shock-waves, dismay, outrage and resistance at home and much further afield. Each new development in the unfolding political soap-opera (‘When Real Life Is A Reality Show, You Can’t Change The Channel’) was followed with keen, horrified attention by many of the festival’s international attendees—temporarily resident in a bustling city formed, like all ports, by waves of immigration,and where Muslims comprise ⅛ of the population. The recent sudden spike of hard-edged nationalism—many diagnose it as proto-fascism—in the United States, Russia, Turkey, India and several corners of the EU, will also have been observed with particular concern by the citizens of a town whose medieval centre was almost entirely obliterated by a Luftwaffe bombing-raid on 14 May 1940.
Late January 2017 was thus the moment at which people found themselves forced to deal with the reality of a world dominated by a United States itself dominated by a dangerous ideologue; a planet wobbling headlong towards the abyss, engulfed in a shit-storm of virulent populism. Trump’s USA, Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, Erdoğan’s Turkey, Duterte’s Philippines, Abe’s Japan, Temer’s Brazil… that makes more than two billion people now living in “democracies” that have, in the nine years since 2008’s economic downturn, wasted no time in pursuing or hardening nationalistic, reactionary and frequently repressive policies. It was, in modern, American-English parlance, a time of millions waking up and smelling the coffee—or, as the ancient Greeks would call it, an apocalypse. Though it’s nowadays synonymous with the end of the world, apocalypse (apokálypsis) literally means an uncovering, a revelation, the process by which everyone sees things as they really are. It’s what Jack Kerouac was on about when he suggested that William Burroughs should call his novel The Naked Lunch (“NAKED lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”)
On a personal level, the equivalent is anagnorisis, defined by Aristotle in the 4th century BC as “a change from ignorance to knowledge.” It deals specifically in terms of individuals coming to a sudden realisation about their own true nature, or those of others, or—ideally—both. The penny drops, often with a horrible clang, yielding soul-shaking and/or fatal consequences. Anagnorisis, properly executed, has for centuries been a powerful weapon for the dramatist and storyteller—whatever their chosen medium. The outstanding film of IFFR 2017—in all probability, of 2017 full stop, given its triton-among-minnows prominence in Rotterdam—features a particularly stunning example, among myriad other achievements. The revelation arrives in the penultimate scene of Brazilian writer-directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Araby (Arábia), a 96-minute marvel which lightly fictionalises a decade in the hard-working life of its non-pro star, Aristides da Sousa.
The directors asked da Sousa to pen a memoir of his many jobs, his spell in jail, his ill-starred romances, his joys and despairs, and then filmed the results with da Sousa playing himself under the nom d’ecran Cristiano. What begins as a halting, scattershot tale of happy-go-lucky labouring steadily morphs into a moving paean to workers and an implicit indictment of their systemic exploitation, culminating in the scales falling from Cristiano’s eyes as—mid-shift one day at his factory in the southern province of Minas Gerais—the reality of his situation suddenly leaps into sharp focus. With brute inequality and naked injustice so ubiquitous and so sickeningly rampant—and with Brazil’s poor suffering the aftermath of the 2016 coup-in-all-but-name which swept the elected centre-left president Dilma Rousseff from office, replacing her with the Temer’s rightist gang—Araby could scarcely arrive at a more crucial, timely juncture.
An accessible compendium of songs, stories, anecdotes, jokes and poems, this debut collaboration from Uchoa and Dumans surprisingly found no favour with the Tiger competition jury, who—evidently eager to award the self-consciously “edgy”—gave their top prize to Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga. The latter is a claustrophobically nightmarish, gonzo-punk evocation of rural Kerala which could (charitably) be interpreted as a desperate dispatch from deep inside the dark heart of Narendra Modi’s increasingly intolerant and divided India. The jury’s predilection for envelope-pushing saw the runner-up prize go to California-born, Chile-based Niles Atallah’s King (Rey), which takes a Jodorowskian-hallucinogenic approach to an Aguirre-ish episode in the largely forgotten history of Patagonia.
Style-wise, Araby—its title a hat-tip to James Joyce’s Dubliners short story—is undeniably “conventional” in comparison to Kumar Sasidharan’s punishingly assaultive ordeal-by-cinema and Atallah’s madcap mish-mash of modes and formats. But its achievement, while quieter, is ultimately deeper, more mature and more resonant: this film pungently exudes a rare, humanistic faith in the dignity of working people, and after an unpromising start (the first 20 minutes are a slow-burning prologue, explaining how Cristiano’s diary came to the attention of a young neighbour) steadily takes on the contours of a modern masterpiece.
Among feature-length films of the current century, I have no hesitation in ranking Araby alongside Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), James Benning’s casting a glance (2007) and Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs (2013) in the very top echelon of the medium’s finest achievements. High praise indeed, but—as the POTUS might tweet from the lonely Oval Office at 4am—you have to trust your gut. History will be our judge, presuming there’s anybody left to write it. Meantime, enjoy your apocalypse.