One of the advantages of being back in the States is the opportunity to enjoy movies and books that were difficult to find in the developing nations of Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan and several which I enjoyed recently share a thematic concern for imperialism.
The City of Life and Death (2009), the first film by a Chinese director that addresses the Rape of Nanking in 1937 by the Japanese military, is a gritty epic shot in spectacular black and white that is at times almost too difficult to watch.
Amigo (2011), the latest by director John Sayles, explores the U.S. occupation of the Philippines initiated during the Spanish-American War, ostensibly to liberate the locals from the colonial rule of Spain and serves as a timely historical primer for the U.S. imperial wars being waged in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya. While not one of Sayles’ best (Lone Star, Eight Men Out, Matewan, and Men With Guns), his films are routinely head and shoulders above the quality of most American screenwriters and directors, in part because his characters are fully developed, have jobs and responsibilities, which makes them unlike the indolent rich engaged in anguished navel-gazing who are the subjects of too many American and British films.
The French film Of Gods and Men (2010) provides a compelling view of a contemporary Christian monastic life in its story of a community of Cistercian (Trappist) monks in Algeria who face the decision whether to stay or flee in the face of a violent Islamic fundamentalist insurgency that will eventually target them. Apparently based on true story, this is a Christian theology that could not be more different from the self-righteous distortions of Christianity peddled on the airwaves by some of America’s most visible politicians and pundits.
The Arabs: A History (2009) by Eugene Rogan improved my understanding of political history of the Arab world, now embroiled in an uneven quest for greater democracy, starting with the Ottoman conquest in 1516-17.
Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (2009) as told by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano reflects on the creation myths of popular history that justify domination by ignoring or whitewashing the lives of ordinary people and the contributions of earlier civilizations.
The prose of Nadeem Aslam is at times florid, but his novel The Wasted Vigil (2009) is a captivating portrayal of war-ravaged Afghan society in which every character, the good the bad and the ugly alike, comes to know suffering and crushing loss.
In a thematic departure that might appeal to anyone who has even thought about running, I would recommend Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (2009) in which journalist Christopher McDougall examines the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons, arguably the world’s greatest “natural runners,” while also making a case that the evolution of the human species was propelled by its superior ability to run long distances and that running barefoot is the only way to go.