‘White Helmets’ bags Oscar on politically charged night

Film on Syrian rescue group wins best short documentary in night marked by reaction to Trump’s immigration policies.

The White Helmets group says it has saved more than 80,000 lives [Reuters]
The White Helmets group says it has saved more than 80,000 lives [Reuters]

A film celebrating the White Helmets – a volunteer rescue group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria – has scooped an Oscar for best short documentary on a night marked by politics.

The eponymously titled White Helmets, a 40-minute Netflix film, gives a window into the lives of the group’s volunteers as they scramble to pull people from the rubble of buildings flattened in bombing raids.

Accepting the Academy Award, director Orlando von Einsiedel urged the audience to stand up and call for an end to Syria’s six-year civil war, which led to a standing ovation.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to increase diversity

Von Einsiedel read out a statement from White Helmets founder Raed al-Saleh, in which he thanked the academy and said the group had saved tens of thousands of lives since it was formed in 2014.

“We are so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world. Our organisation is guided by a verse from the Quran: to save one life is to save all of humanity,” Saleh’s statement said.

“We have saved more than 82,000 Syrian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world.”

READ MORE: Year of diversity at Oscars ‘does little to even score’

Rescue workers in Syria are at risk of being killed in so-called “double tap” air raids that target them as they arrive at the scene of an air strike. The group says that many of its volunteers have been killed.

Syrian cinematographer Khaled Khatib who worked on the documentary was unable to attend after being barred from entering the United States, despite being granted a visa .

US officials reportedly discovered “derogatory information” about him, according to a document seen by the Associated Press news agency .

The film’s producer Joanna Natasegara told AP on Sunday that the decision was “sad and confusing.”

The incident happened after President Donald Trump’s now halted temporary travel ban that targeted seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.

Iranian win after protest

An Iranian film, The Salesman, won in the best foreign language film award after its director, Asghar Farhadi, refused to attend the ceremony as a protest against Trump’s immigration policies. Iran was on the list of seven countries.

Iranian astronaut Anousheh Ansari spoke on behalf of Asghar Farhadi [Reuters]

A female Iranian astronaut, Anousheh Ansari, accepted the award on his behalf.

“I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight,” Farhadi said in a statement read by Ansari. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US.

“Dividing the world into the US and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear – a deceitful justification for aggression and war.”

READ MORE: Taraneh Alidoosti boycotting Oscars

It was the second Oscar for Farhadi, who won in the same category for A Separation in 2012.

Trump quietly looming

Though Donald Trump’s name was rarely mentioned during the ceremony, his policies were a running subtext throughout proceedings.

Several actors and actresses, including Ethiopian-Irish Ruth Negga, who was nominated in the best actress category, wore blue ribbons in support of the American Civil Liberties Union, a high-profile civil rights organisation.

Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, the MC for the evening, did mention Trump several times.

“I want to say thank you to President Trump,” Kimmel said as the ceremony opened. “Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”

In 2015, criticism swirled around a lack of diversity among the nominees in the main categories, in a debate that stirred a campaign that became known by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. That criticism continued into 2016, with several people, including actor Will Smith, boycotting the ceremony.

A record six black actors were nominated this year, though, and a person of colour was nominated in each of the main acting categories – the first time that has happened.

On Friday, the directors of all five Oscar-nominated foreign language films, including Farhadi, condemned what they described as a “climate of fanaticism and nationalism” in the US and elsewhere in a joint statement.

They said that, whoever won, the award would be dedicated to people working to foster “unity and understanding.”

“Tonight is proof that art has no borders, no single language and does not belong to a single faith,” Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the academy, who has worked to diversify its membership, said.

Mahershala Ali, an Ahmadi Muslim, won the best supporting actor award for his role in Moonlight, which also won best picture. In his acceptance speech, he announced the birth of his daughter and thanked his wife as well as “many wonderful teachers”.

Celebrities had used the spotlight at earlier award shows to denounce the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, transgender rights and the media.

The Oscars is the highlight of the Tinseltown calendar, and wraps up two months of glittering prize galas.

Source: News agencies

The UK and US: The myth of the special relationship

The term was first coined by Winston Churchill in 1946, but does the ‘special relationship’ really exist?

Just how special is the supposed ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US? [EPA]


Alasdair’s latest book is “In The Shadow Of The Cotton Tree: A Diary of Second World War Sierra Leone”

Glasgow, United Kingdom – When UK Prime Minister Theresa May became the first foreign leader to visit US President Donald Trump at the White House last month, few in Britain remained impassive.

For critics of May’s first appointment with America’s 45th commander-in-chief, the trip was nothing short of a political embarrassment. With the UK’s decision to quit the European Union dominating domestic politics, many baulked at the sight of Britain’s premier eagerly accepting an early invitation from a controversial Trump administration because of a British need to establish a future UK-US trade deal in the country’s post-Brexit era.

For May’s supporters, however, the Conservative Party leader’s journey to Washington was the start of Britain’s brave new world. This, they said, not only held out the possibility of the UK being handed preferential treatment in any forthcoming transatlantic trade arrangement – helpfully aided by Trump’s much-vaunted British heritage via his late Scottish mother – but also offered a vital opportunity to reaffirm the so-called “special relationship”.

The term was first coined by the UK’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill during a lecture tour of the United States in 1946 to describe the depth of Anglo-American friendship following World War II. Churchill, whose mother was American, may have then been speaking as a private citizen on account of him losing power at the general election the previous year, but the “special relationship” has been a mainstay of British political discourse – and UK media coverage – ever since.

“[The term] is trying to explain that the UK has a privileged place in American strategic calculation,” Jacob Parakilas, assistant head of the US and the Americas programme at London’s Chatham House, told Al Jazeera. “That the UK can rely on American support and will always be consulted by the Americans when they make big decisions.”

From a UK perspective, May’s visit was incessantly couched within the context of the “special relationship”. And just as the brash billionaire and reality TV star turned US head of state has heavily divided opinion in his native country, so has he sparked great debate among those in Britain who have either been appalled or charmed by the actions of the White House’s newest occupant. Indeed, while both nations are bound together by a shared history, said Sir Richard Dalton there are always risks to Britain in getting too involved in the conduct of its larger ally.

READ MORE: Donald Trump and Theresa May meet at White House

“The British danger is that you are seen not to have had any serious influence, that you are seen to have been the poodle rather than the candid friend on an equal footing,” said Dalton, a former UK ambassador to Iran and Libya, speaking to Al Jazeera. “But these two countries are fated to deal with each other and Mrs May chose this high-profile, high-risk route to carry out her duty to get alongside President Trump and only history will tell whether it pays off.”

In recent decades, the “special relationship” found its most profound expression in the dealings between UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan during the late Cold War era of the 1980s. As Nicholas Wapshott, author of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – A Political Marriage, wrote in The New York Times in 2013: “From the moment they met, in April 1975, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan bonded. They agreed on almost everything, and even completed each other’s thoughts … On the world stage, she was mostly the good cop to Reagan’s bad, though sometimes they switched places.”

That said, and even accounting for the – widely reviled – close bond that developed between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W Bush that saw them execute their joint plan to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, the “special relationship” is largely bogus, say many analysts. It began as a Churchill public relations exercise, said Scott Lucas, as the UK statesman tried to “whip up American support for the British position over Europe and therefore over the Soviet Union” in a tour that saw the cigar-chomping Briton deliver his “Iron Curtain” speech.

“That means, in a sense, that the ‘special relationship’ has always been a PR device,” continued Lucas, a politics professor at the University of Birmingham. “Which has been used primarily by the British because the British have needed the Americans more than the Americans have needed the Brits at high level. That doesn’t mean that at certain points you don’t get people who embrace that as being a reality, or at least grasp that relationship as certainly having a priority.”

READ MORE: Trump is in the way of Theresa May’s global gamble

Lucas said that, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan “had the tricky task of basically downsizing Britain, he cloaked it with the idea that Britain had a ‘special relationship’ with the Americans”.

“Macmillan kept selling the idea that Britain was the brains to American brawn,” added the academic.

While the prime ministerial-presidential relationships of Macmillan and John F Kennedy – when images of a young JFK and an older Macmillan gave the appearance of the former being the latter’s protege – and Thatcher and Reagan, when both railed against the political ideals of the Soviet Union, fed the notion of the “special relationship”, the lopsided status of both nations has been apparent from the time Britain began giving way to the US as the world’s global superpower in the post-war era. And it is the uneven nature of Britain’s relationship with the US – and the fact that America has, in the likes of Canada and Japan, other crucial international partnerships – that has, for the term’s detractors, made it almost redundant in meaning. Yet, with historical institutional ties of the military and intelligence variety dating back to World War II, the UK-US alliance is a relationship worthy of a name, said Dalton.

“There was a period under [former UK Premier David] Cameron and [Barack] Obamawhen – I think – an effort was made to drop ‘special’ and replace it with ‘essential’,” stated the former British ambassador. “I would rather that that had been kept up and ‘special’ quietly dropped, as it is prone to ridicule when the reality does not match the rhetoric.”

Those who place great weight on the “special relationship” have seen the decades-old term come under strain. The image of May and Trump briefly holding hands as they strolled through the White House grounds together invited scorn upon the UK prime minister. And the widely signed British petition against Trump making an official state visit to Britain, together with the announcement by House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, outlining his opposition to the US president addressing Westminster have also combined to put the Anglo-American alliance on shaky ground.

So, what does the future hold for May’s Britain as she attempts to place her own stamp on what the British government continues to deem the “special relationship”?

“May could find herself in the position that Tony Blair did with respect to the Bush presidency,” warned Parakilas. “That is, trying to stay close to the US and being linked into some kind of unpopular and distracting and damaging foreign engagement. Trump’s own popularity ratings are not good at the moment … This won’t help May’s own position vis-a-vis China, the EU and other necessary negotiating partners if she’s seen as too close to Trump, who, at the moment, is not a brand that the world has a high opinion of yet.”

Source: Al Jazeera News

Why Hollywood has abandoned Brand Israel

Oscar nominees’ refusal to be paid props for Brand Israel could reflect a desire to avoid a very polarised discussion.

Oscar nominees may well have realised that endorsing the Israel brand has simply become too controversial, writes Rottenberg [Todd Wawrychuck/EPA]
Oscar nominees may well have realised that endorsing the Israel brand has simply become too controversial, writes Rottenberg [Todd Wawrychuck/EPA]


Catherine Rottenberg teaches 20th-century American literature and feminist theory.

As Israel moves ever more dangerously rightward – evidenced by the latest law legalising the state’s expropriation of private Palestinian lands and the extremely conservative appointees to the High Court – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems, perhaps paradoxically, more obsessed than in the past with promoting Israel’s positive image in the international arena.

Indeed, the current government has poured millions of dollars into its Brand Israel campaign. Just this past December, Haaretz reported that the tourism ministry “was granted its biggest marketing budget ever in the past year as it tried to change Israel’s image as a travel destination and expand the range of tourism offerings.”

Apparently, the government is hell bent on trying to convince the international community that the Jewish state is and remains the only democracy in the Middle East.

This illusion appears increasingly difficult to sustain as time passes and fewer international actors seem to be buying it.

Apropos actors – let’s take a look at the latest reports from Hollywood. In the days before the 2017 Oscars award ceremony, a flurry of articles were published on how the Tourist Ministry attempted to lure 26 nominees to Israel with lavish tour packages estimated at about $55,000 each.

Government officials justified their actions by insisting on the importance of regaling celebrities with the “real Israel”.

Clearly what is at stake here is the projection – and exorbitant chorographical production – of normality, where the celebrities are used as a vital prop in the Brand Israel campaign.

Leading media outlets, however, reported that not one of the two dozen stars had accepted the invitation. The often politically incorrect Jennifer Lawrence handed her package deal over to her parents, while Leonardo DiCaprio appears to have had enough of Israeli paparazzi, particularly given his experiences during his past visits with his then girlfriend, supermodel Bar Refaeli.

‘Not an overt political statement’

The unwillingness of these Hollywood stars to participate in Israel’s branding efforts could well mark an important transformation in popular United States-Israel relations.

On the one hand, these actors have not made any public declaration or come out publicly in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Therefore, their refusal to accept an all-expenses-paid – and more – visit to Israel should not be understood as an active or overt political statement.

On the other hand, the total absence of any signs of enthusiasm about visiting the “Holy Land” on the part of the Oscar nominees could point to something else, namely, a profound shift in cultural perceptions.

As Israel’s settler colonial project continues unabated, many younger Americans – who also happen to be these celebrities’ main fan base – consider the country and its policies incredibly divisive.

Avoiding an incendiary discussion

A recent Pew Report highlights this trend. Although most Americans still sympathise more with Israel than with the Palestinians, over the past decade US public opinion has shifted quite dramatically.

Indeed, for the first time this century – and thus in history – liberal Democrats are about equally split between sympathising more with Israel (33 percent) and with the Palestinians (40 percent).

Furthermore, among the Millennials fewer than half (43 percent) sympathise more with Israel, while about a quarter of them (27 percent) sympathise more with the Palestinians, the highest percentage of any generation.

The Hollywood stars’ refusal to take advantage of Israel’s lavish package tours could therefore reflect a desire to avoid entering into this very polarised and incendiary discussion.

Although the fight against Israel’s headlong move towards apartheid will undoubtedly have to continue to be waged on a variety of fronts, stars and superstars may well have an increasingly important part to play in this very real drama.

In other words, these stars – who are endlessly promoting brands and products (mostly their own) to as broad an audience as possible (but mostly to Millennials) – may well have realised that endorsing the Israel brand has simply become too controversial.

Ultimately, though, no matter what the stars’ convictions are vis-a-vis Israel, the overwhelming lack of response reveals, at the very least, that Israel is no longer a particularly desirable destination, even for an all-expenses paid vacation.

The Israeli lobby, it turns out, can no longer take Hollywood for granted as part of its Brand Israel campaign. And this is significant.

Additionally, however, this also suggests that, not unlike the final years of the South African Apartheid regime, the cultural front has become an increasingly important site ofstruggle in Israel-Palestine.

READ MORE: Year of diversity at Oscars ‘does little to even score’

Indeed, just last week, another crisis erupted when only five of 11 NFL players joined a trip to Israel after the Super Bowl.

As Seattle Seahawks defensive end, Michael Bennett stated, he would “not be used” by Israel for publicity. “When I do go to Israel – and I do plan to go – it will be to see not only Israel but also the West Bank and Gaza so I can see how the Palestinians, who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives.”

Although the fight against Israel’s headlong move towards apartheid will undoubtedly have to continue to be waged on a variety of fronts, stars and superstars may well have an increasingly important part to play in this very real drama.

After all, if Hollywood has taught us anything at all, it is that we should never underestimate the power or influence of popular culture.

Catherine Rottenberg is a Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow in the Sociology Department, Goldsmiths College and the author of Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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