Thursday, March 31, 2016

An African City (Web Series)

I recently became acquainted with somebody from Ghana and in the interest of not being a douchebag I thought I should learn a little something about the country. Sandwiched between the slave trade stories and generic African nature docs was a web series called An African City. The show follows five smart, single, upper class women in Accra as they navigate life. The first episodes are a little rough around the edges but the series soon finds its legs.

One of the things I enjoyed about the series is the frankness with which the women--all returnees from the West--attempt to balance cultural expectations with a Western sense of self-actualization. Sometimes they're successful and sometimes they're not. They want love but are very cynical about marriage and men. The glamorous Sade (Nana Mensah) sees marriage as a economic transaction, at best, and has no ethical issues sleeping around with married men while naive Ngozi (Esosa E) has remained a virgin in anticipation of her wedding night. Sade may seem callous but is it really fair to expect your life-partner to also be your romantic partner forever? It's both an old-fashioned view of marriage and also, somehow, refreshingly modern. Is it really a smart choice to arrange your entire life around (potentially) fleeting romantic love? We almost never talk about these issues in the West because we're blind to our own set of "cultural expectations". We're on the inside. The ladies of An African City have a unique perspective, being both inside and outside Ghana and the West.

Which leads to one of the other things I really enjoyed about the series, which was the specificity of the Ghana setting. As someone who has long lamented the rise of a generic "global" cultural identity in Hollywood and Bollywood films, as well as the fetishization of the "local" that's accompanied it (those "the city is the main character!" films), I thought An African City does a nice job avoiding both traps. I'm sure my friends in Mumbai or Chennai or New York or Tokyo could identify with some of the problems the ladies faced but then some things--like Sade being teased for being half-Nigerian--must add a dash of local recognition for Ghanaians.

Even though I'm certainly not the target audience for An African City, I really enjoyed the first season (available on youtube) and plan on purchasing the second for $19.99. What good is capitalism if I don't vote with my dollars?

And if that isn't enough to tempt you, these ladies are always impeccably dressed. Try to watch an episode and not immediately start searching online for similar outfits.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

[D.C. Untied 5] D.C. United vs FC Dallas, March 26, 2016

On the quiet side of RFK, we sit and soak in every terrible play. On the loud side, being surrounded by the energy of the supporters groups provides its own kind of high, whether or not we’re winning. But with no chants to sing and no flags to wave, despair sets in very quickly during a 0-3 loss at home in which our best player was sent off with a red card and the rest of the team could never quite get in sync.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

[D.C. Untied 4] D.C. United vs Colorado Rapids, March 20, 2016

After I got home from the game, I sat on my living room floor eating toast and cheese and scrolling through what I’d missing on twitter while I’d been at RFK. My toes finally began to warm up but the chill in the pit of my stomach remained. What exactly had I signed myself up for this season? Why had I begun this insane project documenting my first full year as a fan? Did I really want to relive the frustrating 1-1 draw against Colorado?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Visaranai: Don't look away...

When Visarani came out a few weeks ago my twitter timeline was flooded with praise for the film but I’m wary of spoilers these days so I avoided all the reviews. The only sense I had of the film was that it was a gritty, psychological thriller and very, very good.

Now after having seen the film myself, I can say that it is not a gritty, psychological thriller but it is very, very good.

But Visarani is a difficult film to watch. It follows a group of ordinary men as they are slowly crushed by the wealthy and powerful. It’s a story of corruption, desperation, and cruelty, of men who slowly poisoned their own souls until they can no longer tell right from wrong. And what makes it so hard to watch is that we are not seeing the events dispassionately from a distance or through a filter of meta-irony. We, the audience, are put directly into the humble slippers of the victims, the ordinary men ground to dust under the heels of the powerful. Their teeth are broken, their arms pulled from sockets, their backs covered in welts. They are starved, humiliated, and in great pain. And why? Because we are weak; they are strong.

The main plot goes like this: Pandi (Dinesh Ravi) and his buddies Murugan (Aadukalam Murugadoss), Afzal (Silambarasan Rathnasamy), and Kumar (Pradheesh Raj) are Tamil migrants living across the border in some urban center in Andhra Pradesh. None of them speak the language although Murugan understands a bit. The guys sleep rough in a local park and work menial jobs to earn cash. It’s a precarious existence but one assumes they’ve come to the city because the potential for earning money is so much better than in their home villages, even at the bottom rung. But everything goes to shit when Pandi and his friends are picked up by the local cops.

Pandi and his friends are told to confess. We know you did it, say the cops, and we’ll beat you until you admit it. But Pandi and his friends know nothing. They frantically try to think of something, anything, that might have have triggered the arrest. Was it Pandi’s fault for being sweet on a girl working as a maid in the neighborhood? Maybe the girl’s master, a cop, found out that Pandi knew the girl was being taken advantage of. The scenes of torture are unbearable to watch. We want it to end but Pandi will not confess to a crime he didn’t commit and nobody will tell the men what it is they’ve done.

As the scenes in the police station play out, we come to understand that a “big shot” was robbed by a bunch of Tamil-speaking thugs and the head of the station, the menacing Ajay Ghosh, is under pressure from his boss to close the case as soon as possible. What else is a cop to do in those circumstances? Round up the first bunch of Tamil speaking men you find and arrange to “recover” the cash from a buddy. The frustration on both sides is palpable. Ajay Ghosh nearly vibrating with it as time and again the Tamil-speaking men refuse to bend to his will.

Eventually, when the physical pain is combined with some powerful psychological manipulation combined, Pandi and his friends give in. They are broken men. The cops bring them to the courthouse to confess to their crime. But fate intervenes in the form of a group of Tamil policemen, led by the kind-looking Samuthirakani, who are there to take possession of a white collar criminal, a weedy-looking accountant named K.K. (Kishore).

With the Tamil policemen’s help, Pandi and his friends are freed and the cops take them and K.K. back over the border.

Kumar asks to be dropped off on the side of the road.

But, alas, poor Pandi.

And Murugan.

And Afzal.

And K.K.

They travel back to the police station with the cops.

And here, dear readers, shit really gets real. Pandi and his friends have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, going from being framed for a robbery to something much, much darker… politics. A man missing a few lakhs is nothing to a man with real political power on the line.

Although technically free men, Pandi and his friends are still bound by society’s rules. The cops ask (a.k.a. “tell”) them to clean the station and they cannot refuse.

K.K. is being held as a pawn in the political game and over the course of the second half we watch him go from respectable, neoliberal, upper-middle class businessman to shivering, vulnerable prisoner, no better than Pandi and his friends. Even a man like K.K., with all his money, is not safe.

Pandi and K.K., they are the same, in the end.

I won’t give away the ending but needless to say, it is dark.

Are the cops evil? Perhaps some of them. Others have been playing the game for so long that self-preservation is their only remaining instinct. If cases aren’t “closed” it’s their necks on the line, so better to pin the blame on some innocent sod. The system corrupts absolutely.

I was in tears, real tears, by the end of the film. The performances from Dinesh Ravi as Pandi, Aadukalam Murugadoss as Murugan, and Silambarasan Rathnasamy as Afzal were incredibly powerful. Afzal is younger than the others, more fragile and more trusting. His pain is especially difficult to watch. Murugan is the affable one. He tries to get along with everybody and would probably have given in to the cops if not for his loyalty to his friend Pandi. Pandi is dangerous because Pandi has a powerful sense of self-worth. He’s a natural leader, what heroes look like among ordinary men. It’s easy to understand why the pretty neighborhood maid would trust him with her troubles. And Dinesh Ravi is wonderful in the role. He bends to the point of breaking but, despite the odds, he never loses his sense of human dignity even as we want him to give in to the dark side to save his own life. It’s an incredible performance.

After the film ended, I looked up a little of Lock Up, the novel it was based on. It seems M. Chandrakumar, an autorickshaw driver, wrote the book based on both his own experiences and the stories he heard from men in prison. He says about his experience being held with his friends by police for a crime he didn’t commit: “The film was shot at the same place where we were held captive. It was a 10X10 ft room without any source of air and light.” And after the ordeal, he continues, “We parted ways fearing we may be arrested again. I hope when the film releases, they watch it and know it’s our story. I wish I could meet them again.”

I was inspired to finish this review because last night I read this piece from the New Republic and it had a chart showing the “proletarianizing” of formerly nice middle class jobs… and it reminded me of K.K.’s journey from accountant to prisoner. But Visarani isn’t a “message” film. There are no easy answers here. How can you “solve” entrenched inequality? Abuses of power? Basic human selfishness? We’re all guilty of walking past people who need help, of letting the system work around us, even as we see it harming others. As long as our own lives are safe and secure, nothing else matters. Let’s just ask K.K. how that worked out for him.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

[D.C. Untied 3.5] On being a fan and so it begins...

Because it is going to be another week and a half before I’m back at RFK stadium, I thought it would be a good time to put down a few thoughts on fans, on what I’ve learned romping through MLS fandom so far, and on D.C. United’s 4-1 loss to the LA Galaxy over the weekend.

My appreciation of MLS is ultimately rooted in my experience as a fan of Indian film heroes, Japanese pop idols, and of the Japanese, all-female Takarazuka theater troupe. There is no direct equivalent for any of these things in American culture, not of the artists themselves or, crucially, the collective live viewing experience. I don’t know if I would have made the connection if I hadn’t happened to watch the Momoiro Clover Z’s (ももいろクローバーZ ) 2014 summer concert DVD (ももクロ夏のバカ騒ぎ or Momoclo’s Stupid Fun Summer Party!) around the same time that the summer turned very dark and my brother started dragging me to a string of D.C. United games just to get us out of the house. Singing and waving flags with the supporters groups, the special meaning imbued in different colors, the larger than life personalities and specialized skills… it only took a small push to take me from idol fan to MLS fan.

And I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my time learning about soccer and MLS. Playing on team is much like playing in a band, demanding a mix of individual skill and teamwork from each player on the field. Songs don’t emerge fully formed from the voice of a singer and goals don’t happen with the single kick of a ball. Songs are built of many people all playing their parts and goals are built up from decisions made by the entire team. Do risk passing the ball to somebody in a better position or do you shoot yourself and possibly waste a chance? Do you attempt to kick the ball over the midfield and risk it landing with the other team or do you try to charge through and trust to your skill on the ground? A bass player determined to take a solo in every song is like a defender determined to dribble through the entire field by herself and score a goal. It might be amazing once but there’s no way you’d keep that person in your band.

A split second decision may change the course of the game… or it may not. A referee can put his thumb on the scale for one team or the other and sometimes it really all comes down to luck. The final score does not always represent the game that was played just like, to go back to my music metaphor, poor record sales do not always reflect the quality of the music being performed.

What I took away from “Soccer Sunday”, the first day of the 2016 MLS season, is that nobody in the sea of soccer pundits is paying much attention to D.C. United except to continuing the narrative that we suck. While I’m the first to admit that my knowledge of the game is rudimentary at best, even I could tell that the game we played against LA on Sunday looked nothing like the games I watched last year. The pieces are still coming together but it seems like win or lose, we’re in for an exciting season.

Which leads me to another point I wanted to squeeze in here before I signed off. I’ve seen some discussion recently on women fans and women in sports and international women’s day just happened and, as a woman, I feel like very little of this helps anything. It seems to lead to a lot of self-congratulating dudes patting themselves on the back for being “open-minded” about the fact that women are people and women playing identity politics to have their cake and eat it, too. I don’t want a “women’s fanclub” for D.C. United. Why can’t I just be a fan like everybody else without bros assuming it means I’m the soccer equivalent of a puck bunny? Just because I’m friendly doesn’t mean I want to sleep with you. I’ve dealt with enough of those types of bros in my fan experiences over the years that I’ve grown really cynical and, sadly, 99 times out of a hundred the cynicism has been warranted. Just treat me like a person, not a “lady”, is what I’m trying to say. There aren’t two standards of behavior, one for people, one for “ladies”. There’s just one standard: be kind and understanding to everybody and do not try to make yourself seem cool by making fun of people. Except Red Bull fans. They are evil.

But, that said, I think there are some great things to be drawn from more female-centric fandoms. For one thing, I think teams should be encouraged to promote themselves by selling… the team. One big hook for me last year, when I knew nothing about the players, was that fantastic “Dating in the District” video featuring Chris Pontius (#DOOP) and Steve Birnbaum. And I made my friend A. watch Steve Birnbaum’s roast video and now we’re going to wear the cat t-shirts featured in it for the home opener, her first D.C. United game. Does enjoying those videos mean I’m doing “soccer fan” wrong? I don’t think so. Learning the personalities and quirks of the players deepens the emotional bond with the team. And even if purists may not want to admit it, player personalities are part of the fun in watching soccer. If it wasn’t, we’d have replaced them with robots already… or FIFA video game tournaments. Does enjoying stories of Viggo's on-set antics cheapen the enjoyment of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings? Does knowing about the broken and mended friendships of the Beatles "ruin" their music?

Besides, in our selfish, contemporary world where we are increasingly isolated from our communities, the idea of “a team” or, as NYCFC’s Tommy Mac puts it in this utterly delightful bit of youtube magic “25 best friends” is a rare and precious commodity. Teamwork should be savored; outsized personalities should be enjoyed. I suppose that is where I’ll end this. I am a fan. I’ve always enjoyed being a fan. Some people like to be the center of attention and I enjoy giving those people my attention. My only true genius is for enthusiasm.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

[D.C. Untied 3] D.C. United vs Querétaro FC, March 1, 2016

Just a note, this blog is purely a fan's point of view. I am not remotely qualified to talk about soccer tactics or MLS inside baseball. There are a lot of great people who already write about those things and if that is what you are looking for, then I won't be offended if you don't read further. The first post in the series has the explanation for the name, etc. Please enjoy!

It was already after six by the time I finally left the office.

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