Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Pumping irony since 1994

Archive for the ‘History’

Miss Universe and Our Imagined Community

January 01, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: History No Comments →

When I was a kid at family gatherings, my elders would recall how, in 1969, as Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Gloria Diaz won the Miss Universe title. They repeated her snappy answers to the host’s questions. They told the story as if it were part of epic tradition, like the Iliad to the Greeks or the Nibelungenlied to the Germans. Gloria Diaz assumed the stature of Paul Revere in his midnight ride or Henry V thrashing the French at Agincourt. Even her name sounded mythical: Glory Days.

Face it, we don’t huddle round the fire to talk about Lam-Ang or Bernardo Carpio. We don’t listen to tales of Bonifacio at Pinaglabanan. We hear how Gloria Diaz would welcome the man from the moon with a change and a shave. (Possibly the shave was not part of her answer, but that is how it was handed down.) Is it a feat of courage? Try keeping your wits about you when you carry an entire judgemental nation’s hopes while standing on a stage in a swimsuit exposed to the judgement of the planet. There are many kinds of battles. In the one we are taught, the heroine didn’t kill 20,00 men, but she did slay the board of judges.

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Benedict Anderson, a scholar who loved the Philippines, 1936 – 2015

December 13, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Announcements, History 1 Comment →


According to his colleague Coeli Barry, Ben was in Jakarta on December 10 for the launch of the translation of his book, Under Three Flags (where he traces the influence of anarchism on the work of Jose Rizal and Isabelo de los Reyes). Afterwards, he went to Surabaya in the eastern part of Java, then to Batu, Malang. He was asleep in his hotel room on Friday night when his breathing became very loud and uneven. Ben had severe sleep apnea, which may have caused his heart to stop.

As of today, 13 December, his body is lying at a funeral home in Surabaya where people will be able to pay their respects.

It was Ben’s wish that his ashes be scattered in Java. Ben had been barred from Indonesia in 1973 after he and Ruth McVey produced a paper arguing that the 30 September Movement in 1965 was not the work of the Indonesian communists as claimed by the Suharto government, but an internal army affair. (Early last year we asked Ben about Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed film on the mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia, The Act of Killing. Ben didn’t like it. He explained why, but we couldn’t hear him because the mall was noisy and Ben had a very soft voice. Even in a quiet place we had to strain to hear him.)

His books Imagined Communities, The Spectre of Comparisons, and Under Three Flags are necessary reading for people who wish to understand the roots of the Filipino nation. The last time we saw Ben was after the launch of El Diablo en Filipinas, his translation of Isabelo de los Reyes’s comic story. The world is dumber for his passing.

The Other France. Are the suburbs of Paris incubators of terrorism?

November 15, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Current Events, History, Places 2 Comments →

Although the alienated, impoverished immigrant communities outside Paris are increasingly prone to anti-Semitism, the profiles of French jihadists don’t track closely with class. Many of them have come from bourgeois families. Photograph by Arnau Bach for The New Yorker.

Fouad Ben Ahmed never paid much attention to Charlie Hebdo. He found the satirical magazine to be vulgar and not funny, and to him it seemed fixated on Islam, but he didn’t think that its contributors did real harm. One of its cartoonists, Stéphane Charbonnier, also drew for Le Petit Quotidien, a children’s paper to which Ben Ahmed subscribed for his two kids. On January 7th, upon hearing that two French brothers with Algerian names, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, had executed twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo offices—including Charbonnier—in revenge for covers caricaturing Muhammad, Ben Ahmed wrote on Facebook, “My French heart bleeds, my Muslim soul weeps. Nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, can justify these barbaric acts. Don’t talk to me about media or politicians who would play such-and-such a game, because there’s no excuse for barbarism. #JeSuisCharlie.”

That night, Ben Ahmed left his house, in the suburbs outside Paris, and went into the city to join tens of thousands of people at a vigil. He is of Algerian and Tunisian descent, with dark skin, and a few white extremists spat threats at him, but Ben Ahmed ignored them—France was his country, too. On January 11th, he joined the one and a half million citizens who marched in unity from the Place de la République.

Ben Ahmed’s Facebook page became a forum for others, mostly French Muslims, to discuss the attacks. Many expressed simple grief and outrage; a few aired conspiracy theories, suggesting a plot to stigmatize Muslims. “Let the investigators shed light on this massacre,” Ben Ahmed advised. One woman wrote, “I fear for the Muslims of France. The narrow-minded or frightened are going to dig in their heels and make an amalgame”—conflate terrorists with all Muslims. Ben Ahmed agreed: “Our country is going to be more divided.” He defended his use of #JeSuisCharlie, arguing that critiques of Charlie’s content, however legitimate before the attack, had no place afterward. “If we have a debate on the editorial line, it’s like saying, ‘Yes—but,’ ” he later told me. “In these conditions, that is unthinkable.”

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If you’re in the arts, The Walk is your comfort movie.

October 23, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: History, Movies 1 Comment →

This weekend we’re watching Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk again. If you’re looking for something to watch, we recommend you see it at the IMAX nearest to you. The more we think about it, the more we like The Walk. It’s a comfort movie.

How can it be a comfort movie when the trailer alone gives you vertigo? When Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit steps onto the steel bar, you may feel like spewing. The fact of Petit’s high, very very high-wire walk across the twin towers of the World Trade Center have already been covered in James Marsh’s excellent documentary, Man on Wire. The Walk plays like a heist movie but is an extreme metaphor for the artist’s life. Tumutulay sa alambre! Writing, painting, composing music do not carry the same probability of going splat on the sidewalk, but we will argue that a long, protracted death from fearfulness and mediocrity is more painful.

It’s all there on the giant screen. Discovering what you’re good at, check. Practising until it becomes second nature to you, check. Finding the best mentor to tell you how to hone it. Covering the practical aspects, the things that will allow you to do what you’re good at—the economics, the cohorts, and in Petit’s case, the engineering. Entertaining doubt, then shutting it out. Tuning out the people, including the ones who mean well, who tell you that it can’t be done, but not being a brat about it. Not overthinking the answer to the constant question, “Why?” There is no rational answer. You do it because you have to.

And finally, the nerve to step onto the wire that you yourself rigged up between two towers 415 meters above the ground, with no safety nets, with the wind blowing and birds wondering what you’re up to on their turf. The wire is bisecting the void. It’s just you and death, and your certainty that you can tell death to take a walk.

We also love the tribute to the Twin Towers. They were a beacon. Beacons cannot choose whom they signal to but for a moment, however brief, they call you to your dreams.

The myth of the French Resistance

September 08, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, History, Places No Comments →


Thirstily swallowed by a humiliated France, the dominant narrative of the French Resistance was cooked up by General de Gaulle – “Joan of Arc in trousers”, Churchill testily called him – when he addressed the crowds outside the Hôtel de Ville on August 25, 1944. “Paris liberated! Liberated by its own efforts, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the help of all of France.”

Yet, as Robert Gildea exposes in this comprehensive survey of the French Resistance, the myth that the French freed themselves is largely poppycock, like de Gaulle’s boast that only “a handful of scoundrels” behaved badly under four years of Nazi occupation. (One example: by October 1943, 85,000 French women had children fathered by Germans.) Most of the population didn’t engage with their revolutionary past until the last moment, when the chief thing they recaptured was their pride. The first French soldier into Paris was part of a regiment “called ‘la Nueve’ because it was composed mainly of Spanish republicans”.

Read it. Thanks to Tina for the alert.

We love Paris, but we know the whole Resistance story is merde. Please, cheese-eating surrender monkeys, you know what you did. You are not Marguerite Duras.

Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon: Define “Filipino”

September 02, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: History, Movies No Comments →


Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (This Is How We Were, How Are You Now) is a film that constantly asks, “What is a Filipino?” but is so vibrant and droll that it never feels like the essay section of a dreaded social studies exam. It does not have the grinding sense of seriousness and self-importance that makes the typical historical film a chore to watch. The average historical film tries to guilt us into liking it, as if it were our patriotic duty to suffer through the hero’s tribulations and stifle the urge to shout, “Patayin ninyo na yan para makauwi na kami!” (Kill him now so we can go home!) Writer-director Eddie Romero puts his case with such a light touch, keeps us so amused that before we know it, we have pondered the question.

Made in 1976 and now showing at Power Plant Cinema in a digital restoration by the ABS-CBN Archives and Central Digital Lab, Ganito Kami Noon reminds us of the time when the Metro Manila Film Festival actually tried to combine artistic ambition with box-office appeal. In its skilful fusion of comedy, drama, and operetta, its casual, almost throwaway social commentary, and its depiction of life as theatre (complete with a traveling troupe), it also reminds us of the influence of Fellini on Filipino cinema in the 70s. Romero, who cut his teeth on American B-movies, was particularly interested in Philippine history—he made the epic Aguila, in which history transpires through the eyes of Fernando Poe, Jr., and Kamakalawa, set in the mythical pre-colonial past.

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