@SGIFF 2015: Review - The President

The President begins with the line: “Set in an unknown country”. Our imagination is not starved of examples: the president could be Gaddafi, Assad, or Putin; the country could be Egypt, Tunisia, or Russia. Aptly released in the wake of the Arab Spring, The President is both poignant moral allegory and political satire; although it sometimes comes across as overly didactic, simplistic and underwhelming.

The film opens with a whimsical show of power. A dictator, dressed in military regalia, demonstrates absolute power to his grandson. Whimsically, he orders the city’s lights to be turned on and off. And yet, in the blackout, gunshots fire and shells explode: the revolution has begun. He is eventually deposed, and we follow his attempt to escape through the wreckage of his regime and the revolution.

Mohsen’s satirical knife cuts gleefully through the inflated titles and uniforms to the small men behind them. As angry mobs swarm his Cadillac, the dictator cowers in the backseat. Eventually abandoned by his entourage, he is forced on the streets, living on scraps and in hiding. Stripped down, he shows that “strongmen” are even less than us: paranoid survivalists whose insecurity drives them to cruelty.

The coup sets the stage for the morality play that is the heart of the film. The dictator experiences firsthand what it is like to live under his own yoke, as the military that once served him becomes the new tyrant. Old friends turn down pleas for help; he did them no favors when he was in power, so why should they help him now? Irony and retribution serve as a cautionary tales: what you reap is what you sow, and those you step over on the way up are also the ones you meet on the way down. His journey through the desolate landscape of his nation is also a spiritual trial, as he faces his crimes in person, encountering the victims of his regime. His shame and fear is palpable as he overhears the curses they lay on his name, and yet he must repent in silence, for if discovered, he would be lynched in a heartbeat.

But as if holding back, the director seems unwilling to reveal the true horrors of autocratic rule. Most of the scenes of suffering seem watered down and far between, and most crimes are related verbally, not seen. We see little of the extreme violence and destruction of real autocracy and its aftermath. Thus, the gravity of the dictator’s crimes, and his repentance, never feel heavy enough. Also, there is no true catharsis or realization: there are flashes of guilt, but the dictator at the end has mellowed only slightly. While this could be deliberate on the director’s part, there isn’t much in the way of revelation, and the character ultimately falls into a dictator stereotype.

Moral overtones aside, the film strives to comment on the cyclic nature of violence. The rebels and defected military are hardly better than the regime. Rape, robbery, and violence are rife. The dictatorship of fear continues. And brutalized, the people become brutes themselves. There is no talk of trial, or proper platforms for conflict resolution, but only hate.

This message is the more eloquently conveyed in the film. There are a few scenes of startling cruelty. However, the film’s timing is partly its curse. In the wake of the Arab spring, the film still seems like a sanitized version of real life. Furthermore, the complexity and chaos of a post revolution country isn’t captured. The narrative oversimplifies the conflict into the military against the people, and fails to capture the splintering of post-revolution societies, where rebel groups tussle over the carcass of the old country.

The President is still a good movie. But its mild repetitive narrative, which feels like a series of lessons on human nature and morality, and the paling of its conflict next to gruesome reality, waters down its message and impact. Ultimately, The President functions more like a fable than a true image of totalitarianism. Quite sufficient for the most of us, but to the disillusioned masses of the Arab Spring, fact is far bleaker than fiction.
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