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Posts Tagged ‘documentaries’


Mary Beard

The truth is that ‘peeling away the encrusted myth’ of Cleopatra reveals there is very little underneath the ancient fictional surface, and certainly nothing that can be the stuff of a plausible life story — unless it is padded out with half-relevant background … the best we have is a possible ‘signature’ on a document authorising tax concessions and the report that in her final days she muttered again and again ‘I shall not be led in triumph — Mary Beard, “Cleopatra, The Myth,” Confronting the Classics

I don’t remember when I first heard the name, Mary Beard, nor how I came to acquire and read her Confronting the Classics (a short review), but since then I’ve followed her, nowadays on twitter, as well as off. I remember how I was bored silly by the to me inane Epic of Gilgamesh, and couldn’t understand how anyone could substitute this as an assignment in college as from the ancient world instead of Virgil’s profound, beautiful, intelligent Aeneid. And then I read Beard’s defense of Roman or Latin literature not as opposed to but as texts as interesting as these originally Greek ones. Beard was, is, also continually a fresh thinking original feminist. She is still the only writer I read, to talk about women in the ancient world in ways that make them living relevant presences.

Then years later, since my younger daughter, was a lover of Latin, minoring in it in college, and is a reader, I was actually anxious that she should want to read and enjoy Beard’s SPQR.  When I bought it for her for Christmas, was so relieved when I’d see her reading it — with avid interest. Tonight I was reading Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison, and am not surprised to find that she is writing about this woman and her peer, Eugenie Sellers, in ways no one hardly ever writes about admired people: telling the inward petty and crucially important personal politics that shaped their careers. It takes hard research to get to that sort of information. Were they and most of the people she is writing about not dead, Beard would now have as many enemies as the maligned journalist, Julian Assange, for this is how he began.


Don’t be satisfied with the tale of Harrison in Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, for, good as Wade’s book is, she falls for the myth of Harrison as exposed by Beard; there is even more to Harrison’s achievement than is recorded by Wade

Then recently I opened up her Women and Power, two essays. The first is about how the public voice of women is treated: their sound is too high-pitched, so shrill, and not acceptable, their content emotional and when obviously knowledgeable school-mistress-y. She offers example after example of men silencing women, and several were close to my own experience. One happened the other day on Trollope&Peers! a male bully who hardly ever posts, suddenly got on to excoriate me for writing about Australia: how dare you? you are not Australia and show what an ignorant moron you are. No compunction whatsoever. She had the effect of validating my sense of this insult and revealed the pattern beneath it —

There are so many reviews of her books, that while I have needed her, I decided she does not need me or another blog or review to tell people what you are missing out on – for she is witty, idiosyncratic in her choices, personal, and I’m ever learning new information about another place, another figure, another work, or some unexpected insight. I also thought to do justice to her would take a book. All I could do is cite the books and urge you not to miss any. But about a year ago I started to feel compelled to write something when I came across an excoriating attack on one of her TV entertaining documentaries. Women as well as men castigating her for exposing the fallacy that when we look at naked bodies of women in art, we react to them viscerally as bodies, even when they are ever so tastefully done, and given learned names to obscure that they have most often functioned as pin-ups. The idea of the pompous Kenneth Clark unclothed (so to speak) was gratifying.


She allowed a drawing of her naked: this Guardian article brings out the Berger-take of the program

But when I started to watch her Shock of the Nude, I found she was misrepresented: far from dwelling on this (as it is so obvious) the programs were about how a single type of European woman has filled the space of what is reproduced when there are so many types of bodies, not to omit gene pools and ways of depicting bodies. It’s an elaboration on the specific topic from the perspective John Berger developed in his Ways of Seeing. We glimpse the actual motives of the people who made the object, the politics projected at an audience by an establishment “voice.” But to be as frank as she, what the men especially hated most of all is the way she looks. They cannot stand that she refuses to turn herself into as close a version of the Barbie Doll or socially comely academic woman in interview outfit for her shows. Her hair is unstyled (would be the word), her body lumpy, she wears only what make-up the film-makers must put on her to withstand film lighting. Those are her real long and discolored teeth. Of course it’s a pose, and she now has a trademark with her bike, but it’s a pose in another cause for candor as the only humane wisdom: this time what aging and other women actually look like.

Now I’ve just watched (and re-watched — a habit of mine) her early series, Meet the Romans, her contributions to Civilisations, and her [Ultimate?] Rome: Empire without Limit, and feel I ought to say something relevant to this dangerous and destructive era the Republicans, their Trump mascot, and all the wealthy and powerful people increasing a stranglehold of immiseration and downright murder on not only the US but people around the world variously connected to us: the theses of her two Roman series, which she makes convincing is that this ordinary village on this boot-like peninsula in the Mediterranean became a successful society, and extended out to become prosperous, educated, and (dare I say) a comfortable people because they were inclusive.

It was their original idea to make everyone who came within the purview of their power and ever extending land-mass Roman, to welcome into their civilisation all sorts of people, and thus circulate the knowledge, skill, and yes labor and natural products of lands across the globe. Indeed much that the vicious regimes of the world today are doing (except the step-by-step process in the US, and jump elsewhere into terrifying dictatorship) is what what the Romans didn’t do: race hatred especially. I took down my daughter’s book for the first time and found that in SPQR are the theses for these documentaries (read Emily Wilson’s more detailed review). They were flexible when it came to changing laws; they went in for people power. It was a genuinely mixed society because in the province power was given to local elites. Join with Rome, and you too can have this salary, these benefits. Everyone above say the working class level and the enslaved gets a percentage of the take. And the enslaved can buy themselves back.

The book and these series are not about its decline and fall (which it did) but about why it succeeded for so long — besides ruthless fearful military brutality — she does not mince words over the cruelties and harshnesses of this empire. In one episode (Part 3 of Ultimate Rome) we see a frieze of a fierce Roman soldier subduing and about to rape a supplicant woman, an image of Rome triumphing over Britain. One episode of Meet the Romans she seeks out how the average Roman who lived in the city survived & shows them in tiny dark flats in apartment houses, where just about nothing was in the space except room to sleep: all other functions, including drinking water, bathing (defecating), eating had to be done outside this space which was heavily peopled. To her credit, she does bring out what life was like for the average person.

Perhaps the Roman story is still too upbeat. Unlike the books, she does omit women. She doesn’t lie. She warns that stories about the fun adulteresses might have had are masculine bad dreams; stories of fiercely violent Amazons are probably glamorized fantasies based on what the Romans saw in the violent tribalism of Scythian groups. (Anyway who wants to idolize violence?) It was not the brutality of the Romans that made for their ultimate success, just a first step (bad joke alert). In her Pompeii, she takes us into excavated homes of the victims; she tries to realize what a family life might have been. The figures chance immortalized at moments of terror do convey what people are up against in nature (as well as what is often missing in other episodes from one another)


Pompeii people

These programs have our present era very much in mind.


From Ultimate Rome, Episode 3

They are also wondrously enjoyable because they are travelogues to places you, I, or your package tour company is not going to think of going to. I did not feel as if I was looking at fake pictures of landscapes, but genuine filming of out-of-the-way places where Roman buildings, forums, monuments, roads, these circular stadiums (levels upon levels), acqueducts, left over remnants of households are still extant. She films in Northern England, along the Hadrian wall where archeaologists have been very busy, in Algeria, southern Spain, Turkey, western Germany. Even if I had the money and the profound unhealthiness of airplane and modern boat travel had not been exposed, as an ordinary person I could not see what she shows in museums, factories, not to omit Pompeii and Herculaneum. She is invited to go where the rest of us who are not in the profession can’t. You see people in the marketplaces and in Rome today too — in France, in London.


In Bath — where I have been

I admit I sometimes enjoy her straight lectures on YouTube more than I do her documentaries, which are meant for a much wider audience than my taste. Her patter to me can be contentless; if there is a line of argument, sometimes it is obscured by gnomic suggestiveness. She is unwilling to criticize where I think she should. One of her assignments on Civilizations was to showcase (would be the word) religious buildings around the world once Roman (Europe and the middle east as it’s called mostly), but had it been Simon Schama (he is the main presenter) he would have managed to include sharp observations on what religious practices can mesmerize people into accepting. Her books provide more honest scrutiny. She is inclined to be optimistic, altogether too cheery — during this pandemic, she has had BBC shows in her kitchen. That sort of thing …

But she is always intelligent. During the Brexit controversies when there was still time, to put a stop to this lunacy of some segments of the British upper classes and the ignorant deluded nationalist solutions to economic distress in working class people, her TLS columns were ever on point and I wished she was in Parliament. I still do. Probably my favorite book is also still Confronting the Classics.


Filming in Rome

The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the Duchess was going to have a baby.
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all — Elizabeth Bishop
“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”

Ellen

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Overherbrothersbody
Antigone grieving over her brother’s body lying there in the sun, all exposed (Juliette Binoche, translator Anne Carson, director Ivo van Hove)

screenshotKajaki
As the fourth soldier of the group endures what is done to his body by an exploding buried bomb, and fifth, a buddy administers morphine, the two begin to realize they are in minefield (Tom Williams and Paul Katis’s Kilo Two Bravo, the US title)

Dear friends and readers,

I had just been thinking to myself how egregiously pandering are most movies in theaters just now and (paradoxically) grateful for the development of HD broadcasts which could potentially make great plays done well available in my area, when this weekend I found myself caught up in two extraordinary productions. Both take up ultimate issues of life and death in terms the ceaseless war and impoverishment, immiseration inflicted on a huge percentage of people across the globe since the 1950s (Back to before WW2; Tactics, etc.).

Ivo van Hove, the director has shaped Anne Carson’s deeply meditative translation to produce an unusual trajectory for Antigone. I have seen the play in two different versions. One long ago on the stage, and a number of times as a film, part of three play series made by the BBC called the Theban plays (Paul Roche, the translator, Juliet Stevenson, Antigone). In these a traditional dramatization was presented. The first 3/4s of the play are done as highly dramatic clashes, characters talking using strongly rhetorical gestures and tones, all reaching a crisis, until the threatened death of Kreon’s son, Haiman, persuades Kreon he must compromise — but it is too late. The last quarter was done as a form of deep mourning, lyrical ritual grief played out as each character is found dead until we reach the body of Kreon’s wife, Eurdike. The emphasis was political: the right of a citizen to protest an unjust amoral law (using an inward knowledge of God’s ethics as criteria) versus the right of a leader to demand obedience on behalf of stability, order (or because he says so for everyone’s safety and his desire for power).

It was not done that way here. As I’ve seen before the stage-director used movie techniques: across a screen in the back we saw Antigone crossing a desert to where her sister, Ismene was waiting (as in Sophocles’s text whoever the translator) but then instead of this strong outward set of demands, anguished refusals, debates, the whole tone and the words chosen made the play into something inward, psychologically motivated: at first it’s just Antigone and Ismene who are grief-struck but as the play progresses and decisions are made, individual character after character is shattered by memories, by what happens when another character acts out of fear, horror, grief, love for self or another.

A scene from Antigone by Sophokles, directed by Ivo van Hove with Juliette Binoche, in a new translation by Anne Carson, at the BAM Harvey Theater on September 24, 2015. Actors: Juliette Binoche-Antigone Obi Abili_Black man Kirsty Bushell_Ismene_young women in skirt Samuel Edward-Cook_Haimon- Young bald man Finbar Lynch_Teiresias_Small thin wiry Patrick O'Kane_Kreon_bald man in suit Kathryn Pogson_Eurydike_older woman Nathaniel Jackson_dead body Credit: Stephanie Berger
Guard (Obi Abili) terrified he will be tortured reports to Kreon (Patrick O’Kane) that Antigone has buried her brother, Polyneices

The chorus’s lines were broken up and they spoke of their helplessness, they pleaded with Kreon to follow compromise, to give in, to forget, not to desecrate bodies, sweep across blood ties. They cannot accept what is happening and side with Antigone, even if it means forgiving, forgetting traitorous acts. They debate what is patriotism (in effect). Kreon’s way is utterly destructive. An interesting aspect of the direction is how often Kreon seems affectionate to Antigone (I’d never seen that before)

Kreon
Kreon trying to appeal to Antigone’s ties to him (Patrick O’Kane was dressed as a modern dictator, bald, in a suit and tie)

Tiresias’s speech then reinforces this turn from a debate over how a state should be run: the cause is in Kreon. As Kreon folds and cracks, I had the distinct impression the director’s idea was Sophocles long ago was giving the Greek people a rare treat to see their tyrant brought low. It was as if someone would write a play today where we could all enjoy George W. Bush writhing on the ground. The point seemed to be to make this all=powerful politician a broken man.

Antigone’s appeals to Ismene (Kristy Bushell) and explanations to Haimon Samuel Edward-Cook) emerge as some kind of whistleblower who is surrounded by informers (Ismene) or people who will give in to whatever is the latest turning of the populace:

Ismene

but Haimon is better than this. He tells his father despite his father’s incensed rage that the people are against him before fleeing before his father’s edict to join Antigone in her walled up grave.

withHaimon

Of course she is mad too. She will not let Ismene get any credit for dying. She makes the argument that a brother means more than a husband or father because you cannot get another.

Katharine Pogson who played Eurydice (and chorus) stood out for the power of her utterances. All the actors but Binoche and O’Kane doubled as choral voices.

choralmoment
A choral moment: there was above the players a moon or a sun on and off

Obviously the play was done in such a way as to speak home to us today, 2015. It was often very quiet: Antigone’s line: “I’m a strange new king of ‘inbetween thing, aren’t I?/Not at home with the dead or the living” seems to be about the plight of many people today hit hard by war or disease (cancer?) or just not sure what life is or about. The actors spoke their lines against a quiet backdrop of changing scenes evocative of the modern world, mostly in deserts, but by the end in a great metropolis at night. When the play ended each of the characters was back at a desk or structure, typing, looking at a computer, intent on some task. There was little overt movement throughout except at moments of high climax. And then they shouted. They were positioned in parallel ways.

Anne Carson is a great poet, a great translator — I’ve read her poems to her brother (who died alone and far from her) which she did as a kind of play upon Catullus’s love poems.

Through foreign seas and over foreign lands,
Brother, to your sad graveside I have come
To lay the gifts of death with my own hands
And speak, too late, some last words to your dumb,
Unanswering dust. Poor brother, who was torn
Brutally from me by ill fortune, take
All I can give you now-these few forlorn
Offerings made for ancient custom’s sake
And wet with a brother’s tears. There’ll be no other
Meeting; and so hail and farewell, my brother.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale is so famous. Literally it means “And forever, brother, farewell forever.” So Carson could be also writing about her relationship with her brother.

I admit I noticed this was a Barbican play. I was not so envious of those who saw Bernard Cumberbatch as Hamlet there these past weeks. London productions do occasionally come to the Kennedy Center. I was aware that a couple of people nearby fell asleep; one of them I spoke to briefly; he was puzzled by the whole play, didn’t know anything about these characters to start with. The program notes provided full explanations but he had not read them.

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It’s even harder to do justice to Kajaki: as this site shows, there will be a tendency to present the film as an action-adventure war movie, heroism everywhere, sacrifice, apocalyptic violence. It’s anything but that sort of thing. The thing to take notice of is the producer/distributor who was at the Cinema Art theater with Gary Arnold this past Sunday where I saw the film, with its US title, Kilo Two Bravo (the code name of the unit used in electronic communication), knows very well that he has not made a stupid glorification of war or death.

Kajaki-The-True-Story-Afghan-Minefield-war-film

The film opens with a British soldier swimming in the sea; he is shot at and frantically begins to swim for shore; he makes it, and jumps onto the sand to find himself confronted by two young Afghan boys and an older man; they have powerful rifles but it was not they who shot at him. His ferocity of anger at them shows how terrified he was — rightly — to lose his life. He begins to walk back to his unit and two men like him with even bigger weapons than the Afghans had join him. They are all part of a unit of British soldiers establishing itself on a mountain top in Afghanistan. They walk off and he tries to hitch a ride, but is laughed at by other soldiers from other units riding past him.

kajaki_stillsettlingin

When he reaches where his group is settled, we watch the different men adjusting to life there; settling their places, taking on their jobs, receiving mail, and get to know them. A couple are more intelligent or educated and reading books; most of them have these sex-magazines; they curse a lot, kid a lot, eat and drink. There are officers who can be distinguished only because they tell the others what to do. There is medic (a doctor) who is given respect. They survey the landscape, and see Afghan people driving by; watch one set of Afghan people extort money from another, women and children are seen. The next day they are to go on some kind of mission. One problem the film has is the dialects of the Brits are so thick that I for one couldn’t get all the details of what exactly was being said, but since no one was especially subtley articulate this didn’t matter much. Still subtitles would help as they were bitter and ironic references to leaders like Blair, to lies told they now are aware of, to their own lives intimately.

So the next day they walk down to wherever they are going and what happens is in a flat circle area one of them steps on a bomb. It explodes and it is deeply terrifying as the computerized cameras, sound and other equipment make you feel the shock and instead of just showing the person at a distance we see him writhing and his body deeply maimed — it’s horrible and distressing. Then someone else steps on a bomb, same result.

They begin to realize they have inadvertently stepped into a minefield left by the Soviets perhaps in 1980s, perhaps in 1950. The men do not desert one another: they follow a protocol for saving one another’s lives. They walk on the same line others have walked to try to avoid bombs, they use techniques of looking at the sand. Several gather around each man – by how there are four lying in profound pain. A couple of people have morphine, the medic is sent for, and the drama ensues. Insofar as this can be done in real time it is. In huddled groups they try to help one another, but before the episode is over, about half the group is lying out there half-destroyed, bleeding, screaming, moaning and then turning quiet as the others try to help.

movie-review-film-Kajaki-Henry-Fitzherbert

They sent word through their electronic equipment and people from other units begin to show up – they do not walk in that area where the men are. American accents are heard, Australian. A heliocopter gunship comes within ten minutes but frantically the medic forbids it to land. We feel its power by the strong noise, the sand moving over everything. It has no equipment but itself and if it lands it can blow itself and them up. They must have an evacuation helicopter. Some of the men who are not hurt clearly would like to leave but dare not; they are angry at the medic for insisting on the evacuation vehicle. In the film time this takes over 40 minutes, representative of about 3 hours. We see them talk and realities of their lives emerge. For some their bodies begin to rot before our eyes; they begin to sink. They need more morphine and run out. They are running out of water. are variously desperate, brave, self-harrowed, pitying, mocking. The script is brilliant, deeply involving. We see little domestic dramas. There is humor as they joke, a kind of parody of making the best of things which continually breaks down.

It reminded me of Danger UXB which I’ve now watched twice through. In the 1970s this 13 part mini-series (written by the best writers of BBC dramas at the time, the best directors doing them) follows the adventures and lives of a bomb disposal unit in World War Two: it is as profoundly an anti-war film as I’ve ever seen. The way tension is built up is in each episode at least one bomb is disposed of and it’s done in as real time as they dare. The tension and fear and difficulty of the task are enacted and sometimes the man is killed. Unlike this new film, when death occurs, the camera moves away and we only see the explosion from far, and then we only see the body under a blanket with only the face shown, and sometimes it’s been cleaned up (supposed) by the time we see it. They didn’t dare or couldn’t for TV programs for the BBC show the realities of what we mean when we say someone’s body and mind is wounded.

watching

In Danger UXB the soldiers are clearing out bombs inside the UK, so we see no overt war. In Kilo Two Bravo what we are being shown is how war is conducted in the year 2015. The opening scenes, what they see by their binoculars as they watch for the 2 hours (they could be killed by a sudden assault) tell us war in Afghanistan is not open battles. It is competition through technology in slow motion but when the action happens you are as hideously or partly wounded and killed as you were in open battle.

6th July 2007 Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan A Chinook helicopter brings much needs supplies of food, spares and mail to the soldiers at a remote base in Kajaki, Helmand province, Afghanistan on the 6th of July 2007.
Above is a photo of a real helicopter arriving in Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistank, bringing food, spares of all sorts and mail to the soldiers at a remote base (6 July 2007)

Finally the evacuation helicopter arrives and with it two specially equipped trucks with long range platforms they are stick out over the ground. All of this clearly built with mines and bombs in mind. One at a time a powerful man on a chain is let down from the helicopter and either brings an iron long basket into which the other soldiers put the wounded man, or he himself somehow puts his arms about the man and hugs him tight and the chain is pulled up again. This is done for each of the wounded. For those who are still whole they are helped to make it into the trucks. Everyone flies or drives away; no one is left behind. The medic is seen in a kind of catatonic prayer body posture for a moment when all are gone; then he is seen in the helicopter too. He was obeyed throughout and his self-control saved them all — insofar as he could.

Mark_Stanley_plays_Paul_Tug_Hartley_in_the_new_film_Kajaki

I noticed as I watched that some of the audience began to leave; when the film was over, I’d say half the audience left. I don’t know what that meant: did they not want to hear any talk about this movie; they had sat through it. They were mostly older people so I don’t think boredom was the problem. Don’t go to it if you are expecting fast action (see this Hollywood reporter). I was a rare person in my section to scream and writhe (I couldn’t control it) each time someone stepped on a bomb and it exploded. It came home to me that violence should be distressing; there is something morally deeply wrong when violence is not distressing. I had a hard time staying about 3/4s of the way as I began to worry whether the evacuation ship would make it, or if they’d be shot to death or what. Apparently this is a well-known incident in the UK so UK watchers might know that the group was rescued.

I said “insofar as he could.” As the plane took off and the film was coming to an end, you got a five minute or so series of inter-titles telling you what happened to each man. Most of them lived — not all, two died. The photos of the real people the actors played were displayedAlas, there was an emphasis on how they returned to fighting (!) for those who did, but if you counted, many did not return; some we were told went to work for charitable organizations. We were not told if any began to work against these wars. This reminded me of the ending of Danger UXB where our hero who is badly wounded comes back to duty at this same bomb disposal unit and we are to cheer over this. He now feels useful — though for most of the hour he has been talking of the waste of the men who died, of the uselessness of all the destruction in Britain he has seen, all the terror. That is not forgotten nor in this film is the central hour and 3 minutes.

castposing
The whole unit (or cast) of Danger UXB: within the film they all pose for a group of local people to take a photograph of them as “heroes”

I admit that in the discussion time afterward when I instanced Danger UXB as a precursor, I was pleased when Gary Arnold replied that Danger UXB was one of his favorite films. He said he agreed with all I said of it. Do we ever get over liking to have the “authority” figure praise us?

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Ashe
Anthony Ashe after a bomb has exploded and someone has been killed (Danger UXB)

Speaking for myself since Vietnam I have regarded helicopters as fearful machines which can drop napalm bombs and destroy people from the air with the people helpless to defend themselves or strike back in any way. Groups of these machines flying over the Pentagon or anywhere else are ominous. I know that the way they can land makes them hospitals or supermarkets coming to anywhere in the world where they will not be shot down. The helicopter gunship is the first helicopter to arrive and we can see it’s a weapon with guns to protect and kill any “enemy.”

This is an important film because it shows the person watching what this war is like for the people fighting and the people near them. Of course these men volunteered, and if they had not volunteered to fight (which means they are trained to kill and do kill) for whatever delusion, they would not be in danger. Maybe they fell for the thrill of adventure and war. Let’s not forget that. They are not innocents. I taught for many years in senior colleges and over half my students by the end of my time there had been in the military, many had also volunteered because they said that was the best or only job they could find. Or the military offered to school and train them. The US gov’t will not put money into much else — so we see soldiers used in first aid crises. The soldiers in this movie were not shown to know much about this war they were fighting

To see Kilo Two Bravo as an expose of the horrors of using bombs would be absurdly narrow (one way Danger UXB has been marketed). To talk about it as about sacrifices turns it into a kind of senseless religious propaganda, a modern Kreon play. I did find one apposite review in the Guardian.

Kilo Two Bravo is a film that may be said to show why the UK should not go to war — for no reason that helps anyone but arms manufacturers and the powerful and wealthy. It is a semi-documentary intended to make people see, experience, realize, think, and perhaps like Antigone draw back and say no, we are not going to do this or do it to others, or allow these things to be done to us.

JulietteBinoche-The-ENGLISH-PATIENT
I did love Binoche as the nurse in The English Patient

Ellen

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