TIME movies

Zack Snyder and the West Should Stop Killing Ancient Persians

A scene from 300: Rise of an Empire.
A scene from 300: Rise of an Empire. Warner Bros.

The story of '300: Rise of an Empire' comes from a graphic novel, but it's based on a travesty of history that has long existed in the Western imagination

Shortly after the 2007 release of 300—Zack Snyder’s computerized gorefest about the ancient Battle of Thermopylae—the Iranians issued an angry response. Then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not take kindly to the film’s garish depiction of hordes of feral Persians, swarming and dying around the famous band of Spartans whose last stand 2,500 years ago briefly checked the Persian Empire’s advance into mainland Greece. The film was “an insult to Iran,” said one of Ahmadinejad’s spokesman; it was “part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological war aimed at Iranian culture,” said another.

The current, more diplomatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has yet to react to the movie’s sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, which made $45 million on its first weekend in U.S. cinemas. But he surely won’t be pleased. Like its predecessor, the new 300 presents a spurious clash of civilizations. The muscled, taciturn Greeks—this time fighting on sea—carry on flexing their freedom-loving biceps, hacking and slashing their way through faceless mobs of easterners. The Persians remain the incarnation of every Orientalist stereotype imaginable: decadent, oversexed, craven, weak, spineless. They are also incapable of winning a battle against the Greeks without the help of a Greek traitor: in the new film it’s Artemisia, a woman consumed by a crazed desire for power and destruction. “My heart is Persian,” she says in a viperous voice.

A quick turn to the source material—specifically, The Histories by Herodotus, the most famous Greek chronicler of the Persian wars—shows how ridiculous some of this is. Far from being a lone, blood-thirsty warmonger, Artemisia was one of countless Greeks serving in the Persian armies and a figure of considerable wisdom. According to Herodotus, she cautions the Persian Emperor Xerxes against fighting the disastrous naval battle at Salamis, which, in the film, is an engagement she pursues with a furious mania. The burly Themistokles, the new 300‘s jacked Athenian protagonist, is made out to be a selfless champion of Western liberty; according to ancient Greek accounts, though, he later defects to the Persians and joins Xerxes’s son.

The larger cultural picture painted by this new 300 is not any more edifying—it sets a tyrannical, violent East against a folksy, democratic West. At various moments in the film, the narrator reminds the viewer with mind-numbing seriousness that the Persians “fear” or “mock” or even “are annoyed by” Greece’s fledgling democracy. To hammer home the crude, ahistorical message, the Persians win their only victory in the film when a suicide bomber is able to destroy a number of Greek ships.

It would be nice to chalk off this atrocity, as many have, to the silly imagination of Snyder, the film’s producer and co-writer, and Frank Miller, the graphic novelist whose blood-drenched books form the immediate basis for the movies. In no other chronicle of antiquity is Xerxes a hairless, bejeweled creature of camp fetish. To be sure, the film’s creators know this isn’t a story based on facts: it takes place in a “fictionalized, mythological world,” says Snyder in notes distributed to reporters at an advance press screening last week.

But Snyder’s bludgeoning Hollywood franchise is hardly alone in its fictions. A tradition of Western myth-making gained traction in the 19th century that insisted these battles between Greek city-states and the Persian Empire were a showdown over the fate of Western civilization itself. Preeminent historians of the time believed that Xerxes’ defeat helped preserve supposedly Greek attributes of free-thought and reason in the face of Eastern backwardness and mysticism. It’s a dubious view that some conservative scholars in the West continue to propagate to this day. The far-right, anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party in Greece holds ceremonies at Thermopylae, as TIME reported in 2012, chanting “Greece belongs to Greeks” before a bronze statue of the slain Spartan king Leonidas.

300: Rise of an Empire shamelessly indulges this demonization of the Persian—of the alien, dangerous “Other.” That’s far removed from the way many of the ancient Greeks saw their world at the time. The Persians by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, who actually fought at the Battle of Salamis, imagines the scene in the Persian capital in the wake of the empire’s disastrous defeat. There is weeping, lamentation and a cautionary tale about hubris and imperial overreach. It’s a lesson not just meant for Persians. Flush with glory, Aeschylus’s Athens is about to enter a long, grinding war against other Greek states, especially Sparta, that will bring decades of devastation to the Greek world. That’s a story I challenge Snyder and Miller to tell.

TIME Middle East

Group Linked to Al-Qaeda Frees Nuns

Greek Orthodox nuns are released after four-month ordeal

A group of 13 Greek Orthodox nuns were freed on Monday after being kidnapped and held by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria for four months.

They arrived in Damascus after a deal was reached between the Syrian government and members of the group the Nusra Front, the Associated Press reports.

The nuns were taken from their convent in the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula during a bout of fighting in December. They claimed in a video released by the Nusra Front that they were well-treated. The nuns were delivered to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Old Damascus, where they will remain. Their release came in exchange for about 150 Syrian women being released by the government in Damascus.

Despite their safe release, the Syrian Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Assistant, Bishop Louca al-Khoury, accused the Nusra Front of going after Syria’s religious minorities, claiming the country is now being targeted “by armed terrorist groups who don’t understand anything but the language of killing and destruction.”

[AP]

TIME Afghanistan

Taliban Order Fighters To Disrupt Afghan Elections

Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in April

The Afghan Taliban issued a warning on Monday against anyone taking part in the upcoming presidential elections on April 5, ordering their fighters to “use all force” to disrupt the polling.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a statement that the group is telling clerics across the country to inform locals that the election is “an American conspiracy,” the Associated Press reports.

“We have given orders to all our mujahadeen to use all forces at their disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham election to target all its workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices,” the statement said. It also advised Afghans to not put themselves in danger by going to the polls.

Several incidents of campaign-related violence have been reported in the last month, with the Taliban taking responsibility for some of the attacks. President Hamid Karzai, who became leader following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, is barred from running for a third term.

[AP]

TIME Ukraine

Guns and Roses: Kiev in Mid-Revolution

The Maidan: Kiev's Independence Square, March 6, 2014.
The Maidan: Kiev's Independence Square, March 6, 2014. Michael Crowley—TIME

Flowers, karaoke and masked soldiers in a visit to Ukraine's capital

In Kiev’s Independence Square, the aftermath of a bloody revolution has left behind a strange beauty. Red roses adorn piles of charred black tires. A rainbow of votive candles lay before heaps of rusted metal, burnt wood, and other debris—remnants of barriers built by anti-government protesters against thuggish security forces. Beneath a lamp post punctured by bullet holes—snipers—lies the photo of a smiling young man and a splendid pile of flowers in his memory. In an auditorium at Kiev’s city hall, now manned round-the-clock by activists who feel their work remains incomplete, a young man in a bulletproof vest plays a gentle classical piece on a white piano.

An activist wearing a bulletproof vest plays piano at Kiev's city hall, March 6, 2014.
An activist wearing a bulletproof vest plays piano at Kiev’s city hall, March 6, 2014. Michael Crowley—TIME

These contrasts also stand in for Ukraine’s political reality, now a mix of wreckage and blooming hope three weeks after massive protests overthrow an authoritarian president who had spurned Europe for Russia’s orbit. An interim government has now replaced the reputedly corrupt Viktor Yanukovych, and elections are scheduled for May. But the economy is in crisis and the parliament is still packed with dubious characters. Talk of war hangs in the air like the smoke from the barrel fires warming the activists and self-defense volunteers still camped on the square, who say their work is unfinished. Russian President Vladimir Putin has seized the Crimean peninsula, and may have designs on other parts of Ukraine’s pro-Russian east. Kiev’s anxious residents are left to wonder whether their future holds more flames than flowers.

Flowers memorialize the dead at the square's independence monument. March 6, 2014.
Flowers memorialize the dead at the square’s independence monument. March 6, 2014. Michael Crowley—TIME

Elena, as we’ll call her, is a 25-year-old lawyer here. She grew up in the pro-Russian east but studied in the UK on a scholarship. Smartly dressed in a grey tweed jacket and black-framed glasses, Elena estimates that she filled two dozen Molotov cocktails during the protests. She also volunteered in a makeshift hospital, witnessing injuries like she’d never seen before.

Elena never imagined that Ukraine’s fate could grow so precarious. “I never thought I would wake up every day happy just that there is no war,” she says. Things she’s always taken for granted—Internet service, electricity, basic security—now all seem contingent on Putin’s unknown intentions.

“You know, when people are crazy you are not sure what they will do,” says Anna Shyshko, a 30 year old legal secretary smoking a cigarette on the square one recent afternoon. She hopes that the West will take more decisive action than it did as protesters were being gunned down last month.

“On Facebook all the time they’re saying the U.S. and European Union worried much too long,” she says. “While they were shooting people, [the West was] saying that they are worried about our country. But it took too long.”

For now, Kiev is mostly peaceful, a seemingly happy European city. Coffee booths are plentiful on the streets. The downtown Porsche dealership is still open, as is a men’s luxury clothing store named Billionaire—destinations, perhaps, for Yanukovych’s oligarch allies. At an upscale karaoke bar, party people smoked hookahs and belted out maudlin ballads into the small hours.

"Self-defense" volunteers patrol near the Maidan, March 6, 2014.
“Self-defense” volunteers patrol near the Maidan, March 6, 2014. Michael Crowley—TIME

But some here seem girded for more fighting. Around the square, known here as the Maidan, men in camouflage uniforms who describe themselves as self-defense forces are camped out in dozens of tents. Some fly the red and black flag of the Ukrainian People’s Army, a World War II-era anti-Soviet partisan force; it’s a common sign of affiliation with the modern nationalist, far-right Pravy Sector. (The UPA’s alliance with the Nazis remains a subject of intense debate.) After midnight a few nights ago, a pair of young men with mohawks patrolled a main street with baseball bats; they identified themselves as members of Spilna Sprava, another right-wing nationalist group.

On a rise above the square lay a pair of overturned burnt-out vehicles that likely belonged to the now-vanquished Berkut security forces. “Have You Seen This Man?” asks a sign taped to one of them. But there is no way to tell: the man’s photo has been torn out. Next to the empty space someone has scrawled the word ANIMAL.

Poster taped to a scorched bus near the Maidan square, in Kiev, March 6, 2014.
Poster taped to a scorched bus near the Maidan square, in Kiev, March 6, 2014. Michael Crowley—TIME

A short walk from the Maidan to the Dnipro river bank offered more unsettling sights. Crates of Molotov cocktails fashioned from beer bottles lay unattended near the National Philharmonic Building. In a grand park overlooking the river, access to a large Soviet-era monument to the unity of Ukraine and Russia has been barricaded— presumably to prevent defacement of a statue representing an ideal that many here now despise.

A few hundred yards away towers Vladimir. Not Putin, but Vladimir the Great, a local ruler who Christianized the region a thousand years ago. (This was after he rejected Islam, in part, because it forbids drinking: “We cannot exist without that pleasure,” he allegedly declared.)

Behind the statue is a well-kept, tree-lined public park, where the other Vladimir’s shadow loomed. A group of perhaps two dozen men in makeshift paramilitary uniforms were training here for combat. Some concealed their faces behind balaclavas; several wore scarves in the UPA’s red and black. One group practiced hand-to-hand fighting—faux punches, arm twists, leg sweeps. Another, wielding what appeared to be fake wooden pistols and rifles, took positions behind trees. They would duck out, then quickly swerve back again, taking shots at their imaginary enemy.

Volunteers train for combat in Kiev's Vladimirskaya Gorka park, March 6, 2014.
Volunteers train for combat in Kiev’s Vladimirskaya Gorka park, March 6, 2014. Michael Crowley—TIME

None spoke English. One man in a balaclava insisted that a reporter stop taking photographs. Two others encouraged more pictures, and the three fell into a squabble. Meanwhile, a young couple out for a walk in the park pushed a stroller past the men practicing hand to hand combat. The trainees politely stood aside as the infant rolled by.

So it goes in these strange days of Kiev’s unfinished revolution.

Roses adorn a barricade in the Maidan square, March 6, 2014.
Roses adorn a barricade in the Maidan square, March 6, 2014. Michael Crowley—TIME
TIME

Russia Warned It Could Face Jihadi Attacks Over Crimea

Some militant Tartars may be prepared to fight Russia over potential annexation of Crimea, warn local leaders

A senior Crimean Tartar leader has warned that Russia risks provoking jihadi attacks if it annexes Crimea.

In an interview with the Financial Times on Sunday, Mustafa Jemilev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, said a number of militant Tartars had approached him to say they would fight the Russians. “We can’t stop people who want to die with honor,” said Jemilev, who reportedly made clear that he himself did not endorse a jihadi campaign.

A referendum on whether Crimea should become part of Russia is set to take place in March, triggered by Russia’s occupation of the peninsula earlier this month. Crimean Tartars, a Muslim minority group who make up roughly 12 per cent of the region’s population, are largely in favour of remaining part of Ukraine. Their opposition is rooted in a long history of persecution under previous Russian rule.

Jemilven said he and other Tartar leaders are reluctant to believe the reassurances from Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders, including offers of senior government positions for members of the community. “This agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on. Everything can change tomorrow.”

[FT]

TIME

Oscar Pistorius Vomits in Court

Pistorius arrives in court ahead of his trial in Pretoria
Oscar Pistorius arrives in court ahead of his trial at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria Mar. 3, 2014 Reuters

Olympian athlete and murder suspect retches during graphic testimony about Reeva Steenkamp's autopsy

Olympian amputee and murder suspect Oscar Pistorius may have vomited in court Monday during testimony about the autopsy of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, whom he fatally shot early on Valentines Day 2013.

Despite a judge’s ban on broadcasting or tweeting from the courtroom, many journalists tweeted that Pistorius retched and was physically sick after the graphic description of Steenkamp’s postmortem examination.

Pistorius shot Steenkamp through a bathroom door, and she died of multiple gunshot wounds. Pistorius says he fired because he thought there was an intruder in the house, and that he was trying to protect Steenkamp. Prosecutors say Pistorius shot Steenkamp during a heated argument, and neighbors have testified that they heard the couple fighting that night. The trial continues.

[NBC]

TIME

Prince Harry Could Soon Be A Bachelor No More

Royal-watchers in UK speculate about wedding bells as prince repeatedly appears in public with girlfriend Cressida Bonas

Prince Harry was seen in public with his girlfriend for the second time in three days Sunday, fueling speculation that the party-loving prince might soon be a bachelor no more.

The prince and his partner Cressida Bonas have been dating for two years and had previously tried to avoid the media spotlight. However the couple attended a rugby match together at London’s Twickenham Stadium, a public show of affection that has sparked rumors of another royal wedding on the horizon, reports the Daily Telegraph.

Expectations of an engagement have increased as Prince Harry, 29, nears the end of his twenties. Most members of the royal family were already married by that age. The presence of Bonas, 24, at official engagements with the prince has been seen as a sign that the couple feel more confident in their relationship. Bonas, an aristocrat’s daughter, studied dance at Leeds University and now works in marketing in London.

When he had previously talked about finding a girlfriend who could withstand the pressures of being with a member of the Royal Family, Prince Harry said that he was “not so much searching for someone to fulfill the role, but obviously finding someone that would be willing to take it on.”

TIME Syria

Study: Syria’s Children Suffering ‘Barbaric’ Lack Of Medical Care

A wounded child is treated in a make shift hospital in Aleppo after her home was randomly targeted by the regime's artillery, on March 15, 2013.
A wounded child is treated in a make shift hospital in Aleppo after her home was randomly targeted by the regime's artillery, on March 15, 2013. Sebastiano Tomada—SIPA USA/AP

A new report by Save the Children New warns that children in Syria are dying from treatable or preventable diseases that have metastasized in the country during the civil war, which is about to enter its fourth year

As Syria’s civil war enters its fourth year, a new report from global children’s advocacy group Save The Children has detailed how 10,000 children have died not just as a result of the fighting, but also from treatable or preventable diseases that have metastasized in the country.

Save the Children, in its report “A Devastating Toll” published on Sunday, details the consequences of Syria’s collapsed health care system. Among the revelations are that children are having limbs amputated because clinics don’t have the right equipment for treatment, newborn babies are dying in incubators during power cuts and patients are being knocked out with metal bars because of the lack of anesthesia.

“Children inside are enduring barbaric conditions,” says Save the Children’s regional director, Roger Hearn. “The desperate measures to which medical personnel are resorting to to keep children alive are increasingly harrowing.”

The report notes the reemergence of deadly and previously easily treatable diseases such as polio and diarrhea that are now silently spreading across the country, where 60% of hospitals are either damaged or destroyed. Some 200,000 Syrians have died of treatable chronic diseases like diabetes—double the estimated numbers of those killed by violence.

The group, which drew its findings from data issued by organizations such as the United Nations and World Health Organization, says over 5 million Syrian children are in need of basics such as food and adequate health care.

TIME North Korea

North Korea Elections: A Sham Worth Studying

North Korean voters line up to cast their ballots to elect deputies for the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang on March 9, 2014
North Korean voters line up to cast their ballots to elect deputies for the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang on March 9, 2014 Jon Chol Jin—AP

The stranger-than-fiction vote offers few surprises—100 percent of eligible balloters favored only the pre-determined politicians—but the once-every-five-years election provides a better sense of how North Korea is run

Kim wins. That is the unsurprising outcome of North Korea’s first legislative elections under the leadership of young dictator Kim Jong Un. State media report that nearly 100% of eligible North Koreans voted in Sunday’s poll, and 100% of them cast votes in favor of the status quo. This is only partly as ridiculous as it sounds: voting is mandatory and there is one option on the ballot.

Indeed, when North Korea votes, it votes. When exactly 100% of eligible North Korean set out to cast votes 100% in favor of predetermined politicians, they were carried forth on “billows of emotion and happiness,” state media reported. And nowhere were they happier — or more billowy, presumably — that in Kim’s district, Mount Paektu, the Korean peninsula’s highest peak. The group that voted at the storied site were so moved by the exercise that they spontaneously burst into song, state media said.

It is easy to chuckle at the thought of the country’s khaki-clad officials being overcome by the joy of casting a ballot. (If only the U.S. primaries could be such fun.) But as much as the elections are a sham, they are a sham worth studying. This stranger-than-fiction display gives us a better sense of how the country is run.

The once-every-five-year vote is an important exercise in political propaganda. Take Kim’s district. Mount Paektu is North Korea’s holy land. It was where his grandfather Kim Il Sung and a small group of his associates are said to have repelled the Japanese. It was also where Kim Il Sung’s son and successor, Kim Jong Il, is said to have been born. Kim Jong Un’s right to rule is based on his link to the “Paektu bloodline” — and to the mythology of the mountain itself.

The vote also serves practical purposes. Forcing 100% of eligible North Koreans to vote every five years is a way for the government to keep tabs on the population. North Korean defectors report that vote acts as an informal census, with neighborhood committees, called inminban, closely monitoring who shows up and who doesn’t. Since a single person’s absence could cast suspicion on an entire clan, people working, say, near or across the Chinese border, make a point of returning to their hometowns to cast their votes.

The polls also no doubt gave Kim Jong Un a chance to shape the parliament. Though it is largely a symbolic body (it generally meets once a year), North Korea watchers will be studying the poll to glean information about how power is being distributed under the young dictator. Kim Jong Un has already purged several of his father’s allies and promoted younger cadres. Will he continue to bolster this next generation of leaders?

It seems so. Kim Jong Un used Election Day to give his sister, Kim Yo Jong, some airtime. Kim Yo Jong, who is believed to be 26, was filmed accompanying her brother to vote. Though she has been seen in public before, most notably at Kim Jong Il’s funeral, this was a relatively high-profile outing. Conspicuously absent, meanwhile, was Kim Kyong Hui, sister to Kim Jong Il, aunt to Kim Jong Un and wife of ousted official Jang Song Thaek. She has not been seen since her husband’s execution.

Given the tightly scripted nature of North Korean political theater, the optics are probably not an accident. For those not distracted by the song and dance, the message is clear: there is a new sister on the scene. And Mount Paektu’s third generation is now running the show.

TIME

Australian Charged After Trying to Drop Drugs Into Prison by Drone

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Richard Newstead - Getty Images/Flickr RM

Remote controlled escapade leads to multiple indictments

Australian police are holding a 28-year-old man in custody for allegedly using a remote control drone carrying illicit drugs over a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Melbourne, according to the Herald Sun.

Police were called to the prison on Sunday afternoon after the unmanned craft was seen hovering over the facility. The male suspect and an unidentified female were later found on a nearby road with a drone and “a small quantity of drugs.”

Authorities are reportedly charging the suspect with “attempting to commit an indictable offense and possessing a drug of dependence.”

Sunday’s incident in Australia mirrored a similar event on the other side of the Pacific, where a remote controlled helicopter was used to drop 250 grams of cocaine into a corrections facility near Sao Paulo, Brazil.

[Herald Sun]

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