East West tensions in rhyme
When Sally Potter started writing the screenplay for Yes on September 12 2001, she can little have imagined the grim timeliness of its opening in London. The new film by the director of Orlando deals with that angry gulf between west and east that lay behind the attacks on both New York and London. At the film’s heart is a love affair between an Irish-American scientist (played by Joan Allen) and a refugee Lebanese surgeon (Simon Abkarian) who can find work only as a cook in Britain. At the centre of the affair is the imbalance between the wealthy, guilty westerner and the angry, disenfranchised Middle Easterner, who is forced by his refugee status to use his surgical skills to slice aubergines rather than abdomens. There are below-stairs tensions with his fellow kitchen staff. In one scene he is berated by an angry English washer-up: “This country’s full of wankers dressed in sheets/ Asylum (expletive) seekers in our streets/ And taking all our (expletive) jobs. Arab wanks!/ And then what do they do to give us thanks?/ They (expletive) blow us up!”
And if backers for the film were nervous about the politics it presented, they were even more concerned about the form of the script: it is written entirely in iambic pentameters, from an opening soliloquy on dirt by the couple’s cleaner (played by Shirley Henderson, a one-woman Greek chorus with a J-cloth) to the final scenes in the Caribbean. “People were much more afraid of the iambic pentameters than the politics, which are relatively oblique, there is deliberately no overt message or actual event,” says Potter. It is in verse, she said, as “it just came out that way” and she instructed actors to “ignore the rhyme and form, just concentrate
on the sense and the emotion.”
James Joyce, the last word of whose novel ‘Ulysses’ gives the film its title, also played a part. “I wanted to find some cinematic equivalent to the stream of consciousness.” ‘Yes’ was made for around a million pounds, which included £4,50,000 from the UK Film Council, a tiny budget given the location shoots and high-profile cast, who along with the crew worked for partially deferred payments — which means they get fully paid only when the film makes money. This shortage of funds has led to Potter having to play a large part in a shoestring marketing operation, from writing a blog about its progress to appearing at countless question-and-answer sessions with audiences at festivals and openings. Often she has been accompanied by Allen or Abkarian, a Paris-based Armenian actor from Beirut whom Potter met and was impressed by five years ago when she was casting for her previous film, ‘The Man Who Cried.’ She has already taken ‘Yes’ to half a dozen countries, including Turkey, the US and Mexico, and once it has opened in Britain she will be off with it under her arm to Japan and Romania.
One of the points Potter says she wanted to make is that Americans are often seen in monolithic stereotypical terms just as Muslims and Middle Easterners are. “I wanted to dismantle stereotypes of all kinds. The British can be quite casual with their anti-Americanism without realising how divided the country is. I was very struck during my last trip to see how much opposition there was to the Patriot Act and to feel the real atmosphere of fear in the air. People said that they were living in an atmosphere where it was increasingly difficult to speak out in opposition to the war.” But what has perhaps made most waves in the US, where the film opened last month, has been the choice of Cuba as the place which Allen’s character is told by her aunt to visit: “Castro . . . gave us hope/He did. Oh, yes; he’s better than the Pope.” Last week, Charles Moore, writing in The Spectator about the London bombings, reflected that “after last week’s events, there can be few white couples with children in London who have not at least considered moving out.” Potter’s film represents the opposite response to that fearful negativity and it is unlikely there will ever be a more relevant time to see it.