Got $1.5 million to spare? If so, tiny Reduction, a one-time company town built to house workers at a long-vanished garbage-processing plant in western Pennsylvania, could be yours for the asking.
The aptly named town is home to 60 residents, down from 400 in its heyday. They live in 19 tidy brick houses, paying the Stawovy family, proprietors of the unincorporated village for the past 70 years. The asking price includes a one-room schoolhouse that was long ago converted into a duplex residence.
The plant, built by American Reduction Co on a wide bend of the Youghiogheny River, shut down in 1936 after processing waste from the city of Pittsburgh since the early 20th century.
Workers would render animal carcasses, and separate metal from household waste for resale.
“This was the original recycling plant,” said David Stawovy, 67, who owns Reduction with his three siblings.
In 1948, David’s father, John, owned an adjoining farm and was thinking about buying one of the larger homes in Reduction for his growing family. At one time, he would have had 28 from which to choose.
“My mother and dad wanted their own place,” David Stawovy said, “and the man said: ‘Why don’t you buy them all?’”
The senior Stawovy ended up doing just that, paying $10,000 for the place, lock, stock and barrel. It was a decision he never regretted, or at least never admitted regretting, his son said.
“He never complained. He made a living on it,” said the younger Stawovy.
All that is left of the processing plant is the foundation, Stawovy said. Once the town dump contained a treasure trove of collectible bottles, but it was wiped clean years ago.
Stawovy said his advancing age and the nursing home care his parents needed before their recent deaths led the family to put Reduction up for sale. He needs to sell so his siblings can cash out their shares of the inheritance.
“We’d like to travel,” he said. “We don’t need the aggravation.”
(Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Peter Cooney)
President Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 24, supporting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. A U.S. official says the State Department is ready to give its approval.
The State Department will approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, a U.S. official tells NPR. That will set the stage for President Trump to reverse a decision former President Barack Obama made in 2015 to reject the project.
Four days after Trump was sworn into office he invited TransCanada to resubmit its application for the pipeline. Trump also directed the State Department to make its national-interest determination within 60 days. That deadline is Monday.
A U.S. official tells NPR the State Department will find that building the pipeline is in the national interest. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was CEO of ExxonMobil and recused himself from the review. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon will sign the determination.
The proposed pipeline is controversial because of the oil it would transport. It’s designed to move crude from Canada’s oil sands in Alberta, south to the U.S. Gulf Coast where it could be refined or exported. Environmentalists oppose oil sands because producing it requires additional processing that emits more pollution.
“The same communities who defeated this pipeline before — Indigenous leaders, landowners, farmers, and grassroots activists — are ready to fight again,” says 350.org Executive Director May Boeve.
That fight is expected to take place in states the pipeline would travel through, especially in Nebraska where some landowners and environmentalists have led a years-long legal battle to stop the pipeline.
The oil industry and some labor unions have supported the pipeline, largely for the thousands of construction jobs the project would provide. But those jobs are temporary. Once built the State Department has estimated the pipeline will employ about 35 people.
The General Services Administration says President Trump is legally entitled to hold a lease for a hotel in a federal government-owned building, regardless of what critics say.
President Trump got good news on Thursday from the federal agency that oversees the three-year-old lease on his five-star hotel in Washington, D.C.
The General Services Administration said in a letter that the Trump Organization is in “full compliance” with the lease on the luxury hotel that’s located just blocks from the White House.
Many ethics and contract experts have called upon GSA to end the lease, noting that the contract language specifically says no “elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom[.]”
But GSA’s contracting officer Kevin Terry wrote that reaching “simplistic ‘black and white’ conclusions regarding the meaning” of the contract’s ban on elected officials was not appropriate. He determined the lease is valid because Trump moved his interests in the building to a revocable trust, which is being managed by Trump’s oldest sons and other associates. Trump is the sole beneficiary of that trust.
Terry led contract negotiations with Trump in 2013. In his letter Thursday, Terry said the property had been a money-loser for the federal government before Trump landed the lease. The Trump Organization has been paying $250,000 a month in rent since it signed the lease, according to Terry.
Stephen Schooner, an expert on government procurement law at George Washington University, said the GSA decision was “unbelievable.”
Terry’s conclusion is “unpersuasive, as a matter of law” and harmful to the “integrity — and thus credibility — of GSA, the Presidency and procurement process,” Schooner said.
Reps. Elijah Cummings and Peter DeFazio, top Democrats on the House Government Oversight and the House Transportation and Infrastructure committees, respectively, condemned the GSA conclusion.
They argue that GSA never intended for politicians to profit from the government-owned building, which is why it included the language banning elected officials. “This new interpretation renders this lease provision completely meaningless—any elected official can now defy the restriction by following this blueprint” of creating a trust, they said in a statement.
Trump signed a 60-year lease in 2013 for the building that once served as headquarters of the U.S. Post Office. The Trump Organization spent upwards of $200 million on renovations and reopened it as a hotel about a month before the Nov. 8 presidential election.
Jidenna’s new album, The Chief, is a dedication to his late father.
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
The 2015 hit “Classic Man” introduced the world to Jidenna. His look matched his sound: three-piece suits, polka-dotted ascots and red hair slicked down in a wave that would’ve made Nat King Cole jealous. At one point, a friend’s manager took him aside and said he thought Jidenna had a ton of potential as an artist — but there was just one problem.
“He said, ‘You’re too perfect,’ ” Jidenna says. “And man, that stuck with me.”
So for his first full-length album, the singer and rapper found himself drawn back to his roots: Nigerian highlife singers and the story of his father, who passed away seven years ago.
“My father would tell the story like this,” Jidenna says. “He said, ‘You were conceived in Nigeria, and then I brought you to Wisconsin to make damn sure that you and your mother — make sure you had the blue passports.’ “
With his Nigerian dad and Bostonian mother, Jidenna spent his childhood moving across cities, continents and boundaries. Now, he’s released his debut album, The Chief.
“The chief is really my father and my grandfather,” he explains. “It’s also my highest self — the best parts of them in me. My father came from a village, and then he and my mother worked hard to create a middle-class upbringing for us. Sometimes we were below the poverty line; sometimes it was an EBT card that we were using for my pops’ groceries. But we did get to a decent middle-class life and we did — my siblings [and I] went to great schools.
“So that, I realized, is what a chief is,” Jidenna says. “It comes from a place of love, oddly enough, but it is the darkness that can occur in somebody when they’re defending the people they love.”
That darkness, he recalls, wasn’t always easy to see through. In “Bully Of The Earth,” he sings about his tumultuous relationship with his father. But according to Jidenna, reconciling himself to that relationship might have been a necessary part of growing up.
“When I was younger, I looked at my father as the bully of the earth,” he says. “I hated him, couldn’t stand him. Now I got an album dedicated to him. And that’s how it goes: You grow up and you realize, hey — the bully was not so bad.
“There’s a proverb I use in ‘Bully Of The Earth’ where I say, ‘You’re not a man until your father dies,’ ” Jidenna continues. “My father said that to me — it was one of the last things he said to me before he passed. And I didn’t believe in it until he passed.”
Hear more of Jidenna’s conversation with All Things Considered at the audio link.
Radio editor Monika Evstatieva, web producer Jake Witz and web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.
President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act on March 23, 2010. Since then, the bill has been a battering ram for Republicans. But they’re struggling to replace it under President Trump.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Former President Obama took a victory lap Thursday on seventh anniversary of his signature health care law even as Republicans had planned to formally begin the process of gutting it in celebration.
But now, it’s the GOP replacement plan that remains on life support. Republicans postponed a planned evening vote in the House, denying them a symbolic chance to make good on their years-long promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Obama ticked off the law’s successes in a statement released Thursday morning: 20 million more people insured, preexisting conditions covered, young people staying on their parents’ plans until 26, lowered costs for women’s health care and free preventive care. And while he acknowledged the law could get better, he charged that Republicans’ plan would be moving backward. He said:
“So the reality is clear: America is stronger because of the Affordable Care Act. There will always be work to do to reduce costs, stabilize markets, improve quality, and help the millions of Americans who remain uninsured in states that have so far refused to expand Medicaid.
“I’ve always said we should build on this law, just as Americans of both parties worked to improve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid over the years. So if Republicans are serious about lowering costs while expanding coverage to those who need it, and if they’re prepared to work with Democrats and objective evaluators in finding solutions that accomplish those goals — that’s something we all should welcome. But we should start from the baseline that any changes will make our health care system better, not worse for hardworking Americans. That should always be our priority.
“The Affordable Care Act is law only because millions of Americans mobilized, and organized, and decided that this fight was about more than health care — it was about the character of our country. It was about whether the wealthiest nation on Earth would make sure that neither illness nor twist of fate would rob us of everything we’ve worked so hard to build. It was about whether we look out for one another, as neighbors, and fellow citizens, who care about each other’s success. This fight is still about all that today. And Americans who love their country still have the power to change it.”
At the daily White House briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer jabbed that the former president’s lengthy statement came because he was “feeling time is up” for the law.
Spicer insisted this would be the last anniversary Obamacare was celebrated.
“President Obama attempted to move the goalposts on costs, downplaying the skyrocketing premiums, some in the case of over 100 percent in some places, and unaffordable deductibles,” Spicer said.
He said the Affordable Care Act was in a “death spiral.”
But his comments came just before Republicans postponed the vote in the House for their alternative, as they were still unable to muster a majority to pass the GOP plan.
About this time last year, roughly two dozen daring young strangers bid farewell to the modern world as we know it, bearing their hunting equipment and their wiles into the remote Scottish highlands with the aims of creating a new community from scratch — cameras rolling for a reality show all the while, naturally.
Now that a full year has passed and the remaining participants are heading home, one rather inconvenient question remains: What happened to the show?
The stars of Eden on the U.K.’s Channel 4 agreed to cut themselves off from the wider world in order to “challenge everything about modern living, raising questions about what we need to be happy, what we want from our communities and how we are all influenced by society as a whole,” declared a 2015 press release. Among their number were medical professionals, camerapeople and a fisherman.
There was even a trailer, so you know it was legit.
But aside from four episodes that aired last summer, the wider world hasn’t had a glimpse of what’s been happening in their 600-acre patch of would-be paradise. When the participants emerge from their self-sufficient wonderland — or Lord of the Flies-like dystopia — they’ll be greeted by long-overdue news of Brexit, President Trump’s election … and the fact that for more than half a year now, not a single person back home has been watching.
So what happened?
“The appeal of Eden is that it was a real experiment and when filming began we had no idea what the results would be and how those taking part would react to being isolated for months in a remote part of the British Isles,” Channel 4 said in a statement, according to The Guardian. “That’s why we did it and the story of their time, including the highs and the lows, will be shown later this year.”
Which doesn’t quite explain the radio silence — or, as The Telegraph notes, the utter dearth of activity on its social media channels. Neither the show’s Facebook page nor its Twitter account have posted anything since October.
When a commenter complained in November about “feeling a bit duped” by the sudden hiatus, the account replied in January that the show would “come back on Channel 4 later this year” — though it said dates have not been confirmed.
A local newspaper, the Aberdeen Press and Journal, posits one theory for the delay: All but 10 of the participants already quit. And the paper says the remaining group “resorted to smuggling in junk food and booze.”
“Some of the participants were even seen in the dentist at Fort William needing treatment after eating chicken feed grit,” one resident told the Press and Journal.
As the paper observes, perhaps the trouble simply rests in the show living up to its namesake: “Just as in the Biblical Eden, temptation proved too strong on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.”
Dr. Hussam Jefee-Bahloul, a Syrian psychiatrist, writes poetry that reflects his deep longing for a lost homeland.
“Poetry and art is another way to cope,” he says, “we are all grieving in our own ways. The country is no longer the one that I left and it still haunts me in my dreams.” (Click here to read one of his poems.)
He has turned his grief into an action plan. From the United States, where he’s lived since he arrived for a medical residency in 2009, he’s using his mental health expertise to help Syrians traumatized by years of violence and displacement.
Syria was still intact when Jafee-Bahloul arrived in the U.S. His journey west was fueled by medical ambition.
Jefee-Bahloul wanted to become a psychiatrist in a country that only had an estimated 70 psychiatrists for a population of 23 million.
Advanced studies in psychiatry, unavailable in Syria, would mean a long stay in the U.S. When he finished medical school in Damascus, he came to the University of Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and furthered his training at Yale Medical School.
He became a successful immigrant, securing a position as an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts. His specialty: addiction psychiatry. He treats Americans caught up in this country’s opioid addiction crisis. But his distance from home weighed heavily as his country descended into a protracted war.
“The problem with our situation, it’s chronic, it’s keeps on producing suffering and people who are displaced by the day,” he says about a war that has entered its sixth year.
In 2014, he launched the Syrian Telemental Health Network. It’s an online platform to help mental health workers inside Syria and in clinics around the region. The site offers basic training. But the key to the project, says Jefee-Bahloul, is its ability to connect health workers in Syria, including the small band of trained psychiatrists, to mental health specialists in the West.
“For every mental health provider there is a specialist who is holding their hands through difficult cases and help[ing] and train[ing] them,” he says.
Jefee-Bahloul’s network links therapists and health-care workers in Syria to a growing list of volunteers — more than a dozen Syrian psychiatrists practicing in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.
Such consultations can be critical for an undertrained health-care worker, who can upload video and audio of a patient to the secure platform and ask for advice. The partnership has led to better outcomes. In one case a 15-year-old Syrian boy in a refugee camp in Turkey was diagnosed with autism. When his behavior became dangerously aggressive, his case was referred to a Syrian psychiatrist in the U.S., who diagnosed a severe case of PTSD.
When the site first opened, Jefee-Bahloul conducted role-playing exercises with health-care workers in a clinic near the Syrian border to show them how to interact with patients in distress. He showed me a video of a session subtitled in English. A woman has come to the clinic because, “the world is closing in on me,” she says. Two of her sons are dead, her daughters are grieving, her husband is disabled, and her family lives in a warehouse with more than 100 other refugees. Jafee-Bahloul offers a guide to “active listening,” a technique outlined in the World Health Organization’s Psychological First Aid concepts. The next steps are helping a patient prioritize their problems and then linking them to available resources.
“The most important thing is to be able to listen to people. Most of these people they don’t have anyone to talk to. They need to tell their stories,” says Jafee-Bahloul.
These training sessions target the young volunteers at the clinic, with no medical training or clinical experience, who could take some of the cases from the only trained psychiatrist on staff.
“The main thing is trying to help the people to regain control of their lives. It’s the thing that gets lost. There is a sense of loss and despair and loss of control, basically,” he says. It is a concept that he says is common in treating opioid addition as well as refugee trauma from displacement. It can takes years of work, but Jefee-Hussam says it’s important to help people re-create their routines. For refugees, he encourages them to “re-engage in activities they used to like an enjoy, playing soccer, talking to friends, praying.
In a conflict where the needs are so great, Dr. Jefee-Bahloul hopes he is doing his small part with this long distance learning. It’s not as flashy as surgeons who are consulting long distance, he says.
“In psychiatry, the nature of change is slow,” he says and adds, “From that aspect, it might be demoralizing because you can’t really change much. It’s better to be a surgeon because at least you’ve saved someone’s life.”
But there is no denying that the war has created a mental health emergency as acute as the medical crisis.
Jefee-Bahloul says he’s learned some lessons about long-distance training. The one-on-one role-playing exercises have now been replaced by a series of video lectures based on mental health first aid as outlines in a World Health Organization manual to deal with survivors of trauma and war.
Now, field workers can carry out the role-playing exercises on their own. More than 1,000 have signed on for the courses, he says.
“It’s really practical. In these situations you cannot be anything but practical. The main thing is really trying to help the people to regain control over their life,” says Jefee-Bahloul. “I’m doing this because I’m Syrian. It’s my way of coping.”
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, regroup on the northern outskirts of Deir Ezzor as they advance to encircle the ISIS bastion of Raqqa on Feb. 21.
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Marine artillerymen are now in place on Syrian soil, north of the last stronghold of the Islamic State. A force of local Kurdish and Arab fighters is moving south, continuing to isolate the city of Raqqa.
They’re in the opening stages of a major military operation that officials say could last into the fall.
What comes next is expected to have huge implications not only for the fate of ISIS, but also for the relationship between Turkey and Russia, as well as the geographic outlines of the future Syrian state.
It will be very complicated.
Sometime next month, following a Turkish referendum that could give more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the U.S. is expected to take a controversial step: equipping local Arab and Kurdish forces in Syria with small arms, heavy machine guns and other weapons to begin the final battle for Raqqa.
ISIS has been dug in there for years, and has mostly lost its grip on the other major city it controlled — Mosul, in Iraq.
The fight for Raqqa will not only be a difficult military challenge. Its political dimensions are fraught, too: Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters aided by the U.S. to be terrorists. The U.S. says those Kurds are the best fighters on the ground.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently sent a clear message about his country’s stance on the Syrian Kurds. “We do not wish any of our allies to stand with terrorist groups,” he said.
The U.S. commander who’s overseeing the ISIS fight, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said the operation in Raqqa will include Kurdish fighters — emphasizing they, too, are Syrian.
“The facts are, there are Kurds from Raqqa and larger Raqqa district and province,” Townsend said. “So there are Kurds from there, local Kurds who will participate. I don’t think we’re going to change the demographics of Raqqa by Kurds or Turkmen or any group participating in the operation.”
The Kurdish question
The potential pitfall is the Turkish response to increased American support for the Kurds.
After U.S.-backed Kurdish forces captured the Syrian town of Manbij from ISIS last August and then began moving further north, Turkey launched what it called Operation Euphrates Shield, which pitted Turkish-backed forces against these Kurdish-led forces, as well as against ISIS.
The resulting clashes required U.S. Army Rangers to intervene — including by openly flying American flags from their armored vehicles — to separate the forces. Pentagon officials denied these were “peacekeeping forces” — and struggled to define their mission.
Mostly, they seem to have been there to keep everyone else apart.
“The U.S. military has carved out a new role in Syria, with small numbers of troops now positioned to prevent an escalation of violence among an array of militias and other forces that have converged on an increasingly complex battlefield,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said earlier this month.
Residents of Manbij said the U.S. presence did calm things down.
“The increase in the number of forces and patrol forces reassured the people of Manbij,” said Shervan Darwish, a Kurdish member of the Manbij Military Council. “It was a very welcome step because the threats directed towards Manbij were a source of worry for the people, especially threats by Turkey. The increase of the American presence in the area … quieted people’s fears.”
Middle East observers warn, however, that the Turks have the ability to poke the United States if Washington’s tactical alliance with disfavored Kurds grows into a stronger political relationship. Ankara could cut off American access to an airbase from which warplanes now support the war in Syria — or deploy more of their own forces to key areas over the border.
“What can the Turks do? Well, they can make life difficult,” said Amberin Zaman, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center.
The Arab question
Even as Washington continues to figure out how to deal with Turkey, another big question involves its Arab allies.
The United States has long pressed for Arab states to participate in the anti-ISIS campaign, but has never been satisfied about their commitments. Jordan has sent some troops into Syria along its shared border, and Saudi Arabia has promised to send ground troops — but has not delivered.
Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman repeated that promise last week.
“We are ready to do anything that will eradicate terrorism, anything without limits,” he said.
The Turks have said they, too, want to participate in the Raqqa operation — but have yet to talk about troop numbers, officials say. Turkey’s President Erdogan has said an anti-government group with which he feels comfortable — the Free Syrian Army — could lead the Raqqa offensive.
Washington’s position is not clear — Townsend would not detail the state of negotiations with Middle East allies.
The Turks, meanwhile, have pressed for larger numbers of U.S. ground troops — many thousands — for Syria. But that seems to be a non-starter. All indications are that President Donald Trump will largely follow the strategy of President Barack Obama: Send in U.S. trainers to arm and assist local fighters; allow special operations forces to accompany local combat units and provide airstrikes and surveillance for the local forces.
“American and coalition air power is important in support, but cannot, itself, take the lead on liberating Raqqa and other cities from thousands of entrenched ISIS fighters,” wrote Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, in The National Interest. “The solution to this conundrum has to involve providing arms to the Kurds, whether Turkey loves the idea or not.”
To move forward on the Raqqa plan, the U.S. is considering sending hundreds more US trainers – and more Special Operations Forces – to Syria in the coming weeks. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has yet to sign off on the plan to send those troops to northern Syria, near the town of Kobane. If he does, the total number of U.S. forces in Syria will approach 3,000.
The U.S. now says there are roughly 400 Marines north of Raqqa, along with more than 500 special operations troops. Some officials place the number of special operations forces at around 1,000.
De-conflicting the conflict
The crowded battlefield is a headache for commanders and policymakers. There are various armed groups, along with Turkish, Russian, Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces.
Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently sat down with his Turkish and Russian counterparts to talk about how to handle the situation. One possibility could be carving out zones of operation, so that Russia and Syria would continue operating in areas like Palmyra and the U.S. could focus on Raqqa, defense officials say.
Dunford hinted at such a strategy during a talk last month at the Brookings Institution.
“It’s about as complex an environment as it can be,” Dunford said. “If you just look, you’ve got Iran there, you’ve got Russia there, you have the Syrian regime, obviously, Turkish concerns, Kurdish concerns, Arab concerns, Shia concerns, Sunni concerns … what I think is what you’re getting at is we do need to have a vision of how our military actions set conditions on the ground that actually then become the platform … to come up with a political solution.”
The way ahead for the Trump administration amounts only to a “‘supersize’ of the Obama plan,” says Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which laid out a blueprint last week for the way ahead in Syria. But that isn’t enough, she argues.
The sometimes hawkish ISW is known for its work with top U.S. commanders in the Middle East, including Gen. David Petraeus. It supported the 2007 “surge” of American troops in Iraq.
Today, Carafella argues the U.S. is too focused on the anti-terror fight and not on a more important counterinsurgency effort that focuses on the population. “We’re not winning the fight for popular support,” she says.
ISW’s report calls for the U.S. to send in some 10,000 combat and support troops to seize a foothold along the Syria-Iraq border and then, with local Arab partners, mount clearing operations northwest toward Raqqa.
The U.S. would set up a no-fly zone and mediate disputes between Turkey and the Kurdish fighters in Syria, according to the ISW paper, which warns that “Syrian Kurdish political aims threaten U.S. interests” — putting the institute in a position close to that of Ankara.
The deployment sounds wildly ambitious, given what officials are saying about the way ahead, and the reluctance of the new president to pour in more troops and money abroad. If the status quo today and the ISW plan are the extreme ends of the American menu for Syria, all indications point to the Trump administration picking the middle course with a “supersize.”
The new map of the Middle East
American officials have begun looking down the road to the future of the Syrian state, they tell NPR. Their analysis begins with the reality on the ground: The Russians have propped up Syria’s strongman, Bashar Assad, and helped him secure a long stretch of the country in the south and west. The Kurds have two enclaves in the north. And Sunni Arabs are are in control along both the Iraq and Jordanian borders.
Trump administration officials are looking at encouraging some form of “confederation” in Syria once the fighting stops, and will press Sunni Arab countries to help rebuild Syria in an effort that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
O’Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, says having “autonomous zones” in a confederation seems to make sense. And he says such an effort would require “some number of American forces” to help monitor the movement of people and impede the movement of arms across the Syria-Turkey border. There would likely be a need for a long-term Turkish presence as well in northern Syria, he says, because Ankara might want to keep an eye on what it perceives as a potential threat.
“If there is one thing we should have learned by now in the Middle East,” O’Hanlon says, “it’s that military successes built on weak political foundations won’t last — if they can be achieved in the first place.”
NPR’s Alison Meuse and Peter Kenyon contributed to this report.
A Grim Portrait of the Murderer as A Young Woman: Mother (Klára Melísková) and Olga (Michalina Olszanska) in I, Olga.
Brutal in both subject matter and presentation, the art-house biopic I, Olga tells the story of the last woman to be given the death penalty in Czechoslovakia. Olga Hepnarova, a suicidal 22-year-old who drove her truck onto a Prague sidewalk and killed eight pedestrians in 1973, attributed her act of mass murder to her own sense of alienation from the world. To communicate this, it’s understandable that directors Tomás Weinreb and Petr Kazda would choose to, well, alienate their audience. Cue the standbys of austere Eastern European cinema: the chilly black-and-white cinematography, the lack of a musical score, the Dostoyevskian themes of brutality begetting brutality.
Look, there’s no denying the film, which premiered at the Berlinale more than a year ago, is a hard sit. It opens with scenes of implied familial abuse and closes with a bone-chilling execution; from Olga’s mother telling her she lacks the “strong will” for suicide to Olga committing suicide by state. But this week’s vehicular terrorism in London, combined with the similar attacks last year in Nice and Berlin, are a reminder that such methods of terror are not new and are not exclusive to any particular ideology. The film’s position, rigorously distilled if not entirely original, is that these inhumane tactics are more reliably symptoms of a general sense of isolation from the world, and a desire to inflict pain and suffering on as many people as possible. Any other reason may not matter much beyond this grim, basic truth.
The title comes from a manifesto Olga sends to the newspaper to explain her murders, highlighting that she was in full command of her behavior and giving the state enough cause to execute her. We follow the paths Olga takes until she arrives at such a horrific destination, beginning with her troubled home life and suicide attempt at age 13, which precipitates a year in a psych ward where her fellow inmates also abuse her. Olga later moves out of her house and into a one-room hut with no electricity, casually explaining to one of her only confidantes that she gets her water “from the pump.” Working at a mechanic shop, Olga sticks out with her lanky frame and paranoid gaze, and her middle-aged male colleagues eye her warily as she stacks tires.
There will always be something off-putting about films centered on mass murderers, since they represent our unending need to romanticize and explain away the needless deaths of other human beings. Polish actress Michalina Olszanska (The Lure) helps assuage those fears with her frightening, but never less than deeply human, turn as Olga. Her glassy-eyed, understated rendition of a woman who’s lost all touch with reality jars us from our senses, despite — or perhaps because of — the filmmakers’ clear fascination with their protagonist’s sex appeal.
Olga is gay, a detail that is never explicitly linked to her sense of isolation, although her few moments of genuine human connection come when she gets to be with other women (some simply use her and then toss her aside). But Olszanska plays the character as someone who doesn’t so much project her queerness as operate through the world ignorant of typical feminine social cues — with a lumbering gait and slouched posture that occasionally slips into a low-femme flirtatiousness. Once she makes use of her intelligence to share her worldview she slips into full-on delusion, claiming her history as a victim of bullying has made her suffer worse than black Americans. Should Weinreb and Kazda have allowed her quite so much time to philosophize her way out of a sense of compassion?
Cinematographer Adam Sikora often strands Olga on her own within the frame, her black bob obscuring her face, but he also makes effective use of open spaces to show how she remains at odds with the outside world. His images of barren dinner tables and shuffling workers are the film’s only real clues to the spectre of Communism and the impending Velvet Revolution. Fifteen years from the date of Olga’s execution, the Czech Republic will outlaw the death penalty — her chosen instrument of her own demise. But since Olga lives in isolation and remains convinced everyone is out to harm her, she doesn’t seem to care about societal change either way.
Because the actual deed doesn’t unfold until the final act, we are left with kind of a patchwork of behavioral traits. The scene of the truck attack itself is a 30-second blip of detached horror: from the driver’s seat, we glimpse lives ending as they disappear under the hood with sickening thuds. It’s the only scene a film about Hepnarova was actually obligated to restage, yet it’s also the scene that feels the slimiest, conjuring the ghosts of the people who never wanted this role to begin with.
What follows the attack, though, is fascinating. Olga’s trial period, during which she asserts several times that she wants to be put to death so her actions will gain more attention, precedes her hanging, when something finally rights itself within her and we see a person only coming to grips with her fear of death in the moments before the inevitable occurs. She’s like the motive-free young murderer who breaks down sobbing just before his execution in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing. No amount of terror campaigns, by Hepnarova or anyone mimicking her in the present day, will change an artist’s need to process the fact that humans, and only humans, are responsible. In the eyes of filmmakers, at least, no one is so low as to be below remorse.