2046: glossy soap opera with little profound to say about love and loneliness

Wong Kar Wai “2046” (2004)

If ever a film could be considered typical “art house” with an emphasis on visual candy, music substituting for emotion and colour for mood, and a story-line that appears to promise much but ends up saying very little, then Wong Kar Wai’s “2046” would be that film. It looks stunning and the camera lavishes a great deal of attention on period detail to evoke nostalgia for a (mostly romanticised) past. The actual events of the period in question – most of the movie is set in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore during a significant period in the history of the Chinese-speaking people in the mid to late 1960s (hey everyone, look, the Cultural Revolution was taking place in China) – take a distant backseat to the concerns of the film’s main character, an unemployed journalist and writer of seedy pulp fiction Chow Mowan (Tony Leung), who spends most of his time on screen chasing women of dubious virtue. An unhappy affair with a lady called Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung in a tiny role) sets our man Chow adrift searching for love and comfort with a series of lovely ladies beginning with high-class call girl Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), his landlord’s daughter and aspiring writer Jingwen (Faye Wong) and a professional gambler (Gong Li) who also happens to be called Su Lizhen. Already I think we can see where this film is going. The only problem is Chow is unwilling to commit himself fully to any of these women, stunning beauties though they are, and the result is heartbreak, lots of brooding and unhappy expressions all around. At the end of the day, Chow is as lonely as ever with only his memories to keep him company and his various loves go their separate ways.

Chow’s love affairs provide much material for a science fiction novel he is writing in which a fantastic train carries its main character (Takuya Kimura) on a never-ending journey to reclaim his memories, so that he can go forward into a new life, and during which he meets android stewardesses who are Chow’s women projected into the train-riding future to find true love. The only problem is that having given their hearts to Chow, the androids are unable to love. The story of the novel is intertwined with the episodes of Chow’s most significant romances, those with Bai Ling, the landlord’s daughter and the second Su Lizhen, though the film hints at other romances Chow has had which have turned out to be just as desultory and futile.

The plot is very flimsy and the characters are weakly developed, with only Zhang and Wong’s characters deserving of much sympathy from the audience as the two women try to find emotional fulfillment. Zhang gives the impression of working hard in her role while the rest of the cast sleepwalk their way through their respective parts. If the film works it is mainly because the stories are more or less threaded together along with the sci-fi subplot so that there is a constant transition between the subplot and the stories as a group. Indeed the subplot is the sole element that holds the entire narrative although the psychological outlet it provides for Chow to dump his problems is a dead end.

Though the film has been much lauded (by Western film critics) as a languid and exotic Oriental piece with gorgeous images and faces, a distinct style and haunting ambience, it really is not much more than a very glossy soap opera with nothing much to say about the nature of love and loneliness. The most viewers come away with is a platitude about finding true love at the right time and the right place but this is about as profound as the message gets. There is nothing about true love being something people might have to work at if it is to be recognised. The main character learns no real lessons from his experiences or from the novel he writes and publishes, and at the end of the film, all that can be said for him is that he will continue drifting along in life collecting more unsatisfactory affairs.

“2046” took up two hours of my time that I’ll never be able to claim back.

Snowden: a riveting character study of personal transformation and commitment to personal ideals

Oliver Stone, “Snowden” (2016)

Surprisingly even though I’m familiar with the story of National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden through Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour”, Oliver Stone’s biopic of Snowden’s life from 2004 to 2013, documenting his transformation from all-American patriot believing in his nation’s “exceptionalism” to political activist / whistle-blower aghast at the Big Brother surveillance being carried out by his government, turns out to be riveting in its own low-key way. That may be due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s precise if minimalist portrayal of Snowden throughout the film, so much so that he rivals Meryl Streep as an impersonator rather than an actor. Gordon-Levitt is ably supported by a committed cast that includes Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto.

The film opens with Snowden bailed up in a Hong Kong hotel being met by then-Guardian newspaper columnist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) and documentary film-maker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), later to be joined by Greenwald’s fellow Guardian scribbler Ewan MacAskill (Wilkinson). In his room, Snowden explains to the trio the extent of NSA spying on the American public through Internet, mobile phone and social media conversations and interactions. Not only does the NSA spy on the US public but also on the conversations that take place in other countries, in Germany, Japan, Brazil and, well, the rest of the world. At this point, the film zips over to Snowden’s early days training for the US Army reserve during which time the young man is a strong “my country, right or wrong” believer, convinced that the US is and has always been a force for democracy and freedom. After injuries cut short his military career, Snowden applies to join the US Central Intelligence Agency where he meets his instructor and mentor Corbyn O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) who posts him to Geneva, Tokyo and Hawaii.

In the course of his work, Snowden discovers how cynical the CIA and later the NSA are (through O’Brien and various work colleagues) in their regard for the rule of law where it conflicts with the US government’s desire to know what everyone is thinking and doing, so as to pinpoint vulnerabilities in people’s lives that could be used to manipulate and blackmail them for its own advantage, and to influence and direct people’s conversations towards positions it favours. Information and knowledge are commodities to be used for commercial and military gain, and secrecy is the security wrapped around the commodities. Confronted by what he experiences as a CIA employee and later as a contractor working for the NSA and Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden makes plans to reveal what he knows of NSA surveillance.

Threaded through the narrative of how Snowden changes and matures over the years is his romance with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) which perhaps gets too much screen time for a plot device aiming to humanise Snowden and show how much he gives up or loses in his quest to be true to himself and his ideals. Even so, the romance is interesting in how it highlights Snowden’s growing paranoia at his own life being the topic of NSA scrutiny and issues of privacy invasion, where the limit between revealing one’s own life on social media ends and where others’ invasion of that life begins. As a photographer and acrobatic performer posting intimate images (including semi-nude images) of herself on Facebook and other social media, Mills is an example of this dilemma surrounding privacy.

The film is done very well with excellent cinematography, smooth transitions and steady pacing, and the cast shows commitment, with Gordon-Levitt giving the performance of his life. Where the film is limited is in its narrow focus on Snowden’s life and point of view, to the extent that viewers may get an incorrect impression that all the CIA and NSA surveillance began with the events of 11 September 2001, when the World Trade Center twin towers and a US Department of Defense building were hit by three hijacked passenger jets and a fourth passenger jet crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers on that plane apparently fought with hijackers. The reality is that the US has always jealously tried to preserve its status as the world’s leading political, economic and military power since 1945. The nation’s “exceptionalism” stems from propaganda it has spread through its corporate media and entertainment industries and Edward Snowden is not the only victim who fell for that propaganda hook, line and sinker. How and why the surveillance state began and developed into the all-encompassing Panopticon it is, is far beyond the film’s grasp. Another problem is the relative upbeat ending in which Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance are made public without any apparent hindrance; the reality is that after the events portrayed in the film, Greenwald left The Guardian and The Guardian itself under a new chief editor deteriorated into stenographer journalism.

Nevertheless, if “Snowden” can encourage viewers to think about the extent of government surveillance in their own lives, how it influences their thinking and behaviour, and the direction of society, and to investigate how it began (so that they can begin to fight it), it will have fulfilled its aim of raising social awareness.

The American Friend: an investigation into the nature of individual and collective identity

Wim Wenders, “Der Amerikanische Freund / The American Friend” (1977)

Based on the novel “Ripley’s Game” by Patricia Highsmith, “The American Friend” is at once a psychological thriller imbued with European art-house sensibilities, a character study of two men in a strange and uneasy friendship and a homage to American film noir. Art restorer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is introduced to con man Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an auction; Jonathan already knows of Ripley’s reputation as a dealer in forged art and snubs him by refusing to shake his hand. Miffed at such treatment, Ripley avenges himself by using news about Jonathan’s incurable blood disease to draw the unsuspecting victim into a scheme concocted together with French gangster Minot (Gérard Blain) in which Jonathan has to kill another gangster for money. Jonathan is repelled by the idea but he needs the money to pass on to his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) and their two sons in the event of his death. He is persuaded by Ripley and Minot to visit a medical specialist in Paris for a second opinion and the results (intercepted and falsified by Ripley) convince Jonathan that he really is dying and must ensure his family is financially secure. In this way Jonathan falls deeper under Ripley’s control and the two men form a close if bizarre friendship.

Meanwhile Marianne is suspicious about Jonathan’s absences and believes he is in over his head in a dangerous project with Ripley. She discovers through her own investigations that the Paris medical test results have been faked. Will she be able though to reach her husband in time to persuade him not to go any further in a life of crime and to get him out of Ripley’s clutches for his sake and that of their family?

As character studies go, the film does a good job following a man whose life spins out of control and whose decisions and actions endanger him and his family, all as a result of not shaking someone’s hand. Duped into thinking his disease is killing him, desperate to provide well for his family, Jonathan ends up spiralling into committing one crime after another. His new life brings its own strains: his physical health starts to suffer under a guilty conscience and he becomes estranged from his wife due to all the lies he tells her. Ripley is not treated simply as a catalyst for Jonathan’s downfall; as Jonathan goes farther on his road to hell, he and Ripley become close friends and collaborators. Through Jonathan, Ripley gains entry into German society that he would never have been able to achieve on his own. However the film’s events end up thwarting Ripley’s further penetration into polite pan-European circles and the American is left stranded and alone once more.

Both Ganz as the rather pathetic Jonathan, driven to distraction between competing needs, and Hopper in his particular lanky cowboy Yankee way play their characters well; Hopper’s laidback and easy-going style belies a ruthless and thuggish aspect in Ripley’s personality. The support cast more or less play stereotypes of their roles – Kreuzer is effective as a German hausfrau but goes no further to stamping her own individuality on her role.

The film features some beautiful cinematography in keeping with its art-house aesthetics but at the same time follows the demands of psychological thriller quite faithfully, if with unexpected results. It can be slow for a thriller and most of the action is bunched up in the film’s second half. The music is an important actor in the film in setting a mood and priming it audiences to anticipate an unexpected and violent move on Jonathan’s part. Just what is it really in Jonathan’s nature that drives him to distrust his family doctor, reject his wife and follow a man who initially struck him as insincere and possibly dangerous? Being terminally ill and needing better life insurance cannot wholly explain Jonathan’s motivations. Could Jonathan have secretly envied Ripley’s apparent freedom in defining himself and being his own man? Through Jonathan, viewers are challenged as to the nature of one’s identity, how a person’s public identity can be at variance with his or her real character and desires, and how one’s circumstances and history can conspire to throw him/her into a trajectory that changes the public identity but might fulfill secret desires. Jonathan’s ultimate fate though should give us pause as to how far we might be able to go in breaking out of our public personas and achieving an illusory freedom. Ripley himself appears to escape the consequences of what he has done to the Zimmermanns and to others, but he cannot escape his own internal prison.

Aside from its existential questioning, the film could also be read as an inquiry into the nature of how Germany is becoming more Americanised and the intent behind American makeover of German society, thinking and behaviour. Is there an agenda behind the gradual change in German culture towards thinking and acting like Americans? Will the outcome benefit Germans or, as the film suggests, will it result in suffering and death for those seduced by American culture?

Tehran Taxi / Jafar Panahi’s Taxi: purporting to be a snapshot of life in Tehran but an examination of life and behaviour under a police state

Jafar Panahi, “Tehran Taxi” aka “Jafar Panahi’s Taxi” (2015)

Banned by the Iranian government in 2010 from making films, director Jafar Panahi nevertheless managed to make at least three more films (as of this time of review) in ingenious if not always original ways. His 2015 comedy / drama flick “Tehran Taxi”, following in the foot-steps of that uniquely Iranian film genre of taxi dramas (the classic being Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” which made Homayun Ershadi an international star), poses as a snapshot of life in the streets of Iran as Panahi, playing at taxi driver (and not doing very well at that), picks up passengers and takes them (or not) to their various destinations. What drives the film and makes it appealing despite the supposedly spontaneous nature of the narrative is the conversations the driver and his passengers have, and the underlying political and social context – how to live and survive, and knowing what is right and what is wrong, in a repressive police state that seeks to shape people’s thoughts and behaviour – that unites all that everyone says and does.

The film has a minimalist style with bare-bones musical accompaniment though its look is not as raw and the cameras are not as jumpy as one might have expected. Panahi’s first two passengers have an animated discussion about the effectiveness of capital punishment in deterring future crimes. This discussion ends quite abruptly when the passengers have to leave but the opinions the two express later resurface unexpectedly when Panahi meets an old acquaintance who was recently robbed by an impoverished couple but did not report them to the police – because he feared that they would end up being executed In a subtle way, the film exposes how, in a totalitarian society, the law can be used as a sledgehammer to pound the poor and weak, without tackling and resolving the issue of why people might be driven to commit crimes, and at the same instill fear into others and create disrespect for law and order.

Iran’s treatment of the poor and most socially disadvantaged, and the effect of government propaganda and restrictions on their thinking and behaviour, is demonstrated in various scenes and a tiny sub-plot involving Panahi’s nine-year-old schoolgirl niece Hana Saeidi who is one of his passengers. A woman with an injured husband gets into Panahi’s car early on and he rushes them to hospital; during the trip the husband narrates his will to try to circumvent the law that prevents his sobbing wife from inheriting their home. Two elderly ladies with a bowl of goldfish urge Panahi to rush them to a place where they can return the goldfish and get two new ones before noon, in the belief that their lives will be extended and they won’t suddenly drop dead. In these two scenes, the effect of poverty on people’s lives and their thinking and behaviour which earns them ridicule and isolation can be tragic.

The sub-plot in which Saeidi harangues a poor boy for apparently stealing money from a bridal couple and thus wrecking her school assignment home movie (because his actions don’t fit the school’s requirement that the film be heroic and uplifting, not dark or “sordid”) looks more forced and artificial than the earlier strand with the accident victim, and only manages to succeed to the extent it does due to Saeidi’s bossy-boots character. Initially bright, perky and sassy, the girl becomes a bullying little bitch towards the passive yet rebellious boy and her transformation can be unsettling to watch.

How people manage to navigate or bluster their way around government restrictions is illustrated by a dealer who sells pirated foreign films and gets Panahi to drive him to see a film student, and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh who discusses the case of a woman, Ghonche Ghatami, jailed for going to see a volleyball game, with Panahi. Even the film itself is Panahi’s attempt to evade the restrictions on his ability to sustain himself and maintain his career, and this along with the dealer’s activities and Sotoudeh’s defiance in continuing her career despite previous imprisonment and torture says much about Iranian spirit and determination in the face of tremendous opposition.

The film turns out to be less spontaneous and improvised than it first appears so the documentary aspect of the film wears out very quickly. “Tehran Taxi” is a vehicle (pun intended) for exploring the effects of an all-encompassing and repressive police state and its ideology on people’s thinking, speech and actions and how all citizens are forced, more or less, to maintain and uphold that structure. Questions of how such control informs people’s morality, what actions people take to circumvent the law and how in control the state actually is, when people find ways to flout its laws, arise. The film’s climax comes as an unexpected and devastating blow when the state makes its move against Panahi and Hana.

Cold Souls: a dull, flat and unsatisfying comedy about materialism and the nature of identity and existence

Sophie Barthes, “Cold Souls” (2009)

In the vein of Charlie Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich” but without that film’s sprightly tone, “Cold Souls” is a metaphysical comedy intended as a commentary on Western materialist society in which souls can be traded for money just like any other commodity. Playing himself, Paul Giamatti is a typically angst-ridden New Yorker who becomes so absorbed in the characters and roles he plays that they follow him home even after the play or film has finished and end up tormenting him and playing havoc with his relationships. He discovers a clinic that can remove his soul and put it into deep storage. After undergoing the necessary procedure (and finding to his great consternation that his soul looks just like a chickpea), Giamatti is tremendously relieved. Not long afterwards though, his new soulless condition starts causing him problems with his wife (Emily Watson) and his acting career so he returns to the clinic to retrieve his soul. He and his doctor (David Strathairn) open the storage unit and discover the soul is missing. For a while, Giamatti is content to use the soul of a Russian poet called Olga, and this enables him to play Uncle Vanya in Anton Chekhov’s famous play of the same name successfully but unfortunately the Russian soul isn’t a good fit for Giamatti and he yearns for his old soul back.

Unbeknownst to both, the chickpea thing has been stolen by a soul mule called Nina (Dina Korzun) who works for a black market operator based in Saint Petersburg trafficking in stolen souls. Feeling a bit guilty, Nina contacts Paul and tells him his soul is now residing in the body of a Russian TV soap opera starlet married to the fellow running the black market soul-stealing scheme. Paul has to try to retrieve his soul back from the starlet – but is his soul agreeable to returning to its original owner? It seems that Paul’s soul is having such a fun time with the starlet that it wants to stay with her permanently.

The film could have been very funny with a serious message about how commodifying souls can encourage greed, increase unhappiness and discontent, and even lead to violence and the kind of trafficking shown. (If the clinic run by Strathairn’s character had been the black market operator or the doctor himself an unscrupulous money-sniffing quack, that would have provided the film with the frisson it needs rather than having to resort to needless stereotypes about Russian-style capitalism that imply that whatever Russians do turns out bad.) Intriguing questions about why we have souls and the difference between American souls and Russian souls could have been asked and left unanswered so that the audience is challenged to come up with its own answers about questions of life and the purpose of existence. By choosing to film the story as drama as well as comedy, director Barthes turns “Cold Souls” into a dreary plod. Giamatti is enthusiastic about sending himself up and provides the main spark of life as long as he is on the screen; but once he disappears, the movie becomes very leaden. Support characters like Nina, the doctor, Giamatti’s wife and the Russian starlet could have been very interesting and entertaining, even in a brief superficial stereotyped way in the case of the starlet, but under Barthes’ control end up flat.

Under a different director, the idea of a society where souls can be bought and sold (and stolen and trafficked) could have given us rich comedy and plenty of food for thought … but in the hands of Barthes, in the guise of “Cold Souls”, it just ends up … soulless.

The Last Man on Earth: still retaining the power to shock and horrify with a message of post-apocalyptic despair and existential angst

Ubaldo B Ragona and Sidney Salkow, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964)

Over 50 years since it was made, this cheaply made horror film has clearly not lost its power to shock, horrify and leave its audiences in stunned silence with its message of despair. “The Last Man on Earth” is the first of three films based Richard Matheson’s sci-fi horror novel “I Am Legend” (the others being “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend”) and apparently follows the novel’s plot quite closely. Vincent Price plays Dr Robert Morgan, the eponymous star of the story, in which he survives a mysterious plague due apparently to having been bitten by a bat while working in South America. Seemingly the rest of humanity including Dr Morgan’s wife (Emma Danieli) and daughter has succumbed to the disease which turns corpses into zombie-like vampires if they are not immediately burned after death. Morgan himself is forced to survive by playing a Van Helsing vampire hunter role each day, every day: in the day-time he hunts down, impales and burns any vampires he finds and in the evenings he holes up in what remains of his house while a group of zombie fangsters, led by a former work colleague Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), besiege him and threaten him.

A good two-thirds of the film are taken up with showing the doctor’s dreary daily routine of driving around his abandoned home city and hunting down and impaling vampires. The middle part of the film finds him remembering or dreaming about the last days of his former normal existence as a virologist and happy family man before his daughter and then his wife die suddenly. Price does a good job portraying Morgan with his survivor guilt, his depressed episodes and mixed emotions about his past life. Voice-over narration by Price establishes the narrative of Morgan as lone surviving human forced against his own reasoning and knowledge to acknowledge the existence of the vampires and to hunt them down mercilessly.

The story becomes interesting in its last third when a female non-vampire character Ruth (Franca Bettoia) is introduced and warns Morgan that, because of his exploits as a vampire killer, he is feared by a small community of surviving humans. Almost on cue, these humans arrive in Morgan’s city and despatch all the vampires including Ben before turning their guns on Morgan – because he had taken out quite a few of their number as well as the hunted vampires.

For a cheap movie which is dated in parts, “The Last Man …” features some astonishing scenes of sheer loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness. It is rather wonky with respect to dubbing and other technical aspects linked to the shoestring budget, and maybe there were some bad decisions made with regard to plotting as the last 15 minutes of the film become an action thriller set in an incipient police-state dystopia. The early parts of the film are slow-moving and reveal Morgan in all his desolation and anguish. He probably could have shown more angst about having to kill vampires who were once friends and relatives of his but one significant scene in which Morgan laughs and then cries is well done, showing what a fine actor Price was when given the chance to showcase his talent and experience.

The cinematography turns out to be a major highlight in creating an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, especially at the beginning of the film with a series of silent stills showing dead bodies in streets of an apparently abandoned city. If it were not for the Italian neo-realist influence on the cinematography, “The Last Man …” would probably look even more B-grade cheap.

The film’s conclusion is tragic and depressing, demonstrating how societies under severe stress can become more dangerous and monstrous than the monsters they pursue. For a slow-moving character study with not a great deal happening until the very last moment, “The Last Man …” turns out to be an intriguing piece on the nature of being, the purpose of one’s existence and how societies might cope with long-term terror and mass psychological stress.

In the Beginning: interplay of social realism and individual psychologies results in a film of self-renewal and fulfillment

Xavier Giannoli, “À l’Origine” / “In the Beginning” (2009)

It’s rather too long by 30 minutes and a couple of sub-plots, one involving Gérard Depardieu sleepwalking through his part, go nowhere but otherwise this tale of a con-man who takes on a scam job bigger than he can chew and ends up bringing new life to a depressed rural town and possibly himself is an enjoyable excursion into social realism and the possibility of reinvention in one’s own life. Small-time con-man Philippe (François Cluzet) makes a living ripping off construction companies by usurping identities and selling equipment, going from one town to the next … until he comes to a municipality plagued by mass unemployment and a bleak future as a result of a highway construction project that has stalled because a colony of rare scarab beetles lives in the area where the highway was supposed to go through. Adopting the role of project manager, and egged on by an eager mayor (Emmanuelle Devos), Philippe restarts the project, hires local people as labour and local firms to supply materials for the construction, even though he has very little idea as to what project managers on such jobs actually do. He befriends local girl Monika (pop singer Soko) and her drug dealer boyfriend Nicolas (Vincent Rottiers) who find jobs on the project which for the first time in their lives promise a better future for them in the town. Philippe himself finds a new lease on life as the entire town is energised by the project and the passion and enthusiasm the townspeople have in the construction work infect him as well. The possibility of settling down in the town with the mayor, as opposed to furtively running from one place to the next, beckons. Unfortunately Philippe’s con-man partner makes an appearance and the law through the town bank manager starts to catch up with Philippe.

The tension in the film generated by Philippe’s conscience as the con-man starts to stress over the lies he tells the townspeople and how soon something will happen that will reveal the truth about him and the project to the mayor and everyone else, holds the plot together. In this, Cluzet does a great job with quite minimal acting, his face alone conveying the increasing guilt and shame he feels at having duped everyone. Initially planning to cream off the profits generated by the construction work, Philippe ends up spending all the money he hides on making sure the work gets done on schedule, even buying up new office equipment when the factory office gets trashed by night burglars. The rest of the cast basically revolves around Cluzet with Rottiers as the delinquent who is redeemed by working on the project the stand-out of the supporting actors.

The thin plot is padded out with various themes playing out in quite complex ways: there are contemporary economic issues about the outsourcing of work that led to the town becoming depressed, the bureaucracy that stalled construction work, and the need for the town to find a new identity and common purpose that unites everyone and stops them from descending into poverty and crime. There is the sense that the town is isolated from the rest of France and needs a catalyst from outside that can set its people on their own path of self-help and collective renewal. Certainly officialdom has been of no help so far. Philippe finds self-fulfillment in work that generates jobs, prosperity, happiness and new-found purpose for a whole town. Yet the knowledge that his scam will be revealed and Philippe himself experiencing anxiety, health problems and coming close to wrecking not only his own life but other people’s lives as well is ever present.

It’s the intersection of the social realist themes (economic depression in rural regions, the need for useful work that creates jobs, prosperity and self-fulfillment) and the individual psychologies of characters like Philippe and Nicolas, both small-time criminals who find new identities and self-renewal in the most unlikely way, that gives this film its unique style as a tragicomedy combining elements of heist and redemption films.

SBS versus President Bashar al Assad of Syria: a respectful interview revealing Western prejudices and assumptions about the Syrian war

SBS News Interview with President Bashar al Assad (1 July 2016)

Two years in the making, SBS journalist Luke Waters’ interview of Syrian President Bashar al Assad claims to be rare and exclusive though the BBC has interviewed Assad in the past. The Australian journalist interviewed Assad in the presidential palace in Damascus and the interview itself was subject to various conditions, among them one that it not be edited and that it be shown in its entirety on Australian television.

As always in his interviews, Assad comes across as thoughtful, articulate and rational, and no question however difficult or provocative seems to fluster him, even if inwardly he may be annoyed at the hidden agendas and prejudices behind the questions that Western journalists ask. The questions range over the conduct of the Syrian war and how it began, the refugee crisis that the war has created, Syria’s relations with the West, and Mr Assad’s views on the US 2016 Presidential elections and Britain’s referendum on whether to stay in the European Union or not. The main things stressed in Assad’s replies are that the solutions to the war and refugee crisis are clear and unambiguous, and that the real problem is the duplicity of Western governments in aiding the decapitation-crazy jihadis and at the same time apparently co-operating and negotiating with the Syrian government.

Waters’ questions hew closely to the mainstream Western view of the initial protests and demonstrations in Dar’a in 2011 as genuine calls for reform and more democracy, and the war having broken out as a result of Syrian government heavy-handedness. Assad deftly and bluntly deflects the criticism of him implicit in the questions by pointing out that many demonstrators and government defectors were being paid by Qatar and other neighbouring Middle Eastern countries to manipulate the narrative being put forward to the public outside Syria and to destabilise the Syrian government. As the interview progresses, viewers sense there is not much rapport between Waters and Assad: the physical distance between the two is partly to blame but there is also no attempt on Waters’ part to follow Assad’s train of thought and what he is saying.

When asked as to who he would prefer to see as US President Barrack Obama’s successor, Assad expresses none and states that whatever presidential candidates say during their campaigns is never carried out during their administrations. He points out that the United States excels in creating problems where none exist and in spreading chaos but ultimately failing to achieve anything long-lasting and beneficial. On the issue of British voters preferring to leave the EU by a slight majority, Assad expresses the view that the referendum result reflects voter anger at the actions and policies of second-rate politicians in both London and Brussels.

Overall, Waters was respectful towards Assad and allowed him to say what he had to say with no interruptions, and perhaps that is all that can be said about the SBS interview that is positive.

The interview can be viewed at this Youtube link and a transcript in English can be read at this Syrian Arab News Agency link.

WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network: an astounding report on the links between US politics and extremist Islam

Newsbud Spotlight with Sibel and Spiro (12 August 2016): WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network

In the wake of the aborted military coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016 and the subsequent ongoing purges of suspected followers of charismatic Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen within the Turkish government, armed forces and education system, and against the backdrop of the 2016 US Presidential election circus, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the nominated presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, this timely report investigates the financial and other links between Gülen and Clinton, and what these mean for the future security of the world. The report is timely not only because the US Presidential elections are only a few months away but also because Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is preparing to release emails showing the Clinton-Gulen connections and the report devotes some time commenting on the way in which Wikileaks has chosen to release the information.

The report takes the form of part-interview / part-discussion between Newsbud reporter Spiro Skouras and Boiling Frogs Post analyst Sibel Edmonds, the whistle-blower who formerly worked as a translator for the FBI before being sacked in 2002 for accusing a colleague of covering up illegal activity involving Turkish nationals and covering up security breaches. It begins more or less with a brief introduction to Fethullah Gülen, his worldwide network of schools and educational institutes (many of them in the United States), and how he was brought to the US by CIA agent Graham Fuller and given asylum. Edmonds is excited over the Wikileaks news and states that the way in which Wikileaks plans to release the raw material as it is, allowing people to pore over the information and pick over it, is the best way the information can be made public, as compared to the slow way in which The Intercept is releasing NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s documents. Edmonds expects that the emails will show the close ties between Hillary and Bill Clinton and their Clinton Foundation on the one hand, and on the other hand Fethullah Gülen, going back to the mid-1990s and involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars. Edmonds links this partnership to the Gladio B operation which covers the training and preparation of extreme Islamic militants in Balkan Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East to undermine the legitimate governments in those regions and bring never-ending war and chaos. Heroin trafficking was also part of this operation, I presume to help raise money for the recruitment and training of the jihadi fighters.

Edmonds’ argument is easy to follow – she is a very articulate and impassioned interviewee – although listeners not familiar with Fethullah Gülen, Graham Fuller and the Clinton couple’s dark secrets need to do their own research on these people and their histories. (Among other things, Graham Fuller was once the father-in-law of Kazakhstani businessman Ruslan Tsarnaev, uncle of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the supposed 2013 Boston Marathon bombers.) The discussion shifts away from the Turkish imam to the Clinton couple and the way in which the Clintons have been able to skate their way through two Presidential administrations and are poised for a third, maybe even a fourth administration spanning another eight years, in spite of the criminal activity, the numerous lies and the wars and devastation across south-east Europe, Ukraine and the Middle East they and their associates have left in their wake.

Edmonds does not put up statistics and give sources or evidence for the statements she makes about the Clintons, and this is the main weakness of the Newsbud report. Googling Hillary Clinton and Fethullah Gülen’s names, I did find a number of websites (such as this one) that focused on the ties between the two, that also went into great detail on the emails that passed between them or their respective organisations (the Clinton Foundation and the Gülen-related Alliance for Shared Values). So those sceptical about the claims Edmonds makes need to make their own inquiries and do some research – not only will they be surprised, they will be horrified as well at the scale and wide-reaching range of the links and the corruption.

The Newsbud Report can be viewed at this link.

The Embrace of the Serpent: a film condemning European colonialism and its effects also carrying a message of reconciliation and hope

Ciro Guerra, “The Embrace of the Serpent / El Abrazo de la Serpiente” (2015)

Filmed on location in the Amazon rainforest region, this remarkable film features two parallel stories that involve the shaman Karamakate set 30 years apart. In the earlier story, German explorer / ethnographer Theo Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by man-servant Manduca (Yauenku Migue), is ailing from a severe illness and needs treatment and a cure; he is brought to the young Karamakate (Niblio Torres) who initially declines to help as he distrusts Europeans for having destroyed his people and their culture. After Theo tells the shaman that he has seen some of his people and can take him to them, K agrees to go with him and Manduca and lead them to the yakruna plant that will apparently cure Theo. Theo promises to abide by various prohibitions that the shaman places on him. The threesome endure a testy relationship while sailing on the Amazon due to K’s distrust of Manduca for abandoning his culture for that of European ways and of Theo for being white. Manduca loyally defends Theo who bought his freedom from a rubber plantation owner. On their journey, the trio encounter a mission run by a lone priest for abandoned orphans; the priest has forbidden the children from using their own languages and runs a severe religious Christian regime that includes physical punishment.

Years later, American botanist Richard Evans (Brionne Davis), using an English translation of Theo’s published notes, posted to Germany by Manduca after the German died in the rainforest, comes to the Amazon to find Karamakate. Evans’ real purpose is to find disease-free rubber trees for the US, since the usual Southeast Asian sources of rubber have been overtaken by Japan during the Second World War; but he conceals this from Karamakate, telling the shaman he is interested in finding the plant that healed Theo for its medicinal qualities.

Through both stories the film is a powerful exploration of the extent to which European culture has devastated native Amazon cultures and peoples with the consequent loss of native knowledge and human connections with nature. In both stories, Theo and Richard must learn to divest themselves of material possessions and Western assumptions and patterns of thinking, and to listen to and follow their inner voices, and rediscover their inner lives and worlds through dreaming; only by doing so can they find what they have been truly seeking, which is the nature of reality and finding their true selves and place in the cosmos. Karamakate for his part must also learn what his true purpose is as the lone survivor of his people and the sole repository of all their knowledge and history. Just as the white men must learn that the yakruna plant cannot be abused for profit or grown in ways that abuse its sacred properties, so Karamakate is led on his own spiritual path and release from the emptiness he has felt for allowing his anger at European and mestizo abuse of the yakruna plant to overcome him and cause Theo’s death 30 years earlier. He comes to realise his knowledge isn’t just for his own people but is for the wider world beyond that needs it.

The monochrome look of the film gives it a surreal quality and the exquisite editing enables the narrative to shift back and forwards in time; this allows the film also to track the fortunes of the mission orphans over time. The lone priest who abused the orphans physically is replaced by a crazed self-appointed messiah. In this the film makes a statement about the effect that cultural genocide has had on Amazon peoples and contrasts the religious extremism encouraged by self-styled Christian leaders with the mystical journeys of Theo, Richard and Karamakate. The time shifts also enable viewers to experience time and Karamakate’s own experiences in particular as circular, highlighting the shaman’s own redemption and his frailties as a human.

The climax of the film is filmed in colour and seems a bit flat and disappointing but this is a minor quibble compared with the rest of the film. It is a strong and devastating critique of European colonialism and the capitalist quest to commodify and exploit the natural world for profit, and also shows a way in which all humans can find reconnection with the world of nature and the spirit world. Ultimately this is a film of redemption, reconciliation and hope.