Red Joan: a stodgy film skirting issues about loyalty, betrayal and the nature of the British state

Trevor Nunn, “Red Joan” (2019)

Adapted from the novel of the same name which as the film acknowledges is based on the real-life case of Melita Norwood, Britain’s so-called “Granny Spy”, “Red Joan” spins an intriguing fictional tale of a young British woman, Joan Smith (Sophie Cookson) who in the late 1930s briefly flirts with socialism at Cambridge University and makes friends with two student Communist followers, Sonia (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes) there. Joan is recommended by Leo to a secret British military physics project whose chief professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) hires her. The project is involved in working out the physics required to discover nuclear fission and eventually build an atomic bomb before the Americans do. While she resists at first, the eventual news of the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 convinces her to change her mind and to pass on the secrets to Sonia. Amidst all of this, Smith becomes romantically involved with Leo at university and afterwards, and also with Davis who has long been estranged from his wife who refuses to consent to a divorce.

Eventually the British security forces become aware that British military secrets are being passed to the KGB and start hounding the unit where Smith works. Sonia flees Britain and Leo is found dead. Max Davis is arrested, charged with treason under the Official Secrets Act and is imprisoned. Smith does what she can to get Max out of prison and, by blackmailing a former university colleague, William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara) who has achieved a senior position in the British Foreign Office, she and Max flee Britain with new identities as Mr and Mrs Stanley. For half a century afterwards, Smith’s treachery remains undiscovered until the early 2000s, when Mitchell dies and old government documents are declassified. The documents point to Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) as a long-serving KGB agent.

The story is told in flashback and pans back and forth between the present and the past as Joan Stanley reminisces to two British security officers about her past misdeeds in answer to their questions. Dench plays Stanley as a somewhat doddery old grandmother, the kind of slightly bemused elderly lady in whose mouth butter would stay solid; viewers may have some trouble matching the elderly Joan to Cookson’s more determined and steely character, but the lovable fuddy-duddy front falls away when Joan Stanley faces the press. The two actresses play their parts more or less well though Dench is clearly underused in her role. Cookson plays her intelligent but naive anti-heroine to the hilt. The rest of the cast is pigeon-holed into stereotyped backing roles: Sonia and Leo are portrayed as glamorous yet sinister, and the scientists Joan works with are obsessed with their own work to the exclusion of everything else, politics included. The modern-day British security forces are portrayed as efficient bureaucrats paying lip service to Diversity and Identity Politics.

In trying to develop the character of Joan Smith / Stanley as an anti-heroine viewers will sympathise with, the film waters down many aspects of Melita Norwood’s background – Norwood was a fervent Communist sympathiser – to the point of turning Joan Smith / Stanley into a bland generic character. As a result the decisions that the young Joan makes often seem bewildering and her justification for spying – that sharing knowledge is fair and, in the context of Cold War politics, has prevented the use of nuclear warfare for 50+ years – is very unconvincing. Stereotypical plot devices are used to tidy up the narrative: Sonia’s disappearance gives Joan a vital weapon with which she can blackmail Mitchell and very few viewers will believe the fantastically comical scheme in which Smith and Davis manage to escape Britain and flee to Australia. (At this point the film-makers decided not to explain how Joan later makes her way back to Britain.)

In spite of the use of flashback structuring to generate a sense of tension that should build up during the course of the film towards the present day, the film tends to be stodgy throughout its running time. Had British security forces been portrayed as sinister, menacing and violent towards both Joan and Davis, rather than as efficient, even sympathetic, the much-needed tension and fear could have been generated. The film fails to acknowledge the repressive and secretive nature of British society past and present, and to draw a parallel between this and Soviet repression and paranoia: the result is that the film, along with the other liberties it takes in reshaping the central character and her background, and in skirting other issues that arise about loyalty to one’s country when it conflicts with one’s ethics and values, does not rise above general mediocre entertainment.

“Leaked Court Docs Upending Brazil!” – a brief look at news of leaked documents concerning a popular Brazilian politician

Lee Camp “Leaked Court Docs Upending Brazil!” (Redacted Tonight, June 2019)

Along with his weekly “Redacted Tonight” news / current affairs program, comedian / journalist Lee Camp occasionally uploads short rants … I mean, short talk pieces in a “Viewers’ Questions” series to the Redacted Tonight channel on Youtube.com. In this particular recent short piece, half of which is given over to answering viewer questions on other topics, he talks briefly about the current political upheaval and crisis in Brazil created by the publication of a huge trove of leaked documents and emails concerning the imprisonment of popular socialist-lite politician Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2016. The documents were leaked to the online US-based news publisher The Intercept, specifically to Glenn Greenwald who lives in Rio de Janeiro.

The leaked papers demonstrate that the prosecution of Lula da Silva, running for Brazil’s Presidency in 2018, had been politically motivated with the aim of removing him from the Presidential campaign so that Jair Bolsonaro, representing extreme fascist political forces in the country, could win the election. The judge (Sergio Fernando Moro) who presided over Lula’s trial and the Operation Car Wash corruption investigations, of which Lula’s trial was part, was shown to have (illegally) worked with the prosecutors in their investigations that led to Lula’s conviction and imprisonment. As of the time of Camp’s piece, there were still documents being released that may reveal more about Moro’s biased and illegal interference in the proceedings designed to prevent Lula da Silva from contesting the Presidency.

The time allocated to this “Viewers’ Questions” episode doesn’t permit a detailed look at the recent political situation in Brazil and how that developed over time, starting with Lula da Silva’s previous tenure as President (2003 – 2010) and Dilma Rousseff’s subsequent Presidency which ended in 2016 with her impeachment, and what those two leaders managed to achieve for Brazil, that would have given viewers some background on why those leaders are hated so much by Brazilian fascists and their supporters in the middle and upper classes. Lula da Silva and Rousseff carried out programs of cautious social reforms and change that benefited the poor in a way that tried to accommodate the interests of the middle and upper classes, build political consensus and emphasise inclusiveness. However these layers of Brazil’s society turned against even this gradual policy of social reform and change, and through personalities like Sergio Moro used a wide-ranging criminal investigation of corruption in the country’s state petroleum company Petrobras (Operation Car Wash) to target and ensnare Lula da Silva and Rousseff.

The role of the United States government in assisting the fascists to target Lula and Rousseff might be relevant, in that the US ambassador (Liliana Ayalde) to Brazil at the time of Rousseff’s impeachment had previously been US ambassador to Paraguay at the time that country’s president was impeached in circumstances similar to those prevailing during Rousseff’s impeachment.

The rest of the episode is given over to Redacted Tonight viewers’ questions about topics from previous episodes including the possibility of Australian journalist Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States to answer to trumped-up espionage charges that could put him away in prison for up to 170 years! This topic in itself deserves its own episode, given that that extradition seems a certainty once Assange serves his current 1-year jail sentence in Britain for previously skipping bail.

While this “Viewers’ Questions” episode is informative on a superficial level at least, I do wish the entire episode had been longer to give its main topic a little more depth and to do justice to some of the other viewer’s questions raised.

Victim of the World Wildlife Fund: racial cleansing and genocide masquerading as nature conservation

Jos van Dongen, “Victim of the World Wildlife Fund” (Zembla, 2019)

Now this is the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism I like to see! In this report for Zembla, a Dutch programme produced by BNNVARA (part of the Dutch public broadcasting system) that makes documentaries, journalist Jos van Dongen travels to Assam in eastern India to investigate allegations that the World Wildlife Fund aids and abets the destruction of villages and agricultural communities surrounding Kaziranga National Park (hereafter KNP) so that their lands can be incorporated into the park to help preserve declining populations of the Indian rhinoceros. Van Dongen discovers that park rangers in KNP have been issued with military assault weapons and are trained to shoot to kill. He also finds that villagers have been wrongly accused of poaching animals and in many cases have been detained, tortured and killed by park rangers. Finally and most shockingly, van Dongen discovers that the WWF has been funding family planning programmes in villages around the park, and that in these programmes medical and non-medical staff have been sterilising men and women.

Probably most viewers will be shocked to discover that the World Wildlife Fund has always had a hidden political agenda aimed at racial cleansing of unwanted and mostly poor and marginalised groups of people, disguised as a concern for conserving nature. With a history of having been founded or represented by people with direct or indirect connections to Nazi Germany or its institutions – people such as Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld (who married into the Dutch royal family) in the Netherlands and Prince Phillip of the British royal family – the WWF was set on a path of following policies and programmes that pit the communities that have always lived with endangered animals and ecosystems (and who know best how to conserve those ecosystems and the endangered flora and fauna within them) against those very ecosystems, and which portray humans and nature as always being in perennial conflict. This mind-set leads to the forced removal (and as the documentary shows, sometimes the torture and murder) of communities and individuals who innocently stray into the parks and are accused of being poachers, by park rangers.

Incredibly the park rangers themselves receive near-paramilitary training and military assault weapons, and are taught torture methods – by whom, the documentary does not say – that are funded by the WWF. While understandably park rangers need to be able to protect themselves from poachers who may be working for criminal gangs, the solutions they are provided with (including a “shoot to kill” policy) may be targeting local communities more than they are actually targeting the poachers, the gangs who employ them and the end consumers (usually the wealthy in other countries) who regard possessing rhino horns or jewellery and other trinkets made from ivory as status symbols. Also, by arming the park rangers with military assault weapons and training them, the WWF may be worsening the poaching problem, as in Kaziranga National Park and elsewhere around the world park rangers themselves have been involved in poaching activities.

Through interviews, notably with Professor Bram Buscher (Professor and Chair at the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University), the documentary makes very clear that the local communities next to national parks like Kaziranga National Park are the people who understand the ecosystems and the endangered species existing within them best; and that the issue is not overpopulation, to be solved by foisting family planning programmes onto these communities or secretly sterilising their members, but is instead the economic growth paradigm and the materialist / consumerist model that accompanies it. This ideology is used to justify land grabs made by governments and corporations working together. Viewers will probably not be surprised to learn that the WWF also works with corporations in promoting its ideology and agenda (in which the supposed rights of nature and animals always supersede human rights) and turning conservation, sustainability and nature into profit-making commodities.

This documentary certainly calls into question the current paradigm of setting aside land for national parks without consulting the communities who have long occupied the land and cared for it for centuries, before the arrival of Europeans, with their greed for land and its wealth, and the many ideological justifications they had for stealing that wealth. The paradigm of conservation championed by the WWF and its supporters – conserving nature for the benefit and enjoyment of a privileged elite – has long had a racist and genocidal underlay.

A celebration of a major art and social utopian movement in “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus”

Niels Bolbringer and Thomas Tielsch, “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus” (2018)

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the artistic / aesthetic movement by Walter Gropius in Weimar-era Germany, this documentary explores both the history and the impact of the movement on art, music and dance, interior design, architecture and urban planning over the decades. The Bauhaus movement was born in a school with the aim of creating a new type of society, one that stressed the full development of the human individual’s physical, mental and artistic capacities in a socially conscious collective environment. Through such development, the ills of early 20th-century Western society that had led to global war, poverty and inequality could be eliminated and a new, better society could result. Artists and intellectuals from across Europe came to study or to teach at the school. The school barely survived the Great Depression and the collapse of Weimar Germany before being shut down by the Nazi Germany, its teachers and students forced to flee overseas.

The early history of the Bauhaus school and movement zips by somewhat confusingly, flitting from dance to painting and to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s works and vision – Le Corbusier was not really part of the Bauhaus movement so why the film devotes so much attention to him is puzzling – and viewers can easily get lost in the slew of images and information that whiz by. It’s only once the film starts exploring the Bauhaus impact on architecture, furniture and interior design, and urban planning in Germany and the poor neighbourhoods, known as barrios, of Medellin in Colombia that it becomes focused and its aim of revitalising Bauhaus as an inclusive social utopian movement becomes apparent.

The best part of the documentary is when it shifts to those barrios and the architects bringing Bauhaus principles to the people there analyse the needs of the people living in the slums and adapt the Bauhaus vision to fulfilling those needs. In bringing a communal gym to one slum neighbourhood – which also does multiple duty as a meeting place, child care centre and more besides – the architects encourage a sense of community among the slum dwellers who in turn come to identify more and more with their neighbourhoods and are prepared to support and defend them. The architects look at the issue of transport within overcrowded barrios climbing up the sides of hills and mountains, and come up with the brainwave of building escalators and a cable car system that take commuters up and down hills with minimal disruption to communities and an efficient use of the available land. The added bonus of the cable car system is that it is fun to ride and affords riders incredible views of Medellin and the surrounding mountains.

The Bauhaus approach is contrasted with other rational approaches to urban planning in Paris (here is where Le Corbusier has been influential) which have resulted in a very divided city where the more pleasant (and tourist-oriented) areas are in the middle, industry is banished to one side and housing estates into which immigrants from all corners of the globe have been tossed together with no thought as to how they’ll all get along spread endlessly outside the city with inadequate and inefficient public transport links to the industrial areas where they have to work. Many of the social problems that bedevil France – the annual youth riots in summer, the isolation and alienation of migrant youngsters that encourage their radicalisation by terror organisations – surely have their origins in this form of urban planning. The Bauhaus vision on the other hand is to work with the people and their needs, and the limitations of the physical and social environment in which the people live, and create and develop solutions particular to that context; as a result, no two communities where Bauhaus principles have informed their planning will be the same.

Unfortunately the film says nothing about how and why the Bauhaus movement declined in influence in the later half of the 20th century; surely that decline coincided with significant political, economic and social trends during that period. The movement’s utopian ideals would surely have clashed with the aims of neoliberal capitalism across most parts of the world. The film’s failure to locate the Bauhaus movement, its aims and aesthetic ideals within the political, social and economic ideologies prevailing across the world most certainly accounts for why the documentary seems vague on the Bauhaus movement’s later history.

The Heiresses: a slow-burning character study of self-transformation

Marcelo Martinessi, “The Heiresses / Las Herederas” (2018)

A slow-burning, low-key character study that, among other things, examines loss and self-transformation and interrogates social hierarchy and the relations within it, “The Heiresses” is a rare creature: its main characters are a middle-aged lesbian couple who have lived together for 30 years in one woman’s old family home, sheltered by wealth and privilege, in Asuncion, in Paraguay. Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) are busy selling off old heirlooms belonging to both their families to raise money to pay off Chiquita’s debts and to survive. However the money the two raise isn’t enough to stop Chiquita from going to jail for fraud, which she cheerfully accepts. Initially the shy Chela is hugely embarrassed by their situation and withdraws into their prison-like house. Gradually though she is drawn out of that shell, and her own psychological shell, by neighbour Pituca, a rich elderly woman who needs Chela to drive her to weekly bridge games with her girlfriends – even though Chela hasn’t driven the ageing Bentley for yonks. Pituca and her pals start using Chela as their own private Uber taxi driver and before long, Chela is also driving for a younger woman, Angy (Ana Ivanova), and her mother who needs to go to Itaugua each week for medical appointments. Through her driving and through Angy, to whom she becomes attracted due to the younger woman’s zest for life and sensuality, Chela rediscovers an independence and a hope for freedom she long ago had given up.

Brun’s performance as Chela is the film’s major asset: though she does not speak much and is an essentially passive character, the changes and increased confidence she experiences as a chauffeur become obvious from one day to the next. The film is a textbook example of the maxim “Show, don’t tell”: Chela gradually improves her appearance and adopts a more sprightly posture and a happier face. Her transformation occasionally hits some obstacles and challenges – the most challenging being when Chiquita returns home and decides to sell off the Bentley – but in her own unassuming way Chela eventually finds a solution and manages to thwart those who would stand in the way. Where Chela does not speak, her eyes, the expression on her face, her posture and her body language do all the talking. Incredibly, “The Heiresses” marks Brun’s debut as a film actor, all her previous work having been done on stage. The rest of the cast puts up a strong showing, in particular Ivanova as the flirtatious, sensual potential lover Angy and Maria Martins as the talkative Pituca.

The film portrays Paraguayan society as one where wealth, class and race coincide quite strongly: white Europeans make up the wealthy class while people of mixed ancestry make up the poor. Chela and Chiquita hire a new maid who speaks little Spanish and who is clearly beneath them socially yet becomes something of a mother figure to Chela when Chela is at her most despondent. Part of Chela’s transformation from a lonely isolated figure to a fully aware human being involves having to communicate with and ask for help from someone from a different class who does not look European. The transformation occurs in parallel with the gradual loss of furniture and other family possessions; Chela does not seem too bothered about giving up furniture and heirlooms that must surely hold many memories and much family history.

Where Chela goes next after Chiquita’s return, the film does not say but her absence at the end of the film speaks more powerfully than an entire cast of thousands could say and shout. It is this kind of direction and filming, using a scene, a prop or the absence of something to express its opposite, that mark Martinessi a director to watch in the future. Chela’s transformation may be taken as a symbol of Paraguay’s gradual transformation from a political and cultural backwater in the middle of South America, with the divided and hierarchical society one might expect to find, to a modern nation where old socioeconomic categories have broken down to allow all citizens to fulfill their potential as human beings.

Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.

The Untold Story – “Korean Empire”: a testament to Korean determination in reclaiming lost history

Park Jeong-woo and Park Hee-joo, “The Untold Story – ‘Korean Empire’ ” (Arirang TV, 2013)

A symbol of the Korean people’s desire for freedom and independence and their first contacts with the West of their own initiative in the late 19th century, the Korea Legation Building at Logan Circle in Washington DC was for a long time lost to Koreans as their embassy in the United States from 1910 to 2012. Built in 1877, the building was purchased by the Joseon kingdom then ruling Korea in 1891 to be used as its embassy in dealing with the United States. At the time, King Gojong had ambitions and plans for modernising Korea along Western lines, against the objections of his Qing Chinese overlords. Unfortunately, geopolitical events beyond the Joseon kingdom / later Korean empire’s control led to the building passing under Japanese control in 1905, after that nation defeated China and then Russia in two wars. Japan later sold the building in 1910 for $10, having bought it from Korea for $5: an insulting gesture to the Koreans if ever there was one. Through the efforts of the Korean-American community in raising the money to purchase the building and keeping the issue alive among their own members, the Legation Building was finally relocated with the help of the US National Archives and bought back by the Koreans in 2012, with the intention of using it as a cultural and educational centre.

Using archived photographs and animation (often in combination) and interviews with Korean-American academics and Korean diplomats, the documentary is a handsome and highly visual presentation of a little known period in Korea’s history when the Joseon kingdom declared itself independent of China in 1897, with King Gojong as its first emperor, and attempted to conduct its own diplomacy with the West free from interference from China, Japan and Russia. However – and the film does not make this very clear – the Koreans may have put too much faith in the United States as a trustworthy ally: while the documentary acknowledges that President Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century saw Japan as much more important and modern than Korea, it is silent on American ambitions to be a dominant power in the affairs of East Asia and how the US co-operated with Japan, looking away when that nation occupied Korea and made it a colony. The film also treats much subsequent Korean history from the early 1900s on in a superficial way. Nothing is said of what happened to King Gojong and his son Prince Sunjong after their empire is gobbled up by Japan, and some viewers may find this omission a major fault of the documentary.

By making a film about the Korea Legation Building and its complicated history, Arirang TV pays tribute to the people who tirelessly sought to locate it and try to buy it back. The film’s narrative demonstrates the determination of the Korean people to remember and reclaim a vital part of their history as an independent nation navigating its way through a treacherous and dark period in its life.

Borderless: European refugee / migrant crisis harbours a sinister agenda

Caolan Robertson and George Llewellyn-John, “Borderless” (2019)

Lauren Southern is a political activist and independent journalist notorious for expressing views considered to be white-nationalist and borderline racist / xenophobic. However this documentary on the European refugee and immigration crisis is free of ideology and criticism, and Southern (together with her 2-person camera crew) interviews as many people involved in the crisis as possible to get an understanding of the scale of the crisis: these people include refugees and migrants in camps in Morocco, and in Lesvos and other parts of Greece; a homeless migrant from Mali in Paris; EU citizens including a Greek farmer whose farm was overrun by people traffickers and smugglers; people working for NGOs (non-government organisations) in refugee camps supposedly assisting refugees; vigilante militia members in Bulgaria on the lookout for illegal migrants; and an Irish investigative journalist who speaks frankly about the profits that smuggling networks can earn from illegal migration for the people who control them. Southern’s work takes her and her crew across southern Europe and northwest Africa, and to Ireland and Paris.

Initially the film is slow and appears quite amateurish as Southern waits late at night for refugees and migrants to arrive at a beach in northwestern Turkey where people smugglers will take them on a possibly hazardous voyage in flimsy dinghy boats to Lesvos island. After that episode, when the film cuts to Morocco, the pace picks up and the film has more focus and direction, though the unnecessarily dramatic music is intrusive and jarring. From this point on, viewers begin to get a sense of what Southern is working towards: that the refugee and migration crisis, in which huge numbers of people are forced to move from war-torn and/or impoverished areas in the Middle East, western Asia and sub-Saharan Africa into a Europe struggling with its own problems of austerity economics, high unemployment, excessive property speculation and homelessness, appears to be part of a sinister plan created and engineered by an unseen cabal of people who actually profit financially and otherwise (such as perhaps stealing vacated land sitting atop natural gas and oil deposits) by huge shifts of populations, with no regard for how different groups of people with very different histories, cultures, values and traditions can live and work together in crowded conditions and with limited resources.

Alarming moments abound through the documentary: in northern Greece, migrants from as far away as Afghanistan tell of daily fights and violence in their camp and one man says that ISIS fighters have infiltrated the camp by pretending to be refugees and are on the lookout for him (he is an atheist) and others like Christians or Kurdish people who refuse to submit to their Wahhabi brand of Islam; members of NGOs funded by the UN or the EU admit teaching migrants how to fudge their personal details and commit fraud in order to enter Europe, and how they themselves benefit financially from aiding and abetting the human trafficking; African refugees and migrants in Morocco pour out their hopes and dreams of work and success in the European countries they strive to enter; and several migrants in camps in Greece and Morocco admit that they wished they had stayed home. Where migrants find the thousands of euros or their equivalent to pay smugglers to take them abroad is never mentioned but from the way some migrants speak and the way they try to dress and comport themselves, one suspects they may have come from middle class backgrounds or pulled some strings. One odd thing about the migrants that might strike viewers is how very few women, children and elderly people there are in the camps; another odd thing is that some migrants have come from as far away as Afghanistan.

In Brussels, MEPs Southern interviews admit that the EU wastes huge amounts of money in driving an agenda that forces open border policies on EU member nations with no thought for how individual countries cope with housing migrants, feeding them and giving them work at the same time that many of their own citizens are homeless, suffer food insecurity and cannot find work in conditions already strained by austerity policies that have shrunk economic and business activity. Southern travels to Wicklow, a rural town in Ireland, which is trying to cope with an influx of asylum seekers holed up in a hotel. The Wicklow locals lament the irreversible changes forced on them by a local government council that refuses to listen to them, and the asylum seekers themselves see the homelessness, the lack of work, the despair and the suspicion surrounding them.

While the film’s conclusion is an untidy mix of images from previous parts of the documentary accompanied by the tiresome muzak soundtrack, Southern’s address to the audience, in which she admits her astonishment at the scale and complexiy of the crisis and the greed, manipulation and criminality involved in what is virtually a giant global human-trafficking operation, on par with (and superseding) the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Ireland and Africa during the 17th to 19th centuries, and her realisation that refugees, migrants and the peoples of the host nations alike have been deceived and played for fools by a small group of what she calls “evil men” (in reality, governments and their puppet masters), is remarkable in its stark honesty. Southern herself has come a long way in her own research and discoveries, and while she may still express views considered antithetical to the bland and shallow values under the Identity Politics / Diversity umbrella, at least these views are informed by reality on the ground.

Chan is Missing: a missing-person mystery dives into exploring a community and the immigrant experience

Wayne Wang, “Chan is Missing” (1982)

Would-be taxicab owner / driver Jo (Wood Moy) needs to purchase a licence enabling him to drive a taxi so he contacts a friend, Chan Hong, to pass on $4,000 to take to the relevant licensing authority. However Chan and the money disappear so together with his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi), Jo travels around the Chinese community in San Francisco looking for and inquiring about Chan. What most viewers might imagine should be fairly straightforward turns into a veritable odyssey for Jo and Steve as each person they speak to about Chan has a very different opinion about the elusive man as to his personality and motivations, and a very complex and contradictory portrait of Chan develops. During the two men’s search for Chan, viewers learn a great deal about the nature of the Chinese-American community and the political tensions within it, the dilemma of the immigrant experience in a strange land, and the stereotypes and filters through which most Americans view Chinese-American people and their culture. As one character reminds Jo, Chinese people have lived in the United States since the mid-19th century yet however much they try to integrate into American society and be accepted, if most Americans do not accept them, then that is because America does not want to accept them.

Shot in black-and-white, this cheap and cheerful film partakes quite liberally from the classic film noir genre – in particular, the uncle-and-nephew sleuthing tag-team and Jo’s voice-over narration recall the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s – 50s in which the Chinese-Hawaiian detective occasionally ropes in his eldest son to help solve crimes. Jo and Steve visit a fair few eccentric characters in their quest, including a restaurant cook wearing a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt who is tired of cooking sweet-and-sour pork several times a day every day; Chan’s wife and wise-cracking daughter; Chan’s migration sponsor; people at a Filipino seniors’ community centre; an unseen Chinese immigrant apartment dweller who can’t stand other Chinese people; and George the English-language teacher who discusses local Chinese-American politics with Jo. A sub-plot revolving around whether Chan was involved in a flag-waving dispute over whether the Taiwanese flag or the flag of the People’s Republic of China should be used during a Chinese New Year parade, and which resulted in a fight and a man’s death develops and adds comic frisson to the film: later in the film, Jo discovers a gun and is frightened that Chan may have killed the man. At critical points in the film when a character talks about Chan to Jo, loud music blares out which blurs the conversation and adds to the mystery of Chan and his motivations.

The search for an elusive character who may not actually exist leads into an exploration of the diversity, individuality and eccentricity of a community that has long been viewed through filters and stereotypes encouraged by the news media and Hollywood culture. Jo and Steve’s quest ultimately becomes a quest for identity and connection with the culture and country of their ancestors, a country neither of them may have visited. A number of film noir elements are brought in for comic effect in the film’s second half: long shadows in Chan Hong’s hotel room (enhanced by the monochromatic film); suspenseful, almost shrill and hysterical music; shots of Chinatown itself from behind the wheel of a car; and even a gangster moll in the form of Chan Hong’s girlfriend. The sequence in which Jo fears he is being followed by another car is an affectionate send-up of the Charlie Chan films which partly inspired this film.

Wood Moy as the ageing world-weary taxicab driver carries the whole film capably on his shoulders but Hayashi is just as effective as his impatient nephew and the cast generally acquit themselves well in a film where it looks as if improvisation in the story-line is the major feature and the narrative meanders at will depending on whom director Wayne Wang was able to rope into participating in the film.

It seems that absence does make the heart fonder, for a transplanted Chinese culture that is slowly disappearing as its generations age and pass on.

Investigating trauma and how a society deals with uncomfortable truths in “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate”

Anthony DiMieri, “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate” (The Grayzone Project, May 2019)

For two years from the time Donald Trump won the US Presidency, the United States has been gripped in a collective hysteria over his campaign’s supposed collusion with the Russian government to capture the nation’s leadership from his rival Hillary Clinton. It was only in April 2019 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, after conducting an investigation from May 2017 onwards, finally submitted his report to US Attorney General William Barr (and published it in redacted form in April) in which he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge the Trump campaign with collusion or coordination with the Kremlin. The curious thing about Russiagate is not that this hysteria and obsession with Russian wrongdoing or interference in US politics existed at all but that it lasted as long as it did across the political spectrum, to the extent that nearly the entire nation believed in a rumour that, when exposed to light, had no legs; and moreover, when the rumour was exposed, so many people erupted in anger and disbelief and refused to believe that they had been deceived. Despite Russia’s protestations that it had never interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections, the lie continues; if anything, it has become a permanent part of the nation’s cultural belief set that Russia is continuing to undermine American politics, even when evidence can be found that other nations are trying to influence US politics and policy.

To this end, Grayzone journalist Aaron Maté sat down with his father Gabor Maté, a physician and expert on mental health and the effect that childhood traumas can have on future adult life, to discuss the Russiagate phenomenon and how the election of Donald Trump as US President was received by thousands if not millions of Americans as a traumatic and emotionally scarring event. The half-hour conversation between the two ranges across various cultural and social psychological phenomena that have shaped American thinking over decades, perhaps even the past two centuries, that have come together not only to predispose Americans into believing that a foreign enemy they have long been taught to fear is attacking them using underhanded methods but to invest considerable effort into maintaining that belief even when it has been shot down. Psychological projection of one’s own sins onto another, scapegoating, the cult of victimhood and that peculiarly American custom of reducing and personalising complex politics and history into one person and making that person the epitome of Evil, with the result that US foreign policy ends up focusing on taking that person out, leaving chaos behind once that person is gone and having either a vague plan or no plan at all for reconstruction and rebuilding a defeated rival country: these are topics discussed in a fairly cursory manner, with no examination of how such American characteristics might have arisen in the past, and what contexts and institutions helped to birth those characteristics.

Gabor Maté comes close to choosing Hollywood as a major source of the various narratives that encourage Americans to adopt quite infantile views of how the world operates, focusing on individuals with particular psychologies and powers rather than on the long-term sociological processes that shape individuals’ mentalities and careers and which push them in certain directions. In such narratives, people and nations are either Good or Evil, America is always on the side of Good and those who oppose America are always Evil, and Good always vanquishes Evil. For many Americans, Donald Trump is clearly Evil and so it is natural that he and that other personification of Evil, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, should have put their heads together and plotted to make Trump President. (Of course there are also many Americans who regard Trump as Good.) It is a pity that father and son Maté do not trace this thinking back to the days of the Pilgrims and other early settlers who compared themselves to God’s Chosen People sent to America to tame it (and exterminate the indigenous people who owned the land) and claim it for their own. The journalist and his physician Dad unfortunately do not examine the role of Hollywood, mainstream news media and education in constantly repeating the idea of America as God’s Chosen and Exceptional Nation, to whom all other nations bow down and regard as their spiritual and moral better.

The interview also ranges across the reality of America meddling in other nations’ affairs to the extent of choosing those nations’ leaders, forcing them to sack leaders America does not like or even carrying out regime-change activities that include violence, invasion and warfare. Robert Mueller, appointed to investigate Democrat claims of Trump’s collusion with Russia, comes in for examination as a saviour supposed to deliver America from the clutches of Evil by finding incriminating evidence that will suffice for an impeachment of Trump. People clearly had unrealistic expectations of what Mueller was supposed to achieve and the actual result would have been traumatic for them.

I would like to be able to say that the conversation between the two men was bright and scintillating but while some of the issues they brought up were interesting and thought-provoking, their actual conversation droned quite considerably and keeping up with their monotone without feeling drowsy was hard. Fortunately a transcript of the interview is available at The Grayzone Project website.

At the end Gabor Maté says that being disillusioned and facing the truth is much better than continuing to believe in illusions and risk being traumatised when the illusions do not work out the way they are expected to; but beyond seeing the truth, he does not say how people should come to terms with the truth and the trauma it causes, and how they should act on the truth and become more open-minded and less inclined to follow fantasy illusions promoted by Hollywood, governments, academia and the news media.