The Handmaid’s Tale: a film affected by its own demonstration of how repressive societies suck the life out of whatever they touch

Volker Schlöndorff, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990)

Based on the dystopian novel by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” as realised by Volker Schlöndorff is a very pedestrian and (in spite of the use of bright colours) very colourless work. The film can be read as a satire on contemporary American society and the political and social trends that Atwood discerned within that are likely to affect women over the next 50 years.

In the near future, the United States is rent by political and social chaos which is ended by a putsch carried out by Christian fundamentalist groups who impose their notions of utopia upon a population devastated by decades of war, violence, severe pollution and radioactivity. 99% of women have been rendered infertile by the pollution and the remaining 1% who are found to be fertile are frog-marched into special institutions and where they are brainwashed and prepped into becoming child-bearing “handmaids” to the nation’s elites. One such woman is Offred (Natasha Richardson) who is caught by security forces while trying to escape the theocracy with her husband and daughter to Canada. The husband is shot dead and the daughter is either taken away from her or abandoned. Back in the US, or rather, the new Republic of Gilead, Offred is prepared by so-called “aunts” in an institution resembling a mix of girls’ boarding school, Magdalene laundry and nunnery for her role, and is then sent off to the nation’s senior commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) to bear a child for them. The film then follows Offred’s life serving the couple in a tightly controlled and repressive setting where all women have been reduced to five basic categories of neoconservative Western female stereotypes – wife, walking womb, servant, aunt (a sort of prim spinsterish combination of nun and school-teacher) and whore-ish outsider – and any transgression that threatens the hierarchy results in capital punishment by hanging.

Offred comes into contact with a group of rebels called the Mayday group, represented by the commander’s chauffeur Nick (Aidan Quinn) with whom she falls in love, and another handmaid. She is drawn into their plot to assassinate the commander and is given the murder weapon. If she does as they want her to – and needlessly to say, her life will be in danger if she does – will they be able to save her from the Republic’s wrath and vengeful punishment? Will they be able to find her daughter and reunite them both? How will she, her daughter and Nick survive in a world completely dominated by the Republic?

The society portrayed in the film looks like an eclectic mix of wartime Nazi Germany and hyper-sanitised 1950s upper-class America, due perhaps to the director’s German background and the ideas and inspirations he brought. Schlöndorff does a good job of detailing the hierarchical and insular nature of the futuristic theocratic fascist society as experienced by the women who live in it. The parallel the German director draws between Nazi Germany and the future Christian fundamentalist theocracy done American-style is done very well, though perhaps cautiously. At the risk of turning the film into a camp kitsch parody, I would say that the film could have gone much further in aligning aspects of US Christian fundamentalism and Nazi German attitudes towards the role of women in society, and finding rich material to include, even if just as background scenery. On the other hand, we do not learn much about the men who serve this society and the social layers that divide them. Neither do we learn much about the women who work as servants and why they submit in the way they do. On the other hand, the ways in which women are exploited and set against one another, so that they can never overcome their class differences and unite and join their brothers in challenging the elites and overthrowing them, are delineated very well and chillingly so in one scene of mob violence instigated by the ruling elites. Offred is pressed by her training and circumstances to become completely passive and emotionally blank in order to survive. There is irony in that in being forced to bear children for others, Offred must become spiritually sterile.

By necessity, the acting is very wooden and somehow forced; the actors play characters whose individuality has been taken away from them and who can only behave in stereotyped ways appropriate to their social status. Even the elites suffer under the system: the infertile Serena Joy pins her hopes on Offred conceiving a child with her husband, so that her life can have meaning and she regains some sort of identity (before the Republic of Gilead, she was a public celebrity); and her husband chafes in his loveless marriage, seeking escape by playing board games with Offred and taking her to secret evening entertainments where prostitutes perform risqué dances. Audiences will not feel much sympathy for the characters except perhaps for Offred who hopes against hope that she will see her daughter again. If individual scenes look stale and tired, with settings lacking in originality and freshness, we have to remember that the Republic of Gilead is intended to be a prison of the mind and imagination as well as of the body.

One can debate whether the society as imagined by Atwood and Schlondorff could ever exist in the US or elsewhere. We only see a particular aspect of the totalitarian theocracy as it affects women of three social classes. The society is at war against rebels but we don’t learn very much about the war and how much of it is real and how much is propaganda. The polarity of truth and lying extends into Offred’s life: she is told by Serena Joy that her daughter is alive and safe, but we have no way of knowing if Serena Joy is telling the truth. Offred pins her hopes on seeing her daughter again and perhaps creating a new family unit with the child and Nick; but jump some months to the ending where a heavily pregnant Offred is still waiting for Nick and her lost daughter in a derelict caravan in a barren wilderness, and we start to wonder whether Nick has been arrested by the Republic’s paramilitary, has betrayed and abandoned Offred or is still searching for the child.

The film puts forward the case that totalitarian societies that control people’s lives to highly intrusive degrees are also societies lacking in love and true social connections. People lose their identities and individuality and are reduced to cartoon stereotypes that repeat over and over with each new generation. The ideals that supposedly inspire and invigorate such societies are empty and offer no comfort or fulfillment. Some of the best and most horrific lines in the film about the nature of the theocracy are uttered by the commander, who sincerely believes that the theocracy he serves has eliminated the scum of society and brought about a cleaner, clearer world with what he believes are proper moral values. These values though are shown to be false and hollow ideals in his own life as he seeks warmth and connection in activities that contradict what he is supposedly working towards.

In its own way the film succeeds in its goal of demonstrating what a soulless, inhuman society does to people, and how individuals try to cope, preserve their sanity and lives, or find meaning and purpose in such a psychotic culture by becoming passive, cruel and controlling, hypocritical or just plain bonkers. Unfortunately the film itself becomes robotic and enervated in its presentation. Perhaps this in itself proves the film’s point about totalitarian and repressive societies.

Deduction and reason versus propaganda in pursuit of the truth in “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Case of Alexander Litvinenko”

Alexander Korobko, “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Case of Alexander Litvinenko” (2015)

Not only does this 23-minute documentary present an intriguing scenario of the death of the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko from polonium contamination – a scenario that, among other things, not only exonerates his supposed murderer Andre Lugovoi ( a former KGB guard later turned businessman and Russian State Duma representative) but also possibly explains why the British inquests into Litvinenko’s death go nowhere – but it does so in a calm, laid-back way that eschews Hollywood-style hugger-mugger razzle. Taking us into the matter is Vasily Livanov, posing as the Russian Sherlock Holmes, sitting at ease in his armchair and reading out aloud the work done by amateur Russian and British sleuths who shared their information online.

The documentary presents its case that Litvinenko contaminated himself with polonium and carelessly left traces wherever he went, which explains how not only Lugovoi himself ended up contaminated but also other places in London that Litvinenko frequented (but which Lugovoi never visited) also were found to have traces of the element on their premises. Firstly Lugovoi is subjected to a polygraph lie-detector test administered by expert Blake C Burgess and is found to be innocent. The documentary then turns its attention to the US writer Masha Gessen’s scribbling about Litvinenko’s case in her book on Russian President Vladimir Putin (“Putin: the Man without a Face”) and, using information obtained from an interview conducted with an American nuclear physicist, demolishes Gessen’s weird claim that the isotope of polonium that killed Litvinenko was made only in Russia by government workers in 2006 and that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the hit on Litvinenko. The US scientist adds that polonium can be ordered online in tiny amounts. (Plus polonium is used in textile factories throughout the world, including the Indian subcontinent where the bulk of the global textile manufacturing industry is located.) Finally a British citizen journalist visits the Abracadabra Club in London, where polonium traces were found, and speaks to the manager there. The manager recognises photos of Litvinenko’s employer Boris Berezovsky and an associate, Mario Scaramella; but on seeing Lugovoi’s photo, says he does not know the man.

The documentary is easy to follow though its case is not entirely persuasive. The polygraph lie-detector test is not infallible as Burgess himself admits. The Yes / No questions asked of Lugovoi might have been phrased and framed in such a way that a bystander could easily predict the answers he gave. Only one employee at the Abracadabra nightclub is interviewed. Viewers may need more convincing that Gessen is not simply a jealous Putinophobe and that other people have criticised her writing and research. Other possibilities as to how Litvinenko might have died – he might have died from some other toxin and the polonium story is simply a cover to hide the real cause of death – are not considered.

How Litvinenko originally came in contact with the polonium and why is not part of the documentary’s scope so some viewers may be disappointed that the sleuthing done by citizen journalists only exonerates Lugovoi of murder but goes no further. The aim of the program is basically to strip the politics away from the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death and by doing so, demonstrate how the man and the way he died are being used to demonise Russia and its government by the British and other Anglophone news media. Implied here is the notion that the British news media is acting as the propaganda arm of the British government in pushing an agenda that wilfully separates the peoples of Russia and Britain from pursuing common interests and values by fanning the flames of conflict between them.

The documentary treats its viewers intelligently and does not condescend to them with blaring lights, a hasty pace, jagged editing and flashy special effects. Not for the first time do I find myself wishing all documentaries could treat its viewers with respect.

Kakekomi: historical soap opera drama labouring under several sub-plots to tackle serious social issues

Masato Harada, “Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko” (2015)

A light-hearted historical drama set in Japan during the early 1840s, “Kakekomi …” combines comedy with some social criticism of contemporary Japan’s economic austerity policies and their effects on more vulnerable members of society. Based on a novel “Tokeiji Hanayadori” by Hisashi Inoue, the film’s plot revolves around the plight of women who desire to escape unhappy or dysfunctional marriages to abusive and violent men. Jogo (Erika Toda) is a young working-class woman who flees her slave-driver husband’s iron foundry when she hears of the Buddhist temple at Tokeiji which takes in women wishing to leave their marriages on the condition that they spend two years working on tasks set for them by the monks and nuns there. On her way to Tokeiji, Toda meets O-gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a courtesan who has left a rich merchant and who is also on her way to Tokeiji. They enter the temple together and under the kindly yet watchful supervision of motherly Genbei and the head nun commence their 24-month working stint. Being of the lower social orders, Toda performs the more menial tasks while O-gin, who had offered to pay for Toda to undertake sewing, is shoved into working at less physical and more refined (though no less onerous) tasks. They are soon joined by Yu (Rina Uchiyama), a woman of the samurai classes who has fled her alcoholic and violent husband and who intends to avenge her dead father, killed by hubby. (What a lovely fellow.)

Tokeiji temple relies a great deal on its doctor Shinjiro Nakamura (Yo Oizumi) who nurses a desire to become a published writer and who provides much comedy relief in sticky situations where he bluffs his way through with clever wit and brazen bravado. And sticky situations come, one after the other: O-gin sickens from terminal tuberculosis and another woman suffers from a false pregnancy. Shinjiro must treat both patients without looking at them under temple rules. Yu’s husband threatens to come and kill her. Shinjiro and Jogo become attracted to each other but must conduct their romance clandestinely, since Jogo must not look at men during her 2-year confinement. Shinjiro nearly comes a cropper at the hands of O-gin’s jealous lover and his hired thugs. In the meantime, the local governor Torii, intent on enforcing a severe and authoritarian rule over his territory, shuts down restaurants and entertainment venues, and conspires to find a way of shutting down Tokeiji temple and forcing all the women there to return to their husbands by hiring a woman to pose as another unhappy wife and in that disguise report on any scandals of nuns or inmates falling pregnant, that could be used as pretexts to close the place.

The film strains under its several sub-plots but manages to tie them and resolve them all in its last half-hour. The plot is sometimes confusing and fragmented, with some sub-plots very weakly developed and settled in quite implausible ways. The sub-plot with the mole barely lasts a few minutes and the mole quickly disappears from the rest of the film. The slapstick comedy does become tiresome but at the same time it provides relief from tensions that build up in the plot’s attempts to tackle serious issues such as mental illness, death, corruption, domestic violence and survival in a repressive society that treats its women badly. The temple is a microcosm of the wider society and Jogo finds she is not completely free of abuse from other women who look down on her.

In spite of the considerable obstacles placed before them, Shinjiro and Jogo do eventually walk off to a happy future together, and their efforts make manifest the film’s message that with the passage of time, social change can and does bring freedom and hope for a better life, if people work, learn and study together.

What character development exists is limited to Jogo’s growth from a frightened and much put-upon girl into a self-confident and mature young woman; the other characters, even Shinjiro, remain static. The acting ranges from excellent to utilitarian. The cinematography pays much attention to nature and the passage of time as reflected in the passing seasons, and to the lavish settings of the film. The film works well as a historical soap opera dealing with a particular institution that helped one downtrodden section of society, one largely forgotten by most Japanese after the Meiji restoration in 1867.

A Samurai Chronicle: an earnest and heavy-going lesson in how to live a good life with grace, compassion and humility

Takashi Koizumi, “A Samurai Chronicle” (2014)

I’m afraid that these days the Japanese just don’t make samurai dramas the way they used to, with devil-may-care flair and an eye for stunningly choreographed sword-fighting action, and a simple story and moral to justify the flashy chang-a-chang violence and high body counts. “A Samurai Chronicle” is an earnest and heavy-going investigation of what real honour should mean to a samurai, and how a samurai should use his fighting skills in helping and defending the weak, the poor and those oppressed and exploited by the rich and powerful. Young samurai Danno Shozaburo (Junichi Okada), in trouble for having picked a fight with another young hot-headed fellow and drawn his sword in his lord’s castle, is dispatched by the head of his clan to assist and spy on Toda Shokaku (Koji Yashudo) who was exiled to his property seven years ago for apparently having insulted Lord Nakane by interfering with his concubine and killing a bunch of retainers. The punishment is seppuku (ritual suicide) but the lord gives Toda ten years’ grace to write a history of their clan’s lineage. Toda retires to his rural villa to do so and the matter that led to his exile is hushed up. It is Danno’s job to make sure that Toda keeps on working on the family history and genealogy, and that when the man’s time is up, he does not try to avoid his punishment.

For three years then Danno lives with Toda’s family and becomes a close friend of Toda and his bold and headstrong adolescent children. At first surprised that Toda engages in farming and treats the local villagers as his equals, Danno gradually takes up agricultural labour himself and follows the family members in their interactions with the villagers, and discovers that he enjoys working around the farm and meeting people unlike himself and learning about their lives and troubles. The villagers are harassed by moneylenders wanting loans repaid and the corrupt commissioner who visits them and makes threats against them. (He is later killed by two of the villagers.) At the same time, Danno decides to learn more about the incident that disgraced Toda and makes a series of discoveries about the incident that suggest Toda is innocent of indiscretion against the concubine (who has now become a nun), and that the cover-up was done to get rid of the concubine’s young son and to protect and keep secret the false genealogy of Lord Nakane’s wife so that her son Yoshiyuki would succeed Lord Nakane as clan head.

The plot is quite complicated and doesn’t leave much room for character development so viewers will find Danno’s character and maturation from willful fighter to thoughtful leader rather flat and subdued. His romance with Toda’s daughter is equally sketchy to the point of being non-existent. Indeed all characters remain much the same throughout and are little more than stereotypes. Toda accepts his fate graciously, even happily, and the impending death obviously has influenced his outlook on life and how he lives it. Danno strives to achieve justice for Toda but eventually has to accept that all his efforts are in vain. Even so, the film ends on quite a happy note as Toda’s son Ikutaro comes of age and accepts leadership of the family in spite of his youth, and Danno marries Toda’s daughter. The villagers’ lot is still heavy but their burden is somewhat lightened thanks to Ikutaro and Danno’s intercession with their clan leader on behalf of young village boy Genkichi who takes the brunt of the punishment meant for his dad Manji for the murder of the commissioner.

The film can be beautiful to watch though scenes of nature indicating the passage of time have become something of a cliche in Japanese historical films. The action tends to be lumbering rather than light and each scene seems bogged down with layers of messages about honour, helping others, being courageous, taking action and how samurai folks ideally should behave. At times the film seems to be a didactic travelogue through traditional Japanese culture, and perhaps it is for young Japanese people ignorant of their history as much as for curious Westerners. There is also a critical attitude towards public pretence for the sake of preserving people’s reputations and not upsetting the social order, even if that means innocent people end up suffering severe punishment. Above all through the character of Toda Shokaku, the film says something about how one should live a life of grace and compassion, and use one’s talents and abilities to the full to help others when one’s time on Earth is finite.

Perhaps the film might have worked better as a two-part or three-part mini-series to enable better character development and allow viewers time to absorb the messages. The romance sub-plot and other sub-plots would have had a better chance to evolve. As it is, “A Samurai Chronicle” comes across as rather strained and a bit dull.

Fear and Desire: an uneven debut meditating on the degradation of war

Stanley Kubrick, “Fear and Desire” (1953)

Stanley Kubrick’s debut feature film may be an awkward and clumsy beast in many ways but for its time (at the height of the Korean War) it’s quite daring for its anti-war stance and investigation of how war breaks men psychologically. The plot is overloaded with an existentialist theme and a lot of psychoanalysis but it’s easy to follow.

Four soldiers land their plane behind enemy lines in dense forest – the film deliberately does not say where the soldiers are from and what enemy country they are stuck in – and must try to make their way back home. To do this, they must face their fears about being alone and cut off from humanity, and about dying. They must also fight against what they want and desire if they are to go home. On their odyssey, they invade an enemy hideout and slaughter everyone there. The youngest soldier of the four, Private Sidney (Paul Mazursky) is disturbed by their action. Next, the men capture a peasant girl (Virginia Leith) who cannot speak their language and hold her hostage. The men then try to locate the enemy base that they have to storm to assassinate an important enemy commander and leave Sidney in charge of the woman. While the threesome make their way through the forest, Sidney is overcome by his delusions and desires and attempts to rape the woman in the belief that she loves him. She manages to escape and Sidney, maddened by her rejection, shoots her dead.

The other three men agree to separate with one soldier, Mac (Frank Silvera,) to act as decoy to draw away the guards at the base while the other two, Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp) and Fletcher (Stephen Coit) try to kill the commander and his aide (Harp and Coit again). While Mac sails on a raft down the river, he reflects on the human condition, preparing himself for possible death as it were. While Corby and Fletcher make their way to the base, the enemy commander coincidentally also reflects on life and death, and the possibility that he may die very soon.

The themes of how war dehumanises people and how individuals cope with alienation from others are often dealt with uncertainly and in a heavy-handed way. Sidney’s descent into madness is not at all convincing though in the context of an hour-long film on a small budget the narrative has to push him into derangement very quickly. The other men in the film also have to confront their own particular hearts of darkness in ways ranging from shocking and terrifying to frankly unbelievable.

While the acting is not bad, it isn’t great either but Kubrick’s direction of the small cast does give a suggestion that the soldiers are inexperienced and fumble their way through their assignment. The consequences of their incompetence are devastating to them and to the civilian population as represented by the innocent peasant woman. The technical aspects of the film are uneven: while some scenes are very beautifully done, others are rather workman-like.

Though this first effort certainly does not scream “genius at work!”, one can see in it motifs and characteristics that will turn up in later Kubrick films. Several of Kubrick’s films delve into exploring and deconstructing Western notions of masculinity and “Fear and Desire” sets that ball rolling; the upshot of this is that female characters in Kubrick’s films are usually undeveloped and certainly Leith’s peasant woman is no more than a blank canvas onto whom Sidney pours out his desires and burdens.

Curiously while Kubrick was to go on to make some very powerful anti-war films in the course of his career, the one anti-war film “Fear and Desire” most reminded me of is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. In both these films, there is a journey by soldiers into territory that breaks down the barrier between reality and fantasy, and in like manner these soldiers, forced by their superiors to labour under the stress and degradation of war unleash their anger, repressed instincts and darkest urges onto people they are taught to fear and despise. The results are horrible and tragic indeed.

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech (2015): in the midst of war, a plea for co-operation, mutual respect and trust leading to renewal and reconciliation

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XII Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (October 2015) 

Compared to his speech at XI Meeting in 2014, this 2015 speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t quite as ground-breaking but it is full of fire nevertheless. In his speech, Putin spiked the United States government and its elites for following a path that has not only led to war and instability around the world, and continues to do so, but which has the potential to spread poverty, ignorance, distrust and a degraded culture as well, one that celebrates and encourages even more chaos and brutality.

The theme of the XII Meeting was war and peace and Putin had plenty to say about the current global drive towards war, driven in the main by the United States and its allies. Starting from a general perspective on the role of war as a catalyst for relieving tensions and re-organising and establishing new political, social and economic hierarchies in the world, Putin observed how the threat of war diminished in the period after the end of World War II in 1945 – a period in which diplomacy under the threat of nuclear war prevailed – until the Cold War ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, diplomacy as a tool for resolving long-simmering tensions and conflicts has increasingly fallen by the wayside and the use of force by the United States to achieve its aims in different parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, has come to be the first resort. Along with this flexing of military muscle and the chaos, violence and brutality that have followed, comes the creation of economic blocs, based on neo-liberal economic ideologies, between and among nations with the signing of treaties whose details and implications are deliberately hidden away from the public and never discussed or mentioned until long after the ink used to sign the documents has dried. At the same time, governments, corporations and the media actively seek to withhold and censor information, analysis and opinion that oppose the aims of their agendas; plus they use databases and database networks to gather and share information about citizens and their families for various purposes which can include blackmail, psychological manipulation, marketing and pushing products and services for profit. Constant wars against terrorists and terrorist movements – themselves the consequence of US-led invasions of countries (and in the case of ISIS, possibly the creation of the US government and its agencies, to serve as a substitute army keeping Middle Eastern countries weak and divided) – result in the displacement of people in those countries, leading them to flee in their thousands to Western countries, usually by any means available (no matter how hazardous and expensive), which are not only reluctant to offer safe haven to them but actively and aggressively throw them back into the seas or imprison them in detention centres where they face abuse, violence and death from fellow refugees or prison guards working under stress. The refugee crisis is used by Western governments to whip up hatred and prejudice against refugees, and to encourage and escalate public support for more invasions of the countries being destabilised to “stop” the refugee flow.

Putin singled out the example of Syria where the process of regime change, starting in 2011 with the aim of ousting President Bashar al Assad, in ways similar to the Kiev Maidan revolution against President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine over 2013 and early 2014, is in full swing with takfiri fighters belonging to groups such as Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra and other al Qa’ida offshoots, all funded and armed by foreign governments, fighting the Syrian Arab Army. Putin observed that such terrorist groups are hard to fight if they are being used as a de facto army to overthrow governments that, coincidentally, the US and its friends do not like.

Putin went on to say that Russia launched a military operation in the form of airstrikes on the Islamic extremists at the request of the Syrian government. Russia understands that if the terrorists in Syria win, they will send many of their number to Russia itself, in particular into the vulnerable region of Daghestan and its surrounds. Putin emphasised that the world must support the revival of Syria and Iraq, and assist in their reconstruction and revitalisation of their institutions. A plan must be developed for these countries’ reconstruction, for the restoration of their infrastructures, their hospitals, housing and schools. This is an opportunity for all countries throughout the world to come together and offer assistance to these two long-suffering nations. What is most noteworthy about Putin’s speech at this point is its emphasis on the Syrian people as the major party in deciding Syria’s future and deserving respect, civil treatment and autonomy in the decisions they make about their institutions and future from the rest of the world.

While the theme of the XII Meeting may have been war and peace, the theme of Putin’s speech is that for peace to reign, nations must co-operate together, respect one another and trust one another and in the rule of international law. This is very much a speech that follows from his speech at the XI Meeting in 2014. The fact that Putin ended his 2015 speech by speaking of renewal, restoration, hope and opportunity, and the hard work that must be done to achieve revival, demonstrates that he and his government are looking beyond helping Syria get rid of ISIS and other terrorists, and stabilising the country. An opportunity for Syria to become a model of reconstruction, renewal and reconciliation for the Middle East and the wider world is present and ready for the taking. How many Western politicians can be said to be as forward-looking as Putin? Given the way in which the US has blundered in the Middle East and north Africa over the past decade and how Germany brought chaos and confusion when it offered a haven to thousands of Syrian refugees stuck in Turkey, with no apparent thought for how to bring them over or how they would be settled, it seems that having a vision of the future and achieving it is something beyond Western leaders’ capabilities – to the detriment of the West.

This essay is based on the English-language transcript of Putin’s speech at the Vineyard of the Saker blog.

This Changes Everything: simplistic globe-trotting essay based on faulty premises

Avi Lewis, “This Changes Everything” (2015)

Billed as a film about climate change, this documentary essay based on Canadian journalist Naomi Klein’s eponymous book actually follows up a premise expressed in Klein’s previous work like “The Shock Doctrine” that current global environmental, political and economic crises are the end manifestations of an ideology that developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. This ideology stipulates that humans can and should master nature using their conscious intellectual and rational faculties. Welded together with bits and pieces selected from economic, political and social theories and philosophies in the Western intellectual public domain of the period, this ideology is premised on continuous and infinite economic growth, self-interest and the notion that economic markets should be free of government intervention. Nations that adopted this ideological model more or less then went on to conquer the world in search of new lands and resources for their industries; in the process they subjugated the peoples they found in those new lands, destroyed their cultures, languages and beliefs (and the very peoples themselves) and ravaged the territories and resources they found. The Western invasion of the world is still ongoing, albeit perhaps with new actors (some of them former colonies of the old actors) using new or more refined tactics, technologies and tools of propaganda, but it has now hit a crisis point: the planet’s systems are no longer able to sustain the continuing onslaught and they are now breaking down and reacting in unusual and bizarre ways. “Climate change”, manifested in extremes of temperature causing prolonged drought and hurricanes or typhoons of extreme ferocity, is but a symptom of the general disease.

What Klein (who narrates the documentary) and Lewis try to do is alert viewers that climate change and other global crises are the end results of an ideology and the culture it engendered gone berserk, and the fact that all that was required for this ideology and its culture was a change in thinking about humans’ relationship to the world. Rather than bemoan this change in thinking, we should be inspired by this historical example to rethink the ideology and what resulted from it, to change our thinking again about our relationship with nature, embrace a new paradigm about our place in the world, and from that create a new civilisation based on new values of sustainability, cooperation and collective action.

To that end, the film jumps around various parts of the planet, starting with Fort McMurray in Alberta, the epicentre of Canada’s tar sands mining industry, and its effects on the local Cree community, its ability to subsist off its native lands and the degradation the industry is causing to local ecosystems. The film then hops to Montana where a rancher couple and the local aboriginal peoples must cope with a burst pipeline that floods and pollutes the river with oil (from the tar sands mines in northern Alberta, incidentally). From there we have to fly to Greece to see activists and protesters battle their government and foreign mining companies, to Andhra Pradesh (India) where again local people are up in arms against a coal-fired power plant proposal in their neighbourhood, and to China where people are fighting air pollution and the government there is investing huge sums in solar energy generation to steer households and industry away from depending on coal power for electricity needs.

Klein’s narration (and narrative) is the only thing that pulls all these stories together; streamlined and simplified though it is already, the film would fall apart without Klein’s input. While the narrative is very powerful, because it is based in part on historical fact, it is so simplified that even viewers not familiar with the development of Western science, economic theory and politics since the 1600s can find gaping holes in its conclusions. Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energies will not automatically lead or encourage people to adopt sustainability or become cooperative and less selfish; these new technologies can simply replace the old technologies, much as petroleum replaced coal and steam in the early 1900s. The world will carry on as before but with a renewed greed for new resources and lands to exploit.

We also need to ask whether in the 16th and 17th centuries, when French philosopher Jacques Descartes first propounded his view that humans (but not animals) could have souls – and therefore it was the right of humans (specifically Western Christian humans) to dominate the natural world – such a concept really was so revolutionary or was merely a voiced reflection of what most people in positions of power and influence at the time believed. By Descartes’ time, the Western conquest and colonisation of the Americas was already well under way, millions of American aboriginals had already been enslaved and robbed of their cultures, languages and beliefs, but the ideology, beliefs and values associated with modern-day corporate capitalism had not yet developed. Could Klein’s premise in fact be based on a false assumption that ideology is the problem? This is a serious question to consider because if she is wrong, then adopting an ideology of sustainability, of placing the group ahead of the individual, and of collective decision-making and action above individual decision-making and action, will not necessarily help us and could actually lead to new forms of oppression and environmental exploitation and degradation.

The fact is that ideas and concepts that were originally benevolent in intent can always be cherry-picked and twisted to suit personal agendas. Concepts of individual liberty, rights and responsibilities developed during the Enlightenment have been degraded to support greed and self-indulgence, as exemplified by the Marquis de Sade’s use of Enlightenment ideas to justify his sexual abuses of prostitutes and women who worked for him. Who can say that concepts of sustainability, preserving nature for the benefit of future generations and collective decision-making and action over individual decision-making and action won’t be used to excuse greed, self-interest and psychopathic behaviour?

The Seafarers: a preachy recruitment film for trade union membership with unusual historical relevance

Stanley Kubrick, “The Seafarers” (1953)

Stanley Kubrick’s first film made in colour turns out to be a 30-minute documentary promoting a trade union for crews of cargo vessels. “The Seafarers” was commissioned by Seafarers International Union (SIU), a North American union representing mariners in North and South America. As an extended infomercial, the film extols the benefits of union membership for would-be sailors, including medical benefits, scholarships and fighting for decent pay and working conditions, and stresses the union’s democratic nature. In 30 minutes the film covers everything the SIU offers to sailors who join the union in a straightforward and succinct way. Cleverly appealing to sailors’ liking for creature comforts, the narrative begins by focusing on the SIU headquarters’ cafeteria and shooting close-ups of food in bain-maries before moving to the union’s recreation room and the department that pays out member sailors’ pay cheques. The film then goes on to explain how sailors apply for jobs on cargo ships and from then on punches out a list of benefits, rights and privileges sailors enjoy through SIU membership. From that, the film waxes expansively about how the SIU provides security and stability, not just for sailors but also for their families, and in this taps deeply into treasured American values about the sanctity of the family as a bedrock for society.

The pace of the film is leisurely and the narration provided by CBS news reporter Don Hollenbeck is matter-of-fact in that dull and deadly earnest style favoured by narrators of documentaries made in the mid-20th century. There is not much room in the film for Kubrick to show individual flair apart from a scene in the cafeteria where the camera pans leisurely from left to right over the food warming in the bain-maries.

As a promotional film, “The Seafarers” is quite persuasive but its historical relevance may be limited: oddly, no historical background is given and viewers will be left wondering how and when the SIU was formed, and what historical circumstances led to its birth. What actually does the SIU’s constitution promote, what are the values of the SIU, and how well does it uphold its principles and maintain its democratic spirit – these are things viewers might want to know. How has it grown over the years, what vision does it hold for the future – the film does not address these issues.

Viewers are very likely to find this documentary quite preachy and repetitive to some extent. Does it fit into Kubrick’s overall oeuvre of work? It may well do; the bulk of Kubrick’s films deal with crises of Western masculinity and how individual men coped and dealt with attacks on their masculinity from an America that more often than not repressed individual expression, enforced conformity and sent men to fight in wars around the planet to maintain control over other countries and their wealth. “The Seafarers” suggests that men will find their full expression of manhood in being both individuals capable of responsibility and self-control, and participants and team-players exercising their democratic rights and privileges in an organisation that serves their individual and collective interests. Of course, there’s nothing about what men should do if their individual rights and responsibilities clash with their collective rights and responsibilities, and it’s in that clash that the crisis erupts … so in a sense, “The Seafarers” does have a place in Kubrick’s work.

How I Ended This Summer: a meandering character study of two individuals coping with extreme isolation and one another

Alexei Popogrebsky, “How I Ended This Summer / Kak ya provel etim letom” (2010)

Out of a very threadbare and unbelievable plot, Alexei Popogrebsky manages to craft a fairly interesting character study about human frailty, the need that people have for connections with one another, isolation in an extreme environment, modern humans’ relationship with nature (and how they have damaged and poisoned it) and forgiveness. A young university student, Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), is sent to a meteorological station in the Russian Arctic to work with Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), an old-timer set in his ways who takes pride in the work he does there. Pavel finds the work of making daily periodic reports on the Arctic weather and tidal conditions monotonous and boring. Sergei sees Pavel as lazy and immature because the younger man is easily distracted by boredom and plays video games when he should be learning about the environment around him so he can write his essay. The two men do not get on at all and can barely tolerate each other; Sergei even cuffs Pavel on a couple of occasions when the latter makes minor errors in his work. Pavel is easily intimidated and becomes quite paranoiac.

One day Pavel gets an urgent message from their superiors at the State Meteorological Service while Sergei goes out on an unauthorised 2-day fishing trip: Sergei’s wife and only child have died in a car accident. Pavel is supposed to tell Sergei straight away of the news and to get him to contact their employer who is sending a ship to collect Sergei. Because of his fear of Sergei, Pavel neglects to tell him. This failure to pass on important news sets in train a series of events that escalate in seriousness and results in life-threatening danger for both men in very different ways: Pavel through his paranoia and stupidity has several brushes with death and exposes himself and Sergei to radiation poisoning from an abandoned isotope beacon.

Filmed on location in Chukotka, close to Alaska, the movie features stunning scenes of wild subarctic landscapes and vast skies changing colour as the season passes through mid and late summer into early autumn. Long immersive shots of nature reinforce the sense of extreme isolation in this harsh environment where to make one mistake – as Pavel does, and he makes more than one mistake – could mean the difference between life and death. This of course means the film is quite slow in pace and stretches the thin plot almost to breaking point. There is very minimal dialogue which puts great demands on the two actors, particularly Dobrygin, to express emotions and motivations through their characters’ inexplicable behaviours. Both actors do excellent work in portraying two generational types: Sergei representing the stoic older man who puts duty, self-sufficiency and responsibility before personal feeling and comfort (and who sometimes bends the rules whenever he wants to spend time fishing), and expects Pavel more or less to do the same; and Pavel as the young, impulsive and immature fellow who wants to have a good time but is dependent on a disapproving older man who maybe has spent too much time away from other people and is lacking in current social graces.

The cat-and-mouse chase that occurs in the latter half of the film is ludicrous as Pavel is convinced that Sergei is unhinged and is out to kill him, and he plots to outwit Sergei. (The irony here is who is really unhinged, Pavel or Sergei.) The result is a climax that is grim and devastating in its stark and minimal delivery as Pavel confesses what he has done to the fish Sergei has been drying outside their hut and which the older man has been eating. At this point, one expects Sergei to really go ballistic and take his rage out on Pavel but the denouement that follows is just as jaw-droppingly unexpected as Pavel’s confession.

Perhaps the one major weakness of the film is that, having revealed Pavel’s weakness of character, it does not show his redemption, if indeed any has taken place with or without Sergei’s participation. Sergei’s acceptance of his family’s deaths and possibly his own impending death appears unbelievable, at least to Western audiences. Obviously Sergei has forgiven Pavel for his immense moral baseness in poisoning him but how this forgiveness has taken place and under what circumstances is never shown. We cannot tell if Pavel has grown in maturity as a result but we have to assume that he has.

With the themes it has, the film might have been expected to be heavy-going but with minimal dialogue and long scenes of nature and silence, it carries its message lightly. Yes, humans have done great harm to nature and to one another, but when faced with extreme dangers, they must band together for survival no matter what they have done to one another in the past, and forgiveness and acceptance of one another’s faults and crimes must at times override such insults, no matter how awful, horrific and even life-threatening they are. Unfortunately by the time the film reaches this point, it has meandered on and on for so long that this message has the feeling of being tacked on just to round off the narrative and give it a raison d’être.

The Makioka Sisters: a flat commentary on tradition and modernisation alike through a soap opera plot

Kon Ichikawa, “The Makioka Sisters” (1983)

Admittedly this is a beautifully shot film and its style is very graceful but even the skill and experience of a director like Kon Ichikawa – who lacks the flair of a Kurosawa or a Mizoguchi – can’t hide the fact that the source material novel by Junichiro Tanizaki is an extended soap opera. From what I’ve read about the film, it follows the novel quite faithfully. The film revolves around the activities of four sisters living in Japan in the late 1930s, during a period of greater militarisation in the country, though if you’re not paying deep attention, the historical background can escape you as the main characters tend to ignore events around them but are obsessed with maintaining family traditions and status. In that aspect of the plot alone, one theme of the film is people’s preoccupation with fading traditions and customs to the extent that they completely ignore political, cultural and economic changes around them until too late the results of those changes hit them hard and force the abandonment of the very rituals that had been sedulously cultivated over and over.

The older Makioka sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, both married to men of lower class who have taken their surname, busy themselves with finding a suitable husband for their third sister, Yukiko, who is painfully shy and who prefers the company of Sachiko’s young daughter Etsuko. The fourth and youngest of the Makioka sisters, Taeko, cannot marry until Yukiko is disposed of appropriately, so she spends her time making dolls in her studio and rejecting the advances of dissolute ex-boyfriend Okubata. She becomes attracted to photographer Itakura, of whom her older sisters disapprove because of his lower class background. Itakura dies from an ailment and Okubata tries to pressure Taeko to return to him. Taeko rejects Okubata emphatically and becomes involved with a bartender, Miyoshi, whom her sisters eventually accept because at least he is honest and hard-working. Meanwhile Yukiko is introduced to various prospective suitors, all of whom are twice her age, and nearly all of whom are found wanting in some way.

The film traces the decline of a once-prosperous merchant family and its eventual break-up: Tsuruko must follow her husband to Tokyo after he is promoted at work and this transfer forces her and her husband to rent out the Makioka family mansion for who knows long. Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke is an ineffectual clerk lacking in leadership qualities who has an eye for pretty ladies and is not really looking forward to Yukiko leaving his household in the event that she accepts a marriage proposal. Tradition and custom clash with the realities of a changing, Westernising society, and not always for the better.

The plot seems quite fragmented, with plot strands developing but being resolved off-screen, which may annoy Western viewers. At one point in the film Okubata threatens to blackmail Teinosuke and Sachiko and create a scandal over money he spent on buying jewellery for Taeko but the frisson this provides is very brief because the film then cuts immediately into a scene taking place in a future in which the money has been paid and Okubata has gone his own way. All characters seem to represent types and are rather one-dimensional. Male characters generally seem quite ineffectual and inadequate in some way. The women tend to be much firmer and more resolute but they waste their energy trying to preserve customs and ideas that have long outlived their usefulness and relevance.

Adherence to tradition and ritual, repeated over and over, as in the constant match-making rituals that Yukiko is forced to undergo, starts to look ridiculous. No-one ever asks Yukiko if she even wants to marry, let alone find out what kind of suitor she would prefer. The other alternative, becoming modern and finding one’s niche in the commercial world, does not look appealing either: Taeko gives up her doll-making enterprise, rejects her financial inheritance and becomes a seamstress to support herself and Miyoshi; and Tsuruko resigns herself to giving up the family mansion and its heirlooms to follow her husband to Tokyo when his employer requires his transfer as part of his job promotion. In all of this, the choices presented by the nature of the capitalist society of the period are stark and unyielding, and one must bend to the system’s demands or be left isolated and unwanted.

The film is lavish in its visual style though the use of nature-based scenes to indicate the passage of time and the impermanence of life is a well-worn stereotype in Japanese film-making; it seems ironic that a film about fading traditions that have lost their meaning through repetition should itself rely on film techniques that through over-familiarity have also become tired.

When all is said and done, the film seems very flat: a hack work by a hack director. Whatever the merits of the original novel are – it is a highly regarded work of 20th-century Japanese literature – may have disappeared in transition from page to screen. A work that appears ready-made for cinematic or television mini-series adaptation turns out to be more resistant than it first seems to be. We may read in that failure a final criticism by the novel on capitalist society.