Jackie Brown: homage to 70s cult film heroine and nostalgia with a subtext about surviving in a brutal world not far beneath the surface

Quentin Tarantino, “Jackie Brown” (1997)

Of the early films directed by Quentin Tarantino that have achieved cult status, perhaps the jewel of them all is this ensemble piece based on Elmore Leonard’s crime thriller “Rum Punch”. “Jackie Brown” was intended as a homage to its star Pam Grier and the early 1970s blaxploitation films in which she played action heroine Foxy Brown. Throughout “Jackie Brown” there are many references to the period of the early to mid-70s, notably in the songs played during the movie, though the film itself is set some time during the mid-1980s. The film did not just resurrect Pam Grier’s career; it also revived Robert Forster’s film and television career, and both actors have enjoyed some success (if not very much publicity) since then.

When we first meet the eponymous Jackie (Grier), she is a 44-year-old flight stewardess working for a low budget Mexican airline pulling in a meagre wage that doesn’t quite pay the rent so to make ends meet she resorts to carrying contraband such as illegally obtained guns and cash for gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson) from Mexico to the US on the planes where she works. On one such trip though, Agent Nicolette (Michael Keaton) from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and police detective Dargus (Michael Bowen) have planted a small amount of cocaine in her bag to entrap her with the intent to turn her into an informant to help them arrest Ordell. Faced with jail time over her silence, Brown agrees to work with the feds. Ordell offers to pay her bail using bail money arranged with bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster) originally to bail out another person who worked for Ordell but whom Ordell shot when that fellow was entrapped and forced to turn informant.

After tricking Ordell with a gun when he tries to kill her, Brown negotiates a deal with Ordell to pretend to work with the feds and smuggle $550,000 of his money from Mexico into the US to give him so he can retire. Brown agrees to work with Nicolette and Dargus in swapping Ordell’s cash in a bag identical to a bag supplied by Ordell’s unreliable accomplices, surfer chick Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and ex-con Louis Cardell (Robert de Niro). But Brown herself is planning to spring a surprise on both Ordell and the authorities by nicking $500,000 and bolting off with it. The only person who’s aware of what Brown aims to do is Cherry who has fallen in love with her.

Although the film is long and much of it is given over to intricate plot detailing, beginning with Ordell’s disposal of Brown’s predecessor Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) which could have been dispensed with altogether or dealt with in flashback sequence, “Jackie Brown” holds well together: the intricate plot with its constant double-crossing forces viewers to pay close attention and generates tension that gradually builds to the climax. The plot strands keep the film focused yet allow subplot fragments to emerge, develop and finish, even if incompletely.

Thanks in part to an excellent cast, there is considerable character exposition for most of the main characters: Jackson gives Ordell surprising depth as a vicious criminal hiding behind a laidback demeanour; de Niro at his most understated gives a good sense of his role Louis as a mediocrity who can’t succeed even in crime; Fonda plays her stoned addict with a surprising snippy nature to perfection; and even Tucker in his tiny scene blows off Jackson with improvised dialogue. The standout performances of course are those of Grier whose character barely wings her way with bluster under immense pressure, and of Forster whose stoicism and caution hide a soul yearning for romance but in the end retreats to the comfort and security of convention. We get a sense of people whose potential is wasted either through no fault of their own or through indolence and thoughtless anger; of people living in difficult circumstances and coping as best as they can, though this means they break the law or engage in unethical activity; of two people who fall in love at a late stage in life but recognise that they can’t live together – even though they dislike their dead-end jobs – because one prefers stability and the other craves excitement and spontaneity. The sense of a rich context underlying most of the main characters, the worlds they move in and the potential clash of subcultures and values that might occur when they meet, is what gives the film its cracking energy.

Had Tarantino explored this context a bit more, and pushed much more the film’s underlying theme of little people doing what they can to survive in a brutal world in which hustling and self-interest become ends in themselves and the overriding social values that trump all others, “Jackie Brown” would be assured of a place among Hollywood crime thriller classics.

Conflagration: a competent critique of modern Japan and an unreal quest for beauty and purity

Kon Ichikawa, “Conflagration / Enjo” (1958)

Based on the novel “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (itself based on an actual incident) by notorious Japanese writer / actor / nationalist Yukio Mishima, this film is a character study of a young and idealistic if very flawed Buddhist acolyte in the throes of a spiritual and psychological crisis, and the behaviours that his crisis leads to, with all their tragic consequences. Goichi Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa) comes from an unfortunate background: his parents have been custodians of a remote country Zen Buddhist temple that received few visitors, and to relieve the stress of poverty and isolation, Goichi’s father spoke frequently to his son of his desire for them both to visit the famous temple of the Golden Pavilion, the most beautiful object in Japan. However the elder Mizoguchi dies from illness and so Goichi journeys alone to become apprenticed as an acolyte to the head priest Dosen Tayama (Ganjiro Nakamura) who is a friend of his father’s. Though shy and suffering from a stutter, Goichi is accepted by Tayama. Tayama recognises that Goichi is diligent and has some good qualities, and hopes that the teenager will eventually succeed him as head priest: to that end, he arranges for Goichi to continue his schooling and then to attend the local university. While settling down at the temple, Goichi visits the Shukaku building, the actual focus of the temple complex, and realises that it indeed is a beautiful creation.

Goichi’s mother insinuates herself as a maid at the temple and starts to pressure her son to put his head down and tail up in the expectation that he will succeed Tayama, though there are other worthy apprentices also working at the temple. Over time, as Japan undergoes American military occupation and becomes Westernised, the temple becomes a tourist attraction, making good money, and the unworldly monks become corrupted by easy wealth and materialist desires. Tayama himself visits geishas (and gets a woman pregnant) and spends money in ways unbecoming of an austere Zen Buddhist monk. Mizoguchi’s only friend, the kindly Tsurukawa, dies in a horrible accident and his place is taken by the cynical Togari (Tatsuya Nakadai), a cripple who eggs on Mizoguchi to commit various misdemeanours that escalate in seriousness so as to offend Tayama enough that he will throw out Mizoguchi. But no matter how much Mizoguchi skips school and university, runs away, borrows money without paying back, spends his tuition fees on prostitutes or lies about accepting cigarettes from an American soldier for pushing his girlfriend and causing her to have a miscarriage, the head priest does nothing.

Eventually Mizoguchi, stressed by his mother’s demands and Togari’s manipulations, infuriated at Tayama’s silences and apparent inaction, and disappointed that the Shukaku building itself means nothing more to the monks and society at large as a money-making machine, vows to take drastic action: on a journey back to his former rural home, he remembers his father’s funeral and cremation, and there he makes the decision that will damn him for the rest of his life: he will destroy the Shukaku temple to preserve its beauty and purity from the defilements of materialism.

The film can be read as a critique of modern Japanese society, its obsession with money and materialism, and how such obsession corrupts Buddhist values. However Toyama still retains a conscience, and is troubled by his new double life: in that, there is the suggestion that no matter how corrupted and sinful one becomes, there is always the possibility of redemption if one repents and makes amends. Nakadai plays a significant role in undermining Mizoguchi with his cynicism and knowledge, but ends up a pathetic character. Mizoguchi himself, for all his idealism and potential, has a rotten core: having been bullied and spurned throughout his childhood for his stutter and background, he grows up with self-loathing and hatred, and fails to see that, in spite of their weaknesses and imperfections, Tayama and the other priests do mean well and want him to succeed.

Mizoguchi’s tragedy is that he is unable to overcome his dysfunctional family background, his resentment at his vulgar and sensuous mother for betraying his father and bullying him, and the flawed idealism, combined with revulsion for the physical senses, that both his parents inspired in him.

The bulk of the film is told in flashback form which enables significant events relevant to Mizoguchi’s final actions to be inserted into the narrative smoothly and help to escalate the tension and derangement that the young man suffers.

While the film is not very deep – Ichikawa left out much of the Zen philosophy of the novel so that the movie could appeal to a wide audience, and made his central character less conflicted and somewhat more bland than in the novel – it does a very good job of criticising Japanese society in the 1950s with its grasping nature and the potential loss of ethical values. Redemption though is always possible – but this makes the film’s final scene all the more devastating.

Vladimir Putin’s Address to the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly: offering an alternative vision to the world

Vladimir Putin’s Address to the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, New York City (28 September 2015)

Apparently Russian President Vladimir Putin last attended a session of the United Nations General Assembly way back in 2005. He sure wasted no time in making his presence felt the second time with this speech. He began by referring to the historical context in which the UN was born in 1945 and reminded his audience that the decision to create the UN was made in Yalta … in Russian territory at the time. How some diplomats must have squirmed, and how the Ukrainian delegation must have fumed … or not, since its members walked out on Putin at the beginning of his speech. Putin then went on to say that over the decades the UN, and especially the UN Security Council, has not always been unanimous in its decision-making and the permanent members of the Security Council have frequently resorted to the right of veto on various contentious matters. He pointed out that the UN was never expected to act as one, and that its mission was to seek compromises based on a variety of different views and opinions.

The bulk of Putin’s speech is concerned with the state of the world after the end of the Cold War in 1989, and how one nation (which Putin does not name but can be assumed to be the United States) has attempted to reorder the world to suit its hunger for endless power by exporting and initiating social experiments like colour revolutions to those areas of strategic importance: areas such as the Middle East and Ukraine. The result has been chaos, endless violence of an unspeakably brutal and vicious nature, extreme poverty, dislocations of hundreds of thousands of refugees, terrorism spreading around the world and an utter disregard for human rights, diplomacy as part of a solution to problems, and the concept of national sovereignty. Putin refers specifically to the rise of ISIS in power vacuums created in Iraq and Libya after the US / NATO-initiated overthrow of their governments in 2003 and 2011 respectively, and criticises those governments who thought they could manipulate groups like ISIS and others as de facto armies to weaken and overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his government.

Putin’s speech then turns to a proposal to change the current state of world affairs by adopting a set of common values and interests that emphasise co-operation, stabilisation of the world’s major trouble spots, restoring peace and respect for and obeying international law. This proposal is consistent with other speeches Putin has made , notably at the 2014 Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi, where he has stressed Russia’s interest in co-operating with other countries as partners to deal with issues and his nation’s disinterest in remaking the world according to a particular ideology or set of beliefs that do not consider other countries’ interests. Putin stresses that Libyan government institutions and structures need to be renewed and restored, that Iraq’s new government needs support and that Syria also requires support for reconstruction. From Putin’s viewpoint, the main obstacles to this proposal are the West’s blinkered Cold War mentality in which the West is made up of the good guys and the Communists are all the bad guys – never mind that Communism faded away over 20 years ago, and Russia is now solidly capitalist – and the US presumption that it should remain the sole superpower on planet Earth and can and should stop anyone from challenging its belief that it is unique and exceptional and has been ordained by God to bring freedom, democracy and corporate junk culture to the world.

Putin’s speech also covers the situation in Ukraine and his belief that peace and stability are possible if only all parties to the Mink agreements of 12th February 2015 adhere to them. Putin goes on to discuss the importance of economic co-operation and how what he calls “economic selfishness” – capitalist greed by any other name – will distort global trade, disadvantage nations (especially Third World nations) and cater for the interests of a small number of people through treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Climate change is mentioned as a major challenge requiring international co-operation and sharing of information and skills.

What I take away from Putin’s speech is that he is offering a vision of the world in which all nations co-operate as equal partners in tackling major global problems (such as climate change and the depletion and destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems) that are beyond the capacity of any one nation to deal with, through special forums under UN auspices. In this world, everyone agrees to respect international law and works together to create an environment based on mutual respect and equality for all. Institutions, systems and structures are shaped to benefit everyone and not serve a privileged elite.

If the UN looks antiquated and battered, that is not because the principles it was founded upon are necessarily old-fashioned; the real reason is that the West has used the UN and its institutions to benefit its elites where convenient, and in the last 20+ years has turned its back on the UN, what it represented in the past when it was founded and what it might have been. We have been brainwashed and manipulated by our politicians and media to believe that the UN is an incompetent and bureaucratic organisation that, Nero-like, fiddles about while conflicts initiated by unseen actors rage around the world. As demonstrated by its meddling in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and farther afield in Ukraine and other countries, the West has forgotten its history, forgotten that might never really makes right, and forgotten that the violence and chaos it creates in other countries will one day (as the current flood of Syrian refugees – among whom there may be ISIS operatives – into Europe is demonstrating) come back a hundredfold.

Putin’s address serves as a reprimand and a warning to the West that if it continues the way it has over the past 20+ years, there will be Hell to pay.

Xi Jinping’s Address to the UN General Assembly’s 70th Session: China projecting its power abroad in a low-key, pragmatic way

Xi Jinping’s Address to the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, New York City (28 September 2015)

The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, made his first speech to the UN general assembly at the opening of its 70th session. An interesting speech it is too and English-language transcripts are accessible on the Internet. A full transcript can be found at this link.

Xi begins his speech by acknowledging the momentous events that formed to background to the formation of the United Nations and noting China’s particular role in defeating Japanese imperialism and aggression. He reminds his audience to learn from the tragedies and sacrifices made by soldiers and civilians alike during World War II to avoid repeating grave mistakes that would result in more violence, bloodshed and unnecessary deaths, and to strive for a better future and peace. Part of this striving involves promoting economic development and progress, and this requires co-operation, building partnerships and recognising that countries must be mutually interdependent to work on challenges and threats that spread beyond national borders.

To that end, the bulk of Xi’s speech emphasises strategies, exchanges and security networks and institutions that uphold and promote fair dealing and justice, end social and economic injustice, acknowledge joint contributions and share benefits among all partners. In particular Xi stressed that countries need to abandon a competitive Cold War mentality and paradigm in which some countries are good and others bad, based on one state’s particular interpretation of some nations’ economic and social ideologies, and urged that the UN and its Security Council return to their core roles of ending or minimising conflict and keeping peace.

Xi’s speech also urged his audience in the assembly and beyond to accept and respect nations’ differences and to recognise that no one culture or civilisation has all the answers to the world’s problems. Instead nations should appreciate one another’s history and uniqueness and draw on their differences for exchange of ideas and solutions to problems.

Interestingly Xi also referred to the need for societies to care for nature and to balance economic development with the natural environment. This is surely an acknowledgement by the Chinese government that in recent decades the country has neglected its natural ecosystems in its pursuit of economic and industrial progress to the detriment of nature and the Chinese people themselves.

The remainder of Xi’s speech is basically a list of pledges by China to continue supporting and working for peace, contributing to global development and pursuing policies and paths that promote co-operation. He finishes off by announcing the establishment of a 10-year US$100 million peace and development fund to support the UN’s work and to help set up a permanent peace-keeping group. China will also provide US$100 million free military assistance to the African Union to help establish a permanent standby force for emergencies in Africa.

Xi’s speech illustrates China’s typically pragmatic approach to projecting its power abroad: not by throwing its weight around in other countries close to home but by investing in projects in other nations, particularly in Third World nations, that bring economic development and industry to host countries and benefits for Chinese investors themselves. The emphasis on balance and harmony among partners might be seen to be drawing on Chinese values that promote stability and discourage individualist behaviours.

Whether the Chinese government and Chinese corporations are committed to the values and actions espoused in his speech in their behaviours remains to be seen however. Chinese investment in Africa and other developing countries has not always resulted in transfer of technical knowledge and skills from China to recipient countries, and the lopsided nature of Chinese economic investment and its effects has led to some resentment on the part of those countries where this investment takes place. Additionally China does not have a good record in investing in countries with human rights violations. If China is experiencing severe ecological problems in its own territory as a result of rapid development and industrialisation, it’s likely Chinese companies are doing no better in cleaning up their own messes in other countries where they operate. “Accepting” and “respecting” nations’ differences might mean ignoring possible consequences of Chinese economic investment and activity, especially where such actions are taking place in countries where respect for human rights and the natural environment is low, discouraged or punished.

Where the speech becomes very interesting is towards the end in which Xi pledges to commit resources to support the UN by establishing a peace-keeping force and to assist African nations to respond to national emergencies. This is far more than, say, Japan has done in the 70 years since the UN was founded. Xi’s pledges also potentially bring China into conflict with those Western countries that have an interest in destabilising particular African nations and keeping them subservient to their own interests and ideologies.

The Constant Gardener: a decent film with a message about corporate greed and psychopathy within the limits of the political thriller genre

Fernando Meirelles, “The Constant Gardener” (2005)

Based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, this film combines elements of the spy thriller with an environmental message about corporate greed and cynicism. At the same time it’s a personal story of loss and regret leading to self-discovery, courage and self-sacrifice. Justin (Ralph Fiennes) is a shy diplomat at the British High Commission in Kenya grieving over the death of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) who was brutally killed while travelling through a remote part of Kenya with her driver. Initially a doctor friend (Herbert Koundé) of hers is blamed for the murders but Justin discovers the doctor was killed the same day as she was and moreover was not her lover in spite of various insinuations floating about.

The first half of the film is told in flashback starting from when Justin and Tessa first meet and fall in love. Tessa is a lawyer who takes on cases dealing with issues of social justice, a topic Justin has shied away from in his work and horticultural leisure pursuits. While their marriage seems ideal and they both treasure each other, Justin never quite understands Tessa’s zeal or the work that she is doing, and Tessa is not completely honest about why she approached Justin initially. It turns out that she is investigating drug trials being conducted by a large and powerful pharmaceutical corporation on poor communities in Kenya, and has uncovered evidence of lies and cover-ups concerning the severe side effects suffered by the people in the trials. She needs Justin as his job gives him – and her – clearance to travel around Kenya with minimum hassle from local authorities. In the course of his investigation into his wife’s murder, Justin soon learns that his boss Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) ordered surveillance on Tessa to stop her from publicising her information. As Justin continues with his searches, he also comes within the target sights of Tessa’s killers and must decide whether he should retreat back to his old life as a pen-pushing bureaucrat and part-time horticulturalist or continue to find Tessa’s killers at the cost of his own life.

For its length, the film moves smoothly and relentlessly to its goal as Justin investigates his wife’s murder, finds out that the murderers have tried to besmirch her name and that of her driver, and discovers that her activist work put her life in extreme danger. The perpetrators are very powerful individuals who will stop at nothing to hide their crimes and they have links to the highest levels in the British and Kenyan governments. The plot is complicated but not too much so, and viewers will get some enjoyment of guessing who Tessa’s killers are before Justin does. The flashbacks and choppy edits may confuse some watchers and obscure the plot’s message of corporate skulduggery, greed and psychopathy in sacrificing the lives of people in the pursuit of profit and glory.

The film’s best assets are its lead actors Fiennes and Weisz who obviously relish the roles they were given and play them to the hilt. There is good screen chemistry between the two, and viewers get a good sense of Fiennes maturing from the diffident everyday man who initially prefers to keep his head down and tail up, not really understanding his wife’s zeal, to someone who fully appreciates the loss and emptiness left behind by her death, and the value of her work. In understanding his wife and her work, he finds a new inspiration to guide his life and the courage to follow Tessa. Danny Huston plays decent support as Sandy Woodrow whose allegiances are never entirely clear until the final scene. Other fine actors like Archie Panjabi and Bill Nighy are reduced to wallpaper when perhaps their characters should be much more significant in the plot’s development.

Parts of the film are stereotyped – there is the obligatory car chase – and of course with a Kenyan setting there must be ample time given over to filming scenes of magnificent wildlife and appalling Third World poverty and squalor which borders on racism. Because the film’s focus is on white individuals, and in particular on developing the love story between the two main characters so that the audience feels attachment and sympathy for them, the effect is to render Kenyan people as background props, which tends to support an unintentional and stereotyped view of white people like Tessa as saviours to helpless Third World people being exploited by other white people and their institutions and structures. The apartheid society installed by the British in Kenya in colonial times has survived intact and unless viewers are alert to the historical background, they may not notice the divisions between black and white people.

In all, the film is quite good within the limitations of its genre but it might have been a great movie if it had gone beyond the suspense action thriller requirements.

Russian Media interview President Bashar al Assad of Syria: a view of how Syria is fighting terrorism and advancing political change

Russian Media Interview with President Bashar al Assad (16 September 2015)

Syrian President Bashar al Assad granted a rare interview to representatives from various Russian media outlets including RT, Rossiskaya Gazeta, Channel 1, Russia 24, RIA Novosti and NTV Channel. Given that for the past four years Syria has been under siege from various rebel groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, the interview inevitably centred on Syria’s fight against these terrorist groups, how this fight is progressing and what the process to achieve and maintain lasting peace will be, and the huge wave of refugees leaving Syria for Europe. The interview was conducted in Arabic, English and Russian, and can be viewed at this RT link. The English-language transcript is also at the link.

The interview starts at the deep end with a multi-loaded question on the political process to peace, the President’s view on sharing power with Syrian opposition groups that originally wanted him gone and how he plans to carry out political reforms in the current difficult circumstances. The President replies that from the outset his government used dialogue to bring together different groups of Syrians in Damascus, Moscow and Geneva, to discuss political change and how to fight terrorism, and that this dialogue is still ongoing. However for political change to occur, terrorism must be defeated first, and to defeat terrorism and stop the exodus of refugees, the West must stop supporting terrorists. Most Syrians who are refugees are fleeing Syria because of the terrorist threat, and most remaining Syrians want security and safety first before political reforms can take place.

On the question of international co-operation to solve the terrorism problem, Assad acknowledges the support from Iran, Egypt and Russia at varying levels. There has been some co-operation with Iraq as well. On the other hand, the coalition of countries led by the US has had no success in combating terrorism and has only allowed ISIS to expand its forces. Some Middle Eastern countries are assisting ISIS by providing fighters and weapons.

On the question of the type of enemy Syria faces in ISIS, whether ISIS is a large organisation or an actual state, Assad asserts that the state ISIS claims to have created is artificial and bears no resemblance to a normal society. ISIS is an extremist Islamist creation of the West and serves as a de facto army to bring down Assad’s government and create chaos and instability in the Middle East.

Asked if he was prepared to work with those Western politicians who had wanted his overthrow once peace is restored to Syria, Assad indicates that he would if such co-operation brings benefits to Syria and the Syrian people and that his personal feelings were irrelevant. Assad expresses sorrow that there are so many Syrian refugees who have fled to Europe, as every person gone is a loss to Syria but he also emphasised that the deaths of people in Syria from terrorism are no less tragic than the deaths of refugees on the high seas in the Mediterranean.

The interview concluded with a question as to whether the war in Syria against ISIS and other terror groups began and who Assad thinks is responsible for it. He lays the blame squarely on the US and the oil kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula and refers to the general historical background stretching back to the 1980s when the West adopted the murderous mujahideen in Afghanistan as “freedom fighters”.

Watching and listening to the interview, I was impressed with Assad’s soft-spoken demeanour and his fortitude in the most difficult circumstances. He may not have willingly taken on the role of Syrian President – he was originally an eye doctor working in London until the death of his older brother who had been groomed by their father Hafez Assad as his successor forced him to return to Syria – but he has shown tremendous moral fibre in staying with his people and defending them.


ABC News / Lateline Interview with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban: a must-see demolition job of prejudiced interviewing

ABC News / Lateline Interview with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban (17 Spetember 2015)

One amazing demolition job that I’ve seen recently is this ABC News / Lateline interview with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, the political and media advisor to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Here Dr Shaaban consistently rebuts the prejudiced viewpoint implied in the questions asked of her and then goes on a sustained offensive against interviewer Tony Jones who ends up looking helpless against her subversion of his statements and the bias in his questioning. The interview can be seen and heard at this link, and the transcript of the interview can be read at the same link.

The first third of the interview focuses on Australia’s involvement in Syria’s war against ISIS and the nature of Western participation generally in that war. Dr Shaaban states that the West should help Syria not only in combating ISIS and terrorism in its territory but also in fighting terrorism overall, wherever in the world it occurs, and to co-operate with countries like Syria, Russia and Iran. She says that the US and its allies have been half-hearted in fighting ISIS and eradicating its baleful influence in the Middle East.

The middle third of the interview concerns Russia’s support for Syria in the form of supplying jets and other military hardware. The narrative implied in Jones’ questioning of Dr Shaaban is that Russia is taking the side of President Assad and soon will actively intervene in the civil war by sending in soldiers and airforce jets. Dr Shaaban points out that Russia and Syria have always had good relations and that the Russians are honouring contracts to supply military equipment and hardware which Syria paid for years ago. Syria only expects Russia to provide the support both countries have already agreed on. Dr Shaaban then starts pounding her view that Syria is being targeted for regime change by the West, and that its institutions, history and culture are being systematically destroyed and erased by the West, in the much the same that Iraq and Libya’s institutions and culture were destroyed by a coalition of countries led by the US and by NATO respectively.

Later in the interview, Jones turns his attention to President Assad and suggests that he and his government are war criminals for allowing the torture, starvation and murder of thousands of people detained by Syrian security agencies, on the basis of a report written by lawyers of the British law firm Carter Ruck for its client the government of Qatar (which has an interest in seeing President Assad deposed). Although Jones says the evidence in the report is “credible”, the fact is that many if not most of the photographs cannot be verified as authentic: all 55,000 ph0tographs, most of them with unclear date stamps and locations, were apparently taken by the one person who is only known by a codename, and the entire report is based on that mystery person’s evidence.  That just one person’s evidence can be accepted as gospel defies the principles of proper forensic investigation. Dr Shaaban turns the tables on Jones by calling out the report as fabricated and saying that the Qatari government paid for it. She then recommences her attack and reiterates that Syria is capable of choosing its own leaders and determining its own direction, and refuses to submit to Western-initiated regime change.

Jones quickly retreats from the ear-bashing with the excuse that the time allocated to the interview has run out. This is not before Dr Shaaban has the satisfaction of realising that Jones may be out of his depth in his questioning, as demonstrated by the amused expression she wears as soon as he mentions the Carter Ruck report which as she later says she is familiar with.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website states that Dr Shaaban denies that the Assad government has committed crimes against humanity, when she has done no such thing: she has only said that the evidence of war crimes Jones referred to was fabricated. The transcript of the interview also twists (perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not) Dr Shaaban’s words by stating that the Carter Ruck report was paid for by a “cattery company”, not a Qatari company.

Unfortunately viewers will come away knowing no more about the situation in Syria than they would known before seeing and hearing the interview: Dr Shaaban does not go into the details of the Carter Ruck report but instead retreats to her tirade of insisting that Syria is and should be in charge of its own direction in the world. This is understandable, given that Jones has an insufferable smirk on his face the whole time while he poses questions that appear bland and impartial but whose implied meaning is biased against Syria. Dr Shaaban’s strategy is then to go on the attack and to maintain that stand, but this may result in her looking like a propagandist for the Syrian government. So while she smashes Jones, and he is forced to retreat, when the dust later settles viewers may end up with a blinkered view of Dr Shaaban.

The Battle of Algiers: excellent and powerful film dramatisation of the Algerian drive for independence

Gillo Pontecorvo, “The Battle of Algiers / La Bataille d’Alger / La Battaglia di Algeri” (1965)

Filmed 50 years ago, this Italian film drama of the Algerian independence struggle against France in the late 1950s remains as relevant today in the post-9/11 world as it did for audiences living during the decline and end of the colonial era when Britain and France gave up their empires in Africa and Asia. The film, influenced by the Italian neo-realism pioneered by Roberto Rossellini and other directors in the 1950s, combines crisp, matter-of-fact drama, imaginative and brilliantly shot cinematography, excellent acting, a highly evocative music soundtrack and a plot left deliberately sketchy to emphasise the film’s messages, of which the most important is that a people’s desire for liberation and independence will always succeed in spite of the repression it is subjected to.

The bulk of the film follows a young man, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), from his early life as street thief who becomes radicalised as a freedom fighter when as a prisoner he witnesses the guillotining execution of a political prisoner. After being released, he applies to join the National Liberation Front (hereafter referred to as the FLN, its abbreviation in French) and is given a test by FLN leader Jaffar. The test confirms Ali’s commitment and from then on he is part of a clandestine network of cells in which each member knows only three others: the person who recruited him and the two people he is required to recruit.

The film does not dwell much on Ali’s advancement to the topmost level but instead follows various resistance fighters who kill police officers as part of a general protest against the forces of law and order who are the front-line of the colonial society that treats the Algerian people as serfs and denies them access to their own lands and resources. The film clearly shows the segregated nature of the city of Algiers: Europeans live in one part which revels in wealth and leisure while the majority Arabs and Berbers are forced to live in crowded labyrinthine conditions in old buildings with primitive infrastructure and transport. The French drive cars while the Arabs and Berbers must still use animals for transport. The murders of the police officers lead to greater repression and the police themselves resort to bombing a section of the Muslim quarter. People die and from then on, the FLN uses terrorism, encapsulated in a section of the film where three Muslim women doll themselves up in Western clothes and carry bombs into cafes and an Air France office, to protest the continuing brutality. Violence from one side begets violence from the other until Paris sends in Colonel Matthieu (Jean Martin) to impose martial law on the suffering Algerians. Determined to wipe out the FLN, Matthieu resorts to arresting and torturing people to gather information about the FLN, and systematically hunts down its members until he and Ali La Pointe finally confront each other in a chilling and cold-blooded climax.

The contrast between the Algerians’ poverty and the colonialists’ lavish lifestyle is highlighted by the cinematography which captures the paranoia and terror the Algerians feel as French rule becomes ever more violent and intrusive. The music, composed jointly by Pontecorvo himself and renowned composer Ennio Morricone, also captures the terror and drama of the film. Scenes of torture are filmed in a sensitive manner that demonstrates the victim’s suffering without dwelling too much on the violence and gore.

While Pontecorvo is sympathetic towards the Algerians, the film shows both oppressors and oppressed as humans with all their flaws and good qualities. Ali, Jaffar and the other leaders of the FLN stubbornly hold out to the very end and Matthieu, for all his admiration of them, is steely in his determination to eradicate them. Surprisingly, Matthieu has the clearest understanding of the conflict between France and Algeria: the French are hell-bent on keeping Algeria as their colony and denying the Arabs and Berbers a share in the colony’s wealth. As long as this situation lasts, there will always be conflict and suppression. One would think that, having fought in the Resistance against Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Matthieu might sympathise with the Algerians’ desire for liberty; yet he puts his loyalty to France ahead of any feelings he may have for the Algerian cause or the admiration he has for individuals like Ben M’hidi, one of the FLN leaders, for his moral stance. As the only actor in a cast of non-actors, Martin makes his colonel stand out as a man who suppresses his humanity and compassion for evil disguised as unquestioning loyalty to the State.

One aspect of the film that is not too clear is the role of the media in changing public opinion in France to favour and support Algerian independence which eventually pressured Paris to grant Algeria its freedom in 1962. Apart from that, the film shows how the colonial authorities use propaganda to try to break the spirit of the Algerians. After destroying the FLN, the authorities obviously believe they have broken the back of the independence movement; unfortunately the film does not go on to say (and this is a major weakness of “The Battle …” and the structure of its plot) what the authorities did next, that might have resulted in a resurgence in the Algerians’ cry for  freedom and independence. One assumes that the French colonial authorities did not do much to give Algerians a greater say in their governance and control of their land and resources, but continued to harass them with police state brutality and petty bureaucratic regulations, and that the French living in Algeria continued to live in blithe ignorance of the tensions simmering even more among the people they treated as their servants.

The film’s complexity in its themes and technical values has stood the test of time, even if the actual visuals look dated. It has been used as a manual by both terrorist groups and governments alike, not always in the way that Pontecorvo and his cast would approve. Violence and brutality always beget more violence and brutality, and both bully and victim end up more traumatised and psychopathic in their natures. The film still has power to move contemporary audiences into sympathising with ordinary people’s desire to control their own lives and resources, and not to live as slaves.

Ideological assumptions of capitalism highlighted in “Speaking with: Naomi Klein on Capitalism and Climate Change”

Christopher Wright, “Speaking with: Naomi Klein on Capitalism and Climate Change” (The Conversation, 4 September 2015)

On the eve of her visit to Australia in late 2015, to promote her book “This Changes Everything” which was published in 2014, Canadian journalist Naomi Klein spoke to Christopher Wright on  capitalism as a way of life and its impact on the Earth’s systems, in particular weather systems and climate. The interview begins with a discussion of Hurricane Katrina and the destruction it brought to New Orleans in 2004, and nature of the the US government’s response in cleaning up the city, caring for the people left homeless and the city’s reconstruction. If you followed the news – the alternative news media, that is – on that response, you’ll know the US sent in the army to patrol and police the city, put many homeless people into shelters that endangered their health and actually caused many deaths, and seized properties that were later redeveloped for the benefit of private individuals and corporations. Social inequality actually increased as a result, property prices rose beyond the ability of people forced to leave the city, and many people who had to leave New Orleans are still unable to return. The example of New Orleans became a microcosm of the way in which wealth and power influence and shape government policy and action, and ensures that inequality continues while ignoring the possibility that Hurricane Katrina may not be a unique phenomenon (and is likely to occur again) and dealing with the root causes of the storm.  The interview can be downloaded at this link.

Klein contrasts the US response to climate change with that of other countries such as Germany and finds that the American actions are typical of the neoliberal ideology that dominates the Anglosphere and influences government policies and corporate behaviours in economic, environmental and cultural matters. She does not blame capitalism but goes straight to the historical foundations of capitalism – and other socioeconomic ideologies such as Communism – in the 17th century and fingers the Cartesian philosophical revolution (which includes the notion that the universe is like a machine and can be analysed and understood) as the conceptual paradigm that became capitalism’s bedrock.

Other topics discussed in the 22-minute interview include the corporate promotion of “green capitalism”, that economic growth and preservation of the environment to forestall climate change are compatible, and how this notion merely avoids dealing with the root causes of the problem; the response of people around the world in confronting climate change and the solutions and strategies they have developed, based on local conditions and their relationship to land; and Australia’s role in contributing to climate change and what the country can and should do to reduce its carbon emissions and other pollution. Klein emphasises that global collective action is important and that Australia can and should lead the way in minimising its emissions and lessening pollution.

It is a very good talk, easy for most people to follow and understand, though by necessity due to its short duration the interview does not delve much into details and specific actions that we in Australia could or should take to minimise the impact we make at local, regional and national levels on our environment.

The really interesting part of the interview was at the halfway point where Klein talks about the historical circumstances in which capitalism and industrialisation were born: the two more or less came about together in northwest Europe, specifically in England and surrounding countries. Klein makes no reference to the state of the Christian religion at the time which regards humans as superior to nature and places humans as stewards of nature rather than regard humans and nature as co-equals and partners who must co-operate to survive. In particular the Western Christian idea that humans are born in a state of sin and are incapable of improvement unless they worship the Christian god goes unmentioned. Nor does she refer to Thomas Hobbes’ political philosophy which, among other ideas, informs capitalism’s view of individuals as essentially self-interested and not naturally given to co-operate for the sake of co-operation. Any analysis of the historical development of capitalism and the various philosophies and ideas that inform its worldview needs to examine the historical context – the culture, the politics, the dominant religions – in which capitalism grew.


Rejuvenation of British politics and student activism on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)” (RT.com, August 2015)

Perhaps the best thing that former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ever did for his party was to resign after the general elections in May 2015, which saw the Conservative Party returned to power and able to govern in its own right. In the current scramble for the vacant UK Labour Party leadership, MP Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as a popular successor with his platform calling for renationalising public utilities and railway transport, tackling corporate tax evasion and avoidance, restoring university student grants and abolishing tuition fees, unilateral nuclear disarmament, urging the Bank of England to create money by funding infrastructure projects, stopping cuts in the public sector, and calling for dialogue with groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and with Russia. Corbyn’s sudden popularity has unsettled the British political establishment and the mainstream British media across the political spectrum – and this includes supposedly progressive media outlets – has leapt to its masters’ defence and is pouring savage opprobrium upon his head. In this episode of “Sputnik …”, Geroge Galloway and guest Seamus Milne of The Guardian (one so-called progressive news outlet that scorns Corbyn and rubbishes his platform) discuss Corbyn’s huge popularity among young people and what it represents in British life: a deep revulsion against the Cameron government and its neoliberal policies, and a desire for political and economic change and social justice.

Milne contrasts the rejuvenation of the UK Labour Party that Corbyn has brought with his platform with the general torpor that has existed in British politics since Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. He and Galloway briefly touch on the slander, including accusations of anti-Semitism, that has been hurled at Corbyn. Whether Corbyn may have much effect outside Britain is yet to be seen but Milne and Galloway speak of the possibility that the Corbyn phenomenon may resound with Europeans tired of neoliberal politics and economic austerity. Having known Corbyn for a long time and having followed his career in politics, Milne and Galloway agree that he is essentially a decent and honest man. Whether though Corbyn can translate that decency and goodness into effective political leadership, neither Milne nor Galloway can say.

Unfortunately at no point in the discussion does Galloway challenge Milne on his newspaper’s general hostility towards Corbyn and his policies, and why The Guardian vilifies him in the way it does. Strangely, both Milne and Galloway admit to being as surprised as the rest of the country at Corbyn’s apparently phenomenal rise in popularity though with their respective backgrounds, I would have thought they were in a position to predict his Messiah-like coming as they would have (or should have) been aware that many Britons, especially young Britons, were thirsting after real political, social and economic change.

The theme of rejuvenation continues in the second half of the episode with second guest Shadia Edwards-Dashti (hereafter referred to as SED merely for convenience), student anti-war activist and a leader of Stop the War Coalition. She and Galloway discuss the radicalisation of university students angered by past government policies of reducing public funding of tertiary education and increasing tuition fees, with the consequent exploitation of students by banks offering student loans at exorbitant interest rates, combined with the lack of suitable part-time jobs to help pay off student debt and the dismal job prospects faced by many graduates; and various factors such as racism that may or may be influencing this new-found political activism. SED also mentions a growing and insidious culture of policing and snitching at universities, and refers to Jeremy Corbyn as a great representative and advocate for young people.

For my money, SED was the better of the two guests and I wish the Galloways had interviewed her for the whole 25-minute episode. As a student activist, SED is in a better position to analyse and offer an opinion as to why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular with young people, and what his popularity says about the Britain of today and the Britain that might come.