The Look of Silence: a grim and monotonous film about a personal quest but no context to make sense of it

Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Look of Silence” (2014)

A companion piece to Oppenheimer’s earlier documentary “The Act of Killing”, this film considers the effects of Indonesia’s purges of Communists and people suspected of being Communist in 1965 on society and the general public. Adi, a fortysomething eye doctor in his village, seeks out the people involved in the torture and killing of his brother Ramli, whom he has never known, the brother having died before he was born. His journey takes him around various families in his village. The murderers of his brother hold considerable power and respect in the village, and Adi’s questions have the potential to put him and his own family in danger for their lives. Indeed, a number of people, not the murderers themselves but their children and other relatives, do make threats towards Adi and Oppenheimer himself. Throughout the film, Adi conducts himself with quiet dignity, asking hard questions about how the killers themselves feel about living with lies, and how they think their victims and the victims’ families might feel about them.

It’s a gruelling and unrelenting film to watch, and one that could have been edited for length in parts: I confess I felt quite tired and drowsy during parts of the film. The film’s style is spare and its focus is on Adi’s unassuming yet quietly determined quest to gain some justice and peace for his brother and parents in a country that continues to glorify the mass murder and tortures and teaches schoolchildren highly distorted versions of this dark period of Indonesia’s history. The extreme minimalism can make proceedings quite monotonous and dreary. The film becomes more than one person’s search for answers about his brother’s fate: it’s also an investigation into the nature of denial and evasion, and how continued denial keeps families apart in society from one generation to the next. At the very least, Adi and Oppenheimer are able to get the killers to make idiots of themselves when they revel in the details of Ramli’s murder and how they drank the blood of their victims in the bizarre belief that this would stop them (the killers, that is) from going crazy.

The scale of the narrative, focused on Adi’s personal quest for answers and perhaps an apology or acknowledgement from the killers for how his family has suffered, does not address the issue of how Indonesia’s government and institutions continue to suppress inquiry into the 1965 mass murders and make the search for truth, justice, any reparations and above all reconciliation between the murderers and their victims, and their respective families, impossible. As with Oppenheimer’s previous film “The Act of Killing”, “The Look of Silence” gives no background information or context to Ramli’s murder or the 1965 mass killings generally, so viewers not familiar with Indonesia’s recent history come away knowing no more about this dark episode than they did before, or why the government still will not admit that wrongdoing and harm had been done during this period. That this situation continues more than 15 years after the resignation of President Suharto, whose rise to power had been enabled in part by the so-called Communist purges, after 31 years as the nation’s leader, and the part that Western nations may have played in encouraging Suharto and his followers to take power, is the real puzzle that gnaws away at the film’s credibility.

A curious aspect of the two Oppenheimer films is how the director manages to get adult men and women, even Adi’s aged father, to act in childish ways. For most of these people also, acting like little children (boasting of their exploits, drinking blood in the belief it will protect them from harm)  incriminates them as murderers but viewers might question the methods that Oppenheimer uses to encourage these people to condemn themselves.

Under Skin, In Blood / You Turn / Karroyul / Man Real / Nulla Nulla / On Stage / Maap Mordak: seven shorts showcasing Aboriginal Australian film-making talent

Larissa Behrendt, “Under Skin, In Blood” (2015)

Ryan Griffen, “You Turn” (2015)

Kelrick Martin, “Karroyul” (2015)

Tracey Rigney, “Man Real” (2015)

Dylan River, “Nulla Nulla” (2015)

Ben Southwell, “On Stage” (2015)

Dot West, “Maap Mordak” (2015)

I had the good fortune of a free ticket to see these seven short films written, directed and/or produced by Aboriginal Australian film-makers and writers. All these shorts cover a range of issues faced by indigenous Australian characters in various urban, suburban and rural contexts in short dramatic narratives. In the order that the films are listed from Behrendt’s film to Dot West’s, the dramas are as follows: a woman living alone holds desperately to memories of happier times with her husband and son at home before asbestos dust in their mining community robbed both men of their health and lives; a man on the run from police over a bungled robbery discovers two unexpected passengers in his getaway car who force him into a life-or-death situation when his car crashes; a young woman mourning the loss of her mother reconnects with her people’s past through the unlikely medium of an abandoned farmhouse; an ex-con tattooing his friend’s leg taunts the naïve pal about his supposed lack of cojones; a rookie white police officer must negotiate the delicate unspoken mores of a rural Aboriginal community in order to break up a fight between two women; a transsexual cabaret singer, lucky in love, fame and fortune, still yearns for her father’s acceptance and love; and a young school-girl teased about her fair skin by Aboriginal kids at school draws hope and strength from her grandmother’s stories and fount of wisdom.

Technically the films are very well made and the acting is very good. “Karroyul” could probably stretch for another 10 – 15 minutes for a deeper and more satisfying treatment of the young woman’s dilemma and alienation, how she comes to terms with her mother’s passing and perhaps how she is entrusted with carrying a legacy to future generations, so that the film becomes open-ended rather than closed off in a tight loop. The cinematography is very beautiful and is epic in ambition, and it seems a shame that the film is so short and its plot and characters sketchily developed almost to the point of being stereotypes. The two police officers in “Nulla Nulla” need another one or two little episodes that bring out aspects of their unique mismatched pairing as older wise Aboriginal man and younger rookie whitefella naïf that riffs on the good-cop / bad-cop routine. Behrendt’s film is the saddest piece with its suggestion that the asbestos mine that blighted the woman’s family was kept open mainly to keep the local Aboriginal community firmly under the thumb of both government and the mine operator and not be allowed to determine its own economic destiny.

“You Turn” is unexpectedly powerful for the choice the robber is forced to make when his car crashes and one of his passengers is thrown out onto the road. “Man Real” is dark and serious for its questioning of macho sexuality and the role that violence plays in shoring up men’s fragile identities as men, all under an apparently light-hearted and jokey veneer. Indeed, quite a few films in this collection have a common theme of a crisis of masculinity and what being a man means for Aboriginal men living mostly Westernised lives in unfulfilling urban, suburban and even rural environments. “You Turn” and “Man Real” address this particular problem head-on but even other films like “Karroyul”, “On Stage” and “Under Skin, In Blood” allude to the issue obliquely: the young woman’s uncle in “Karroyul” is a bit ineffectual in encouraging his niece to reconnect with country; the father of the cabaret singer finds his offspring’s changed sexuality an affront to his identity; and the men in the mining community are denied self-determination and are forced to find identity and fulfilment through mining work at the cost of their health.

Other common themes include continuity through the generations, and the threat that losing a parent or a child can make to breaking this continuity, as expressed in the sorrow and despair of the lonely widow staring at the blurry TV screen in “Under Skin, In Blood”. On the other hand, the characters in “Maap Mordak” seem rather stereotyped: Granny is always available to offer wisdom and comfort to her unhappy granddaughter but doesn’t actually offer the girl any tips to resist the local kids who might turn into nasty bullies the next time she meets them.

Altogether these seven films are fine examples of Aboriginal Australian film-making and writing talent, and I hope the people who made them have even greater ambitions to write major film and TV series screenplays about modern indigenous Australian dramas and issues, and turn them into reality.

A biased narrative that splits hairs in “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat”

Andrew Lachman, “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat” (2014)

Second in a series of documentaries hosted and narrated by BBC science presenter Michael Mosley, this episode on the impact of the livestock industry on the environment is entertaining and informative enough but its problem is that the issue is framed in a very narrow and culturally biased narrative. Mosley wants to be an ecologically conscious carnivore so already the episode rules out the possibilities of going partly or wholly vegetarian, even if for just one day a week. Even just broadening one’s protein choices to eggs, seafood and dairy products, and no more, isn’t enough: no, we must (uhh) go the whole hog and consider the environmental impacts of eating beef and chicken in the main, and little else. Mosley travels to the US to investigate free-range cattle farming and raising cattle on corn and soy, and discovers that feeding our horned friends corn and soy is more environmentally friendly than feeding them on grass, because a diet of grass produces more methane than does a diet of corn and soy. Never mind whether growing corn and soy just to feed cows is actually a better or more environmentally sustainable use of certain land than growing cereals, vegetables and fruit to feed people. After this revelation, Mosley visits a chicken farm where chickens are fattened up on special diets in air-conditioned comfort and run about inside huge barns and learns that … well, woddaya know? … intensively farming chooks in this way may also be more environmentally sustainable than letting them run about in the open air pecking at table scraps and corn.

My brain may be refusing to accept and process such information that conflicts with what it wants to believe but I cannot accept that such intensive farming really can be sustainable even in the short term. The kind of life cycle analysis that is mentioned in the program should, if it is to be credible, consider the life cycle involved in making meat starting with the life cycles of the corn and soy, and of grass as well, for a better comparison of the total costs to the environment of both alternative forms of raising cattle for food. The amounts of fertiliser and water that may be involved, the petroleum consumed, any human labour and transport costs that make these methods of farming cattle possible all should be included in the analytical comparisons. The same should be done for chickens. We do not know the environmental consequences of switching farmland from other purposes to growing special kinds of crops to feed animals, whether the land needs more water and fertiliser than it would otherwise, and how sustainable such practices are. In the Amazon river region, land cleared of forest for grazing cattle does not last very long and becomes desert after a few years; the meat of cattle grazed on such land is of low quality as well, and fit only for hamburgers. That does not sound like a very good use of land. The life cycle analysis of food also does not stop at the moment we shovel it into our mouths: there are also health effects to consider, whether the food is likely to contribute to people’s risk of obesity or chronic metabolic conditions like diabetes, and the impact of our waste on the environment in the form of sewage.

International comparisons such as what Mosley makes later in the program, comparing US and European meat consumption with Chinese meat consumption and their long-term implications, fall down on the implicit assumption that Chinese carnivores eat much the same kinds of meats as Westerners do and in much the same proportions.

Above all, what the program fails to address is the economic and political systems and ideologies that determine how land is owned and used. Land that might be used to support mixed agriculture with cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens grazing at low densities and co-existing with one another and other farming purposes, is instead farmed highly intensively and in an industrial fashion with one kind of agriculture for profit … and that profit going to corporations or governments rather than individual farmers, farming communities or the people who consume the food. Growing food for profit rather than to sustain communities in ways that enhance people’s health and help preserve the environment for future generates will generate different institutions,  structures and cultural values that support the profit motive and justify industrial farming as “environmentally sustainable”.  This is the proverbial 900-pound gorilla lurking in the background and beating its chest unseen while Mosley wastes his time (and that of viewers) basically splitting hairs.

The Virgin Spring: a profound and moving work on vengeance, justice and the remoteness of religion

Ingmar Bergman, “The Virgin Spring / Jungfrukällan” (1960)

Perhaps not so celebrated as “The Seventh Seal”, this morality tale on the nature of humanity, the remoteness of religion and the anguish of human existence is nevertheless powerful in its apparent simplicity. In 14th-century rural Sweden, a wealthy landowner Töre (Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), both devout Christians, farewell their daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) on her long trip to deliver candles to a local church. With her is her pregnant foster sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), treated by their mother as a servant as punishment for having a child out of wedlock. Karin and Ingeri’s trip is long and takes them through remote country, and it’s not long before the two young women are separated and Karin meets a dreadful fate at the hands of two impoverished goat-herders attracted to her innocence, generosity and, above all, her rich clothes. Later the goat-herders, together with their mute young brother, seek shelter at Töre and Märeta’s farm where they try to sell the clothes they have taken off Karin. The parents recognise the clothes as Karin’s, and what follows next, as the parents are torn between their Christian faith, with its admonition to forgive sin and to have mercy, and their desire for vengeance against those who have harmed their only child, can only be described as appalling.

Threaded throughout the film is a constant war between Christianity and paganism: early on, Ingeri invokes the god Odin to harm Karin, the favoured and spoilt child, and pops a toad into Karin’s lunch before it is packed into the saddle-bags for the journey. The religious overtones throughout the film are strong to the extent that the whole work groans with the burden. It’s not hard to see that the various characters represent the so-called Seven Deadly Sins: Karin is guilty of sloth, her mother of pride, Ingeri of envy, Töre of anger and the goat-herders of lust, gluttony and greed. Another sin that might be added here is excess: Töre’s rage is so overwhelming that he ends up killing a child who is guilty only by association with the goat-herders. The pagan aspects of the film and their association with life and death are portrayed in the use of fire, earth and water throughout: fire gives life and warmth but can also kill; trees grow from the earth but earth can also smother; and water as used in the film symbolises new life but can also be used in rituals that prepare one for murder. During the girls’ trip, Ingeri meets a sinister old gentleman who might be Odin made manifest: he is one-eyed, he has a pet raven and he lives in a strange wooden house (representing Yggdrasil, where Odin hanged himself?) where water (Odin’s blood?) is continuously pouring through the walls and flooding the floors. The Christian aspect is also strong: Karin’s role as sacrificial lamb is obvious and even the goats that gambol about have symbolic value (as bearers of sin).

Ambiguity is also a constant through the film and none of the characters comes off as admirable in any way. Perhaps the most outstanding character is that of Märeta: initially steadfast in her Christian faith to the extent of burning stigmata into her wrists, the woman lavishes love on Karin, yet when her faith is tested, she becomes a calculating bitch – the scene in which she accepts the clothes from the goat-herders, recognises the clothes and tells the men she’ll find out what her husband is prepared to pay is cold and chilling, and what follows after when she collapses on the door-step and hugs the torn rags is equally heart-wrenching – and all but urges her husband to avenge Karin’s rape and death. This is a splendid piece of acting, notable for its emotional restraint. Von Sydow’s Töre is no less riveting for his near-manic desire for vengeance, his terrible violence and his anguish when, as a result of what he has done, he finds no relief in murder and vengeance, begs God for forgiveness and tries to bargain with God by promising that he will build a church on the site of Karin’s death. His Christian faith, shaky to begin with, cannot help him; his wife’s faith, also severely tested, cannot help either. The couple find themselves in a dreadful existential dilemma in which vengeance has proved to be a hollow comfort. Karin may be spoilt but her innocence, bordering on gullibility and sheer idiocy, is touching and her rape and death are unbearable to watch for their overwhelming pathos. The goat-herders may be repellent but viewers may feel some pity for their poverty, circumstances and unthinking stupidity which have driven them to greed, rape and murder.

The tone of the film is bleak and viewers are left in no doubt about the hardships that people in mediaeval rural Sweden had to suffer in making a living. The film’s coda looks tacked on as an afterthought and its meaning is unclear: does the spring that bubbles up under Karin represent the triumph of paganism over Christianity, or is it a sign of forgiveness or otherwise from God in answer to Töre’s outburst? The spring can symbolise the rebirth and renewal of life and hope. The film’s cinematography is beautiful and simple yet powerful, with a strong focus on close-ups of actors’ faces and the expressions on them, and it is no surprise to learn that the cinematographer for this film, Sven Nykvist, became director Bergman’s go-to camera man for all of his later films.

The film’s plot might stretch plausibility but overall this is a profound and highly emotional work.

Ex_Machina: style is part of the substance in a low-budget SF film that tackles complex issues

Alex Garland, “Ex_Machina” (2015)

At first glance, Alex Garland’s directorial debut flim “Ex Machina” looks like the total triumph of style over substance but like its plot the style is part of the substance. Ostensibly the film is an exploration of artificial intelligence with the implied extrapolation of where robot nature stops and human nature begins – or is there a gradual continuum from robot-ness to human-ness instead? Probe a little deeper however and you discover that what really makes us human is our connections to one another.

The film begins with young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee at a fictional Facebook-like social media company called BlueBook, who enters his company lottery and wins a ticket to spend a week with BlueBook’s mysterious and reclusive founder CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is delivered by helicopter to an isolated mountain reserve, owned by Nathan, and has to find his way along a river in a forest to Nathan’s cabin. The cabin turns out to be the entry to Nathan’s underground lab where the super-geek has been working on bringing his theories and writings on AI into reality in-between bouts of working out and drinking himself blotto. However Nathan now needs a human being to subject his newest AI creation Ava (Alicia Vikander) to the Turing test, which tests a machine or database’s ability to exhibit behaviour and reasoning indistinguishable from those of a human being. For various reasons Caleb is that ideal human being, the lottery being just a cover for Nathan’s choice so that the other BlueBook employees don’t suspect a thing. Over the next six or seven days, Caleb subjects Ava to Q&A sessions, the content of which increasingly centres on Ava’s desire to break away from Nathan’s control. Caleb learns from Ava that Nathan has been emotionally abusing her and that whether she passes the Turing test or not the CEO plans to use Ava’s memory banks (effectively killing her) in his next AI creation. Caleb discovers that Nathan’s servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is also an AI creation and that she too is under his total control. Increasingly infatuated with Ava, Caleb starts helping and plotting with her to dupe Nathan and escape with her back to civilisation.

The minimal and elegant style of the film – Nathan’s super-expensive and tasteful digs become a significant actor in the film that highlights the creeping horror and suspense, and the horrifying yet clinical death that occurs – throws emphasis on the ever-simmering plot that erupts very quickly and goes pow-pow-pow to the inevitable conclusion which was predicted very early in Caleb and Ava’s sessions together. Before the audience has time to recover, the end credits start scrolling amid some very interesting abstract geometric animations. In such a film where special effects are so low-key they end up hiding and blending into in the background, the acting has to be good and subtle, and the small cast acquits itself admirably here: Isaac is superb as the BlueBook CEO who is at once boorish, cultured, sympathetic towards Caleb in many ways yet very controlling and  misogynistic, at least towards his AI creations. Gleeson does excellent work as the blank Caleb, the geeky programmer who in many ways is out of touch with his emotions and humanity, and as a result is easily exploited by both Nathan and Ava. Vikander shines as Ava, at once innocent yet cunning and manipulative, so much so that this role might end up becoming her break-out role as a major acting talent and even Mizuno is outstanding in her support though clichéd role as Nathan’s mute maidservant.

The film also dives into sexual and even racial politics – yes, why does Nathan create obviously female robots when he could have just created non-sexual beings and why does he also create African and Japanese female robots who succumb to all the racist / sexist fantasies of white men concerning African and Asian women? – in a way that might seem superficial but which leaves the audience pondering its own views about women of different racial groups. One detects also Nathan’s attempts at playing God in his own way: creating beings in his likeness and to his liking, and then leaving his creations to sort out their own existential issues and come to realise that they’re his playthings, while he himself spends his days having fun hiking around nature, getting sozzled and occasionally doing some actual work. Obviously while this god is good at making things out of raw materials and breathing life into them with electronics and cybernetics, he has given little thought to teaching his children ethics and compassion, mainly because at core he has very little of those himself. The scene with the Jackson Pollock painting becomes an important part of the film’s plot and themes: if Pollock had given any thought to what and how his paintings would turn out, he would have left his canvases blank. It is no surprise then that once (spoiler alert) Ava makes good her escape, those who have helped her are left either dead or reeling in a slow death: in thought as well as appearance, she is more human than even Nathan and Caleb themselves are or ever thought she could be.

Significantly when Ava goes out into the world beyond Nathan’s estate, she finds herself in the middle of human traffic, and traffic generally, in the big bad world of Western technological civilisation. The ultimate test – that of immersing herself into the networks of human thought, behaviour and morality, and whether she can break out of it whenever she wants without losing her sense of herself as an individual yet social being – awaits her. Can she pass this ultra-Turing test, of passing herself as another cog in the machine that is Western society without being detected? One thinks she can, although in this success there is an ironic tragedy: it means that humans themselves are little more than robots themselves, unthinkingly allowing themselves to be shaped by society into playing particular roles and never thinking or imagining living in worlds outside them. Will Ava willingly submit to the control that Caleb himself entered into without thinking when he became a BlueBook programmer? One suspects not or she would never have escaped in the first place.

Metropolis (dir. by Fritz Lang, reconstructed + restored): near-full restoration carries a populist message of fear and conservative belief

Fritz Lang, “Metropolis (reconstructed + restored)” (1928)

I’ve had the opportunity to see “Metropolis” (which I reviewed some years ago) again in its reconstructed and restored version which will be as close to its original 150-minute running time as it will ever be. There are only a few minutes still missing from the original film and they contain material essential to the plot: they explain how the film’s heroine Maria (Brigitte Helm) manages to escape the clutches of mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) after his experiments using her physical appearance to clothe his robot with some kind of hologram that reproduces Maria’s looks and emotions. The reconstructed film as is, is still epic and bombastic in scale, perhaps even more so with more religious scenes; and it moves at a very brisk, almost rushed pace.

Watching the film again in its near-fullness after having seen the 90-minute version and another previous restored version is quite a revelation: the (almost) full film is now shown to be the populist, even proto-fascist film it had been all along and which I had suspected, knowing that script-writer Thea von Harbou joined the Nazi Party a few years after its making. The film expresses many ideas and beliefs derived from the German Romanticist movement of an earlier century, and this in itself explains the mawkish sentimentality of the plot and the film’s conclusion. In particular, the notion that emotion and passion always prevail over the intellect and reason, and that people who use their intelligence only end up evil and tyrannical, underlines the film’s plot. (This is related to a pre-Enlightenment view that humans are essentially evil and are incapable of improving and governing themselves, and only respond to strict and severe discipline, order and harsh punishment doled out by autocratic governments.) The film is proto-fascist in undermining and portraying the working-class characters as robotic, simple-minded, irrational and easily led; in depicting the upper-class layer as soft, infantile and debauched; and in asserting that only those whose lives are governed by the heart, with all the emotions and stereotypes associated with it – that is, love for one’s native land and soil, awe and reverence for one’s leaders (who are also one’s betters) along with absolute faith in their abilities and decisions, purity of soul – are best fitted to lead the slave-like workers and the soft and corruptible wealthy urban classes.

The film also has some slight anti-Jewish tendencies in the way it portrays its mad scientist character Rotwang. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the middle class in many European countries had a high proportion of members who were Jewish, prosperous, well-educated, highly cultured and cosmopolitan in their outlook. They readily embraced change and favoured greater equality among people of different classes, religions and ethnic groups. Many Jews were professionals working in medicine, journalism and science. They were seen as rootless and money-hungry by others however and faced discrimination from the societies they lived in no matter what their class or status. Rotwang has some characteristics of the Jewish stereotype: hungering for power over all the Metropolis inhabitants whether rich or poor, resentful of the scientist ruler Joh Fredersen in taking away the woman he (Rotwang) loves, and pursuing a pure Christian woman to corrupt her and steal her essence to animate a robot which he uses to manipulate the workers to revolt and destroy the city and its governing classes. In Europe in the 1920s, the idea that Jews were behind the Bolshevik Revolution, Communism generally, the hedonistic material life-styles of the rich, and increased sexual freedom of women (along with the fear that they were neglecting their children) was strong.

A strong Christian, especially Roman Catholic, theme is present throughout the film: the character of Maria is heavily based on Biblical characters like the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and Eve (or Lilith). The city of Metropolis is closely associated with the Tower of Babel in the story Maria tells the workers’ children and with the corrupt city of Babylon in the Bible.

Even in its current reconstruction, the film’s conclusion still appears mawkish and sentimental after all the intense activity that has gone before. Yes, the conclusion in which techno-plutocracy is reconciled with the workers it depends on through a mediator is the logical conclusion and the main characters themselves represent stereotypes; but the ending looks so pat and so unrealistic that it still irks the senses. The film’s ending suggests that if only the tyrant scientist ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) will be a bit kinder, more of a benevolent dictator, and the workers a bit less concerned about their woeful pay cheques and their terrible working conditions, and more mindful of their children’s well-being, if head and hands come closer together, then love and understanding will somehow blossom through the meeting of all their hearts which peacemakers Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) and Maria will facilitate. There is nothing to suggest in the characters of Freder and Maria themselves that they actually are capable of acting as effective mediators; based on what I have seen in the film, the two are likely to serve as a de facto royal couple ruling Metropolis. Indeed, no-one actually votes for Freder or Maria to serve as mediators, their roles being clearly predestined due to Freder’s social status and Maria’s supposed inborn purity, which does put the reconciliation between Joh Fredersen and his workers onto a bad footing already. The workers might get more time off to be with their children but the culture and social and political systems and institutions that allowed the city to exist and to function, and the assumptions and values underlying them, essentially do not change. Freder’s dad is still in charge and his bureaucrats are still carrying out his orders.

For all its futuristic pretensions, the film is best read as embodying the beliefs and fears of its time. Viewers should beware though that its message is ultimately a pessimistic and misanthropic one.

Direct Line with Vladimir Putin (April 2015): concentrating on domestic issues, Crimea and the Ukrainian crisis

Kirill Kleymenov and Maria Sittel, “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” (RT.com, 16 April 2015)

Every year since he has been President of Russia, and also when he served as Prime Minister under Dmitri Medvedev’s term as President from 2009 to 2013, Vladimir Putin has willingly fielded questions about the Russian economy, politics, social issues, foreign policy and just about any other topic raised by Russian citizens live on this 4-hour Q&A marathon broadcast by four Russian TV channels and three radio stations from Moscow. The questions come to Putin through many channels: studio audience, phone-in or phone messages, live video links and electronic mail. The 2015 edition ran for five hours and over three million questions and messages were received by the show. Over the years, the show’s hosts have changed but Kirill Kleymenov and Maria Sittel have been the main stalwarts and this year was no different. Kleymenov and Sittel receive able assistance from people monitoring the questions coming into the studio through various media.

Due to the length of the Q&A session and to the variety of questions and issues raised ,  this essay attempts to group the questions and responses into rough groups relating to the Russian economy, social and political issues, foreign policy and particular issues that arose during 2014 and early 2015. I make no claim to being impartial in looking at and emphasising particular parts of the marathon session. My essay is based on the English-language transcript provided by The Vineyard of the Saker website.

Economic Issues

Maria Sittel was the first to lead off with a question to Putin and this question dealt with the complicated economic situation that faced Russia for most of 2014. Western economic sanctions were applied against Russia as a result of the political crisis that erupted in Ukraine after February 2014, the ensuing restrictions on non-Ukrainians and their use of their own languages in public life, Crimea’s independence referendum and the peninsula’s subsequent return to Russia, the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, and the West’s perception of Russia ‘s response to that war; and the deliberate crashing of global oil prices by the United States and Saudi Arabia by flooding world markets with oil with the aim of wrecking the Russian economy, perceived to be wholly dependent on oil and natural gas exports. Russia responded by imposing its own economic sanctions on EU and other Western products entering Russia, thus stimulating its own industries to replace those products, and by entering into trade deals with other countries. The Russian rouble was allowed to fall in value and the Russian Central Bank hiked up interest rates to stem the decline. (Though The Saker disapproved of this move, in retrospect it may have been a brilliant master-stroke: Russian oil is bought and sold in US dollars, so Russia would be hoarding US dollars until such time as the value of the rouble is low enough that US dollars can be exchanged for roubles, and then Russia would flood world markets with US dollars, depressing the US dollar’s value.) Putin’s response to Sittel’s question was to highlight positive developments in Russia’s economy over 2014 / early 2015. In response to Kleymenov’s question as to whether Russia could have acted differently, Putin replied that Moscow took the best approach possible at the time.

Still Kleymenov and Sittel pressed Putin more by bringing out a big gun: former government finance minister Alexei Kudrin who criticised Moscow’s application of the “Strategy 2020″ programme he (Kudrin) helped develop, saying that Russia has not gone far enough in pushing structural economic reform. He urged that under the present economic conditions, Russia needs to adopt Strategy 2020 and pursue it fully, rather than use it as a guide or handy source of individual policies to be picked at. Putin replied that Strategy 2020 was in effect as a guide but its full practical implementation is difficult as it would squeeze incomes that are already too low in crucial areas of economy and society such as primary and secondary school education. One can sense here a clash between Kudrin’s preferred neoliberal reforms which among other things might have imposed austerity measures on the bulk of the working population and Putin’s liking for a mixed economy in which capitalist and socialist policies and programmes co-exist and complement one another in different proportions depending on the particular socioeconomic spheres in which they are applied.

Agricultural Issues and Issues affecting Small Business

Whether by accident or deliberate choice, several questions targeted at Putin focused on Moscow’s support for agriculture and small farmers in particular. A number of farmers, especially dairy farmers, called attention to the difficulties small farmers have in obtaining bank credit to develop their herds and increase milking capacity and yields. One farmer in particular complained that his dairy farm had yielded no profit over the 15 years it has operated and that he distrusted the official statistics given by the dairying industry as they did not reflect the reality he was experiencing. Another dairy farmer complained that government funding was going to large farms while small farmers were “left with crumbs”. To these people, Putin replied that Moscow had allocated an extra 50 billion roubles to support agriculture and another 4 billion roubles to subsidise the leasing of equipment. In addition, Moscow had also increased subsidies for farmers on bank loans taken out to increase working capital.

A third farmer complained that small farmers had to compete against larger agricultural enterprises to supply milk to customers and that small farmers who wanted to supply milk and other products directly to customers through farmers’ markets needed help to do so from local municipal authorities. Putin sympathised with this farmer, added that council authorities had had problems in the past with outdoor markets selling expired goods and that Moscow would take up this issue with regional governors and they in turn would contact council authorities about it.

The issues raised by small farmers point to the need for the Russian government to assist small and medium-sized farming enterprises financially and in marketing their products. Support could be given to small farmers to form private co-operatives that would market and distribute their produce directly to customers. The relevant government ministries could consider offering business advice to small farmers, establish a system of banks specifically to offer loans to small farmers and set up a unit to offer financial advice. Such systems could also be part of broader systems to offer advice and funding to small businesses and entrepreneurs generally.

Indeed there was a brief discussion about raised interest rates for small business loans that annoyed two questioners from Sverdlovsk and Irkutsk. Putin said he would look into the situation of Sberbank’s raising of the interest rates for small business loans and refer it to the head of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. There were support programmes already in place for small to medium-sized businesses including a two-year tax holiday for new businesses.

Politicial and Foreign Policy Issues

Kleymenov brought out liberal politician Irina Khakamada who spoke of the recent gunshot death of the liberal political activist Boris Nemtsov and queried how the investigation into his shooting was going and whether other opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny are able to run for parliament on an equal footing with politicians allied with Putin. Putin pointed out that suspects in Nemtsov’s murder had already been arrested and charged a few days after the killing but those ultimately responsible for hiring the hitmen and who stood to benefit from Nemtsov’s death were unknown. Putin also said that opposition politicians should be able to campaign on an equal basis with other politicians provided that they have popular support and that their activities are within the law.

The issue of Boris Nemtsov’s death was taken up again later in the show by Ekho Moskvy radio station chief editor Alexei Venediktov who queried why investigators were unable to question eyewitnesses hiding in Russian territory, and insinuated that this demonstrated a weakness in Russia’s internal security. Putin replied that investigations were still ongoing and that among other things they would lead to the real killers in due course.

A number of people raised concerns about Russia’s place in the world, whether Russia would be attacked and who Russia’s friends were in the revived fight against a resurgent Nazism in Ukraine. Putin tended to skirt around these questions, more out of the need perhaps to be diplomatic and not reveal state secrets. To one military historian who asked if Russia should respond to those countries that refused to send leaders to attend the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in Moscow on 9 May 2015, Putin replied such countries were free to do what they liked; the Victory Parade was Russia’s celebration after all and Russia could celebrate without others.

A newspaper editor, Konstantin Remchukov, challenged Putin in suggesting that his (Putin) popularity ratings were based on people’s perceptions of the West as bullying Russia and their feelings of patriotism and nationalism rising as a result. Remchukov wanted to know what Putin would do to counter radical nationalism (and by implication risk seeing his popularity plummet). Putin replied that he did not agree with Remchukov’s perception of his popularity and that Russian people knew and understood what was really happening. (In other words, Russian people have more intelligence than what Remchukov credits them with.) From Putin’s point of view, nationalism, patriotism and xenophobia are not to be confused and that nationalism has no place in Russia which historically developed as a multinational / multicultural society dominated by no one religion.

Social Issues

As one of the assistants to Kleymenov and Sittel remarked while monitoring the phone calls and SMS text messages, many questions put to the President concern housing, utilities, the ability of Russia’s healthcare system to cope with particular conditions affecting many people and the cost of medicines. Particular questions on Russian healthcare focused on the system’s ability to deliver prompt treatment at the level needed by people with life-threatening or chronic diseases and conditions. The show received complaints from people registered in special categories to receive free prescriptions for certain drugs but who were unable to obtain such prescriptions because the medicines were not available in the areas where they lived. One woman expressed a fear that the Ministry for Health was planning to stop importing foreign medicines. The questions asked suggest that Russia needs to develop a pharmaceutical industry, ideally spread over a number of cities in its European and Asian territories, to make drugs either under licence from Western pharmaceutical firms or to develop its own drugs. Other questions indicate that the healthcare system needs to do more to provide proper treatment and care for the country’s most vulnerable groups: pensioners, cancer patients and children with chronic conditions who live far from the major cities. There may be a huge discrepancy in people’s access to quality healthcare between the larger cities and towns on the one hand and on the other small provincial towns and villages in isolated areas where transport links need development.

Interestingly with respect to housing, the main issue that arose was the plight of people who had taken out mortgage loans in foreign currencies some time before the rouble began falling in value, and who were now having problems in paying off their loans. Putin said his government could investigate ways of helping such people but no more than it would help people who had taken out mortgages in roubles. He pledged that the government would subsidise mortgage loans to help support the growth of residential construction and to help people buy affordable housing. The country has been experiencing a housing construction boom in recent years and subsidising mortgage loans will help maintain and increasing available housing stock.

A man complained that his rural town’s regular train service had been cancelled a year ago and that as a result people were unable to move around. The cancellation of the service particularly affected young people’s ability to attend colleges and universities. Putin promised to look into the town’s situation and to find a solution that was both economical and helpful to the town’s population.

Crimea and Ukraine

2015 is the second year that people in Crimea would have been able to participate in the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin show. The main questions focused on the peninsula’s transport links with Russia, in particular the ferry links between Crimea and SE Russia at Kerch Strait and the poor state of the air terminal and runway at what I presume is Sevastopol. Putin mentioned that Aeroflot was cutting the price of tickets to Crimea from several cities and that ferry services between Crimea and Russia would be increased.

The elephant in the room that is Ukraine was present in many questions and at times the situation in that country and the ramifications for Russia were discussed at some length. Direct Line received a report that a prominent journalist in Ukraine, Oles Buzina, had just been shot dead and that a former politician Oleg Kalashnikov, associated with former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, had also been killed previously. The hosts and Putin expressed condolences to Buzina’s family. Irina Khakamada asked Putin if Russia had troops in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and Putin emphatically said no. An online question asked why Russia’s support for Ukraine had failed given that Russia had invested the equivalent of US$32-33 billion in Ukraine; Putin’s reply was that the Ukrainian government itself had wasted the money with the greed and corruption of its politicians.

At this point Putin delved into a brief and interesting lecture into why Russia had allowed Ukraine to develop the way it had since 1991 when Ukraine became independent: Ukraine is a sovereign state and must be allowed to make its own way in the world. As a fellow sovereign state, Russia must respect Ukraine’s decisions even if they incur bad or injurious results. There is no desire on Russia’s part to revive an empire or force other countries into an imagined sphere of influence in spite of Western propaganda that says the contrary. At the same time, Putin recognised that a considerable number of Russians and Russian-speaking people live outside the borders of Russia in neighbouring countries like Ukraine and that their interests had to be considered. The way to do this, according to Putin, is through interaction, cooperation and mutual respect.

On the question of the future status of Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, Putin took a minimalist position in stating that he hoped for the recent Minsk II agreements, brokered with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the leaders of Germany and France, would be implemented and adhered to by the Ukrainian government. In the long run, whether Donetsk and Lugansk would stay within Ukraine or not would depend on the people living in those oblasts and their decision would in turn depend on the Ukrainian leadership’s attitude towards these two regions.

Some Observations

Firstly the very notion that Vladimir Putin would participate in a marathon 5-hour session answering questions, not all of which might be spontaneous and unscripted, seems quite astounding to most Western audiences used to seeing their leaders participate in carefully orchestrated 1-hour “debates” in which all replies have been scripted and vetted in advance. Certainly some questioners appear to have been pre-selected which might explain why Alexei Kudrin and Irina Khakamada, both prominent opposition politicians, got the gong to ask their questions at the expense of other, perhaps more pressing requests. The fact that people in Crimea and Donbass refugees were favoured by Direct Line might suggest pre-selection at work as well in addition to Crimea and the Donbass being issues of considerable importance and urgency in Russia at this time.

Why prominent opposition politicians like Kudrin and Khakamada were given air-time when they could have raised their respective questions in parliament seems a puzzle. It could be that the issues they have raised are in the public interest, given that among other things Boris Nemtsov’s murder attracted worldwide attention. However Putin was able to turn a potential source of criticism into his advantage: the police investigation into Nemtsov’s death netted suspects within a week of the killing. The propaganda value that the West could have mined from Nemtsov’s death ended up being very limited. Also by giving time to Kudrin and Khakamada, Putin gave them the opportunity to hang themselves by their own opinions of what was important and what was not. Khakamada by her own admission and assumptions placed more importance on Western impressions that Russian military units were present in eastern Ukraine than on actual facts: she could have travelled to the area or areas close by and seen for herself that no Russian troops were stationed in positions to invade.

I note that this year’s Q&A session was the longest so far in the programme’s history and I expect that next year’s session will be just as long if not longer. There surely will come a point when the producers realise “Direct Line …” is becoming unwieldy. I can see it running to about six or seven hours but no more. There is a need perhaps to set certain guidelines about what people can ask or petition of the President so as to preserve the programme’s reputation for serious journalism as well as not to waste time with frivolous requests.

The very fact that people pepper their President with questions, requests and petitions which he says he will take up with the relevant regional governors who in turn would be expected to refer to and discuss with the local municipal authorities in charge of the issues raised suggests that democracy from the ground up might still be weak in parts of Russia. There may be regional and local government authorities that still have an authoritarian outlook and culture and which only jump to pressure applied from above. (Much the same can be said about the relationship between and among the different levels of government and their respective relationship with their voters in many supposedly more democratic Western countries; in many governments at regional and even local council levels, ideology and politicking have usurped priorities such as delivering services required by communities.) No doubt a situation in which regional and local government authorities in Russia are more attentive and responsive to their constituents’ needs would be much better than what may currently exist. Citizens should be able to appeal directly to their relevant authorities (through citizen-initiated referendums, online petitions or mini-Q&A sessions with regional governors for example) to get certain things done that benefit their families and communities. Perhaps Moscow itself is working towards this goal. A criticism that could be made about shows like Direct Line … is that they are simply a 21st-century version of rulers holding court and receiving petitions and requests from subjects which are then delegated to the appropriate advisors and ministries.

The impression of Vladimir Putin that I come away with is that he is an intelligent and pragmatic politician and leader who, while he may keep his cards close to his chest, seems dedicated at the very least to leave his country in a much more developed, more prosperous and freer position than it was when he returned to the Soviet Union in 1991 from Germany. This work requires the revival and strengthening of social and cultural institutions and values that were weakened or repressed during the Soviet period and which would serve as a basis for a new Russian society. Putin recognises that Russia is in a period of transition, in the process of becoming, and that he has responsibility for leading the country through that transition – though what the result will be may not necessarily be what he imagines – but still, he is determined to progress to his preferred goal of a Russia strong and secure in its place in the world. This goal is very much in agreement with what he said in his Valdai 2014 speech, in which Russia would not aim at being the world’s enforcer but rather concentrate on its own development and defend its own interests and territory.

The episode can be seen at this Youtube link.

Tess: flat characters and subdued approach in adapting novel to screen ensure a slow-moving trudge

Roman Polanski, “Tess” (1979)

Closely based on the original Thomas Hardy novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, which serves as an indictment of Christian religious hypocrisy, male oppression of women and the British class system, Roman Polanski’s “Tess” is a slow-moving, subdued film, as diffident and almost colourless as its heroine, played by a teenage Nastassja Kinski. Kinski’s awkwardness and lack of experience in a lead role show very strongly here. Fortunately she is surrounded by capable actors like Leigh Lawson (who plays Alec) and Peter Firth (playing Angel Clare), along with a large cast playing characters representing most layers of late 19th-century rural British society and memorable landscapes that change with the seasons and mirror the fortunes of the young Tess from the time her father is told by his local parson that his Durbeyfield family is descended from noble ancestors and that the Durbeyfields may have wealthy relatives who have recently moved into the local community.

With that news,  Tess is compelled by her parents to seek out these rich cousins and she soon meets Alec. Alec’s family has actually bought the d’Urberville name and family crest but Tess’s innocence does not immediately pick this up. Alec becomes infatuated with Tess and  manipulates her into a situation where he is able to seduce (or rape) her. Tess becomes Alec’s mistress for a time but is unable to live with the snide talk of the servants and workers behind her back and she returns home to her family. She gives birth to Alec’s child who survives only a short time. After the baby’s death, Tess finds employment with a dairy farm. She meets Angel Clare, the educated son of a pious preacher, who falls in love with her and persuades her to marry him. After their wedding, Angel confesses his past to Tess and she forgives him; when she confesses her past, he is astounded that the pure unsullied woman of nature he had idealised has turned out to be human after all. His heart grows cold towards Tess and soon he leaves for Brazil to embark on a missionary venture, effectively abandoning his wife. Destitute, Tess returns to her family and discovers her parents are not well. Her father dies and the Durbeyfields are evicted from the family home. Alec, having found out about Tess’s baby and marriage to Angel, and hearing that she has been abandoned by him, offers succour. Tess rejects him at first but is forced by circumstances to accept his help – on the condition that she becomes his mistress again.

Eventually of course, Angel returns from Brazil, his missionary venture having failed and he having suffered greatly as well. He seeks out Tess to beg forgiveness of her but his arrival puts her in a dilemma. How she resolves her dilemma seals her fate and from then on, an untimely death awaits her.

In the novel, Tess is a spirited and passionate young woman but in Polanski’s film, Kinski’s Tess seems drained of all character: that may be an unfortunate consequence of miscasting and Kinski’s lack of experience in a lead role. Tess’s actions become rather inexplicable as a result and audiences who do not know the book may find her violence a jarring surprise. A significant theme of Hardy’s novel – Tess as a woman being the child of nature, the innocent girl who is destroyed by human society through religion, sexual oppression and industrialisation – falls by the wayside. Polanski’s film does not play up the subtle differences between Angel Clare and his parents enough to highlight Clare’s superficiality and hypocrisy: Clare is intended as an example of an enlightened and liberal thinker who is not so tolerant and liberal when he learns of Tess’s past history, while his parents, who initially appear to be interested only in hobnobbing with the rich, are actually quite forgiving of others’ foibles. For all the time he spends on screen, Firth’s Clare behaves in ways that are rather puzzling. The only really consistent character is Alec who, beneath the wealth he flaunts and his shaky morality, actually cares for Tess’s well-being.

Significantly, Alec is associated with the arrival of industrialisation that was to transform rural agriculture and the lives of peasants dramatically, and not always for the better. Industry removes humans from nature: the milk produced by the dairy farm where Tess works must be adulterated with water because townsfolk are unable to stomach it. Alec lives and moves in a world where nature is shaped to obey humans utterly and he expects Tess, the woman of nature, to acknowledge him as her master as well. Thus, the symbolism of Tess’s murder of Alec (spoiler alert) is tremendous: nature asserts its power over humans, humans react to that power by crushing it and taming it. Tess’s action cannot go unpunished by society (else the chaos that the society fears is unleashed) and that punishment is death.

While the cinematography is beautiful and immerses the viewer in the life of late 1880s rural Britain, and the changing seasons and their moods, it cannot save the film from being something of a trudge through the plight of a young woman trapped by her circumstances, the double standards of the society in which she lives and her own innocence and impulsive behaviour. The flat characters and Polanski’s subdued and technical approach in adapting Hardy’s novel to the screen are the problem.

Paris, Texas: a film of isolation and rootlessness that cannot find purchase in a ruthless machine society

Wim Wenders, “Paris, Texas” (1984)

One of American cinema’s finest yet under-appreciated treasures must surely be the unassuming actor Harry Dean Stanton whose acting career reached its diamond anniversary in 2014. Usually cast in supporting roles, here he is employed in the lead role as the amnesiac Travis in Wim Wenders’ road flick “Paris, Texas”, a meditation on isolation, rootlessness, self-discovery and redemption. The thin plot strains credibility and the small cast is sometimes rather workman-like but what it says about the human condition and the particular social environment that has made Travis and his fellow characters what they are is more important.

After four years wandering lost in the desert somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, Travis stumbles into a petrol station and a doctor there calls for help. The authorities call on Travis’ closest of kin, brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément), to collect him. Walt brings Travis back in a somewhat roundabout way (involving a detour to a place called Paris, in Texas, consisting of little more than a collection of derelict trucks in the middle of the desert) to his own home in Los Angeles where Travis is reacquainted with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Travis and Hunter gradually warm to each other to the point where Travis, determining to find out what happened to his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), is able to take the boy with him on a long driving trip from Los Angeles to Houston in Texas. There, Travis makes an unpleasant discovery about Jane and has to decide whether to reconcile with her or not.

The film is long and meandering, and at times it appears not quite focused, as if to mirror its central character’s struggle to understand himself and the most important people in his life, and how his life came off the rails originally. Stanton underplays his part well: his character veers from child-like to adult, gradually opening up and maturing as he re-establishes a relationship with Hunter and then searches for Jane. Stockwell and Clement play their parts well in their own way, Walt and Anne are as lost in the urban jungle of Los Angeles which in some respects is as much a vast desert as the one where Travis was lost. Carson is appealing as the son caught up in the trappings of modern Western culture, disdaining walking and close physical and emotional contact for the attractions of cars and video-games. But the best (if understated) acting comes in the film’s climax when Travis talks to his wife on the phone at her place of work where she provides phone sex talk to lonely customers: Travis admits to Jane that his love for her became an unhealthy obsession and led to a strong controlling streak on his part that eventually broke up their relationship and which literally sent him into the desert wilderness.

Supported by fine cinematography that emphasises the flat and open expanses of the desert landscapes, the restless society that has put down shallow roots in this environment, and the drawling slide-guitar soundtrack by Ry Cooder that evokes the stark loneliness of the Texan urban and rural worlds, the film follows Travis’ attempts at rediscovering himself, reuniting his family and finding in the reunion of Jane and Hunter the atonement for his earlier misdeeds that will allow him to move forward without guilt.

Admittedly the film can be hokey in parts and the disruption that Travis could have brought to his brother’s family and Jane is reduced to some misgivings on sister-in-law Anne’s part about the possibility of Travis taking Hunter away from her and Walt. The film could have been edited here and there for length without affecting its distinctive atmosphere and low-key style. Stockwell and Clement are not given much to do and their reaction to Travis disappearing from their home, taking Hunter with them, is incredibly passive. Having reunited Jane and Hunter, Travis purposely leaves them, perhaps forever, to return where he came from or to pursue his dream of finding Paris, Texas.

The lonely life in the dreary Houston suburb where Jane plies her trade is taken for granted; no-one bothers to ask Jane why she had to take up such seedy work, nor why she couldn’t get a better job in LA with the help of her in-laws. The isolation and rootlessness of people; and the culture and its values that encourage people to continually move around, whether to better themselves, earn more money, pursue fame and riches, and which tout individual freedoms in narrow ways that privilege greed and competition, with the resultant loss of connection and intimacy – all are accepted by director Wenders as they are and are never questioned here. Travis might mature enormously during his quest for identity and need for emotional connection but at the end of the film, he is still at a loss of how to cope and deal with a mostly indifferent, ruthless society. He cannot survive in such a world where work and efficiency for their own sake, where people like his ex-wife and his brother’s family are forced to exist as isolated units, and so he voluntarily chooses to return to the desert.

Shorn of its excess baggage, “Paris, Texas” would still pack considerable emotional punch, though I suppose it would lose its meandering, lackadaiscal pace .

A riveting morality tale of corporate greed, sociopathy and Social Darwinism in “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”

Alex Gibney, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005)

A bit gimmicky in parts, especially in its transitions, but overall this documentary on the biggest corporate bankruptcy in pre-2008 US financial history is a riveting morality tale on the astonishing rise of energy corporation Enron and its equally astounding fall. Even with its chronological structure, the film exudes drama and an unreal and rather inhuman energy behind the company’s rollercoaster rise to fame and infamy. I can’t help but think that the company’s founders, executives and traders not only couldn’t believe their luck but also kept on pushing it to see how far they could go without being caught, knowing all the while that the more they pushed, the more likely they would be arrested, the more likely the company would fall – and fall hard. I also wonder if, had I been in their situation, whether I also would have pushed my luck and gambled hard, just as they did, if the money was continually flooding in my direction as a result of my misdeeds.

Enron begins drily enough with its founder Kenneth Lay, the Missouri-bred son of a Baptist preacher man, imbibing the ideology of free markets and deregulation, establishing Enron as an energy company in the early heady days of US President Ronald Reagan’s first term during which he set the ball rolling by sacking striking air traffic controllers campaigning for better wages and working conditions. Lay soon finds willing people to work for him and with him – firstly, two crooked traders engaged in risky trading and profit skimming who brought millions to the company, then later Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow, Lou Pai among others – and with insider trading, the creation of dummy companies to hide debts, the declaration of profits that haven’t yet been earned and various creative accounting schemes, Enron grows very quickly indeed. Such quick growth though comes with expectations both within and without to do better and bigger, and the corruption begins to infiltrate right through the company culture. Skilling himself institutes a cut-throat culture in which employees are forced to compete among themselves in ever more predatory and pitiless behaviours if only to save their own hides from the sack.

Narrator Peter Coyote provides enough background and framework for the interviewees to tell their sides of the tale. Included among the interviewees is Fortune reporter Bethany McLean, co-author of the book “The Smartest Guys in the Room” on which the film is partly based; she and Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins emerge as the heroes of the film. A trader appears repentant as he recounts his involvement in the energy market manipulations that took advantage of California’s deregulation of its electricity and led to the rolling electricity blackouts that resulted in billions of dollars’ worth of real damage to that state’s economy and in various wildfires in parts.

One would think that the rollercoaster ride that was Enron’s history would be enough for this documentary but Gibney resorts to some cheap tricks to pad it out – fortunately the tale itself is compulsive enough that such glitches can be forgiven. The main deficiency of the film is to concentrate mostly on the central figures of Lay, Skilling, Fastow and their fellow rogues; while there is mention of other firms that helped Enron in its criminality (auditor Arthur Andersen being one guilty party that ended up being destroyed by Enron’s downfall), the film fails to address the central problem behind all the corporate shenanigans, this being the corporate capitalist system, the assumptions and values it relies on, the thinking, the behaviours and the particular cultures it generates as a result, and – most of all – the overall political culture, represented by the Bush family (members of which were close buddies of Kenneth lay) and itself shot through with layers of corporate corruption, that encouraged it. Instead there is a bizarre detour into a shallow investigation of Stanley Milgram’s famous Yale University experiments on authority and compliance, with the insinuation that ordinary people – the traders, the middle-level management – in the company are as much to blame as the Enron executives. There is nothing about how the Social Darwinist culture deliberately imported into Enron by Skilling might have created fear among most employees and stoked psychopathic behaviour in others.

What’s even more breath-taking than the corporate crimes is the actions of Lay, Skilling and some other senior Enron executives as they see their version of the Titanic sailing into the iceberg of ruin: they quickly decamp as fast as they can, taking millions in profits and golden handshakes, while investors and employees alike see their money disappear faster than you can say abracadabra.

Before the tying of loose ends and the rolling end credits, the film concludes with a warning from Watkins that what happened at Enron will happen again. It is a timely warning but unfortunately a warning that those who most need to hear it have ignored (as the Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme debacle and the 2008 collapse of Lehmann Brothers demonstrated) and will ignore again.