Hard Reset: a predictable and tired short film on human and AI relations in a future materialist society

Deepak Chetty, “Hard Reset” (2016)

The premise and the plot are predictable and rather tired, as are also the “Blade Runner” urban setting and that film’s use of the hard-boiled detective narrative together with science fiction tropes. In the not-too distant future, artificial intelligence is used to create cyborgs, known as synths, programmed to serve human beings in a limited number of ways – as miners, explorers, entertainers and prostitutes – that bespeak the materialist / consumerist orientation of society. These synths have no free will; indeed, giving them free will is a crime punishable by death as decreed by the bureaucracy, GovCentral. In this world, young detective Archer (Oryan Landa) finds solace with a synth, Jane PS626, to whom he pours out his dreams. The synth has to leave him for another customer who, against the laws of their society, programs her to have free will. The synth later kills him and Archer and his partner Sebastian (Holt Boggs) are sent out to terminate her if necessary.

With Archer having feelings for Jane PS626, and those feelings being reciprocated, bringing the synth to justice or just bringing her down becomes a complicated business for Sebastian and the three synth enforcers he brings along. Sebastian just wants to do his job, get his money and maybe a promotion, and be pals with Archer. Archer finds connection with Jane PS626 and the two escape to a derelict lot (shades of “Blade Runner”!) on the edge of the city. Sebastian and his enforcers track them down and the scene is set for an almighty confrontation.

As in “Blade Runner”, humans are portrayed as either existentially lonely, alienated beings who rediscover their humanity through a synthetic humanoid, or as dehumanised robot creatures. One wonders how Archer and Sebastian became friends as well as partners in the first place, the two men being so different. Jane PS626 learns to love and care for Archer in the brief time they have together. Just when viewers think they have seen the climax, as in most films featured on the DUST science fiction channel, “Hard Reset” introduces a twist into the plot – that’s why it’s called “Hard Reset” after all. We realise we have seen an alternative plot in which Archer reclaims his humanity, though briefly. The “real” plot is the one where Archer fails to seize the opportunity to escape his humdrum existence and as a result loses Jane PS626 – forever. He may never know what it’s really like to be human and is doomed to dream forever with no-one to share his dreams with.

Landa is appealing as Archer though he plays the character in the way I imagine Ethan Hawke would have done: the brooding, troubled Archer is drawn and fleshed out in a way that would have suited Hawke. McAdam is beautifully luminous as Jane PS626 but is not given a great deal to do; even Joanna Cassidy’s Zhora and Daryl Hannah’s Pris in their brief moments in “Blade Runner” had definite identities and despite having been made for very specific roles (Pris being a pleasure replicant) they both displayed abilities far beyond what they were required to be. As Landa and McAdam carry the film, viewers are entitled to think they’d be more than stereotypes. The rest of the cast do what they can in their constrained roles. The special effects are good for a short 40-minute film with a limited budget.

At least the film asks viewers to consider the morality of treating humanoid artificial beings in ways we would consider treating real humans as immoral. Synths may not have free will or the ability to know right from wrong, but just as exploiting animals because their cognition appears limited compared to humans is wrong, why then would exploiting machines with some limited cognition or self-awareness be moral? One might also consider that humans out of touch with their morality or humanity are no more deserving of compassion or empathy than those they treat grievously. This is a theme also of “Blade Runner”.

Unregistered: living authentically versus living a comfortable but insecure lie

Sophia Banks, “Unregistered” (2018)

This short film commenting on the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency (2017 – 2021) has a lush treatment that suggests it could be a pilot for a television series or a full-length movie. Rekker and Ata are two teenagers in love: we first meet them wandering through an open forest bathed in radiant sunlight. The first inkling that all might not be what meets the eye is Ata’s concern for her contact lens which she has lost in the forest undergrowth. At the same time images of her looking through a screen at herself and Rekker walking through the forest pop up briefly throughout the scene. Rekker wants to know why Ata keeps recording their moves in real time, and Ata replies evasively.

The two hear a megaphone message and they pass through the scene and into everyday city life in Los Angeles. Viewers realise the forest scene was an artificial creation, hologram-like yet apparently three-dimensional with objects that acted and felt like their real counterparts. Almost straight away a stranger not far from Rekker and Ata is identified by drones as “unregistered” – having been scanned by the drones, he is found not to have an identity they recognise, so they drop a cyber-cage over him and trap him – and police quickly move in, remove the cage and subdue him. They take him away to be deported to a camp.

Much of the rest of this love story cum police-state dystopia concerns the tension that arises between Ata and Rekker, as Rekker challenges Ata’s attitude towards living in a world of unreality, accepting comfort and security at the cost of giving up political freedoms and being able to choose to live authentically. The film later shows Ata at home with her parents, the parents being revealed as administrators in the police-state bureaucracy, and the tensions that develop between the parents and the daughter. Rekker drops by to give Ata a birthday present and at this point an unexpected plot twist also drops into the narrative, forcing Rekker to make a choice that will change his life and Ata’s life forever.

While the plot seems unfinished and the characters are rather shallow, the film makes a clear point about being able to choose an authentic life in which individuals can make choices and bear responsibility for those choices, as opposed to living vicariously through simulations or other people’s experiences, and not having the ability to choose what to experience and what to avoid. A life of comfort, security and conformity is shown to be no compensation for living under constant surveillance and in fear of being arrested and imprisoned.

The American Colony of Australia: how a master-slave relationship came into being

Carlton Meyer, “The American Colony of Australia” (Tales of the American Empire, 19 February 2021)

In this installment of his ongoing series of the extent and depth of the United States’ imperialist clutches on nations around Planet Earth, director / narrator Carlton Meyer surveys how Australia quickly passed from British imperialist control to US imperialist control during the 20th century; and how from the 1970s onwards, with the infamous November 1975 coup that felled Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the US tightened its grip on Australian politics and society to the point that Australia is no longer an independent sovereign player in its part of the world (southwest Pacific) but through its security and military links is beholden to Washington DC and can make no independent decisions of its own without US approval. Meyer briefly points out that before the 1920s, Australia (even after declaring itself a dominion within the British Empire in 1901) was still very much a British colony, having to supply soldiers and raw materials to Britain during World War I in which almost an entire generation of young Australian men was wiped out, setting the stage for future decades in which political, economic and social leadership for want of talented men stagnated in this wide brown land. After World War II, during which Australians worked together with Americans to push back Japanese military forces, Australia fell quickly into subservience to the US: this meant supplying cannon folder to fight US wars in the Korean peninsula, Vietnam and other nations over the rest of the 20th century and well into the 21st century, with at least hundreds of Australian troops still stationed in Afghanistan since 2001.

Meyer’s main focus in this short documentary sketch is on two US-backed coups against the Australian government in 1975, when Gough Whitlam was sacked as Prime Minister by Governor General Sir John Kerr on the day when Whitlam planned to reveal in Parliament the extent of American spying on Australia through its Pine Gap facility; and in 2010, when Kevin Rudd was replaced by Julia Gillard as Prime Minister just days before federal general elections. In Rudd’s case, his crime in American eyes was to advocate working with China, Australia’s largest trading partner, rather than against China: a point of view that did not sit well with then US President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy which aimed at isolating China by drawing in neighbouring states including Australia away from Beijing in trade and other forms of co-operation and into the US orbit. Gillard was seen as a suitable replacement for Rudd in part because of her support for Israel. After Rudd was deposed, Gillard quickly gave the US armed forces the use of military bases in places like Darwin and Fremantle around the nation, so that now US troops are more or less permanently stationed (through rotation) at these bases and train there. US penetration of the Australian armed forces is now wide enough and deep enough that the Australian military has become dependent on the US for orders and is incapable of acting on its own initiative, though Meyer does not go into detail as to how that situation began and developed over time.

Photographs and video stills are used to emphasise and support Meyer’s narrative and a map shows the extent of US military and surveillance bases in Australia. Many Australians may be alarmed (but not surprised) to know that all phone and email conversations and transactions in Australia are captured by the US. The highlight of the mini-documentary is a film of US political commentator John Mearsheimer, while visiting Australia, addressing an audience in a speech sponsored by an Australian think-tank, in which he explains how Australia, if it chooses to work with China or any other nation the US does not like, will be regarded as an enemy of the US and treated accordingly. That is to say, Australia will be subjected to economic and other pressures, some of which will be of a kind considered as war crimes if they were enacted by any other country, and to regime change of the sort suffered by Whitlam in 1975 and Rudd in 2010.

In such a short mini-documentary as this, the narrative tends to flit from one topic to another at a speedy pace in spite of Meyer’s minimal presentation. As a result, analysis is thin and sketchy, and viewers are best advised to do further research themselves on particular issues raised in the film that they are interested in. The value of this short documentary is to demonstrate to Americans and Australians alike that the relationship between the two countries is not a friendship of equals but a master-slave relationship in which the slave nation must know its place and accept its inferiority or be punished severely. For most people in both countries, this short documentary will be a real eye-opener.

The Fisherman: character study of outsider-turned-superhero in alien invasion short

Alejandro Suarez Lozano, “The Fisherman” (2015)

A cleverly made and succinct little SF horror film set in Hong Kong, “The Fisherman” combines a character study that might have been inspired by the Ernest Hemingway classic “The Old Man and the Sea” with a theme about how people become marginalised and impoverished by changes in society and technology that leave them, their work and skills behind. Fisherman Wong (Andrew Ng) who specialises in fishing for squid is down on his luck and in danger of losing his fishing boat (where he also lives), being three months behind on his rent, because overcrowding in the harbour and the proliferation of tourist boats and dance party cruises have scared away the marine life. Wong promises his irate landlord that he’ll make a big catch on his next trip that will pay off what he owes. During the evening he sails his vessel far out of the harbour and witnesses an odd electrical storm that sends a lightning bolt into the sea and spawns an odd underwater being. The bell on his line tinkles and the fisherman draws up an odd-looking mewling squid. He puts it into a holding basket but it escapes and all his dreams of instant wealth vanish. Despondent, Wong almost considers suicide until the bell rings again, more insistently this time, and Wong goes out to draw up what turns out to be the catch of his life …

For most of its running time the film builds up in a leisurely way that fills viewers in on Wong’s taciturn nature, his determination and greed, and this concentration on Wong’s character helps add to the suspense that gradually escalates during the fishing trip. His is not a complicated character, being motivated by what he can get in the next catch and how he can spend the money. Unfortunately with living expenses being high in Hong Kong – many working-class people of Wong’s generation having to live in virtual rabbit-hutch conditions in crowded shared accommodation – Wong probably can only hope that he’ll be able to spend the rest of his days living on his old rented fishing vessel. It’s in the last few minutes that the plot twists come that test Wong’s toughness, resilience and ability to come back from the dead. The film turns into instant horror flick as Wong fights for his life, and then into an alien invasion movie as he returns into the harbour and sees his home city on fire from an invasion of monsters high in the sky. Somehow the thought that he might be the only survivor and that he no longer need pay any outstanding debts on his boat and equipment briefly flashes through his mind. A new career as bounty alien hunter beckons him as the bell on his line starts ringing again …

Ng does well as the hardened fisherman who has seen all and experienced all, and who now has more than a few tall tales to tell tourists. Wong doesn’t say a lot in the film but film close-ups of his face and eyes, even in the dark, show his fear and wariness despite his bravado.

Hardly a moment goes to waste in this film; every scene, every bit of dialogue helps to build up Wong’s character and the world he lives in (and which later turns upside down). Wong starts out as a poor fisherman left behind by greedy materialist capitalist society and technology but at the film’s end he becomes potentially indispensable to a society barely surviving under alien onslaught. Who would have thought that the hordes led by cephalopod capo di capi Cthulhu would turn out to be the saviours of humanity by attacking the citadels of global financial capitalism?

Alone: drama and emotion in a tiny space-pod

William Hellmuth, “Alone” (2020)

A moving film about connection – and about how so strong humans’ need for connection can be that some individuals will travel across the universe for it – “Alone” packs in plenty of drama and emotion in very tight and limited environments. Astronaut engineer Kaya Torres (Stephanie Barkley) is separated from her research ship by an unseen disaster and her tiny pod is now languishing in orbit around a black hole. Torres sends out distress calls while she works out what to do and her calls for help are answered by Hammer (Thomas Wilson Brown), a cartographer marooned on a distant planet. Over several days as Torres’ situation grows increasingly desperate, the astronaut and the cartographer come to know and to care for each other. When her supplies have nearly run out, Torres drives her pod through the black hole and lands on Hammer’s planet. She follows a line of lights into a cave where a disheartening truth awaits her.

The film is a good study of human character under pressure in extreme isolation – Torres is light years away from human society, and no-one knows where she is or even if she exists – and Barkley does an excellent job inhabiting the character and her fears. The extreme isolation of space and how knowing how far away you are from the rest of humanity might affect your self-identity – after all, we often define ourselves in opposition against some humans or communities of humans – and throughout the film viewers can see Torres slowly disintegrating psychologically. From a brash person with a potty mouth and a stubborn spirit, Torres gradually becomes more fearful, succumbs to the demon hooch and relies more and more on Hammer’s communications through their computers to keep her going. She soon becomes obsessed with finding Hammer.

The film relies on good acting, which Barkley supplies plenty of, and the plot moves at a fairly brisk place. There’s not much time given over to philosophising and regretting the day when one had to board the research ship some time before catastrophe struck it. Barkley establishes her character as stoic and practical but over time Torres deteriorates visibly as her hopes of being rescued fade. As Hammer, Brown has harder work to do making his voice seem human, given the dialogue he has to deliver which reveals he does not know what vodka is. There is a suggestion that Hammer may not really be human at all. It is this fear perhaps that drives Torres to search him out and find out who he really is.

The technical effects are good without being remarkable for a short film on a tiny budget. The whole film is driven by dialogue and what the actors do with it. The plot’s climax cleverly is a test of Torres’ character and almost results in a cliff-hanger ending. The film seems to beg for a sequel but I consider it self-contained and complete.

Flyby: an ingenious but weak film on time literally slipping away

Jesse Mittelstadt, “Flyby” (2019)

In its own way this film can be considered a horror film, focusing as it does on how an alien force seems to affect individuals and rob them of control over their lives and the lives of others. A mystery asteroid comes close to Earth and is captured by Earth’s gravity to become a satellite. Not long afterwards, people are being stricken by a strange malady in which they lose all or most of their sense of time passing them by. One such victim is everyday man Bill (Riley Egan) who joins with friends at a bar shortly after the asteroid’s passing is reported on television. Everyone talks excitedly about the asteroid and about the nature of time. Bill later leaves with Cora (Tommee May) and goes to bed with her. When he wakes up later, Cora is already several months pregnant with their child. She walks out of the bedroom, Bill spends some time trying to digest the situation, he hears Cora calling him so he races out of the room and discovers her holding their two-year-old toddler Maven (Bardot Corso).

From then on Bill is lost trying to keep up with a life literally slipping away from him and old age rapidly catching up with him. In the blink of an eye Maven has become an adult (Tommee May again) who cares for her father, Cora having left him years ago in a lifetime Bill cannot remember. Maven turns on a gadget that runs through pictures of their lives together with Cora and Bill gazes at past experiences he has no memory of. In the meantime the mystery asteroid escapes its orbit around the Earth and leaves the solar system, leaving Bill and others like him in old age with no memory of what they have done over the past half-century.

The film can be viewed as a metaphor for dementia or it can be viewed as an attempt to capture an individual’s experience of time as s/he matures and then ages. People’s perceptions of time seem to speed up as they get older so a year seems to pass quickly while a child’s experience of a year is very slow; moreover older people remember how slowly the years went by when they were children! The film might also be seen as a commentary on time itself, and how much of a cultural construct time might be.

While the film’s plot is ingenious, positing the passage of time itself as a time machine, its weakness is that Bill is hardly given any, erm, time to consider the error of his ways and to express regret for past actions that have the effect of locking him and Cora into lives they might have preferred not to live. Character development is very weak and at the end of the film Bill is quite literally the same man he was (or thinks he is) just a few minutes ago because in the space of a few minutes he really did lose most of his life.

The film probably could have been fleshed out a bit more so that viewers see more of Bill’s life as a failing husband and father, his faltering marriage and perhaps the separation and divorce from Cora. Bill’s life comes across as flat and unremarkable. The implication that by losing time, Bill loses control of his life – with the result that decisions he might have made (and which are lost to him) lock him into consequences and situations he cannot change but which further entrench him in an existential prison – is lost on viewers.

This Time Away: a succinct and heartwarming character study with a sting in its tail

Magali Barbe, “This Time Away” (2019)

A very heartwarming little film, succinct and taut in its telling, yet filled with tenderness and depth, this character study is a showcase of great storytelling and acting. Nigel (Timothy Spall) lives alone on his sprawling property, not wanting to see or speak to anyone else, determined to live out his twilight years in isolation after the death of his wife. Daughter Louise (Jessica Ellersby) does what she can to look after Dad but, depressed and unhappy, Nigel tersely sends her away. Time passes and the house – and Nigel as well – becomes unkempt and messy.

One day Nigel looks out the window to see a bunch of kids kicking something in his front garden so he angrily stomps outside and shoos them away. The object the children were tormenting turns out to be a little robot which eagerly follows Nigel into the house and soon becomes his companion. The robot names itself Max when Nigel wants to know what to call it. Over time Max restores order and cleanliness to the house and studio – where Nigel keeps his old notebooks on building prototype robots. As Max becomes familiar with Nigel’s house and routines, it spies an old photograph of Louise and Nigel tells Max who she is and her relation to him. Through this and other actions, viewers quickly grasp that Nigel has never been a very expressive man verbally but has always preferred to express himself by using his brain and hands to build things and create a comfortable and prosperous life for himself and his family.

Little does Nigel realise though that Max isn’t the only one observing him and his routine, the changing interiors in the house, and the changes in Nigel day by day as the robot gives him a reason to continue living …

As sole actor for much of the short film, Spall is in his element playing a character who needs connection with others and is unhappy being alone but finds asking for help difficult. His acting is minimal but it can be very nuanced and repeated viewings of this film will reward viewers with the care and depth he puts into portraying Nigel. The camera follows and sometimes dwells on Spall’s craggy features, and the actor and the character merge into each other. As Louise, Ellersby has much less to do but in her brief appearances she has affection and care for Nigel and his gruff behaviours.

The film makes quite good use of light to show the gradual changes in Nigel’s life after Max’s arrival and how those changes reflect his emotional improvement and perhaps his acceptance of his wife’s death and preparedness to let go of old attitudes and grudges. The plot is very minimal though one might puzzle over why Nigel appears never to question Max on how it turned up at his home when it did and why.

While the film appears to have a happy ending, it is also slightly chilling in its revelation that Max is really a tool for manipulating Nigel and it does suggest that we humans are much more malleable than we are prepared to admit. That man-made technology does a better job than a human in reconnecting an individual human to society and encouraging him to make changes in his life that improve him may say something deep and critical about the nature of our relationships with objects and other humans. After all, if Max can bring Nigel back into society, Max can just as easily mould Nigel into something that diminishes him as a human … and Nigel could very easily become a prisoner.

A bombastic tale of quest, physical and spiritual, in “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification”

Teng Cheng, Li Wei, “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification” (2020)

Inspired by the 16th-century Chinese novel by Xu Zhonglin, “The Investiture of the Gods”, itself based on Chinese mythology and legends, this epic animated blockbuster is a sequel to the 2019 release “Ne Zha”, taking place in the same universe of gods, demons and humans co-existing and interfering in one another’s affairs as that film. The original Jiang Ziya was an actual historical figure who helped to overthrow King Zhou, the last of the Shang Dynasty rulers some 3,000 years ago, in this film Jiang Ziya is a lesser immortal gifted with supernatural abilities and magic who comes to the material plane during the wars between the corrupt Shang rulers and a new dynasty to defeat and capture the evil fox demon Nine Tail. Charged with executing Nine Tail, Jiang discovers that she has bound a young girl Jiu to her with an ankle bracelet. To kill Nine Tail would mean also killing Jiu and so Jiang refuses to carry out the order of the gods of Heaven. The gods punish Jiang by exiling him to Earth. A faithful retainer, Shen, follows Jiang into exile.

From there the film follows Jiang as he unexpectedly comes upon Jiu, who has become separated from the fox demon, in a bar in his place of exile. Jiu is on a quest to find her father and needs to travel to Mount Youdu. Jiang recognises that Jiu is possessed by the fox demon and with his companion Four Alike follows Jiu on her journey into the realm of Beihai. The pace is slow and even so at least the film allows for the beautiful animated scenery and backgrounds to shine even when the characters are no more than stereotypes. On reaching Beihai after a hair-raising encounter with the souls of soldiers who died in the wars between the gods and humans on the one hand and the fox demons on the other, Jiang discovers some uncomfortable truths about the gods he had originally been chosen to join and about why the fox demons fought on the side of the unpopular and corrupt Shang dynasty.

While the computer-generated animation is visually gorgeous and colourful and the action is stunning in scale and creativity, after too many showy scenes the film becomes rather bland. The journey to Beihai gives little time for Jiang and Jiu to develop a strong friendship and Four Alike goes along for the ride just to add some cuteness. In its final third, the plot becomes somewhat convoluted for Western audiences not familiar with notions of reincarnation as Jiang tries desperately to save Jiu from a second incarnation bound to Nine Tail. Messages about how heroes create their own destinies and become heroic through their own sacrifices and defying fate, even the will of Heaven; valuing all life for its own sake (the film can be seen as an extension of the classic Trolley dilemma); the possibility that even the gods themselves are not infallible; finding one’s place in the social order; and restoring and putting right past wrongs – even resolving the damage done to the restless souls of dead people – are important but they can be lost as the plot quickly becomes complicated in the film’s last half-hour (in comparison to its straightforward trajectory earlier) and the action literally vaults from the realm of the dead to the highest heavens with all the breathtaking bombast the animation can muster.

The characters are not well developed and hew to stereotypes that may be current in much Chinese fantasy animated films: the serious hero with compassion and the Keanu Reeves looks, the young girl or boy who’s a bit sassy and streetwise, the lovable animal companion, the stalwart and slightly dim-witted warrior companion. This film is obviously targeting a generation of young Chinese viewers familiar with cinematic and videogame product from Japan and elsewhere and who expect to see certain cinematic and game conventions. While it means well and aims to instill some age-old lessons about inner personal integrity and correcting past wrongs, the film does fall flat through trying to compete with superficial Western blockbuster superhero flicks.

Unadulterated Propaganda versus Accuracy: Alexei Navalny versus the ‘underpants poisoner’

Latika Bourke, “Alexei Navalny versus the ‘underpants poisoner'” (Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2021)

As examples of crude mainstream media propaganda bashing Russia and in particular the Russian President Vladimir Putin go, few breathlessly pack in as many lies and falsehoods as this article for the Sydney Morning Herald by British-based Australian journalist Latika Bourke. The online article reads like a story written for primary school-age children but the print article in the Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald is hardly much better when it comes to patronising its readers.

Firstly Navalny is claimed to be a thorn in Putin’s side, though the evidence Bourke puts up to justify this is assumed when it is really non-existent. The incident in which Navalny was supposedly poisoned with Novichok while on a plane from Tomsk to Moscow in August 2020 has yet to be investigated by police and examined in a court of law because Russian authorities are still waiting for German authorities to pass on their evidence that Navalny was indeed poisoned with the nerve agent. The film that Navalny recently made purporting to show that a palace in Gelendzhik on the Black Sea coast in southern Russia is owned by Putin has been debunked by Russian journalists who visited the palace and discovered that it is actually a luxury five-star hotel still under construction and owned by Russian billionaire businessman Arkady Rotenberg. (A video of the building can be viewed here.)

Bourke then goes on to give a potted history of Navalny starting with his blogging activities in which he presents as an anti-corruption campaigner targeting corruption in government-owned companies. He did this by buying shares in various enterprises so he could get access to company financial reports and attend shareholder meetings, and also by establishing his Anti-Corruption Foundation (its Russian acronym is FBK) to compile reports from ordinary citizens of everyday government corruption. Along the way Navalny collected over six million YouTube subscribers and over two million Twitter followers, not all of whom necessarily live in Russia. One notes that Navalny limits his investigation of corruption activities to those where the people involved in corruption may be linked to senior figures in the Russian government; to take one example, he does not appear ever to have investigated the corruption of former Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov who was fired by Putin in 2012.

What Bourke fails to mention though – and this is critical to understanding why Navalny was arrested, charged and convicted in court, and subsequently jailed as soon as he arrived in Moscow in January 2021 – is that Navalny was embroiled in at least two cases of embezzlement and fraud. In 2008, Navalny and his brother Oleg formed a transportation company (Glavpodpista) to deliver goods on behalf of the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher: the transportation company turned out to be a shell company that paid another delivery company to transport the goods for less than what Glavpodpista was paid by Yves Rocher Vostok to do. Both Alexei and Oleg Navalny were found guilty of embezzlement on 30 December 2014 and Alexei was sentenced to 3½ years of house arrest while Oleg Navalny went to jail for the same period of time. In the second case, Alexei Navalny was hired as a business consultant to advise a publicly owned timber company, Kirovles, in Kirov region; instead Navalny formed a company to buy timber products from Kirovles at reduced prices and resell the timber to Kirovles’ customers at prices they would normally pay Kirovles if buying direct from that company. As a result, Kirovles went bankrupt and its employees lost their jobs. For this, Navalny was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on 18 July 2013. The reason that Navalny is in jail at this time of writing is that he violated the conditions of his house arrest (from the Yves Rocher case) throughout the first several months of 2020 before he made his trip to Tomsk in August by not reporting regularly to the police authorities as he should have done.

Putin’s supposed targeting of Navalny, which Bourke devotes much space to, revolves around that August 2020 incident in which Navalny fell sick on the plane flight from Tomsk to Moscow and the plane had to divert to Omsk so Navalny could be taken to hospital there. Not long after he fell sick, the German government sent a plane to collect Navalny from Omsk hospital, even though hospital doctors declared he was too ill to travel, and took him to the Charité Hospital in Berlin, where the doctors apparently found he had been poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor. In early September 2020, the German government announced that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok. There then followed weeks of farcical news as, first, the tea which Navalny drank just before boarding the plane in Tomsk was said to have been poisoned; then the water bottle that Navalny drank from at his Tomsk hotel was supposed to have been poisoned (and which was later revealed to have been bought at an airport vending machine by FBK member Maria Pevchikh while travelling with Navalny back to Moscow; Pevchikh then flew back to the UK where she lives and works, avoiding questioning by Russian authorities over Navalny’s supposed poisoning); and finally and currently, Navalny’s underwear was revealed by so-called “citizen journalism” outfit Bellingcat to have been smeared with Novichok. How FSB agents tailing Navalny managed to contaminate his underpants while he and his FBK and other associates were not looking seems never to have been broached.

One notes that Bellingcat apparently acquired information about the FSB agents tailing Navalny by buying phone records with cryptocurrency through a black market dealing with phone data obtained from phone databases. One wonders how accurate such information can be when it is gathered from sources and in ways that are not transparent. Might it be that the FSB agent Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who Bourke says was duped by Navalny into revealing that the latter’s underwear had been smothered in Novichok, actually had never spoken with Navalny, that his identity details had been stolen from a hacked phone database, and that the person who spoke with Navalny was actually an actor pretending to be Kudryavtsev?

On being jailed for violating the conditions of his house arrest, Navalny and his close associates took to social media platforms such as TikTok to implore people (many of them schoolchildren lured by advertisements of parties) to attend illegally organised protest rallies across Russia. Some 40,000 people attended these rallies, which sounds like a lot of people until one remembers that the city of Moscow alone now has 12.8 million (as of late 2020 / early 2021) and so 40,000 represents just over 0.003% of that city’s population – hardly a significant proportion of Moscow’s population, let alone the rest of the country.

The Western MSM spotlight on Navalny’s recent activities from 2020 onwards comes at a time when “Color Revolution” regime-change activities and other means of overthrowing governments that the US and its Western allies happen to dislike have been failing in Belarus, Hong Kong, Venezuela and other parts of the world. On top of that, the responses by Belarus, China, Russia and Venezuela to the COVID-19 pandemic among their peoples and their healthcare sectors have resulted in relatively low death rates from the disease compared with the catastrophic mortality rates in the US, the UK and across the EU. Western public attention to the differences between the West on the one hand and on the other Russia, Belarus and China in the way they have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic – Russia and China in particular developing their own vaccines like Sputnik V to the disease – and to rising socio-economic inequalities generally in all Western nations must be deflected to issues involving apparent human rights violations: for China, this means focusing on Uyghurs supposedly incarcerated in holding camps where they are beaten, tortured or raped; and for Russia, this means focusing on supposed “opposition political figures” like Navalny, who incidentally has never enjoyed more than 2% support from the Russian electorate and who has never been a politician. An opinion poll conducted by Levada-Center in September 2020 demonstrates the aversion and contempt most Russians have for Navalny.

Why Bourke then repeats the stale lies about Russia annexing Crimea (no, the Crimeans held an independence referendum and voted to leave Ukraine in March 2014); helping to shoot down Malaysia Airlines MH17 (still not proven despite numerous court hearings in The Netherlands); or trying but failing to kill Sergei and Julia Skripal in the UK with Novichok (still not proven either, despite the ever-changing narrative in which among other things the door-handle of the Skripal house was supposedly contaminated with Novichok, necessitating the removal of the house’s roof), in concluding her article, there is certain to be one answer: through banal repetition over and over, Bourke’s article serves to reinforce the Western propaganda narrative that Russia is governed by a devious, untrustworthy and corrupt government that oppresses its people and relies on a faltering economy dominated by fossil fuels to maintain a supposedly failing order. Putin is consistently portrayed as a despotic dictator who steals from his people and relies on an economy dependent on fossil fuel exports, and surrounds himself with excessively kitsch wealth. The Russian business community which has links with the government and Putin – necessary if it needs government approval and funding for major infrastructure projects – is seen to be packed with corrupt Putin cronies. (One can see considerable psychological projection of the desires and beliefs held by Western political elites onto what they imagine passes for backroom politics in the upper levels of the Russian leadership.) The sooner the Russian government and its President are replaced by leaders amenable to the US – so that Russia’s resources can be privatised and plundered by US and other Western corporations – the better: that is the message being hammered into the mass Western consciousness. The objective behind the message however is obscured.

Vladimir Putin’s Davos online forum speech (2021): a plea for cooperation and mutual respect in striving for peace and prosperity

Vladimir Putin’s Davos online forum speech (2021)

Invited to the Davos online forum organised by the World Economic Forum over 25 – 29 January 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech on what he believes will be the state of the world over the third decade of the 21st century and what governments everywhere should do to ensure that everyone everywhere can live in peace and prosperity. After acknowledging the effort made to hold the annual Davos forum during the COVID-19 pandemic, Putin commented on the effect the pandemic is likely to have on current trends in societies and that problems and imbalances that have already built up may worsen. In particular models and instruments of economic development are undergoing a crisis, social stratification and inequalities are increasing and these trends are encouraging the growth of populsim and extremism in nations’ political cultures, with the result that violent conflicts have broken out. In turn, international relations are becoming unstable and unpredictable, regional conflicts that were once dormant or simmering are now escalating into violence and war, and the rules-based international order is breaking down.

Putin then describes what he believes to be the main challenges facing societies across the world: socio-economic challenges such as the wide and widening differences between the wealth of a small global elite and the wealth of the vast majority of humanity; socio-political challenges such as rising inequality which is leading to social conflicts and intolerance; and the worsening of current international problems such as global debt and the increasing militarisation of the world. He notes that governments need to create programs that restore and stabilise economies adversely affected by the pandemic and that this restoration is sustainable and overcomes the problems created by socio-economic inequalities. Putin proposes that government should concentrate on reducing socio-economic disparities in their own sovereign states and between states. Four key priorities are identified by Putin: the universal need for shelter and decent living conditions with access to transport and public utilities; the need to provide gainful long-term employment for everyone that ensures a decent standard and quality of living; access to high-quality and effective healthcare; and children’s access to education that develops their talents and skills and enables them to achieve their ambitions in the long term. Putin concludes this part of his speech by emphasising the need for nations to cooperate to tackle common problems and for nations to respect diversity in the approaches and policies used to deal with grave issues and problems. This requires the recognition that the world can and should be a multi-polar one in which several axes of power can exist, instead of being a world where only one superpower is allowed to dominate and to dictate to the rest of the world how they should govern themselves.

Putin then narrows his scope to speak about Russia and its role in helping to stabilise different regions in particular parts of the world by stopping armed conflict and bringing warring parties to negotiate, and in developing a COVID-19 vaccine and cooperating with other nations to ensure the vaccine Sputnik V can be made available to their populations.

Not much is new in Putin’s speech that he has not said before, in stressing the need for cooperation and partnership, and for diplomacy and negotiation over conflict and violence. Putin makes no suggestion as to how nations should coordinate their efforts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic or with any other pressing issues such as climate change. He does not say what he believes are real as opposed to artificial global problems, though one can guess that the real problem is the West’s intransigence in refusing to work with and to respect other nations, and insisting that it alone has the answers to other nations’ problems. Putin says that nations should disabuse themselves of unrealistic ambitions about always being leaders and instead humbly and honestly deal with one another as equal partners. One really cannot ask for more than this, and yet Western nations are likely to refuse to follow this advice, simply because it is coming from a leader the West fears and hates for his ability and effectiveness as a world leader.