Spotlight on Cuban medical diplomacy and ISIS in “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 46)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 46)” (RT.com, 3 October 2014)

In the first half of this episode, George Galloway interviews Bernard Regan from The Cuban Solidarity Campaign / The Campaign for Cuba on Cuba’s response to the Ebola epidemic outbreak in western Africa by sending a team of doctors and nurses there as opposed to the automatic US and UK emergency response in sending thousands of soldiers to the region. Galloway and Regan discuss Cuba’s use of medical professionals as diplomatic shock troops and bearers of goodwill who ask no questions and demand no payment as they assist Third World nations deal with unexpected medical emergencies. They contrast Cuba’s response in Sierra Leone with the tortoise-like reactions of First World nations in providing medical help to Guinea-Conakry, Liberia and Sierra Leone which have been badly hit by the Ebola disease outbreak since March 2014 when Guinea-Conakry reported its first case. Both host and guest then discuss the punitive US attitude towards Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power in the country in 1961 and how this has affected Cuba’s economic development and trade relations with other countries.

The focus is mainly on how Cuban medical diplomacy has benefited Third World countries, having helped over 80 million people throughout the world since the 1960s and trained many doctors from many of these countries and even from the US itself. Unfortunately there is very little about how Cuban medical training might emphasise the importance of community and public health infrastructure and policies, and how these affect the health of individuals and their families, over medical technologies that favour wealthy individuals and the diseases and conditions they suffer (like heart disease and certain cancers) as a consequence of their life-styles. There isn’t much about the history of Cuban medical diplomacy, how and why it developed, what its goals and agendas originally were and how these might have changed over time, and what future developments the Cuban government intend for it. There is no discussion of what threats the program might face, how continued US economic isolation might jeopardise its future, and what might happen after Fidel Castro and his brother Raul pass on.

The Ebola outbreak itself is not dealt with on the program and viewers interested in a discussion about how the disease appeared in the poorest west African countries, all of them with a history of unstable politics, civil war, interference from foreign powers coveting their considerable natural resources (diamonds, oil to name a couple), and Liberia and Sierra Leone especially host to US bio-weapons laboratories, will have to wait for another episode.

The second guest invited onto the show is Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent Patrick Cockburn, recent author of a book on the Middle Eastern terrorist organisation Islamic State (hereafter referred to as IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. Cockburn describes the connections between IS and previous terrorist organisations like al Qa’ida and those Sunni Muslim nations whose religion is Wahhabi Sunni Islam, and the severity with which IS applies its narrow and literal interpretation of Shari’a and Islam to captured Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Galloway and Cockburn then go on to discuss the ways in which Western nations, in particular the US and the UK, have shaped the conditions in the Middle East that have given rise to IS and allowed it to flourish in the borderlands of NW Iraq / NE Syria. The opposition from Sunni Muslims in Iraq to the Maliki government, appointed by the US, practising sectarian politics and looting the country’s treasury and resources, has been instrumental in allowing IS to grow by recruiting disaffected youth in Sunni Muslim communities. The Western decision to bomb IS-held territories (and also areas reclaimed by the Syrian Army, for the real goal of Western intervention is the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al Assad) will only make a bad situation much worse and benefit IS.

In 12 to 13 minutes, the conversation can’t penetrate very deeply into the complicated politics involved and why the West and its barbarous allies in the Middle East resort to more violence and brutality to deal with violence and brutality. Nevertheless the discussion is wide-ranging and very informative. Cockburn is a very eloquent speaker and Galloway and Pertiwi listen attentively and respectfully.

By now, Galloway and Pertiwi are a good double act, Galloway often quite theatrical and Pertiwi acting as his foil. Their program has a very marked politically socialist bent with guests usually coming from that side of politics but, given the often extreme right-wing bent of most mainstream news and current affairs media, the Galloways provide a welcome breath of fresh air with their discussion of topics that would otherwise remain unknown.

Sunday evening TV discussion of geopolitics on “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Russia’s Response to US ‘Declaration of War’ ”

“An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Russia’s Response to US ‘Declaration of War’ ” (Rossia 1, 2014)

In Western countries, Sunday evening TV consists of reality TV shows, nature documentaries or light entertainment; in Russia, or at least on one TV channel, there is “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev” which comes in prime-time viewing right after the evening news and which draws in a large audience. Host Soloviev interviews various public figures on the hot issues of the day and this episode, featuring six experts on geopolitics, revolves around US President Barack Obama’s speech to the UN in October 2014 in which he effectively said that Russia was a greater threat to world peace and stability than either ISIS in the Middle East or the emerging Ebola pandemic in western Africa.

Each expert gives his view – by the way, all six experts are male – on what the problem is, and how the US is trying to undermine Russia and conduct warfare through economic and diplomatic means, and via proxy nations like Ukraine. The discussion initially focuses on what has influenced Barack Obama to say what he said in the speech and one interviewee notes that in the past Obama had read works and was inspired by past American Cold War-era politicians such as Dean Acheson and George Kennan who held anti-Soviet views and advocated “containment” of the USSR. One expert eventually swings the discussion around to what Russia can and should do, which is to focus on its own economic development and progress, and to curb the growth of Bandera worship among Ukrainians. (Stepan Bandera was an infamous Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis, was jailed by them, and after the Second World War worked with British, American and West German intelligence agencies to run agents into Ukraine before eventually being assassinated by Soviet spies who infiltrated West German intelligence.)

The second half of the program becomes considerably animated as host and interviewees decry what they view as shortcomings in Russian society and culture, in particular the shallow materialist culture that took hold during the 1990s with its emphasis on immediate gratification, a consumerist mind-set and the degradation of values, qualities and beliefs that conflicted with the demands of a consumption-based society where people are treated as clients and consumers and not as citizens. Soloviev and his guests all agreed that Russia needs to develop a different economic system that includes its overseas partners in China, Iran, Pakistan and several others in Asia and Latin America, and that the Russian state must improve upon and escalate its manufacturing and engineering sectors. The moral fibre of the nation is also found lacking, evidenced in the high rates of vodka consumption and alcoholism, and the experts agree more must be done to improve people’s lives.

The program is interesting in one way in that it affords Western viewers the opportunity to see what Russians themselves consider to be ideal Sunday evening TV viewing and what the important issues facing their country are. They take quite seriously the threat against them posed by the US and its allies. Russians are deeply aware that there is still a lot they have to do to advance their economy and manufacturing before they are equal to the US. They know they need China’s help and friendship, and the friendship of other countries such as Brazil and India.

The program may be an example of state-controlled TV, and is very mainstream in its views and presentation, but at least it treats its audiences as intelligent and familiar with the topics it presents, and does not talk down to them. The pace is fast and viewers need to concentrate quite closely on what Soloviev and his guests say. The discussion is quite lively and there is no obvious Putin worship that Westerners might have expected. Unfortunately there is no opportunity for the studio audience to ask questions of Soloviev and his guests but this does mean that the program does not get bogged down in confrontational politics. Soloviev is known to detest the so-called liberal opposition forces in Russia who receive funding and instruction from various US agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy, so presumably the guests who appear on his program will be those public figures who more or less support the current Russian government under President Vladimir Putin and its agenda.

Brain-washing propaganda or not, this particular evening with Soloviev is good viewing and one only wishes that Sunday evening TV viewing in Australia could be even half as good.

Thanks to Vineyard of the Saker for uploading the episode of the TV program onto his website and to his team for translating the Russian dialogue into English and providing sub-titles.

Mixing samurai sword action, gore and political commentary on “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance”

Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance / Shurayukihime: Urami Renga” (1974)

At the end of the first eponymous film, main character Yuki (Meiko Kaji) was dying in the snow but here she has recovered enough to become a fugitive on the run from the Meiji government for having killed the people who murdered her family. A bounty has been placed on her head and Yuki has to travel constantly and furtively to escape oppressive justice. A government agent, Kikui (Shin Kishida), grants her a reprieve from imprisonment, torture and death by giving her a mission: to assassinate activist and trouble-maker Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami) who holds a document whose false flag secrets could incriminate Kikui and a prominent politician, and lead to nation-wide unrest and rioting. Naturally Kikui and his politician friend want the document destroyed. As Yuki tracks down Ransui Tokunaga and becomes involved in his family affairs which include a rivalry with his impoverished doctor brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada) over Shusuke’s estranged wife, the swords-woman finds herself embroiled in conflicting political and personal rivalries in a context of a more militaristic and oppressive society using supposedly progessive social and economic reforms to enforce authoritarian laws and stultifying conformity on the population at large.

As sequels go, this is not a bad one and while very plot-heavy at the expense of character development, the film is engrossing in its own way due to the historical background with the ideas that Meiji-era Japan has eagerly embraced. The Meiji government has imposed a corrupt and violent police force on the people, and guns prove more useful and deadly than martial arts, but the ordinary people have also come to embrace radical politics and its promise of equality, freedom for all and democratic rule. As a result the government resorts to even more violence and torture, and employs underhanded and shocking methods including biological warfare tools – one character is injected with bubonic plague and thrown into a Tokyo slum – to get what it wants and this theme of increasing militarisation and oppression through a selective Westernisation / modernisation program of early 20th-century Japan informs the entire film. While the driving motivation of revenge no longer exists, the convoluted plot produces enough skulduggery, betrayal and corruption on the part of Kikui, his politician friend and government institutions to imbue Yuki with a new life’s mission: to gain justice for and defend the weak, the poor and the vulnerable.

As Yuki, Kaji displays just enough emotion to make her steely character plausible as the avenging angel turned crusader for the poor. She has very little to say and all feeling and character are expressed through her eyes and facial expression – Kaji proves quite adept at saying much in her body language if not in her dialogue. All other characters in the film are treated as disposable and so are very one-dimensional. The love triangle sub-plot is sketchily developed but we learn enough about it in characters’ dialogue that it is plausible. The lack of characterisation proves to be a major flaw as Yuki appears not to care that much for social justice compared to her own desire to evade the law and an argument may be mounted that she only acts the way she does mainly to avenge the torture and death of someone she holds dear and at the same time set even the score with the police. We end up caring much more for the people of the Tokyo slums who lose their homes to arson instigated by Kikui and his hench-men.

The cinematography is very good with much emphasis on beautiful outdoor scenes and unusual angles of filming. There is not quite as much visual experimentation with the movie driven by the complicated plot and its unexpected twists. Fight scenes are occasional and their portrayal is more competent and efficient than elaborate and balletic. Indeed, Yuki does well over most of her killing in the opening credits.

Lovers of samurai sword action and a large body count may be disappointed that there is less choppy-chop though what there is can be very gruesome with one character getting his eyes put out on separate occasions. The political angle may be confusing and the twists in the plot tend to drag out the action and can be exasperating to viewers not familiar with the history of Meiji-era Japan. But for those who know that history and the struggle of the Japanese in general against the hierarchical and totalitarian tendencies of their society and culture, this sequel to “Lady Snowblood” can be quite an absorbing experience.

Lady Snowblood: questioning the pursuit of vengeance in a society undergoing rapid social and economic change

Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood / Shurayukihime” (1973)

Based on a manga and the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” homage to old 1970s Asian martial arts flicks, “Lady Snowblood” turns out much better than I thought it would. As a film of vengeance, “Lady Snowblood” actually questions the justification for and pursuit of vengeance in a world of tumultuous social, economic and technological change. Old traditions, values and customs come in for questioning as to whether they can still have any relevance to a new generation in a new world. The film also draws power from its inversion of the traditional role of women in Japanese society: the dominant female characters are strong and unyielding while the male characters are either weak or subservient in some way.

A Westernised family travelling in the country is accosted by a village gang who, suspecting the husband to be spying for the Meiji government, kill him and his son and imprison the wife who is raped and tortured by several gang members. The wife kills one of her tormentors and is thrown into a jail for her pains. In time, she gives birth to a daughter and lives long enough to declare that the child should be brought up to avenge the deaths of her family. Taken in by a kindly woman and a stern Buddhist priest, the child Yuki is trained in martial arts and endurance, all her energies channelled by the priest into transforming her into a professional assassin. Once of age, Yuki (Meiko Kaji) seeks out her family’s assassins and dispatches them one by one. She not only leaves behind a trail of blood, corpses and dismembered limbs but also a young girl brimming herself with hatred and desire for vengeance, sensational news reports, a police force hot on her trail and a terrorised populace.

The film is beautifully shot, often from unusual and artistic angles, and carries a certain if perhaps remote elegance. Parts of the story are told in flashback and some original methods of portraying past history, including the use of old sepia-toned photographic stills and comics panels, are used. There is always the feeling of the impermanence of life and the constancy of change, and the hint that, regardless of whether she succeeds or not, Yuki’s life is lost to an existential paradox: if she succeeds in carrying out her mother’s wishes, her life itself will be over and there is nothing left; if she does not succeed, her life will never be hers to live as a free agent. A hint that pursuing vengeance is ultimately an empty quest, one that can only end badly for Yuki, is ever present. Divided into chapters, each focussed solely on an act of killing, the plot is very threadbare and loose ends are never fully explained but the entire film has a very grim and gritty determination that reflects the heroine’s own iron resolve. The acting is adequate for the job and Kaji’s face manages to be at once stony and expressive whenever the camera wants a close-up of it at critical moments in the film when something unexpected happens that robs Yuki of any satisfaction in carrying out her life work, which is more often than you’d expect in this film. Kaji’s minimal acting manages to turn Yuki into a more subtle and less one-dimensional character than Yuki perhaps deserves to be; there is the suggestion beneath her tough exterior and in some brief scenes, that perhaps Yuki doubts the wisdom of her life’s assignment and might wish that she could have been more like ordinary women. That may be an ironic point, given that most ordinary Japanese women of the time were expected to marry and raise children, and not question social expectations of them to be obedient and subservient to their fathers, husbands and sons.

As the action takes place over a period of 20+ years, the film revels in showing how people change over time and whether or not they regret past actions or realise that vows taken 20 years ago may have no force or relevance to the present day. The thugs who destroyed Yuki’s family have all met with varied fortunes: one has become a destitute drunk, trying to forget the crimes he committed in the past; another has (ironically) become a government agent and middle-man in the trading of weapons between Japan and the West. The action takes place in a world of political corruption where the rich and powerful exploit the poor and the little people are reduced to petty in-fighting and acts of betrayal and vengeance. If only they knew how the elites were screwing them in those days, then they would combine their energies and resources to fight the real enemy! But alas and alack, despite the best efforts of a crusading journalist writing up the deeds of Yuki in his newspaper, the poor are kept divided by ignorance, manipulation and oppression, and (spoiler alert) Yuki the white angel of death is herself felled by a woman much like herself in seeking family vengeance.

There’s a great deal of blood-letting and the sprays of bright-red liquid are obviously exaggerated for effect. The killing isn’t exactly graceful and the fight choreography is more efficient than balletic and stylised. After all is said and done, the film manages to be most things for most people: an enjoyable splatter samurai revenge flick, an attempt at character study and examination of the futility of revenge, and a portrayal of a society in transformation and how individuals cope with immense social and economic change.

 

Getting a handle on Modern Monetary Theory (or trying to) on “Warren Mosler: What Modern Monetary Theory tells Us about Economic Policy”

“Warren Mosler: What Modern Monetary Theory tells Us about Economic Policy” (Institute for New Economic Thinking, July 2013)

This interview focussing on Warren Mosler’s explanation of Modern Monetary Theory was the first in a series of video interviews made by the Institute for New Economic Thinking in 2013. Mosler is the president of a financial services firm, Valance Company, and is one of the founders of Modern Monetary Theory which challenges conventional beliefs about how money operates in modern economies and offers explanations and solutions to addressing and solving current problems and crises in Western economies. The theory has attracted quite a bit of attention in recent years to the extent that it and Mosler were the subject of a New York Times article in 2013 which portrayed him as an enthusiast for government deficit spending.

Anyone wanting to know what Modern Monetary Theory is all about and whether it is a credible alternative to neoliberal economics or just a rehashed version of Keynesian economics or social credit theory won’t find very much in this video that explains what it is in a nutshell. The interview takes the form of a conversation that ranges over a number of topics such as the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and how various countries were affected and their response to it. Particular financial and accounting issues are discussed but the basic thrust of MMT – what it believes a healthy functioning economy should look like, what philosophical assumptions underpin its ideas, and what the roles of governments, corporations, individuals, households and other stake-holders are or should be in an economy governed by MMT – is not explained. People outside the US not familiar with the particular problems of the US economy will be confused. Mosler speaks quite softly and quickly so much of what he says can go over listeners’ heads.

Mosler notes that most current crises in modern economies have arisen due to mistaken ideas about how money circulates and economies operate, and to existing economic paradigms that circumscribe economic thinking and shut off options and solutions to those making economic policy. (Of course there is also the fact that governments are beholden to those who fund their election campaigns and who demand that governments follow particular economic belief systems and ideologies that benefit them, and not the Great Unwashed who participate as voters.) Mosler states that governments that issue currency are actually always financially solvent: a revelation that will surprise most people. Government spending stimulates money creation and circulation, leading to job creation; the goal being to generate full employment. The function of taxation – incidentally Mosler advocates abolishing income tax and replacing it with a real estate tax (a land tax maybe?) – is to ensure people use the currency, to regulate demand and control inflation, and to help stimulate even more government spending if needed, rather than to force ordinary working people to forgo spending so that they can have the public services they need. According to Mosler, governments should spend as much as they want and budgetary controls are not needed. (The fact that in the US, the Department of Defense’s spending runs into the billions and billions with no apparent controls and very few knowing where much of that money goes suggests that budgeting and controlling expenditure are very abstract notions indeed.)

I’m sure if the interview had been a bit more structured and less conversational, it would flow more awkwardly and unnaturally but at least most viewers would get a handle on the basic ideas of MMT and how it is similar to Keynesian economics and other alternative theories on the function of money in societies and how to run economies. Those interested in how MMT works are directed to the Wikipedia article on the subject.

There have been criticisms hurled at the theory from economists but these criticisms seem to stem mostly from the critics’ own biases against MMT and concentrate on details of MMT rather than on its fundamental beliefs and ideas.

An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Dmitri Rogozin Interview: revealing the direction and agenda of Russian military modernisation

“An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Dmitri Rogozin Interview” (Rossia 1, 2014)

A very grateful thank you to The Vineyard of the Saker blog for uploading a video of the current affairs TV show “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev” together with an English-language translation of host Vladimir Soloviev’s grilling of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Dmitri Rogozin, before a live audience. Rogozin is the head of the Military – Industrial Commission and is tipped by TVotS blogger The Saker himself as a successor to the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The interview can be viewed on TVotS at this link.

The two men stand some distance apart facing each other at white lecterns in a setting that might remind some people of the sets for the famous quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Initially Soloviev asks Rogozin about the current state and progress of Russia’s military technology since 1991: a timely question given that as of this writing Russia was facing the likelihood of war from NATO due in no small part to the conflict that has been ravaging Ukraine since April 2014 and Russia’s supposed role, talked up by the US government with no evidence to support its statements, in directing the activities of the anti-Kyiv separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Lugansk areas in eastern Ukraine. Over the past 20 years, Russian military technology has had mixed fortunes: during the Yeltsin years, technological advance in this area stalled for lack of funding and corruption in government, and since 2000 military designers have been playing catch-up with the rest of the world. Particular emphasis is placed on having technology that can project power away from Russian territory in a way similar to how the US projects power throughout the world through its aircraft carriers and other technology, and on training soldiers to be highly mobile and flexible, able to use a variety of technology at different levels of complexity in different defence contexts. Quality of weaponry and of soldierly preparation over quantity of weapons (the Soviet Union was infamous for having too many weapons that were never used) and soldiers (Rogozin believes that the country’s population is too small for the geographical territory Russia covers) is preferred.

The conversation moves to a brief discussion of the decline of the engineering and manufacturing industries in Ukraine since 1991, how industry in that country has frozen and been left behind by both the EU and Russia for lack of funds and the crony capitalism looting the country’s assets and wealth, and how Russia has ended up benefiting from Ukraine’s loss as Ukrainian scientists, engineers and technicians move to Russia and put down roots. Rogozin emphasises how the defence industry is not only attracting good workers with high technical and scientific skills but it is attracting such a large number that the average of defence workers has dropped by more than ten years since the early 2000s to age 45 years. The two men also discuss the Mistral warship contract, the behaviour of the French government over the warship and what that implies about the character of such a government in refusing to supply the ship, built to Russian naval specifications and therefore useless to other countries, to a country that had already paid in full for it. Interestingly, Rogozin says that the ship is not needed (in fact, it was ordered by a former disgraced defence minister who has been charged with corruption).

Soloviev asks quite searching questions and Rogozin is up to the task of explaining in detail how the Russian defence ministry is modernising the country’s armed forces and its equipment. For someone who trained in economics and has a doctorate of philosophy, Rogozin’s knowledge of Russian defence capabilities is wide and quite deep without being very technical. (His father was a military scientist by the way.) He presents very well without coming across as having been groomed and rehearsed through his speech, and he is genuinely passionate in his explanations. Rarely does he repeat himself or resort to stock phrases as most Western politicians put on the spot do during interviews. During the course of the interview, viewers discover Soloviev has known Rogozin for a long time and the two men are friendly, so Western audiences expecting an adversarial and aggressive interviewing approach will be surprised. Perhaps Soloviev could have asked Rogozin more awkward questions about how Russia can finance all its defence improvements and how quickly and well the country can do so in a global environment in which its enemies are circling it and pushing it towards a major war. He could have probed some of the risks of the agenda adopted by the Russian government in modernising the armed forces and military technology.

Western audiences will be intrigued that the interview takes place before a live audience who listen intently and seem very interested in what Rogozin has to say. There are no interjections and unfortunately at the end there is no opportunity for the audience to ask questions. A sceptical Western viewer might say this episode is merely full of hot air in its own way, if less glossy.

The interview is important for what it reveals about current Russian military strategy and the Russian government’s view of the challenges it faces in changing its armed forces, plotting a direction for its military and seeking to avoid war while it is still modernising its industry, while the West grows ever more hostile and rattles its sabres against Russia and the country’s allies.

What We Do in the Shadows: gentle satire and commentary on horror films and social problems

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014)

Just when you think that everything that can be done in the horror film genre about vampires, zombies and werewolves has been done, along comes a cheerful little comedy flick from the Shaky Isles. “What We Do in the Shadows” is a an eccentric mock documentary following the lives of four to five flatmates who happen to be vampires resident in Wellington. It starts off with Viago (Taika Waititi) waking up at the crack of sunset to call a meeting with fellow fangsters Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) about the household chores – apparently Deacon hasn’t been pulling his weight in washing the dishes and as a result they’ve been stinking up the kitchen and each individual piece of crockery and cutlery is stuck hard to its fellows and the kitchen sink thanks to the adhesive properties of dried blood. The film crew, kitted out in protective crucifixes, follow the trio about as they explain how they came to be undead, how they ended up in New Zealand – Viago says he followed a human girl in his coffin but his human servant bungled the postage so the coffin was 18 months late in arriving in Wellington so by the time the vampire arrived, the love of his life was already married and out of his reach – and how they survive on the outer edges of human society in Wellington and Lower Hutt.

Although Deacon has a female human familiar Jackie (Jackie van Beek) who, in the style of shabbos goyim who help ultra-Orthodox Jews get through the Sabbath with chores that Jews are forbidden to perform, cleans up after the threesome’s messes and procures victims for them, viewers quickly see that the centuries-old vampires have problems in adjusting to modern society: they need to be invited into night-clubs by humans (that film “Let the Right One In” has a lot to answer for) and they are a little too fastidious in requiring the blood of virgins even though the blood of non-virgins tastes the same and has no ill effects on them. Jackie brings Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) to them but he tries to escape and ends up becoming undead when he barges into Petyr’s room. From then on, he has to hang out with the trio who try in their own way to teach him how to be a proper vampire. However there are no manuals or etiquette guides to rely on and Nick, giddy with the knowledge that he can fly and is immortal, goes around telling the humans he meets at night that he’s a vampire. This becomes the undoing of Petyr who meets a gruesome end. On the other hand, Nick brings his human fried Stu (Stuart Rutherford) to the trio and he teaches the vampires how to use mobile phones and laptops and look up things on Google and Ancestry.com. Viago is finally reunited with his old familiar Philip through Skype and is able to find out what happened to the love of his life, Katherine, now resident in a nursing home with dementia.

There is no conventional plot as such: the first half of the film is mainly a character study of the three vampires and serves to familiarise them with the audience. Waititi, Brugh and Clement do a sterling job treading the tightrope between credibility and stereotype and filling their characters with life: Viago as the fussy 18th-century aristocrat dandy, Deacon the 19th-century Serbian peasant vampyr and Clement as a Vlad-Dracul-meets-Gene-Simmons bloodsucker. The mock doco traces the vampires from their lonely outsider niche through their encounters with Nick and Stu to a point where they have become comfortable with using 21st-century technology to get what they need and can now understand modern human relationships; along the way, the film pokes gentle fun at flatmate relationships and addresses (even if in a flimsy way) the plight of newcomers trying to fit into an alien society without attracting the wrong sort of attention, relations among men, existential angst, gang warfare and the generation gap. Gags and jokes a-plenty fill the screen as viewers discover that the vampires are nursing secret hopes, fears and enmities which culminate in the annual Unholy Masquerade where Vlad confronts his age-old nemesis The Beast who turns out to be … his ex-girlfriend Pauline. The trio also has run-ins with the local werewolf pack led by alpha male Anton (Rhys Darby) which itself as a group and as individuals are also dealing with the difficulties of That Time of the Month when the full moon shines at night.

The comedy inherent in a bunch of eccentric undead weirdoes living as unobtrusively as they can in banal suburban Wellington does wear thin and some potential strands of hilarity present in some scenes and scenarios especially in the encounters with the werewolves and their particular existential and masculinity issues are under-developed due to the constraints imposed by the demands of the mockumentary concept. The vampire dilemma of being immortal and seeing particular beloved human friends die from old age or human society jettisoning valuable cultural memorabilia and memes while enthralled with temporary superficial fads is dealt with brilliantly in low-key and matter-of-fact ways. Several famous vampire movies and TV shows and a stack of Hollywood vampire stereotypes are skewered. The film pokes gentle fun at the police as thick-heads. Much of the understated fun of the film lies in the vampires’ house which is kitted out as a seedy gothic mansion that has seen far better days.

As the film was deliberately made as a cheap B-grade doco, technical glitches are to be expected and the shaky handheld camera is used to good effect to ratchet up tension especially in scenes where the human Nick tries to flee the vampires’ house.

The film has potential to become a cult comedy horror classic courtesy of the energy of its cast, many of whom are amateur actors, of its satirical treatment of the horror and documentary film genres, and of its treatment of social issues and pop culture fads in modern Western and New Zealand society.

5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked: cherry-picking easy targets to attack so as to look good

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp / Business For Scotland, “5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked” (September 2014)

At this time of writing, there remain just a few days to go until Scotland has its independence referendum and already the pro-independence and the anti-independence camps have escalated their war of words across the UK media to a shrill intensity. To counter some of the fear tactics and scare stories concerning how an independent Scotland will cope and thrive economically, Business For Scotland’s Chief Executive Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp has come out with guns blazing in a series of short videos, all of which can be viewed on Youtube, to explain how Scotland can pay its own way and fulfill its independence dreams. He concentrates on five scare stories that the No Campaign has been drumming up and which various Business For Scotland speakers and campaigners have had to confront the most in meetings and interviews, and demolishes the objections the No Campaign has raised. All the videos in which MacIntyre-Kemp takes apart the scare stories are very brief, running for less than three minutes each. They can be viewed at this Business For Scotland link.

In Video 1, MacIntyre-Kemp addresses the issue of bank bail-outs and points out that the two major banks in Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, were bailed out in the cities where they are headquartered or registered; that is, in the City of London and New York City. He ends his talk by suggesting that banks headquartered in Scotland should be nationalised and regulated so that they are not allowed to rack up huge debts and require massive multi-billion pound bail-outs.

Video 2 deals with the issue of who subsidises Scotland: MacIntyre-Kemp turns that assumption on its head by pointing out that Scotland contributes more in tax revenues to Westminister than it receives back. In Video 3, he tackles the issue of how Scotland will be able to prop up public services like pensions and asserts that Scotland will lock in increases  to pensions which will be based on increases in average weekly earnings. He argues that a revitalised economy will be able to arrest a brain drain of young qualified professionals away from Scotland and at the same time attract skilled immigrants and together these groups will provide a substantial tax base that will support pension payments to the elderly and the needy.

Currency is the focus of Video 4 as for the time being Scotland expects to continue using pound sterling after independence. MacIntyre-Kemp suggests the confusion over the issue of currency has been stirred up deliberately by Westminster to persuade people to vote No. Should Scotland opt for independence, the most likely scenario will be that the Bank of England will support currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK to help stabilise the economies of the two states. In the final video, MacIntyre-Kemp explains how Scotland will be able to pay its way as an independent country, pointing out that among other things it will not need a large defence force and will commit itself to creating a society with sustainability as a core value. He rounds off his series of videos by declaring that the issue of Scottish independence isn’t about the economics but about seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strike out and create a fairer and more just society that could serve as an example for others including the rest of Britain to follow.

The videos are easy on the eye – they just feature MacIntyre-Kemp against a white background over which figures and facts float temporarily to illustrate what he says.

I admit to surprise that in all of these videos MacIntyre-Kemp doesn’t mention the issue of North Sea oil and how much oil really is within Scotland’s maritime territories to its north. This is significant if Scotland plans not only to adopt Scandinavian-influenced social welfare policies which in themselves would cost a fair few cool hundred billion pounds a year but also to invest in renewable energies and eventually wean itself off fossil fuels. Even if there were enough oil to last Scotland several decades (let alone some of the more optimistic claims that the oil could last a century!), there is the problem of how Scotland will finance exploration and drilling for the oil and how it will be able to control revenues and direct the bulk of them into a sovereign wealth fund and away from unproductive financial transactions such as property speculation (which drives up real estate prices in cities and towns), various debt bubbles and ingenious but ultimately harmful financial engineering schemes that make money disappear into tax haven black holes or unscrupulous scamsters’ bank accounts. Even before all this, there’s the problem as to whether Scotland will be able to claim the oil resources in its waters on behalf of its people before the US or UK pressures the country’s government through under-handed tactics: in this context, for Scotland to assume that currency union will ensure stable economies on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall might be naive in the least.

Another big problem is that an independent Scotland cannot rely completely on oil resources whose market prices can vary from one year to the next depending on what other oil exporters are able to sell and the levels of global demand for oil. The country could rely on providing financial services and inviting foreign companies to establish factories (Scottish manufacturing having declined over the last half-century or so under Westminister rule) but at a cost of offering subsidies, tax relief and other incentives (like low wages, importing Third World labour and waiving or ignoring OHS regulations) to compete against the rest of Britain and Ireland. This could well pull funding away from building up a social welfare net for citizens, a sovereign wealth fund and renewable energy projects and into the coffers of foreign firms.

There is a very real possibility also that the EU will not accept Scotland as a member unless and until its government imposes an austerity package on its citizens and conforms to other EU, World Bank and IMF requirements. Even if Scotland were to agree to undergo austerity, forgo developing a social welfare net and to restructure its institutions according to EU, World Bank and IMF guidelines, full EU membership cannot be guaranteed.

The assumption that small European countries are wealthier than larger European countries is lazy: Greece, Ireland and Portugal are being squeezed by their crippling debt and austerity programs, and several EU member states in eastern Europe (Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia) are not exactly thriving either. About 1 in 5 people in Lithuania are living at near-poverty levels or below and similar proportions of the populations in Estonia and Latvia are also living close to near-poverty levels. Latvia is said to be losing 30,000 people a year as young adults are voting with their feet in search of employment. As for the wealthy small European countries, Luxembourg derives a considerable part of its wealth from being a tax haven as does Switzerland: hardly worthy examples for Scotland to follow.

Even so, in spite of what I have just said, I do realise the September 2014 referendum is a unique opportunity for Scotland’s citizens to decide on the future direction of their country. It will be a momentous event, one that may have flow-on consequences for what remains of the United Kingdom: it may well start conversations within England, Wales and Northern Ireland themselves as to their futures and devolving more power to the public away from their elites. As Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp says at the end of Video 5, independence isn’t just about economics, it’s about starting anew with a new set of values that stress fairness, justice, equality and sustainability.

Predestination: musing on identity, purpose and whether our fates are predetermined

Michael and Peter Spierig, “Predestination” (2014)

Based on a short story by Robert Heinlein, “Predestination” is an intriguing if not always satisfying film about time travel, the nature of one’s identity and the possibility that linear time and space may depend very heavily on spatio-temporal Mobius loops. Ethan Hawke plays an agent employed by a secret agency within the US government: his role is to hunt down a serial terrorist called the Fizzle Bomber through time and space. If the viewer can suspend disbelief long enough and far enough, the agent’s time machine is a violin case with time and space co-ordinates that can be manually set; all a person needs to do is to stand within a radius of one metre of the machine and … ZIP! … ta-daah, you’ve arrived at your destination.

After an encounter with the Fizzle Bomber in New York in 1975 that results in horrific facial injuries, the agent undergoes surgical facial reconstruction and acquires a new face. His boss Robertson (Noah Taylor) sends him back to New York in 1970 where, disguised as a bartender, he meets a young man, John (Sarah Snook), who proceeds to tell him his life-story. The biography is fairly generic: an orphaned baby is taken in by an orphanage and grows up there, never being accepted by any family or receiving any love due to its peculiarities. The child becomes an adult and undergoes various trials which make John the man he is. The agent offers to take John back to a point in his past to confront the mysterious stranger who has ruined his life and made him the outcast and outsider that he is. After John is set upon his path, the agent resumes his search for the Fizzle Bomber and from that moment, his own search for the elusive terrorist becomes increasingly bizarre and the viewer is left to guess at the agent’s connection with John and the Fizzle Bomber and to solve the existential puzzle that his actions create.

The puzzle is not too difficult to solve and it does throw up an interesting conundrum about identity and how choices we make in life may or may not be inevitable. Identity is less stable than it appears: the film reveals that John was originally born female and was christened Jane. Jane grows up as a girl, albeit a highly intelligent and unusually strong one, and is trained to be a comfort worker dedicated to providing rest and recreation for astronauts on space stations. After being seduced by a mystery stranger, she becomes pregnant, gives birth to a baby girl and undergoes gender reassignment surgery when the doctors who deliver her child discover her intersex condition. Meanwhile the baby is kidnapped from hospital. Jane renames her / himself John and tries to adjust to his new identity and need to find a new niche in society. He becomes a writer churning out pulpy true-confession stories to women’s magazines until he meets the agent.

The bizarre plot unfolds gradually and plausibly – but only just – thanks to the performances given by Hawke and Snook and the care with which the Spierig twins recreate the ambience and ephemera of  the historical periods in which the action takes place. Through Snook’s performance as Jane / John, the film explores an individual’s need for connection to others and love and acceptance by society for what s/he is and brings to humankind as an individual and not as a representative of his / her gender. True identity and purpose come only when an individual is accepted as s/he is and the natural abilities s/he brings are also accepted, cultivated and directed towards mutually beneficial ends instead of destructive ones.  Hawke’s role as the agent forces consideration of one’s role in influencing people to take the paths they do and the consequences that arise: as the film progresses, the agent becomes a more sinister and less beneficent protagonist and by the end of the film, the agent is well on the way to becoming a dark figure while John is groomed and recruited by Robertson as a new agent and receives his mission: to track down the Fizzle Bomber; the time and place are New York in 1975.

From a philosophical viewpoint the film addresses the issue of determinism, whether we are or are not the playthings of fate. The conclusion arrived at turns out to be rather more complicated: we may not be puppets but the decisions we make, however consciously, end up imprisoning ourselves and put us on courses that shut off certain opportunities and open up others which in turn push us further into some directions but not others. Whether these directions we go into are morally right or wrong is another thing. For a film with this message though, the subtext suggests the opposite: the agent continually pops up at various points of Jane / John’s life to nudge the character onto certain paths and away from others, as if to justify a certain purpose or fulfill a goal  … which turns out to be his own life’s purpose and goal. Were Jane / John to do anything out of the ordinary, the agent and his employer may well cease to exist.

The film’s conclusion ends up rather … deterministic as Hawke’s agent descends into a life in the shadows, know that there is someone coming after him who will eventually kill him. Meanwhile Robertson and the agency he heads continue on their way, profiting from the misery they have helped to create by shaping and reshaping history into a giant Mobius strip. Perhaps life is more deterministic than we think it is … because our thinking and actions have made it so, and we are so immersed in it that, like the agent, John and Robertson, we fail to step outside our mental paradigms and realise we are trapped in a loop of our making which ends up having a life and force its own that continues to lock us into the same old actions. The odd though is that the Fizzle Bomber, conscious of the circularity of his life, never tries to go after Robertson and the secret US government agency. It is only when he dies that he is finally free of the cosmic hamster wheel he has ridden all his life. Meanwhile Robertson and the agency he heads continue on their way, et cetera.

 

Formation of a State: the fight for independence by Donetsk National Republic

“Formation of a State” (NovorossiyaTV.com, 24 August 2014)

After capturing a group of neo-Nazi fascists fighting for the Poroshenko regime in Ukraine, the self-proclaimed Donetsk National Republic paraded the prisoners on 24 August 2014, the day of Ukrainian independence. Later Alexander V Zakharchenko, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Donetsk National Republic, and Vladimir Kononov, Minister for Defense of the DNR, gave a press conference in which they informed the press of the current situation on the battlefield and invited the journalists to ask questions. The Q&A session makes up the overwhelming bulk of the press conference.

Facing the camera directly, Zakharchenko and Kononov are open and frank in the answers they give and the two give no impression of hiding anything or dissembling in any way. They are well-informed about Donetsk’s history, economy and resources, and about other countries as well. Zakharchenko, fielding the bulk of the questions, is polite, speaks quickly and well, and never bats an eyelid in the face of sometimes aggressive and even hostile and biased questioning from reporters. Kononov is attentive in listening to Zakharchenko and never interrupts what he says.

Zakharchenko has a lot to get off his chest and what he says is not only highly informative but dovetails with other news from alternate news blogs and websites about the astounding incompetence and lack of proper military leadership and management within the Ukrainian armed forces, resulting in high Ukrainian soldier casualties and desertions, and instances of Ukrainian soldiers being surrounded by DNR forces who cut them off from reinforcements that never arrive due to bad logistics, of which Kyiv tries to downplay by reporting many deaths, desertions and surrenders as soldiers missing in action. Zakharchenko quickly addresses a question on the marching of Ukrainian prisoners down the main street of Donetsk city by noting that Kyiv had earlier declared that its soldiers would be marching through Donetsk, though not in the way the Kyiv regime imagined. He denies that Russia is sending DNR soldiers, weapons and ammunition. He sarcastically notes that some western European countries have charters guaranteeing the right of self-government and separation after referendum and that Scotland will be holding an independence referendum in September, 2014.

A French reporter refers to two French volunteers who have arrived in Ukraine to fight with the DNR and Zakharchenko says they will be available for a later press conference. He then answers a question about what Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko might discuss at a summit in Minsk, Belarus, by saying that Donetsk will now not agree to federalisation (which option both Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts had hoped for initially after the February 2014 overthrow of the previous Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukoyvch) and has vowed to go its own way after the war crimes committed by the Ukrainian government and forces against it and Lugansk. Contrary to Western media reports about Donetsk’s economy, painting it as inefficient and run-down, the self-proclaimed republic has what it needs to be self-sufficient in food, manufacturing, energy and natural resources and tourism potential. (Indeed before the war began, Donetsk was one of the richer oblasts in Ukraine and had a very high gross regional product compared to other oblasts.) The press conference concludes with a couple of questions on the adoption of the death penalty and laws pertaining to the keeping of prisoners: Zakharchenko admits that the death penalty is in effect to safeguard security in Donetsk and that a new criminal code has been adopted with courts-martial and tribunals to support it.

For many people who so far have received all what they know about the situation in Ukraine from mainstream Western news media, the press conference is sure to make a stunning impact on them. For many if not most, this will be the first time that they discover that the war has not gone well for Ukraine and that thousands of its soldiers have died unnecessarily. They will also discover that the defenders of Donetsk are determined and have a great belief and confidence in their cause. No matter what the odds are and what sacrifices they will have to make, I feel sure that the Donetsk National Republic will achieve the independence and freedom they have fought hard for.

The video can be viewed at this Youtube link created by Vineyard of the Saker and a transcript in English can be read here.