The Empire’s 2016 Coup in Turkey: an entree into the history of fraught relations between two NATO allies

Carlton Meyer, “The Empire’s 2016 Coup in Turkey” (Tales of the American Empire, 22 January 2021)

Rather light on the day-to-day details of the attempt by sections of the Turkish military to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in July 2016, this video concentrates on the role the United States government may have played in encouraging or at least countenancing this coup attempt that resulted in the deaths of 300 people and injured another 2,100. The aftermath of the coup was more important for the Turkish people than the coup itself, as at least 10,000 soldiers and military officers and over 2,700 judges were arrested, 15,000 people in education were suspended and the licences of 21,000 teachers in private institutions were revoked. Over 160,000 people lost their jobs for having suspected ties to exiled Turkish cleric / business entrepreneur Fethullah Gulen who has been accused by Erdogan of being behind the coup plot.

The video states that four months before the coup took place, the US government recalled all its military personnel stationed at its various military bases in Turkey and all its diplomatic staff in that country. Israel did likewise with its military and diplomatic personnel in Turkey. These actions constitute most of the evidence that narrator Meyer cites to support the notion that the US backed and encouraged the coup even if it did not help organise it. The possibility that Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Turkey and who endorsed Fethullah Gulen’s application for Green Card residency in the US in the late 1990s, had some involvement in the coup is considered. Gulen is also thought to have been involved in the coup plotting as well.

A brief history of Turkish-US relations from the year 2000 onward follows: Erdogan is revealed as a leader who will play two opposed sides off each other if there is a gain for himself or for Turkey. While Turkey sometimes co-operates with other members of NATO, the country refused to support the US-led alliance that invaded Iraq in 2003. On the other hand, Turkey has supported the war in Syria (2011 onward) with the aim of deposing Syrian President Bashar al Assad and to get chunks of territory in northern Syria. Turkey has also grown closer to Russia since the 2016 coup attempt, to the extent of buying S400 missile defence systems from that nation.

The centrepiece of the video is a film of Senator Joe Biden’s speech to the editors of The New York Times in 2019 in which he talks about how the US can push sections of the Turkish armed forces or the Turkish government through non-violent means to depose President Erdogan or isolate him. Here the stupid arrogance of the US government in presuming it can force a nation to toss out its leader regardless of his/her popularity with the general public in that nation is breathtakingly immense.

For a video that is fairly well researched, it is a pity that Erdogan’s last name isn’t pronounced correctly and the video regards Erdogan and his government as secular when in fact over the years he has Prime Minister and then President, Erdogan has been shepherding the nation to a more conservative Islamic stance. The video could have included some additional material on what Joe Biden, now that he has been inaugurated as US President, plans to do in the Middle East and with Turkey in particular. The video is best treated as an introduction to the history of Turkish-US relations; viewers wanting more depth and a better understanding of the historical / economic / political context surrounding Turkish-US interactions will need to do their own research.

My Salinger Year: a small-scaled film that never leaves its comfort zone

Philippe Falardeau, “My Salinger Year” (2020)

A film about finding your own voice and creative outlet, and being able to express that creativity, “My Salinger Year” is a likeable and charming piece if a little dull and at times giving the impression of playing safe. The film is based on poet / journalist Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of working for the literary agent whose main client was the famously reclusive novelist J D Salinger, author of high school coming-of-age / teenage angst staple “The Catcher in the Rye”, back in the mid-1990s.

Rakoff (Margaret Qualley) impulsively leaves postgraduate school in California and jets off to New York to take up a position as assistant to literary agent Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who turns out to be a tetchy technophobic boss. Rakoff is given the job of replying to Salinger’s massive fanbase who send letters addressed to the famous writer; Salinger himself does not want to read these letters so Margaret’s agency sends generic form letters to his fans informing them that he will not reply. Rakoff has to read these letters nevertheless and choose the correct reply form letters; she begins to develop some empathy with some of the fan mail, as the writers see themselves in the character of Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of “The Catcher in the Rye”, and pour their heart and soul into their correspondence. Rakoff starts to veer from the script, literally as well as figuratively speaking, and writes directly to some of the fans. This is risky for her as Margaret and her other employees treat Salinger and his demands with kid gloves and do not look upon even slight deviations from his instructions favourably.

Aside from the main plot, which is quite insubstantial and in itself not very entertaining for viewers who know little of the world of publishing and how writers were marketed in the pre-Internet age, there are various sub-plots which are equally shallow and under-developed. Rakoff forms a friendship with Salinger over the phone at work; Salinger becomes interested in Rakoff when he discovers she writes poetry in her spare time and urges her to keep writing every day. The people at work gently encourage Rakoff to develop and use her initiative and trust in her own intuition and decision-making, and this support helps her become a valuable employee in Margaret’s agency. Rakoff is in a relationship with a socialist bookshop worker / aspiring writer (Douglas Booth) who initially introduces her to his underground literary scene, which she finds stimulating at first, but who turns out self-centred and whose writing is mediocre and crude. At the same time Rakoff has never concluded her previous romance decisively and her old boyfriend (Hamza Haq) continues to write to her.

The acting overall is good though individual actors themselves, Weaver in particular, are not challenged by the script. Weaver has done the boss-from-hell routine in past films like Neil Blomkamp’s “Chappie” and very little in “My Salinger Year” deviates from that stereotype, even when her character suffers a life-changing blow. Qualley does well as Rakoff in her first lead role and just manages to hold her own in scenes with Weaver who dominates in every scene she appears in. Other actors provide good support though the script never allows them to be more than walking wallpaper.

Whimsical fantasy sequences in which some of Salinger’s earnest letter-writing fans appear – in deference to the prevailing Identity Politics / Diversity culture that has a stranglehold on Hollywood, these fans span a range of different ethnic groups, age demographics and life-styles, though how a black Vietnam vet and a migrant Vietnamese labourer can see something of themselves in a middle-class teenaged rebel with no cause is never explained – are worked into the film smoothly and discreetly, and are never allowed to overpower the narrative. Had Hollywood not been so enamoured of appealing to Diversity “values”, and simply allowed these fans to just be what they were in real life – people looking for connection and purpose to life, in their own immediate environments where the anomie born of capitalist society and its values which have destroyed community alternatives – the Rakoff character would have found real empathy with these lost people, they would have provided her with real material for her writing, her voice and creativity would have been truly inspired, and her path in life would have been clear. She would have been the poet and voice of a new lost generation searching for meaning and authentic values in a world becoming increasingly reliant on and captured by technology to the extent of surrendering itself to its dictates and the ruthless predatory capitalist values of its creators.

As it is, the film never strays at all from the comfort zone it sets for itself and the result is that it remains small in scale with a paper-thin plot and several sub-plots that remain unexplored and unsatisfactory. Rakoff’s character is not too convincing at times as a woman in a process of self-discovery but I suspect most young actors, even very good ones, would be defeated by the script and Falardeau’s direction. Viewers will feel frustrated that this coming-of-stage story turns out to have very little to say about the 1990s-era New York literary world and its values and pretentiousness.

Two & Two: a study of how an individual dedicated to the truth can live in a police state society

Babak Anvari, “Two & Two ” (2011)

Notable for its minimal grey and dreary setting which throws all the audience’s attention onto the dialogue, the plot and the film’s themes, “2 + 2 =5” is a mini-study of repressive totalitarian government. Somewhere in Iran, in a boys’ school a brusque male school-teacher (Bijan Daneshmand) enters a grimy classroom where twelve young students are already seated. Through an intercom on the wall next to the blackboard, the headmaster’s voice admonishes the students that changes are a-foot and they are to obey their teacher without question. The teacher then writes 2 + 2 = 5 on the blackboard and compels the students to repeat what he has written several times over. Two boys object, saying that 2 + 2 = 4: the first boy is quickly put in his place by the teacher but the second student stands his ground bravely. Three senior boys are brought into the classroom to intimidate the student as he continues to assert that 2 + 2 =4. He is eventually brought down by imaginary machine-gun fire from the seniors, as if before a firing squad, and the other boys are horrified at the carnage. As the senior boys drag out the boy, the remaining boys are forced to repeat continuously after the teacher that 2 + 2 = 5 and to write down that sum. However the constant repetition cannot pry into one boy’s mind no matter how many times the repetition is bashed into his brain.

For such a short film, obviously made on the proverbial shoe-string budget, the plotting is deeply affecting as a student is forced to decide between pursuing the truth and blind conformity to the values of a virtual police state. The drab appearance of the classroom and the clothes worn by the boys emphasise their lack of individuality. The older students are clearly a metaphor for the security forces who enforce arbitrary laws, themselves often drawn from the society they are to police with brutal violence. Close-ups are frequently used to differentiate one boy from the next and to reveal their individual natures. Throughout the film the defiant student is subjected to harassment from the teachers and the senior students, and wins no support from his fellow classmates. After his death, the teacher dismisses him as rubbish and proceeds to drum the New Mathematics into his students over and over. However much he gains in outward loyalty though, his lesson has little effect on some students who decide for themselves what to believe.

The film addresses the question of how an individual with inner integrity and clear values can exist in a dysfunctional society that demands absolute obedience to its ideals and ideologies. How is one to pursue the truth, and what value does truth have in a society that spurns it? Once the truth has been found, how is one then to spread it and make others aware in the face of continuous lying and suppression of the truth? These are all intriguing questions for viewers to consider.

Strategic Flows, by Jacek Bartosiak: stream-of-consciousness monologue on geostrategy and geopolitics

Hubert Wala, “Strategic Flows, by Jacek Bartosiak” (Strategy & Future, 11 January 2021)

Strategy & Future is a Polish thinktank founded by lawyer / speaker / writer Jacek Bartosiak dedicated to stimulating and developing geopolitical thought and strategy for Poland and Central Europe. This film on how connections and flows between and among individuals, communities, organisations, nation states and their networks influence and are influenced by geopolitical / geostrategic concerns. At the level of nation states and their relations with one another, connections and flows which Bartosiak calls “strategic flows” (be they movements of people, trade in goods and services, flows of data, information and technology, and transportation logistics) not only determine the destinies of nations and their peoples but have also been subjected to varying forms of regulation including restrictions and outright bans. In his narration (a transcript of which can be found at this link), Bartosiak draws on history, and in particular recent history from 1945 onwards, to emphasise the importance of strategic flows as a major rationale (if not the major rationale) for the decisions that nations and major powers and superpowers especially make and have made in recent times.

Bartosiak flits between the example of Poland and larger powers such as the US to demonstrate how these nations’ physical geographies influence and determine the decisions they make with respect to defence and allocating resources to their militaries. He states that over the past 500 years, beginning with European nation states traversing the Atlantic Ocean to found colonies in the Americas and to open up trade routes to Asia, the World Ocean has become the major foundation over which global power can be exercised by nations. In the past, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and France all vied for influence over the Atlantic Ocean and its networks and then over other oceans and theirs; since 1945, the dominant power that rules the World Ocean is the United States through its Navy.

European and then US control of the World Ocean produced its antithesis in other nations’ conquests of the Eurasian landmass and the construction of railways to strengthen their control of the lands of the Eurasian heartland. Nations such as Britain and France that were sea powers were also keen to dominate trade networks in regions of the heartland (the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia) to link their colonies with both land and sea routes.

In recent times, US control of the oceans, and the political influence exercised by the US by its military projection, has come to be challenged by the rise of China as a major economic power and as an alternative role model, ideologically as well as politically and economically, for other nations, especially Third World nations, to follow. Bartosiak concludes his talk by stating that a new era of power struggle has begun between China and the US, with China challenging the US in creating a new trade network (the Belt and Road Initiative) across the Eurasian heartland and into Africa and even the Pacific ocean, in disputing and undermining the assumptions underlying the international rules-based order, in determining and controlling narratives about who runs the world and how it should be run, and in presenting an alternative model of economic growth and development that is not dependent on understanding and following Western political ideologies.

I must confess that the transcript is not easy to follow – it does have a stream-of-consciousness direction – and the film is even less easy to follow. Bartosiak’s voice-over narration is very monotonous and his narrative would have been better served in being structured in sections organised chronologically and perhaps starting with Poland and then jumping to the US. The narrative would have been much easier to follow. The continuous background music is unnecessary and is unintentionally soporific. At least the collage of films, much of which is irrelevant to the narrative, will keep viewers awake.

My main criticisms of Bartosiak’s talk are that he appears very selective in choosing facts and other information that support his views, and he makes assumptions about China and Russia – two nations that happen to be designated enemies of the US, and by extension enemies of Poland – that are not supported by facts or later political and economic development. He blithely brushes aside the chaos and poverty Russia suffered in the 1990s as a result of President Yeltsin’s leadership. He interprets China’s BRI ambitions and the nation’s move into developing 5G technology as geostrategic moves by Beijing to break Eurasia away from US domination, ignoring the fact that through economic sanctions on China and other nations signing up to China’s BRI, the US is effectively retreating into isolation of a not-very splendid kind. He ignores the possibility that American military dominance of the World Ocean has come at a significant cost to the American people themselves in the form of decaying infrastructures across the US mainland, the loss of manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico from the 1990s onwards, and the destruction of the US middle classes by their politicians, the US financial industry and large US corporations, all of whom, Bartosiak might have noticed, are linked through money flows and shared ideologies.

If USE blog readers are still interested in watching the film, following the transcript is best recommended – unless they’re watching it as a cure for insomnia.

Some Like It Hot: a cheerful screwball satire about the search for love and security

Billy Wilder, “Some Like It Hot” (1959)

Astonishingly this classic Hollywood slapstick comedy still holds up well more than 60 years after its release. The jokes and witty one-liners are still hilarious even though they are dated and modern audiences may have trouble identifying with the context they arise in and the actual history that informs the context. In late 1920s-period America, just before the Great Depression, two musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) down on their luck witness a gangland mass murder in Chicago and must flee for their lives; they do so by disguising themselves as female musicians Josephine and Daphne in order to join an all-female jazz orchestra about to tour Florida to entertain millionaires in ritzy hotels. On the train taking them from Chicago to Miami, Joe and Jerry meet Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), herself on the run from a complicated romantic past and eager to meet a gentle and bespectacled millionaire who will love her and look after her. After a wild midnight party featuring (forbidden) alcohol with the other members of the jazz orchestra, while the leader / conductor and the manager are fast asleep and unawares, and during which Joe and Sugar start falling for each other, the orchestra reaches its Miami hotel destination and there Joe and Jerry are embroiled in more farcical situations in which Joe pretends to be the very millionaire Sugar has fantasised about in order to get closer to her, and Jerry as Daphne attracts the attention of ageing millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown) who sends him flowers and romances him. In the meantime the Mafia mobsters, led by mob boss Spatz Colombo (George Raft), are still on the trail of Joe and Jerry, and arrive at the Miami hotel to attend a convention of crime syndicates presided over by Colombo’s rival Little Napoleon (Nehemiah Persoff).

The improbable and threadbare plot plays as a series of fast-paced comedy skits during which Joe and Jerry’s lives become more complicated as people insist on intruding in their lives in ways that threaten to blow their disguises. A tension is always present – when will Joe and Jerry’s cover be blown, and how? – that keeps audiences attentive and guessing. How will Sugar find out that her “millionaire” lover is yet another deceptive saxophone player who lusts after her? Will the three protagonists find the money and security they need to finally be free of their past histories and the complicated lives they have created for themselves in search of love and security?

This film relies heavily on its three leads to pull off the cross-dressing musicians and the ditzy child-like singer who seems unaware of the power of her sexuality on the men around her. Both Curtis and Lemmon have fun with their roles and pour everything they have into them: quite a feat, as Marilyn Monroe’s insecurities interfered with her ability to remember her lines and what she was supposed to do, with the result that her scenes with Curtis required numerous takes, yet on film Curtis always manages to sparkle even when he parodies famous Hollywood actor Cary Grant in his deception of Sugar Kane. Lemmon’s character becomes so engrossed in his Daphne alter-ego that he happily joins his female band members in frolicking on the beach and is prepared to marry Osgood Fielding III and then divorce him for the alimony money as so many of the millionaire’s ex-wives have done. However Monroe steals every scene and walks away with the film with her luminous beauty, innocent naif presence, her breathy voice and her performance as the lead singer of the jazz orchestra.

Co-written by director Billy Wilder, the brisk screenplay does wonderful work contrasting the romances between Joe and Sugar, and between Jerry and Osgood, playing up their half-serious / half-comedic angles and highlighting the deceptions Joe and Jerry force themselves into playing in order to get what they want. Interestingly as Joe feels more guilty at deceiving Sugar, Jerry (who initially begins as Joe’s conscience) becomes more and more mercenary and hell-bent on marrying Osgood to the extent that he forgets he is male himself. The complicated plot starts to resemble a Shakespearean play with Joe and Sugar’s romance being slightly more serious and Jerry and Osgood’s date milked for all its clownishness. In the manner of all good Shakespearean comedies, the deceptions are uncovered (after a screwball chase of the musicians by the mobsters), no-one gets hurt and the deceived partners turn out to be very forgiving towards those who duped them.

In spite of its improbable plot, the film has lasted as long as it has due to its cheerfully satirical treatment of the way in which mid 20th-century Western culture treated men and women, and of how men and women often deceived one another to get laid and/or to get financial security. In the end, Joe discovers he wants more than just sex and Sugar realises she wants more than money. Jerry is nonplussed at Osgood Fielding III’s laid-back attitude towards social conventions surrounding marriage. Everyone gets more than what they bargained for, but in a happy way.

Tribes: fast, witty lesson on identity politics as tool of control

Nino Aldi, “Tribes” (2020)

In societies obsessed with categorising people on the basis of arbitrary and artificial criteria such as race and gender self-identity, this short film comes as a breath of fresh air satirising separatism as a method of keeping people apart and afraid of one another, all the more so they can be dominated by their real unseen enemy. Three inept thieves working together on the New York subway system – their names are Kevin (Jake Hunter), Ahmed (Adam Waheed) and Jemar (DeStorm Power) – hold up a bunch of commuters with intent to take all their money, watches, jewellery and smartphones. However Jemar sees a couple of passengers are Afro-American like himself, so he makes an exception for them as members of the same historically victimised collective as himself. Ahmed overhears and sees what Jemar is doing and from then on, the film dives into bizarre surrealism as the thieves start splitting up and then reshuffling the passengers, making them run from one end of the carriage to the other, on the basis of various polarities: among others, gays versus straights, cat-lovers versus dog-lovers and “Moonlight” watchers versus “La La Land” viewers. The passengers themselves offer helpful hints as to how they should be divided and several admit having many allegiances, making the three ditzy robbers’ task even more difficult.

What makes this farce work is the fast pace and the tight focus of the three main actors, in particular Power as the black thief and Ahmed as the Arab thief, as they trade quick barbs and witty remarks that ensure the film does not fall too far into silliness or sentimentalism. Quick editing and the film’s focus on close-ups and snappy dialogue, dependent on the thieves’ use of slang, drive the plot energetically. Though the film is short, the action is fast and the goal is to drive home a particular message, the thieves’ characters come across fairly clearly: Jemar and Ahmed do most of the talking and Kevin is not too smart though he gets the best lines. Eventually the thieves realise that they and their victims are all connected in a common humanity and Kevin remarks that many years ago his mother drilled into him this lesson about caring for one’s fellow human being and how hurting others can hurt oneself – just before she shot dead a meth dealer.

The film clearly shows in whose interests identity politics works at its climax when the robbers discover that the train has stopped and someone outside the train has targeted them with red dots of light. The robbers and the passengers are jolted back into the real world as police outside the train take up positions with their weapons. Will the passengers feel pity for the robbers and try to save them – or will they let the young men hang? In this respect the film goes beyond the narrow arena of identity politics and demonstrates briefly how the obsession with identity politics is used by political / economic / social elites to divert people’s attention away from the real issue of who has the power and the control in society.

Round-up of Films seen in 2020

Dear USE readers and visitors,

Funnily I had anticipated at the beginning of 2020 that I probably wouldn’t see as many films in 2020 as I had done in 2019, but for very different reasons than I had thought possible. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and the hysterical reactions to it, including widespread lock-downs by governments at city level, state / province level and even at national level in most nations, without using those lock-downs to properly fund and supply healthcare services with the appropriate resources to deal with the pandemic, put paid to my film-watching adventures. Obviously under lock-down I could only leave home for essential reasons like shopping or exercise, and the cinemas that I favour were closed in the early half of 2020. (I suppose I could always watch films on Netflix and other online channels but I prefer to do other things online that I can’t do offline – such as posting reviews and essays to this blog!) In addition film production in many countries was put on hold and films that were supposed to have been released in 2020 have had their release dates pushed back. In many nations also governments reduced the monies allocated to the arts and entertainment industries, and this reduction would have meant (among other things) that individuals and companies needing government subsidies to finance film production at any and every stage of a film’s development (from developing and writing the script to hiring the cast and crew, and to marketing the film) had to shelve film projects or even let them go completely. In many cases film studios would have gone bankrupt.

Even so, I still did see a few good feature films such as J Komasa’s “Corpus Christi”, an excellent character study of a fake priest (an apparently common phenomenon in Poland), and the historical drama by F Safinia and P Shemran “The Professor and the Madman”. Nicholas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”, a re-telling of a Daphne du Maurier short story, is still an eerie and disturbing thriller nearly 50 years after it was made. I have been following short films and documentaries when I can; Carlton Meyer’s “Tales of the American Empire” series, though heavily biased towards a military viewpoint and at its best on military history, is worthwhile watching for an audience unfamiliar with the topics it deals with and who want an introduction and a quick sketch in a few minutes of these topics and what they imply on a geostrategic level.

There were television series I saw in 2020 that were frankly shocking in their depiction of their subject matter with regard to the level of disinformation and the dishonesty present: these were the BBC’s soap opera “The Salisbury Poisonings” which were hardly about the spy and his daughter who were at the centre of the real-life mystery, and Nanette Burstein’s fawning hagiographical treatment of Hillary Rodham Clinton in four nauseating episodes.

While I’m not optimistic that the global film industry will recover fully from the effects of the pandemic – if anything, the pandemic might even speed up the process by which film studios release product directly and solely to Netflix and other online media platforms, bypassing cinemas altogether and hastening their demise – nevertheless there are bound to be a few good film releases in 2021 that I’ll try to catch.

Everybody please keep safe and I wish you all a satisfying film-watching year in 2021!

Nausika.

Life in the Day of Aliya Mustafina: a beautifully made if insubstantial short documentary

Glen MacKay, “Life in the Day of Aliya Mustafina” (2020)

Since 2009 when she joined the Russian senior national women’s gymnastics team, Aliya Mustafina has become a much loved representative of women’s gymnastics across the world for her quiet and stoic demeanour and her determination to continue in gymnastics for as long as she loves the sport in spite of many setbacks, injuries and the trend towards more athleticism and acrobatic stunts, often at the expense of execution, precision and grace, in the sport. The overwhelming dominance of US gymnast Simone Biles, not to mention Biles’ own competition in the US itself – competition such as Morgan Hurd, Kara Eaker, Sunisa Lee and, making a comeback, Chelsie Memmel – overshadows Mustafina and the rest of the Russian national team in a sport increasingly crowded with countries all vying for prestige in women’s gymnastics and making large investments in that sport. So it is a surprise then that film-maker Glen Mackay has seen fit to make a somewhat dream-like and poetic documentary about Mustafina as she goes about her life in 2020, training for the Tokyo Olympic Games, postponed to 2021, which are very likely to be Mustafina’s last significant competition before retirement.

Mustafina is certainly not the first gymnast still in training who is a mother – Oksana Chusovitina has been performing at world and Olympic championship level since 1992 to earn money to pay for her son’s leukaemia treatment, and Chellsie Memmel is also a mother – and many other female gymnasts like Mustafina have also carved out long careers in the sport since the early 1990s. Watching the documentary, I must admit I did not see much in the sparse and rather banal portrayal of Mustafina’s daily routine at the sports training centre in Moscow where she lives from Monday to Friday. A major part of the reason is that the documentary focuses completely on Mustafina and her voice-over description of her day from dawn to dusk, and that description does not say a great deal. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown that was in place in Moscow at the time of filming may have had a great deal to do with the sparse bare-bones portrayal: when Mustafina trains in the gym, there is no-one else (not even her coach) there. Even when she gets Saturday afternoon off and goes to her parents’ home to look after her daughter Alisa (born 2017), her parents are absent. The film says nothing about Mustafina’s ex-husband and Alisa’s father Alexey Zaitsev.

While the film is beautifully made, the camera clearly in love with Mustafina’s soulful eyes, angelic profile and alabaster skin, it does not tell us much about Mustafina’s life and the sacrifices she has had to make to continue in the sport. There is nothing about what conflicts or criticisms Mustafina must have faced in continuing in gymnastics as a single mother. Mustafina moves about in a Moscow miraculously emptied of people and traffic as she goes for her daily afternoon run. We hear no opinions about Mustafina and what she has achieved for gymnastics and Russian gymnastics in particular from her coaches, her parents, Zaitsev or other people in the gymnastics community. Nor do we know what the general public thinks about gymnastics and Mustafina. All we know is that Mustafina continues to compete in the sport because she is wholly focused on it and because she wants her daughter to be proud of her. Without the context of other significant people in Mustafina’s life able to comment on her decisions, and not knowing much about the state of Russian gymnastics and why it still relies on a few big names like Mustafina as a role model to maintain its popularity in Russia, even as she becomes something of an old warhorse, viewers might justifiably conclude that Mustafina is either selfish or unrealistic. It may all be very well for Mustafina to keep going but one wonders what her life will be like after gymnastics – the film gives the impression that her life revolves completely around the sport, at least while she is away from Alisa.

Perhaps when Mustafina has retired from the sport, a fuller and more informative documentary about her life in the sport, what motivated her to continue in spite of her injuries and the hard work involved, and what joys she found in gymnastics and will find in her future life with Alisa, might be made. Something of what inspires the human spirit to persevere and to find fulfillment and connection with others – it is significant that Mustafina mentions that she enjoys competing against Americans Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, despite their very different styles as gymnasts, and that the three are friends – might become more prominent.

The Red Dagger: a fiery poem essay narration and diatribe against corruption and oppression

Alan Cox, Heathcote Williams, “The Red Dagger” (2013?)

Presented in six parts on Youtube, British actor / poet Heathcote Williams’ poem essay “The Red Dagger”, a diatribe against the City of London and the part it has played in oppressing humanity across the world since the 1300s at least, is given vivid and impassioned audiovisual life by fellow UK actor Alan Cox who narrates the poem and supplies the montage of art, photographs, film stills and snippets of film and video to accompany his recitation. The red dagger of the title refers to the red sword that appears on the emblem of the City of London and, according to Williams and Cox, represents the dagger used in the murder of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in England, in 1381 by officers loyal to King Richard II. (According to other sources I have read, the red sword on the emblem is a representation of St Paul, the patron saint of London.) Through the details of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, in which Tyler and rebel monk John Ball led a movement insisting on social equality, abolishing the political hierarchy supporting the monarchy and ending the feudal system (under which peasants were the de facto property of landlords, bound to their masters’ lands), the poet Williams calls attention to the corruption of the political and economic elites that surrounded King Richard II (reigned 1377 – 1399) and finds parallels with the present City of London, its corruption and its control of the global financial industry, and how the activities of the financial elites impoverish and enslave entire nations.

Parts 1 and 2 of Cox’s fiery narration cover the 1381 uprising of English peasants against the King and his lords, and in itself the uprising as portrayed is very stirring. Whether or not the uprising has lessons for us in the 21st century might be debatable: for one thing, the levels of technology in mediaeval England were low, scientific and other general knowledge was limited, and the manipulation and exploitation that English elites exerted over the peasantry correspondingly were limited to mainly physical means, with some limited brainwashing of people’s minds courtesy of the Christian Church, a significant landowner and itself a major landlord oppressor of peasants. The most significant parts of Cox’s narration are Parts 3 and 4 in which he goes into detail about the extent of the activities and networking of the elites in the City of London and its secretive institutions, the extent to which the City of London controls the British government, its past participation in the British colonial / imperial project and the Atlantic slave trade, and its current participation in trafficking arms to nations with sordid human rights records and the global drug trade. Individuals and businesses in the UK financial services industry take advantage of opportunities to evade paying taxes owed to the government by sending money into offshore trust accounts or transfer pricing arrangements in tax havens. Something of the lavish, decadent culture of the City of London elites, dependent on rich banqueting and the associated networking, fuelled by addictions to drugs, casual sex and use of prostitutes, and possible links to sex trafficking and other sordid underground activities, is revealed in the narration and montage.

Cox’s film and Williams’ poem cover much ground and detail of how the City of London operates and has operated over the centuries, and viewers might well need to see the film at least twice to absorb most details. Being based entirely around Williams’ poem, the film does not give information sources so viewers will need to do their own research to confirm the information about the City of London. (A good start is Nicolas Shaxson’s book “Treasure Islands” which investigates the global scourge that is taxation evasion.) While the poem and film might play hard and fast with some details in parts, and Tyler’s actual rebellion might not have been as utopian, idealistic and socialist as the poem implies, the poetry genre proves to be an ideal format by which Williams (1941 – 2017) brings important political, economic, social and historical information to the general public’s attention.

The film along with transcripts of each part and footnotes giving information sources can be viewed at this link.

The Colonization of Haiti in 1915: Haiti as prototype for US occupation and treatment of other nations in the post-9/11 period

Carlton Meyer, “The Colonization of Haiti in 1915” (Tales of the American Empire, 11 December 2020)

In this short video, running just under 12 minutes, TotAE narrator / director Carlton Meyer excels in giving yet another history lesson of the violence and chaos the US has been leaving around the world over the past 150 or so years in its pursuit of material profit, power and influence. In this episode Meyer outlines the history of US invasion, occupation and devastation of Haiti, beginning with US naval harassment of the small, impoverished nation in 1857 which escalated to US Marines arriving in Port-au-Prince in 1914 and taking US$500,000 worth of gold from the country’s sole commercial bank the Banque Nationale d’Haiti and transferring it to the National City Bank of New York’s vaults – in effect, assuming control of the country’s finances. The following year, US President Woodrow Wilson sent 330 Marines to occupy Port-au-Prince, ostensibly to protect American and foreign business interests. (The reality was that the US saw the German business community in Haiti as a threat to American business interests: the Germans had intermarried with the Haitian elites and as a result were entitled to own land in Haiti which other foreigners could not do.) The US promptly began controlling Haiti’s administrative and financial institutions, took over the country’s customs houses, installed a new Haitian President and compelled him to accept and impose a new Haitian constitution that allowed foreigners to own land in the country. Haitian citizens were conscripted into virtual slave labour forces to work on public projects such as building roads and other infrastructure for the benefit of American businesses.

For a good part of the video Meyer focuses on Haitian Cacos (rebel) resistance to US rule and the US Marines’ slaughter of rebels armed with knives, machetes and not many rifles, and the severe punishment and killing the Marines inflicted on villages where rebellions broke out. One major Cacos leader, Charlemagne Péralte, was assassinated in 1919 by US Sergeant Herman Hanneken and his corporal after both had secretly been led to Péralte’s camp. Péralte’s body was taken by the Americans, tied to a door and the corpse was photographed; the photograph was later publicised throughout Haiti to discourage rebellion (in fact, it had the opposite effect and galvanised even more opposition). For his action against Péralte and other exploits in Haiti, Hanneken was decorated and promoted to Second Lieutenant.

After Péralte’s death and Hanneken’s promotion, the video glosses over much of the rest of Haiti’s occupation by US forces and how Haitians resisted the US presence in other ways. Meyer is not so good at detailing the non-military avenues by which Haitians fought back against the American occupation, including reaching out to people in the US, and black American people in particular, for help and support. As time passed and Woodrow Wilson was replaced by subsequent Presidents, the US government attitude towards its occupation of Haiti changed to the extent that eventually the Americans left the country in 1934 – though not before changing Haiti’s education system drastically to emphasise vocational training (in effect, treating Haitians as nothing more than robots or a pool of slave labour) and breaking the economic and political power of the German-Haitian community. The Americans continued to control Haiti’s finances however and this control surely was significant in prolonging Haiti’s poverty and suppressing its development economically and politically.

The video works best as an introduction to Haiti’s history from 1900 on, and as an example of the way in which the US invades and occupies other nations whose resources are much coveted by American corporations and elites, and the brutal American treatment of those nations’ peoples who resist occupation. Had the video drilled down even deeper into how the occupying Marines behaved in Haiti while serving there, it would have shown very clearly parallels between their unbecoming behaviour and the behaviour of US soldiers in other parts of the world (in Japan, South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan for example) where they have been stationed. Viewers come away with the depressing realisation that the US never learns anything from previous experiences of occupying nations, bringing destruction, violence and chaos, treating the people as racial inferiors born to serve others, and leaving a mess in the form of environmental destruction and institutions such as Americanised school systems that ignore the people’s real needs but prepare them only for manual slave labour. In the case of Haiti, viewers will wonder whether the country serves as a dumping ground for American desires to reinstate the culture and economy of Confederate America, and also as a target to thump to show black Americans and other minority groups in the US that they should know their place in society … as an inferior servant class.