A society fragmenting in “Dying Alone: Kodokushi, Japan’s epidemic of isolation through the eyes of a ‘lonely death’ cleaner”

Artyom Somov, “Dying Alone: Kodokushi, Japan’s epidemic of isolation through the eyes of a ‘lonely death’ cleaner” (RT.com, March 2019)

Since 1945, the increasing Westernisation of Japanese society – and with it, longer life expectancies, smaller families, increased urbanisation and housing shortages, combined with labour mobility (often involving long commuter journeys) – has encouraged a weakening of family ties with the result that more and more elderly people are living alone. Of course, conservative social attitudes toward the role of women in caring for the elderly and government policies (often governed by such attitudes – because the dominant political parties in power have been socially conservative) with regard to caring for the aged can also be blamed for the rise in the number of aged people living alone. Another phenomenon, mentioned briefly in the documentary about to be reviewed, is the massive infrastructure works undertaken by the Japanese government in the 1950s and 1960s which employed thousands of young men from the countryside to help repair cities devastated by war; now, after 50 or more years later, these men have reached retirement age but have nowhere to go. They long ago lost contact with their families, their wives or partners are long gone and their children have gone as well. With more aged people living on their own, more aged people are dying alone: the phenomenon has come to be known as kodokushi (lonely death).

Somov’s documentary follows a man who runs his own cleaning company specialising in cleaning the homes of kodokushi people. The majority of kodokushi people seem to be elderly men living on their own. The manager admits he used to be a musician but social and family pressure – and the decline and death of his grandmother – directed him to running a specialist kodokushi cleaning company that cleans the homes of kodokushi people and removes their possessions. While the bodies have already been taken away, the excretions (and often the maggots and maggot shells) from rotting bodies have to be cleaned up. The company manager and employees do a thorough job clearing away possessions and storing them in the company warehouse, and cleaning the home. The possessions – especially any dolls, which in Japanese tradition may be inhabited by the souls of the dead – are later prayed for and blessed by a Buddhist monk, so that they are free to be resold to recycling companies or secondhand. (The kodokushi company earns its money from recycling or selling the items it collects from the homes of kodokushi people.)

The film crew also visits a restaurant owner whose patrons are mainly elderly people living on their own. The owner also runs a cottage for lonely elderly men. The film crew visit a hospital where medical workers show elderly people how to keep their joints flexible. A woman volunteer – we do not know who she works for – goes on one of her weekly trips to see an aged gentleman to make sure he is using his foot ointment and is eating and drinking healthily. Apart from this, we do not know how Japanese society generally and government institutions in particular are dealing with the issue of elderly people who have no families to rely on and are living on their own.

The sad isolation that afflicts Japanese society in so many different ways – the phenomenon of hikikomori (young people who shut themselves away from society from months or years on end) is well known – is present throughout the documentary. The pressures of a socially conformist and hierarchical society, overlaid by Westernisation / Americanisation and the utilitarian values adopted by past governments that view people as little more than robots, have resulted in a highly atomised society where social links not related to work have become very fragile. It seems that the current government under Shinzo Abe (whose grandfather Nobosuke Nishi was once also prime minister and had a controversial past) is ideologically at a loss as to how to resolve such social and political issues that its political conservative predecessors had a major hand in creating.

The Image Book: a demanding critique on the role of film in contemporary Western society

Jean-Luc Godard, “The Image Book / Le Livre d’Image” (2018)

At 84 minutes, in no way is this a long film, yet it’s far more demanding of one’s attention in so many different aspects than more commercial films that are at least half as long. This film works on so many levels and probably needs to be seen at least a few times for Godard’s message/s to sink in.

On one level, the film questions and criticises the dominant role of cinema as escapist entertainment in an age where so many technologies and trends that have developed at the same time and in parallel or even enmeshed together with cinema have had destructive effects on humanity around the world: modern warfare, the development of weapons capable of destroying all life on earth, propaganda, societies dependent on technology (including cinema) and materialism to keep people distracted and unaware of their repression by Deep States. On a second level, in its use of snippets of other directors’ films, film audio soundtracks, music and paintings, Godard pays homage to directors and films that he may consider significant: I managed to pick out Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Georges Franju’s “Blood of the Beasts” among the films referenced. By juxtaposing audio soundtracks from other films with the snippets of film organised collage-style, Godard creates a new narrative that, among other things, criticises Western viewpoints of Arabic-language peoples and their cultures and histories, and invites viewers to question how their opinions and worldviews have been moulded and manipulated by film in all its variety, documentary and newsreel film as well as film drama. This narrative includes a completely fictional story about the despotic ruler of an imaginary Arab country called Dofa which has no resources – not even oil or natural gas to speak of – but which lack does not stop this ruler from dreaming of dominating all the Arabian Gulf oil states.

There is much beauty, a lot of it deliberately over-coloured or overlit in ways to make the film look psychedelic and hallucinatory, as if to call attention to the power of film and film narrative to keep people in a heightened state of addiction and to change their neural networks (not always for the better). For all its experimentation, the film does present a linear narrative based on the five fingers of the hand – because the hand does much if not most of the work of the imagination and creation – with each chapter in the narrative representing some form of motion or conflict: water, trains, warfare, the law and the Western view of the Middle East.

The film’s collage nature and confrontational message make it difficult viewing for most people. I must confess I did find the middle section of the film quite heavy and tiring.

Courage and grit under fire in “Enemies Within: When Israel Declared War on the United States of America” (screenplay)

Clint Burnette, “Enemies Within: When Israel Declared War on the United States of America” (screenplay, published January 2019)

At last one of the most shameful episodes in recent US military history has become the subject of a screenplay. On 8 June 1967, the USS Liberty, a reconnaissance ship on patrol in international waters not far from the coast of Egypt (near El Arish), was bombed and then torpedoed by Israeli fighter jets and motor torpedo boats with the intent to sink the entire ship and its crew. The attack was sustained for at least an hour. Over 30 men were killed and 171 including the ship’s commander William L McGonagle were injured in the attack. Just as inexplicable as the attack by Israel – supposedly an ally of the US at the time – was the decision by the US government from the President, Lyndon B Johnson, down to smother and suppress the truth behind the attack and to concur with the Israeli government that the attack was a case of mistaken identity, even though the USS Liberty had been flying the US flag at the time and its markings identifying it as a US ship should have been obvious to the attackers. To this day, the attack on the USS Liberty by Israeli air and naval forces still remains a highly controversial topic.

Writer / script-writer Clint Burnette’s screenplay of the event, based on his interviews with USS Liberty survivors and other research, is a detailed and riveting dramatic narrative of what happened during the attack. The suspense starts building up towards the actual attack, with a fair few characters having misgivings about joining the ship’s crew on its fateful voyage in the eastern Mediterranean. The script alternates between scenes on the ship itself and scenes on a Soviet destroyer in the same area as the American ship, and in Israeli military headquarters where Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan is ordering the attack; this jumping back and forth between the Americans, the Soviets and the Israelis heightens the tension. Readers will find themselves drawn into the thick of the action.

The description of the attack is very thorough in its details, which in themselves demonstrate the deliberate nature of the Israeli attack and the extent to which the US government was complicit in allowing the attack to continue even though other US warships not far away offered assistance to the stricken USS Liberty. However the most important aspect here is the courage and determination of the crew in rescuing their wounded, trying to keep them alive, and repairing whatever communications equipment they could to maintain open lines.

I did find the denouement not quite as strong as the events leading up to and including the attack: the action switches away from the USS Liberty crew to a Navy JAG lawyer, appointed to represent the USS Liberty survivors in court, who is confronted by belligerent senior naval commanders who threaten to derail her career if she goes ahead with her investigations. The lawyer herself suffers personal and family crises in part as a result of her pursuit of justice. I am hoping that when the film is made, that this section can be fleshed out by a good cast of actors aided by consultants or historians who can verify the necessary details needed for accurate portrayals of courtroom testimonies.

What is most impressive about this screenplay is its portrayal of men whose character and loyalties are tested under the most incredible pressure in the most extreme circumstances, and how their loyalties to one another and their professionalism and patriotism are betrayed by their government whose interests in the Middle East usurp original American ideals. The film that is based on this screenplay, if done well and faithfully, will be a film about ordinary people demonstrating the most extraordinary qualities of bravery, sheer grit and compassion in surviving, rescuing others and living to see justice done.

Last Year at Marienbad: a comic and often repetitive satire on the empty lives of the wealthy

Alain Resnais, “Last Year at Marienbad / L’Année dernière à Marienbad” (1961)

At times hilarious, and at other times maddeningly boring and repetitive, this film is notable for its deliberately ambiguous narrative, in which time and space are non-linear, and characters may be coming or going, living or dying at once – or have done so in the past, or will do so in the future. The whole film seems to take place in a hermetic dream-like world and characters are continually repeating themselves, in their thoughts, obsessions and memories as well as in their speech and behaviour.

The plot is very simple – but from this apparent simplicity, myriad possibilities arise and the film attempts to accommodate them all. In an opulent, baroquely decorated hotel, set in a converted country estate, where wealthy couples socialise, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), known only as X, approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig), known as A, and tells her that they had met exactly the year before in Marienbad. The woman has no memory of their ever having met but X insists that they have and that she told him to wait a year while she decided on whether to elope with him or stay with her husband, M (Sasha Pitoev). X constantly tries to remind her of their romance while she continually rebuffs him. In the meantime, M asserts his authority over X and various other men by beating them all at the same card game over and over. M may very well be a gangster or a spy. The various possibilities that arise in the plot include a rape, a murder and two figures running away together in the dead of night.

Through flashbacks, edits that jump from one time or location to another, and through repeated conversations and events, the film explores the relationships between the three characters. Beyond this though, the main characters remain undeveloped and mysterious, even a little sinister. The rest of the cast, playing the hotel guests, are robotic in their actions, expressionless and lacking emotion, and repeat their actions and speeches over and over. In this respect, the film may be seen as a criticism of the empty lives of the wealthy, condemned to living in an eternal present where there is no political, cultural or social historical context they can relate to and which would give their lives meaning and direction – because they have deliberately sealed themselves from reality.

The film’s cinematography emphasises the self-contained universe of the hotel: the camera glides over details in the elaborate furnishings; the architectural trimmings, architraves, arches and other extravagances; and tracks through the labyrinthine corridors towards bedrooms that are exactly the same. The gardens surrounding the hotel are laid out in a strict geometrical order, and the pools of water are mostly still and serene, but beyond the hotel’s boundaries, the forest is unruly and chaotic. The use of edits and panning conveys something of the sterility in which the characters seem to be trapped. The organ music is loud, droning and repetitive.

Though the plot and its events, and the entire nature of the hotel universe and its inhabitants, might suggest “Last Year …” should be a horror film, the whole creation proceeds with a light touch and the po-faced characters seem not to take themselves very seriously. There is plenty of comedy in the scenes in which M challenges X and others to play his card game. Even the accident in which X falls off a balustrade and part of it collapses on him is played for laughs in its deadpan minimalism. The most sinister elements in the film – M himself, the Gothic organ, even the hotel and its zombie cast – can be seen as very comic.

Exposing propaganda at work in “The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story”

“The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story” (21 February 2019)

In recent months, with the 2020 US Presidential year looming on the horizon, there has been talk of a set of programs and policies known as the Green New Deal (named after former US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s that invested in infrastructure construction and stimulated job creation and employment during the Great Depression) to address national issues such as failing infrastructure, climate change and its effects, unemployment and rising social inequalities across the nation. A major objection to the Green New Deal, usually lobbed by neoconservative politicians and think-tanks, is that its programs will lead to hyperinflation and economic / political instability of the kind currently (or supposedly) present in Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro’s Bolivarian socialist government. On this radio talk-show, host Thom Hartmann invited Dr Richard Wolff to discuss this objection and the real agenda behind the false association of the social-democratic policies proposed and the economic situation in Venezuela.

Much of the first half of Hartmann’s conversation with Wolff focuses on the definition of hyperinflation (a situation in which too much money is chasing too few goods) and how the phenomenon can occur in any political / economic environment regardless of the prevailing ideology. Wolff points out that the hyperinflation argument is trotted out in public to dissuade voters and even aspiring politicians (and presidential candidates) from favouring government policies and programs spending money on infrastructure construction and maintenance projects that would generate jobs and incomes – and thus more tax revenue – and help reduce social inequalities. Such programs, including a nationalised healthcare system, have their consequences such as reduced healthcare expenditures in the future (because the population ends up much healthier if health insurance is subsidised by the government rather than privatised). Wolff says the issue is that such government policies must be paid for by increased taxation, particularly taxation of the wealthy, and this is the issue that neoconservative politicians, talk-show hosts and think-tanks (and the people and organisations who fund them) object to.

The actual discussion about Venezuela involves a comparison of the people in Maduro’s government and the Constituent National Assembly, most of whom are of mixed ancestry, and the anti-government National Assembly, all of whom are of white European ancestry. Wolff makes the point that Maduro’s difficulties in governing Venezuela and steering the nation’s economy away from disaster stem from the old Venezuelan white minority elite’s determination to maintain its power and control of the country’s resources at the expense of the majority poor, and US sanctions on the country which include the freezing of Venezuela’s financial and other assets held in foreign countries.

The discussion is densely packed with information and jumps from one topic to the next, due to the restricted time allocated to Wolff. I daresay though that viewers and listeners will learn much more about the political and economic reality in Venezuela, and the US propaganda use of that country’s dire economic straits to browbeat Americans into accepting agendas that impoverish and degrade them even more than they currently are.

Cynicism and citizenship for sale in “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas”

Francis Plourde, “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas” (Enquete, September 2018)

In 1986 the Canadian federal government and the Quebec provincial government pioneered investment programs encouraging wealthy migrants with at least $2 million in assets to settle in Canada and Quebec province respectively, provided that, among other conditions they had to meet as immigrants, they invested a minimum amount of $1.2 million (as a loan to the respective governments) into the country or province to generate business, revenues and jobs. Since 1986, thousands of immigrants have gained permanent residency in Canada through these programs. In 2014, the federal program shut down over concerns about its effectiveness but the Quebec Immigrant Investor Program (hereafter QIIP) continues. An investigation by Radio-Canada’s current affairs program Enquete in 2018 reveals that QIIP has degenerated into a financial scam that encourages tax evasion, money laundering and the Canadian economy’s dependence on money – much of it from China and Hong Kong – sloshing through banks and other financial institutions to prop up excessive property speculation in Vancouver and other major cities.

The Enquete investigation takes a multi-pronged approach to covering all aspects of this investment scheme and its consequences for Canada’s economy including hiring a Hong Kong man to pose as wealthy prospective businessman investor Mr Chen, with plenty of money and a shady history of businesses and tax evasion to match his wealth, who approaches an immigration consultancy to inquire about obtaining permanent residency in Quebec and a Canadian passport. What journalist Francis Plourde discovers through “Mr Chen” and his “secretary” using hidden cameras is that immigration consultants and lawyers connected with QIIP are prepared to overlook the huge gaps in the would-be migrant’s business and tax affairs and even suggest that he change his name to “Bruce Lee” (ha!) and acquire citizenship in a dodgy Caribbean tax haven place to evade both Canadian and Chinese tax authorities by establishing a trust fund based there.

Interviews with Quebec government public servants who worked in Hong Kong dealing with QIIP applications and the immigrant consultants and lawyers who represented or were asked to vet wealthy clients wanting permanent residency status in Canada reveal the extent of the corruption involved; the undercover operation using the fake investor Mr Chen confirms the sloppy way in which applications were processed and how consultants turned a blind eye to applicants’ shady financial pasts. The officials who worked in Hong Kong speak of not having enough time to do full due diligence work on applicants’ documents and of being pressed by the Quebec government to accept applicants in spite of not having the time or the resources to check and authenticate their papers.

The investigation also examines whether the QIIP program has delivered economic benefits to Quebec in the generation of new business and jobs in that province. While bureaucrats and new small to medium-sized firms in Quebec are enthusiastic about government programs that fund their growth and development, what the investigators found that the money loaned by investors (interest-free, for five years) to Quebec was placed with Investissement Quebec (hereafter IQ) which invested the money in funds at market rates. The interest earned would be invested in actual businesses. Further investigation with an economist found that the number of jobs generated by investment by IQ was far less than IQ itself claims. On top of this, the revenue earned from IQ’s investments has been low due to very low interest rates over the past decade (2008 – 2018). If this were not enough, much of the revenue has to be paid to immigration consultants in commissions for referring prospective immigrants to QIIP so the amount invested in new businesses is much, much less than it could be.

A further consequence of QIIP is that most Chinese immigrants – they make up the majority of the QIIP immigrants – end up in cities like Vancouver and Toronto where they drive up the prices of properties and help create property speculation bubbles. Many immigrants commute between Canada, China and Hong Kong, and rarely or even never set foot in Quebec. They pay very little income tax in Canada – indeed, buying property is itself a form of tax evasion – while Vancouver suffers from an overheated property market in which local people are effectively barred from buying their own homes, and Vancouver city authorities suffer the burden of supplying education and health services to foreign families that contribute very little to Canada.

In effect, the whole QIIP project has created a financial monster in which the main beneficiaries are financial institutions and people gaming the project as if it were a giant casino. The program has created opportunities for money laundering and taxation evasion. It appears that neither the Canadian nor the Quebec government seems to care very much about the adverse economic and social consequences that QIIP creates for communities in Vancouver and other cities where wealthy immigrants have flocked to buy up mansions and expensive apartments and to educate their children in private schools, as long as money is flowing into the country. In the process, an elite transnational class of people dependent on rentier income derived from property speculation and with no concept of national loyalty is created.

Above all, the notion that citizenship can be bought at a price, and the conditions attached to the purchase of citizenship can be disregarded, as long as the buyer brings plenty of money, is cynical and says quite a bit about the grubby motivations and aims of the people who dreamt up the idea of fast-tracking residency status and citizenship on the basis of material wealth.

The Coup in Venezuela, Explained: an impassioned presentation on the reality behind the news media propaganda and lies

Aaron Bastani, Gary McQuiggin, “The Coup in Venezuela, Explained” (Novara Media, 2019)

Here comes a very timely report on the recent history of Venezuela’s politics and economy, coming after the country’s Leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaido declared himself President of Venezuela on 23 January 2019, just after Nicolas Maduro’s second term as President began. Almost immediately the United States, followed by several Latin American countries and many in the European Union, either recognised Guaido as President or pressured Maduro to hold new elections. As the title says, the report provides the background to the rise of the Bolivarian political / economic / social revolution in Venezuela in the 1990s and its achievements under Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. It also examines the history of Western hostility to Chavez and Maduro’s governments, the US attempts to overthrow Chavez and Maduro by outright coups and constant sabotaging of Venezuela’s economy. This hostility is put into a wider historical context in which the United States has always intervened, usually violently, in the affairs of Latin American countries, derailed their legitimately elected governments and replaced them with fascist elites who rule through violence and terror, and enrich themselves and their American masters by looting their nations’ economies while the population falls into poverty.

Bastani puts the Bolivarian revolution and the ascension of Hugo Chavez to the Presidency into historical and current political context, by noting that Venezuela was in a parlous state on various economic and social criteria in 1998 when Chavez became President, and comparing that state to what Venezuela was in 2010: poverty levels fell precipitously from nearly 71% in 1996 to 21% in 2010, and the level of malnutrition in the population fell from 21% in 1998 to 5% in 2012, thanks to spending on social welfare programs. However much of the money spent on social programs came from revenues from oil exports: after 2015, oil prices (and thus oil revenues) began to fall due in part to Saudi Arabia’s flooding of the global oil market in order to crash the Russian and Iranian economies, widely perceived to be dependent on energy and oil exports. At the same time, the US imposed economic and financial sanctions on Venezuela and froze the country’s oil refiner CITGO’s ability to send revenues earned in the US back to the country; the combined effect of sanctions and falling oil prices ruined the economy and forced the country to issue more money, leading to hyperinflation. Bastani observes that the American use of sanctions to ruin economies has a long and ignoble history, citing the example of the Nixon government’s sanctioning of Chile in 1973.

The only issue I have with this part of Bastani’s explanation of Venezuela’s economic history is that he omits to mention how Venezuela came to be overly dependent on oil extraction and export for export revenues, to the detriment of other industries (especially agriculture), and how this excessive reliance on exporting raw commodities was partly the result of past government policy directed by US governments which saw Venezuela as little more than a giant petrol station to be exploited for oil which Americans regarded as theirs.

The role of British mainstream news media and of the BBC in particular in propagating and perpetuating the lies about Venezuela, Maduro being a dictator and an incompetent economic manager, and the global support that Guaido is supposed to have as self-declared President, is exposed in Bastani’s parsing of the statements presented and the in-built biases they have. Shamefully the British Labour party is as much at fault as the despised Tories in supporting Guaido as President and in attributing Venezuela’s dire economic situation to Chavez, Maduro and the policies and programs they pursued. Bastani then goes over the history of Chavez’s changes to the Venezuelan Constitution and his election history, finding that Chavez consistently won the popular vote in Presidential elections. A US-supported coup against Chavez in 2002, during which he was kidnapped and held hostage, failed when Venezuelans demanded that he be set free and returned to power. Bastani demonstrates that, far from widespread Western belief, Chavez not only was no dictator but the political changes he brought made Venezuela a far more democratic country than the United States or the United Kingdom.

Bastani is a passionate and persuasive presenter who has done detailed research on his topic, backing up his statements with statistics and comparing the propaganda about Venezuela with the reality of the country and finding the lies blatant and outrageous. His presentation makes clear that the Bolivarian revolution and its principles and agenda are a threat to the greed of elites in the Western world to grab other nations’ resources (in Venezuela’s case, its oil reserves) for their own enrichment at the expense of the people whose resources are being stolen. He urges us all to stand up to our elites and call them out on their lies and propaganda, and to stop them from invading Venezuela and seizing its wealth.

Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #226): rehashing stories ignored by US mainstream news media

“Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #226)” (RT America, 6 January 2019)

The first episode of “Redacted Tonight”, hosted by Lee Camp, is a review of the most important under-reported or unreported news stories of 2018 as determined by the long-running Project Censored. He starts off with reviewing Project Censored stories that have already been featured on “Redacted Tonight” such as a story on unaccounted US Federal government spending of some US$21 trillion from 1998 to 2015, and one about how large telecommunications companies claimed that mobile phones and Wi-fi networks are safe. The vast majority of the stories identified by Project Censored are particular to the United States and may not be relevant – at least, not currently – to overseas audiences. Camp smoothly segues from one story (about the opioid addiction crisis in the US) to the next (homeless people being bussed out of cities and across the US to improve those cities’ homeless population statistics) though he does not do the stories in the order Project Censored orders them on its website. If a viewer sneezes, s/he might just miss some stories that are fleetingly covered. International stories include New Zealand’s recognition of the Whanganui River as a living entity and entitled to legal personhood and legal rights; and a global decline in the rule of law as determined by the World Justice Project.

The way in which Camp wanders from one story to the next (and sometimes back to a previous story) may be a bit confusing for viewers and people are best advised to refer to the Project Censored website to find out more about particular stories in detail.

The rest of the episode focuses on investigative reporter Natalie McGill’s story on how private companies profit from prisoners’ communications with their families; and Naomi Karavani’s story on how the FBI recruited Best Buy Geek Squad employees to spy on Best Buy clients’ computer databases, encouraging Geek Squad employees to actively scout for child pornography to get free change.

As with another “Redacted Tonight” episode I saw, Camp has a shouty style (which goes up several decibels in the first couple of minutes!) which can be a little tiresome, though the humour can be very sharp and witty. I’m surprised the show has lasted as long as it has with its format and style of presentation and comedy.

My only criticism of Project Censored is that so many of the stories featured in its Top 25 unreported or under-reported stories actually seem to come from quite mainstream sources like The Guardian (increasingly a neoconservative cheerleader for US and UK government policies) and not from alternative news sources.

Capharnaum: a film of hope in search of identity and a place to call home

Nadine Labaki, “Capharnaum” (2018)

I’m sure plenty of children around the world are serving time in juvenile centres for serious criminal acts including stabbing a man and crippling him for life as a result but not too many of those kids get the opportunity to phone a television current affairs show to announce that they’re going to sue their parents for bringing them into a rotten corrupt world that condemns them and their siblings to bleak, hopeless poverty and robs them of happiness and opportunities to play, go to school and learn to be decent human beings. That one 12-year-old boy called Zain (Zain al Rafeea) does so is a springboard into a documentary-styled drama focused on the twilight world inhabited by refugees, illegal migrant workers and homeless children, the relentless pressures on them to find their next meal and some shelter over their heads, and the extraordinary (and ingenious) risks they take to survive. The bulk of Zain’s story is told in flashback as he and his attorney (director Labaki herself) on one side of a courtroom face his parents Souad and Selim (Kawthar al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) on the other side while the judge (Elias Khoury, an actual retired judge) presides over the proceedings.

Zain lives with his parents and an apparent horde of siblings in a tiny Beirut apartment rented to them by a landlord whose son Assaad is infatuated with Zain’s 13-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam). Almost as soon as Sahar has her first period, the parents marry her off to Assaad and Zain rebels against the marriage and stomps off. He travels to another part of the city where he meets a transvestite called Cockroach Man (Joseph Jimbazian) who leads him to Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethiopian migrant working various odd jobs and hiding her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), knowing that his discovery by the authorities will lead to her deportation and the baby being sent to an orphanage. For several months, Zain babysits Yonas – at least until Rahil is arrested and jailed. From then on, Zain does his best to look after Yonas while trying to find work to get enough money to buy food and feed them both.

Eventually Zain reaches the end of his tether when he cannot get any work and leaves the baby with Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) who promises to place Yonas with a foster family – in reality, Aspro works in trafficking desperate Syrian refugees to Sweden – so he can go home to find his papers so he too can leave Beirut. Once home, he discovers the dreadful fate that befell Sahar soon after she married Assaad and the boy vows vengeance on the landlord’s son …

Through Zain’s point of view, the precarious and unstable existence of an underclass with no papers that would prove their existence and identity is portrayed with a raw grimness occasionally lightened by humour (even if it’s on the black side) and the innocence of children like Yonas. In spite of the incredible, grinding poverty, the violence and abuse he suffers at home, and the pain he sees around him and experiences, Zain is still capable of compassion, love and care for those less able than he to defend themselves, like Sahar and Yonas. Zain al Rafeea, himself a refugee from Syria, delivers an incredible performance as a child struggling to survive yet yearning to know his true path and direction in life, and wanting nothing more than to know he is known and needed by society. Apart from Labaki herself, all the actors in the film are non-professionals and several of them actually were refugees or undocumented workers. In bringing their experiences to their roles, the actors helped give the film a raw and harsh quality.

No less than the cast itself, the poor neighbourhoods of Beirut, weighed down by floods of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, its bureaucracy and institutions unable to cope with them and illegal migrants from other countries, are a dramatic, often severe background in which the modern-day Oliver Twist tale plays out. Parts of the script do stretch credibility – is it really possible that the authorities manage to find Yonas among the crammed warehouses of people hoping to find asylum in Sweden? – and the ending can come across as unbelievably optimistic. Little attention is given over to how Zain’s parents came to be in their appalling predicament in the first place, how others exploit and manipulate them, and how and why they have given up hope for themselves and their children. The system which they and their son fall into cannot offer them hope and one presumes that after Zain serves his allotted jail-time that he will return to his family and possibly fall into trouble again.

The film offers hope that, for all the pain and horror he has experienced, Zain’s natural resilience, compassion and ingenuity that have served him and Yonas well will not only help him to survive but to thrive as well. The deliberate identification of Zain with the city he inhabits by “Capharnaum” make the boy a metaphor for the fortunes of Beirut and by implication, Lebanon and the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Levant.

Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #230): exposing media propaganda on Venezuela’s political crisis

“Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #230)” (RT America, 1 February 2019)

Lee Camp is a stand-up comedian, writer and activist who hosts weekly TV comedy current affairs show “Redacted Tonight” on the RT America channel. Unlike most TV comedy news shows which satirise politics and other contemporary issues, “Redacted Tonight” presents news stories of actual events and issues that are rarely or never mentioned on mainstream news media outlets including print and online outlets in a style that mocks the powerful and their lackeys. The episodes follow a format that focuses first on a current world issue for the first ten minutes or so, and then on a series of ongoing problems (say, about two or three) particular to the United States for the rest of their half-hour running time.

Amid applause from a live audience, Camp launches straight into an attack on the slanted propagandist mainstream news reporting on the political crisis in Venezuela. News media outlets such as CNN portray the legitimate government under President Nicolas Maduro as inept and corrupt economic managers while omitting to mention the harsh and distorting effect of US economic sanctions on the country’s economy and the living conditions of Venezuelans. Also conveniently left out is the effect of Saudi Arabia’s crashing of global oil prices by ramping up oil production and flooding the global market in 2014, in an effort to wreck the economies of its political rival Iran and Russia as well, both nations presumed to be heavily dependent on oil exports for foreign exchange: this had an adverse effect on Venezuela’s economy which has always been overly dependent on oil exports and oil production thanks to previous governments (before the Bolivarian governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro) that treated Venezuela as a petrol pump to be exploited.

By carefully parsing CNN reports on the apparent refugee problem and the poverty in Venezuela, Camp shows how sloppy the channel is in failing to match up its reports with the images it presents, and calls attention to the effect of US sanctions on the country which impoverish most people but help enrich the wealthy by legitimising smuggling-in of sanctioned goods by companies or individuals who then sell the goods at inflated prices. Camp even compares sanctions to so-called “smart” bombs which supposedly target terrorists but actually indiscriminately kill everyone else unfortunate enough to be close to the targeted terrorists. He notes that CNN portrayed Juan Guaido’s self-declaration as President in Caracas as having been witnessed by thousands of people, when in fact 81% of Venezuelans had never heard of him. Camp goes on to fill in aspects of Guaido’s background as a protege of US Deep State neoconservative regime-change forces, Guaido having attended George Washington University in Washington DC under the tutelage of Venezuelan neoliberal economist Luis Enrique Berrizbeitia, a former executive director of the International Monetary Fund. (Camp could have quoted Grayzone again and noted that Guaido could have trained in insurrectionist regime-change methods in Belgrade under OTPOR, a US-funded regime-change organisation that organised the protests that overthrew Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1998.)

The segment ends with Camp stating that Venezuelans deserve self-determination, the freedom to work out what government is best qualified to deal with the nation’s problems and end mass poverty without interference from foreign countries.

The rest of the program ranges from covering a climate change protest in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City and how it was superficially reported by mainstream news outlets; to the record of US Federal senator Kamala Harris, currently being groomed by the Democratic Party as a future Presidential candidate, who has been funded by Wall Street banks and pro-Israel lobby organisation AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee); to Camp’s hilarious discussion with John F O’Donnell on the food industry, global agriculture and the benefits of giving up eating meat and going vegetarian or vegan; to an investigation by reporter Natalie McGill on the Internal Revenue Service’s budget and staff cuts, rendering the organisation lacking the experience and knowledge in going after corporations for evading their taxation obligations. At the same time the IRS shakes down poor individuals for money (received from welfare services) through audits conducted by private debt collectors who then charge exorbitant fees for their services!

Camp’s shouty style can be irritating for some viewers so it’s probably just as well the program lasts just under 30 minutes and features other presenters like McGill and O’Donnell so Camp’s larynx can get some rest. The discussion with O’Donnell on the commercial food industry and its exploitation of animals and the human end-consumer alike can go right over some viewers’ heads and barely touches how the industry’s pursuit of profit endangers people’s health and wrecks the environment. On the other hand, the comedy format allows Camp and his fellow presenters the capacity to probe issues fairly deeply and seriously in a way that does not alienate or bore their audience, and to expose mainstream news media as complicit in disseminating propaganda and fake news.