Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl): early years of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life receive glowing treatment

Nannette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl)” (2020)

Ostensibly a four-part series on the life and career of Hillary Rodham Clinton, this work is never more than a worshipful hagiography of the woman who, after nearly a complete Presidential four-year cycle, has still never accepted that she was and will always be the least favoured of two unlikeable candidates for the US Presidency in late 2016. The series takes the form of interviews conducted by Burstein (never seen, though her voice can be heard) of HRC and various aides who have worked for her over the decades, including those aides who worked for her 2016 Presidential campaign.

Episode 1 “The Golden Girl” follows HRC’s life from her childhood growing up in a staunch Republican family in a comfortable middle class neighbourhood through her college years in the 1960s, during which she worked as a volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, to postgraduate studies at Yale University Law School where she met Bill Clinton, whom she married and followed to Arkansas where she taught in the law faculty at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The episode then runs through Bill Clinton’s early political career, starting with his tenure as Attorney General for Arkansas and then his time as Governor of Arkansa, the latter during which HRC not only continued as a partner in Rose Law Firm (which she joined in the late 1970s) but also tackled education reform and was successful in establishing teacher testing and state standards for curricula and classroom sizes.

Inserted into the narrative of HRC’s early years are snapshots of her Presidential campaign in 2016 and the various controversies relating to her time as Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s first term (2009 – 2012) that resurfaced during her campaign, in particular her role in the infamous 2012 incident in which US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during a terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi; and her use of a private server over which she conducted government business in violation of Federal laws forbidding the use of privately owned and run digital technologies to receive, send, work on and store emails containing government information. Disturbingly HRC and another interviewee breezily wave away the private server issue by saying that a previous Secretary of State, Colin Powell, also had a private server while holding the position. (Did he ever use this server to transact government business in the way HRC did?)

The constant theme throughout this episode, which HRC and other interviewees consistently bash into the TV audience’s ears and faces, is that HRC’s story parallels the rise of second-wave feminism and the fight for women’s rights from the 1960s onwards. In very many occasions HRC claims she was battling misogynistic prejudice against her for her education and achievements, and for wanting to retain her maiden name after marrying Bill. Viewers are misled into thinking HRC a significant leader in the fight for women’s rights and equality with men before the law. At the same time though, very little attention is given by Burstein or her interviewees on what the ordinary John and Jane Doe know of the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1960s / 70s and what HRC’s role might have been in that movement, if she had ever participated in it at all.

Despite covering the life of the woman who would become a significant figure in US politics and culture in her own right, for better and for worse, the program makes its subject an uninteresting and dull figure. One would have thought that Burstein, an experienced film director, would try to encourage HRC to relax and try to project a warm personality. Instead HRC comes across as a self-absorbed woman, around whom the world supposedly rotates and does obeisance. Everything dragged into the film, whether it be the history of civil rights and rights for women, ends up revolving around HRC.

Of course, nowhere in the film will we see much about the scandals that were to follow the Clintons like a bad smell: scandals like the Whitewater real estate investment controversy or HRC’s dabbling in the trading of cattle futures contracts while serving as First Lady of Arkansas. As a result, viewers will only get a slanted view of HRC as a dedicated feminist and a tough political fighter. The real HRC, with all her sociopathic qualities, is carefully polished to Teflon-like sheen.

The Strange Tale of the SS Mayaguez: an unenviable example of US military arrogance and bungling resulting in needless tragedy

Carlton Meyer, “The Strange Tale of the SS Mayaguez” (Tales of the American Empire, 4 September 2020)

As an example of US military arrogance and incompetence resulting in unnecessary tragedy that could have had more serious long-term consequences for the world, the May 1975 SS Mayaguez incident would have been hard to beat in the pre-9/11 world. Since the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001, this incident is increasingly becoming a minor footnote in the long and continuing history of US military, political, economic and social decline and decay.

In May 1975, the US cargo ship SS Mayaguez, travelling from Hong Kong to Thailand and having picked up classified US materials from Saigon on the way – the US having just recently evacuated all its diplomatic staff from that city in early 1975 after the Communists claimed victory in the Vietnam War – passed very close to Poulo Wai island in Cambodian territorial waters and was captured by Khmer Rouge forces. The then US President Gerald Ford was notified of the ship’s capture and the US National Security Council met to discuss the incident. The US government determined to free the SS Mayaguez by force and sent an aircraft carrier and two destroyers to Koh Tang Island where the SS Mayaguez crew were supposedly being held hostage. So began a series of actions in which US Marines invaded Koh Tang Island only to be met by tremendous Khmer Rouge gunfire. In the ensuing battle, many Americans were killed, three were captured and over 100 Cambodians were killed. The three US Marines who were captured were later executed by the Khmer Rouge.

As Carlton Meyer’s matter-of-fact voice-over narration informs viewers, the SS Mayaguez crew were actually being held away from Koh Tang Island and were released unharmed by the Khmer Rouge to one of the US destroyers sent to Cambodia. The release of the SS Mayaguez crew and the recovery of the ship were hailed by the Ford administration as a successful rescue in spite of the actual bungled rescue attempt, the senseless killing and the fact that the Khmer Rouge had been planning all along to release the crew back to the Americans after checking the cargo on the SS Mayaguez.

The mini-documentary is very detailed in its retelling of the incident though it barely has much time investigating why the US government decided to invade Koh Tang Island and blast its way through to the captured ship and crew rather than use diplomacy to negotiate the release of the SS Mayaguez. The film points to the general political and military context of the time: the US had just suffered a major military defeat and humiliation by a minnow nation, and Gerald Ford had been in power as US President for a few months and needed a victory that would enhance his reputation and tenure. The film also asks what might have been in the cargo that had been picked up in Saigon: did the cargo include sensitive military recordings indicating US surveillance of Khmer Rouge and other Cambodian communications? Another issue is why the SS Mayaguez sailed so close to Poulo Wai and why it was not flying the US flag at the time. Was the captain merely incompetent or was he under orders at the time?

I’d have liked to know whether the brilliant minds who thought up the reckless rescue plan and decided to send the Marines to Koh Tang Island were reprimanded in any way and promoted horizontally rather than vertically upwards but the film does not say. The long-term impacts and consequences of the SS Mayaguez incident are not covered in the film either. One significant result was that the US was later forced by Thailand to remove all its combat troops from Thai soil in 1976 after the Thai government learned that in spite of its refusal to allow US forces to use a military base in Thailand to launch the invasion of Koh Tang Island, the US went ahead anyway. Relations between Cambodia and the US soured to the extent that any Westerners found in Cambodia were presumed to be US spies and ended up being tortured, forced to make false confessions and then executed.

The film provides a good general survey of the Mayaguez incident. Viewers wanting a more specific understanding are directed to the Wikipedia article about the incident.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 4): manipulative propaganda posing as maudlin soap opera

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 4)” (2020)

The tedium finally comes to an end in this fictional account of what the British government and news media claimed occurred in Salisbury over several months in 2018, starting with the collapse of Sergei and Julia Skripal in a shopping mall in early March 2018 and ending with the death of Dawn Sturgess, supposedly from spraying herself with a deadly nerve agent she mistook for perfume which her boyfriend found in a charity bin in June 2018. The sub-plots are so threadbare in plotting, dialogue and character portrayal that the entire series resembles a strange tour of a zoo in which bored animals pace in circles in their cages or engage in repetitive behaviours. As we have now come to expect, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) is still trying to come to terms with his near-poisoning death from Novichok and the dramatic effects it has had on his family and their circumstances. Bailey seems unable to continue with his life on leave from the police force. His long-suffering wife and daughters continue … to be long-suffering. Salisbury public health department head Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) continues juggling the demands of her work with those of her partner and teenage son, and having doubts about her ability to do her job well. Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) dies, leaving her family grieving and flummoxed about the nature of the “perfume” that killed her.

The episode lays on the anti-Russia propaganda more thickly by having mention of real-life Russian tourists Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (who visited Salisbury on the same day that the Skripals fell ill) on television. The episode strongly insinuates that these men’s actions make them responsible for the death of Sturgess, even though to date no direct or indirect evidence has surfaced that would point to the men’s culpability. By doing this in the context of a maudlin, melodramatic soap opera, “The Salisbury Poisonings” becomes dangerous propaganda, cynically targeting and manipulating people’s emotions by devoting so much attention to Sturgess’s death and funeral and focusing on her grieving family, especially her mother and young daughter.

By the end of the mini-series, the characters of Bailey, Daszkiewicz, Sturgess and the people around them are no better drawn than they were at the beginning of the show and they remain stereotypes: the brave, stoic police officer and his devoted family, caught up in events by accident which change their lives and which they cannot control; the career woman trying to prove to herself that she can be a successful leader and home-maker; the fallen woman who wants to remake her life and start afresh. These stereotypes are intended to represent British people as stoic, determined and resilient in the face of an extraordinary crisis and emergency – even though in the mini-series, no-one actually seems to do anything useful to end that emergency.

By using the structure of a melodramatic soap opera, in which characters are more important than the narrative they supposedly follow, the BBC escapes with a crappy script, sketchy character types, the most atrocious dialogue, lack of accurate information and the dumping of vile propaganda onto the viewing public. Anyone who thinks s/he might actually learn something about the Skripal poisonings from this drama will quickly be disabused of such a quaint notion. The issue should have been dealt with in the form of a documentary with some live-action drama restaging the most significant events with an emphasis on facts and logic, not on manipulative pulling of the heart strings.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 3): more overwrought schlock drama

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 3)” (2020)

In this episode, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) recovers from his poisoning attack in hospital, only to discover later together with wife Sarah (Annabel Scholey) that their house and all its furniture and their family’s other belongings have been destroyed by the British government. Moreover the Baileys cannot make an insurance claim and are advised by their solicitor to … sue the Russian government for damages, since it is supposedly responsible (in the absence of any proof) for the poison that nearly killed Bailey. Dazed and confused by the advice, the couple stumble out into the streets of Salisbury city. Elsewhere, Tracey Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) is busy making a hash out of protecting Salisbury residents from the mysterious Novichok poison: at one point in the film she considers dredging the entire pond system in the city and almost decides to kill all the ducks and swans when police learn that before their collapse the Skripals had been feeding bread to the birds. Somehow over the months following March 2018, Salisbury endures and survives an extended state of emergency, though how this is done is not made clear in the film because it takes enormous leaps in time without making this clear to viewers. Daszkiewicz’s work takes her away from her partner and son, and her relationship with both suffers.

Nine miles away in Amesbury, drug dealer Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) and girlfriend Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) are chowing their way through charity bins; Rowley finds a perfume bottle in one of the bins. He later gives it to Dawn who sprays perfume from it onto her wrists. Some hours later she collapses, gasping for breath, and Charlie rushes her to Salisbury General Hospital. He also needs to be admitted as a patient. Much later in the film the Rowley and Sturgess families gather in the hospital where they are stunned by news that Charlie and Dawn have been contaminated by Novichok.

The film is extremely vague and sketchy on the timeline of the events that make Salisbury the cynosure of all eyes and ears around the world in early 2018. One gets the impression that the sub-plots are happening all at once when in fact the sub-plot that involves Sturgess took place some time in June after everything seemed to be going back to its usual placid normality and the story of the Baileys had long disappeared from the media. Daszkiewicz appears not to do anything decisive and important yet somehow she does her job and manages to keep her partner and son from running away. The Nick Bailey sub-plot is remarkable mainly for not really saying or doing much that would gain viewer sympathy for two cardboard cut-out characters in Nick and Sarah Bailey.

A hilarious moment comes when the Porton Down chemicals expert exclaims that Novichok was found everywhere in the Bailey house and family car, yet Sarah Bailey and her daughters escape unscathed, which the expert can only call a miracle. (The truth surely is that the whole official account about the Baileys was made up to scare the Salisbury public into accepting whatever lock-down restrictions London imposed.) Apart from this, the episode is basically overwrought soap opera schlock. I can forgive actors for appearing in this mini-series because they need money and there may be few acting jobs in Britain but everyone associated with the script should be hanging his/her head in shame.

The agenda behind the mini-series is to reinforce British government propaganda of Russia as a sinister menace and a threat to British national security. This explains why this television show has had to be done as a fictional drama series: a proper documentary about the Skripal poisoning incident and its aftermath simply can’t be made because it would expose British political elites and British news media, including the BBC, as unprincipled liars.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 2): cheap TV drama populated by cast of cardboard stereotypes

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 2)” (2020)

Part 2 of this dreary mini-series purporting to show the effect of the Skripal poisoning incident on the people of Salisbury focuses on the sub-plots surrounding two characters, Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), the public health department head of Wiltshire Council, tasked with safeguarding the entire city population from the mysterious menace called Novichok, and Sarah Bailey (Annabel Scholey), the wife of the stricken police detective Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall). Daszkiewicz spends her time running between her office and various locations around Salisbury where Sergei and Julia Skripal travelled on the day they fell ill; to her horror, these places include Miller’s Pub and Zizzi’s Restaurant where the couple lunched on seafood risotto: itself a possible source of poison which Daszkiewicz never considers despite her position and the knowledge she should have. All these locations and the police station where Detective Sergeant Bailey reported are found to be swathed in Novichok. Trying to shut down these businesses, which would cost Salisbury millions in lost rent and jobs, while keeping the public reassured that everything is being done to keep people safe, would be a difficult job for anyone, let alone someone who talks herself into doubting that she can handle the job; yet according to this woeful episode, Daszkiewicz’s biggest problem is keeping a balance between the demands of her work and the demands of her partner and son for her attention. It obviously does not occur to the partner and the son that maybe for just half a year or so they could see a bit less of her while she lives at the office 24/7 until the emergency is over. Meanwhile Sarah Bailey visits her husband every day at the hospital, hugging and kissing him despite his perspiration being possibly full of nerve agent that should have killed him (and maybe his entire family) 36 hours ago. Their daughters endure teasing at school when his name is publicised in the news media. In another part of Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) is troubled by the news of the Skripal poisoning and boyfriend Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) comforts her and tells her he’ll take her back to his place in Amesbury.

With the plot jumping all over Salisbury, viewers will feel nothing significant happens that advances their understanding of what is going on in this melodrama, apart from people having conniption fits or being close to bawling their eyes out in frustration over the dire script. The dialogue is atrocious. Nowhere in Salisbury General Hospital is there any indication that the Skripals are being held. The police and emergency services zero in on the front door of the Skripal home: it seems that the door knob is smeared in Novichok. (No-one explains though how it can be that both Sergei and Julia Skripal are contaminated with Novichok, unless every time they enter and leave the house, they both have to hold the door knob together. The other possibility that the door knob is not the primary source of Novichok tainting never arises.) While police remove the door and other investigators in hazmat suits remove people’s vehicles from the streets and take them to Porton Down, viewers are left scratching their heads at all this activity which is never explained adequately and which is cut off by over-eager editors wanting to get the next scene on the screen.

The episode panders to all the worst stereotypes about women, be they full-time homemakers or working women torn between the pressures of their jobs and the needs of their families. Sarah Bailey is portrayed as a saintly Madonna figure and Tracy Daszkiewicz epitomises the harassed working woman trying to do the best she can and just managing to hold everything and everyone together. Male characters in the episode tend to be helpless or vacillating, and end up deferring to Daszkiewicz. Dawn Sturgess runs into the arms of her lover. Everything these characters do is so generic that they are more colourless and shallow than water, and viewers are not likely to feel much sympathy for them.

We are no closer to knowing what is happening to the Skripals or where they even are in Salisbury during the episode. Viewers expecting some facts or reference to facts will be dismayed. This mini-series is little more than a cheap soap opera.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 1): British propaganda at its most excruciatingly atrocious

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 1)” (2020)

As an example of British propaganda targeting Russia and perceived Russian militarism, this BBC miniseries is remarkably fourth-rate. With a script boasting two Guardian journalists as script consultants, the first episode is a dreary affair: the patchy plot zips all over the joint, unable to settle on a definite strand within the drama; characters are so sketchy they cannot even be considered one-dimensional, because they struggle to exist on any dimension; and as a drama based on real events, it fails to get any facts right if indeed it stumbles across any facts accidentally. The mini-series is based on the official account (itself dubious) of what occurred in March 2018 and afterwards when former KGB agent turned double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia were found in an extreme state of distress on a bench in The Maltings shopping mall in Salisbury, southern England. After receiving first aid from a nurse who happened to be walking by when her daughter found the pair – and the nurse herself happened to be the Chief Nurse of the British Army who had recently completed a simulated military exercise in which chemical weapons were featured (go figure, as Americans would say) – the Skripals were airlifted to Salisbury General Hospital where they were determined to have been poisoned by Novichok which the British government later claimed could only have been made in Russia and then smuggled in to Salisbury by a dastardly agent or agents in an assassination plot. (Never mind that the recipe for Novichok is actually available online and that researchers in a number of countries including Czechia and Iran have been able to make the stuff.)

In the first episode – I must say that in Australia the mini-series is being shown in four parts, whereas in other countries including the UK it was shown in three parts – the plot focuses most on the hapless Detective Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) who goes into the Skripals’ house and contaminates himself with Novichok early on. Amazingly, in spite of the fact that Novichok kills a person within half an hour of contact, the detective soldiers on for a whole day, presumably passing poison to his wife and children by kissing and hugging them, and spreading Novichok all over the furniture in his house, even as he suffers from faltering eyesight and other poisoning symptoms. By the end of the first episode, Bailey is in hospital being intubated while his faithful spouse sits at his bedside. Meanwhile, Wiltshire public health department head Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) runs hither and thither trying to make sense of the events in the city. Farther afield in Amesbury, Dawn Sturgess (Myanna Buring), a mother struggling to get her life together after years of alcoholism and addiction to hard drugs, is introduced in a brief scene talking to a social worker and then later attending a party during which she sprays her wrists with perfume that in later episodes will turn out to be … Novichok!

By portraying the events in Salisbury in early 2018 as a drama, the mini-series sidesteps having to say anything about the Skripals themselves that might contradict the official British government account, while at the same time claiming to focus on how these events affected the people of Salisbury and brought out their heroism in a context of extreme emergency. Here is where this BBC production becomes propaganda of an insidious kind: it equates the events in Salisbury in 2018 to an invasion by secret intelligence elements in the Russian government for no reason other than to satisfy Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supposed desire for revenge against Skripal. (Of course if the Russians had been really mad at Skripal for turning traitor, they’d have thrown him into jail for life and he would never have been included in a spy swap with the British.)

I was prepared to watch this episode as comedy, and indeed the funniest part of the film comes at the climax when a scientist from the Porton Down military laboratory complex explains what Novichok is to a bewildered audience. He claims that the Skripals survived because not only were they treated fortuitously with Naloxone (a drug given to people presumed to be suffering from fentanyl overdoses) but because – at this point the dialogue is vague, and probably deliberately so – either the Naloxone was given cold or the weather was cold. Ha! It seems the evil Russians overlooked the fact that Novichok only works in warm to hot weather. How the heck did they ever manage to make Novichok work during the cold Russian winters? When such a detail is treated cavalierly by the journalists who assisted in writing the script, I wonder that they managed to get jobs at The Guardian at all, as the work clearly shows contempt for viewers’ intelligence.

The actors do what they can with the script but overall their performances are wooden and some characters are little more than gender stereotypes. Dialogue is bad to the point where it becomes funny at the expense of the characters made to mouth rubbish. Done in the style of a crime procedure television show, this episode is dull and lacking in the energy and urgency its subject demands.

The 2014 American Coup in Ukraine: textbook example of how the US invades and makes over other nations

Carlton Meyer, “The 2014 American Coup in Ukraine” (Tales of the American Empire, 21 August 2020)

A very timely release in Carlton Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire series of short videos on US imperialism around the globe, this film reminds viewers of the history of Ukraine in the 20th century and how after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 Ukraine became a new battleground between the West and Russia in a new Cold War as the US and NATO sought to absorb Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics into their spheres of neoliberal political and economic influence, and extend their military power right up to (and beyond) Russian borders. A very brief account of how Ukraine acquired its territory and borders in the 20th century, with Crimea being added in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, supposedly to demonstrate Soviet solidarity, and a short ethno-demographic survey of Ukraine are given to set the historical context. In the 1990s, the US established various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Eastern European nations and Ukraine, many of them funded by US billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundation or by the National Endowment for Democracy among other donors. In Ukraine, these NGOs became instrumental during the Maidan Revolution that took place in late 2013 / early 2014, culminating in the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

A US government official, Victoria Nuland, the Under-Secretary of State for Europe under Secretary of State John Kerry, is singled out in the video for her role in fomenting unrest, rebellion and even the violence of the Maidan Revolution. The core of the video is given over to a speech she gave at a press conference in Washington DC in December 2013 in which she happily admits that US$5 billion was spent backing the Maidan Revolution. A phone call she made to US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt in which she expresses her preference for Arseny Yatsenyuk to be Prime Minister in a post-Yanukovych government (“Yatso is our guy”) and pours scorn on the European Union (“Fuck the EU”) later became public.

The February 2014 overthrow of Yanukovych’s government led to political and economic difficulties for Ukraine. Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk fought for the right to use the Russian language in public forums, leading to the Ukrainian government invading their regions and starting a civil war that resulted in Kiev’s military humiliation some months later (and the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in July 2014). Crimea voted to become independent of Ukraine and to apply to rejoin Russia. Narrator Meyer mentions that the 23,000 Russian troops present in Crimea at the time of its referendum were there as part of a treaty signed by Russia and Ukraine in 1997 allowing up to 25,000 Russian troops to be stationed in Sevastopol and other parts of Crimea as the Crimean Parliament saw fit. Since civil war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russia has steadily decreased the amount of natural gas transiting Ukraine to Western Europe and built alternate pipeline networks elsewhere (such as Nordstream I and II in the Baltic Sea) to supply gas to Germany; at the same time, Ukraine is being forced to pay market prices for natural gas from Russia, prices the country can ill afford to pay. Meyer could have said that under President Petro Poroshenko (2014 – 2019), political and economic corruption has increased in Ukraine at the same time that living standards have fallen to the extent that Ukraine has now become the second poorest nation in Europe.

The general information given is accurate and blame can be laid fairly and squarely on Victoria Nuland, John Kerry and others within the US government under President Barack Obama (2008 – 2016) for the instability and continuing crisis and plundering of Ukraine’s wealth by US and Ukrainian elites alike. Special mention is made of former US Senator John McCain and his role in talking up war against Russia. (Fortunate it is indeed that brain cancer finished off McCain in August 2018 before he could live to see his dream come true, even though he escaped justice for all the harm he has done to the world.)

As an introduction to the troubled history of post-1991 Ukraine, this video is good though already it is turning out quite dated: it makes no mention of Poroshenko’s presidency or of his replacement by Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor and comedian. Curiously nothing is said about US Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his ties to Ukraine through his son Hunter who used to be a Board Director of Burisma Holdings, an energy company with a licence to drill for oil and natural gas in parts of eastern Ukraine. That perhaps is a story to be told another time. What is clear though is that, not for the first time or the last, the US has intervened in another country’s affairs to the extent of throwing out a legitimately elected (if incompetent) government and replacing it with one of its own choosing opposed by the victim country’s citizens, with the result of political instability and chaos, and economic ruin.

Nullarbor: laconic little road movie on the need to work together

Alister Lockhart, Patrick Sarell, “Nullarbor” (2011)

Across the longest stretch of straight road through the flat desert that is the Nullarbor Plain in southern Australia is raced this animated riff on the classic Aesopian fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”. A brash young man (we’ll call him Bernie) driving through the Outback in his souped-up convertible nearly has an accident with a semi-trailer while distracted by an elderly motorist (we’ll call him Waddy) in his decrepit old motor vehicle. Blaming his near-disaster on Waddy, Bernie seeks to outrace the old codger but ends up encountering one obstacle after another, including one memorable one where his convertible is prevented from crossing a railway line and the endless line of train carriages with the word “HA” painted on their sides passing over the line appears to be laughing at him. Eventually catching up with Waddy, Bernie and the older fellow agree through their facial expressions and gesticulations to a race across the featureless desert. The race though has unexpected consequences for both men and they end up humbled by the harsh physical environment of the desert and the sea.

Old age is pitted against youth, and the slow and steady approach is held up against the speedy (and also hasty) in this very likable animated character study. Ultimately Waddy is not any wiser than Bernie when it comes to taking care of his car or pushing it beyond what it can handle. The two men eventually come to a compromise and an understanding (that likely results in a real and long-lasting friendship) when confronted by the immensity of the Australian landscape and the results of their foolish rivalry.

The film’s humour relies a great deal on slapstick and exaggeration, and there is some crude and even violent humour at Bernie’s expense, but all the humour adds individual flavour to the men’s characters and advance or underline the plot in some way. The problems Bernie encounters illustrate how out of depth he is in the Outback. Sooner or later we know he will need the old man’s help. While Waddy has a more laid-back personality and he and his car have seen and experienced much in this part of Australia, even he cannot always rely on experience and familiarity with the environment and this leads to an oversight on his part that results in his car’s unexpected demise. The destruction however leads to an understanding between the two men and from then on they start to work together to get out of their common predicament. Nature always bats last.

The animation is spare and emphasises the isolation and vastness of the Australian desert and its brilliant colours as day changes into night. The laconic tone of the film – there is no dialogue and the characters communicate with body language – is distinctive and highlights its Australian character. The stereotype of Australian masculinity and men’s behaviour comes under the spotlight in this very concise little film.

Los Angeles 1991: a common humanity emphasised in an almighty shootout

Miguel de Olaso, Macgregor, Bruno Zacarias, “Los Angeles 1991” (2015)

The tale seems contrived and some suspension of disbelief may be required but essentially this taut story illustrates the futility of racial hatred and emphasises our common humanity. Set in the aftermath of the riots that broke out in Los Angeles in 1991 after a video of police beating Rodney King while arresting him on drink driving charges, the film follows the individual trajectories of four men of very different ethnic backgrounds and social classes. According to the voice-over narration, delivered by Gordon Capps, Korean-American store-owner Jun Seo (Victor J Ho) is determined at all costs to defend his general store, which he has run for 15 years and built up with his own efforts, from robbers. Eladio (Zach Tellez) nurses a powerful grudge against Jun Seo for killing his brother during a robbery, swearing vengeance against the shop-owner. JD (Jah Shams) sees Eladio encroaching on his gang’s turf and decides to teach this Chicano punk that blacks won’t be pushed around. White police officer Mike (Chris Conrad) needs to buy his daughter some candy for her birthday and decides to duck into Jun Seo’s store.

The scene is set for all hell breaking loose when these four men with very different agendas converge in the one store. When the dust settles, there are no winners and all are losers. Perhaps one or two of them finally realise they all share the same humanity as they see all their lives ebbing into the same drain in the floor. The metaphor is very heavy-handed and not for the faint-hearted to watch but it is very effective in the way sledgehammers can be painful. Probably what is missing in the film is the underlying socio-economic context in which all four men are really nothing more than underlings representing communities all competing to get their shares of a fast-shrinking economic pie, the bulk of which is being stolen by a power elite that exploits people by dividing them according to arbitrary categories such as race, ethnicity and religion. Of course none of the men realise they are all being used and manipulated.

The hard-boiled pulp fiction style of narration works well in the film, creating and raising tension as the men draw closer to one another. The silent acting is good and all actors, as well as the directors and technical crew, pay close attention to detail. Viewers are not likely to have much pity for any of the characters: they clearly act in their own self-interest and don’t have time for anyone else outside their own little worlds.

La Carnada: one boy’s road to Hell paved with love and concern in a spider web of exploitation

Josh Soskin, “La Carnada” (2014)

In a poverty-stricken town in Mexico not far from the border with the United States, 13-year-old Manny (Angel Soto Jr) is saddled with the burden of caring for his severely diabetic bedridden mother after his older sister Daniela makes off with the money needed to pay the pharmacist for Mum’s insulin. Desperate, Manny meets Beto (Carlos Valencia) who offers the boy an easy way to make money. “I’m not a mule”, Manny says but Beto reassures him he’s not going to force him to carry large loads of drugs in his stomach or make him do anything the teenager doesn’t want to do – he understands the boy wants to help his mother. Next day, Beto takes Manny to a ghost town near the border, gives him supplies and a small amount of cocaine, and tells him to go to a far mountain where he will meet with some others who will pay him. Then Manmy’s work will be done and he’ll have enough money to get his mother the insulin she needs.

So begins Manny’s journey into adulthood, impelled by the love he has for his mother and his desire to help her after everyone else they know and care for has abandoned them. While Soto essentially plays Manny as one-dimensional and rather blank, the character’s mix of maturity beyond his years, intelligence, resourcefulness – and alas, naivety – comes out very strongly. Unfortunately Manny’s qualities are not enough to save him from Beto’s manipulation and devious plot of using the boy as a decoy (hence the film’s title) to draw US border patrol police away from the real drug mules working at night. Unbeknownst to Manny, Beto is prepared to use him and sacrifice him – and perhaps many other children like Manny who are driven by poverty into becoming foot-soldiers for drug cartels – to make money and to please his overlords in the gangs.

In the space of a few moments, a family’s desperate situation of poverty, unemployment and abandonment drives one of its members – and an innocent, trusting one at that – into a spider’s web of deceit and exploitation through his love and concern for his mother. This is surely one of life’s great ironies that one person’s particular road to Hell is paved with care and concern for a loved one. Few people would want to be in the same situation as Manny – and yet for Manny, the decision he makes to try to save his mother seems the most logical and straightforward.

The acting is quite good for a short film on a limited budget. Soto does adequately for his role while Valencia is slick enough as the devious Beto and Peter Reinert plays border patrol officer Davey efficiently and smoothly. Viewers also see something of the life and vitality of a small Mexican town, poor though it is, and how it contrasts with the soulless life of the American town on the other side of the border through the convenience store where Davey buys lunch. The harsh desert environment echoes the harshness of life in Manny’s home town and the isolation in which Americans on the other side of the border live.

Fortunately for Manny, when Davey finds him in the desert, the officer knows straight away that the boy is one of many youngsters being used by the drug cartels. But in real life, how many officers would show the same level of concern and compassion for illegal aliens like Manny?