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.

The Disappearance of Willie Bingham: portrait of a society exploiting emotions and desire for vengeance

Matt Richards, “The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” (2015)

A truly unsettling short realist film about a bureaucracy gone insanely inhuman, pandering to the lowest common denominator in Western cultural ethics, this Australian psychological horror piece justifies wading through much dross on the Omeleto channel. Prisoner Willie Bingham (Kevin Dee) has been selected by the State of Victoria to undergo a new kind of punishment for having killed a child while intoxicated: the punishment involves the participation of the victim’s family who can demand that Bingham undergo a series of amputations while family members watch. The victim’s father (Tim Ferris) requests that Bingham’s left hand be chopped off first. After this operation, Bingham is then taken by his prison supervisor George Morton (Gregory J Fryer) and the police on a circuit of primary and secondary schools to demonstrate to youngsters the consequences of committing serious crimes: they too can expect to undergo progressive amputation. Over time, Bingham suffers more amputations: his right hand goes, then his left leg, and various organs also disappear. With each operation, the victim’s sisters refuse to watch and leave, and the father steadily becomes more disheveled. Bingham’s mental state deteriorates with each operation as well until he becomes completely traumatised, withdrawn and uncommunicative.

The acting is excellent and Dee’s performance as Bingham is heart-rendingly pathetic, not least because there is a possibility that he is innocent of several charges against him relating to the rape and murder of the child victim. As the convicted criminal in a prison system that has been largely privatised, pandering to public calls for Old Testament eye-for-an-eye vengeance against those deemed to have committed unspeakable crimes, Bingham has no say in his punishment and is caught up in a spiral of a relentless and deranged prison bureaucracy that acts with a demonic life of its own. The film does not say who ultimately is responsible for having set this Kafkaesque machine system in progress, literally chewing through each and every prisoner guilty of a serious crime. At the end of the film, Bingham is left a literal husk.

Other characters fare little better than Bingham: the victim’s father undergoes degradation as well and ironically appears to reach a state similar to Bingham’s initial state when he murdered the child. (One almost expects a late plot twist in which the father admits to the crime.) Bingham’s supervisor Fryer appears a broken man by the end of the film as he resignedly takes Bingham on yet another circus tour of various schools. The high school students view Bingham as a figure to be made fun of. What lessons they might learn are very different from what they are supposed to learn. Yet the bureaucracy carrying out the progressive amputation punishments on Bingham and others like him continues regardless.

Aside from obvious questions about how the State should deal with heinous acts of crime and the people who commit them, and whether effective justice can be served by the punishments attached to these crimes, there is a wider issue of the potential consequences of privatising prisons and other functions of the State, opening up these privatised functions to the whims of the general public and pandering to people’s emotions and instincts rather than their reason. The horrific, dehumanising effects of such privatisation and a populist approach to punishing prison inmates, on inmates, prison administrators, victims’ families and the people who carry out the progressive punishments are made plain to the audience. Even the supposed benefits of the punishments are questionable.

Much of the film’s power comes from its plausibility and its realist tone. All the characters are to some extent stereotypes and audiences can very readily identify with these stereotypes. The plot is very original but its inevitable and relentless trajectory cannot sustain a running time much longer than 15 minutes. For a film of its type to work, it needs to bring in philosophical issues about the role of the State in delivering justice to victims of crimes, in deciding the appropriate levels and types of punishments for crimes, and in accepting (or outsourcing) responsibility for imprisoning people and punishing them. The film also needs to say something about the nature of a society that enables an inhumane system of punishment exploiting emotions and desire for revenge and extreme punishments to exist and thrive.

The Power of Falun Gong: a timid presentation of a dangerous and deranged fascist cult

“The Power of Falun Gong” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 21 July 2020)

Purporting to be an expose of Falun Gong’s activities as a secretive religious organisation with very disturbing cult-like tendencies, and its promotion of current US President Donald Trump during the 2020 US Presidential election year, this episode of Foreign Correspondent ends up flogging the organisation with a light feather. A very brief sketchy survey of how the cult arose in China in the early 1990s starts the program, with very little information about how the cult’s founder Li Hongzhi began the organisation or about his background prior to becoming a government clerk. The program claims that Li’s ability to rally thousands of Chinese to his cult, using a mix of Buddhist and Daoist ideas that include taijiquan exercises and meditation practice along with Scientology-style beliefs about aliens coming to Earth and conservative politics, was what led the Chinese government to outlaw Falun Gong and persuade Li Hongzhi to flee to the United States. (Another source I read says the Chinese government shut down Falun Gong for persuading its followers to abstain from medical therapies and rely entirely on meditation and conforming to Li’s teachings to recover from illness. This is backed up at this blog here.)

Skipping from interviewing a young defector from the Falun Gong cult, whose mother raised her in its beliefs, to a family who lost their grandmother to the cult whose teachings on shunning medicine led to the grandmother’s death, the program presents some very heart-rending stories in a superficial way. We do not learn how the defector managed to make her own way in the world after leaving the cult and her mother. Reporter Eric Campbell meets two activists living in upstate New York, where the cult has built a huge compound that continues to grow and devour local properties, who are campaigning against Falun Gong’s greed to acquire more land and build more structures that violate local environmental laws and building safety codes; but even the activists’ story is dealt with in a vague way. We never learn if they and their followers have ever won a lawsuit against Falun Gong or managed to have much influence on their own communities and others beyond their area.

The last and most interesting part of the documentary concerns Falun Gong’s media empire, known as The Epoch Media Group, centred around flagship newspaper The Epoch Times and its increasing forays into social media platforms and advertising on Facebook. The report looks at how Falun Gong companies and websites create false social media identities and accounts on Facebook, often for the purpose of astroturfing (running fake grassroots campaigns with support from fake accounts). Unfortunately the program fails to ask where the money comes from to finance The Epoch Media Group and other media and entertainment-related groups such as the Shen Yun Dance Company, and other activities. At least the source I referred to earlier comes to my rescue with the revelation that Falun Gong’s media empire and other operations, including its compound in New York state, are funded by the US government and its agencies (possibly including the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy) which use the cult as a de facto attack-dog propaganda outlet.

Foreign Correspondent significantly fails to connect Falun Gong’s support for Donald Trump with its worldview which believes the End Times are close by and that Trump is a divinely inspired warrior committed to ending Communism in China. How the program could have missed this damning aspect of a cult says much about its mealy-mouthed and timid approach in covering the organisation, such that Falun Gong comes over as an eccentric cult with a reclusive leader, instead of the dangerous and deranged fascist front for the US government it actually is. At the end of the day, the producers of Foreign Correspondent and the reporters who work for the program must ask whether flaying a dangerous cult like Falun Gong, which happens to be anti-Communist, lightly with a feather is more moral than lambasting China for having a style of government and a particular political ideology that its people want but which the West fears and resents.

The Secret Armada: North Korean ghost ship phenomenon covered in a superficial way

“The Secret Armada” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 14 July 2020)

Despite the spine-tingling thrill of the episode title, this piece on apparent North Korean fishing vessels washing up on Russian or Japanese shores in derelict condition and with dead crews was hardly informative. It came across very much as an excuse for its reporter to travel to Vladivostok and Dandong (China), presumably with most expenses paid, to sneak a peek at North Koreans across the Russian or Chinese border. The correspondent talks to local people about what they know of these North Korean fishing boats; they don’t appear to know a great deal apart from what they observe of the degraded condition of the vessels and the fact that the crews tend to be very dead. The odd thing about what the Russian interviewees say is that neither the Russian nor the North Korean government seems very interested in repatriating these degraded ships and the corpses they contain back to the DPRK. One would think Pyongyang would be very keen to get these ships and bodies back, at least to save face internationally and to make sure the vessels were not carrying information of a classified nature. Come to think of it, no government officials, whether in Russia, Japan, South Korea or (even) North Korea, feature in the program at all to deliver even just a PR statement on the North Korean ghost ship phenomenon.

There seems to have been no attempt on the Australian reporter’s part to find out just how old the ships are, how long they might have been floating in the Sea of Japan, or even whether they actually are North Korean ships and not South Korean ships. The program doesn’t seem to rely on any mainstream news media sources, let alone alternative news media, for information as to what these ghost ships are or might be. A Russian man tells the reporter he has buried two North Korean bodies found on one stranded ship; tellingly, the report admits no DNA tests had been done on the bodies so the viewer is expected to assume that these bodies are those of North Korean people.

No context is offered as to why North Koreans should be so desperate as to launch rickety fishing boats and sail to other nations’ maritime territories to fish illegally for seafood, some of which is sold to Chinese seafood sellers in Dandong. There is little mention of the crippling sanctions imposed by the US on North Korea since the 1950s, which have had the effect among others of denying North Korea agricultural technology and tools that would be effective in helping the country raise better and bigger crops of rice and other plant foods, and forcing the country to retain a large agricultural workforce that also doubles as a national army reserve. The constant references in the program to the North Korean army claiming first dibs on food produce ignore the fact that the army of the DPRK is a people’s army and that most people who serve in the army are conscripts from the agricultural sector.

At least the scenes of derelict ships rotting on remote beaches, surrounded by green countryside, clear blue waters and distant mountains rising from over the horizon are visually very moving and unforgettable. Apart from these lovely scenes, there really is very little useful information about what the ghost ship phenomenon actually is and what it might say about the state of the North Korean economy and society.

The Silver Brumby: a subdued and unexciting film of human greed and obsession

John Tatoulis, “The Silver Brumby” (1993)

Notable mainly for featuring a very young Russell Crowe near the beginning of his acting career, this film is framed as a story within a story about the relationship between Australian writer Elyne Mitchell (Caroline Goodall) and her daughter Indi (Amiel Daemion), and how Indi learns through listening to Mum and reading her work about the natural world they live in – the world of the Snowy Mountains in the New South Wales / Victorian border region – and the animals that live there and which must contend with the encroachment of humans into their territory. The animals that dominate Elyne Mitchell’s writing are brumbies (feral horses) and in particular, one brumby called Thowra, the eponymous silver brumby who through the series of children’s books, starting with “The Silver Brumby”, founds a dynasty of wild silver horses who become the envy and targets of obsession of the humans living and working in the Snowy Mountains area. What initially starts as an entirely fictional work – the life of Thowra and the pursuit of this silver stallion by someone known only as The Man (Russell Crowe) – takes on a more realistic edge for Indi as she discovers that The Man is based on people she and her Mum know. From then on, as The Man recruits another to assist him to chase down and capture Thowra, Indi and her mother share the same fears that Thowra will lose his freedom, independence and most of all his spirit if his cunning, knowledge and experience of the bush, speed and endurance cannot save him from capture. Inevitably though, the horse ends up being cornered by the humans pursuing him and must risk his life to avoid capture.

The film adopts a subdued approach which highlights the beauty and mystery of the natural environment but does no favours to the original book on which it is based. The significant events of Thowra’s life – his early upbringing, the defeat and death of his sire by upstart stallion The Brolga, and his own challenge to the Brolga when he is full-grown – are dealt with almost as incidental to Thowra’s eventual confrontation with The Man. There is not a great deal about how Thowra gathers together the mares that make up his harem and how he defends them from other stallions and the humans that hunt the Snowy Mountain brumbies. Equally, there is not a lot about how writing “The Silver Brumby” and sharing the story with Indi allow Elyne Mitchell and her daughter to forge a deeper relationship with each other than they might otherwise have had, and how Indi matures and learns about how human greed and obsession not only destroy individual animals and Nature generally, but also diminish humans, isolate them from their roots in Nature and end up destroying them.

The scenery is beautiful and poetic but that is all that can be really said for the film. While the actors do their best, their characters are very underdeveloped and Crowe is given some very laughably poor lines to deliver. The horses used in the film are very good-looking and well-groomed – real brumbies would be scrawny creatures and have a raw edge to them – and perform quite adequately but the sense of grit and living on the edge in a difficult environment (for humans and horses, be they both tame or wild) is absent. This viewer has the impression that the original intentions behind the film were very ambitious but, unlike Thowra who gives everything he has and risks everything – even his life – to preserve his freedom and spirit, the film definitely pulls its punches. What we have is a film that fails to generate much excitement or a sense of danger, and which also does little to suggest that the humans in the film could live with brumbies and Australian fauna and flora in the Snowy Mountains region instead of trying to master and dominate them all.

The Swedish Model: a shallow and unedifying view of Sweden’s no-lockdown COVID-19 strategy

“The Swedish Model” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 June 2020)

In March 2020, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus had already been circulating in Europe for at least two months already, most countries there adopted lock-down of varying degrees of severity – with some countries such as Spain adopting such an extreme version that even young children were not allowed outside the places where they lived – yet Sweden opted to follow an approach in which such measures as social distancing and appropriate hand hygiene would be recommended rather than ordered on pain of punishment or penalties. Restaurants, pubs and cafes would still remain open, provided social distancing was practised; schools would remain open; and people would be more or less free to continue with normal activities. The Swedish government’s aim was to limit the spread of the coronavirus infection in the country without overburdening the Swedish healthcare system. Since adopting the no-lockdown policy, Sweden’s infection rate and mortality rate compared with several other European countries have been high, and the general global consensus is that these high rates of infection and death are the result of the no-lockdown policy.

Researched by Lisa Millar, who also provides voice-over narration in parts, this episode of “Foreign Correspondent” takes a similar view, that Sweden’s relaxed no-lockdown policy is in part responsible for the high toll the disease has taken among the more vulnerable groups in society, in particular the elderly in aged care facilities and refugees and immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. A large part of the film involves following different stories of individuals: a director of an aged care home with 350 patients; a Syrian Christian activist; a university professor opposed to the no-lockdown policy who sets up a testing centre in an immigrant neighbourhood in Stockholm; and finally Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who breezily tells his interviewers that Sweden is doing the right thing in striving to achieve herd immunity as he goes about giving speeches and reassuring people that the country is on the right track. He admits that Sweden has neglected its elderly and immigrant groups but takes no personal or other responsibility for the Swedish government’s oversight as he continues on his merry way.

In covering personal stories, the film provides no analysis of why the elderly and the immigrant community bear the brunt of the pandemic that has hit the country hard. Millar tells us that the vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 deaths are of people aged 70+ years, and with most of these people also in aged care institutions, they are unlikely to benefit from lockdown conditions. Indeed, in many countries that do have lockdown, the numbers of people in aged care places suffering and dying from COVID-19 are out of proportion compared to younger age groups and in some countries the median age of death from COVID-19 is in the late 40s. Had Millar stepped back from emphasising personal stories (which, while tragic in their own ways, do not tell viewers much about the nature of the disease as it affects Swedish society), and investigated the character of aged care institutions in Sweden, compared to their equivalents in, say, Denmark or Norway, she might have found something very disturbing: Sweden’s aged care institutions are the responsibility of municipal and regional governments, which have outsourced their management to private companies. Privatisation has led to these facilities housing several hundred patients, cared for by workers on contracts on low pay and working in sometimes quite appalling conditions. To scrape together an income they can survive on, many workers work at more than one facility.

The low income and lousy working conditions in aged care homes mean that such work attracts people who can find little other work in Sweden: these people turn out to be the very refugees and immigrants who themselves have been hit hard by the disease. On top of this, these groups often live in areas designated no-go zones by police, due to gang warfare and high rates of crime, and this means that government offices providing social services (and information about COVID-19 and how to avoid it or minimise its spread) in the languages of the refugee and immigrant communities are scarce. Refugees and immigrants frequently live in very crowded and unhealthy housing, with three generations in the one residence, and aged care workers coming home from working shifts at one or more places might spread the disease and infect their older relatives even if they themselves are asymptomatic.

In general, Sweden’s poor experience in dealing with COVID-19, and in failing to protect its most vulnerable citizens, is a consequence of decades of governments privatising what should be publicly funded and resourced institutions, subject to public accountability, and ignoring the needs of marginal groups in society and the discrimination and barriers that impede their socio-economic advancement. That “Foreign Correspondent” completely missed analysing the broader context which might have enabled it to find the link between the high infection and mortality rates between two groups of vulnerable people (the aged, and the refugees / immigrants from poor countries) but preferred to wring out weepy and emotional stories to attract viewer attention reflects very poorly on the program and on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Australian viewers expect a higher and deeper standard of coverage of national and global issues at the ABC and to see this institution adopting practices associated with trashy commercial television programs purporting to feature political or current affairs issues and analysis is indeed grave and tragic.

No Justice, No Peace: no justice done to Black Lives Matter and George Floyd by shallow news program

“No Justice, No Peace” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 16 June 2020)

Remarkable for what it fails to say and do, this episode purports to investigate how the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has galvanised people across the United States to protest institutional police violence across the nation in the wake of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. With voice-over narration by Sally Sara, the program flits across scenes of demonstrations, aided and abetted by a music soundtrack consisting mostly of soul music, and of interviews with black activists of whom only one, Tamika Mallory, is a BLM leader. All scenes make for good viewing, the music is fine (though hiphop and reggae are conspicuously lacking, even though George Floyd himself was once a rapper known as Big Floyd back in the late 1990s), and the interviewees are angry and passionate, but after all is said and done, and the credits start to roll, the viewer realises how very little new information the program relays that the viewer doesn’t already know.

Very little is said about how far BLM has grown and developed since Foreign Correspondent last covered the movement a few years ago, how many followers it now counts, what its current agenda is and what program for social, economic and political reform and for educating people on racism and the history of racism in the US it may have. There is nothing about Mallory herself, what her stance on various issues affecting black people in the US is and what controversies (such as her past association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan) she has been embroiled in. One thing Mallory could have told Foreign Correspondent is the extent to which police violence in the US is encouraged by both the US and Israeli governments through police training programs conducted by Israeli security organisations of US police officers in Israel itself and in the US. A recent report by UK online newspaper Morning Star found that back in 2012, 100 police officers from Minnesota state attended a police training workshop in Chicago that was sponsored by the Israeli consulate there. The chokehold that Chauvin used on Floyd (and which suffocated Floyd) is one used by Israeli soldiers and paramilitary on Palestinian people.

That Foreign Correspondent omits to say anything about how police violence might be more than just a reflection of historical racism and a legacy of slavery in the US, and how a culture of police violence has grown and spread throughout the country as (among other things) a result of numerous wars the US has waged against countless other nations over the last one hundred years and more to seize their land and natural wealth, in the process exposing generations of US youth to violence, brutality and trauma, and turning some of those youth into traumatised people or sociopaths who either stress easily and resort to violence too quickly or are so inured to committing brutal and sadistic acts that sadism becomes part of their identity as human beings. The Israeli government and its agencies find profit in offering training on humiliating, torturing and even killing people to US police officers, teaching those officers to view people on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder as sub-human and worthless. All too often, those people on those bottom rungs tend to be black Americans or people from poor Latin American countries – and often those Latin American countries that have suffered instability and high levels of drug-related crime as a result of continuous US interference in their politics and economies.

Neither does Foreign Correspondent ask why the murder of George Floyd should have suddenly inflamed and motivated people across the US and other parts of the world to demonstrate against their governments and to pull down statues of past historical figures known to have benefited from the exploitation of Third World nations and peoples as slave traders or colonial administrators. The impoverishment of people across First World nations, and the speed with which that impoverishment has increased since the First World entered lock-down after the appearance of COVID-19 and the panic and hysteria the disease generated, apparently was missed by the program producers and reporters. For many years since neoliberal economics became the dominant political, social and economic ideology under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Anglosphere in the 1980s, people’s living standards and quality of life have steadily eroded, social inequalities have increased, the forces of law and order have become more militarised and antagonistic towards the general public, news and information have turned into propaganda, and old problems once thought to be dying out, such as bigotry and racism, are rearing their heads again.

Identity politics, dividing people on the basis of what identifies them instead of uniting them, is used by elites to weaken popular movements by setting people against one another. By presenting George Floyd’s murder as yet one more example of police racism and violence, and not considering the wider context in which US police violence against black Americans (and other underprivileged folk) occurs, Foreign Correspondent shows itself as a propaganda mouthpiece for the elites controlling governments in the Anglosphere and beyond.

The Doctor vs the President: sordid Russia-bashing using COVID-19 pandemic crisis

“The Doctor vs the President” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2 June 2020)

Even during the COVID-19 global pandemic, Western mainstream news media outlets can never resist the opportunity to bash countries they are ordered by governments, defence establishments and intel agencies not to like – countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela – when they should be highlighting, comparing and analysing different approaches adopted by nations around the world to combating the disease and developing ways of eradicating or controlling it. A prime example of the never-ending propaganda is this episode from Australian television current affairs program “Foreign Correspondent” in which home-bound Russia correspondent Eric Campbell follows the adventures through his laptop of supposed renegade ophthalmologist Anastasia Vasilyeva in her stunt to deliver boxes of masks, gloves and other PPE to hospitals battling the SARS-COV-2 virus in the Novgorod oblast (an administrative region between Moscow and St Petersburg). Along the way, Vasilyeva and her convoy of four cars (with three people in each car – what happened to social distancing?) are stopped and questioned by police who then detain her for breaking lock-down rules (she was supposed to stay in Moscow) and for having no registration in Novgorod oblast (the region having closed its borders to outsiders). Since the convoy included a lawyer, a foreign reporters and three camera crew, instead of a full complement of medical staff and nurses from her trade union (Alliance of Doctors), Dr Vasilyeva obviously knew she was going to be arrested. In addition to breaking lock-down rules, the good doctor also disobeyed police instructions so she was further detained – in full view of the camera crew.

It probably does not need to be said that had Dr Vasilyeva been genuinely concerned about the needs of hospitals in Novgorod oblast, she could have organised a fund-raising effort among Muscovites and sent money electronically to the hospitals or the PPE in the post or by courier to the same, at much less cost to herself and her petrol bill – but of course this would not have made for confrontational TV titillation. Incidentally, the two head physicians of the target hospitals in Novgorod oblast expressed surprise at Dr Vasilyeva’s stunt and concern that the equipment had no certification or registrations, and that the stunt was intended to be provocative. All of this went unreported on the “Foreign Correspondent” report.

The program says very little about Dr Vasilyeva’s Alliance of Doctors, how large it is (or not), and does not interview any other members of that trade union. One would think it should be a very large union with branches right across Russia. There is nothing about where it is headquartered or how much influence it has among the medical profession in Russia. Viewers of the program will come away with no idea of where the trade union’s income comes from. Oddly enough, the program emphasises Dr Vasilyeva’s personal connection with the charlatan “opposition figure” Alexei Navalny, who enjoys very little support among the Russian voting public, who is supposed to be under house arrest for his role in embezzling funds from a state timber company in Kirov oblast, and whose lavish life-style is far beyond the amount of money he earns from his activities and fund-raising. Anyone even mildly au fait with Russian politics will know straight away that people with personal associations with Navalny are likely not only to be feted by Western governments and media organisations, they are likely to be shady characters themselves receiving funding from foreign organisations with an interest in deposing the current Russian government and targeting President Putin in particular.

Ah, yes, no program criticising Russia can resist mocking Putin as a would-be Stalinist dictator intent on prolonging his grip on the country to 2036 through a referendum that would give him an extra two terms as President: a referendum inspired by a proposal from none other than State Duma representative Valentina Tereshkova, who in a former life was the world’s first female space traveller. Funnily, “Foreign Correspondent” does not notice that Putin doesn’t straight away sign a decree making himself President for life – no, he actually decides to put the idea to a public referendum. Elsewhere in the program, Putin is portrayed as something of a weakling in retreating from the public at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lock-down in Moscow (instigated by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin: it was his job after all, not Putin’s) and then somehow re-emerging as the leader in tamping down the infection’s spread and halting its progress. The fact that it is other people’s jobs and the function of health ministries at the national and regional levels to control and if possible eradicate COVID-19 in Russia, with the President watching their progress as any political leader would and should, giving them encouragement and admonishing them for failures, seems to have escaped “Foreign Correspondent”. But when opportunity arises to perpetuate a stereotype of Russia as a tired, clapped-out has-been empire lost in nostalgic fantasy, and its government and leader as despotic and out of touch with reality, “Foreign Correspondent” like every other mainstream Western media outlet seizes it and flogs it at the expense of its credibility with an increasingly sceptical Australian audience.

An opportunity to critically view and report on how successfully or unsuccessfully Russia is dealing with COVID-19 – despite the huge numbers being infected, the actual death toll is very low – and the reason for the huge disparity in the statistics compared to equivalent figures in other countries, adjusted for population size, was missed.

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears: cliched Hollywood treatment of an Australian heroine

Tony Tilse, “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” (2020)

Filmed as an addition to the television series about the 1920s flapper / private detective Phryne Fisher (played by Essie Davis), this action adventure takes the unflappable flapper heroine into exotic Indiana Jones territory in the Middle East – Palestine under the British Mandate, to be exact – with much dash, if not depth. For all that Davis invests in her character – and it must be said she just barely pulls off Phryne Fisher’s many and varied contradictions as a wealthy socialite aristocrat, a detective with a steel-trap mind and a caring, compassionate human being – the film’s plot barely does her and her merry band of hangers-on, including Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), much justice: it relies a great deal on movie cliches and complicated twists that wear the plot thinner than it already is. At times it threatens to become another crime mystery thriller and then an action adventure, only to change its mind again and end up in an uncomfortable messy middle.

After rescuing a young Bedouin girl Shirin Abbass (Izabella Yena) from being unjustly imprisoned in Jerusalem by the British military police, Phryne Fisher begins to learn about Abbass’s background as the sole survivor of a sandstorm that engulfed her community – but not before her mother disappeared when three British soldiers turned up and massacred everyone while Abbass was away collecting honey from wild beehives – and the connection between Abbass’s mother and precious emeralds missing from a crypt dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. If that were not enough, a curse has been activated with the disappearance of the emeralds from the crypt: after the passage of six solar eclipses, on the day of the seventh solar eclipse, the planet will be destroyed by storms. Our heroine studies an almanac and, what do you know, figures that she and Abbass have only days to spare to return the emeralds (which they have managed to recover early on in the film) to the crypt in the Negev Desert. Together with Robinson and a British aristocrat, Jonathan Lofthouse (Rupert Penry-Jones), Fisher and Abbass fly out to Palestine and the Negev in a race against time.

With so many unexpected twists in the plot, making for a story that whizzes back and forth between Britain and Palestine, racking up unnecessary carbon emissions, originality starts to wear thin and groan-worthy cliches, such as one character barely managing to utter a clue before succumbing to an untimely and violent death, abound. The Indiana Jones action adventure angle is milked for all it is worth, with the scenes in Palestine adding Oriental exotica and contrasting with British scenes of foppish yet secretly sinister and selfish English aristocrats who think nothing of shooting up innocent women and children to steal cheap-looking icky-green gems or of squabbling over land through which they intend to build a railway, presumably without the interests of the local people in mind. Somewhere in all the derring-do and numerous implausible scenes in which Fisher and Company barely escape with their lives, a very Australian story in which a wealthy and privileged woman actually cares enough for an underdog Palestinian girl that she risks life and limb to get her out of jail and to freedom, for no reason other than she believes the girl has a right to protest against British imperialism and British theft of Palestinian lands, is buried very deeply. Unfortunately that aspect of the Phryne Fisher universe, which makes it particularly Australian and which could have lifted the film from its generic and confused mystery thriller / action adventure fusion, remains underdeveloped. The romantic angle of Fisher and Robinson takes precedence over Fisher’s concern for Abbass and her community.

Needless to say, character development is at a standstill, with even Jack Robinson being nothing more than Phryne Fisher’s stoic and oddly working-class handbag and other characters not much more than moving wallpaper stereotypes. The dialogue which should have been clever, witty and original instead is strained and rather lumpen. Too many minor characters appear for just a few minutes, never to be seen again. The colonial relationship between the British and the Australian characters in the film remains at a crude, superficial level.

As a light-hearted fluffy film that doesn’t take itself very seriously, this installment in the Phryne Fisher universe is colourful and easy on the eye, but I wonder if even the most ardent fans of the unflappable flapper Australian detective will be satisfied with the Hollywood-style treatment of the character, and all the cliches that such treatment has mobilised to Phryne Fisher’s detriment.

WeWork – The $47 Billion Disaster: a profile of a company and its founder peddling an unsustainable vision and business model

Dagogo Altraide, “WeWork – The $47 Billion Disaster” (ColdFusion,2019)

Some workers probably wish their employers would make their working lives fun for them by sending them to fun fairs once a week perhaps to ride on roller-coasters for free. Few of them would probably opt to work for a company that is a virtual roller-coaster all the time. This though has been the role of tech company WeWork in the last few years. Founded in 2010 by Israeli-American entrepreneur Adam Neumann, WeWork provides office space with a funky hipster atmosphere to pop-up and start-up ventures and freelancers, the aim being to foster a collective collaborative culture that will spark creativity and new ideas to pitch and market to target audiences. Over the next several years, the company grew very rapidly and expanded overseas to the point where it owned 840+ properties in over 120 cities around the globe and rented them out to up-and-coming entrepreneurial ventures. In 2017, Neumann met Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank, who was besotted with Neumann’s vision and plans for WeWork enough to commit billions in investment in WeWork. This enabled Neumann to set up and splash out mega-bucks on subsidiary firms like WeLive, a service that buys furnished residential property (usually following the then current fashion Zeitgeist) and leases it out, and an experimental school for preschoolers and kindergarteners – provided their parents can fork out the yearly equivalent in fees of a lower middle-class income.

Unfortunately this mix of generous investment funding and Neumann / WeWork has led to a very precipitous rise and equally steep fall in WeWork’s fortunes as documented by Cold Fusion TV, an Australian online media company helmed by founder Dagogo Altraide (who made the video under review and also provides voice-over narration), in a very calm and straightforward, rational way that makes following the ups and downs of WeWork’s recent history quite easy for viewers, even if the highs and lows are dizzying. The documentary makes clear that WeWork’s abstract business model is financially unsustainable and resembles an elaborate real estate Ponzi scheme, in that the people who rent space from WeWork essentially become the company’s employees as well as tenants. As long as WeWork provides a place for freelancers and contractors to work in, all is well for them; the moment WeWork decides to sell the property, these people have nowhere to go and become effectively unemployed. They could perhaps go to their local libraries or the Starbucks coffee shop to work as long as those places offer free WiFi but then they could have done that initially and not gone anywhere near WeWork. In addition, WeWork’s business model can only work if property prices are rising and interest rates are low, in a real estate environment where perhaps few people are able to afford their own homes because banks keep lowering interest rates to encourage property speculation and thus pump money into the economy, leading to a situation where people end up borrowing big. As one interviewee in the documentary says, the moment property prices start going down and interest rates start going up, WeWork’s business model starts to rack up huge debts quickly and alarmingly and the company starts sacking people.

What doesn’t help WeWork either is its founder Adam Neumann’s bizarre and narcissistic behaviour, verging on sociopathy, in the way he misuses the billions invested in WeWork by SoftBank, preferring to splash money on private jets and a luxurious and wasteful lifestyle. Meanwhile his employees must tolerate his abusive behaviour and tirades, his lies, his drinking and his frankly unhygienic habits. The documentary makes clear Neumann’s shabby treatment of WeWork employees and SoftBank’s trust and investment in WeWork.

The last part of the documentary is interesting in its demonstration of how WeWork’s failure and collapse without even having come as far as going public on the New York City Stock Exchange exposes the fragility and instability of the US financial system centred around Wall Street. Public confidence and trust in large investment banks doing the right thing by the bulk of their shareholders and by the public generally undergird the banking and finance industry; if confidence and trust are lacking, the banks potentially face failure and closure if companies they invest billions in fail and the banks are exposed. They would then have to call in their loans and other companies start to fail, setting off a contagion of runs and further losses of public confidence and trust in their operations.

The documentary is well made, relying on a mix of static photos and occasional moving picture videos. The pacing is steady and easy-going, and Altraide speaks with a reassuring air and confidence. If Altraide is furious at WeWork for peddling a false New Age / Age of Aquarius vision of people in offices wearing comfy casual clothes, quaffing coffee and sitting in colourful open-space settings while they work, his voice remains remarkably free of bitterness and anger. The story Altraide tells is structured in clearly defined segments, with perhaps the most interesting segment being about Neumann’s self-centred arrogance and sense of entitlement.

What the ColdFusion video ignores is why and how a company selling an abstract feel-good hippie vision and similar tech firms promoting a work culture of fun and supposed high ethical ideals end up being not only wasteful of investment money but also turn out to be deeply corrupt and hypocritical.