This Time Away: a succinct and heartwarming character study with a sting in its tail

Magali Barbe, “This Time Away” (2019)

A very heartwarming little film, succinct and taut in its telling, yet filled with tenderness and depth, this character study is a showcase of great storytelling and acting. Nigel (Timothy Spall) lives alone on his sprawling property, not wanting to see or speak to anyone else, determined to live out his twilight years in isolation after the death of his wife. Daughter Louise (Jessica Ellersby) does what she can to look after Dad but, depressed and unhappy, Nigel tersely sends her away. Time passes and the house – and Nigel as well – becomes unkempt and messy.

One day Nigel looks out the window to see a bunch of kids kicking something in his front garden so he angrily stomps outside and shoos them away. The object the children were tormenting turns out to be a little robot which eagerly follows Nigel into the house and soon becomes his companion. The robot names itself Max when Nigel wants to know what to call it. Over time Max restores order and cleanliness to the house and studio – where Nigel keeps his old notebooks on building prototype robots. As Max becomes familiar with Nigel’s house and routines, it spies an old photograph of Louise and Nigel tells Max who she is and her relation to him. Through this and other actions, viewers quickly grasp that Nigel has never been a very expressive man verbally but has always preferred to express himself by using his brain and hands to build things and create a comfortable and prosperous life for himself and his family.

Little does Nigel realise though that Max isn’t the only one observing him and his routine, the changing interiors in the house, and the changes in Nigel day by day as the robot gives him a reason to continue living …

As sole actor for much of the short film, Spall is in his element playing a character who needs connection with others and is unhappy being alone but finds asking for help difficult. His acting is minimal but it can be very nuanced and repeated viewings of this film will reward viewers with the care and depth he puts into portraying Nigel. The camera follows and sometimes dwells on Spall’s craggy features, and the actor and the character merge into each other. As Louise, Ellersby has much less to do but in her brief appearances she has affection and care for Nigel and his gruff behaviours.

The film makes quite good use of light to show the gradual changes in Nigel’s life after Max’s arrival and how those changes reflect his emotional improvement and perhaps his acceptance of his wife’s death and preparedness to let go of old attitudes and grudges. The plot is very minimal though one might puzzle over why Nigel appears never to question Max on how it turned up at his home when it did and why.

While the film appears to have a happy ending, it is also slightly chilling in its revelation that Max is really a tool for manipulating Nigel and it does suggest that we humans are much more malleable than we are prepared to admit. That man-made technology does a better job than a human in reconnecting an individual human to society and encouraging him to make changes in his life that improve him may say something deep and critical about the nature of our relationships with objects and other humans. After all, if Max can bring Nigel back into society, Max can just as easily mould Nigel into something that diminishes him as a human … and Nigel could very easily become a prisoner.

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

Babak Anvari, “Two & Two ” (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask The Experts (Covid-19 Vaccine): over 30 medical experts warn of the dangers of Covid-19 vaccines

Ask The Experts (Covid-19 Vaccine)(Oracle Films, 7 December 2020)

Banned on Facebook and Youtube, this film features over thirty doctors plus a nurse, a pharmacist, an acupuncturist and a journalist all advising caution to the public in accepting COVID-19 vaccinations or urging people to avoid them outright. The medical experts who speak out against the vaccines are based in North America and various European nations. Each doctor introduces himself or herself, provides a little background information about himself/herself and then explains why s/he opposes the vaccinations. The doctors are very eloquent and appeal to people’s ability to reason and to make choices. Several doctors say that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has never been isolated and proven to exist, and that the PCR tests used to determine if someone has had contact with the virus are flawed. A few claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax.

With well over 30 health experts all expressing their opinions on the disease, the virus, the lockdowns and restrictions that have been invoked by governments around the world to deal with the pandemic, the film is bound to be rather repetitive. Several doctors verge on sounding very much like conspiracy theorists. We do not learn their views on vaccination itself as a tool in disease prevention or mitigation strategies. One doctor (Barre Lando) tells of his experiences in dealing with children affected by vaccination injuries and the pharmacist Sandy Lunoe warns that pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines have taken out legal indemnities with law courts to block any future litigation attempts against them over the COVID-19 vaccines.

Perhaps the most alarming opinions expressed are those of Dr Hilde de Smet who says that pharmaceutical corporations have been trying to develop coronavirus vaccines for 20 years and have tested them on animals with the result that many animals end up with symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, and of Dr Elke de Klerk who states that the vaccines may cause sterility in women and girls, and change people’s DNA. Professor Konstantin Pavlidis believes the vaccines may result in neurological side effects. Throughout the film doctors express reservations about the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines, several of which are based on very new technologies, are being rushed and approved by governments in spite of several trials generating unusual and sometimes severe side effects or the trials not being conducted and liable to bias.

The film may need to be played few times for audiences to digest the most important information in several of the interviews. Some doctors are not too clear and a few could have been advise to take some elocution lessons! In spite of its repetitive nature, the film does express viewpoints that are beyond the pale for mainstream news and specialist media, and a message throughout the film is that people can find and do research on the topic of COVID-19 and how it is spread.

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.

Breaking an individual to intimidate others in “Not In Our Name: The Psychological Torture of Julian Assange”

John Furse, “Not In Our Name: The Psychological Torture of Julian Assange” (July 2020)

Making good use of archived video material and photographs, current news reels and interviews with mental health experts and former Ecuadorian diplomatic personnel, this timely documentary makes an excellent case for investigative journalist and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange having been harassed, humiliated and bullied over the past decade, not just by governments but also by media outlets that turned on him, to the extent that his treatment past and present constitute torture as defined by the UN. The film looks at various forms of known psychological torture and applies UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer’s definition of the phenomenon to Assange’s case, using examples to demonstrate its argument.

The video is broken up into segments on the basis of the various types and characteristics of psychological torture. In each segment that deals with a particular aspect of such torture, the film finds an example in Assange’s life that conforms to the characteristics of a type of mental torture, such as learned helplessness and hopelessness, constant slander of his reputation, and sensory deprivation and isolation. Many such examples in Assange’s life turn out to conform to several different types of torture at once: trashing his reputation, impugning him as a rapist and narcissist, is not so very different from actual physical isolation and alienation. Constant fear and anxiety about your place in society, and whether people might be inclined to be hostile, even violent towards you, can have a huge bearing on your physical health. At the time this video was made, Assange was being held at Belmarsh Prison in London, itself hit hard by the SARS-CoV-2 disease and there are very real fears that he is extremely susceptible to the disease’s worst ravages due to his psychological state having an impact on his physical health.

The film does its homework very well, interviewing a former Ecuadorian diplomat, and following Assange’s biological father John Shipton to rallies and Nils Melzer at conferences. Clinical psychologist Lissa Johnson, a strong supporter of Assange, puts forward powerful arguments that Assange’s treatment by Swedish and British authorities amount to bullying and psychological torture – and physical torture to boot, as constant stress, anxiety and fear about what the future will bring combine to lower a person’s immunity to disease in the long term. Most interviewees are very co-operative and willing to be interviewed about Assange and what he is supposed to have done or engaged in.

The video runs at a steady pace, not too slow or too fast, and viewers will get a clear view of just how determined the US and UK governments are to make an example of Julian Assange, how prepared they are to harass him and break his body and his spirit, to intimidate other journalists and reporters and force them to self-censor and stay away from questioning authority and speaking truth to power. By exposing UK / US imperialism in all its ugliness and viciousness through his work in leading Wikileaks and publishing information provided by sources such as Chelsea Manning (herself subjected to past torture and present harassment), Assange crossed an invisible red line for which he is being punished constantly. John Furse has made a very impassioned work whose importance cannot be doubted.

Lab Rat: an investigation into what it means to be human

Nour Wazzi, “Lab Rat” (2019)

Initially the plot seems familiar to the point of banality: three scientists working for a robotics firm are suddenly trapped in the office, all entry and exit points locked by remote control, and forced to figure out by the firm’s CEO which one of them is actually an android. One of these scientists, Johnny (Matt Harris), has reason to feel irate at the CEO since she, Dr Edwards (Abeo Jackson), happens to be the mother of his girlfriend Alika (Kirsty Sturgess) with whom he’s passionately in love. Wanting desperately to go home, stuck in the dark and just having heard news about rioting in the street over the introduction of AI in offices and factories, with people fearing the loss of their jobs to robots and AI generally, the three scientists turn on one another like cats while in Dr Edwards’ office, the CEO gloats at how quickly educated and supposedly rational people turn bestial and murderous. Alika, distressed, watches the other two scientists Ellie (Sian Hill) and Marvin (Max Williams) pile on and beat Johnny and start strangling him. The daughter can bear Johnny’s treatment no more and rushes out to save him – but the mystery of which of the characters in the film is the android remains.

As it turns out, the fight between Johnny and the other two scientists is not really the test. When Johnny finds out who really is the AI cat among the human pigeons, he is absolutely gutted. Dr Edwards is full of smug satisfaction that her creation has performed as she had hoped – if the AI is to pass as a human, then the AI must exhibit the full range of human emotions, including anger and love, and be as fallible and prone to making mistakes and bad decisions as humans – and her final words are chilling as she orders more replicas of the prototype model to be made, with each model retailing for several million each. The fate of all those poor replica models is to be bought and sold like so many slaves or trafficked prostitutes.

All the actors – even those playing Ellie and Marvin, though those are minor characters – put in good performances and Jackson and Sturgess turn in excellent performances as sociopathic mother and innocent daughter respectively. Once again, a sci-fi film presents androids as being capable of more humanity than humans themselves: the twist here is that the human is the mother of the android, and in most societies who is usually tasked by custom and tradition to teach young humans how to behave and to become “human”?

Aside from addressing (in a rather superficial way) the issue of robotics making humans redundant, the film considers the possibility of giving robots not only human intelligence but also human emotions and the ability to feel empathy and compassion – with what that implies for how humans should treat robots ethically and whether robots are entitled to the same human rights, privileges and responsibilities as humans – and through this strategy, investigates the nature of what it means to be human. The result is that the most human of all the characters in the film, the most compassionate and least brutal and violent of them all, turns out to be the robot.

A strong character-driven short, “Lab Rat” shows that science fiction films need not rely on special effects at all, with all the science contained within the plot and the characters’ dialogue. Good acting is called for to make such a film successful and it is to director Wazzi’s credit that she found excellent actors to fill all the roles in this film.