A significant political interview of amazing revelations in “Secret World of the US Election: Julian Assange Talks to John Pilger”

John Pilger, “Secret World of the US Election: Julian Assange Talks to John Pilger” (RT.com, October 2016)

One famous Australian journalist talking to another famous Australian journalist should be a major media event covered by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation or the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) but unsurprisingly neither of these networks was interested in promoting, let alone broadcasting, excerpts of John Pilger’s astonishing interview of Assange in which nearly every reply Assange gives to Pilger is a jaw-dropping revelation of the depths of the corruption of one of the two major candidates in the 2016 US Presidential elections – I’m referring of course to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate – as revealed in Wikileaks’ releases of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s email server and leaked to Assange’s organisation. The really amazing thing about this interview is that both Assange and Pilger manage to keep their nerve talking about Clinton’s connections to Saudi Arabia and Qatar among others through her and her husband Bill’s humanitarian charity Clinton Foundation and those nations’ funding of ISIS; her obsessive pursuit of regime change in Libya that resulted in Muammar Ghaddafi’s death and mutilation; and the US political establishment’s attempts to derail the other US Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign, among other matters discussed.

Those who can’t or won’t bring themselves to believe that Hillary Clinton is steeped in corruption and has broken numerous US laws, from laws on government record-keeping to laws on the conduct of private charities, the law on perjury and laws regarding conflicts of interest during her time as US Secretary of State (2009 – 2013), are advised to refer to various blogs and websites (not all of which are politically partisan) detailing her many blunders and crimes: 21st Century Wire is one good website as are also Club Orlov and Off-Guardian.org among others.

The excerpts from Pilger and Assange’s conversation are gathered up into two main subject groups: the Podesta emails detailing the scope of Hillary Clinton’s numerous conflicts of interest, and Assange’s own predicament, holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, awaiting possible extradition by the UK to Sweden on trumped-up charges of rape.

Without a doubt, this interview must be one of the most significant political interviews of 2016 and it is a great pity and tragedy that it isn’t more widely known and broadcast in Australia at least, if not in the United States. The interview and its transcript can be viewed at this link.

A trite plot and character stereotyping can’t lift “Paris 2054: Renaissance” from bland SF thriller genre

Christian Volckman, “Paris 2054: Renaissance” (2006)

A glossy animated style of minimal black-and-white presentation, emphasising detail, mood and atmosphere in a future Paris governed by corporations through panopticon-style surveillance made possible by hologram and other future cyber-technologies, ultimately proves inadequate to save this film from tired character stereotyping, a dull formulaic plot and shallow treatment of its films. All that we take away from the film is that the elites, whether political or corporate, or bad and that whatever they lust for and pursue is for their own self-interest and profit while the hoi polloi must continue to resign themselves to serve them. The film ultimately can offer no more than an attitude of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”(“the more things change, the more they stay the same”) with an accompanying implication that humans are incapable of change, overcoming their self-interests and desires, and creating a better society.

The thriller plot follows the fortunes of police detective Karas (voiced by Daniel Craig in the English-language version) as he searches for young kidnapped scientist Ilona Kasuiev (Romola Garai), held somewhere in an oppressive tech-noir Paris. He relies on Kasuiev’s associates who include her sister Bislane (Catherine McCormack), with whom he has been acquainted on a more personal level in the past, and her employer Avalon Corporation, to find possible reasons for her kidnapping. As he delves further into his investigation, he discovers that Kasuiev was involved in a secret corporate project to recover the methods and results of an experiment on children suffering from progeria – a genetic condition in which sufferers experience premature ageing – which might hold the ultimate genetic key to staving off ageing and death, and achieving immortality. At the same time that Karas finds revelations about Kasuiev’s work, sinister agents are following him and learning what he learns. He becomes romantically involved with Bislane as well.

Triteness oozes from nearly every pore in the plot and its characters. The romance between Karas and Bislane is never convincing and seems to have been thrown in simply to inject some James Bond frisson and the notion that Karas is somehow more than just grim crime-busting operative into a shallow plot and a one-dimensional main character. Likewise an unnecessary car chase is added into the story; the illogicality of such a car chase in a story and setting where surveillance is so pervasive that the chase could have been ended by the police before it began (a helicopter or a drone could have shot the runaway car from the air or forced it to stop by hacking into its electronics) needs to be overlooked for the cheap thrill the ruse adds. It’s as if director Volckman and his script-writers couldn’t trust the premise of a panopticon police-state Paris enough to allow the story to develop naturally and suggest its own narrative that could intrigue their audience and make viewers aware of their guilty pleasure as complicit with those overseeing the city and its life; and instead forced the sci-fi vision into a lame thriller plot in the belief that the public will prefer the familiar and the generic over the innovative, the unusual and the experimental. What an insult to the public’s intelligence!

The plot, shorn of its unnecessary convolutions, and the animation would have worked well enough together for a shorter film and the twist ending, when it comes, would have made much more of an impact. As it is, the film becomes something of a torture to sit through as it limps to its resolution and perceptive viewers might guess that both hero and kidnap victim receive very unpleasant shocks when they meet. Somewhere along the way, the film’s message – that life with all its highs and lows only has meaning when ended by death – ends up being submerged by too many clichés.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: a satire on US cut-throat capitalist society and how it alienates, controls and dehumanises people

Nicholas Roeg, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)

For a film with hardly much plot and maybe too much soft-core pornography, “The Man who Fell to Earth” manages to be an intriguing satire on American society and capitalism. An alien who has studied Earth through its radio-wave transmissions and whose planet is dying for lack of water farewells his family and travels millions of light-years to crash-land on Earth. Disguising himself as humanoid Thomas Jerome Newton, our alien (David Bowie) insinuates himself into US society as a wealthy if reclusive inventor, patenting original inventions that earn him and his company World Enterprises Corporation loads of moolah, some of which he uses to rebuild his spacecraft. In this project, he relies heavily on patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) who becomes his business partner. In the meantime Thomas pines for his wife and children who appear to be the last survivors of their kind and are slowly dying in severe drought conditions, and tries to communicate with them by watching multiple TV channels; some of the TV programs mesh in their messages and through that connection he can send a message through the break in the space-time continuum to his wife and receive answers from her. His loneliness leads him to New Mexico where he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark) who introduces him to alcohol and sex, and before long poor Newton is hopelessly hooked on trash TV culture, the demon drink and all the other sensual pleasures of the lowest common denominator in human culture.

Poor Mary Lou can’t provide much intellectual stimulation so Newton turns to Dr Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a former womanising college professor whom he employs as his technician on the space-ship. Bryce senses Newton’s alienness so he invites him to his home and secretly photographs him with a special X-ray camera. Bryce passes on his information to the US government whose agents arrest Newton at the very moment he is about to board the space-craft that will take him home. Newton is held captive in a luxury apartment deep within a hotel, supplied with drink and endless television, and subjected to rigorous medical tests and experiments that injure his body and fuse his disguise with his own features. As for the people he trusts, Farnsworth is defenestrated by government agents and Mary Lou and Bryce fall into a loveless marriage. Eventually Newton escapes from his prison but faces the rest of his life alone – his family back home having died – and is depressed and hopelessly drunk.

The film’s plot survives by being fractured with various subplots, most of which don’t amount to much. (The whole narrative only exists because of this cut-n-paste fragmentation, and through the fragmentation the film’s underlying themes, ironic in themselves because of what they are, appear. William S Burroughs would surely have approved.) All major characters in the film are lonely and unhappy in some way, and seek connection with others through unfulfilling romance or sex or some other equally unsatisfying substitute activity. Mary Lou yearns for Thomas in spite of his alien nature and Thomas yearns to be back with his family. Bryce wants recognition but never quite gets it: he is rewarded handsomely for his services to the nation (ha ha) but he feels some guilt over Newton’s incarceration and uncertain fate. The atomised society in which they live caters to and encourages their neediness but there is a price they have to pay: they must conform to its demands if they want connection, comfort or wealth. Thomas pays the heaviest price for his manipulation of US corporate culture and self-enrichment by being forced to conform to human physical norms and being made dependent on alcohol and television so he himself can be manipulated and controlled. At the end of his imprisonment, having been made over from alien to complete human (and presumably with all the secrets of his alien physiology fully harvested by the US government), he is abandoned as a lonely drunk, left to his own devices and not even told that he is “free”.

As all the characters are essentially alienated from one another, and all are groping in their own darkness in their own ways, they are basically flat and blank, and so the action can be as dull as dishwater especially in scenes where Bowie does not appear. Roeg makes this point about the blankness of these people quite literally in the scene in which Newton strips off his human form to Mary Lou and reveals himself as a literal tabula rasa. That this is the only really interesting thing about Newton or indeed about any of the people he meets demonstrates how far dehumanised they have become. Bowie alone delivers an excellent performance as an alienated individual with a fragile mind who in the process of becoming human, whether through disguise or under manipulation from others, ends up truly blank, fragmented in mind and literally trashed. (Although Bowie was grappling with a severe cocaine addiction at the time, he was able to lay off the white stuff during filming and he actually looks healthy enough and beautifully ethereal for a scrawny 28-year-old English kid in the scenes that really matter, nudge nudge.)

The film works on a number of different levels that Roeg might not have realised at the time he made it: it works as a metaphor for individual alienation in a cut-throat manipulative and atomised capitalist society interested only in its inhabitants for whatever qualities they have which can be mined for profit; it’s an exploration of the loss of connection among humans which they try to fill with sex, and unfulfilling sex at that; and it shows, however superficially, how capitalist culture exploits people’s desire for connection, meaning and purpose with trash products and cultural forms to which they become addicted and are easily controlled as a result.

In style the film seems to mimic the breakdown of a person’s mind and at its end it is very flat and bleak. Along the way though there are scenes of beauty, natural and expansive as well as surreal and bizarre, and viewers should enjoy the journey even if they don’t understand what it’s about or what the final destination may be.

Whistle: a bland and modest sci-fi thriller that saves its killer punch for the last

Duncan Jones, “Whistle” (2002)

“Moon” director Duncan Jones’ first feature is a 29-minute short that initially looks bland and banal, and moves slowly in its first half, but which packs a punch in its last couple of minutes. The plot turns on the stereotype of the hitman with a conscience who tries to help the family or friend of his last victim. (The classic example of a film based on this stereotype is John Woo’s “The Killer”.) In Jones’ version, Brian (Dominic Mafham) has just moved his family to a bucolic neighbourhood in Switzerland, and though he and young son Michael (Charlie Hicks) enjoy the scenery and the fresh bracing mountain air, his wife (Sarah Winman) isn’t all that impressed with the weather and the dairy cows with their tinkly bells, and lets everyone within earshot know. The film spends a considerable amount of time detailing Brian and Michael’s close relationship, whether cycling together into town or agreeing to go up to a mountain glacier with a group of other people. Father and son’s relationship contrasts very strongly to their rather more distant relationships with the significant woman in their lives. (Since Jones wrote the script, one wonders if the family dysfunctionality might be based on his own experiences with his parents.)

But Brian also has to work and from time to time he receives orders from his employer’s agent to take out undesirable people with the drone machine mounted on the balcony of his new home. Each time he receives an assignment, Brian seems to have a premonition of how well or badly the job will go, and becomes very tetchy, even depressed, so the agent also has to phone the missus to make sure Brian does as he is told to do. One day he is lining his sights on a man known as Estrada in London, and lets fly a drone with his finger on the remote … but as the missile flies unerringly towards the target, Estrada reaches out to his own young son, and Brian cannot undo what he has just unleashed …

Guilt-stricken after the successful strike, Brian evades his wife to travel to London to meet the victim’s wife but after the cabbie has picked him up from Heathrow or Gatwick and taken him to the area where the Estradas live, Brian is in for an even more unpleasant shock when he meets a stranger …

The clear  pictures of beautiful postcard scenery in Switzerland where the family lives turn are a clever device to lull us into a false sense of security about Brian, his wife and their child, that disguises the sordid reality of the work that sustains them all and enables them to live comfortably in a way others would envy. The scenes where Brian tracks his victims and releases the missile which then efficiently delivers its payload provide the clinical and sharp technological edge and cold sci-fi thriller aspect. Apart from this, the acting is very much so-so and the characters remain flat and one-dimensional. The wife comes across as something of the villain of the piece, a thoroughly amoral bitch as well as Brian’s cold-blooded minder for the employer whose nature remains unknown. The music soundtrack is very good, even outstanding in parts (especially near the beginning).

There is a message about taking responsibility for your actions and the consequences they cause, which underlies the devastating impact of the climax when Brian attempts to contact Mrs Estrada and comes face to face with the person he least expected to see. At this point the film ends on a cliffhanger note and we are not sure if Brian will come away from this encounter well … or even if he comes away from it at all. His family is potentially in danger as a result of his rash actions. I’d have liked the film to have lasted a bit longer and not to have cut out so abruptly but that might have diminished the shock of the realisation of who Brian’s victim really was.

Apart from the underlying message which adds gravitas to an otherwise undistinguished film, “Whistle” is a modest little first effort made on a tight budget that might not suit most audiences but is worth checking out by fans of Duncan Jones’ work.

The Image: a tiny study of mental crisis, homoeroticism and creepy atmosphere sets a template for David Bowie’s future career

Michael Armstrong, “The Image” (1967)

Notable mainly for being singer and sometime actor David Bowie’ first film role, this 14-minute horror short is an eerie surrealist piece. With not much story to speak of, and including some very hokey horror-movie stereotypes, this film is big on atmosphere and suggestions of mental breakdown and homoeroticism. An painter (Michael Byrne) working on a portrait in an apparently abandoned house becomes unnerved when the subject of the portrait, a young man (Bowie), appears to him outside the window, on the stairs and in other parts of the house. The apparition looks and feels so real that the painter makes numerous attempts to kill him, only to discover that the ghost keeps returning again and again. Despairing that he cannot rid himself of the ghost, the painter decides instead to kill off his painting but the effect on him is catastrophic.

Not much acting talent was required from its tiny cast but Bowie is effective at portraying the mystery ghost, thanks to having studied mime with Lindsay Kemp. Where the film excels is in creating an atmosphere of heightened tension throughout the house with stills of windows, the long staircase with rubbish all over it, the locked door and various empty rooms. Filming in black-and-white film helps impart the necessary murky, shadowy look. There may be influences from German Expressionism and Alfred Hitchcock, especially in the prominence of the long staircase in some scenes. The pacing and quick editing of shots of the painting and of the ghost, from one to the other and back again and again, are well done and suggest an imminent mental crisis for the painter.

The insinuations of mental breakdown, the homoerotic attraction between the painter and the young man whom the painter knew before the latter’s death (which is hinted at in the painter’s confrontations with the ghost), the violence (not too explicit) and the all-enveloping creepy atmosphere and isolation are communicated well, and I guess that’s really all that can be said in the film’s favour.

The film was made in the same year that David Bowie released his first album which was self-titled and both film and album quickly sank without trace. Yet the character that Bowie plays in “The Image”, with its ethereal quality featuring hints of dark and strange sexuality and a frisson of violence, was to inform other personae he adopted throughout his musical and acting career.

David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy – a good if dry introduction to David Bowie’s most influential recordings

Christian Davies, “David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy” (2006)

David Bowie’s death in early January 2016 left behind a considerable artistic legacy encompassing visual art, cinema and music but it is his music that forms the foundation and core on which everything else Bowie has done is based. In particular the music he made from 1976 to 1979 is the basis on which Bowie’s reputation as an experimentalist and innovator in music and visual artist rests, and as the title of this DVD indicates, it’s this period with emphasis on the three albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “The Lodger”, often referred to collectively as the “Berlin trilogy” – though with regards to their actual music and musical arrangements, and where they were recorded, they don’t actually form a trilogy – he made with fellow UK musician Brian Eno as collaborator that’s under the spotlight. This documentary is an exploration of what led Bowie to join with Eno in Berlin and other parts of Europe to write and record the music on these albums the way they did, how their collaboration developed and how they eventually drifted apart and went their own ways after “The Lodger” album.

The documentary’s style is as minimalist as “Low and “Heroes” are in its structure: it is chronological and relies heavily on interviews with some musicians who knew and worked with Eno, and with music reviewers and analysts like David Toop, David Stubbs and various others. Bowie and Eno themselves were not interviewed for the documentary though it features recordings of Bowie talking to other interviewers. The documentary includes excerpts of particular tracks from the recordings along with interviewees’ opinions of them, snippets of music videos and live performances, and also places Bowie’s songs in a broader context by demonstrating parallels between them and the work of other musicians and performers like Blur, Iggy Pop (whose career Bowie helped save by co-writing several songs for his classic albums “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life” and by supporting him on tour), Madonna and Talking Heads.

At times the documentary can be a bit dry for those Bowie fans expecting gossip and lots of name-checking; but for those interested in learning about what the music experts interviewed think of particular songs and instrumental pieces from the three albums, the film does a good job there. There is not much information though about the aleatory processes Bowie and Eno used to compose melodies and rhythm structures, nor about the themes that inform all three albums and how these themes fit in with Bowie’s concerns with alienation, the nature of identity and the search for authenticity in a world obsessed with appearance and celebrity, and his interests in the occult and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy.

The documentary is at its best describing the history of how Bowie and Eno came together and worked on the albums, with the assistance of musicians like Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, and especially Tony Visconti who produced all three albums as well, and the other work that Bowie did in-between recording them. Where the documentary is weak perhaps is in not interviewing artists and musicians who were inspired and influenced by these albums, in investigating those aspects of Berlin culture and society that made a deep impression on Bowie and his music, and whether the city and its citizens had any influence on him in giving up his flirtation with Nazi symbols and ideology.

There is mention of Bowie’s cocaine addiction insofar as it was this among other reasons that led to Bowie fleeing the US and setting up new digs in Europe and which inspired his 1975 album “Station to Station” – but apart from that, there is very little else about the deep psychological and spiritual crises that fed and were fed by the coke habit and which among other things led to the break-up of his marriage.

In short, the documentary is a good introduction to the making of three of the most famous Bowie albums and their place in Bowie’s career and studio output. Perhaps it could have done more for an even more informative and intriguing visual essay but we are probably not likely to see anything similar and more investigative.

Suffragette: catering to narrow interests of identity politics over the real interests of people it claims to defend

Sarah Gavron, “Suffragette” (2015)

Of the recent plethora of British historical drama movies, Gavron’s film “Suffragette” is one flick that tries to be two things to two sets of people but fails at both. On one level, it’s a personal story of a fictional working-class girl, representing an everyday woman with whom the general public is likely to identify readily, who is swept up in a social / political phenomenon far beyond her ability to manage or cope with and which ends up destroying everything near and dear to her. On another level, it’s an attempt to bring to life the British suffragette movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century and its struggle to achieve political, social and economic equality between women and men, for the benefit of 21st-century cinema audiences. In trying to tie the personal fortunes of a young, impoverished laundress to a political movement that was essentially middle class in its orientation, “Suffragette” falters and leaves its heroine’s fate dangling in a harsh uncertainty, in which she has many foes and very few friends, none of whom can be said to be really reliable.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has been working at the same laundry since she was a young girl, following in her mother’s foot-steps and being subject to her employer’s sexual predations. Watts is married to Sonny who also works at the laundry and they have one young child. One day Watts meets Viola (Anne-Marie Duff), a newly employed laundress who has been late for work a couple of times. Watts discovers that Viola has been attending suffragette meetings organised by a local pharmacist, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). Both Watts, Viola and a few other like-minded women are drawn into militant and increasingly violent actions that Edith and her husband plan, including blowing up letter-boxes and lobbing a bomb at a politician’s unfinished summer house. Each time the suffragettes carry out violent incidents, the London gendarmerie, led by Inspector Steed (Brendon Gleeson), arrest the women and throw them into jail: the first time, the women are jailed for a few days and are harassed by prison warders; the next time, they are jailed for weeks and subjected to more humiliations; the third time, they are imprisoned for months and are force-fed brutally when they go on a hunger strike. Inspector Gleeson is not unsympathetic to the women’s cause but believes in enforcing the law; he tries to give Watts an escape route by encouraging her to inform on her fellow suffragettes.

At the same time Watts is drawn deeper into suffragette activity, she incurs the hostility of Sonny and her working-class community: Sonny rejects her, their marriage breaks up and their child is put up for adoption; and Watts is ostracised by both the neighbours and her fellow workers. She loses her job and home, and is forced to take refuge in a local church. Having lost everything that gives her life meaning and purpose, Watts becomes a loose cannon, easily manipulable, going deeper and deeper into violent action, and as the film draws to a climax in which she presumably plays a major role, the question of whether she will sacrifice herself to militancy over principle arises.

In separating Maud from her working-class roots and community, and pushing her into a middle class set, “Suffragette” gives up any semblance of plausibility and thus fails as a history lesson on the suffragette movement for 21st-century audiences. In real life, Maud and Viola would have been drawn to socialism and socialist activity, and one doubts that they would have been forced to give up their husbands and families to prove themselves as committed socialists. Most likely they would have been drawn into activities to improve working conditions and pay levels in the laundry industry, and they would have helped set up trade unions for laundry workers, and child care and schooling provision for laundry workers’ children so that youngsters would never need to follow their parents into work (and be exposed to sexual abuse) at an early age. The women would enroll at night school to learn to read and write, and eventually to learn how to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. The scenes of hard labour in the laundry and the sexual exploitation of women like Maud and Viola’s teenage daughter by their employer could have been dealt with more deeply in a completely different movie. “Suffragette” treats those working-class people who happen to disagree with Watts and Viola in a contemptuous way, and in doing so, privileges the interests of a subset of middle class women over the real needs and concerns of working-class people. The idea that ALL people, regardless of sex, class or background, should enjoy equal political, legal and economic rights, without one group being singled out for privileges or special treatment, is completely ignored.

There is a possibility that Watts’ radicalisation from an otherwise ordinary and passive onlooker into committed militant may strike a chord with those viewers who have experienced similar ideological radicalisation in their youth or who have children who are undergoing parallel transformations, and that one purpose of the film is to trace how ordinary people can be drawn deeper into violent actions through a series of misunderstandings that destroy their lives and leave them with no alternatives other than to give up their lives to social phenomena that engulf them and spit them out with no mercy. There is no shortage though of recent social, political and religious movements which have chewed up young people and spat them out when they have fulfilled their function as cannon fodder, and one would wonder why the suffragette movement would be singled out to drive this point home.

There are a few sub-plots and motifs in the film that get short shrift: the conflict between Inspector Steed and Watts is treated in a superficial way, ending almost as soon as it starts, and the film gives no reason, however unbelievable it might be, as to why Steed continues to follow Watts after she rejects his offer. Perhaps he really does see a fighter in her, and wants to persuade her away from middle class feminists who find her a useful foot-soldier but who might dump her as soon as their objectives are met. However the plot’s trajectory allows for very little character development in its major roles so we never find out if Steed becomes sympathetic to the suffragette cause. A sub-plot involving Viola’s daughter and the issues of rape and sexual exploitation that arise is extremely sketchy and its resolution is unconvincing: the girl is made to exchange her laundry employment for one of domestic service which still exposes her to a male employer who might abuse her. The film espouses the idea that actions are more important than words, which in its narrow context leads Watts deeper into morally questionable activity that not only endangers her life but estranges her from family and community. How does such a banal and ideologically empty notion of “deeds, not words” differentiate the suffragettes’ cause from, say, that of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s – 40s, or of the neo-Nazis in Ukraine and the ISIS-affiliated takfiris in Syria and Iraq?

Ultimately the film suffers in hanging Watts out to dry in an ambiguous future, in which she essentially recognises her alienation in the path she has chosen to walk, and no hope of reconciliation with Sonny or Inspector Steed. This is the cruellest blow dealt to an honest and innocent character that mocks her sincerity and her transformation from passive victim of circumstances to a passionate activist working for a cause she believes in. “Suffragette” left this viewer angry at its superficial treatment of its major characters and the way in which it uses one working-class individual as cannon fodder for middle class interests. The film treats everyone who happens to disagree with the suffragettes as either dangerous enemies or ignorant hoi polloi. I can’t help but feel that this film, like so many other recent British historical films that treat their subject matter in similar shallow ways, is catering to an agenda that upholds the interests of minority groups like radical feminists or radical LGBTI activists, over the real interests of the people they claim to represent.

On a more purely technical level, the actors in the film have their work cut out in trying to turn one-dimensional character stereotypes into real human beings in a story that falls apart in trying to sell a particular narrow middle class agenda posing as feminism to the general public through an everyday working-class heroine. The logical conclusion to such a story-line is too terrible for the script-writers to follow through so the heroine’s fate ultimately fades out behind the death and funeral of another suffragette. One questions why Watts, being a purely fictional character, should be made to deny her working-class roots and give up everything dear to her to toil for an essentially bourgeois movement that does not have her interests or the interests of her class in mind when there is plenty of injustice surrounding her at the laundry needing her energy. This comes back to the question of what agenda “Suffragette” serves.

The Constant Gardener: a decent film with a message about corporate greed and psychopathy within the limits of the political thriller genre

Fernando Meirelles, “The Constant Gardener” (2005)

Based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, this film combines elements of the spy thriller with an environmental message about corporate greed and cynicism. At the same time it’s a personal story of loss and regret leading to self-discovery, courage and self-sacrifice. Justin (Ralph Fiennes) is a shy diplomat at the British High Commission in Kenya grieving over the death of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) who was brutally killed while travelling through a remote part of Kenya with her driver. Initially a doctor friend (Herbert Koundé) of hers is blamed for the murders but Justin discovers the doctor was killed the same day as she was and moreover was not her lover in spite of various insinuations floating about.

The first half of the film is told in flashback starting from when Justin and Tessa first meet and fall in love. Tessa is a lawyer who takes on cases dealing with issues of social justice, a topic Justin has shied away from in his work and horticultural leisure pursuits. While their marriage seems ideal and they both treasure each other, Justin never quite understands Tessa’s zeal or the work that she is doing, and Tessa is not completely honest about why she approached Justin initially. It turns out that she is investigating drug trials being conducted by a large and powerful pharmaceutical corporation on poor communities in Kenya, and has uncovered evidence of lies and cover-ups concerning the severe side effects suffered by the people in the trials. She needs Justin as his job gives him – and her – clearance to travel around Kenya with minimum hassle from local authorities. In the course of his investigation into his wife’s murder, Justin soon learns that his boss Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) ordered surveillance on Tessa to stop her from publicising her information. As Justin continues with his searches, he also comes within the target sights of Tessa’s killers and must decide whether he should retreat back to his old life as a pen-pushing bureaucrat and part-time horticulturalist or continue to find Tessa’s killers at the cost of his own life.

For its length, the film moves smoothly and relentlessly to its goal as Justin investigates his wife’s murder, finds out that the murderers have tried to besmirch her name and that of her driver, and discovers that her activist work put her life in extreme danger. The perpetrators are very powerful individuals who will stop at nothing to hide their crimes and they have links to the highest levels in the British and Kenyan governments. The plot is complicated but not too much so, and viewers will get some enjoyment of guessing who Tessa’s killers are before Justin does. The flashbacks and choppy edits may confuse some watchers and obscure the plot’s message of corporate skulduggery, greed and psychopathy in sacrificing the lives of people in the pursuit of profit and glory.

The film’s best assets are its lead actors Fiennes and Weisz who obviously relish the roles they were given and play them to the hilt. There is good screen chemistry between the two, and viewers get a good sense of Fiennes maturing from the diffident everyday man who initially prefers to keep his head down and tail up, not really understanding his wife’s zeal, to someone who fully appreciates the loss and emptiness left behind by her death, and the value of her work. In understanding his wife and her work, he finds a new inspiration to guide his life and the courage to follow Tessa. Danny Huston plays decent support as Sandy Woodrow whose allegiances are never entirely clear until the final scene. Other fine actors like Archie Panjabi and Bill Nighy are reduced to wallpaper when perhaps their characters should be much more significant in the plot’s development.

Parts of the film are stereotyped – there is the obligatory car chase – and of course with a Kenyan setting there must be ample time given over to filming scenes of magnificent wildlife and appalling Third World poverty and squalor which borders on racism. Because the film’s focus is on white individuals, and in particular on developing the love story between the two main characters so that the audience feels attachment and sympathy for them, the effect is to render Kenyan people as background props, which tends to support an unintentional and stereotyped view of white people like Tessa as saviours to helpless Third World people being exploited by other white people and their institutions and structures. The apartheid society installed by the British in Kenya in colonial times has survived intact and unless viewers are alert to the historical background, they may not notice the divisions between black and white people.

In all, the film is quite good within the limitations of its genre but it might have been a great movie if it had gone beyond the suspense action thriller requirements.

Rejuvenation of British politics and student activism on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)” (RT.com, August 2015)

Perhaps the best thing that former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ever did for his party was to resign after the general elections in May 2015, which saw the Conservative Party returned to power and able to govern in its own right. In the current scramble for the vacant UK Labour Party leadership, MP Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as a popular successor with his platform calling for renationalising public utilities and railway transport, tackling corporate tax evasion and avoidance, restoring university student grants and abolishing tuition fees, unilateral nuclear disarmament, urging the Bank of England to create money by funding infrastructure projects, stopping cuts in the public sector, and calling for dialogue with groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and with Russia. Corbyn’s sudden popularity has unsettled the British political establishment and the mainstream British media across the political spectrum – and this includes supposedly progressive media outlets – has leapt to its masters’ defence and is pouring savage opprobrium upon his head. In this episode of “Sputnik …”, Geroge Galloway and guest Seamus Milne of The Guardian (one so-called progressive news outlet that scorns Corbyn and rubbishes his platform) discuss Corbyn’s huge popularity among young people and what it represents in British life: a deep revulsion against the Cameron government and its neoliberal policies, and a desire for political and economic change and social justice.

Milne contrasts the rejuvenation of the UK Labour Party that Corbyn has brought with his platform with the general torpor that has existed in British politics since Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. He and Galloway briefly touch on the slander, including accusations of anti-Semitism, that has been hurled at Corbyn. Whether Corbyn may have much effect outside Britain is yet to be seen but Milne and Galloway speak of the possibility that the Corbyn phenomenon may resound with Europeans tired of neoliberal politics and economic austerity. Having known Corbyn for a long time and having followed his career in politics, Milne and Galloway agree that he is essentially a decent and honest man. Whether though Corbyn can translate that decency and goodness into effective political leadership, neither Milne nor Galloway can say.

Unfortunately at no point in the discussion does Galloway challenge Milne on his newspaper’s general hostility towards Corbyn and his policies, and why The Guardian vilifies him in the way it does. Strangely, both Milne and Galloway admit to being as surprised as the rest of the country at Corbyn’s apparently phenomenal rise in popularity though with their respective backgrounds, I would have thought they were in a position to predict his Messiah-like coming as they would have (or should have) been aware that many Britons, especially young Britons, were thirsting after real political, social and economic change.

The theme of rejuvenation continues in the second half of the episode with second guest Shadia Edwards-Dashti (hereafter referred to as SED merely for convenience), student anti-war activist and a leader of Stop the War Coalition. She and Galloway discuss the radicalisation of university students angered by past government policies of reducing public funding of tertiary education and increasing tuition fees, with the consequent exploitation of students by banks offering student loans at exorbitant interest rates, combined with the lack of suitable part-time jobs to help pay off student debt and the dismal job prospects faced by many graduates; and various factors such as racism that may or may be influencing this new-found political activism. SED also mentions a growing and insidious culture of policing and snitching at universities, and refers to Jeremy Corbyn as a great representative and advocate for young people.

For my money, SED was the better of the two guests and I wish the Galloways had interviewed her for the whole 25-minute episode. As a student activist, SED is in a better position to analyse and offer an opinion as to why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular with young people, and what his popularity says about the Britain of today and the Britain that might come.

A biased narrative that splits hairs in “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat”

Andrew Lachman, “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat” (2014)

Second in a series of documentaries hosted and narrated by BBC science presenter Michael Mosley, this episode on the impact of the livestock industry on the environment is entertaining and informative enough but its problem is that the issue is framed in a very narrow and culturally biased narrative. Mosley wants to be an ecologically conscious carnivore so already the episode rules out the possibilities of going partly or wholly vegetarian, even if for just one day a week. Even just broadening one’s protein choices to eggs, seafood and dairy products, and no more, isn’t enough: no, we must (uhh) go the whole hog and consider the environmental impacts of eating beef and chicken in the main, and little else. Mosley travels to the US to investigate free-range cattle farming and raising cattle on corn and soy, and discovers that feeding our horned friends corn and soy is more environmentally friendly than feeding them on grass, because a diet of grass produces more methane than does a diet of corn and soy. Never mind whether growing corn and soy just to feed cows is actually a better or more environmentally sustainable use of certain land than growing cereals, vegetables and fruit to feed people. After this revelation, Mosley visits a chicken farm where chickens are fattened up on special diets in air-conditioned comfort and run about inside huge barns and learns that … well, woddaya know? … intensively farming chooks in this way may also be more environmentally sustainable than letting them run about in the open air pecking at table scraps and corn.

My brain may be refusing to accept and process such information that conflicts with what it wants to believe but I cannot accept that such intensive farming really can be sustainable even in the short term. The kind of life cycle analysis that is mentioned in the program should, if it is to be credible, consider the life cycle involved in making meat starting with the life cycles of the corn and soy, and of grass as well, for a better comparison of the total costs to the environment of both alternative forms of raising cattle for food. The amounts of fertiliser and water that may be involved, the petroleum consumed, any human labour and transport costs that make these methods of farming cattle possible all should be included in the analytical comparisons. The same should be done for chickens. We do not know the environmental consequences of switching farmland from other purposes to growing special kinds of crops to feed animals, whether the land needs more water and fertiliser than it would otherwise, and how sustainable such practices are. In the Amazon river region, land cleared of forest for grazing cattle does not last very long and becomes desert after a few years; the meat of cattle grazed on such land is of low quality as well, and fit only for hamburgers. That does not sound like a very good use of land. The life cycle analysis of food also does not stop at the moment we shovel it into our mouths: there are also health effects to consider, whether the food is likely to contribute to people’s risk of obesity or chronic metabolic conditions like diabetes, and the impact of our waste on the environment in the form of sewage.

International comparisons such as what Mosley makes later in the program, comparing US and European meat consumption with Chinese meat consumption and their long-term implications, fall down on the implicit assumption that Chinese carnivores eat much the same kinds of meats as Westerners do and in much the same proportions.

Above all, what the program fails to address is the economic and political systems and ideologies that determine how land is owned and used. Land that might be used to support mixed agriculture with cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens grazing at low densities and co-existing with one another and other farming purposes, is instead farmed highly intensively and in an industrial fashion with one kind of agriculture for profit … and that profit going to corporations or governments rather than individual farmers, farming communities or the people who consume the food. Growing food for profit rather than to sustain communities in ways that enhance people’s health and help preserve the environment for future generates will generate different institutions,  structures and cultural values that support the profit motive and justify industrial farming as “environmentally sustainable”.  This is the proverbial 900-pound gorilla lurking in the background and beating its chest unseen while Mosley wastes his time (and that of viewers) basically splitting hairs.