Chan is Missing: a missing-person mystery dives into exploring a community and the immigrant experience

Wayne Wang, “Chan is Missing” (1982)

Would-be taxicab owner / driver Jo (Wood Moy) needs to purchase a licence enabling him to drive a taxi so he contacts a friend, Chan Hong, to pass on $4,000 to take to the relevant licensing authority. However Chan and the money disappear so together with his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi), Jo travels around the Chinese community in San Francisco looking for and inquiring about Chan. What most viewers might imagine should be fairly straightforward turns into a veritable odyssey for Jo and Steve as each person they speak to about Chan has a very different opinion about the elusive man as to his personality and motivations, and a very complex and contradictory portrait of Chan develops. During the two men’s search for Chan, viewers learn a great deal about the nature of the Chinese-American community and the political tensions within it, the dilemma of the immigrant experience in a strange land, and the stereotypes and filters through which most Americans view Chinese-American people and their culture. As one character reminds Jo, Chinese people have lived in the United States since the mid-19th century yet however much they try to integrate into American society and be accepted, if most Americans do not accept them, then that is because America does not want to accept them.

Shot in black-and-white, this cheap and cheerful film partakes quite liberally from the classic film noir genre – in particular, the uncle-and-nephew sleuthing tag-team and Jo’s voice-over narration recall the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s – 50s in which the Chinese-Hawaiian detective occasionally ropes in his eldest son to help solve crimes. Jo and Steve visit a fair few eccentric characters in their quest, including a restaurant cook wearing a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt who is tired of cooking sweet-and-sour pork several times a day every day; Chan’s wife and wise-cracking daughter; Chan’s migration sponsor; people at a Filipino seniors’ community centre; an unseen Chinese immigrant apartment dweller who can’t stand other Chinese people; and George the English-language teacher who discusses local Chinese-American politics with Jo. A sub-plot revolving around whether Chan was involved in a flag-waving dispute over whether the Taiwanese flag or the flag of the People’s Republic of China should be used during a Chinese New Year parade, and which resulted in a fight and a man’s death develops and adds comic frisson to the film: later in the film, Jo discovers a gun and is frightened that Chan may have killed the man. At critical points in the film when a character talks about Chan to Jo, loud music blares out which blurs the conversation and adds to the mystery of Chan and his motivations.

The search for an elusive character who may not actually exist leads into an exploration of the diversity, individuality and eccentricity of a community that has long been viewed through filters and stereotypes encouraged by the news media and Hollywood culture. Jo and Steve’s quest ultimately becomes a quest for identity and connection with the culture and country of their ancestors, a country neither of them may have visited. A number of film noir elements are brought in for comic effect in the film’s second half: long shadows in Chan Hong’s hotel room (enhanced by the monochromatic film); suspenseful, almost shrill and hysterical music; shots of Chinatown itself from behind the wheel of a car; and even a gangster moll in the form of Chan Hong’s girlfriend. The sequence in which Jo fears he is being followed by another car is an affectionate send-up of the Charlie Chan films which partly inspired this film.

Wood Moy as the ageing world-weary taxicab driver carries the whole film capably on his shoulders but Hayashi is just as effective as his impatient nephew and the cast generally acquit themselves well in a film where it looks as if improvisation in the story-line is the major feature and the narrative meanders at will depending on whom director Wayne Wang was able to rope into participating in the film.

It seems that absence does make the heart fonder, for a transplanted Chinese culture that is slowly disappearing as its generations age and pass on.

Investigating trauma and how a society deals with uncomfortable truths in “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate”

Anthony DiMieri, “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate” (The Grayzone Project, May 2019)

For two years from the time Donald Trump won the US Presidency, the United States has been gripped in a collective hysteria over his campaign’s supposed collusion with the Russian government to capture the nation’s leadership from his rival Hillary Clinton. It was only in April 2019 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, after conducting an investigation from May 2017 onwards, finally submitted his report to US Attorney General William Barr (and published it in redacted form in April) in which he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge the Trump campaign with collusion or coordination with the Kremlin. The curious thing about Russiagate is not that this hysteria and obsession with Russian wrongdoing or interference in US politics existed at all but that it lasted as long as it did across the political spectrum, to the extent that nearly the entire nation believed in a rumour that, when exposed to light, had no legs; and moreover, when the rumour was exposed, so many people erupted in anger and disbelief and refused to believe that they had been deceived. Despite Russia’s protestations that it had never interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections, the lie continues; if anything, it has become a permanent part of the nation’s cultural belief set that Russia is continuing to undermine American politics, even when evidence can be found that other nations are trying to influence US politics and policy.

To this end, Grayzone journalist Aaron Maté sat down with his father Gabor Maté, a physician and expert on mental health and the effect that childhood traumas can have on future adult life, to discuss the Russiagate phenomenon and how the election of Donald Trump as US President was received by thousands if not millions of Americans as a traumatic and emotionally scarring event. The half-hour conversation between the two ranges across various cultural and social psychological phenomena that have shaped American thinking over decades, perhaps even the past two centuries, that have come together not only to predispose Americans into believing that a foreign enemy they have long been taught to fear is attacking them using underhanded methods but to invest considerable effort into maintaining that belief even when it has been shot down. Psychological projection of one’s own sins onto another, scapegoating, the cult of victimhood and that peculiarly American custom of reducing and personalising complex politics and history into one person and making that person the epitome of Evil, with the result that US foreign policy ends up focusing on taking that person out, leaving chaos behind once that person is gone and having either a vague plan or no plan at all for reconstruction and rebuilding a defeated rival country: these are topics discussed in a fairly cursory manner, with no examination of how such American characteristics might have arisen in the past, and what contexts and institutions helped to birth those characteristics.

Gabor Maté comes close to choosing Hollywood as a major source of the various narratives that encourage Americans to adopt quite infantile views of how the world operates, focusing on individuals with particular psychologies and powers rather than on the long-term sociological processes that shape individuals’ mentalities and careers and which push them in certain directions. In such narratives, people and nations are either Good or Evil, America is always on the side of Good and those who oppose America are always Evil, and Good always vanquishes Evil. For many Americans, Donald Trump is clearly Evil and so it is natural that he and that other personification of Evil, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, should have put their heads together and plotted to make Trump President. (Of course there are also many Americans who regard Trump as Good.) It is a pity that father and son Maté do not trace this thinking back to the days of the Pilgrims and other early settlers who compared themselves to God’s Chosen People sent to America to tame it (and exterminate the indigenous people who owned the land) and claim it for their own. The journalist and his physician Dad unfortunately do not examine the role of Hollywood, mainstream news media and education in constantly repeating the idea of America as God’s Chosen and Exceptional Nation, to whom all other nations bow down and regard as their spiritual and moral better.

The interview also ranges across the reality of America meddling in other nations’ affairs to the extent of choosing those nations’ leaders, forcing them to sack leaders America does not like or even carrying out regime-change activities that include violence, invasion and warfare. Robert Mueller, appointed to investigate Democrat claims of Trump’s collusion with Russia, comes in for examination as a saviour supposed to deliver America from the clutches of Evil by finding incriminating evidence that will suffice for an impeachment of Trump. People clearly had unrealistic expectations of what Mueller was supposed to achieve and the actual result would have been traumatic for them.

I would like to be able to say that the conversation between the two men was bright and scintillating but while some of the issues they brought up were interesting and thought-provoking, their actual conversation droned quite considerably and keeping up with their monotone without feeling drowsy was hard. Fortunately a transcript of the interview is available at The Grayzone Project website.

At the end Gabor Maté says that being disillusioned and facing the truth is much better than continuing to believe in illusions and risk being traumatised when the illusions do not work out the way they are expected to; but beyond seeing the truth, he does not say how people should come to terms with the truth and the trauma it causes, and how they should act on the truth and become more open-minded and less inclined to follow fantasy illusions promoted by Hollywood, governments, academia and the news media.

The Chaperone: preferring a character stereotype over portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon

Michael Engler, “The Chaperone” (2018)

A film of self-discovery and self-transformation leading to personal freedom, “The Chaperone” is a fictional account of real-life silent movie icon Louise Brooks’ journey as a young teenager from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City to audition for and join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in the early 1920s. The young Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) is accompanied by Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) who offered herself to Louise’s mother as the girl’s chaperone after overhearing the mother in conversation with friends. It turns out that Norma has her own reasons for fleeing Wichita and travelling with Louise: Norma’s marriage to Alan (Campbell Scott) is on the rocks after she catches him in bed with a man; and she wants to know the identity of her biological mother who placed her in a Roman Catholic orphanage in NYC when she was a baby.

After Louise and Norma arrive in NYC, the film follows Norma’s travails in getting past the unyielding nuns and finding her details, in the process winning the admiration and then the heart of caretaker Joseph (Geza Rohrig), and then contacting someone who might know her birth mother. Norma’s further adventures in finding her biological family end in heartbreak however. In the meantime, Louise trains for and finally wins a place in the prestigious dance school run by Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis (Robert Fairchild and Miranda Otto) though the film insinuates that she really only makes the grade more by sheer talent than by hard work and dedication: the girl spends her free time chatting up young men in cafes and nightclubs, mingling with Afro-Americans (at a time when black and white people were expected to lead separate lives) and generally being unconventional in ways that shock Norma. Through Louise’s example and the unexpected ways in which her own life unravels and develops, Norma learns to become a more tolerant person, and her inner evolution opens up new ways of thinking and feeling that enable her to take control of her own life.

The film excels mainly as a character study of a typical middle-class woman of its period who changes in ways that would have been rare or even impossible for most women of her social layer in Midwest America in the early 1920s. Elizabeth McGovern does excellent work in this respect though the eye-rolling seems excessive. Richardson as Brooks is a great foil who constantly prods and challenges Norma. The supporting cast also does good work and the film’s period details are meticulously done.

Where the film really could have excelled is in contrasting more strongly the trajectories of Norma and Louise’s personal journeys after the two separate: Norma eventually carves out an unconventional family life in which she amicably resolves her marriage issues with Alan and lives with a new lover at the same time; and Louise finds stardom as a dancer and then as a silent movie icon before her career hits the skids while she is still in her 20s. Viewers learn nothing about how and why Louise is all washed up by the age of 35 years when she and Norma meet again, perhaps for the last time, after an interval of 20 years. The battle that Louise Brooks waged to be her own woman and her refusal to be bullied by movie studios is completely erased from the film. The most the film allows viewers to see of Louise Brooks’ defiance of the social conventions of her day is when she tells Norma that she had been molested as a child but since then had refused to act a victim role and instead decided to flaunt her sexuality once she became a teenager. After Norma advises Louise to leave Wichita again, she saunters back to her own family, content to live how she wants while maintaining a facade of a happy marriage on her own terms. (This does not sound exactly revolutionary and for all we know, many families of all social levels could have lived in similar unconventional ways.)

While it’s a pleasant and visually attractive film to watch, “The Chaperone” in fact steers clear of portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon and instead goes for a stereotyped treatment of a fictional upper middle class woman’s transformation. The real Louise Brooks and her battle against social and cultural expectations and attitudes would have been far more interesting to know.

The Curse of La Llorona: cursed by cheap thrills and Hollywood horror film cliches

Michael Chaves , “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019)

As his full-length movie directorial debut, this horror flick perhaps shows all the faults as well as the potential that Michael Chaves has for a career in Hollywood. Chaves does a good job with the cinematography to create a sinister and dark atmosphere and instill a strong sense of dread in viewers as the film rockets along to an inevitable showdown between the protagonist mother Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her nemesis who would claim her children as her own … forever. Chaves laps up all the familiar Hollywood horror film cliches, devices and stereotypes – the ones from “The Exorcist” stand out especially – and sprays them liberally throughout the film. At the same time, a weak and unoriginal script, full of plot holes, ensures that the film remains in hokey haunted-house territory with interesting ideas that stay frustratingly undeveloped.

We have the obligatory header which gives a quick potted history of how the Mexican folklore demon La Llorona came to be: way back, 300 years ago, a noble woman in colonial Mexico discovers her husband has a mistress and she takes her revenge on him by drowning the two young sons she and hubby had together. Overcome with remorse at her sin, she kills herself … Now let’s run 300 years later to Los Angeles in 1973, the year that “The Exorcist” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, and Anna Garcia is trying to run her two pre-teen kids Chris (Roman Christou) and Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) to school, go to work at the welfare agency where she is a social worker, and keep her household together in the aftermath of her police officer husband’s death. Anna is a case officer for a woman, Patricia (Patricia Velasquez), who fails to send her two small boys to school. Anna forces Patricia to yield her two sons, hidden in a cupboard, to welfare authorities. Not long after, the two children are found drowned in a river and Patricia is arrested on suspicion of murder. Patricia knows Anna has two children of her own (that’s why Anna is her case officer) and curses the family. Still traumatised after the death of a husband and father, Anna’s family is soon plagued by the demon La Llorona and Anna herself comes under suspicion by her employers of abusing Chris and Sam.

From then on, viewers are subjected to typical haunted-house scenarios where La Llorona creeps up on and scares the bejesus out of Anna and the children repeatedly, until they consult a former Roman Catholic priest (Raymond Cruz) who now works as a curandero. Scares and chases abound, Patricia turns up for no reason other than to cause more trouble, and one character cops a bullet in the chest.

Somewhere along the way, interesting subplots about how innocent families can fall afoul of over-zealous social welfare workers and end up being torn apart, with dire consequences for everyone, or how people can learn to balance skepticism and rationality with faith and courage as opposed to fear and superstition arise but are thrown over for cheap thrills. Mexican beliefs about the dead and how to protect the living from chaos and evil are nothing more than a commodity to be mined for more profit and made to look laughable and cartoonish. Though the actors work hard to make their roles credible, their efforts, and Cardellini’s work in particular, can come across as over-acting. At least Cruz has the right idea about how to play his character … not too seriously.

If Chaves can get hold of an original script that does not lean on past horror films or horror film franchises for inspiration, he might become a director of note specialising in moodily atmospheric films with arresting visuals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An entertaining introduction to a remote country in “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos”

Masaman, “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos” (2018)

In an entertaining short film of just under 13 minutes, viewers are treated to a fascinating survey of one of Latin America’s least known yet quirkiest countries. Founded by Jesuit priests who established missions in the country to convert the indigenous Guarani-speaking people to Catholicism and to teach them farming and submission to the Spanish crown, Paraguay has a culture with a definite Hispanic foundation and flavour but its people (mostly of European descent) speak two languages, Guarani and Spanish. Being a country of the sub-tropical savanna interior with no sea-coast, Paraguay initially was part of the Spanish-American empire’s Viceroyalty of Peru with its capital in Lima, before coming under the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata with its capital in Buenos Aires.

Gaining independence in 1811, Paraguay came under the rule of dictators, starting with Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia who destroyed the power of the old Spanish elites and created a communal society under conditions of political isolation from other countries. Francia forbade the elites from marrying only among themselves, forcing them to marry local people, and the country became self-sufficient in foodstuffs and manufacturing. Carlos Antonio Lopez succeeded Francia as dictator and ran the country as his personal kingdom though also continuing its economic development. Lopez was followed by his son Francisco Solano Lopez whose ambitions brought Paraguay into a war against its neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1860s, a war that utterly destroyed the country, killing 70 – 90% of its adult male population and completely ruining its society and economy. The occupying victors carved out choice territories and reduced Paraguay to its current small size. After foreign occupation ended in the late 1870s, Paraguay tried to rebuild its population by inviting migrants across the world to establish settlements: hence, a number of utopian and sometimes experimental socialist settlements were set up by migrants from Australia and migrants from Germany led by Elizabeth Nietzsche (the racist sister of Friedrich Nietzsche) and her husband among others.

The film does a good job tying such quirky facts as a mostly European people speaking a native American language, the extreme shortage of adult men in Paraguay in the late 1800s and Paraguay’s reputation for odd (and slightly sinister) utopian colonies together to the country’s unusual history and how that history was influenced by its geography, its lack of a coast-line and the original peoples of the area watered by the Parana River and its tributaries. After the late 1800s, the film more or less neglects Paraguay’s history and recovery after the devastating wars of the 1860s, and how that recovery impeded its political and economic evolution. Not much is said about how Britain viewed Paraguay as a threat to its economic domination of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil through its investments in land and railway construction, and furnished those countries with money and armaments. (Can’t Perfidious Albion keep its nose out of other countries’ affairs?!)

The film uses maps, historical materials and photographs of city and farm life to create an attractive tapestry celebrating the country’s people, and their languages, culture, history and diverse origins. There isn’t much information given about the country’s contemporary politics or its current state of development; one would love to know how it compares with its neighbours in economic development and the standard of living enjoyed by its citizens. Needless to say, there’s nothing about what Paraguayans think of their country’s future prospects. The film serves as a good general introduction to a country as existentially isolated from the rest of the world as it is physically.

Vice: satirical biopic is as empty as the man it lampoons

Adam McKay, “Vice” (2018)

A rather patchy satirical study of the life of former US Vice-President Dick Cheney, “Vice” shows how an unscrupulous individual can attain and abuse power, and in so doing change the lives of millions for the worse, in ways unimaginable and unforeseen – not only in countries that bore the brunt of American viciousness and brutality, but also at home through policies that enriched a small, already wealthy political elite at the expense of the middle classes, the working classes, and the marginal and impoverished underclasses alike – by achieving a position once thought irrelevant and exploiting its apparent insignificance. The film jumps back and forth between various episodes of Cheney’s life, beginning in 1963 when Cheney (Christian Bale) is charged for the second time in less than twelve months for driving under the influence of drink and is forced by his girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) to take stock of his life. From there, the young Cheney buckles down to study: he leaves Yale University, attends a university in Wyoming and manages to obtain five draft deferments when he becomes eligible for the military draft.

His political career starts in 1969 when he becomes intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) – in real life, he was actually intern to someone else – and from there, he ascends to becoming White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford. Later, after Jimmy Carter becomes US President in 1976, Cheney campaigns to represent Wyoming in the US House of Representatives and wins the seat; he ends up being re-elected five times. He becomes Secretary of Defense under George H W Bush’s term as US President from 1989 to 1993. During Bill Clinton’s tenure as US President (1993 – 2001), Cheney served as CEO of Halliburton, a company that provides services to petroleum exploration and production companies. In 2000, Cheney is approached by George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) to be his running mate in his campaign for the US Presidency. Along his path to the ultimate power-trip – being the eminence grise that makes the decisions for President Dubya while not having to take the responsibility for them – Cheney maintains a cold, calculating mask that reveals nothing of the stony ambition behind it as he exploits Article 2 of the US Constitution (which puts the executive power of government in the role of the President) to the extent that Dubya becomes a de facto monarch and Cheney his vizier.

The film’s style – it’s a mix of documentary (with narration by an unnamed Everyman character), drama and comedy – can be entertaining as well as educational but fails to probe Cheney’s character deeply enough to reveal the inner reptilian hell that drives him all the way to Washington DC and ultimately to the White House. What past traumas, hostilities, injustices and grudges was Cheney nursing, that he was driven to become a power-mad bastard without true feeling or emotion? While Christian Bale is all but immersed in Cheney and basically impersonates him, his preparation for the role and his acting are not served well by the script which hops from one scenario to deal with another fairly briefly and superficially before zipping to yet another. The overall impression viewers are likely to get is a film that crashes through a virtual CV of infamy, selectively emphasising those incidents that make Cheney the villain he is. So zealously does “Vice” pursue this point that it manages to get one thing wrong: the film portrays both Cheney and his wife as hostile towards the LBGTI community and its demands; in reality, both were sympathetic towards gay marriage.

Bale is surrounded by a competent cast ranging from Steve Carell who is on fire as Donald Rumsfeld and Amy Adams doing her Lady Macbeth best on devoted wife Lynne, to Sam Rockwell who all but impersonates Dubya. Other actors pale by comparison, mainly because their characters get little screen time due to the script. Had the script concentrated on fewer highlights (and lowlights) of Dick Cheney’s career, and investigated these in more detail – in particular Cheney’s control of the White House during the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, and the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 11 September 2001 – the film could have shown how Bush, Cheney and various others continued a culture of lying, secrecy and a penchant for vicious violence, preferably carried out by others upon victims in distant lands, with no thought for the consequences that might arise, that not only survives and thrives in the present day but has spread to other nations around the world.

At the end of the film, viewers will not know much more about what made Dick Cheney and the stone that passed for his heart – his heart problems being very much an ongoing joke in the film – than they did at the beginning. Ticking over too many of Cheney’s great moments of vice, and not dealing with them with the depth they need, “Vice” ends up playing too much like a propaganda film made for Democrat-voting audiences who like to consider themselves “progressive” in their views and politics. While the film concedes that the abominable Hillary Clinton as New York state senator supported Dubya’s war on Iraq, it treats other Democrat Presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama with kid gloves. At the same time the film makes no attempt to understand how rural voters were drawn to the Republicans and how the Republicans exploited the gap between voters in the US heartland states and the urban-based Democrats obsessed with their identity politics.