Azarkant: a good-looking sci-fi piece short on plot and character

Andrey Klimov, “Azarkant” (2013)

Made as a proof-of-concept piece for a film, “Azarkant” understandably is short on plot and character to the extent that it plays like a generic sci-fi piece in which all the old “hard science” stereotypes appear. A group of cosmonauts on a 10-year voyage in space, their mission being to find planets capable of supporting life, come across an abandoned spaceship and investigate. One of the cosmonauts finds naught but human remains, even an old astronaut’s uniform, suggesting that this spaceship indeed has been floating in space for decades if not hundreds of years. The cosmonaut is ambushed by a robot whose last order is to kill every living being it finds. After a hard fight in which the cosmonaut finally disposes of the robot, he descends to a lower level of the abandoned spaceship where he finds a human body stored in liquid in an incubator.

There’s really no plot to speak of, and the film is remarkable mainly for creating a distinct sinister atmosphere in emphasising shadows, darkness and the barest hints that something dreadful occurred on the abandoned spaceship long ago. The cosmonaut shines his torch onto the surfaces of the spaceship’s interiors to partly reveal skeletal remains and a dead astronaut slumped against a wall. Tension slowly builds through the film as the cosmonaut investigates further, only for him to be suddenly sidelined by the creaky robot. The fight is massive though brief – but the tension itself starts to build again when the cosmonaut resumes his mission and falls through a floor into a deeper level.

The animation is very good, appearing three-dimensional, and seems almost realistic. There is little dialogue and the cosmonaut and robot express their characters through their movements. The cosmonaut seems hesitant, nervous at first, but bravely carries out his mission. The film’s conclusion may be open-ended; it seems that the cosmonaut is approaching a new, more sinister and powerful enemy posing as a human, or the body’s reaction to his presence may be nothing more than reflexive and instinctive.

At least the film looks good and has much visual technical detail, as there is not much more one can say in its favour.

Vladivostok 2020: portrait of a very Russian city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean

Graham Phillips, “Vladivostok 2020” (2020)

In this 20-minute showcase of the glories of Vladivostok, the famed Pacific Ocean gateway to Russia, investigative British journalist lists what he calls his Magnificent Seven features of the city, the Magnificent Seven part being a reference to Vladivostok’s most famous export, Yul Brynner, who was one of the stars of the Hollywood Western classic based on the Japanese film “The Seven Samurai”. And these seven features are indeed amazing, not just magnificent: the two major bridges alone spanning the bay on which the city straddles, Russian Bridge and Golden Bridge, are breathtaking in their scale and architectural beauty; the city’s port is still a working port through which Russia exports and imports goods to and from nations around the Pacific Rim; the city’s emblem, the Siberian tiger, adorns Vladivostok in sculptures and in the city’s popular culture; and most amazing of all, Vladivostok is the only major Russian city in which most people drive right-handed cars, an anomaly from the chaotic years in the 1990s when manufacturing in Russia nearly all but ceased and Russians in the nation’s Far East regions imported cars from Japan to drive and sell.

Initially Phillips sets out to counter and debunk a BBC documentary featuring narrator Simon Reeve who travelled through the city. Apparently Reeve made much of Vladivostok’s geographic proximity to the Chinese border with the insinuation that Chinese investors and migrants would soon overtake the city and turn it into a Chinese city. Although Phillips does an excellent job of refuting Reeve and the BBC to the extent of grinding the Britons into fine powder beneath his feet, the camera lets the city do most of the talking: statues and memorials to famous figures and events of Russian and Soviet history dot public spaces, Orthodox cathedrals vie for tourists’ attention with their onion domes, distinctive crosses and flamboyant colour schemes, and ordinary citizens uphold quaint and eccentric Russian customs and traditions such as going commando in cold water in the middle of winter. Astonishingly Phillips also comments on the rise in shark attacks (!) along the Pacific coast near Vladivostok and accordingly the city authorities have set up shark nets along the coast so residents can indulge in another distinctive Russian custom: going to the beach, swimming and sunning themselves even when the day temperature is barely into the early 20s Centigrade.

Without doubt the best parts of the film are those parts where the camera pans around the cityscape as Phillips walks around or drives across the two bridges. Special mention must be made of a lighthouse whose keeper Phillips visits for tea and sugar, and of a famous submarine whose crews participated in major feats of heroism against the Japanese navy during the Second World War. While Phillips strolls about, one can’t help but notice how clean and tidy the streets are, how wealthy it and its citizens look, and the confidence they have. City panoramas show a gleaming, prosperous urban landscape dominated by cars, cars and more cars, many of them actually being right-hand drive cars imported from Japan. Phillips’ film is sure to have many viewers putting Vladivostok on their bucket lists of cities to visit.

A whistleblower’s insider knowledge and shocking revelations in “MH-17: In Search of Truth”

Vasily Prozorov, “MH-17: In Search of Truth” (UKR Leaks, December 2019)

Currently gaining a lot of attention on alternative news websites is this minimally made and straightforward documentary by Ukrainian ex-SBU security officer and whistleblower Vasily Prozorov. The documentary plays like an extended news report with one shocking revelation after another about what really happened to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 on 17 July 2014 while flying over eastern Ukraine. Initially the English-language dubbing which has a strong Slavic accent is hard to follow but after some minutes of being accustomed to it, listeners can follow the narrative fairly easily.

The first half of the documentary concentrates on dismantling the lies and disinformation that has built up around the Boeing passenger jet’s shoot-down almost as soon as it hit the ground. Apparent leaked recordings of Donbass rebel fighters rejoicing over the shoot-down came out almost straight away on social media, in itself suspicious as such information, if true, would have been classified information by the SBU straight away and not released for a long time. Considerable attention is paid to demolishing Ukrainian government claims that the Ukrainian army did not have any military units, especially units with BUK missile delivery systems, in the area close to where MH-17 fell. Prozorov also points out evidence suggesting that Kiev was planning a provocation in the area that would be blamed on the Donbass rebels, in particular noting that the airspace over eastern Ukraine was not closed to civilian air traffic and that a radar station in Artemovsk in the east was shut down a month before the shoot-down. He considers he may have been privy eavesdropping into a conversation in which a Ukrainian Defense Ministry representative and a security official were discussing possible Russian military intervention in the Donbass region to assist the rebels there and the security official tells the other fellow that something will happen which will stop the Russians from interceding; nine days later, the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet fell from the sky. Prozorov also shows how Western governments assisted Kiev in shaping its narrative of the Donbass rebels having brought down MH-17 by (the US) refusing to release satellite images of the area on the day the plane fell; and by (the Dutch) cherry-picking evidence provided by the Donetsk People’s Republic from the crash site and not showing any interest in collecting the actual wreckage from the crash site for several months.

It’s in the later half of the documentary that Prozorov delivers the most shocking evidence of British and possibly Australian intelligence involvement in setting up the scene for the shoot-down and British intel agents’ close association with two men whom Prozorov regards as the main plotters of the shoot-down, Lieutenant Colonel Vasily Burba and Major General Valery Kondratiuk. Prozorov also fingers Bellingcat (partly funded by The Atlantic Council and the National Endowment for Democracy among others) as a disinformation agency working with British intelligence since the so-called citizen-journalism organisation was founded a few days before the shoot-down and after the incident quickly became the main source of supposed information about the disaster for Western mainstream news media.

Prozorov summarises the main points of his documentary by showing how they fit into an apparent framework of a plot by British and Ukrainian intelligence agencies to create a provocation and distraction that would smear Russia and prevent that nation from militarily intervening in the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and to control and shape the narrative and distort the information about the investigation of the incident.

There is a lot of information to absorb from the documentary and some parts are very detailed and probably not entirely relevant to Prozorov’s investigation. Prozorov does not pursue the theory that two Ukrainian fighter jets shot down the Malaysia Airlines jet though he does refer to Ukrainian eyewitnesses’ accounts of having seen two fighter jets flying very close to MH-17. (At the same time, those eyewitness accounts didn’t include any mention of a BUK missile system, the launch of an SA-11 missile and the noises and characteristic trail of jet-stream smoke such a missile would have left behind.) The role of the US and its agencies (in particular the CIA, the US State Department and other organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and The Atlantic Council) in overthrowing President Viktor Yanukovych back in February 2014 and encouraging neo-Nazi extremism in the government that replaced him gets short shrift. Prozorov says nothing as to why a Malaysia Airlines jet should have been shot down when it is known that an Air India jet and two Singapore Airlines jets passed within half an hour of the Malaysia Airlines jet in the same airspace corridor.

Nevertheless this is a very valuable documentary on MH-17 from a former Ukrainian intelligence officer with much insider knowledge of how the SBU operated in 2014, and of some of the personalities involved in the plot to bring down a civilian jet.

The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: a survey of Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership in the 1990s

Leo Mattei, Johnny Miller, “The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms” (PressTV, 2017)

Made for the Iranian news channel PressTV, this measured documentary turns out to be a detailed survey of the period of Russia’s transition from a Communist society to a capitalist one under President Boris Yeltsin (1991 – 1999) and the neoliberal economic reforms carried out under the guidance of the so-called Harvard Boys (US economists with Harvard University backgrounds tasked to assist the transition). These reforms privatised most state-run industries including the major energy industries and enriched a small number of well-placed people, many of whom were former Soviet government apparatchiks looking out for Number 1, while the vast majority of people in the new Russian Federation became impoverished. Living standards and life expectancies fell as people lost jobs and fell into despair; many turned to drink and dangerous drugs, and in parts of the country, the rates of new HIV / AIDS infections skyrocketed alarmingly. As discontent against Yeltsin’s policies became widespread, in 1993 the Russian parliament impeached Yeltsin who then dissolved the parliament; the stand-off resulted in military units ordered by Yeltsin storming the parliamentary building and the national TV station centre, killing nearly 190 people and wounding nearly 440 others. Yeltsin became a more dictatorial leader and economic “reforms” continued to devastate the country’s economy, especially its manufacturing industries, sending more people into poverty as jobs were lost. The country’s financial situation became dire and Russia was forced to rely on IMF loans which in turn tied the country even more to neoliberal economic policies, placing it on a downward spiral into more economic and financial destruction and instability, and with that political corruption and escalating levels of crime, including gang warfare and homicide.

Through interviews with people who were close to Yeltsin, such as his former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and former Soviet Deputy Prime Minister / founder of centrist Yabloko Party Grigory Yavlinsky, or observers of the period, such as sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky and historian Alexander Tarasov, the documentary follows the career of Yeltsin as President starting with a tour of the Yeltsin Center and its museum in Yekaterinburg. This is a strange and sinister place: it whitewashes Yeltsin’s career and encourages not only uncritical hero worship but rewrites Russian history in the 1990s. The interview with Korzhakov who wrote a book of his experiences dealing with Yeltsin in 1997 is an excellent remedy: Korzhakov is frank about the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and the deeply corrupt and despotic nature of his government. Kagarlitski, Tarasov and other interviewees discuss the economic policies of advisors and ministers such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais who favoured “shock therapy” privatisation. Ordinary people are also interviewed: they speak of how the Soviet aircraft industry, built up over decades, was effectively destroyed by the “reform” policies, and how the corruption in Yeltsin’s government (from which Yeltsin family members benefited financially) and among the country’s new rich elites, known as “oligarchs”, permeated Russian society generally, encouraging the growth of criminal gangs and other criminal activity across the country. Most disturbingly, photographer Alexander Poliakov, interviewed about the 1993 constitutional crisis, implies in his statements that the events of the crisis may not have transpired as reported in official accounts.

In the mid to late 1990s, the most significant events in Russia were the outbreak of war between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya (the causes of which Yeltsin himself must bear some responsibility for) and Yeltsin’s re-election as President in presidential elections held in 1996, for which Yeltsin needed US help in creating a marketing campaign playing on voters’ insecurities and fears, and the results of which (in some regions such as Ossetia) were likely tampered with or made up to help get Yeltsin back into power. Once returned as President though, Yeltsin gave himself over to the demon drink and allowed his government to fall into the hands of others. Powerful oligarchs meddled openly in Russian politics by buying up influence over politicians. The looting of the Russian economy continued with some oligarchs amassing tremendous fortunes reckoned in the billions of dollars. Corruption and crime were rampant throughout the country. Just when people could see no hope out of their predicament, Yeltsin surprised everyone by resigning as President in 1999 and nominating Vladimir Putin to succeed him as caretaker President. The following year, Putin won the presidential elections and since then has been President (with a 4-year break from 2008 to 2012).

The documentary flows smoothly and well, and does an excellent job in following the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and his disastrous policies on particular sectors of the Russian economy, the social fabric and day-to-day life for many Russian people. The film notes the insidious role the Boris Yeltsin Center plays in whitewashing the politician and the impact he had. Just as insidious though is how the film gives little credit to Vladimir Putin in ending oligarch meddling in the nation’s politics (by making an example of crooked businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky by jailing him for 10 years when he refused to give up interfering in the political process) and reviving the Russian economy, and insinuates that high global prices for oil in the early 2000s were mainly responsible for the Russian economic resurrection. As leader of a centrist, socially liberal party, Yavlinsky is not likely to have a neutral or positive opinion of Putin, and as a dissident academic, neither is Kagarlitsky.

The film ends on a warning note about how undertaking “wrong” economic reforms can ruin economies. This is an incorrect reading of what was done to Russia by neoliberal economic policies during the Yeltsin years: far more correct is that these policies were intended to destroy Russian power and break up the country so its resources could be seized by foreign corporations and elites, and so they were the “right” policies. Attempts by the Yeltsin Center and others to portray Yeltsin as a saintly leader and decision-maker are to be seen in a similar light, parallel to how other major world leaders who also introduced neoliberal economics in their countries have been sold to the public as wise or capable, even as their economic policies sent thousands or millions into unemployment, poverty and despair.

The Beautiful Leukanida: early animated fable of love, jealousy, war and annihilation in an insect universe

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Beautiful Leukanida / Prekrasnaya Lyukanida” (1912)

In a long career spanning some 55 years in stop-motion puppet animation, Russian-Polish animator Wladyslaw Starewicz produced a fair few stand-out films. “The Beautiful Leukanida” is a very early example of Starewicz’s style and vision: trained in entomology, Starewicz was already familiar with preparing dried insects for study so using a ready-made if unusual cast to appear in his dramas and act out little fables of human foibles must have seemed the next logical step. The story here is one straight out of a Romantic fairy-tale universe, as re-enacted by beetles: two beetles duel over a noble lady beetle, the winner claiming her as his own and taking her back to his castle, the stag beetle loser swearing revenge and doing all he can to get her regardless of her feelings and opinions. The duel escalates into outright warfare between two kingdoms climaxing in an explosion that ultimately resolves nothing and kills everyone. Starewicz seems to have had quite a dark sense of humour.

The animation is very well done, the insects moving as bipeds but otherwise acting and moving in ways we might expect insects to move and to hold heavy swords in their claws (rather clumsily, as it turns out). The backgrounds and sets are minimal in style but quaint enough for stories of insect derring-do. Viewers may find one scene in which the noble lady beetle and her lover being fanned by attendants bearing huge feathery fans especially endearing. The messenger bearing a letter from the rival is given a kick and forced to return to his master in abject ignominy.

No matter how eccentric and Ruritanian the beetles’ universe is, with two rivals duelling for a lady’s favour, and their armies fighting desperately, ultimately the rival kingdoms are subject to the whims of the Cosmic Joker – in their case, Starewicz himself – who sees fit to destroy both kingdoms, all for nothing more than jealousy over a lady. Human wars have often been fought over even more trivial and / or less worthy causes. Ultimately there will be no winners. Had Starewicz known of the destruction that was later to come in a few years, no doubt he would have been horrified at his own prescience.

“The Beautiful Leukanida” appears to be one of the earliest stop-motion animation films by Starewicz still in existence, and is worth watching mainly to see the high technical standard the animator had already achieved early in his career. The plot intentionally resembles a fairy-tale in its setting and in the way it develops, yet in its climax and resolution it becomes a modern, even prophetic warning of the dangers of human, all-too-human rivalries and jealousies.

The Cameraman’s Revenge: the camera as a mirror of human behaviour as performed by insect puppets

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1912)

A deftly crafted and delightful animation short, this silent film comments on human foibles as performed by realistic insect puppets and on the role of cinema as a mirror of human behaviour and society, as a voyeur and as a purveyor of information and news. Mr and Mrs Beetle’s marriage has been stale for some time and both husband and wife are carrying on affairs with others. Mr Beetle has been seeing an exotic dragonfly dancer most nights and Mrs Beetle has been chummy with a grasshopper artist. The exotic dragonfly dancer’s boyfriend, who happens to be a cinematographer, vows revenge on his adulterous partner by secretly filming the dancer’s trysts with Mr Beetle.

Mr Beetle comes home early one evening and finds his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. He clobbers the missus with the lover’s painting and the grasshopper narrowly escapes being squashed dead by escaping through the fireplace and up the chimney and running off after a fight. Later feeling remorseful, Mr Beetle takes Mrs Beetle to see an outdoor movie. None other than the dragonfly dancer’s boyfriend is screening the film and he inserts film of Mr Beetle’s secret meetings with the dancer into the movie. Incensed at her husband’s hypocrisy and disloyalty, Mrs Beetle starts whacking hubby with her umbrella and he falls through the movie screen. He and the cinematographer get involved in a fight and the movie projector bursts into the flames. The last we see of the Beetles is in prison, where they vow to be faithful to each other.

In 10 short minutes, we have a complete and somewhat complicated little story of unfaithfulness, secret affairs, anger, revenge, hypocrisy and violence culminating in remorse and reconciliation. Sometimes people don’t appreciate what they have until they nearly lose it through their own selfishness and stupidity. The detail with which the insects are depicted as they perform human actions – they do them in the way we’d expect insects to, if they could walk on two feet – and the intricate miniature surroundings draw viewers into their little world. The stop-motion animation is obviously a labour of love, care and devoted attention. Colour is used in the film to suggest particular moods and perhaps to signify a darker, more complex change in the narrative.

Already at such an early stage in the development of the cinema and animation, director Starewicz uses the device of a film within a film to reflect back to characters (and the audience as well) their own actions, which may lead to an intensification of the plot or effect profound and long-lasting changes in the characters’ behaviours. The ambition behind the film and the energy invested in it are immense.

This zany little romantic comedy flick is far better than much animated product being produced with digital tools these days, and is highly recommended viewing.

MH17 – Call for Justice: independent journalists’ investigation and findings create more questions than answers about the official investigation

Yana Yerlashova, “MH17 – Call for Justice” (Bonanza Media, July 2019)

Five years after the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 passenger jet was shot down in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, the investigation led by the Netherlands, Ukraine, Australia and Belgium (and including Malaysia intermittently – the country was not included on the Joint Investigation Team for the first six months of the investigation) is no closer to coming to a definite conclusion, based on a definite chain of evidence, as to who actually bears the responsibility for shooting down the jet. Instead the JIT continues to adhere to a narrative, publicised almost as soon as the jet hit the ground, that supposedly Russian-backed separatists fighting the Ukrainian military brought the plane down with an SA-11 missile launched from a BUK missile delivery system. This documentary proceeds from the JIT’s public naming of four Donbass fighters as being responsible for ordering or leading the shoot-down, and global mass news media’s parroting of that announcement. The Bonanza Media team of investigative journalists, led by Yana Yerlashova and Max van der Werff, travel across the globe, from eastern Ukraine to Europe to Malaysia, to interview people including the current Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir, German aviation lawyer Elmar Giemulla, one of the accused Donbass fighters Sergey Dubinsky, members of the public in Kuala Lumpur, independent German journalist Billy Six, a friend of a passenger on the doomed jet, and local residents in the area where the plane went down, to get their views on the investigation and on what actually happened, and find that what actually happened on 17 July 2014 was very different from what the JIT claims and what the rest of the world believes.

While the documentary can be a bit confusing in the way it dashes from one aspect of the Bonanza Media team’s own investigation to another, and each aspect seems remotely related to the next, quite a few things become very clear. The team discovers that the Ukrainian security service SBU’s phone-taps of conversations Sergey Dubinsky had with his fighters were edited and tampered with after the journalists take tapes to IT forensic investigators in Malaysia for examination and analysis. One jaw-dropping fact is that five years after the incident, various parts of the jet can still be found in the countryside around where the plane fell. The journalists come across a large part of the wing in a field and watch it being transported to a Ukrainian woman who deposits it and various other pieces of wreckage into a large shed, promising to deliver the scraps to the Dutch. Villagers in Stepanovka, the area where MH17 tell of what they saw on the day: they say that military jets shadowed the passenger jet while a missile launched from a site held by Ukrainian forces (contrary to the official narrative) headed towards the jet. Along the way, videos that have been used by the JIT to support the official narrative are examined and found to have been spliced together in ways that belie the dates when they were originally made, to suggest that the Donbass fighters received support from Russia and fired the missile. Independent Dutch journalist Stefan Beck tells the Bonanza Media team that he interviewed a Ukrainian military air traffic controller who tells him that the Ukrainian government misinformed the JIT about three radar stations being switched off on the day of the crash (they had actually been switched on).

Many questions arise from this documentary: why was Ukraine allowed to join the JIT but not Malaysia? why did the JIT rely on Ukrainian SBU’s suspect phone-taps as evidence on which to indict Sergey Dubinsky and three other men? why did the JIT not do a thorough job in collecting all the evidence and why is the team uninterested in the evidence the Bonanza Media team and others have found? Why is eyewitness evidence being ignored? All these questions suggest that the investigation was prejudiced against Russia from the outset and remains prejudiced for geopolitical and strategic reasons.

Viewers may be surprised that the documentary is quite short, less than half an hour, and is rather rough around the edges, finishing very quickly and zipping through the end credits. Some aspects of the journalists’ own investigation are quite thorough in coverage and others not so much so. The documentary needs to be seen in conjunction with other online, printed and visual materials and information that query the JIT’s investigation and the conclusions it reaches, and the disgustingly shoddy way in which that team conducted its search and analysed the evidence collected.

A society fragmenting in “Dying Alone: Kodokushi, Japan’s epidemic of isolation through the eyes of a ‘lonely death’ cleaner”

Artyom Somov, “Dying Alone: Kodokushi, Japan’s epidemic of isolation through the eyes of a ‘lonely death’ cleaner” (RT.com, March 2019)

Since 1945, the increasing Westernisation of Japanese society – and with it, longer life expectancies, smaller families, increased urbanisation and housing shortages, combined with labour mobility (often involving long commuter journeys) – has encouraged a weakening of family ties with the result that more and more elderly people are living alone. Of course, conservative social attitudes toward the role of women in caring for the elderly and government policies (often governed by such attitudes – because the dominant political parties in power have been socially conservative) with regard to caring for the aged can also be blamed for the rise in the number of aged people living alone. Another phenomenon, mentioned briefly in the documentary about to be reviewed, is the massive infrastructure works undertaken by the Japanese government in the 1950s and 1960s which employed thousands of young men from the countryside to help repair cities devastated by war; now, after 50 or more years later, these men have reached retirement age but have nowhere to go. They long ago lost contact with their families, their wives or partners are long gone and their children have gone as well. With more aged people living on their own, more aged people are dying alone: the phenomenon has come to be known as kodokushi (lonely death).

Somov’s documentary follows a man who runs his own cleaning company specialising in cleaning the homes of kodokushi people. The majority of kodokushi people seem to be elderly men living on their own. The manager admits he used to be a musician but social and family pressure – and the decline and death of his grandmother – directed him to running a specialist kodokushi cleaning company that cleans the homes of kodokushi people and removes their possessions. While the bodies have already been taken away, the excretions (and often the maggots and maggot shells) from rotting bodies have to be cleaned up. The company manager and employees do a thorough job clearing away possessions and storing them in the company warehouse, and cleaning the home. The possessions – especially any dolls, which in Japanese tradition may be inhabited by the souls of the dead – are later prayed for and blessed by a Buddhist monk, so that they are free to be resold to recycling companies or sold secondhand. (The kodokushi company earns its money from recycling or selling the items it collects from the homes of kodokushi people.)

The film crew also visits a restaurant owner whose patrons are mainly elderly people living on their own. The owner also runs a cottage for lonely elderly men. The film crew visit a hospital where medical workers show elderly people how to keep their joints flexible. A woman volunteer – we do not know who she works for – goes on one of her weekly trips to see an aged gentleman to make sure he is using his foot ointment and is eating and drinking healthily. Apart from these examples, we do not know how Japanese society generally and government institutions in particular are dealing with the issue of elderly people who have no families to rely on and are living on their own.

The sad isolation that afflicts Japanese society in so many different ways – the phenomenon of hikikomori (young people who shut themselves away from society from months or years on end) is well known – is present throughout the documentary. The pressures of a socially conformist and hierarchical society, overlaid by Westernisation / Americanisation and the utilitarian values adopted by past governments that view people as little more than robots, have resulted in a highly atomised society where social links not related to work have become very fragile. It seems that the current government under Shinzo Abe (whose grandfather Nobosuke Nishi was once also prime minister and had a controversial war criminal past) is ideologically at a loss as to how to resolve such social and political issues that its political conservative predecessors had a major hand in creating.

Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster): Masha and kasha aren’t a good mix

Oleg Uzhinov, “Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster)” (2009)

Despite its title, this charming little short turned out to be the animated children’s series’ recipe for success, its Russian-language version gaining more than 3.4 billion views on Youtube and as a result becoming the most viewed non-music video on that platform. The story is simple and straightforward but contains a little lesson about how one should accept responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences that accrue from them.

Bear is trying to teach himself how to play checkers using a guidebook but gets stuck over a game in which he plays both sides and now White is out-pointing Black by 5 to 1 literally. Bear doesn’t quite get the hang of checkers being a strictly competitive game where the object is to win, and not a game where the competition is in striving to be the best you can be and everyone gets to win. His little human charge Masha doesn’t help by stealing the black piece and trying to play hockey with it. Bear pops her outside the cottage with a real hockey puck and forces Hare, caught stealing carrots from the garden (again!), to play goalie. After a while of hitting goals, Masha and Hare demand lunch so Bear puts Masha in charge of cooking kasha (buckwheat porridge) and goes off into the woods to concentrate on his checkers game. Masha ends up raiding all the cupboards for kasha and pouring it all into the pot, mixing water and milk into it; the resulting boiling mix threatens to over-pour everywhere so she dumps as much as she can into as many pots and pans as she can, and takes them all out to the forest animals to feed them all. Even the wolves resident in the abandoned ambulance van up on the hill get overfed on kasha.

Meanwhile, Bear finally reconciles himself to the fact that Black has lost the game so he packs up and returns to the cottage just in time for the inevitable explosion …

The CGI animation emphasises bright colours and sharp lighting contrasts which give a sunny mood to the cartoon. The action is quick and zippy which allows a lot of story to be packed into a 7-minute cartoon. All the animals featured in the story are mute which make Bear’s patiently stoic and forbearing attitude and the other animals’ surprise all the more funny. The story brings out Masha’s mischievous yet lovable character as she is forced to face up to the mess she creates.

One hopes that Bear has learned not to leave Masha by herself in the kitchen again, but given that this episode has been the most popular of the entire series, perhaps the creators can’t resist having Bear forget what happened when he left Masha at home alone … maybe that’ll be another lesson to be reinforced.

The Mirror: a loose autobiographical work on memory, history, nostalgia and regret

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Zerkalo / The Mirror” (1975)

For most viewers, Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” won’t be the easiest film to follow: the narrative follows a stream-of-consciousness structure and dives at will (and going back and forth between them) into three time periods representing its main character’s childhood, adolescence and current situation in which he, a poet, is in his 40s and dying from an unknown respiratory illness. In all of these time periods, he has unresolved issues in his relationships with both his parents (and his mother also has unresolved issues and conflicts with others), his ex-wife and his son. The ex-wife and the son have difficulties in their relationship as well, and a big part of that problem may stem from the difficulties each is having with the husband / father. Now on the verge of death, the poet (unnamed and not shown to viewers) looks back over his life and regrets the decisions he made and actions taken or not taken, and wants to make amends – but time and his failing health do not permit such atonement.

The plot relies heavily on aspects of Tarkovsky’s own life and that of his parents – as in the film, Tarkovsky’s father was a poet (and some of his poetry is quoted in the film) and his mother was a proof-reader. Scenes of the poet’s childhood take place in a beautiful bucolic countryside that could be close to Moscow – but already there are forebodings of dark events to come. A strange man claiming to be a doctor visits the poet’s mother and she seems to fall in love with him. The family barn bursts into flames and people stand by watching slack-jawed when fire destroys it – during a rain shower. Strong winds start up without any warning whatsoever, rippling over overgrown grass and knocking over tea cups and saucers on garden tables.

Scenes set during the poet’s adolescence take place during the Second World War (known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union and the current Russian Federation) and here the film starts to make connections between the poet’s personal life and the wider historical context in which he lives his life, and how major historical events impinge on people’s lives, taking away loved ones and thus setting off a cycle of actions by the poet and the people he associates with, the repetition of which the poet appears to recognise only when he is dying.

In keeping with the film’s dream-like world, the experiences of the poet’s mother and ex-wife (both roles played by the same actor, Margarita Terekhova) and their son Ignat (Ignat Daniltsev, who also played the poet as a young boy) are also very surrealistic, particularly in a scene where Ignat, left on his own at home in the apartment block, visits a neighbouring apartment and the woman there invites him in for tea, asks him to read from a book and then later disappears mysteriously, crockery and all. The rooms seem to change as well and we do not know if Ignat is back at home or still next door. Real or naturalistic scenes co-exist with scenes from the imagination; it may be that Tarkovsky is attempting to capture as much of the human experience in all its beauty, glory, pain and suffering (there is considerable historical archived film of the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese-Soviet border wars included) into a visual work that reflects back that experience.

Themes of guilt, regret, nostalgia and longing, desire, and the repetition that reinforces these emotions, along with how memory and history can cause or buttress them, are very prominent in this film. The natural world with its mystery and apparent randomness is a significant character to whom humans accommodate themselves. The poet’s mother accepts her place in the universe, having done what she could, and achieves a contentment her son has always sought.