The Family: a moving documentary on a bizarre religious cult that preyed on social utopian ideals and yearnings for a better life

Rosie Jones, “The Family” (2016)

For over 20 years, the quiet town of Eildon and the Melbourne suburb of Ferny Creek played host to a bizarre religious cult led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her de facto husband Bill. Initially teaching a syncretic mix of Christianity and mystical Hinduism, the cult adopted and developed a set of beliefs that taught that a global apocalypse caused either by human hubris or a natural disaster would wipe out most of humanity and there would be only a few survivors. Those survivors would be led by select leaders and the cult’s goal was to supply those leaders by finding and cultivating young children. To that end, Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s cult, known as The Family, recruited members from Newhaven psychiatric hospital in the Melbourne suburb of Kew and collected children from cult members or through adoption organised by doctors, lawyers and social workers associated with the cult. Between the mid-1960s and 1980, The Family had gathered as many as 28 children, all of whom were kept secluded from the outside world, told that Anne was their biological mother, home-schooled and forced to undergo a severe upbringing that included frequent beatings and physical abuse, irregular schedules that Anne changed at whim, and dosing with dangerous psychiatric drugs and hallucinogenic substances like LSD and psilocybin. Only after one of “her” children was expelled from the cult for rebellious behaviour did Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her sycophants come to the attention of Victorian police. Despite limited resources, the tireless detectives raided the buildings at Lake Eildon where the children lived and released them in 1987. Little did they know that after years of beatings and brainwashing that their true ordeal was to begin as Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne fled to the United States.

The documentary proceeds through the use of interviews with the now adult children who endured years of hell, with ex-Family members (and one current member) and with the two police investigators Lex de Man and Peter Spence (?) who poured all their own physical and mental resources in chasing leads to get arrest warrants for the cult leaders and who themselves suffered immensely due to lack of support from their own employers, to trace the history of The Family, how it gained popularity among the upper middle class in Melbourne during the heady days of the late 1960s, coming out of a stultifying and repressive post-World War II culture, and Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s background of childhood poverty, her own institutionalisation and her ability to prey and capitalise on people’s yearning for alternatives to a repressive Christianity and the Sixties’ flirtation with Hinduism. The story is not told chronologically – it does jump back and forth from past to present and back again – and viewers need to piece much information together for themselves. Unfortunately the film gives rather scanty and hodge-podge information about The Family’s teachings which are a mix of apocalyptic Christian beliefs – cult members are told that AH-B is a reincarnation of Jesus – and Hindu beliefs in reincarnation and karma; it may be that the cult’s beliefs changed a great deal over time, more and more favouring AH-B as the messianic fount of all knowledge as she became more controlling and sociopathic. AH-B’s obsession with collecting children with blond hair might indicate an underlying obsession with racial hygiene.

While the film tells us very little about the psychology of AH-B herself, and how she was able to hold so many intelligent and educated people spellbound over several decades, viewers can get some (but not much) idea of the social / political context in which The Family arose and managed to last for so long. Australia in the 1960s was coming out of a long period of social isolation and repressive religion, and the country was exposed to new ideas and beliefs about alternative living and value systems from overseas. There was experimentation with mind-altering drugs as forms of escapism, spiritual awakening and release, and therapy; more sinisterly, the same drugs were being used in mind-control experiments sanctioned by the CIA in North America. One reason that The Family may have lasted as long as it did was that the cult had allies in prominent social and public life in Melbourne who did all they could to stymie police and media investigations going as far back as 1971. The detectives interviewed in the documentary speak of inadequate resourcing and time given to their work, their request for a Royal Commission being knocked back, and an internal police culture that refused to deal with the stress and the trauma of seeing so many people badly affected by years of physical and mental abuse. Ultimately though the film says nothing about whether The Family constitutes a bizarre aberration in Australia’s social and cultural history or if something very like it could appear again in the country. Through AH-B’s own childhood experience of an unstable family life, her crazed attempts to recreate that life and her own institutionalisation in a way that she could control, and how her ideal unravelled so disastrously, we might question the place of institutions like family and notions of what constitute proper parenting in a society where these institutions and beliefs are continually challenged by rapid technological, social and cultural change.

The film pays tribute to Sarah Hamilton-Byrne (later Dr Sarah Moore) who after being expelled from the cult in the late 1980s alerted Victorian police to its existence and activities. Dr Moore continued to experience mental health issues as a result of her upbringing and died in 2016. The documentary is very moving and often depressing as individual cult members describe their experiences. Ultimately though, more questions arise than the film has answers to meet them, as the cult still survives and its victims have not all been compensated or healed.

 

Sergei Lavrov’s Speech to Military Academy of General Staff, Moscow: a summary of Russia’s place and direction in the new global political order

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s Speech to Senior Officers of the Military Academy of General Staff, Moscow (23 March 2017)

On 23 March 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a speech to senior officers of the Military Academy of General Staff in Moscow. Lavrov chose to focus on Russia’s role in international politics – a not surprising choice, given his position as foreign minister for such a large and varied nation as Russia is. The entire speech is not long – less than 20 minutes – but it is worth examining as it summarises how Russia has come to have the role it has and how its role fits into the new global political order of the early 21st century.

First Lavrov lays out the very specific and essential values and principles that support and influence the role the Russian state plays in international politics. One factor gives Russia a very solid foundation that most other countries can only dream about: sheer physical size that gives the country a variety of physical environments and climates, abundant natural resources and a unique location straddling and uniting both Europe and Asia. This factor is a result of Russia’s expansion across Siberia and central Asia over the centuries, resulting in many different peoples and cultures residing together, suffering together and working together to build the nation. Such experience gives Russia a unique point of view and paradigm that enable it to encourage dialogue among different nations and to form partnerships among nations, civilisations and religions in which all are considered equal.

Given Russia’s history of different peoples, faiths and societies sharing the same space under one government, we should not be surprised that Lavrov emphasises public respect for the state that encompasses all these peoples and provides them with security, stability and a share in the collective wealth they create. This respect enables the state to be strong enough to pursue domestic and foreign policies beholden to no other country. In other words, respect for and trust in a strong government go hand in hand with a secure economy (financial and productive), a cohesive if not homogeneous national culture encompassing a rich history and traditions, and the state’s ability to safeguard all of these and other elements that help to provide and enforce stability. These factors together provide what might be called “soft power” that Russia can project and model to other nations.

From here, Lavrov discusses Russia’s role in international politics, in particular the country’s role as an economic and political centre to which other countries are drawn. He notes the improvement in Russia’s military capabilities and the nation’s determination to use military power in strict compliance with its own laws and with international laws to defend its own interests and to assist other nations that call on it for help. In this, Lavrov cannot help but notice that other major nations use their military to pursue agendas that violate their own laws and international laws, and that infringe on other countries’ sovereignty and overthrow their governments with the intent to occupy their lands and drain them of their resources while the true owners are displaced, forced to serve their occupiers and to live in poverty or are scattered around the planet.

Lavrov sets considerable importance by historical traditions and trends in helping to determine Russia’s role in world politics since the nation became a major European power under Tsar Peter I (1696 – 1725) after defeating Sweden in the Great Northern War in 1721. He observes that efforts on by other countries to shut out and deny Russia (or the Soviet Union) as a major power have ended badly: one might ask Napoleon I or Adolf Hitler for an opinion in this regard. Nevertheless even today Europe and the United States through the EU and NATO have sought to demonise the country and its leaders by painting Russia as a poor, developing (or deteriorating) nation or making false accusations such as invading Ukraine, forcing people in Crimea to vote for “annexation”, helping to shoot down a civilian passenger jet over Ukrainian territory or infiltrating and hacking other countries’ electronic databases for the purpose of throwing elections. In particular Russian President Vladimir Putin is portrayed as an authoritarian and corrupt despot who salts away large sums of money into offshore investment funds owned by personal associates or in expensive palaces and vineyards.

Surveying the world as it is, Lavrov sees that power is definitely shifting away from the North Atlantic region (the US and western Europe) towards the Asia-Pacific region (in particular China) and Eurasia. In addition Latin America and Africa are taking on more importance as regional power blocs in their own right. A multi-polar world that is not dominated by any one nation or power bloc is inevitable. In such a world, a nation that considers itself exceptional, not bound by the lessons of history, and believes it can force its interpretation of democracy (as a cover for its real agenda) onto others will end up bringing instability, chaos and extreme violence instead. In the long term, that nation will also become weak and become unstable. The changes that are bringing about a multi-headed international order demand that countries work together and cooperate in a spirit of mutual respect and equality, and not to compete against one another.

In this, Russia can set an example by pursuing a pragmatic and consistent foreign policy based on its experience and history as a nation of different peoples and cultures living and working together in diverse environments to achieve common goals in relationships of cooperation and mutual respect.

Lavrov’s speech is significant inasmuch as it supports speeches and interviews given by Vladimir Putin that also stress mutual respect among nations and cooperation based on common interests or desires to solve common problems. The speech also demonstrates very clearly that Russia is aware that its approach and foreign policy, even its very existence, are perceived as threats by the United States and its allies in Europe and elsewhere. Russia is aware that the Americans are following an agenda inimical to Russian interests and to global peace and security. Pressure is on Russia then to pursue its interests and to try to uphold international laws and conventions in ways that don’t ratchet up global tensions and give the US an excuse or an outlet to cause war or create the conditions for them. Surprisingly this is not difficult for Russia to do, given that what currently passes for political leadership in the West is mediocre at best.

After the speech Lavrov took questions from his audience on issues such as global media / information and Internet governance (with respect to cyber-security, combating hacking and dealing with propaganda and false media narratives), rescuing and returning Russian prisoners of war in Syria, limiting strategic arms (nuclear and conventional), the use by the United States of staged and managed chaos across North Africa and western Asia, the split between globalist politicians acting on behalf of transnational corporations and “populist” or “nationalist” politicians claiming to represent the voice of their publics, the changing nature of war to include non-violent means of waging war (through control of the Internet and media, for example), and Russia’s interests in the Balkans. The questions show the audience’s concerns and depth of knowledge about what it considers to be the key issues facing Russia in its neighbourhood. Lavrov’s replies reveal a sharp intellect at work, tremendous historical and geopolitical knowledge and a keen interest in contemporary global affairs.

The speech and the Q&A session that follows can be viewed at The Saker. An English-language transcript follows.

Memoirs of a Geisha: overblown rags-to-riches soap opera romance with a shallow and conservative message

Rob Marshall, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2002)

Essentially a variation on the Cinderella story through Western stereotypes about geisha and their role and function in Japanese society, “Memoirs …” is an overblown rags-to-riches rise of a young girl from an impoverished farming family living in Japan in the early 20th century. The child Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is packed off to a geisha house to work as a servant. There she meets the haughty geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who kicks the child around. In spite of the bullying and numerous beatings from Hatsumomo and the mistress of the geisha house, Chiyo dreams of becoming a geisha herself. A chance meeting with a stranger known only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) sets Chiyo on the path to becoming a maiko (apprentice geisha) under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) who teaches her dancing, music and the art of conversation among other skills she needs to be a geisha. Through the years Chiyo grows into a beautiful young woman and is renamed Sayuri. Sayuri becomes a highly accomplished geisha and her beauty becomes legend. Of course this riles Hatsumomo who with another traine maiko called Pumpkin plots against Sayuri.

In its first half the film is slow and laboured in building up Chiyo’s background as a downtrodden servant who holds fast to her dream of becoming a geisha. The movie only starts picking up speed once the Chairman meets Chiyo on a pedestrian bridge and then Mameha appears at the geisha house to offer to train the girl. Events move quickly and the film becomes more interesting and sumptuous. Hatsumomo becomes even more of a threat to Sayuri as she determines to ruin the younger woman’s reputation permanently. Yet as Sayuri triumphs in her chosen career, she discovers numerous career shortcomings: other geisha are jealous of Sayuri’s rocketing to fame and many men vie to become Sayuri’s danna (patron) but her heart yearns for the one man who could take her away from having to entertain male clients for a living and give her true love.

Tailored to Western audiences and their knowledge – or lack thereof – of Japanese culture, the film does not strip away very many common stereotypes about the geisha profession. Viewers knowing little about how young girls train to become maiko and then geisha will get no help from whatever information the film proffers. Whatever independence is demonstrated by geisha – the woman running the geisha house where Chiyo meets Hatsumomo is very indomitable – is often undermined by some of the dialogue and the voice-over narration portraying geisha as women whose futures depend entirely on ensnaring a wealthy danna. The reality is that while many geisha do need a rich patron, the world of geisha houses is completely dominated by women: they run the geisha houses, they recruit and train new geisha and they are responsible for their own incomes and the incomes of the geisha houses they run. In short, geisha are more often than not independent and capable businesswomen. Instead the movie focuses on the soap opera situations Sayuri finds herself in but her character and the characters of the rest of the cast are bland and colourless; only Gong Li’s bitchy and cruel Hatsumomo offers something meaty if somewhat overdone. Yeoh is wasted as Sayuri’s okiya Mameha and likewise Watanabe as the Chairman drifts in and out ineffectually for much of the film. The acting overall is capable but not great.

As expected of a film about geisha, based on a best-selling novel, and with a big budget, the cinematography is excellent, the costume design is lavish and the interiors of Japanese geisha houses and tea houses are beautifully designed and constructed.

Ultimately the film is a shallow exploration of a character’s survival through at least three tumultuous decades in Japanese history without providing much detail about how becoming a geisha has made Sayuri the wise elderly narrator looking back over her life. The movie’s plot shoehorns what might have been a story about endurance and patience during a period of dramatic change, crisis, war and foreign occupation into a live-action Disneyland romance. In doing so, it demeans the intelligence of Western viewers by delivering a conservative message that also reinforces stereotypes about Japanese women and society.

Hero: a smug film that twists Chinese history and delivers a deplorable message

Zhang Yimou, “Hero” (2002)

If one needs proof that a visually gorgeous film with a good cast can ultimately be undone and wasted by a demoralising and ugly plot and theme, Chinese director Zhang’s “Hero” is it. That the film was tailor-made for Western audiences featuring a mix of Chinese and Hong Kong actors is even more of an insult to both the Chinese (for distorting the history on which the film is based) and Westerners who might assume that Chinese people passively prefer stability and corruption over change and good government. What’s really puzzling is why someone of Zhang’s stature as a director saw fit to make this film.

The film’s story takes place during a period in China’s history well over 2,000 years ago when the King of the Qin state has been brutally conquering and uniting competing neighbouring kingdoms and is on the verge of becoming China’s first emperor. The King has recently – and only just – survived being assassinated by three sword-fighters known as Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. A prefect known as Nameless (Jet Li) arrives at the King’s court and claims to have fought and killed these assassins. His tale is told in flashback. The King (Chen Daoming) counters Nameless’s story by proffering his version in which Nameless had staged his fights with the three assassins who volunteer to die so that Nameless can bring the swords of Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) to the monarch as “proof” of their deaths. This forces Nameless to admit the truth, that he has a special ability to inflict apparent death without touching vital organs and used this to “kill” Snow in front of the Qin army. Before leaving for the capital for his meeting with the King with the two assassins’ swords, Nameless is shown two characters written by Broken Sword in the sand which together explain why Sword, when he had the opportunity, decided not to kill the King.

The film proceeds at a good clip until it divides into its three sub-plots – each differentiated by a dominant colour (red, blue, green) – whereupon it bogs down in soapie weepiness as the lovers Sword and Snow dispute over which of them should fight Nameless and “die”, and whether vengeance on the King for having despoiled their own country of Zhao is the right thing to do. Sword’s decision not to kill the King on the basis that a peaceful, unified state is better than constantly warring ones and that, for all his brutality, ruthlessness and paranoia, the King of Qin must be the best man to achieve that peace, has an effect on Nameless when his moment comes to attack the King.

The morality of the decisions Sword and Nameless make is very dubious to say the least. Is the unification of China, and with it the achievement of peace and stability, really worth the severe suppression of difference and dissent? Should genocide of an entire nation and its culture, language and history be the necessary sacrifice to achieve unity and peace? Is there no other alternative to passive resignation and allowing a brutal ruler to run roughshod over vassal states as he sees fit? If the film is serious about its theme, then it leaves a very sour taste in this viewer’s mouth. The political implications of such a theme for Chinese and Westerners alike are immense: can a utilitarian approach to politics, achieving what most people desire only at the cost of the lives of a minority, be acceptable?

The film’s insinuation that the King of Qin is pressured by his court and army to execute Nameless is even worse propaganda, suggesting that Chinese people essentially are bloodthirsty thugs who do not know mercy and compassion, and that the King wouldn’t have been the tyrant and despot he was if he’d not been subjected to so much pressure by vengeful mobs.

Apart from the smug and inhumane message, the film suffers from weak character development and an over-emphasis on computer-enhanced martial arts ballet. An excellent acting cast is wasted as are also the cinematography and slick special effects.

High-Rise: an attempt to criticise Western and British society results in a collection of boring soap opera sub-plots

Ben Wheatley, “High-Rise” (2015)

British author J G Ballard’s novels and short stories are famous for their perceptive originality on the condition of 20th-century humankind and its relationship with modern civilisation, aspects of which are a veneer for vicious social control and repression of the imagination and therefore of the human potential for transformative change. Unfortunately Ballard’s writing does not translate to the screen all that well: his heroes, being everyday empty vessel men falling into synchrony with their techno-environments, are passive and bland, and lack individuality and motivation. Characters are vehicles through which Ballard explores and criticises modern life and trends in technology and culture. Plots are not too well defined and readers can predict in advance that their protagonists will follow in the wake of whatever is the narrative’s focus to its very extreme.

The film “High-Rise” follows its Ballardian premise fairly closely – it’s even set in 1975, about the same time the novel was published – and as a result the narrative is a string of related sub-plots in which characters adapt to life within a residential tower supposedly designed to meet all their needs and fantasies. Protagonist Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into his unit seeking anonymity but discovers his neighbours are so interested in him (for various reasons) that he can’t help but be pulled into their incessant partying that travels from one apartment to the next. Through single mum Charlotte (Sienna Miller), Laing gains access to the building’s architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) who lives at the penthouse level and takes him into his confidence. At the same time Laing becomes friendly with Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) who lives on one of the lower levels with his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their children.

The viewer becomes aware of the social hierarchy that develops with the highest levels of the building being inhabited by elite residents and working class people living at the lowest levels. Wilder becomes obsessed with making a documentary about the building and its residents after an accident in which a man, Munrow, falls to his death from the tower goes uninvestigated by police. Wilder believes that Royal is responsible for the social injustices that arise within the building and prepares to confront him.

While Laing is being initiated into elite society – at the end of which initiation, we do not know what will happen to him because his initiation never gets that far – and Wilder pursues his obsession, the building’s infrastructure starts to fail and exposes the social tensions among the various floors. Violence breaks out, people roam from one party to the next, vandalism and destruction become commonplace and garbage goes uncollected. People no longer leave the building to go to work and gradually cut off their connections from the outside world. Feeling guilty over Munrow’s suicide death, Laing loses his grip on reality.

The film would have worked better had it been set in the present and the building’s degradation attributed to the use of substandard materials and labour to reduce its costs to please its architect and shareholders. In this way, the building becomes a metaphor for neoliberal economics and its failure to deliver a decent standard of living to those unfortunate enough to live in societies where the neoliberal capitalist ideology holds sway. The failing services in the building also become a metaphor for the erosion of the social welfare net. The tensions and violence that develop among the residents become understandable and anticipated. Had the film relied less on its source material and the director brought in a social anthropologist to help write the script, the plot would have become more hilarious and interesting as gang warfare develops among different floors, people steal food or trade children or sex for it, and tribes with their own rituals (including ritual sacrifice) and religions develop. Royal could revel in his role as a George Soros figure, using opposed groups against one another in a divide-and-rule strategy to maintain his elite status and power. Laing would find his niche as Royal’s eyes and ears, wandering through the building and reporting back on the intrigues and power shifts on the different floors, and eventually become his successor.

As it is, “High-Rise” is a monotonous plod through various soap operas within a massive brutalist (if very comfortably and stylishly furnished) prison asylum with an open-ended conclusion. The film aims to criticise British culture and society, and to do that as cutting satire, but fails dismally in this respect. Good actors are wasted and the sometimes beautiful and imaginative cinematography seems awkward and out of place in a supposed dystopian comedy.

This is one example of a film that should not have followed its source material too faithfully; it should have been a development from the novel and a companion piece that comments on its themes and ideas..

Spring: character study on renewal through love and connections, and beating back monsters

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, “Spring” (2014)

A rather long and thin character study romance that’s equal parts comedy, drama and gore-blimey slimy body horror makes up this low-budget flick “Spring” whose title ends up overburdened with many layers of meaning by the time the final credits start rolling. A young Californian, Evan (Louis Taylor Pucci), has just lost his mum from cancer and follows that crisis with another when he loses his dead-end job as a restaurant cook after a fight with a customer. All at sea with no other family and no idea what to do, he accepts an invitation from friends to go travelling with them and he lands in southern Italy. He takes up a job (an illegal one, it turns out) with a farmer and strikes up a friendship with local 20-year-old girl Louise (Nadia Hilker). This friendship quickly develops into a romance, or so he thinks … it’s just that Louise behaves a bit oddly, standing him up at the most inopportune times, due to a terrible secret she carries …

The intention for this film is for it to draw its strength from the character study of the two lovebirds and the deep and complex relationship they develop. There certainly is chemistry between the two young actors who play Evan and Louise. Unfortunately much of the dialogue isn’t very convincing, especially in the drawn-out denouement where Louise explains the nature of her protean shape-shifting condition and how she needs to renew her human shape every 20 years to remain the 2,000-year-old alien-human hybrid entity she is. Parts of the action seem a bit forced at times – just how does Evan figure out in a split second that Louise needs her syringe in one horrific scene? – and the film never explains satisfactorily how in 2,000 years no-one has noticed that Louise has always looked much the same without ever ageing, or that animals and humans occasionally turn up dead in the streets, in the fields or out at sea bearing the most hideous mutilations. Come to think of it, even Louise doesn’t appear to have learned a great deal in 2,000 years on how to manage her condition; one would have thought that in all that time, she would have acquired specialised knowledge of herbs, medicines and recipes to keep her Lovecraftian love-handles at bay and everyone else from guessing the nature of her curse.

Parts of the film could have been tightened up for pace and dialogue and the running time could have been cut to about 100 minutes without too much of the plot or its message being affected. On a superficial level, the message of renewal through love and finding connections comes through clearly; on a deeper level there is an exploration of what it means to be human and mortal, and to know immortality through means other than the purely physical. Just as Evan learns to live again by making new connections and falling in love, so Louise has to learn what true immortality really means and the sacrifice she must make to achieve that. The film achieves closure when both cross into their own existential and metaphysical springs.

Filmed in southern Italy, the movie has many beautiful rural and maritime settings, and the cinematography, using filters that render outlines a bit blurry (as though to emulate the blurriness of the tragic heroine’s real looks, which viewers never see in their entirety), creates mood and feeling very effectively. One does start to care for the lovebirds and their potentially doomed romance and the climax is a satisfying and graceful close to the themes raised in the film.

Night of the Living Dead: cult horror classic is a character study and commentary on American society

George A Romero, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Made on a minuscule budget, George A Romero’s famous horror film is proof that a large pot of money isn’t necessary to create a great film that still resonates with new generations of viewers nearly 50 years (as of this time of writing) later. “Night …” is essentially a character study whose plot is driven by the behaviours and motivations of the various people thrown together in a farmhouse due to an unusual emergency. A brother-sister pair visit their deceased father in a rural cemetery and are later set upon by a mysterious ghoul. The brother is killed and the sister, Barbara (Judith O’Dea), flees for her life and makes her way to the farmhouse. Ben (Duane Jones) takes her in and from this moment on, Barbara spends the rest of the film suffering from post-traumatic shock. Ben barricades the farmhouse from attacks by ghouls, at least until he discovers that a family has been sheltering in the building’s cellar. Much of the rest of the film revolves around the conflict between Ben and the family patriarch Harry Cooper (Ken Hardman) which explodes into a fight for the one rifle the besieged humans have among them when the ghouls launch a mass attack on the farmhouse.

While the plot writes itself – there is not much a group of humans in a farmhouse under attack from flesh-eating monsters can do apart from trying to prevent ingress and arguing about the best way to do this – the interest in the film stems from Romero’s casting choices and the many ways in which the film up-ends conventional Hollywood stereotypes about plot and character. Hiring a black actor to play the more sane and compassionate Ben endows the film with a social justice theme: in emergency situations, people must rely on one another for help and safety regardless of their social and economic backgrounds. The humans in the farmhouse become a metaphor for Western rationality and enlightenment surrounded and threatened by ignorance, bigotry and hatreds from white America’s dark past of its relations with black and native Americans. Harry Cooper, a white man, behaves selfishly and indirectly causes his own death. The radio that the humans depend on gives them information about how the ghouls came to be: news that the ghouls are dead people reanimated by radioactive fall-out from a fallen satellite rams home a warning about how nuclear warfare and related technologies can have dire consequences for the survival of humankind.

Ben and Harry’s argument is significant in defying audience expectations about aspects of the plot: Ben argues for safety on the building’s top level and Harry wants everyone down in the basement cellar; as it turns out, when the zombies invade the farmhouse, Ben takes refuge in the cellar! Another way in which the film defies conventional story-telling is that when US authorities finally arrive at the farmhouse to rescue any survivors, they end up killing the sole survivor of the mass zombie attack as well as the zombies themselves. This downbeat ending underlines the film’s message that in the end, death overtakes us all and what matters is how we have lived our lives before then.

The film’s minimal style and the cast’s naturalistic acting – and Barbara’s trauma – ensure that it remains fresh even after half a century since it was made. The many innovations and breaks with conventional story-telling introduced by “Night …”, along with its raw natural style and underlying message about humans, endowed with intelligence and reason but unable to work together to solve common problems because of social and cultural barriers, not only spawned an entire new genre of zombie movies but cements its status as a classic American film.

The Coming War on China: a hard-hitting documentary drawing on the history of US relations with the western Pacific

John Pilger, “The Coming War on China” (2016)

Two years in the making with literally a cast of thousands involved in crowd-funding it, Pilger’s “The Coming War on China” might have lost some of its edge due to the passage of time and the ascent of US businessman celebrity Donald Trump to the United States Presidency but it’s still a timely warning of the possibility of war between the US and China and what it means for the countries of the western Pacific Ocean region from Japan and the Koreas in the north down to Australia in the south. The entire documentary is planned like a 2-hour news bulletin / current affairs program complete with four different yet related sections that make up the context to a possible war: the relationship of the US over the decades to the peoples of eastern Asia/ Micronesia, as exercised through American military power, the rise of China from a dirt-poor country to near-superpower status over the last 100 years, and the efforts of peoples in the western Pacific to resist American arrogance, bullying and destruction and to reclaim their lands, dignity and futures.

Pilger’s presentation pulls no punches and is hard-hitting and gritty. The first section of the documentary deals with the American takeover of the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific and the US military use of the islands for nuclear testing. Although the islanders were evacuated before the testing, they were encouraged to return to their homes some years later in spite of the US government’s knowledge that the islands were still radioactive. Through interviews with surviving islanders, Pilger details the horrific health effects such as leukaemia and thyroid cancers that they have had to suffer. Children were born with deformities and mental disabilities, creating an even greater burden on island parents. On those islands with US military bases, the islanders are kept in virtual concentration camps where they dwell in poverty and squalor, and each day are shipped out to the bases in the mornings to perform menial work and in the evenings shipped back home by the authorities.

The second section of the film deals with China’s relations with the West since the 1800s and focuses on the opium wars between China and the British Empire. China’s loss meant that the country was forced to continue buying opium from Britain to feed a growing number of addicts who would constitute a veritable lost generation. A startling revelation is that later US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather was a prime mover and shaker in the opium trade. Pilger glosses quickly over the fall of the Manchu empire, the later warlord period and the rivalry between Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi and Communist leader Mao Zedong. After Mao’s death in 1976, Communist party leadership passed to Deng Xiaoping who initiated the economic policies that led China to prosperity but which also brought greater social inequalities, urban poverty, mass migrations and cemented China’s role in the global economic network as Workshop of the World to the detriment of working peoples in other lands as Western corporations outsourced manufacturing work from their countries of origin to China to take advantage of cheap labour and a relaxing of industrial regulations.

The last sections see Pilger travelling to Okinawa, Jeju island in South Korea and other places to interview people engaged in various forms of resistance to US military bases and continued abuse of the local people through crimes committed by soldiers and contractors (who end up being whisked back home and are never brought to justice) and through scientific experiments misrepresented to locals as beneficial and harmless.

Each section is worthy of a documentary in its own right – indeed, a documentary “Nuclear Savage” was made of the Marshall Islanders’ plight by Adam Horowitz in 2012 – and the links among them and how they form the background to US aggression against China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea will look tenuous to most viewers. The detail can be mind-boggling and viewers are sure to feel knackered when the end credits begin.

The one thing lacking that could have really pulled this entire documentary together more tightly is an examination of the political, economic and financial systems that bind the Wall Street financial industry, arms corporations, the US Department of Defense, the White House, Congress and the various lobby groups on Capitol Hill that fund Federal politicians’ election war chests. Pilger does not go into much detail as to where all the billions of greenbacks spent on the military actually go: he notes that some military equipment is increasingly faulty, causing danger for local people living near military bases on Okinawa and other parts of Japan, but does not link this to the corruption in US defense spending in which hundreds of millions spent seem to go down a black hole drainpipe and the Pentagon is unable to account for the lost money. Pilger needs no farther to look than the trouble-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program with its notorious cost blow-outs, various defects and the possibility that the whole concept of a generalist stealth fighter jet reliant on electronics is impractical and outdated.

In spite of the emphasis on US government arrogance, racism and stupidity, Pilger’s underlying message is that people armed with knowledge of past US crimes can resist and push back against US power. If audiences knew the truth of what has and continues to be done in their name, they would reject the lies and propaganda that the corporate media establishment surrounds them with. How people can fight back, Pilger does not say: he cannot offer a general program of how people can and should resist US global tyranny, as resistance needs to be localised and diverse in its tactics.

The Truman Show: comedy drama satire encapsulating the search for authenticity for self and community under conditions of control and manipulation

Peter Weir, “The Truman Show” (1998)

Once in a while Hollywood releases a film that encapsulates philosophical ideas about the purpose of life and the human desire for freedom and autonomy under conditions of control and manipulation. That the film was made as a comedy drama featuring a bizarre science fiction plot in which ideals about American family life and culture are satirised in a virtual reality framework is an added bonus and such a film, if made well, has the potential to become a classic. Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” nearly hits all the right notes in this respect. The film’s presentation is spotless and its titular main character, played by Jim Carrey, is endearing – but the film is not perfect and is probably a bit too low-key for its mainstream audience.

Truman Burbank (Carrey) lives on Seahaven Island, a bright seaside community where he was brought up. He sells insurance and is married to Meryl (Laura Linney), a nurse. Unbeknownst to Truman, his whole life has been lived in a continuous TV reality show “The Truman Show” masterminded by director Christof (Ed Harris). The film’s plot basically demonstrates how Truman comes to realise that his whole life has been on display to global TV audiences through incidents such as a spotlight falling out of the sky, point rain falling on him and an out-of-town police officer he does not know calling him by his first name. Truman’s efforts to find out the truth of his life and discover the lie he has led make for very funny comedy. At the heart of his odyssey lies his attraction to and love for Sylvia (Natascha McElhone) played by an actress who tried to warn Truman that he was being exploited but ended up being thrown off the show. Eventually after many mishaps and incidents that involve Truman overcoming his fear of water, and a sailing ordeal during which he nearly drowns in storms sent by Christof’s technical crew, Truman discovers that he has indeed been living in a bubble and finally meets Christof who tries to persuade him to return to Seahaven Island.

Carrey plays Truman very well as cartoon character and as someone struggling to find the truth about his existence and the community in which he has grown up. Probably the major fault with Carrey’s portrayal is that he does not display much emotion but the narrow range of emotions that do appear agrees with the nature of the character that he plays: Truman is basically a fake character and Seahaven Island represents an artificial and unrealistic ideal. The confrontation with Christof is restrained and short, and while audiences might have expected much Sturm und Angst, the breakthrough is that Truman wrestles control of his character and destiny away from Christof. Truman finally becomes a real person with a real future ahead of him; it may be messy and uncertain, and he will most certainly find that truth and reality are even more elusive in a world living through simulated reality, but his journey now becomes his own to make.

The plot tends to be repetitive with Truman going from one scrape to another as he tries to discover the truth but the direction is tight and brisk. Truman’s jump from being aquaphobic to confidently piloting a boat out in the middle of Seahaven Island harbour is rather forced but it does break with the previous monotony of the script. Perhaps the film could have been a bit longer with a slower pace and more opportunity for character development and depth in Christof and minor characters.

The themes that “The Truman Show” raises about manipulating and controlling people for profit, and about manipulating a social ideal and recent American social and cultural history to shape audience desires in the service of profit are highly provocative. Add to this mix a classic narrative about an individual’s search for meaning and purpose to his life and self-discovery in an original plot, and the continuing relevance of the film to audiences even today can be clearly seen.

A Cat in Paris: a whimsical children’s action thriller film paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock

Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, “Une Vie de Chat / A Cat in Paris” (2010)

Some kitties are happy to spend their hours traipsing from one household to the next getting free feeds but here’s a pussy that lives two of its nine lives in parallel: by day it’s a little girl’s companion and by night it roams the roof-tops of inner-city Paris with a cat burglar! Yes, in this slim animated family film, the cat Dino leads a double life straddling both sides of the law as accomplice to abseiling thief Nico and beloved pet of Zoe, a lonely child traumatised by the death of her police officer father. Her mother Jeanne, a police superintendent, is on the trail of the killer Costa. Little does Jeanne suspect that the nanny Claudine she hires to care for Zoe is in fact in league with Costa and his team of hapless gangsters who themselves are part of a team of workers moving a priceless museum antique known as the Colossus of Nairobi which Costa wants for his own collection.

The film starts a bit slowly but gets going once Zoe decides to follow Dino on his nocturnal rounds and she falls into the clutches of Costa and his thugs very quickly. Dino and Nico rescue the child but Costa’s determined pursuit of Zoe draws everyone into a continuous action thriller plot that ranges through the streets and across the roofs of Paris, culminating in a stand-off involving Costa, Nico and Jeanne at the Notre Dame Cathedral in sequences that pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock films like “To Catch A Thief” and “Vertigo”.

The film is most notable for its animation style that harks back to surrealist and minimalist modern art styles used in the 1950s when animation cels were painted. Characters look a bit crude but there are moments in the film where the surrealism is effective, especially in those scenes where lights are blacked out and one character puts on night goggles. The plot is a Hitchcockian story that features a McGuffin object (the Colossus) and two characters who may be in search of love and who are brought together in the most unexpected way. I’m not sure that the plot is all that suitable for children to watch: it is quite violent in parts (the running gag with the barking dog is funny but unnecessary) and for all his bluster Costa is a very sinister and malevolent figure. His henchmen on the other hand are clowns and buffoons, and one gets the impression that the film is trying to satisfy too many expectations and audiences and is failing at achieving any of its ambitions. Few of the characters are at all convincing and they are very one-dimensional.

In all, this is a very pleasant film which could have been a major children’s animation classic but falls far short. The film could have done with another half hour to flesh out its characters and develop the plot into something a bit more realistic while still remaining whimsical.