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.

Bank Mortgage Fraud Explained: how the Australian banking industry preys on small borrowers

Denise Brailey, “Bank Mortgage Fraud Explained” (Citizens Electoral Council, September 2018)

Denise Brailey of the Banking and Finance Consumers Support Association (BFCSA) gave a presentation to the Citizens Electoral Council in Perth in 2018 on the mortgage fraud currently being perpetrated on the Australian general public by the banking and finance industry with the connivance of the Australian government and the supposed industry regulator APRA. Brailey makes a case that this scamming by the industry is systemic and any consumer protection laws covering the mass rort are so inadequate as to be mythical. Her presentation is based on her experience as a consumer advocate on behalf of older and low-income Australians who have been the victims of predatory financial scams by manipulative banks and mortgage brokers, and who have received little or no help at all from unsympathetic lawyers and regulators who should have been working in the victims’ interests.

Brailey’s talk is very dense in terms of the information, backed up by anecdotes from her own experience in dealing with lenders and borrowers, and other examples, and summarising what she says is difficult without omitting important (and often outrageous) information about how bank lenders apply their agenda of asset-stripping their clients, in particular those clients deemed rich in assets but poor in income, such as retirees and pensioners who own their own homes. The banksters’ agenda, as she portrays it, is to seize borrowers’ assets by offering loans of huge amounts of money that are impossible to pay off: examples of such loans include interest-only loans, low doc loans (loans that do not require borrowers to present documentation showing their ability to pay, and which target low-income households), 30-year loans and loans tailored to the Henderson Poverty Index, forcing even middle class Australians into poverty by underestimating their basic consumption expenses.

Brailey’s conversational style, while clear and informative, can be rambling and irritating for viewers who want useful information about how the banking industry acts as a cartel in pushing a particular process onto its employees and sales representatives on how to market and sell loans that maximise the profits and benefits to the banks and pass on all costs to borrowers. Fortunately the PowerPoint slides featuring bullet-point summaries of what Brailey covers are a major part of her presentation.

At the end of her talk, Brailey provides a list of what prospective borrowers need to be aware of and what they should insist on. Unfortunately she and the BFCSA pin their hopes on a full Royal Commission that will expose the full extent of the corruption in the Australian banking and finance industry and the egregrious lengths they knowingly go to, to deceive borrowers, target vulnerable demographic groups with misleading information and deceptive practices, and blame borrowers when they get into trouble. Not enough is done in excoriating the Federal and state regulators who more often than not support the banks and other lenders, and do not enforce the legislation regulating lending or the punishments that apply when the law is violated. Above all, the very system of banking and the free market ideology and principles underlying it, the regulatory regime that supposedly polices the system and the lenders within it, and the politics behind the industry and the regulatory regime, all of which allow the banks to prey on and rip off people with dubious loan types, are not criticised.

Loro: a portrayal of political corruption and debauchery seduced by its own excess

Paolo Sorrentino, “Loro / Them” (2018)

Originally made in two parts totalling three hours, this fictional drama about Italian media magnate and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and his circle of business pals, sycophants and hangers-on, was condensed into a 145-minute flick for foreign audiences, which would explain the strange narrative jumps and the shaky narrative itself which initially focuses on young businessman Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio) eager to ingratiate himself with Berlusconi (Toni Servillo) to gain favours for his clients and ultimately a nice comfortable job with much money and power and little responsibility for himself, and then switches over to Berlusconi and follows him all the way to the end, discarding the young follower and his friends with no explanation as to whether they all achieved what they wanted. A bewildering parade of people, fictional and real, and many of them lasting only a few minutes, pass through Morra and Berlusconi’s lives on screen.

While Servillo is excellent in the role, with his clown-like face masking over a character entirely lacking in integrity and ethics, concerned only with gaining more power and wealth (and to hell with the consequences for Italian politics and democracy, and Italy itself), and is the centre-piece around whom the film revolves, viewers unfortunately will learn very little about how Berlusconi came to be a wealthy media tycoon and how his wealth and connections helped to vault him into the nation’s leadership. What viewers will see is the brash and tawdry life-style Berlusconi led during his reign as top-dog and the people that life-style attracts: the parade of young escort women who will do anything and everything (and more besides) to get close to heady power; the gangster-like bodyguards and minders who surround him; young pimps like Morra who regard Berlusconi as a role model; and the various politicians Berlusconi buys. Berlusconi’s mansions are luxurious if not particularly tasteful and the parties he and Morra throw initially look like a lot of fun but become repetitive and banal. It’s as if, in attempting to detail how debauched and empty Berlusconi’s world is, the film itself ended up being seduced by the debauchery and its gaudy superficiality.

While the film’s focus was on Morra and Berlusconi, at least there was some tension and direction (will Morra get what he desires? will Berlusconi deliver?) but once Morra is literally out of the picture and the focus turns to Berlusconi to the exclusion of everyone else, the film limps through a series of sketches. Only the earthquake in L’Aquila, leaving working-class survivors homeless and destitute, provides the moral backbone that tests Berlusconi’s character and that of Italy itself. While Berlusconi manages to cough up money to rehouse the homeless, the real job of salvaging Italian society and its soul falls to the ordinary people as represented by the firefighters who retrieve a statue of Jesus from the rubble of a destroyed church.

The film does a very good job of portraying the empty and corrupt world of those who have more money than they have the mental faculty to deal with it all but says nothing about how Berlusconi bought and cheated his way into it and corrupted Italian politics and state institutions in the process – nor about the people and organisations, legal and illegal, that helped him along the way.

Perhaps the funniest part of the film is the sketch where Berlusconi, believing himself to have lost his persuasive abilities, thumbs through a phone book and phones an unnamed woman and tries to sell her an expensive piece of real estate: the disgruntled recipient doesn’t fall for the sales pitch. After this sketch, we don’t see this woman any more. Apart from this and other occasional gems, the film’s moral heart looks as shaky and shallow as the world Berlusconi created around himself.

The Making of a Modern British Soldier: how ordinary people are trained to become killing machines

Ben Griffin, “The Making of a Modern British Soldier” (Veterans for Peace UK, October 2015)

All you see in this video uploaded to Youtube is a man in mufti standing before a white blank wall, telling the story of his life from the time he was old enough to walk and ask questions of his grandfather about his experiences as a military man and his medals – but what a story he tells, about the propaganda and indoctrination he was subjected to as a teenage army cadet well into his training to be an SAS marine; to the physical and psychological methods used in the British armed forces to mould ordinary people into elitist psychopathic killers; to his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq war after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein; to his realisation that Western forces in Iraq had merely replaced Hussein’s government in terrorising people, and moreover were protecting Western corporate interests in Iraq (all intent on making money and profits from grabbing and selling the oil and other natural resources that rightfully belonged to the Iraqi people) instead of bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to a long-suffering nation. Former British SAS marine and co-founder of Veterans For Peace (UK) Ben Griffin tells the fascinating true story of his old life as a killing machine and how he, like many other people in the British armed forces, had been seduced by highly romanticised military histories and tales of derring-do to join an army cadet group and army camps for teenage kids who were not academic. As an army cadet, Griffin was allowed to smoke, drink and do all sorts of things that youngsters in civilian institutions were discouraged from doing, and from this beginning, the notion that he and other teenage army cadets were special, a higher grade of human who could look down on everyone else, took hold.

Griffin speaks in great detail about the military values instilled into him and they make for frightening listening: following orders from above instantly and without hesitation for fear of punishment; Spartan-like loyalty to one’s own unit and hatred of everyone else; the enforcement of discipline by punishing an entire unit for one individual member’s mistake; and the removal of one’s natural aversion to killing people with methods including sleep deprivation and repetitive drills. The end result of such intense inculcation must surely be an emotionally and spiritually hollow shell of a human, into which fanatical beliefs and behaviours, a hatred of anyone and anything different, even on the flimsiest criteria, replace empathy and compassion. Punishments for mistakes are severe and brutal.

Griffin’s turning-point in his old military career comes during his deployment to Basra in southern Iraq where, after witnessing or being party to grave injustices committed by the British on Basra civilians, he realises that he can no longer stomach the lies that have been shovelled into his head over the years and which he starts to doubt. He is uneasy at the presence of Western corporations with their private security in major cities in Iraq, and what that presence and the security details might say about US-led allied forces and their actions and behaviour.

The film cuts out abruptly while Griffin is still describing how he became involved with the Veterans For Peace organisation in the US and decided together with fellow former soldiers to set up their own British chapter. By this stage, he has said more than enough about how military recruits are effectively manipulated and broken down into dehumanised sociopaths and how British forces, mingling with US and other allied forces, engaged in torturing prisoners (usually culled from the civilian population by raiding their homes and taking male residents) at “black sites”. For this reason, reports of “US forces” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East / North Africa, and maybe other parts of the world, can be assumed to include forces (plus mercenaries from private corporations – and, depending on the region involved, freelancers, militias and naive people recruited via social media or personal / community networks, often portrayed in the media as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists” when the situation permits) from other Western nations.

Griffin’s talk, peppered with anecdotes and very surprisingly detailed information about aspects of British military culture, is highly informative and lively. Griffin’s description of how he as a child fell for the relentless ear-bashing propaganda and how he signed up for army boot camp for wannabe teenage soldiers like himself is especially chilling. This talk is recommended listening for Griffin’s animated style and the information he offers.

It is no wonder that extreme fascist / neo-Nazi / white supremacist beliefs find a ready home among the armed forces in most Western nations if Griffin’s experience is typical of what most young people who join the armed forces, often because the only other choice available to them is the dole queue, are exposed to.

Round-up of Films seen in 2018

Dear Under Southern Eyes Readers and Followers,

So 2019 is already upon us – which means a Round-up of the films that I believe are significant for viewers is in order!

I certainly saw far more films in 2018 than I did in 2017 – perhaps I saw more films last year than the previous two years’ combined total! – so my list will very large indeed. As you already know, the films I consider significant won’t necessarily be films the general public or even those deemed expert film critics will consider good. They may even be films that fall far short of what they intended to say.I

Of the many dramas, comedies and other films falling between these two categories that had their first release in 2018, one of the most impressive of these was the very last film I saw in 2018 and this is Adam McKay’s “Vice”, as a study of evil at its most cynical and hollow, even though it was significantly compromised by its obvious anti-Trump / anti-Republican and pro-Democratic stance and the lack of depth in its study of former US vice-president Dick Cheney’s character. Another excellent film was J van der Welde’s “An Act of Defiance”, though I did note its treatment of black people as rather passive actors or bystanders in their own defence and in supporting the central character of Bram Fischer and how that treatment could be construed (ironically perhaps) as discriminatory and demeaning.

I saw many good documentaries and those I would most recommend include Diljana Gaytandzhieva’s “Diplomatic Viruses” for its focus on US bioweapons research in Georgia as part of the general Western drive towards war against Russia; Clayton Swisher’s four-part series “The Lobby” for its analysis of the Israeli government’s insidious reach into the British political establishment, extending well into both the major political parties and their structures; Michael Oswald’s “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire” on the transformation of British imperialism transformed into a financially based global network that continues to dominate the world, impoverish and enslave nations, and threaten the very survival of the planet itself; Jenan Moussa’s “Undercover in Idlib”; Hernando Calvo Ospina’s “Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda”; and Alexander Korobko’s “NYC to Donetsk & back”. (Since the last mentioned documentary was made, Donetsk head of state Alexander Zakharchenko died in a terrorist attack in August; he will be sadly missed by his people and many others around the world.)

Of course there were many disappointing films and films that should never have left Development Hell: those in the latter category include Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for its prudish and homophobic treatment of the life of British rock star Freddie Mercury; and Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” for being a typically hack Ridley Scott film. Andrei Zvyagintsev (“Loveless”) continues to plough ever deeper in his circular rut making films portraying Russian society under Vladimir Putin as materialistic, greedy and self-obsessed, and increasingly fascistic, as though such characteristics are unique only to Russia and not to Western societies as well. As for disappointing films, I single out Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” (for portraying a passive view of Mexican society in the early 1970s, not explaining or attempting to understand the various incidents that occur in the film); Bjorn Runge’s “The Wife” (just plain over-rated by film critics); and Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” (another very over-rated flick).

As for what 2019 will bring, I expect that the quality of Hollywood product will continue to decline, and foreign directors and actors will dominate as film industries in their own countries dwindle under austerity programs or commercial and government pressure to make bland propaganda films, and they are forced to go to wherever the opportunities exist. The British film industry will concentrate more and more on producing historical propaganda mush that idealise a 1930s Britain that never existed, in which a small upper class elite dominates and everyone else knows their place in the hierarchical pecking order, as part of its role in prodding and pushing Western publics towards supporting war against Russia and China that will enrich arms manufacturers and their shareholders (some of which are the very individuals and corporations mentioned in Michael Oswald’s documentary I mentioned above).

Whatever happens in world film in 2019, I wish you all a Happy New Year and Happy Viewing!

Regards, Nausika.

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.


Roma: a passive film where characters react to major events with blankness

Alfonso Cuaron, “Roma” (2018)

Conceived as a homage and dedicated to his birth family’s housemaid and nanny Libo, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” brings together a soap opera chronicle centred around a year in the life of a teenage housemaid working for a privileged middle class family in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City with elements of situation comedy, drama and social documentary. The film is slow and laid-back, its plot unfurling its secrets at a leisurely and straightforward pace, immersing the viewer in its sub-plots and the lovingly detailed if chaotic environment of Mexico City in 1971; yet with the use of black-and-white film, “Roma” does keep an arm’s-length distance away from the viewer, and focuses on celebrating human strength and endurance in the face of often overwhelming tragedy, pain, violence and above all indifference from forces larger than the individual and the community in which she lives.

The film begins with Manita (Yalitza Aparicio) going about her daily chores in the household of a hospital doctor, his biochemistry teacher wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and their four boisterous children, with whom Manita establishes very deep emotional bonds. Viewers may notice early on that editing tends to be sparse and scenes are very long, with the camera following characters in long panning actions; this not only has the effect of involving the viewer in a voyeuristic relationship with Manita, which at times can be uncomfortable as well as emotional, but also renders the film as passive and reticent as its main character. In her free time, Manita is seeing new boyfriend Fermin, who lives in a slum neighbourhood and is training in martial arts. Yalitza soon discovers she is pregnant; at the same time, Sofia’s doctor husband leaves his wife and family. From then on, Sofia struggles to keep up appearances, taking her children and Manita on holidays to relatives and friends’ plush mansions in the country, and Manita, assured by Sofia that she won’t be sacked for being pregnant, continues doing the household chores. At one point in the film, Manita seeks out Fermin and finds him at a martial arts training session, but Fermin vehemently rejects her and the unborn child.

The rest of the film follows Manita’s pregnancy as it progresses and the tensions developing within Sofia’s family as the children realise that their father is never coming home. While the characters suffer various and often tragic personal setbacks, a second narrative becomes more and more obvious: the film shows the stark contrasts between the lives of the wealthy in their clean, orderly neighbourhoods and the tastefully designed city districts they frequent, and the lives of the very poor in the slum outskirts of the city. Characters make remarks about government rural clearances and take-overs of peasant farms which are given to rich landowners or private companies. One theme in the film is the insidious influence of the United States in Mexican society in the movies Manita watches in the cinema or on television, and in the presence of the CIA agent overseeing Fermin and other martial arts trainees at the session. The intrusion of politics and other dark forces that neither Manita nor Fermin understands comes quite late in the film when, while shopping for a baby’s cot with Sofia’s mother, Manita is caught up in the Corpus Christi massacre that followed a university student demonstration demanding political freedoms for workers and peasants, and reforms in education that would benefit the poor and the indigenous people especially. The martial arts training that Fermin has been taking is now revealed as paramilitary training under the umbrella of fascistic group Los Halcones directed by Mexican security forces and the CIA.

The film is crammed with various technical, visual and narrative devices and themes which are not drawn out and elaborated on in much detail. The men in this film seem unwilling to accept their responsibilities to their families in a traditionally patriarchal society. Women have to shoulder the burden of caring for children and maintaining the family unit under much political and social pressures. Cycles of birth and death revolve continuously in the film to the extent where the mere presence of water – especially flowing water – instantly signals to the audience to get ready for signs of birth or Christ-like resurrection. Indigenous people lose lands that have been theirs for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years to the government and the local and foreign elites who control it; these people, like Manita, must go to the overcrowded cities to find low-paid and physically arduous work.

Because the characters in the film are either submissive to authority or living their lives in a cossetted world sealed off from the reality and complexity of Mexican society in the early 1970s, they stay flat and undeveloped. Their reaction to the great political and social crises of their time – the ongoing conflict between fascistic Mexican governments, backed by the CIA, and socialist-oriented groups (including student groups); the government persecution of farmers and indigenous peoples, forcing them to flee to the cities which quickly become overcrowded mega-cities – is blank. The unfortunate takeaway message from “Roma” is that humans must continue to endure with resignation the punishments and repressions rained upon them by fascist forces both local and abroad, while trying to live their own lives as best they can, with all the pain and misfortune that Lady Luck might throw at them. No appeal to the audiences for sympathy and compassion for suffering, and to rally viewers into thought, word and action against the forces responsible for keeping Manita and her people in poverty, and for manipulating Fermin into doing thuggish dirty work for the elites so they can continue ruling as despots? No such luck when one works for Hollywood.

The tragedy of “Roma” is that it throws away all opportunities to champion those like Manita who keep the wheels of society functioning and to call for these people to have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as those they serve. Instead the film treats her, Fermin and their fellow underlings as passive curiosities with no voices of their own.

Climax: French society in microcosm with all its stresses, anxieties, hidden secrets and a dark puppet-master

Gaspar Noe, “Climax” (2018)

In the hands of Argentine-French director Gaspar Noe, a story about a group of young dancers hired to be part of a dance troupe to tour the US becomes a launching pad for a downward exploratory spiral into the deepest, most depraved chasms of human psychology. The young cast of hip-hop hopefuls, each individually interviewed and eagerly expressing their ambitions to take the dance world by storm, rehearse in an old school building for several days and then hold a party to celebrate. Too late they discover that the bowl of sangria punch has been spiked with LSD and they all succumb to the drug’s hallucinogenic and other more serious side effects. As the music throbs and pounds in the background, and coloured lights flash and pulse overhead, the young dancers’ psychological barriers and inhibitions give way, any desires, prejudices and grudges they hold for or against one another come out into the open, and they explode into physical and sexual violence.

Even though it’s not a long film at 96 minutes, “Climax” nevertheless can feel like an endurance test, due to the relentless, in-your-face intensity of the dancers’ suffering and helplessness under the influence of acid. It is cleverly structured in three parts: the first part, consisting of the dancers’ audition interviews, establishes who the youngsters are and their hopes and feelings about the great adventure they’re embarking on; the second part of the film, shot in one single take, showcases their energetic free-form krumping style, followed by a succession of quickly edited pieces where various dancers converse in pairs about others in their group; the third part of the film, when the dancers realise they have been drugged, is the most nightmarish and technically inventive section as the camera closely follows individual dancers, smoothly switching from one to another as they pass each other in dimly lit corridors or on the spinning dance floor. A definite narrative hierarchy is established, suggestive of a transition from stability or life through a portal into chaos and death, and investigating in cursory ways issues that evoke anxiety in modern human society: unwanted pregnancies, abortions, suicide, incest, mutilation, ostracism, death. Like the ritual it is, sacrifices are demanded by this narrative, and sacrifices in all their dreadful tragedy there are.

The cinematography may be disorienting, with the camera taking bird’s-eye views or hanging upside down, and usually following characters closely behind as they run and stumble for help, but the scenes are never jumpy or jerky, and the picture is always clear. I never felt nauseous at any time while watching the film (and I have had problems in the past watching films like “The Blair Witch Project” where the camera often jerked about). The intense, garish red and green lighting adds to the general sense of unease, disorientation, paranoia and the hellish surroundings of a school building that has seen better days.

The ethnic and religious diversity of the dancers, their varying sexual orientations, the French flag as a backdrop behind the DJ spinning the vinyl, and the anxieties, prejudices and fears the young people express as they are overcome by the combination of alcohol and acid may all symbolise 21st-century French society in microcosm, with all its hidden issues, stresses and problems, whose causes lie far back in France’s dark colonial or politically and socially conservative, often repressive past, and which threatens the delicate social balance that (now as never before) might break at any moment. One might discern that the LSD represents dark forces in French society – it has its own Deep State that may be at once separate from and linked to other nations’ Deep States – that manipulate different groups in France and pit them against one another in constant conflict and violence, all so they are easier to control and can never discover who their true oppressors are. The revelation at the end of the film of who is responsible for spiking the sangria suggests as much.

The film’s end credits are placed at and near the beginning of the film so that when it finishes, viewers are suddenly and unexpectedly thrust back into cold reality. One does not know when the nightmare really ends … or has it really just begun?

Death of Yazdgerd: a slow film illustrates how the common people are caught between two repressive forces

Bahram Beyzai, “Death of Yazdgerd / Mard Yazdgerd” (1982)

Running close to 2 hours with a small cast, a heavy emphasis on dialogue to push its plot and message, and a very minimal and claustrophobic setting, this film betrays its origins as a stage play. Beyzai not only directed this film, he wrote the screenplay and produced it as well. Perhaps as a result, too much of the stage play and the style of acting it requires appear in the film to the extent that the action gets stuck going round and round in a groove while the actors flail about, banging on one story or another over and over and working themselves and each other into near-frenzy. The film drags very slowly and viewers unfamiliar with pre-Islamic Persian history and culture will find it very boring.

The film is based on the actual death of the last Sassanian shah, Yazdgerd III, in 651 CE while fleeing Arab forces invading the Persian empire: tradition has it that he was killed by a miller who was after his purse. In the film, the King is already dead and the Miller (Mehdi Hashemi), his Wife (Susan Taslimi) and their Daughter (Yasaman Arami) are on trial for his murder. The judges who have the power of life and death over them are a Priest (Mahmoud Behrouzian), a General (Amin Tarokh) and a Commander (Karim Akbar Mobarakeh), all of whom are very inclined to execute the impoverished family on the spot if they say anything that turns out to be a trigger word. Desperate to save their necks from an improvised garrotte, the three family members offer various exculpatory versions of how the King died in the hope they will be pardoned: initially the family mistakes the king for a bandit having robbed the King of his wealth and finery; in another version, the King has seduced the Daughter; in yet another version, the King has killed the Miller and exchanged clothing; in still another alternative story, the King is keen on the Wife instead and suggests eloping with her. In the meantime, while the family construct ever more elaborate and contradictory stories on how the King died, Arab forces are steadily wiping out the shrinking Sassanian armies and are encroaching upon the Miller’s hut where the trial is taking place.

The actors – in particular Hashemi and Taslimi – put in excellent and intense performances, even though they can be very theatrical and not a little tiresome in parts. One must suspend disbelief and take for granted that a poor farming family far out from the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon has intimate knowledge of the King’s palace and its architectural arrangements. As the story constantly shifts, and the responsibility for the King’s death bounces from one person to the next (even onto the King himself), the viewer will marvel at the extent the Miller and his family are prepared to lie, or feel guilty as the lies pile up, one on top of the other. At some point in the film, the Daughter appears to be possessed by the spirit of the King himself and starts saying things only the King and his most intimate companions would know. Something of the rigidly hierarchical society and the belief in the near-divine status of the King – to the extent that even the Priest and the old General have never seen the King’s bare face – is revealed.

Through this film, Beyzai comments on the stagnant, corrupt and hierarchical society presided over by the Pahlavi shahs (their power underpinned by British and American support) from 1925 to 1979, and how that society was soon replaced by an equally repressive society supposedly based on Islamic principles. The King himself is revealed as a presumptuous autocrat who treats his subjects badly and whose lifestyle is far removed from the vast majority of Persians who toil endlessly to pay the heavy taxes that support the King’s lavish court. At the same time, the Arab forces that will soon defeat and make history out of the Sassanians are portrayed as dark savages carrying black flags, in contrast to the Sassanians’ white flags.

The Islamic government that replaced the Pahlavis quickly saw the historical parallel the film makes with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and what the film insinuates about the theocratic arrangements, and banned the film from being shown in cinemas. As the trial reaches its climax and the judges prepare to make their verdict, viewers who have stuck thick and thin with the meandering plot will be surprised by the fairy-tale nature of the outcome, which turns out not to amount to much when (to paraphrase a cliched utterance by one of the characters) history will be written by the victors.

Diplomatic Viruses: a deeply disturbing film about a US military laboratory in Georgia

Diljana Gaytandzhieva, “Diplomatic Viruses” (Al Mayadeen, 2018)

Bulgarian journalist Diljana Gaytandzhieva gained fame early in 2018 for uncovering and reporting on shipments of weapons from EU countries through Azerbaijani airline Silk Way Airlines to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, some of which later turned up among terrorists in Syria, over a period from 2016 onwards: for this reporting, she was sacked by her Bulgarian newspaper employer. Recently Gaytandzhieva has been in Tbilisi, Georgia, interviewing residents living near the Richard Lugar Research Center, a military laboratory currently being utilised by the US Department of Defense, and hearing their complaints of smells and strangely coloured smoke emanating from that facility at night, and of pollutants smelling like rotten eggs being piped through their neighbourhood and into local waterways from the facility. Through her interviews and gaining access to documents from insiders, Gaytandzhieva finds that the facility is being used by the US government to research biological and chemical weapons, and that disease pathogens, mosquitoes and various chemicals are being transported as diplomatic cargo to the facility by people from the US embassy in Tbilisi. She attempts to get access to the laboratory and to speak to an entomologist apparently working there but is constantly rebuffed and threatened. At one point during her stay in Tbilisi, she is locked in her rented apartment and is forced to call emergency services to help her get out.

This documentary, filmed for Al Mayadeen TV news channel, and narrated by Patrick Henningsen (of 21Wire) off-camera, follows Gaytandzhieva closely as she uncovers one disturbing fact after another. Why is the US ferrying frozen human and disease pathogens as diplomatic cargo to the Lugar Center laboratory? Why is there an entomologist (Joshua Bast) working there? Is research being done on dangerous mosquito-borne diseases? Is there a connection between the work being done at the Lugar Center and an outbreak of Crimea-Congo haemorrhagic fever in Georgia back in 2014/5? Residents living near the Lugar Center mention four Filipino nationals being seriously injured and two of them dying: were these four people poisoned by dangerous chemicals at the facility? Why are researchers at the Lugar Center collecting DNA and RNA samples from Russian people? Why are there private companies also using the resources at the Lugar Center and what are their interests in doing so? Why did the Georgian government sign an agreement with the US Department of Defense in which Georgia has to give up control over what happens at the Lugar Center and over what researchers, government and private alike, do with effective diplomatic immunity?

To Gaytandzhieva and the Russian government, what the US is doing at the Lugar Center and in other laboratories in over 20 other countries is conducting research and experiments in biological and chemical weapons, often using human tests subjects, even communities, without their consent and with often dire consequences for neighbourhoods and even whole small towns surrounding these laboratories. In recent years since the US established military research labs in Ukraine, the number of exotic disease outbreaks including outbreaks of botulinism poisoning has risen alarmingly.

That the US is collecting and presumably testing DNA and RNA samples taken from Russian people should be of great concern: do the Americans plan to create a virus or bacterium that will target Russian Federation nationals but no-one else? How do the Americans propose creating a disease that targets specific ethnic groups but not any other? What they are doing is impossible in the case of Russians because Russians have absorbed many peoples in the past and will have a highly diverse genetic pool compared to other populations. Would the US be able to control the pathogen if it were to spread to nations outside Russia and into its own territory? (Would the US government even care?) The documentary digs fairly deep into issues of great medical, political and environmental importance.

This is a very worthwhile and important video to watch. Gaytandzhieva has done an excellent job at great personal risk to herself.