The Syria Deception (Part 1: Al Qaeda Goes to Hollywood): a blunt examination of the cynicism of Western propaganda

Dan Cohen, “The Syria Deception (Part 1: Al Qaeda Goes to Hollywood)” (2018)

This first part of a two-part series is a blunt and uncompromising examination of how Hollywood collaborates with the US government and its agencies in creating propaganda films that misrepresent the war in Syria and demonise the Syrian government and President Bashar al Assad. Narrated by Dan Cohen, the program uses the recent HBO documentary “Cries From Syria” (screened at the Sundance Film Festival and available on Netflix) as an example of the propaganda being promoted by Western news media outlets.

The incredible and cynical lengths to which the Western media and entertainment industry goes in creating such propaganda to convince Western audiences to support an invasion of Syria and the overthrow of its government are illustrated in the exploitation of the 7-year-old girl Bana Alabed, through a Twitter account under her name in which she constantly calls for war in English, a language she actually barely understands; and in the supposed adventures of “journalist” Hadi al Abdullah, in reality a propagandist friendly with jihadists, providing “updates” on the supposed “civil war” being fought by “moderate rebels” against the government.

In the film’s second half, Cohen follows the efforts of American politicians, media outlets and self-styled “activist” propagandists like Nora Barre to talk up public support for a US-led intervention in Syria after a screening of “Cries From Syria” in Congress. Barre makes emotional appeals to people’s compassion, reminding one and all of the helpless women and children held hostage by both jihadis and the government (but emphasising the ferocity of the government much more); while the unpleasant Charles Lister, resident fellow with the Middle East Institute, a neoconservative US think-tank, openly advocates the assassination of Assad. In the waning moments of the film, Cohen accosts the film director who made a documentary about the false humanitarian aid group the Syrian White Helmets, made up of jihadis who film themselves pulling children and babies out of rubble, racing through alleys while carrying the youngsters, and flinging them into empty ambulances without so much as checking their breathing or stabilising them in case of internal injuries.

Featuring stills of media reports, excerpts of videos, films and interviews with propaganda shills like Barre, the documentary pulls no punches in showing how distasteful, abhorrent and, above all, extremely manipulative and exploitative the Western propaganda machine is in trying to convince people of the need to remove Assad, over and above the wishes of the Syrian public. At times the documentary can be a bit confusing in the speed that it pursues its topics, jumping from Hadi al Abdullah to Bana Alabed to Barre and Lister. Each topic (Bana Alabed in particular) is investigated in some depth though the documentary provides no analysis, however brief it would have to be, as to why the exploitation of children has become essential in the making of modern propaganda and who the most likely targets of this propaganda would be.

Though the documentary is aimed at a mainly American audience, it is relevant to overseas audiences as well. Even if it skims over subject matter like the White Helmets, and the purpose behind their creation, the documentary flows with passion, energy and indignation. I’m already looking forward to the second part.

The Wicker Man: a satire on religious bigotry and fanaticism, in whichever religion these are found

Robin Hardy “The Wicker Man” (1973) In spite of a small budget and the set-backs it suffered during filming and the post-production process, this short movie quickly achieved cult status and has become a much-loved British classic in satirising religious fanaticism and control. Police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, comes to the Scottish West Highland island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He is astonished to find vegetation and fruits not native to the island growing in apparent abundance. He is even more horrified to discover that the islanders practise nature-based rituals and customs with clear sexual undertones that offend his Christian religious sensibilities. In his investigation of the girl’s disappearance, Howie comes to learn more about the island’s religious rituals and in particular its May Day ceremony, which the islanders are about to celebrate very soon. He also learns something of the island’s history from Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who tells him that the adoption of pagan religious elements and rituals was a brainwave of his Victorian-era ancestor to motivate the local people to work at growing food in the island’s volcanic soils under temperate year-round weather influenced by the Gulf Stream. Howie soon becomes convinced that the girl is not dead and that the islanders have hidden her and plan to sacrifice her during May Day celebrations. He infiltrates the May Day parade dressed as a foolish clown figure and gives himself away to the islanders when he spies the girl on a hillside apparently dressed up as a sacrificial lamb and tries to save her. Too late he realises that the girl was part of an entrapment scheme, the result of which seals his own fate … As a religious bigot, unable to appreciate the folkways of what turns out to be a very different culture in spite of the islanders wearing Western dress and leading a way of life not very different from other rural Scottish villages of their time, Howie should have been a very unlikable man who deserves what’s coming to him. Woodward’s excellent performance as the police officer grappling with his beliefs, his conscience and his uncertainty, however manages to elicit some audience sympathy for his fate. Increasingly confused by the islanders’ antics, the tricks they play on him (including sabotaging his seaplane) and their indifference to his orders and pleas, Howie resorts to spouting religious dogma in such a way that one wonders if his own faith is wavering and his courage is failing him. In this, for all his faults Howie becomes as much a victim of his own faith as he will be of other people’s beliefs. No less inflexible is Lord Summerisle, whose own fanaticism soon becomes apparent beneath the urbane exterior. Lee delivers a performance that ranges from friendly warmth and sophistication to cold, grim religious zeal in leading a group of people who initially seem New Age hippie-ish in their ideas and beliefs but turn out to be rigidly superstitious and lacking in genuine spirituality and compassion. The supporting cast ranges from good to mediocre; Britt Ekland as the innkeeper’s comely daughter should never have been advised to give up her day job, whatever it was in the early 1970s. The cinematography captures perfectly the strange atmosphere surrounding the lush vegetation on farmland, the wild green plains and the mighty waves lashing the rocky coastlines. The pacing can be a bit slow for a police action thriller and perhaps some of the folk songs featured in the film could have been pruned back or even left out once viewers accept the pagan character of Summerisle. The film’s horror, at once astounding and horrifying, is revealed close to its end; but plenty of dread and unsettling strangeness was cultivated throughout the film, leading up to its unforgettable climax. Significantly Howie warns Lord Summerisle that if the island’s crops fail again as they did the previous year – because they really are not suited to the island’s physical environment – then the Lord himself may be subjected to the same fate as Howie. Here is a lesson in having humility and accepting that your own religious system has its limitations and cannot be applied to all possible situations. There are many ambiguities in the film due to its tight budget and corresponding tight production schedule. The pacing can be a bit slow, at least until the film’s climax. Apart from these details, the film does well in slowly revealing the full Gothic horror behind what would have been a normal police procedural drama.

Jirga: a sparingly told story of remorse, compassion and forgiveness

Benjamin Gilmour, “Jirga” (2018)

The wonder is that this film got made at all as it was filmed in Afghanistan, and in areas possibly still dominated by the Taliban at that. Understandably the narrative, seemingly simple and straight-forward, can appear quite disjointed and some things – such as the pink flamingo paddle-boat – come and go without any explanation. An Australian soldier, Michael Wheeler (Sam Smith), appears in Kabul on a personal mission to find a family in a very remote part of Afghanistan. Needless to say, the people he relies on to help him advise him not to go and to forget about his mission: the area is under Taliban control. As you’d expect, Wheeler ignores the helpful advice and hires a driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) to take him south towards Kandahar. On their long and rough journey through very striking and beautiful mountain landscapes, the two men form a strong friendship despite being unable to speak each other’s language. They lose each other abruptly when they stop at a Taliban checkpoint and Wheeler is forced to flee on foot for his life.

After wandering in the desert, Wheeler loses consciousness and when he wakes up again, he finds himself a Taliban captive in a cave. After beating him, the Taliban men discuss what to do with him and one of them, being able to speak English, interviews him and acts as interpreter between him and the other Taliban men. Wheeler explains that he wants to find the family whose patriarch he shot dead during an army raid some years ago. Impressed with Wheeler’s earnestness and remorse, the Taliban leader orders his men to take the ex-soldier as far as they can go towards the village where the family lives. They advise him offering the American dollars he carries with him to the victim’s family will be considered an insult and a curse. From then on, and dumping the money along the way, Wheeler makes his path into the village where he explains his mission to the elders there. The elders form a council (“jirga” in the Pashto language) to debate what to do with Wheeler and whether he deserves to die for killing an unarmed civilian and leaving his widow and two sons destitute.

The sparing, minimal nature of the film, in which much is unsaid and is left to the viewer to fill out with his/her imagination, throws the spotlight onto Smith and his character’s motivations for pursuing his quixotic mission. Wheeler says very little and maintains a stoic face, but he is clearly a very troubled man. He is only able to come to terms with what he did by returning to the scene of his crime, re-enacting it in part for the village elders, visiting the widow and her sons and submitting to her anger and grief. Smith does his best with such a taciturn character, and the emotion he is able to express is very profound, but the role is very limited (and limited even more so by the conditions under which the film was made) with respect to the character’s background and motivations.

The resolution seems quite problematic as well: the village jirga’s decision seems just as eccentric as Wheeler’s quest, and the viewer has the impression that the elders are nonplussed as to what to do with their unexpected visitor. In the end, the decision becomes Allah’s will and the elders abide by it without question, even though some of them obviously don’t agree with it. At the very least some closure has been achieved and people are able to move ahead with their lives.

The message viewers are likely to take away from the film is that Wheeler survives mainly due to the magnanimity, compassion and forgiveness shown him by people who would not be blamed if they had decided on vengeance against him. For all the devastation, poverty, violence and instability that continue in Afghanistan, its people still hold onto their rich culture and traditions, and retain their humanity and spirit. One would like to think that Wheeler appreciates what has been done for him, and will be moved to return to the country in the not too distant future, to learn more about its history and peoples, and to do something constructive for them. Perhaps he might even learn something of how Australia blindly and stupidly followed the Americans into waging a one-year war over and over 17 times and counting. His abandonment of the American money, and what that symbolises – spurning the capitalist system and the beliefs and values associated with it – may represent a first step in this direction.

Undercover in Idlib: secret snapshot of jihadi-held Idlib province in northwestern Syria

Jenan Moussa, “Undercover in Idlib” (2017)

Presented and narrated by Jenan Moussa, a reporter for Al Aan TV in Dubai, this 22-minute documentary on the situation in Idlib province, in northwestern Syria, as of 2015 – 2016 reveals facts that Western news media outlets have never shown: that a number of towns in the province including Jisr al Shugur are dominated by jihadis and their families from China and Central Asia, and that the whole region is controlled by extremist groups like Jabhat al Nusra, the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaeda. The documentary was secretly filmed by Moussa’s informants (all pro-opposition) on cellphones; had they been discovered to be filming, they would have been imprisoned, even put to death. Even filmed in secret however, and with all the other limitations such filming involved (such as the use of cellphones), the documentary is clear and enough film footage was taken by Moussa’s sources to support a clear narrative.

Filming took place in Idlib city, Jisr al Shugur – revealed as a complete wreck – and other towns in the province. Film footage shows huge amounts of graffiti scrawled on walls and buildings quoting pronouncements by Al Qaeda leader Ayman Mohammed Rabie al Zawahiri. Houses and buildings abandoned by pre-2011 Idlib households and businesses have been seized by extremist groups and auctioned off to their followers; even crops have been seized and auctioned off. Christian churches have been defaced or converted into mosques and in one town a statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by an al Nusra flag.

Of the various checkpoints in and out of Idlib province, mostly with Turkey, the vast majority are controlled by Jabhat al Nusra and the rest controlled by other extremist groups allied with them. If any so-called “moderate” anti-government rebel groups exist in Idlib province, their presence was confined to their headquarters.

The most amazing revelation is that all of Moussa’s sources agree that huge numbers of ethnic Uyghur jihadis from China, plus Uzbek jihadis and “Turkistani” jihads and their families have settled in Idlib province and number from 10,000 to 20,000 people. All made their way to Syria from China and Central Asia for jihad. Moussa does not say how they managed to travel long distances from their original countries or on what passports they travelled on.

Since the documentary was first made, Jabhat al Nusra changed its name to Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) so Moussa asked her contacts to return to Idlib province to take note of any changes made. They reported that the propaganda had been softened and made more colourful and appealing to the local people. Al Zawahiri’s name was scrubbed off from walls where his quotations had been scrawled on and any references to HTS or its predecessor had disappeared, to give the area a more generic look.

Moussa reveals her sympathies with pro-opposition / anti-government forces (if they exist) in Syria by stating at the end of the documentary that everyone in Idlib province fears what may happen once Syrian government forces and their Russian allies begin their offensive to drive out the extremists in the province. Apart from this bias, which I disagree with, the film is a sobering survey of the reality of Idlib province: a permanent resettlement policy is under way in this part of Syria which I fear is intended to lay the foundation for a new invasion of the rest of the country by religious extremists supported by Syria’s enemies.

Equus: a psychodrama of outstanding performances and troubling philosophical questions about individuality and creativity

Sidney Lumet, “Equus” (1977)

He never won an individual Academy Award for Best Movie or Best Director but surely Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest film directors – in particular of films focusing on anti-hero characters battling with obsessions or guilt, or finding themselves at odds with social expectations and the pressure to conform, with the result that they end up cut off from their true aspirations and become hollow robots – ever to grace this undeserving planet. Unafraid to tackle issues of social justice, and using a classic realistic style of telling his story, Lumet attracted fine actors and drew strong, complex performances from them. His film adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”, for which Schaffer himself modified his play, is an excellent example of Lumet’s oeuvre: an excellent cast featuring Richard Burton, Peter Firth and Joan Plowright among others; themes of religious obsession and of a man wrestling with his conscience over remolding young mentally disturbed and troubled people into robots like himself acceptable to society; and a straightforward realist approach that forces audiences to confront the issues raised by the original play about psychoanalysis and its uses.

Child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Martin Dysart (Burton) has reached a crisis of burnout, disillusionment and uncertainty after a long career treating adolescent and young adult patients with mental health issues and disturbances. A new patient, Alan Strang (Firth), is referred to him, Strang having entered the mental health facility where Dysart works after committing a bizarre crime. Initially Alan resists Dysart’s probing questioning but after the two agree on a bartering system where Dysart must respond to a question from Alan when Alan answers his question, Alan begins to open up about his family background: his mother Dora (Plowright), a fanatical fundamentalist Christian believer, and his father (Colin Blakely), a determined atheist, have improbably combined to impose a highly restrictive and repressive family life, complete with a rigid religious tradition heavy on ritual, upon their only son. Imagination, fun and laughter, and genuine love, freely and unconditionally given, are absent from the boy’s life and in their place are religious obsession bordering on the fanatical and a fear of sexuality combined with hypocrisy and furtive voyeurism on the father’s part.

A childhood incident directs Alan’s focus of worship of the divine and channels the creative and sexual urges he is forced by his parents to suppress into idealising horses. A young woman Jill (Jenny Agutter) helps him get a job as a stable-hand caring for six horses but the constant physical contact with the animals brings out Alan’s obsessions which he acts upon. Jill is attracted to Alan and attempts to have sexual intercourse with him but Alan’s failure brings intense anguish which results in extreme violence to his beloved animals.

Alan’s opening up unexpectedly forces Dysart to admit to his own sterile personal life and confront the paradox in his own life, in which to deal with young people’s mental health issues and return them to normal (dysfunctional) society he must destroy their natural creative urge and zest for living. After hearing Alan’s admission of his crime, Dysart once again faces what he most dreads doing: to “heal” Alan and return him to his dysfunctional family, he must rob the boy of that which gives him his individuality, creative being and reason for living and turn the boy into an emotionally hollow robot … just like himself.

Both Burton and Firth give impassioned and intense performances as the doctor who envies Alan for his vitality and the troubled boy himself, beset by obsessions he barely understands. Through these two actors and their dialogue, the issues of how an individual must suppress his/her creative being, to the point of suffocating it altogether, in order to fit into and function within a rigid, repressive society. Plowright and Blakely acquit themselves well as the parents who confuse their son and set him on the path of idealising and worshipping the Dionysian (chaotic) elements within and without him. Agutter has very little to do but makes her character real enough.

While Lumet is a straight-out realist director, and a number of scenes in the film may be over-dramatised and horrific for most audiences, his direction allows the narrative to flow fairly easily and Burton’s monologues, in which he envies Alan as the personification of that which is dead within him and agonises over the treatment that he must give to Alan that will kill the boy inwardly and turn him into an “adult”, sit easily with the action in the film. The dream-like scenes in which Alan rides naked on his favourite horse can be confrontational and intense but they are done fairly tastefully; less so the scenes in which Alan mutilates the horses in his care, which (to me) show far too much and don’t seem very realistic.

The film raises important questions about human freedom and individuality, and how the individual yearning for freedom, creative being and fulfilling one’s potential can be accommodated in a society that prizes conformity and fears the passion and intensity required to achieve full freedom and creativity. Religious obsession, and how it combines with sexual suppression and directs it into channels that fling both religiosity and sexuality into people’s faces in the most confronting ways – Plowright as the fanatical mother fails to make the connection between the way she has brought up her son and his obsession with horses – is dealt with less successfully and Alan’s self-flagellation may come across to audiences as rather bizarre and theatrical, rather than as something to be pitied. While perhaps Lumet’s realist approach does not suit “Equus” very well – it originated as a stylised play after all – it does a great job delineating its psychological themes and portraying one of the most important philosophical questions about how far individuality and freedom can thrive in society.

Money laundering, political corruption, stolen billions and a secret mafia in “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire”

Michael Oswald, “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire” (2017)

A very important and necessary documentary, in light of ongoing financial crises in many countries, supposedly necessitating austerity programs and privatisations of state-owned companies and corporations that have the effect of impoverishing the vast majority of people in those countries while leading to capital flight and the enrichment of elites, both local and foreign, “The Spider’s Web …” takes as its premise the notion that the British empire never really died; instead the empire transformed itself from a physical entity with a network of colonies covering the planet into an empire in the abstract: a financial empire whose network is flows of money and whose colonies are tax havens cum secrecy jurisdictions. At the heart of this second empire, as it was of the first, is the City of London, a political institution founded by the Romans and thus much older than the English people themselves, and which controls the British Parliament through having a seat there and the City Remembrancer who is the channel of communication between the City of London and the British government.

The documentary whisks viewers through a brief description of the City of London and how it controlled the British empire in the past and strove to recreate the empire through the financial industry. Particular attention is paid to the creation of secrecy jurisdictions in various offshore places like the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean Sea, the Channel Islands and other parts of the world. Other financial tools, strategies and institutions, such as trusts and the establishment of the London Eurodollar market, initially founded as quite innocent phenomena in themselves, eventually ended up being abused in the interest of evading tax and money-laundering. (Strangely the documentary does not mention the use of profit shifting among subsidiaries of a company in different taxation jurisdictions as a tax evasion ruse.) Oswald and the people he interviews – these include John Christensen, a former Deloittes’ accountant and current head of the Tax Justice Network, author Nicholas Shaxson who wrote “Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who stole the World”, economist Michael Hudson and European Parliament member Eva Joly – demonstrate how this second British empire exercises its malignant influences: by enabling corrupt politicians and others to hide vast amounts of money representing stolen wealth in accounts with overseas banks, while the people they govern flounder in debt and poverty; and by shifting wealth away from the economy of making and distributing goods (and services directly associated with that economy) to the economy of money flows, divorced from the real economy. Thus as the financial economy in a country becomes important, the other economy where goods are manufactured and sold to end users ends up being drained of its wealth by the financial economy parasite.

The documentary diverts into other secondary issues such as the power and influence of the major global accounting firms (Deloittes, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, KPMG) in enabling the British Empire Mk II to run smoothly, the phenomenon of Private Finance Initiative whereby private firms are contracted by government to carry out state projects, and the peculiar insular culture of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, which enforces conformity and secrecy on people working in banks in that tax haven and punishes whistle-blowers like Jersey councillor Stuart Syvret severely through constant lawsuits.

Made on the proverbial shoe-string budget (of 4,000 pounds sterling), the documentary by necessity has a minimal bare-bones style of presentation with voice-over narration and interviews doing all the work of providing facts and figures. For this reason, the documentary could work well as a radio or online sound broadcast. On the other hand, some animation that helps to illustrate the nature of such items as the PFI or trusts might have been helpful. Historical archive footage is used to good effect and is paralleled by the quaint and slightly risible parades and traditions that take place in the City of London. The documentary does tend to meander, at least until close to the end, and structuring it according to the topics discussed might have helped to keep it tighter and more coherent.

Even so, with its technical flaws, this film is concise, elegantly made and never boring; indeed, the story it has to tell is more riveting than any spy thriller Ian Fleming hammered out on his trusty typewriter while living in the Caribbean. It really deserves to be more widely seen and known: its argument that the British empire never actually went away but recreated itself through the global financial industry, ending up with a more extensive reach across the planet and greater riches than the physical empire ever did, is quietly and matter-of-factly persuasive.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 4: Adam Ruins Dating): everything else except the institution of dating put under the spotlight

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 4: Adam Ruins Dating)” (2017)

If ever there were profitable scams preying on people’s insecurities in finding lasting and fulfilling relationships, the ones on offer in this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” qualify as three of the more outrageous. Our hero Adam Conover turns up to a date with Sarah (Emily Althaus) who’s under the impression that he must be the perfect date for her – even if he strikes her as super-geeky – because the dating website she consulted and which matched her up with Adam used apparently scientific methods and algorithms to do so. As it turns out, dating websites like eHarmony and others are no better than allowing chance to determine whether two strangers matched together will stay together, for the reason that among other things the criteria used (personality characteristics or shared likes and dislikes) are poor, even irrelevant guides to a couple’s compatibility.

Having disabused Sarah of her misconceptions about dating websites, Adam proceeds to demolish the myth of the alpha male – based in part on research done by L David Mech on the social lives of wolves in the 1970s which the scientist later found he could not replicate two decades later and which (to his credit) he disavowed and tried to warn other researchers not to repeat – and the credibility of the Myer-Briggs psychological questionnaire, the related Keirsey Temperament Sorter and other personality tests based on fixed personality stereotypes. Wolves are now known to form family groups consisting of a male-female adult pair accompanied by two sets of offspring, one set older than the younger; the older offspring usually help teach the younger cubs to hunt. Only in very exceptional circumstances (if the animals’ environment has restrictions that don’t permit wolves to roam freely, or the prey species are experiencing a population boom) would wolves form large packs in which the animals observe  strict social hierarchy and bully others. The Myer-Briggs Type Indicator lacks scientific rigour and depends largely on self-reporting questionnaires; in the way it assigns up to 16 personality types to people, it resembles astrology.

The episode is very entertaining with just enough slapstick to hold young viewers’ attention. It can be buffoonish in parts but the breathless pace sweeps scenes out of sight before they become too silly. As in most episodes, Adam’s companion becomes despondent and Adam has to try to cheer her up without becoming too upset himself.

What the episode has no time for, given that it’s only about 25 minutes and has to deal with three more or less unrelated popular myths, is the issue of dating itself and the cultural assumptions and expectations that accompany it. How did dating arise in Western society as an institution and why does Western society regard the notion of two strangers meeting and being swept off their feet emotionally by one another as the best way for love and families to develop? What is implied about the nature of Western society that the institution of dating attracts dodgy schemes and practitioners like dating websites or match-makers of one sort or another to exploit people’s uncertainties and credulity for profit?

BlacKkKlansman: use of race politics demeans the achievement of a black police officer in exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s evil

Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman” (2018)

Filmed as a blaxsploitation-styled comedy drama, this work revolves around a real scenario in which a black American police officer in Colorado state actually infiltrates a local branch of the notorious racist organisation the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a white man interested in joining the KKK. The characters and much of the plot are based on the memoir written by that police officer, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington). The period during which Stallworth infiltrated the KKK spans the late 1970s and the early 1980s but director Spike Lee places the action in the mid-1970s. Stallworth joins the Colorado Springs police force as a rookie cop and initially works in boring records administration work. He is soon transferred to undercover work and his first job is to attend a student rally where a former Black Panther activist Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) gives an address urging race war. At this rally Stallworth meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, and is attracted to her. Their developing romance, in which he hesitates to tell her what he does for a living after she criticises the police as “pigs”, forms a sub-plot to the film.

At work, Stallworth spies a KKK recruitment advertisement in the local newspaper and phones the number . He pretends to be a white man wanting to join the organisation but foolishly gives his real name. Stallworth and a team of other police officers then arrange for a colleague, Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to act in his stead, meeting members of the local KKK branch and socialising with them under Stallworth’s name. Zimmerman eventually enrolls in the KKK after Stallworth, handling the application to join over the phone, phones KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) to speed up the admin work, which Duke happily obliges. All seems to be going well except that long-time KKK member Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) senses that Zimmerman isn’t what he appears to be and starts doing some research on Zimmerman and Ron Stallworth, even visiting Stallworth at home. When not investigating Zimmerman’s “bona fides”, Felix and two other KKK members, chafing at their president’s moderate style of leadership, stalk Patrice after her complaint at being sexually harassed by a racist police officer goes public, find out where she lives and plot to silence her by using Felix’s wife to place a bomb outside a civic rally or her house.

Eventually David Duke comes to Colorado Springs to preside over Zimmerman’s joining ceremony which takes place on the same day the civic rally is scheduled. The police assign Stallworth to protect Duke and soon enough, the action quickens and starts going pow-pow-pow.

Because Lee uses race politics as the all-encompassing prism through which viewers see what happens, reinforced by Lee’s attempts to situate the film within current political / racial tropes portraying US President Donald Trump as racist, “BlacKkKlansman” falls into a stereotypical black-versus-white paradigm that admits no other viewpoints that might complicate the message Lee wants to tell. This means that all characters, especially the KKK members, end up as crude one-dimensional stereotypes that actually demean the work that the real Stallworth did in busting the KKK Colorado chapter. After all, if your enemy is portrayed as a bunch of ignorant hick idiots, the danger it poses seems less than what it would be if the enemy were highly intelligent and sophisticated. The KKK members are obsessed with race purity and recreating their ideal of a prosperous America. There is nothing in the film about the poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunities that these people and their families might have suffered over decades as a result of political corruption and the lack of Federal and State government expenditure on social welfare, health and education in those regions of the US where poverty among both white, black and other communities had been entrenched since the end of the US Civil War and the KKK flourished.

On the other side, the black people among whom Stallworth moves are mostly naive middle class, college-educated youngsters who zealously follow every faddish fashion and idea that smacks of “black power” in the way they dress and do their hair, and generally act as one big mass. The weakest parts of the film are in fact those parts where the black middle class people huddle around leaders and role models (one of them played by Harry Belafonte) and seem to act as one many-headed mass. Is Lee sending up the black middle class, and the culture and the music associated with “black pride” of the early 1970s? Just as troublesome is the film’s emphasis on Zimmerman being Jewish and his being forced to acknowledge his Jewish heritage as a result of having to confront anti-black and anti-Jewish racism in his contacts with the KKK; as if somehow being a lapsed Jewish believer, attending synagogue only during the high holy days perhaps and being indifferent to Jewish rituals the rest of the year, is something to be ashamed of.

The most revealing moment comes when the Black Students Union members, after listening to a talk given by Harry Belafonte’s character about a lynching that occurred in 1916 and an early silent film, “The Birth of A Nation” by D W Griffith, start yelling “Black Power!” and pump their fists in the air, at the same time that the KKK members, having witnessed Zimmerman’s induction into their ranks, watch the same film and start shouting “White Power!”, also pumping their fists in the air. At this point, the film appears to be advocating racial separatism which completely ignores the issue of class as a factor in encouraging race hatred and division. Such racial separatism diverts attention away from forming a united front that can successfully confront and overthrow those political elements that benefit from fragmentation of the body politic on ethnic, religious and other identity-based criteria and keeping it impoverished and oppressed – just as political elites in the southern states of the US and elsewhere used race-based politics to keep white and black people apart, poor and weak when they should have been together and strong. It is significant that David Duke is now on public record as saying that he likes Spike Lee’s work and respects it, which may suggest that Duke himself has not only seen this film but has recognised the unintended parallels in the portrayal of the BSU and the KKK, and seen the naivety of the students as comparable to the stupidity of the KKK members in the film.

The film ends up doing Ron Stallworth and his achievement in penetrating the KKK and exposing its terrorism a grave disservice. The whole story might have been better served filmed as a documentary.

One oddity about “BlacKkKlansman” is that it portrays the Colorado Springs police force as basically benevolent in spite of the odd bad apple or two – even though police forces across the US in recent years have been prominent in several racist incidents and attacks in which people have died. Significantly scenes at the end of the film, focusing on recent incidents in which neo-Nazis and white supremacists / separatists are prominent, fail to include police attacks on anti-racism activists. Might Spike Lee be pulling his punches here and directing people’s anger against racism into channels that divert that anger away from the institutions that most perpetuate racism – like Hollywood?

Tokyo Godfathers: a heart-warming if fussy Christmas movie on the importance of family in assuring survival and resilience

Satoshi Kon, “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003)

No, this ain’t no cult yakuza film – though yakuza types do appear for a short while – but instead this is a heart-warming Christmas anime flick about the importance of family, however unconventionally it’s constituted, in assuring survival and helping to bond people and maintaining hope in that bonding no matter what misfortune life throws at us. Three homeless people – middle-aged alcoholic Gin (Toru Emori), former drag queen performer Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and young teenage runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) are rummaging through garbage bins on Christmas Eve in Tokyo when they spot an abandoned newborn girl. They determine to return the baby, whom they call Kiyoko, to her parents after finding a photograph of her parents and crumpled papers with addresses attached to the little one’s blankets. This idea drives the trio through the streets, often late in the evening when the snow is falling heavily, and into the Tokyo metropolitan subway system. They will nearly come a-cropper at a wedding reception attended by gangsters, Gin will almost lose his life after being beaten by teenage thugs, Hana will briefly be reunited with the transvestites at the club where she used to sing and perform, and Miyuki will reconsider the argument with her father that led to her leaving home; whatever trials the threesome experience individually and collectively in trying to return the baby to her family will strengthen their bonds with one another and, paradoxically, lead them back to their own families. Gin is reunited with own his long-lost daughter and Miyuki unexpectedly meets her police inspector father again after two years while visiting Gin and Hana in hospital at the end of the film. Each of the three characters confronts his or her past demons and by doing so gains new purpose in life and has new respect for his or her travelling companions.

The background animation is beautifully rendered; the snowy cityscapes suggest isolation and alienation yet can be surprisingly calming and not at all threatening. Tokyo is at once a gritty, cold city in which the most surprising things can happen, most of all, a tiny baby who appears in a garbage bin on Christmas Eve and through whom three individuals learn to face their fears and gain redemption. While the city has its narrow lanes, noisty traffic and slums filled with immigrants and homeless who try to survive the best they can, Tokyo is also possessed of a quiet serenity.

The film can be viewed as a character study of three people who through their trials come to appreciate one another deeply and form a real family of people who look out for one another. Gin’s stoic, gruff nature hides a guilt-ridden conscience at having abandoned a wife and small baby girl. Hana deeply yearns to be a mum and to hold his own baby, though he’s somewhat at a loss when his turn to change Kiyoko’s nappy comes all too quickly. Miyuki is haunted by the argument with her father, during which she seized a knife and inflicted damage with it.

For the first half-hour, the film cruises along briskly but as coincidence starts to build upon coincidence, the plot becomes much less plausible than it already is. It becomes very strained and contrived, and plot twist upon plot twist strings out the film for longer than it should. A couple who have lost their own baby girl and whose lives as a result go askew become involved with the baby Kiyoko in a sinister way, yet the resolution of their troubles – depression, suicidal tendencies – is treated superficially. We never learn if the woman in the couple receives proper counselling and treatment.

For a film that pleads compassion for the marginalised in modern society and in which the main characters find real family with one another, and discover their resilience and compassion, the ending in which two characters are reunited with their original families seems unsatisfactory: it suggests that the only “real” families are the traditional nuclear families consisting of a father, mother and children, as dictated by a society that for one reason or another spurns its homeless and others who do not conform to its dictates.

Those Who Said No: a slickly made and polished film that is less than honest about the politics of the activists it champions

Nima Sarvestani, “Those Who Said No” (2015)

A very polished film, complete with stereotypical mournful droning music in parts, this Iranian / Swedish documentary follows proceedings of the Iran Tribunal, a people’s court hosted at The Hague, in its investigation of alleged violations of human rights and crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1988. According to a cleric, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, between 2,800 and 3,800 political prisoners were executed or disappeared by the Khomeini government. These massacres began in mid-July 1988 and went on for several months.

The documentary does a very good job recording the testimonies of people who had been arrested, imprisoned and tortured by Iranian prison authorities. One witness after another takes the stand to answer questions from stony-faced (and often bored-looking) judges about their time and experiences in prison. This constant narrative is broken up by a minor story of a man who survived the tortures and mistreatment, and who travels to Japan to confront Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a former representative of the Iranian court system in the 1980s, in Tokyo.

Where the documentary fails is in providing a full political context to the arrests, the imprisonment, torture and execution of the political prisoners by the Iranian government in 1988: why were these people arrested and for what crimes, and what were the organisations or groups they belonged to – these are details that are not mentioned in the film. Having to do my own research, I discovered that the majority of the prisoners who were executed were members of a radical leftist organisation known as the People’s Mojahedin of Iran or Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) which among other things it did during the 1980s carried out bomb attacks against and assassinations of various clerics in the government and sided with the then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces, even going so far as to set up its headquarters in Iraq: a move regarded by most Iranians as a grave betrayal since Iraq and Iran were at war. After 1985, MEK became a full-fledged fruitcake terrorist cult centred around Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam, and spends a great deal of its money on organising propaganda campaigns, using computer bots to spread disinformation on social media platforms and lobbying politicians in the US government. New recruits to MEK are subjected to intense indoctrination and bizarre rituals that may include sexual abuse with the aim of breaking down their sense of identity in an environment that deliberately isolates them from the outside world and makes them dependent on MEK members. The organisation has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Iran and some other countries since the early 1970s and most people in Iran shun the organisation.

After discovering the MEK connection, I am not surprised then that the Iranian government cracked down severely on political prisoners and tortured and executed thousands. Political prisoners belonging to the Iranian Communist Party (Tudeh) and other leftist groups were also arrested and jailed, and many of them were killed; unfortunately the film does not identify these people who were swept up in the killings. What the film omits to mention lessens the impact it wants to make, and moreover makes the film less than honest as a crusading vehicle for political activism.