The Great Pretender: a shallow picture of a famous rock music icon

Rhys Thomas, “The Great Pretender” (2012)

The public fascination with the shy Parsi Indian boy born in a British colonial backwater in Zanzibar in 1946, who later became a golden-voiced rock star legend much beloved throughout the world before AIDS took him in 1991, knows no bounds; a feature film dramatisation of his life, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been raking in the hundreds of millions in revenue throughout the world and there is no shortage of documentaries on the life of Queen singer Freddie Mercury. Probably the best known of these is “The Great Pretender”, made by Queen fan Rhys Thomas, which focuses on Mercury’s life from 1976 onwards to 1991 and a little beyond. In particular there is a heavy emphasis on Mercury’s solo work that produced the album “Mr Bad Guy” and his collaboration with the Catalan / Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe.

The narrative is driven by interviews of people who associated with Mercury from 1976 onwards and archival footage of Mercury himself and his later lover Jim Hutton (who died in 2010); what they say about Mercury is that, far from his flamboyant and confident public persona, he was shy, even self-tortured at times, restless and eager for new experiences and ways of doing things, and maybe not a little shallow at times. During the late 1970s / early 80s, Mercury comes across as arrogant, self-absorbed and selfish; towards the end of his life he has grown tired of his hedonistic lifestyle and matured quite considerably. He is no longer interested in competing with other, younger rock / pop singers in showiness and wants to compose more serious and complex music. At this point, he is advised by his doctors that he has AIDS and the disease is progressing rapidly to the point where he has very little time left in the world to do the things he wants to do.

For all its emphasis on Mercury’s solo work, the film shows no songs or pieces of music from “Mr Bad Guy” or “Barcelona” in their entirety and viewers have to accept the film’s opinion that “Mr Bad Guy” failed (in terms of album sales) because Queen fans refused to accept the idea of Mercury performing without Queen. (I have heard the album myself and can say that the relatively simple nature of the songs and the choice of instrumentation were abysmal for someone who years before wrote complex songs like “Liar” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) Viewers are left with a fairly shallow picture of a man who lived a double life as the flamboyant Freddie Mercury in public and the shy, modest and retiring Farrokh Bulsara in private. How he could have managed all that while composing, recording and performing (with three other people) a considerable body of songs over 15 albums is a question most people want to know: this documentary comes nowhere close to giving a satisfactory answer.

Peterloo: an immersive dramatic re-enactment of a significant event in British political history

Mike Leigh, “Peterloo” (2018)

Made just before the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in August 1819, when British cavalry troops and foot soldiers charged a peaceful demonstration of some 60,000 to 100,000 workers and their families protesting at high food prices and unemployment that were leading to hunger and suffering, and at their lack of political representation in Parliament, this film is a fictional re-enactment of the historical political and social background and the events leading to the mass protest at St Peter’s Field. The detail that director Mike Leigh invests in recreating the hierarchical British society of the time, the huge social inequalities that existed and the attitudes expressed by people of different social layers, from the monarchy and aristocracy down through the technocracy, the labouring classes to the very poor is incredible. The film takes care to create and build up carefully a credible society, using different points of view of various characters, and the result is highly immersive and filled with a distinct flavour of early 19th-century life in Britain.

The film is structured around the experiences of a young soldier, Joseph (David Moorst), who stumbles home from the Battle of Waterloo (in 1815) suffering from PTSD and falls into the care of his close-knit labouring family in Manchester. He tries in vain to find work but the economic conditions are hard and none is available. People complain about the high prices of corn due to the Corn Laws which among other things forbid the import of cheap foreign corn. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) is concerned about worker unrest in the northern counties of Lancashire, Yorkshire and areas around Liverpool and Manchester. Government spies, infiltrators and provocateurs are put to work and intercept mail sent between radical reformist preachers and their flocks. Two Manchester reformists, Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) and Dr Joseph Healey (Ian Mercer), go to London to hear reformist leader Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) speak; they try to invite him for a friendly drink but he rudely spurns them.

Much of the film then follows the reformists’ plan to hold a mass demonstration in Manchester at which Hunt will speak. Hunt insists on having no weapons at the protest despite Bamford’s warning that armed yeomanry will be present. Organisers of the protest include the staff who write for and print The Manchester Observer newspaper and a brief scene in the film shows how the newspaper was printed by hand.

Steadily the film builds through the viewpoints of Joseph and his family, especially his mother Nellie (Maxine Peake), Hunt and the family who hosts him in Manchester, Bamford, The Manchester Observer reporters, and the representatives of the aristocracy and their enforcers in Parliament and the legal system and courts who fear the reformist movement and who will do anything to crush the workers and deny their political rights, to the climax when the local magistrate sets the yeomanry like dogs onto the crowds. Especially sinister are the informers and the constable who spy on the reformist meetings and report back to the authorities.

The film’s general tone tends to be matter-of-fact and sober; even scenes of carnage are treated in a dispassionate way. Joseph’s nightmare of the scenes of Waterloo revisits him, to his ultimate cost. At this point the film’s denouement is rather hurried, untidy and surreal, featuring a bizarre meeting between the fawning Lord Sidmouth and the grotesque Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny) and his wife, and this is the weakest part of the narrative. Nothing is said about the forced closure of The Manchester Observer and its replacement by The Manchester Guardian, founded by people antagonistic towards the aims of the reformist movement. We learn nothing of the fate of Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford or other significant reformist characters featured in the film: there are no brief end titles that could inform viewers of these people’s futures.

While the film can be long for most Western audiences, with very little apparent plot, I did not find it at all boring; if anything, I felt it was not long enough and could have covered more detail. The music soundtrack, featuring popular melodies that later were incorporated into church hymns during the later 19th century, is a highlight of the film. There are some slight historical errors – a woman is sentenced by a cruel magistrate to transportation “to Australia” (actually the colony of New South Wales at the time – but perhaps young viewers in Britain and Australia these days are not so well educated as those of my generation) – but on the whole, the film and the actors especially convey the lively flavour of society at all levels of Regency Britain.

Aspects of the film’s narrative may strike a chord with modern British viewers, as Britain currently limps through a dark historical period in which the vast majority of people are suffering from austerity policies imposed by a corrupt and remote government, the politicians of which from the Prime Minister down are incompetent, vicious and hell-bent on squeezing as much as they can out of the public for their own selfish interests and those of their secret masters in the City of London, the military and abroad.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2): an attractive visual experience spoilt by repetitive propaganda police-state stereotypes

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2)” (2018)

In this second and final episode, Michael Palin ventures outside Pyongyang to spend a few days exploring parts of the North Korean countryside. He travels to the Demilitarised Zone where a guard tells him of the history of the Korean War – from the North Korean point of view which conflicts with what Palin knows. Palin muses on the ceasefire that currently exists between North Korea and the West and its consequences, one of which is that North Korea is compelled to maintain a large army made up of farm labour conscripts. Not far from the DMZ is a town, Kaesong, which during the Korean War was part of South Korea and therefore escaped the bombing that razed most North Korean cities and towns. In Kaesong, Palin is treated to some old Korean culinary traditions and stays at a Korean version of a ryokan. The next day, it’s onward to Wonsan on the east coast, a town targeted for development as a holiday resort for locals and foreigners. Still under construction, the holiday resort redevelopment already has an international airport ready and waiting for tourists who will not arrive until later in 2019. Palin is a bit nonplussed wandering around a huge airport terminal where the only other people besides himself are shop assistants with nothing to do except wait for non-existent customers.

Palin’s significant encounters with local people include meeting a farmer and her son. Farming is done by hand – few farmers have tractors or other heavy agricultural machinery that would obviate the need for labourers – and the demand for such labour is great. The farmer invites Palin into her sparsely furnished home for a big lunch feed. Palin thinks the farmer is trying to impress him with so much food to hide what he supposes are food shortages in rural North Korea. Later on, when Palin and one of his guides visit Mount Kumgang, he attempts to engage her in conversation about comparative politics and what she thinks of her country’s leaders: she tells him the North Korean people respect and identify so much with Kim Jong-un and what he brings to his people that to criticise him would be to criticise the people who support him wholeheartedly. In the end, the guide Soyang manages to parry the questions Palin zings at her quite cleverly and he has to admit defeat.

Palin’s visit concludes with a trip to a new district in Pyongyang developed especially as a showcase technology park and futuristic residential area. He marvels that the large district, boasting several incredibly tall skyscrapers built in a very distinctive style, has sprung up in the space of a calendar year. Leaving North Korea, Palin feels not a little regretful at saying goodbye to his guides (who he has become quite close to) and the charming people who have looked after him over the past fortnight.

While Palin is entranced by his hosts’ graciousness, the people’s cheerfulness, the culture and the beautiful countryside, he can’t quite escape his own conditioning and continues to view North Korea through the prism of a paranoid and closed police-state society ruled by a dynasty of rulers who permit no criticism and who demand absolute loyalty and suppression of individuality. He mentions the huge army North Korea maintains but appears not to understand the necessity for it: every year the United States, South Korea and other invited countries stage massive military exercises twice a year close to the North Korean borders, usually timed to coincide with the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons, forcing the country to pull labourers from the farms to be on stand-by in case the exercises turn into actual invasions. The connection linking US sanctions against North Korea over the past 70 years, the lack of agricultural machinery that would make farming easier and bring in bigger harvests, the constant aggression by the US and South Korea, and the consequent need for a huge agricultural labour force and for a large army provide the context against which food shortages leading to apparent starvation and malnutrition occurred in the 1990s. All this unfortunately washes completely over Palin’s head; instead he lapses into quite sanctimonious monologues about how North Korea will have to choose between following its current path of independence, and accepting Western-style capitalism and democracy (which he views as inevitable if North Korea is to survive in the long term, though not without regret that it will destroy part of the country’s charm) to be part of the 21st century.

Aside from the dreary and repetitive propaganda Palin keeps reminding viewers of, the former Monty Python comedian is genuinely interested in seeing how North Koreans survive and thrive in an apparently restrictive society. It is a pity that he does not give them much credit for their resurrection from the nation-wide devastation and destruction brought by the United States in the 1950s that was further compounded by nearly 70 years of economic sanctions.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1): Western insistence on stereotyping a country ruins a striking travelogue

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1)” (2018)

At least two years in the making, this 2-part travel documentary follows comedian / world traveller Michael Palin during a two-week trip exploring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea / North Korea, marvelling at its visual and audio sights, and trying to engage as much as possible with the people he meets. The trip took place at a time when North Korea under its leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea under President Moon Jae-in were starting to warm to each other more and were seriously considering the possibility of reunification. In his first week in North Korea, Palin was taken by his guides through Pyongyang, and what he sees and experiences in the nation’s capital is the focus of Part 1 of the documentary.

The sights alone are worthwhile watching – Pyongyang is a clean city with wide spaces, some very eccentric and colourful architecture, and (for a city of its 3-million-strong size) not a great deal of car traffic. Fretting over the lack of Internet, the absence of a phone signal and the North Korean authorities’ insistence on holding his and the film crew’s passports once over the Chinese border from Dandong, Palin gradually settles into the life and pace of Pyongyang. He marvels at the government’s early morning broadcasts of songs aiming at motivating and inspiring people to look forward to a new day working for and benefiting North Korea. He visits an extravagantly built underground train station and takes a ride on the Metro. He gets a head massage by a woman in a barbershop – in North Korea, women run barbershops and hairdressing salons apparently – and visits a class of junior high school students. Their teacher looks a bit nonplussed at the strange Englishman blowing up a balloon depicting the globe and tossing it among the kids. When prompted as to what they’d like to do after leaving school, the youngsters say they want to be scientists, teachers and doctors, and to serve North Korea. One girl, declaring that she will be a famous writer, recites her poem about Mount Paektu (the birthplace of Kim Jong-il). Palin concludes from this little episode that, erm, the students aren’t taught critical thinking.

Among other visits, Palin meets a government-employed artist who creates visual propaganda and explains the symbolism behind what he does. He goes to a sports centre where teenagers are training in table tennis. The final day of his stay in Pyongyang is the May Day public holiday and Palin goes to a public park where people are picnicking with their families, drinking, dancing and generally having a great time. One drunken man crowns Palin with a tiara of leaves before being pulled away by his wife.

Palin obviously wants to accept everything at face value and believe that the happy and contented people he meets are genuine in their opinions, feelings and behaviour. Years of his own indoctrination by relentless Western media propaganda about North Korea – not to mention the agenda behind his visit – keep intruding on his thoughts, leaving him troubled and perplexed. The apparent poverty he sees around him – most notably depicted in shots of both Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea on opposing sides of the Yalu River, as the train carries Palin across the bridge – is attributed to North Korean paranoia in sealing the nation off from foreign influence. Nearly 70 years of US sanctions (which target nations that dare to trade with North Korea as much as they do North Korea itself) against the country could just as likely have contributed to the nation’s poverty and its emphasis on cultivating every hectare of available land with rice and other important staple foods.

The constant insistence on portraying North Korea as a repressive police state by Palin and the film-makers is insidious and is sure to colour and shape Western viewers’ abilities and opinions in watching the program. There are moments where Palin comes close to showing a gross lack of respect for his hosts and his two guides especially. One might suspect he is being pushed by the film-makers and the film producers to ask questions he might find offensive. That the North Korean government stresses hard work, being part of a big family and working together, meeting communal and national goals, and generally having a positive attitude seems to be lost on Palin and the film crew, who brush all this effort away as propaganda.

The irony in making a film exploring North Korea and its people, that serves mainly to reinforce Western stereotypes about it being a repressive police state producing robotic traffic police and people unable to think for themselves, for Western audiences living in countries which themselves are increasingly repressive and obsessed with brainwashing people with identity politics propaganda and depriving them of the skills to think for themselves and evaluate differing opinions using reason, may not be lost on Western viewers.

Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria: where the mundane becomes exotic in a real country not supposed to exist

“Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria” (Bald and Bankrupt, 2019)

During his travels in Moldova in early 2019, the English vlogger known as Bald and Bankrupt (Arthur Chichester to his bank manager) is intrigued that apparent breakaway state Transnistria (known as Pridnestrovie to its people) boasts its own government, armed forces and national emblems, yet is unrecognised by the United Nations and the European Union. BB drives off to Tiraspol and Bendery where he finds both cities rather dowdy and a bit quaint and eccentric in appearance and presentation, but certainly nowhere near as decrepit and dejected as Kishinev. He steps into various shops, cafes and restaurants to chat to people and finds that not only are they happy to talk about their lives, they also take pride in being part of a nation that everyone else in the world politely ignores. Moreover, they revel in their Soviet heritage even though they know that that part of their history will never return.

In his quest to imagine the Soviet past, BB goes out of his way to visit a forlorn and derelict fairground where he goes for a pendulum-type ride on one of the aged and rusty fairground rides. Simulating the machines on which Soviet cosmonauts trained for trips into space, the contraption spins him round and round on an axle that also turns upright, spinning BB on a vertical plane. Good thing BB is bald or his hair would have transformed into a brilliant shock of white! After the ride, our host is all smarmy “it didn’t scare me” and thanks the elderly woman who sent him on the wildest ride of his life.

For quieter stimulation, BB goes into a worker’s cafe that has barely changed over the last half-century or so and eats a homely lunch of borsch, salad and fruit juice. Feeling well nourished, he trots off to a bookshop where he is amazed to see the lady in charge use an abacus instead of a cash register or a calculator to work out his change.

Armed with his selfie stick and mobile phone, filming as he goes, BB’s film, like his other films on Moldova that I have seen so far, immerses the viewer in ordinary everyday incidents that together make up an exotic adventure in the places where he travels. The mundane becomes unique and coming across ordinary babushkas shopping for groceries to prepare paskha cakes for Easter with wonky carriers turns into an opportunity to broaden and educate one’s mind on foreign culture and customs. Every time BB takes a step somewhere, a new adventure seems to beckon. Along the way, BB treats his hosts with dignity and respect and they readily warm to him and open up with personal stories, information and recommendations on where to go next.

Abandoned Europe | Road To Ratus: even searching for past Soviet-era reality ends in disappointment

“Abandoned Europe / Road to Ratus” (Bald and Bankrupt, April 2019)

“Could be awesome, could be shit” … well, going to Ratus couldn’t be any worse than what we saw in Kishinev, so our hero Bald and Bankrupt (we’ll call him BB for convenience) sets off in his little sedan for the village of Ratush in Teleneshty district, central Moldova. Driving down the road, BB sees a couple of guys travelling with a horse and cart so he goes for a ride with them. They advise him to drive to the town of Teleneshty which he does. He finds Soviet-era buildings, many abandoned during mid-construction and left to moulder along the side of the road in the middle of vast rural landscapes where villages and hamlets are emptying as young people migrate elsewhere in search of work. He sits at a derelict bus stop, where seats have been ripped out and only the framework remains, and imagines what life must have been like when Moldova had been under Soviet rule.

While travelling to Ratush, BB comes across two local men driving a 30-year-old Lada that has seen better days. His interest piqued, BB wants a ride in the car and the elderly driver obliges. The windscreen may be cracked and a couple of clothes-pegs are hanging off the driver’s mirror in case something in the car needs to be clipped together – but golly, the car still works! After the joy-ride, the driver offers BB a look at the engine – not only is it in good nick but BB spies the year the engine was made: it was made in 1987!

Finally arriving in Ratush, BB discovers the streets are very quiet and the only real activity is in the town’s Orthodox church (well-maintained) where a choir is rehearsing. Though the streets are little more than muddy dirt tracks, they are clean and BB talks to a couple of labourers are clearing rubbish with their tractor (of Belarusian-Chinese manufacture, BB discovers) . Though BB does not refer to the houses in the village, viewers can see many of them are in fairly good condition. Finding little action in the village, BB decides not to hang about for long and off he goes in his sedan, singing along loudly with songs blaring from a local Moldovan radio station, to another destination.

While the local Moldovan people are polite and obliging – perhaps even humouring BB, seeing that he is a stranger with a camera – what is most obvious to this viewer is what BB does not appear to notice: there are no children running or riding bikes in the empty streets, nearly everyone seems to be middle-aged or older and Ratush lacks facilities for children and families like playgrounds, schools, a medical centre or community centre. There are not even any Soviet-era war memorials dedicated to local World War II heroes where BB can imagine Victory Day parades taking place in the town and schoolchildren solemnly placing garlands at the memorial and singing patriotic songs. Ratush could be any abandoned post-industrial town in post-Communist eastern Europe whose usefulness to the West is only as a giant military buffer / NATO base against Russia and a treasure-chest of oil, natural gas and mineral resources to be raided by Western corporations.

Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why: a UK tourist finds out why in the ruin and decay of Kishinev

“Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why” (Bald and Bankrupt, April 2019)

Bald and Bankrupt is the nom de plume of an English traveller who makes short videos of his travels to little-known and neglected parts of the world for his Youtube channel of the same name. The fellow certainly is bald but bankrupt in generosity and conviviality he most certainly is not. This video which he filmed himself on his mobile phone was taken during a trip to Chishinau (I prefer using the old Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, a country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine in southeastern Europe bordering the Balkan region. Initially Bald and Bankrupt – we’ll call him BB for the sake of convenience – visited Moldova on a jokey trip as he had heard that the country was the least visited place in Europe and that fewer people visit Moldova in a year than visit his local Tesco store every day!

In the space of just over 16 minutes of edited footage taken on his mobile phone, BB reveals the alarming extent of the neglect of public facilities in Kishinev: stairs leading from the street into the graffiti-covered tunnels to the subway are broken and dangerous to use, the wheelchair access is unusable; a large hotel is derelict and its fountain is empty save for rubbish; an observatory is falling into ruin. BB talks to pensioners in the streets and all independently agree that life under the Soviet Union before 1991 was better and cheaper.

Walking around city neighbourhoods, BB sees some election posters and reels off the names of various politicians and describes them as thieves or embezzlers. He sees pensioners selling personal possessions on the street and is shocked to see an advertisement from someone willing to buy people’s hair: a sure sign that people are desperate and will sell anything of theirs to supplement meagre incomes and buy food. BB mentions that pensioners are paid 40 euros every month.

At the end of his video, BB tells viewers something of what Moldova was like when it was part of the USSR: it was a holiday destination for Soviet tourists, it offered a good life for its citizens. Since independence, the country has been ruled by corrupt oligarch politicians who have looted the national wealth and impoverished the citizenry, even though it is supposedly moving closer to the European Union which is dangling the prospect of EU membership and a surefire path to the sort of prosperity that countries like Latvia and Lithuania are currently enjoying … not.

BB is a likeable narrator, very knowledgeable about Moldova’s politics and history, who resembles fellow Brit, the journalist Graham Phillips who himself fearlessly sallies into countries that mainstream Western news media would rather not know about, in appearance and open manner. His video on Kishinev is the first of a number of videos on life in Moldova.

The Happy Prince: a character study of Oscar Wilde in exile and artistic decline

Rupert Everett, “The Happy Prince” (2018)

A labour of love, of much research over the years on the life and work of Irish-British writer Oscar Wilde, is this character study by Rupert Everett who not only directs the film but wrote the script and plays Wilde as well. The plot is skeletal to the point of non-existence and follows Wilde’s last years after his release from prison in 1897 for engaging in homosexual activities with younger, lower-class men: he goes into self-exile in France and reunites with Lord Alfred Douglas aka Bosie (Colin Morgan) despite the latter and his father the Marquess of Queensberry having been a cause of Wilde’s downfall and eventual imprisonment. Against the objections of his friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), Wilde flees to Naples with Bosie where they spend lavishly on “gentlemen’s parties” but are forced to separate when their respective families cut off their allowances for continuing to see each other. Wilde returns to Paris where, depressed and alone, spurned by polite society, he finds solace in absinthe and in befriending two young brothers, the older of whom becomes his rent-boy. To both brothers, especially the younger, Wilde tells them the story of the Happy Prince. From then on, the narrative trajectory is on a downward slide, as Wilde writes very little and his health declines from a combination of meningitis and an old prison injury to his head flaring up again.

Wilde’s tumultuous and colourful three years in exile contrast with the restricted life his crippled wife Constance (Emily Watson) and their two young sons are forced to lead, to avoid public scrutiny and scorn. After Constance’s death, her relatives make sure the children never see their father again and this causes Wilde anguish. Another sub-plot that stays mostly undeveloped is the rivalry between Bosie and Ross for Wilde’s affections which continues even at Wilde’s funeral.

Everett’s portrayal of Wilde with all his flamboyance, his wit and selfish appetites is a passionate and heartfelt tour-de-force that anchors the entire film and carries it all the way to the end. While his punishment was severe and undeserved, and his health was affected by imprisonment to the extent that his life expectancy was severely reduced, Wilde is determined to live his life to the full in the way he wants, even if this means losing access to his children and possibly ending up in a poorhouse. He does become very religious but even there his newfound Catholicism must take second place to his pursuit of hedonism and aestheticism. At the same time he is persecuted by the very people who used to laud his plays and other writings, and his ability to live how he wants depends very much on his in-laws who control his and Constance’s purse-strings. By the way he lives his life, Wilde calls attention to the hypocrisy of the society that alternately flatters and spurns him, and ultimately destroys him. It is not difficult to see why Wilde is drawn to Catholicism: he sees in the suffering and martyrdom of Jesus Christ his own persecution, and from that obtains comfort and learns to accept his suffering as part of his destiny.

The other actors know when the spotlight is on them and when they should get out of Everett’s way. Watson is a pleasure to watch even if most of her roles these days barely challenge her abilities and are of the motherly support stereotype. Firth underplays his role as Turner and Tom Wilkinson all but steals every scene he appears in as the priest who baptises Wilde.

The film emphasises Wilde’s acceptance of the humiliations that come with his celebrity and subsequent notoriety, and his determination to live his life as he sees fit, however shallow and self-centred his decisions might be. He learns to find beauty and radiance in even the most squalid and impoverished situations. The only issue I have with the film is that Victorian society which condemns Wilde and casts him off for being true to his nature and living his life to the full, but treats him in such a way that his health is ruined and his life cut short, does not come in for very much criticism.

The Coup in Venezuela, Explained: an impassioned presentation on the reality behind the news media propaganda and lies

Aaron Bastani, Gary McQuiggin, “The Coup in Venezuela, Explained” (Novara Media, 2019)

Here comes a very timely report on the recent history of Venezuela’s politics and economy, coming after the country’s Leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaido declared himself President of Venezuela on 23 January 2019, just after Nicolas Maduro’s second term as President began. Almost immediately the United States, followed by several Latin American countries and many in the European Union, either recognised Guaido as President or pressured Maduro to hold new elections. As the title says, the report provides the background to the rise of the Bolivarian political / economic / social revolution in Venezuela in the 1990s and its achievements under Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. It also examines the history of Western hostility to Chavez and Maduro’s governments, the US attempts to overthrow Chavez and Maduro by outright coups and constant sabotaging of Venezuela’s economy. This hostility is put into a wider historical context in which the United States has always intervened, usually violently, in the affairs of Latin American countries, derailed their legitimately elected governments and replaced them with fascist elites who rule through violence and terror, and enrich themselves and their American masters by looting their nations’ economies while the population falls into poverty.

Bastani puts the Bolivarian revolution and the ascension of Hugo Chavez to the Presidency into historical and current political context, by noting that Venezuela was in a parlous state on various economic and social criteria in 1998 when Chavez became President, and comparing that state to what Venezuela was in 2010: poverty levels fell precipitously from nearly 71% in 1996 to 21% in 2010, and the level of malnutrition in the population fell from 21% in 1998 to 5% in 2012, thanks to spending on social welfare programs. However much of the money spent on social programs came from revenues from oil exports: after 2015, oil prices (and thus oil revenues) began to fall due in part to Saudi Arabia’s flooding of the global oil market in order to crash the Russian and Iranian economies, widely perceived to be dependent on energy and oil exports. At the same time, the US imposed economic and financial sanctions on Venezuela and froze the country’s oil refiner CITGO’s ability to send revenues earned in the US back to the country; the combined effect of sanctions and falling oil prices ruined the economy and forced the country to issue more money, leading to hyperinflation. Bastani observes that the American use of sanctions to ruin economies has a long and ignoble history, citing the example of the Nixon government’s sanctioning of Chile in 1973.

The only issue I have with this part of Bastani’s explanation of Venezuela’s economic history is that he omits to mention how Venezuela came to be overly dependent on oil extraction and export for export revenues, to the detriment of other industries (especially agriculture), and how this excessive reliance on exporting raw commodities was partly the result of past government policy directed by US governments which saw Venezuela as little more than a giant petrol station to be exploited for oil which Americans regarded as theirs.

The role of British mainstream news media and of the BBC in particular in propagating and perpetuating the lies about Venezuela, Maduro being a dictator and an incompetent economic manager, and the global support that Guaido is supposed to have as self-declared President, is exposed in Bastani’s parsing of the statements presented and the in-built biases they have. Shamefully the British Labour party is as much at fault as the despised Tories in supporting Guaido as President and in attributing Venezuela’s dire economic situation to Chavez, Maduro and the policies and programs they pursued. Bastani then goes over the history of Chavez’s changes to the Venezuelan Constitution and his election history, finding that Chavez consistently won the popular vote in Presidential elections. A US-supported coup against Chavez in 2002, during which he was kidnapped and held hostage, failed when Venezuelans demanded that he be set free and returned to power. Bastani demonstrates that, far from widespread Western belief, Chavez not only was no dictator but the political changes he brought made Venezuela a far more democratic country than the United States or the United Kingdom.

Bastani is a passionate and persuasive presenter who has done detailed research on his topic, backing up his statements with statistics and comparing the propaganda about Venezuela with the reality of the country and finding the lies blatant and outrageous. His presentation makes clear that the Bolivarian revolution and its principles and agenda are a threat to the greed of elites in the Western world to grab other nations’ resources (in Venezuela’s case, its oil reserves) for their own enrichment at the expense of the people whose resources are being stolen. He urges us all to stand up to our elites and call them out on their lies and propaganda, and to stop them from invading Venezuela and seizing its wealth.

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.