BBC Panorama: What Facebook Knows About You – a lesson in how news documentaries shouldn’t be done

Maurice May, “BBC Panorama: What Facebook Knows About You” (2017)

Half an hour for a documentary simply doesn’t do justice to the topic of what social media giant Facebook mines from its nearly two billion users who have accounts with this US company. The overall result feels rushed and superficial, and in some parts heavily edited. Reporter and narrator Darragh MacIntyre runs between the UK and the US – and other points outside the two – to interview a number of people including among others UK Facebook policy director Simon Milner, ex-Facebook employee Antonio Garcia Martinez and former Ofcom director of technology Chi Onwurah. The stony-faced Milner puts up a barrier of repetition and indifference when MacIntyre quizzes him on how what percentage of the massive amounts of income Facebook makes comes from fake news or plain outright lies and propaganda. Onwurah worries about the consequences and implications of Facebook having too much data from its users and Garcia Martinez speaks of his experiences with Facebook as though it were a cult and he a defector and whistleblower (well, almost) as he pursues a life chopping wood away from the closed circles of Facebook high-priest management and acolyte employees. The topics covered include the role that fake news might play in Facebook’s pursuit of its audiences, current and potential alike, and how the company would be unlikely to give up fake news completely; the role that Facebook played in the 2016 US Presidential elections as a bridge bringing together the Democrats and Republicans and their respective voter bases plus new voters, and might play in the 2017 UK general election (the program having been made just before the election took place); and the company’s hypocrisy in the way it determines what its users can post to their accounts and what they can’t.

Unfortunately as the issues brought up are dealt with in a shallow way, the program comes off as rushed and sensationalist, even a bit hysterical. The idea of regulating Facebook is broached but nothing is said about how regulating such a giant corporation might work at a time when most Western governments are disinclined to allocate money, staff and other resources to monitoring and regulating most areas of the economy or of society that people think they should regulate. Nationalising Facebook would be a big taboo when Western societies are committed to privatisation and neoliberal economics. The real pity is that the program never comes near what should have been obvious: that Facebook is a private corporation beholden to its shareholders to deliver profits and may have an agenda that reflects the expectations and values of its shareholders. MacIntyre should have been asking how a privately owned for-profit organisation translates its profit-maximisation objective into its core function as a social media forum. Might one suggest that Facebook uses the social media forum as a marketing forum to bring advertisers (its main source of revenue) and the public together? In this scenario, the product that Facebook sells is the Facebook user and everything about that user that can be mined and turned into commodities. Needless to say, Facebook’s policies as regards how it regulates the content posted by Facebook users to their accounts and the principles those policies are based – and perhaps how it hires the people to police the content, where they are hired, how much they are paid and how well they are treated – remain untouched.

As a documentary, this BBC Panorama program is an object lesson in how TV news documentaries shouldn’t be done.

Goodbye Christopher Robin: a surprisingly substantial film with some disturbing themes

Simon Curtis, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2017)

A film about English playwright / author A A Milne and the circumstances in which he was inspired to write the “Winnie the Pooh” series of books based on his son Christopher Robin and the child’s toys could have been a very tedious nostalgia-filled flick with more saccharine sickliness than substance and style. Parts of the film are too sugary and it does come out at a time when the British movie industry delves ever more into a mythical early 20th-century past for want of original stories. (Maybe if the British government put more money into tertiary education and encouraged more working-class and lower middle-class students to take up writing and scripting for films, there would be good original films with meaty stories and British actors would not need to compete with other non-American actors for work in Hollywood.) Surprisingly, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” turns out to be more substantial than it would at first appear, given its biopic subject matter: the film tackles quite a few disturbing themes – the impact of war and shellshock on a family and the relationships within that family; the disturbing treatment of children by their parents in upper class English families; the effect of sudden fame and celebrity on people ill-equipped to deal with being famous, and the resulting loss of childhood innocence replaced by pain that can last life-times – which leave viewers with much food for thought about whether Milne should or should not have mentioned his son in the books at all and whether the books would have achieved as much fame as they did if the son had indeed been left out.

The film is cleverly framed by two major wars that in their own way led to the decline of the British empire and British influence on a global scale. We meet Milne (Domhnall Gleeson),  just returned from fighting from the Western front in the Great War, tormented by severe flash-back experiences that affect his social life and ability to write, even function normally. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) experiences her own trauma in giving birth to their son, whom they name Christopher Robin: Daphne had wanted a girl and was unprepared for the extreme pain of childbirth. Right from the outset Daphne rejects the baby, nicknamed “Billy”, and the couple hire Scottish nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to care for the child.

Determined to write a book decrying war but experiencing writer’s block and continual flash-back episodes, Milne takes his family down to a country house in southern England which becomes their primary residence. When Billy reaches primary school age, Daphne flees back to London to catch up with the social set and Olive must return to her sick mother: this leaves Milne and Billy alone together and father and son start to forge a friendship. This has the effect of inspiring Milne to write and publish a series of poems and stories based on Billy and his toys, with illustrations provided by Milne’s friend Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore). The poems and stories prove to be immensely popular in Britain and overseas, and suddenly the Milnes are inundated with fan mail, demands for interviews and public appearances, and intrusive press and fans. Billy is quicker than both his starry-eyed parents to realise that his life and toys are not his own anymore.

The scripting is smooth and very flowing, jumping across gaps in time to suggest Billy’s angst, pain and eventually anger as he is thrown into boarding school at a tender age where he faces constant bullying from other kids for his fame in a children’s story series and comes to believe that his father exploited him. Will Tilston gives a good performance as the child Billy in conveying a full range of emotions and feelings about fame and the pressures it places on him. Alex Lawther takes up the baton as the teenage Billy, eager to serve as a private in the British Army so he can forge his own identity, and makes the most of his limited role. Gleeson plays a traumatised, emotionally restricted and (at times) conflicted Milne very well. Macdonald provides the warm-hearted balance to the dysfunctional parenting of Milne, often at sea in the events swirling around him, and his shallow, hedonistic and ultimately mercenary wife Daphne.

Perhaps the best part of the film is its beautiful cinematography which captures the soft light and magic of the English countryside and of Ashdown Forest in particular where a child’s imagination can open up and perceive a fairy-tale world of snow and snowflakes that float upwards. The middle part of the film where Milne begins to create the world of Winnie the Pooh is perhaps the best and most beautiful and uplifting part.

For a film juggling a number of themes, inevitably some get short shrift and viewers never find out whether Milne was able to deal with his wartime experiences and shellshock. What Milne himself thought of the way in which his “Winnie the Pooh” creation overshadowed the rest of his writing career (including the anti-war book “Peace With Honour” that he did eventually write) and subtly implied that his other writing might be mediocre is also not known. Near the end (spoiler alert) of the film, a reconciliation between Milne and his son appears unnatural, mawkish and emotionally manipulative, as though despite all the unresolved problems the Milne family has – one notes all the way through that Daphne is extremely distant from her son and he has no time for her either – the film has to end on an upbeat note with all loose ends tidied and tied and all characters determined to forge ahead on one bright and shining path as one.

While the film might be inadequate in resolving its themes, at least it has been brave enough to approach and suggest them. The issue of war and the cost of keeping the peace is one that continues to bedevil human beings, as does also the issue of how much young children should be exposed to constant publicity before it threatens their right to privacy and sense of identity, and brings unexpected and painful consequences to them (such as stalking and bullying, as Billy was to discover). The Milne couple’s frightful parenting is part of another larger and more grave problem revolving around Britain’s class hierarchy and how its reliance on boarding schools for upper class and middle class children stunt their development and help reinforce mediocrity, incompetence, indifference and lack of compassion among its elites. That’s probably a subject for another film or a TV mini-series.

Animation and live action make “Doctor Who: Shada” a better story than the original plot would suggest

Pennant Roberts, “Doctor Who: Shada” (2017)

Not often do particular adventures in the long-running “Doctor Who” television series which first ran from 1963 to 1988 and was then resurrected in the early 2000s achieve mythic status of their own through an unusual set of events but the story of “Shada”, originally scripted by the legendary Douglas Adams (he of “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), is almost as famous as its creator: the 6-episode adventure had to be abandoned after several hours of filming due to industrial action at the BBC in 1978. Over the years the story was reworked in several formats including two audio plays, an animation (or two) and a novelisation. Finally in 2017 the BBC completed the adventure by combining the live-action segments with animation of the missing segments, based on the original script, and using special-effects technology that was available to the original TV crew filming “Shada”.

What the BBC ends up with is a story true to the quirky if low-brow charm of the original TV series, and possessed of all the wackiness one expects of a story penned by Douglas Adams: the central if hilarious conceit of the story is that a lovable if dotty and absent-minded English professor of physics, pottering about in his office and library at Cambridge University, is in fact a hardened intergalactic arch-criminal on the run from an outer-space gulag. But such is the mysterious Professor Chronotis (Dennis Carey), whose name tells viewers that the professor maybe outside the dimension of time as we know cheerfully serving a cup of tea to postgraduate physics student Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) who drops by to borrow some books for a project. One of the books Parsons takes is a strange book written in mysterious script which Parsons discovers is not made of materials available on Earth; indeed its molecular structure is completely alien to Earthlings and the age of the book suggests that it only exists when time is running backwards!

While Parsons dashes off with the book, in another dimension a scheming megalomaniac villain called Skagra (Christopher Neame) travelling in a spaceship steals the minds of his fellow voyagers in a white sphere and goes to Earth to find Chronotis’ book – the very book Parsons has taken – whose script, once deciphered, gives instructions to travel to Shada, the prison planet created by an advanced alien species called the Time Lords to house their worst criminals; there, Skagra hopes to find and release a prisoner called Salyavin who has the unique ability to project his mind into those of others and rearrange their jumbled thoughts and direct them to more other pursuits of his making. Ultimately Skagra hopes to hoover up a stack of the most advanced minds of the universe with his little crystal ball and with Salyavin’s abilities on his side (or maybe in the sphere) use those minds to rearrange the universe’s affairs to his liking.

Unfortunately as with all such schemes, Skagra’s plans for shuffling the mental deckchairs around are threatened by the intrusion of the Doctor (Tom Baker), the time-travelling Time Lord, his Time Lady friend Romana (Lalla Ward) and their cyber-pooch K9. When the Doctor, Romana and K9 find and team up with Chris Parsons and his female physics tutor pal Clare (Victoria Burgoyne) to find the mystery book and return it to Gallifrey’s Panopticon archives (centuries after Chronotis had stolen it), Skagra has already made off with the item and the adventure settles down to a drawn-out chase that zig-zags from one end of the universe to another, involves Romana being kidnapped by Skagra (but not being tied to train tracks), has Romana and Clare trying desperately to link Chronotis’ stolen TARDIS machine to the Doctor’s TARDIS so the Doctor can traverse the link while the machines are whirling around in the time-space continuum, and (of course) features fearsome hulking monsters of molten lava. The story also includes a few head-scratching anomalies that don’t quite make sense – how could Skagra and his mind-sucking ball not discover Chronotis’ true identity after clearing out his head? – but sssh, we mustn’t let such errors in logic get in the way of a ramshackle adventure oozing plenty of slapstick and occasional wit along with a metal dog, a dumb computer driving Skagra’s ship and part of Cambridge University going missing for a day or two.

The animation style pays respect to the famous shoe-string budget of the original live-action TV show by being minimalist to the point of parsimony in the way characters move and speak. Effects are used if they were already known at the time of the original 1979 filming for “Shada”. The plot places a huge amount of emphasis on dialogue and clever editing techniques over action and viewers need to follow the dialogue quite closely to catch the jokes and in-jokes, and the Doctor’s crazy conversation about how dead men cannot threaten live people with the computer on Skagra’s jet that all but fries the machine’s circuit-boards.

Overall, the acting is adequate for the job when all that the job requires is chasing an evil master-mind from one end of the cosmos to the other in giant spaceships or pint-sized TARDIS machines. Carey’s professor is reduced to making endless cups of tea and Romana is often forced to play a damsel-in-distress role and spends huge amounts of time standing about in Skagra’s spaceship listening to his speeches about how he’ll run the universe more efficiently. Chris and Clare have even less to do than Romana does apart from getting themselves into trouble.

While silly eccentricity is to be expected in a script by Douglas Adams and with an actor like Tom Baker, the underlying theme of “Shada” is very serious: how do societies that pride themselves on their humanity towards less fortunate others deal with individuals who have committed dangerous crimes harmful to individuals and communities and who in many countries would have been subjected to capital punishment. Is it ethical for the Time Lords to freeze their most notorious criminals, and the criminals of other planets, and put them in cold storage on a barren prison planet and then pretend that such people never existed? Is there not a better way to treat criminals, even the most brutalised and hardened ones, in a decent way while still keeping them away from the public as much for their own sake as for the public’s sake? What exactly has Salyavin done that warranted deep-freezing him on Shada in the first place and was the punishment justified? (And how did he manage to escape?) Unfortunately the treatment of this issue is beyond Adams’ ability to work with and so the theme is very undeveloped. Far too much racing after Skagra and the stolen book dominates the story’s running time and at times certain scenes or characters can remind viewers of similar scenes and characters from previous Doctor Who adventures.

For all that, “Shada” is a decent enough story that actually works better than the plot would suggest as a result of combining live action and animation.

Loving Vincent: an arresting visual animation style papers over a repetitive and insubstantial formulaic plot

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, “Loving Vincent” (2017)

Most viewers will probably be bowled over by the use of oil paintings on canvas as animation cels and the directors’ preference for classically trained painters over animators to do the paintings, resulting in a very arresting visual style drawing heavily on 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s vibrant style. For all the distinctive visual style though, the film is not that remarkable in its plotting and I have to wonder why animation was preferred wholly over live action when both animation and live action could have been used. I suspect the animation helps to paper over inconsistencies and flaws in the plot that would have made the film just another ordinary historical biopic about a famous figure.

A year after Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890, young tear-about Armand Roulin (voiced and played by Douglas Booth) is tasked by his postmaster father to personally deliver a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo after the letter fails to reach the latter and is returned to the post office. Although Armand does not know van Gogh well, his father persuades him to take the letter, telling Armand that van Gogh had suffered mental illness and had been ostracised by others as a result. Armand goes to see Julien Tanguy, an art dealer who sold painting supplies to van Gogh: Tanguy tells Armand to visit Dr Gachet, who had cared for van Gogh in his last days, in Auvers-sur-Oise. Armand calls in at the Gachet residence and learns the doctor is away. The young man whiles away his time visiting people who knew van Gogh (who painted their portraits) and tell him all they know of the painter: their stories form a narrative suggesting to Armand that van Gogh might not have committed suicide but instead had been murdered. In Armand’s mind, everyone including Dr Gachet and his family become potential suspects.

The film does flit over several themes including mental illness and people’s attitudes toward mentally ill people in van Gogh’s time, the painter’s difficulties in coping with his poverty and various demons, and how best to remember someone by seeing the world as he saw it, with all its natural delights, and celebrating what he leaves behind in spite of a painful and undeserved death. Unfortunately the film concentrates too much on a story that tends to go round and round in circles and becomes quite repetitive. Ultimately Armand’s adventure seems rather insubstantial – the whole murder plot building up in his mind eventually goes awry after he’s interviewed all the most significant people who knew or met van Gogh – though he does come to appreciate how special van Gogh was to the people who knew him and he resolves to lead a better life than he has done so far. Even so, the idea of a rank amateur trying to solve a murder mystery that the police have dismissed as a suicide, and using rough-n-ready interview techniques to solve where more sophisticated police methods of the time have failed is hardly new.

The acting is not all that remarkable and seems rather flat – but that may be due to the style of animation used. The action proceeds in a leisurely way and only near the end does it become emotional and moving in parts.

Promoters of the film are very fond of saying how it was made and of how many painters (mostly from Poland and Greece, two countries severely affected by neoliberal economic policies and programs ordained by EU bureaucrats) were employed to create the 65,000 oil paintings that became the basis of the film’s animation. When so much emphasis is placed on the film’s technical aspects, one suspects that so much else within the film isn’t quite as good.

Final Portrait: a character study that doesn’t delve deeply into the nature of friendship and artistic endeavour

Stanley Tucci, “Final Portrait” (2017)

Best seen as a character study and a superficial investigation into an artist’s creativity and what motivates him, “Final Portrait” is noteworthy for its lead actors Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer and the zest they both bring to their performances. For those looking for a plot with some excitement, an exhilarating climax and a satisfying resolution, they should look elsewhere: what passes for a plot in “Final Portrait” is Swiss-born Paris resident sculptor / painter Alberto Giacometti (Rush) inviting a friend, ex-spy and writer James Lord (Hammer) to his studio to sit for a portrait which Giacometti claims will just take up two to three hours of Lord’s time. Those two to three hours end up taking over two weeks of Lord’s time as Giacometti fusses over the portrait and keeps erasing, re-doing and re-erasing it. The old fella continually beats himself up over his apparent failure to capture Lord’s inner soul even though he spends a lot of time gazing into the American’s eyes and studying his features. (Someone probably could have told Giacometti that American spies don’t have much in the way of an inner soul.) He also spends a lot of time flirting with prostitute Caroline (Clémence Poésy) which puts him and Lord in danger from her violent pimps. While Giacometti battles with his perfectionism that prevents him from finishing the portrait properly and his chaotic personal life with his long-suffering wife (Sylvie Testud) and Caroline, Lord also spends his time with the painter observing his erratic ways and habits, trying to understand what makes Giacometti tick, and having to keep cancelling his return flight to New York just so he can see how his portrait turns out when Giacometti finishes it – if the old guy can finish it.

Rush’s performance as Giacometti is sharp and energetic if very repetitive as the film trudges on. Hammer’s clean-cut and rather conservative character acts as a perfect foil for the artist’s unconventional and messy ways. Unfortunately the way the film jumps from one day to the next, and then from one collection of days to the next, means that the evolution of the two men’s friendship and respect for each other ends up fragmented and audiences have to assume a great deal about how it progresses. Somehow all the early fighting about how Lord can’t afford to spend extra time sitting for the painting ended up on the cutting-room floor. Giacometti’s relationships with his missus and the mistress don’t make for very substantial sub-plots either; the entry of the pimps late in the film seems like an after-thought to give it much-needed frisson. All the same, the minor characters do a very good job in filling out Giacometti’s support while he agonises over his work and leaves a mess in his wake.

The Paris of the mid-1960s looks very picturesque as does the messy and dusty atelier where Giacometti paints his pictures and reworks his sculptures endlessly (and stashes all his money because he, a Swiss, doesn’t trust banks). The Hollywood stereotyping looks quite thick in parts and some of the music soundtrack is also very twee.

The film’s repetitive structure and resolution parallel the painting’s ongoing creation and eventual completion (of a sort), and just as the painting itself does not capture the perfection Giacometti seeks, so the film also doesn’t completely explain Giacometti’s fascination with Lord as a subject for a portrait or Lord’s interest in Giacometti’s work to the extent that he would willingly sit for nineteen days, sometimes in pain, when he was told he would only have to sit a few hours. The most we see is a lukewarm meeting – it doesn’t come anywhere near to being a clash – of two opposed Western cultures: the jaded, layered and convoluted culture represented by Giacometti and what it values, and the sleek, shiny capitalist culture represented by Lord. While the two men become fast friends, the film gives no indication of what each man really thinks of the other and of the world that he comes from. What does Lord really think of Giacometti’s two-timing and his chaotic home, and what does Giacometti really see in Lord’s sleek style of dress and presentation? Does each man see in the other man something that he lacks and yearns for?

A theme of mortality and staving off death is present: one gets the impression that Giacometti desperately needed to keep painting and re-painting Lord’s portrait to hold physical deterioration and death at bay. If only Tucci had realised that Giacometti’s quest for perfection was his way of holding his personal demons in check, the result could have been a darker and more interesting film.

 

 

Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story): taking audiences through the length and breadth of Chinese history

Ian Bremner, “Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story)” (2014)

The famous Great Wall of China is rightly one of the most awe-inspiring engineering feats in human history and this documentary valiantly tackles those aspects of the Wall’s own history that have inspired its construction and made it such an important megastructure. The documentary follows chronological order from the time the Wall was first begun over two thousand years ago, using that basic logical structure as a foundation to explore some of the more quirky characteristics of the Wall.

The documentary begins with the dimensions of the structure itself and, from following recent research, discovers that the Wall is made up of at least sixteen different walls plus other walls whose remains still lie underground. Altogether all these walls have a total length of 21,000 km which is much more than the distance between the North and South Poles! Naturally the question of why the Chinese went to so much trouble to build walls arise and the program diverts to an investigation of a nomadic horse-riding tribe, the Xiongnu, living in the Gobi and other realms north who during the first few hundred years of the first millennium CE harassed the Chinese empire at about the same time that Germanic and Hun barbarian tribes tormented the Roman Empire with raids and plundering. The Xiongnu’s cavalry tactics forced the Chinese to improve their defence capabilities by building a network of walls that acted as much as a communications network and a form of military offence against the nomads as it did as defence. Unfortunately nothing is said about how successful the Wall was in its myriad functions against the Xiongnu or what happened to these nomads.

A major attraction of the Wall is its longevity and here the most surprising aspect of the documentary is revealed: during the Ming period (1368 – 1644), when reconstructing the Wall became a major engineering priority, mortar made of sticky rice was used to help cement massive bricks. During this period, the Wall’s reconstruction stimulated brick-making on an industrial scale and encouraged hundreds if not thousands of craftsmen, workers and their families to migrate to northern and north-central China to work in kilns located near or on the Wall itself.

Finally the program considers the success of the Wall in its various functions (actual and expected) and finds a rather mixed record: it was not all that successful in repelling Genghis Khan and his mixed Mongol / Turkic forces in the 1200s, or the Manchus in the 1600s. Nevertheless the Wall continues to stand as a symbol of Chinese civilisation, ingenuity, determination, stability and invincibility.

Easy to follow thanks to Paul McGann’s narration, and with experts like William Lindesay, chemistry professor Bingjian Zhang and military historian Mike Loades on hand for more detailed explanations and enthusiastic demonstrations, the program provides interesting fodder at a steady clip and weaves its way through the Wall’s history, jumping from one topic to the next smoothly and skilfully. Animations help audiences appreciate the size and complexity of the Wall’s various meanderings across northern China.

Audiences are sure to ponder questions such as whether the Wall could have led to an industrial revolution in Ming-era China but this and other issues arising from the program’s narrative demand independent investigations in their own right. This documentary is aimed mainly at a family audience and school students learning Chinese history: what better way to understand some of the length and breadth of that history through its best-known engineering feat?

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel): breathless rush admits no disbelief about inspiration for Bible story

Elliott Kew “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel)” (2017)

The Bible story of the construction of the Tower of Babel as a metaphor for humanity’s arrogance in presuming itself the equal of God was once well-known to generations of children in Western society and still resonates among people in Western countries even today. This “Treasures Decoded” episode breathlessly takes viewers into Iraq, to the archaeological site of an enormous temple building known as Etemenanki built during the sixth century BCE by the King Nebuchadnezzar II, ruler of the Babylonian Empire. To that end, he apparently conquered the Jewish states of Israel and Judah, and carted off those states’ best and brightest craftspeople and workers to work on the building.

The episode goes into some detail as to what Nebuchadnezzar II’s grand construction was made of, what it would have had to look like given that it must have been 90 metres tall and made of mud bricks, and the stresses it might have suffered due to its height and construction materials. It should be no surprise that such a tall mud-brick construction had to be a pyramid-like ziggurat with steps going up its sides in addition to the long staircase the Tower of Babel was reputed to have had. Contrary to the Biblical story, this particular construction lasted a very long time, in fact  well into the fourth century BCE, though by the time Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire (which replaced the Babylonian Empire in 550 BCE) the temple was in a very sorry state. Alexander had the temple pulled down, planning to rebuild it. Unfortunately he did not reign for very long, dying of malaria and over-exertion in his early 30s, and the temple was never rebuilt. The mud bricks used in its construction were instead recycled into other buildings and all that remains of the temple building is its foundation and some mud bricks.

The brisk, almost frantic pace of the episode leaves no space for viewers to doubt that Nebuchadnezzar II’s grandiose project was anything other than the inspiration for the Tower of Babel. I did have the impression that much of the evidence presented in the episode was too good and too slick to be accurate. Consulting Wikipedia and some other sources, I discovered that Etemenanki had been rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II and a previous ruler before him.

While learning about Etemenanki and why it was constructed the way it was, was interesting enough, I would have thought its place in Babylonian society, its role and function in projecting Babylonian power, and the awe it inspired in Nebuchadnezzar II’s Jewish captives would have been even more intriguing to know. The episode relied a bit too much on comparing the building with the Tower of Babel story, and not enough on its own compelling features and the possible megalomania that inspired it. So many documentaries these days make increasing references to stories in the Bible as touchstones for investigating archaeological sites that are impressive in their own right, and I fear this trend may have the effect of overwriting real Middle Eastern history with a fictional narrative working against the interests of the real people who live in the real Middle East.

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 8: Garden of Eden): exploring the mystery behind the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture

Tom Cebula, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 8: Garden of Eden)” (2017)

Many if not most people in Western society know of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and how they contrived to be cast out of the Garden of Eden for eating of the fruit of knowledge and as punishment were forced to toil and grow their own food for the rest of their lives together. Eve in turn was forced to suffer childbirth in pain for her part in persuading Adam to eat the fruit. While most treat the story as purely a creation story and an allegory into how sin came into the world, for others the Garden of Eden must be a real place somewhere in the Middle East. Intriguingly an archaeological site consisting of megaliths and other stone structures discovered in 1963 and known as Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for “Potbelly Hill”) seems to answer to the description of Garden of Eden in its specific location, being between the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southeastern Turkey. This 50-minute episode examines the development of Göbekli Tepe as a holy site for groups of hunter-gatherers over a period of 2,000 years between 9,500 – 7,000 BCE and the part the site may have played or represented in the transition from hunting and gathering to early agriculture in the Middle East.

To its credit, the episode dwells little on the Bible story and presents Göbekli Tepe and its history as far more complicated, mysterious and intriguing than the Bible story itself. The fact that the structures built there were constructed by hunter-gatherer groups confounds archaeologists since before the site’s discovery, ancient hunter-gatherer societies had not been thought to have the capabilities or the need to build such structures: such groups were considered too nomadic and did not have the social structures required to marshal enough people away from finding food and to build the megaliths and temples. The carvings of animals suggest the site may have been a sanctuary of some sort but for the time being, academics do not know what the carvings might have meant for the people who built them and visited them.

The connection with the story of Adam and Eve, apart from the physical location, is that Göbekli Tepe may have been built at a time when Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were in the process of abandoning their nomadic ways of life and taking up more sedentary residence in permanent or semi-permanent housing and villages, and cultivating wild grasses that became the basis for modern cereals like wheat. The narrator and the experts interviewed for the episode point out that the shift from hunting and gathering to farming had deleterious effects on people’s health. What must have happened in that part of the world – and indeed, other parts where people also gave up full-time hunting and gathering and became farmers – is not mentioned, much less speculated upon, and for many viewers that’s probably the weakest part of what is otherwise a highly informative episode on Göbekli Tepe.

With the transition to full-time farming complete some time after 7,000 BCE, the significance of the site apparently faded and Göbekli Tepe was abandoned by the descendants of the original megalith builders and worshippers. The site ended up being backfilled and that in itself is also a mystery to be added to the other mysteries that still perplex modern archaeology about this site.

 

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads): phenomenon of shrunken heads hides a history of cultural exploitation and degradation

Peter Crystal, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads)” (2017)

Shrunken human heads are the kind of macabre curio objects, beloved of museums and oddball collectors, sure to arouse curiosity and revulsion alike – but the history of how shrunken human heads came to the attention of 19th-century European explorers in South American and sparked a collection mania among museums, private organisations and individual collectors throughout the world masks a sordid history of Western capitalist exploitation and undermining of a culture and its worldview. The episode begins innocently if breathlessly with a supposedly impartial team of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians using the latest methods including DNA analysis to examine and discover the origins of various shrunken heads found in museum collections in places as far apart as Philadelphia and Warsaw – and what they discover leads narrator Mark Bazeley and his audience into a shocking underworld of bodysnatching, cold-blooded murder, fakery and near-genocide.

To its credit, the episode spends time explaining the role of shrunken heads in the worldview of the Shuar people in Ecuador: the Shuar decapitate their enemies in warfare and shrink their heads so that the spirits within are trapped and cannot wreak revenge on the Shuar for killing them. (To be on the safe side, the head’s eyes, nostrils and mouth are sewn shut.) Over time, the spirit’s power is used by the Shuar people for peaceful and beneficial purposes. Once Europeans contacted the Shuar and began demanding – and paying for – shrunken heads to furnish their museums, the Shuar were drawn into economic and trading networks in which an aspect of their culture became commodified, and the Western demand for shrunken heads led the Shuar down a dangerous path in which they became increasingly violent and any traditions and customs that they had which had preached peace were forgotten. In time, the Shuar were not only killing their warrior enemies for the head-hunting trade, they were killing their own – men, women, even children – and raiding graves for heads. Over time, the Shuar’s own culture and traditions became degraded and the people acquired an unjustified reputation as being bloodthirsty and violent.

At the same time, the episode does titillate Western curiosity by devoting considerable time to an anthropologist’s attempt in recreating the process by which heads were shrunk by the Shuar with a pig’s head. The fellow then tries through digital means to reverse the shrinking process and to reveal what the face of a man whose head was shrunk might have looked like in real life.

The novelty of seeing shrunken heads wears off very quickly and the really fascinating aspect of this phenomenon is how a cultural tradition originally aiming to mitigate violence and restore peace came to be corrupted through Western contact and co-opted into providing a commodity in capitalist society, in the process being stripped of its benevolent intentions and turning into a sick, twisted and degraded parody spreading fear and violence. Viewers will be heartened to discover that head-hunting was made illegal in Ecuador in the 1960s but only after Christian missionaries contacted the Shuar and persuaded them to give up this violence. It seems a shame that the Shuar could only give up head-hunting by being herded into accepting a foreign religion rather than be allowed to turn back to their traditions to find a remedy to end the violence and instability created by head-hunting. We learn nothing about how the Shuar have since tried to rebuild their culture and communities, and regain the peace and stability they once had.

If there is something valuable to take away from this story about shrunken heads, then the narrative of how the Shuar nearly killed themselves off but instead recovered to reclaim their society and reputation and by doing so saved themselves and survived should have been at least as important as the phenomenon of the shrunken heads themselves.

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

Ben Wheatley, “High-Rise” (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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