Aleppo Renaissance: after war, looting and destruction, a city determined to regain its rightful place as a major Middle Eastern industrial hub

Sinan Saeed and Tom Duggan, “Aleppo Renaissance” (2017)

Here’s a very welcome documentary on Aleppo and its significance in Syria’s history, culture and economy, and why the city was targeted by jihadis during the recent war against ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and other jihadi groups financed from abroad. Through narration by Duggan and Saeed, and interviews with Aleppo politician Fares al Shihaby and businessman Mohammad al Nawai, we learn how the city became one of four designated industrial zones in Syria for local and foreign investment in 2004. Unfortunately for Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his government, this attempt to modernise and industrialise Syria, to turn the country into the workshop of the Middle East, was at variance with Western plans to destabilise the country as part of one stage towards Western neocolonial domination of the Middle East and the seizure of the region’s natural resources; and the war that broke out in Syria in 2011, starting when jihadists in Dar’aa in the south hijacked a protest against food price increases, killing police and setting buildings on fire, quickly spread to Aleppo. We learn how the city’s factories (especially those in Sheikh Najaar industrial zone) were systematically targeted, bombed and looted by Turkish forces, jihadis and their allies. Agricultural products and historical artefacts were also stolen by Turkish gangs. The presence of gangs named after past Ottoman Turkish sultans indicate a clear political agenda: the occupation of Aleppo and surrounding regions in Syria by Turkey, eventually to be incorporated into a new Turkish Islamic empire.

While parts of the documentary, especially al Nawai’s description of how his factories were destroyed and all the machinery stolen, can be heartbreaking, the film’s narrative looks forward to a revival of manufacturing and the rebuilding of Aleppo’s infrastructure and economy now that the city has been liberated by the Syrian Arab Army. Scenes of post-apocalyptic / scorched earth destruction give way to a clean modern textile factory in which workers, men and women, supervise the weaving of thread and the making of cotton materials; to streets filled with shoppers inspecting finished cotton goods in pop-up market stalls and newly renovated shops. Both Saeed and Duggan express hope that the city will regain its pre-eminence in Syrian life. Mohammad al Nawai emphasises the city’s historic role as a trading post and focus of manufacturing for the past 8,000 years.

Made on a small budget, the film is straightforward and minimal in its presentation so it’s easy to follow and understand. It may be light on actual evidence that Turkey was behind the systematic looting and destruction but those interested in more detail of what the jihadis and their foreign backers did can search for articles on the Internet. (See this article from Al Monitor for example, and this article from Syrian Free Press.) Various city scenes in all their beauty (before the war) and their horror (after the war) as well dominate the film, and are the most unforgettable part of it.

For some people, the film’s major weakness is that it ignores the possibility that Turkey might again invade northern Syria and try to retake Aleppo and steal all its industry. The Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran need to be on the alert that such a catastrophe not only might recur but is already in planning. Whether this means that Russia will have to maintain a military presence in Syria by deploying its S400 missile system and other technologies, and by rotating the forces it has there, along with whatever the Syrians and Iranians must do to maintain a high level of defence, given that Russia and Iran also face other serious challenges from the US and NATO on their borders in Europe and Asia, remains uncertain.

I recommend that people watch this film to learn more about Aleppo and its recent history, its prominence in Syrian life, and to discover the determination and resilience of the Syrian people who intend to rebuild the city and restore it to its rightful place as a major industrial hub of the Middle East.

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

Rosie Jones, “The Family” (2016)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women He’s Undressed: a whimsical and shallow treatment of an Australian country boy who hits the big time in Hollywood

Gillian Armstrong, “Women He’s Undressed” (2015)

Hollywood could not have dreamt up a more classic story of the country boy who finds his home town and country too small for his dreams and who takes off for the bright lights of New York and later the silver screen seductions of Hollywood itself, and ends up beating Hollywood at its own game as a costume designer of its Golden Age films. But fact here is much stranger than fiction: in 1897 in the tiny beachside country town of Kiama in the then British colony of New South Wales is born George Orry Kelly, who spends his early years dressing dolls in clothes until his parents frown on such apparent girly behaviour and try to shepherd him into playing football and other pursuits deemed more suitable for growing red-blooded Australian boys. In his late teens / early 20s, Kelly chooffs out of his Sydney banking job and off the US and to the music halls of Tin Pan Alley where he ekes a living designing posters and then costumes for Broadway music shows and silent film screenings, and strikes up a friendship that soon develops into something more serious with English acrobat and aspiring actor Archibald Leach. During the Depression years, the two take off for Los Angeles and Hollywood where Kelly discovers his niche (as Orry-Kelly) designing costumes for the Warner Brothers film studio (where the wife of Jack Warner befriends him) and Archie Leach is transformed into the suave actor Cary Grant. Among the famous actresses Orry-Kelly dresses are Bette Davis for several films, Ingrid Bergman for “Casablanca”, Angela Lansbury, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe (“Some Like It Hot”, for which Orry-Kelly wins an Academy Award for costume design) and Jane Fonda. Orry-Kelly picks up no fewer than three Oscars for costume design and he gains a reputation for designing clothes that hide figure faults and at the same time express a character’s nature as it changes throughout a film.

Beneath the apparent glamour and marvellous celebrity and fortune, Orry-Kelly faces enormous pressure from studio executives, the press and public expectations generally to deny his homosexuality and his relationship with Cary Grant disintegrates as the actor conforms to conservative cultural expectations to be heterosexual and to marry (which he does so about five times in his life – meaning of course that four of his marriages must have deteriorated and dissolved in divorce). Orry-Kelly serves with the US Air Corps during World War II until he is discharged for alcohol abuse. During much of the 1940s he battles a chronic drinking problem and has to go into rehab which affects his costume design career and costs him his job at Warner Bros. Orry-Kelly’s comeback as a costume designer in the 1950s nets him three Oscars and a fourth Oscar nomination.

Orry-Kelly’s seeming rags-2-riches rise is whimsically retold by Armstrong in a breathless, sweeping narrative  that mixes Darren Gilshenan playing Orry-Kelly in monologue scenes in which he addresses viewers and brings to life the man’s wit, humour and energy, with interviews of the actresses Orry-Kelly dressed and historical live action footage. The constant symbolic motif of Gilshenan rowing a boat away from the beach gives the documentary both a light touch and an intimation that there is something deeper beneath the surface glamour sheen of Orry-Kelly’s life which Armstrong unfortunately doesn’t explore. Deborah Kennedy, playing Orry-Kelly’s mother, muses upon her son’s fortunes in a way that, quite frankly, adds nothing to what or how the Australian public might have thought of one of their own making it big in Tinsel-town. It seems that Kiama and Australia generally did not really care that one of their sons was achieving great things in Hollywood; in return, Orry-Kelly seems not to have bothered too much with finding out how Australians might have thought of him. In an age though where Australian culture held that Australian men who designed lavish and beautiful costumes for female actors were less than human, Orry-Kelly’s attitude could well have been similarly scornful. He was friendly with the wife of Warner Bros studio exec Jack Warner which meant plenty of work kept coming his way and Tinsel-town held enormous respect for him, at least until his drinking problem got the better of him.

Armstrong’s documentary does not go into much depth as to why certain genres of film favouring Orry-Kelly’s grand and glamorous costumes were popular among the public, nor does it deal very much with Hollywood’s ambivalence about homosexual people, many of whom were stalwart supporters of and major contributors to the Hollywood ethos. It does spend a lot of time on Orry-Kelly’s relationship with Cary Grant to the extent that viewers get the impression that Grant was the great love of his life and Grant goes to great lengths to avoid him – though the alternate view that Orry-Kelly wasn’t the love of Grant’s life and that the Australian should have tried to find another lover and dismissed Grant as Grant dismissed him (and as Orry-Kelly dismissed his fellow Australians) might have been considered.

Based upon Orry-Kelly’s unpublished manuscript, the documentary makes a case for Orry-Kelly and Grant having had an actual love relationship which the actual manuscript does not mention. This is one major criticism I have as the relationship takes up far too much of the film’s time and focus, when the film could have focused much more on Orry-Kelly’s determination to live openly as a gay man in an environment where his sexuality was an open secret among work colleagues, friends and acquaintances but had to kept secret from the media and public, and the immense pressures that were brought to bear on him.

A more considered and sober documentary treatment of Orry-Kelly’s life, the times he lived in and the complexity of gay men’s relationships in that period that does not pander to current gay politics remains begging.

Portrait of a major 20th-century literary icon and his impact on Western culture in “William Burroughs: Man Within”

Yony Leyser, “William Burroughs: Man Within” (2010)

An obvious labour of love for Yony Leyser, this documentary on subversive US experimental novelist and artist William S Burroughs and his place in 20th-century Western culture takes viewers on an often bewildering tour of the man’s achievements and private obsessions, fears and loves through interviews with those friends, acquaintances and associates who knew him well. Like the man himself, the film turns out to be very layered, focusing on Burroughs as a writer, role model, friend and above all a human being with all the fears and frailties that human flesh is heir to. For some people, a portrait of a highly contradictory, misanthropic yet often lonely man with a hunger for love and security may emerge; for others, Burroughs’ wicked black humour, often delivered po-faced style in that distinctive dry and gravelly voice of his, may be the most impressive aspect of the man.

The documentary’s structure is generally chronological, beginning with Burroughs’ early years as part of the beatnik movement along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and moving through his junkie period in the 1950s (which gave him the material for early novels like “Junkie” and “The Naked Lunch”) and his friendship with British artist Brion Gysin which was to influence his style of writing profoundly. Fortunately the film also attempts to make sense of the many strands of Burroughs’ artistic work by segmenting his work and the associated connections into broad categories of writing, music, the visual arts and hobbies and other extracurricular activities such as collecting guns and cats; this does mean that the film does go backwards and forward in time against its general chronological structure. There is some voice-over narration by US actor Peter Weller (best known for playing the cyborg in “Robocop”) but the bulk of the documentary is driven by interviews with several well-known artists, musicians and writers as director John Waters, singers Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, members of Sonic Youth, director David Cronenberg and above all performance artist / musician Genesis Breyer P-Orridge who knew Burroughs well during the 1980s and who offers quite deep and interesting insights into Burroughs’ character.

The film is sure to appeal to Burroughs fans and people unfamiliar with his life. Unfortunately there’s not much detail about the novels that made Burroughs famous apart from the observation that novels like “The Naked Lunch” were really a warning about the dangers of heroin addiction and not an encouragement to embark on the Tao of Narcotics. Disappointingly there’s nothing about later novels like “The Soft Machine” and “The Ticket That Exploded” which explored drug and sexual addiction as a form of control restricting human freedom and development, or “The Western Lands” which confronts death by investigating dream states and hallucinations, magic and the occult. The documentary is also not much interested in exploring Burroughs’ politics, inasmuch as they influenced his writing and the themes of psychological and social control that appear in his novels.

Inevitably the film surveys the influence that Burroughs has had on popular culture, notably rock and pop music, name-checking musicians across three generations and of various genres, in particular punk and new wave. The hit parade of Burroughs acolytes does take on a cult-like aspect and one sometimes wonders just how deep an impact Burroughs really has made on people like Sting and U2.

The film is no less inventive and complex than Burroughs’ style in its use of animation, historical film, Burroughs’ own spoken-word performances and excerpts of his writings. It ends on an unexpected revelation that casts the man in a new light. Yony Leyser is to be much commended for the way in which he has shaped the film’s narrative which mirrors the way in which Burroughs wrote much of his work.

Buckskin: a fascinating story about a young teacher determined to give his people a renewed identity and hope for change

Dylan McDonald, “Buckskin” (2013)

A young teacher and sometime Australian Rules football player called Jack Buckskin is one of a very tiny number of people who can understand and fluently speak the lost indigenous Australian language Kaurna, and he is determined not only to pass this language on to his toddler daughter Malia but also to his family and other Aboriginal people in north Adelaide, and to teach and train other people to teach Kaurna also. In this way, Buckskin hopes to give his people a renewed identity and an alternate outlook on their living conditions through a revitalised language, and through this renewal inspire them to reclaim their destiny and future. This unusual subject is the basis for up-coming film-maker Dylan McDonald’s debut film and documentary “Buckskin”.

The film follows Buckskin as he goes about his daily life teaching high-school students, consulting with linguist Rob Amery on creating Kaurna vocabulary and rules of grammar appropriate for speakers in modern settings, instructing teenage boys in dance and trying to encourage his baby daughter to be bilingual. Buckskin’s mission can be daunting at times: several of his school students are not really motivated to learn the language and the only reason they are in his class is that their school compels them to learn a second language; he and Amery haven’t yet developed a vocabulary for AFL football terms and expressions; and until Malia was born, most people in his family were not interested in learning or speaking Kaurna. The documentary does not note whether Buckskin is able to follow up with former students to see if they still retain knowledge of Kaurna or are motivated to keep learning and using it; neither does it note whether Buckskin’s employers at school and in government take his efforts seriously, pay him enough and provide him with the resources he needs to keep teaching and to improve as a linguist and teacher.

Viewers also learn something of Buckskin’s family background and how he was spurred on to learn Kaurna and to teach it to others. We watch him patiently teach his daughter words for food items and instruct his two pet huskies in the language. Amery and Buckskin’s relatives express admiration for his determination in reviving the use of Kaurna as a living, changing entity. The man himself has an engaging personality and is full of energy and fierce intelligence.

While the film and its central character are fascinating to watch, I did feel that “Buckskin” was at a loss as to how to end gracefully and inspire viewers to want to know more about the Buckskins and their life quest. Buckskin could have been asked about his hopes for the language and Kaurna culture, and for their revival. How will his daughter (and any other children he and his partner Khe Sanh might have) use the language after he has gone? To survive beyond Malia’s life-time, the Kaurna language needs to be used in all areas of life including the life of work, sport and the intellect beyond the immediate needs of the Kaurna people in the Adelaide region. This will be a formidable task for which Buckskin will need all the help he can get.

Chasing Asylum: an urgent film detailing the inhumanity and idiocy of Australian incarceration of refugees in overseas detention centres

Eva Orner, “Chasing Asylum” (2016)

Finding information about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers kept in its detention centres on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru, in most mainstream news media and other outlets is hard as journalists, writers and others interested in hearing what inmates have to say are prevented from visiting those places. Eva Orner’s documentary “Chasing Asylum” shows why the Australian government goes to great lengths to wrap these centres in layers of secrecy, lies and other obfuscations: these are places that are all but concentration camps in name. First-hand evidence from and interviews with inmates, people who worked there and other refugees left isolated in Indonesia after boats carrying refugees were prevented from entering Australian waters, along with statistics and interviews with others including journalist David Marr show some of the brutality, violence and absolute despair experienced by people who have had the misfortune to be dumped in the overseas detention centres and left to rot there.

The film pulls no punches in its investigation, revealing not just the indifference of Australian politicians to the refugees who come by boat from impoverished countries in South Asia and the Middle East, but also the stupidity, callousness and incompetence of the Australian government from the top down to the people who run the detention centres in their treatment of the refugees once they enter these Pacific island hellholes. Manus Island is a remote and underdeveloped place and Nauru is impoverished: ideal places to dump unwanted refugees onto local governments that desperately need money and economic development. A former security guard who fled Manus Island after death threats were made against him for complaining about the facility describes the World War II tin-shed building used to cram refugees in such a way that heat stroke and dehydration must have been serious ever-present threats in the hot, humid climate. Some interviewees who worked as volunteers (!) at these centres tell how they were recruited to work there: their descriptions of their recruitment make clear how they were duped into thinking they were going to holiday camp places, only for them to discover that the people they were expected to help needed professional medical help and psychological counselling.

Parts of the film were filmed surreptitiously with cellphones concealed within interviewees’ clothing, giving the film an intimate and personal look that is unnerving and which packs a punch in scenes where inmates are clearly suffering or blood is shown on walls, floors and bedclothes. The saddest parts of the documentary revolve around two Iranian men, Hamid Khazaei and Reza Barati, who died in the Manus Island centre: Khazaei suffered from an untreated infection in a wound to his foot which led to blood poisoning and a fatal coma, with his problem compounded by bureaucratic apathy in Canberra that denied him an emergency flight to a hospital in Port Moresby that could treat his sepsis; and Barati was killed during a riot. The deaths of both men were completely unnecessary and Hamid’s death in particular highlights the dangerously unsanitary conditions of the centres and the lack of a proper medical facility staffed with personnel who could treat common wounds and injuries. Orner travels to Iran to meet the two men’s families to find out why they left their homes and risked their lives to travel to Australia only to end up in Hell and to die such wretched deaths. She also goes to Indonesia to meet refugees left stranded and cut off from family in Australia after July 2015, when the Australian government announced that any new asylum seekers arriving by boat would be transferred to Manus Island and Nauru.

The film is rather scattershot in its approach, mostly out of necessity and from difficulties experienced as a result of Canberra’s efforts to restrict access to the centres. Several politicians refused to be interviewed for the documentary. Orner doesn’t delve very deeply into the global political context in which countries in the Middle East and southern Asia are destabilised by the US government and its lackeys which include Australia. The Australian government has yet to link its participation in invading Syria and aiding the jihadis there to the growing Syrian refugee problem and international pressure on Australia to take more Syrian asylum seekers than it currently does. Another way that demonstrates Australia’s inability to learn from costly mistakes is its recent agreement with Cambodia for that impoverished country to accept and house unwanted asylum seekers, for which Australia promised Phnom Penh hundreds of millions of dollars to build detention centres.

Also what goes ignored by Orner’s film is the reaction of local people on Manus Island and Nauru to Canberra’s hypocrisy in suddenly supplying their governments with loads of money to house unwanted people when for years the islanders themselves were neglected by Australia and forced to live in dire poverty while the wealth of their lands went into overseas corporate coffers. These locals’ resentment at Canberra’s idiocy is unfortunately directed against the refugees imprisoned in the camps instead. A proper solution to dealing with the refugees in Manus Island and Nauru not only requires the camps to be closed down but also requires Canberra to compensate the local communities forced to host the camps with enough funding and appropriate help to clean up or demolish the camps and to develop more self-sustaining economies with adequate infrastructure and welfare systems.

For the time being, “Chasing Asylum” best serves as an eye-opener to one of Australia’s darkest secrets and crimes. It will have to do as an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers until a more detailed exposé of how and why all major political parties in Australia are agreed on dumping asylum seekers in poor countries, why the Australian public itself seems satisfied with that policy and how Australia has changed so much in the last 40 years from being a much more welcoming and compassionate country to one more mean-spirited, self-satisfied and so … American.

Let Your Life Be A Friction To Stop The Machine: bare-bones film delivers a devastating alternative history of the United States and the West

“Let Your Life Be A Friction To Stop The Machine” (Class War Films, 2012)

It’s a modestly made film – just a series of linked visual stills of cartoons, film snippets, paintings and other media, all tied together with voice-over narration – but this is a devastating alternative history of the United States since its founding, one that rips up the myths of the country’s founding and the values the US was founded on, and exposes the seedy truth behind the events, ideologies and trends that shaped the nation and made it what it is today. The film begins by saying boldly that Americans have been brainwashed for 240 years at least with a mythology and narrative created and maintained by a financial elite that has profited handsomely from the sweat and labour of the American people and which kept them all weak, divided and enslaved by various means political, economic and cultural. The country was founded upon the invasion of a continent, the genocide of its rightful owners and the enslavement of millions of others from another continent. The country was born out of lies and hypocrisy and survives through lies and hypocrisy. Whew, what a premise!

It’s best to watch the film all the way through while listening to and absorbing the narrative a couple of times at least as what the film says about the America of the past and the America it has become today will stun most people in the West. The myth of American exceptionalism, of American Manifest Destiny, together with the belief Americans had in their society and culture’s innate goodness and progressiveness blinded people to the awful crimes they committed upon the aboriginal peoples, the Africans and others brought to America as slaves or indentured labour and eventually peoples abroad, firstly in Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, then Latin America and Japan, and currently the whole wide world. These crimes continued through two major world wars, then a period of stand-offs between the US and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War and right through the 1990s to the present, in which the US is now waging wars against supposed Islamic terrorists like al Qa’eda, ISIS and Boko Haram throughout western Asia and much of Africa. Behind the more overt crimes such as illegal invasions and occupations of other countries, overthrowing legitimate governments with so-called colour revolutions and encouraging ongoing violence and chaos, are covert crimes of massive looting of natural resources (especially energy resources), environmental pollution and destruction of local cultures, histories and institutions.

We come to the America of the present: a nation mired in political corruption that stinks to high heaven; a nation where the middle class has collapsed under the combined pressures of a debt-based financial system, an economic ideology whose idolisation of profit has led to job flight and unemployment, and cultural nostrums that fault individuals for catastrophes not of their own making; and a nation that avoids dealing with major problems by resorting to fantasy, violence, conquest or war against its own citizens or other countries. Institutions and values that emphasised cooperative effort to improve people’s lives have been debased and hounded into extinction. Resources that once were owned communally and shared equally have been privatised and commodified, and sold to the highest bidder. If you find all this too much to take in, the narration collapses it into two general trends: the use of police state methods and cultural brainwashing to shore up the mythology, and the resort to overseas military adventures (all of which end in disaster) to spread the mythology and at the same time grab other nations’ territories and resources.

America, whether it is the actual United States or the US plus its satrapies in North America, Europe and other parts of the world, anywhere that has imported American culture lock, stock and barrel since 1945, has become a degraded and impoverished entity whose future is dark, bleak … and dead. The driving forces behind this Great Reversion have been the West’s political / financial / corporate elites who have controlled its major institutions, both government and private alike. (At this point, the only criticism I would make about the film’s narrative is that it identifies the financial elites as the drivers behind the myth of American uniqueness and stops there. The reality may very well be that the financial elites themselves may be as much pawns of another layer of hidden power as governments and corporations themselves are pawns of Wall Street and the City of London.) The tragedy is that for all the deceptions and lies, the myths of America that the elites have promoted have been so seductive and appealing that they have become part of people’s individual identities, so to condemn and spurn them is effectively to condemn and spurn oneself.

The narrative though isn’t without hope though it does not offer any solutions. That is as it should be, because it does not claim to have the definitive answer to defeating the hydra-headed monster that has been the Anglo-American empire. Any solution offered could be subverted by the empire itself, as it has done to past instances of protest, civil disobedience and revolution. Responses to it must be individual and creative: they can involve helping others or alerting people to the ways in which the system is crushing them so they can help themselves. For some people, disengaging from the empire and its seductions, and setting out on their own individual and / or collective paths, may be all that’s needed; other people can help to safeguard them from the empire.

So wherever we all are, whatever we are doing or what stage we are at in our lives, let’s now determine our lives to be a friction to stop the Machine.

Deduction and reason versus propaganda in pursuit of the truth in “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Case of Alexander Litvinenko”

Alexander Korobko, “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Case of Alexander Litvinenko” (2015)

Not only does this 23-minute documentary present an intriguing scenario of the death of the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko from polonium contamination – a scenario that, among other things, not only exonerates his supposed murderer Andre Lugovoi ( a former KGB guard later turned businessman and Russian State Duma representative) but also possibly explains why the British inquests into Litvinenko’s death go nowhere – but it does so in a calm, laid-back way that eschews Hollywood-style hugger-mugger razzle. Taking us into the matter is Vasily Livanov, posing as the Russian Sherlock Holmes, sitting at ease in his armchair and reading out aloud the work done by amateur Russian and British sleuths who shared their information online.

The documentary presents its case that Litvinenko contaminated himself with polonium and carelessly left traces wherever he went, which explains how not only Lugovoi himself ended up contaminated but also other places in London that Litvinenko frequented (but which Lugovoi never visited) also were found to have traces of the element on their premises. Firstly Lugovoi is subjected to a polygraph lie-detector test administered by expert Blake C Burgess and is found to be innocent. The documentary then turns its attention to the US writer Masha Gessen’s scribbling about Litvinenko’s case in her book on Russian President Vladimir Putin (“Putin: the Man without a Face”) and, using information obtained from an interview conducted with an American nuclear physicist, demolishes Gessen’s weird claim that the isotope of polonium that killed Litvinenko was made only in Russia by government workers in 2006 and that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the hit on Litvinenko. The US scientist adds that polonium can be ordered online in tiny amounts. (Plus polonium is used in textile factories throughout the world, including the Indian subcontinent where the bulk of the global textile manufacturing industry is located.) Finally a British citizen journalist visits the Abracadabra Club in London, where polonium traces were found, and speaks to the manager there. The manager recognises photos of Litvinenko’s employer Boris Berezovsky and an associate, Mario Scaramella; but on seeing Lugovoi’s photo, says he does not know the man.

The documentary is easy to follow though its case is not entirely persuasive. The polygraph lie-detector test is not infallible as Burgess himself admits. The Yes / No questions asked of Lugovoi might have been phrased and framed in such a way that a bystander could easily predict the answers he gave. Only one employee at the Abracadabra nightclub is interviewed. Viewers may need more convincing that Gessen is not simply a jealous Putinophobe and that other people have criticised her writing and research. Other possibilities as to how Litvinenko might have died – he might have died from some other toxin and the polonium story is simply a cover to hide the real cause of death – are not considered.

How Litvinenko originally came in contact with the polonium and why is not part of the documentary’s scope so some viewers may be disappointed that the sleuthing done by citizen journalists only exonerates Lugovoi of murder but goes no further. The aim of the program is basically to strip the politics away from the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death and by doing so, demonstrate how the man and the way he died are being used to demonise Russia and its government by the British and other Anglophone news media. Implied here is the notion that the British news media is acting as the propaganda arm of the British government in pushing an agenda that wilfully separates the peoples of Russia and Britain from pursuing common interests and values by fanning the flames of conflict between them.

The documentary treats its viewers intelligently and does not condescend to them with blaring lights, a hasty pace, jagged editing and flashy special effects. Not for the first time do I find myself wishing all documentaries could treat its viewers with respect.

This Changes Everything: simplistic globe-trotting essay based on faulty premises

Avi Lewis, “This Changes Everything” (2015)

Billed as a film about climate change, this documentary essay based on Canadian journalist Naomi Klein’s eponymous book actually follows up a premise expressed in Klein’s previous work like “The Shock Doctrine” that current global environmental, political and economic crises are the end manifestations of an ideology that developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. This ideology stipulates that humans can and should master nature using their conscious intellectual and rational faculties. Welded together with bits and pieces selected from economic, political and social theories and philosophies in the Western intellectual public domain of the period, this ideology is premised on continuous and infinite economic growth, self-interest and the notion that economic markets should be free of government intervention. Nations that adopted this ideological model more or less then went on to conquer the world in search of new lands and resources for their industries; in the process they subjugated the peoples they found in those new lands, destroyed their cultures, languages and beliefs (and the very peoples themselves) and ravaged the territories and resources they found. The Western invasion of the world is still ongoing, albeit perhaps with new actors (some of them former colonies of the old actors) using new or more refined tactics, technologies and tools of propaganda, but it has now hit a crisis point: the planet’s systems are no longer able to sustain the continuing onslaught and they are now breaking down and reacting in unusual and bizarre ways. “Climate change”, manifested in extremes of temperature causing prolonged drought and hurricanes or typhoons of extreme ferocity, is but a symptom of the general disease.

What Klein (who narrates the documentary) and Lewis try to do is alert viewers that climate change and other global crises are the end results of an ideology and the culture it engendered gone berserk, and the fact that all that was required for this ideology and its culture was a change in thinking about humans’ relationship to the world. Rather than bemoan this change in thinking, we should be inspired by this historical example to rethink the ideology and what resulted from it, to change our thinking again about our relationship with nature, embrace a new paradigm about our place in the world, and from that create a new civilisation based on new values of sustainability, cooperation and collective action.

To that end, the film jumps around various parts of the planet, starting with Fort McMurray in Alberta, the epicentre of Canada’s tar sands mining industry, and its effects on the local Cree community, its ability to subsist off its native lands and the degradation the industry is causing to local ecosystems. The film then hops to Montana where a rancher couple and the local aboriginal peoples must cope with a burst pipeline that floods and pollutes the river with oil (from the tar sands mines in northern Alberta, incidentally). From there we have to fly to Greece to see activists and protesters battle their government and foreign mining companies, to Andhra Pradesh (India) where again local people are up in arms against a coal-fired power plant proposal in their neighbourhood, and to China where people are fighting air pollution and the government there is investing huge sums in solar energy generation to steer households and industry away from depending on coal power for electricity needs.

Klein’s narration (and narrative) is the only thing that pulls all these stories together; streamlined and simplified though it is already, the film would fall apart without Klein’s input. While the narrative is very powerful, because it is based in part on historical fact, it is so simplified that even viewers not familiar with the development of Western science, economic theory and politics since the 1600s can find gaping holes in its conclusions. Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energies will not automatically lead or encourage people to adopt sustainability or become cooperative and less selfish; these new technologies can simply replace the old technologies, much as petroleum replaced coal and steam in the early 1900s. The world will carry on as before but with a renewed greed for new resources and lands to exploit.

We also need to ask whether in the 16th and 17th centuries, when French philosopher Jacques Descartes first propounded his view that humans (but not animals) could have souls – and therefore it was the right of humans (specifically Western Christian humans) to dominate the natural world – such a concept really was so revolutionary or was merely a voiced reflection of what most people in positions of power and influence at the time believed. By Descartes’ time, the Western conquest and colonisation of the Americas was already well under way, millions of American aboriginals had already been enslaved and robbed of their cultures, languages and beliefs, but the ideology, beliefs and values associated with modern-day corporate capitalism had not yet developed. Could Klein’s premise in fact be based on a false assumption that ideology is the problem? This is a serious question to consider because if she is wrong, then adopting an ideology of sustainability, of placing the group ahead of the individual, and of collective decision-making and action above individual decision-making and action, will not necessarily help us and could actually lead to new forms of oppression and environmental exploitation and degradation.

The fact is that ideas and concepts that were originally benevolent in intent can always be cherry-picked and twisted to suit personal agendas. Concepts of individual liberty, rights and responsibilities developed during the Enlightenment have been degraded to support greed and self-indulgence, as exemplified by the Marquis de Sade’s use of Enlightenment ideas to justify his sexual abuses of prostitutes and women who worked for him. Who can say that concepts of sustainability, preserving nature for the benefit of future generations and collective decision-making and action over individual decision-making and action won’t be used to excuse greed, self-interest and psychopathic behaviour?