Life in the Day of Aliya Mustafina: a beautifully made if insubstantial short documentary

Glen MacKay, “Life in the Day of Aliya Mustafina” (2020)

Since 2009 when she joined the Russian senior national women’s gymnastics team, Aliya Mustafina has become a much loved representative of women’s gymnastics across the world for her quiet and stoic demeanour and her determination to continue in gymnastics for as long as she loves the sport in spite of many setbacks, injuries and the trend towards more athleticism and acrobatic stunts, often at the expense of execution, precision and grace, in the sport. The overwhelming dominance of US gymnast Simone Biles, not to mention Biles’ own competition in the US itself – competition such as Morgan Hurd, Kara Eaker, Sunisa Lee and, making a comeback, Chelsie Memmel – overshadows Mustafina and the rest of the Russian national team in a sport increasingly crowded with countries all vying for prestige in women’s gymnastics and making large investments in that sport. So it is a surprise then that film-maker Glen Mackay has seen fit to make a somewhat dream-like and poetic documentary about Mustafina as she goes about her life in 2020, training for the Tokyo Olympic Games, postponed to 2021, which are very likely to be Mustafina’s last significant competition before retirement.

Mustafina is certainly not the first gymnast still in training who is a mother – Oksana Chusovitina has been performing at world and Olympic championship level since 1992 to earn money to pay for her son’s leukaemia treatment, and Chellsie Memmel is also a mother – and many other female gymnasts like Mustafina have also carved out long careers in the sport since the early 1990s. Watching the documentary, I must admit I did not see much in the sparse and rather banal portrayal of Mustafina’s daily routine at the sports training centre in Moscow where she lives from Monday to Friday. A major part of the reason is that the documentary focuses completely on Mustafina and her voice-over description of her day from dawn to dusk, and that description does not say a great deal. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown that was in place in Moscow at the time of filming may have had a great deal to do with the sparse bare-bones portrayal: when Mustafina trains in the gym, there is no-one else (not even her coach) there. Even when she gets Saturday afternoon off and goes to her parents’ home to look after her daughter Alisa (born 2017), her parents are absent. The film says nothing about Mustafina’s ex-husband and Alisa’s father Alexey Zaitsev.

While the film is beautifully made, the camera clearly in love with Mustafina’s soulful eyes, angelic profile and alabaster skin, it does not tell us much about Mustafina’s life and the sacrifices she has had to make to continue in the sport. There is nothing about what conflicts or criticisms Mustafina must have faced in continuing in gymnastics as a single mother. Mustafina moves about in a Moscow miraculously emptied of people and traffic as she goes for her daily afternoon run. We hear no opinions about Mustafina and what she has achieved for gymnastics and Russian gymnastics in particular from her coaches, her parents, Zaitsev or other people in the gymnastics community. Nor do we know what the general public thinks about gymnastics and Mustafina. All we know is that Mustafina continues to compete in the sport because she is wholly focused on it and because she wants her daughter to be proud of her. Without the context of other significant people in Mustafina’s life able to comment on her decisions, and not knowing much about the state of Russian gymnastics and why it still relies on a few big names like Mustafina as a role model to maintain its popularity in Russia, even as she becomes something of an old warhorse, viewers might justifiably conclude that Mustafina is either selfish or unrealistic. It may all be very well for Mustafina to keep going but one wonders what her life will be like after gymnastics – the film gives the impression that her life revolves completely around the sport, at least while she is away from Alisa.

Perhaps when Mustafina has retired from the sport, a fuller and more informative documentary about her life in the sport, what motivated her to continue in spite of her injuries and the hard work involved, and what joys she found in gymnastics and will find in her future life with Alisa, might be made. Something of what inspires the human spirit to persevere and to find fulfillment and connection with others – it is significant that Mustafina mentions that she enjoys competing against Americans Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, despite their very different styles as gymnasts, and that the three are friends – might become more prominent.

Ask The Experts (Covid-19 Vaccine): over 30 medical experts warn of the dangers of Covid-19 vaccines

Ask The Experts (Covid-19 Vaccine)(Oracle Films, 7 December 2020)

Banned on Facebook and Youtube, this film features over thirty doctors plus a nurse, a pharmacist, an acupuncturist and a journalist all advising caution to the public in accepting COVID-19 vaccinations or urging people to avoid them outright. The medical experts who speak out against the vaccines are based in North America and various European nations. Each doctor introduces himself or herself, provides a little background information about himself/herself and then explains why s/he opposes the vaccinations. The doctors are very eloquent and appeal to people’s ability to reason and to make choices. Several doctors say that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has never been isolated and proven to exist, and that the PCR tests used to determine if someone has had contact with the virus are flawed. A few claim that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax.

With well over 30 health experts all expressing their opinions on the disease, the virus, the lockdowns and restrictions that have been invoked by governments around the world to deal with the pandemic, the film is bound to be rather repetitive. Several doctors verge on sounding very much like conspiracy theorists. We do not learn their views on vaccination itself as a tool in disease prevention or mitigation strategies. One doctor (Barre Lando) tells of his experiences in dealing with children affected by vaccination injuries and the pharmacist Sandy Lunoe warns that pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines have taken out legal indemnities with law courts to block any future litigation attempts against them over the COVID-19 vaccines.

Perhaps the most alarming opinions expressed are those of Dr Hilde de Smet who says that pharmaceutical corporations have been trying to develop coronavirus vaccines for 20 years and have tested them on animals with the result that many animals end up with symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, and of Dr Elke de Klerk who states that the vaccines may cause sterility in women and girls, and change people’s DNA. Professor Konstantin Pavlidis believes the vaccines may result in neurological side effects. Throughout the film doctors express reservations about the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines, several of which are based on very new technologies, are being rushed and approved by governments in spite of several trials generating unusual and sometimes severe side effects or the trials not being conducted and liable to bias.

The film may need to be played few times for audiences to digest the most important information in several of the interviews. Some doctors are not too clear and a few could have been advise to take some elocution lessons! In spite of its repetitive nature, the film does express viewpoints that are beyond the pale for mainstream news and specialist media, and a message throughout the film is that people can find and do research on the topic of COVID-19 and how it is spread.

Breaking an individual to intimidate others in “Not In Our Name: The Psychological Torture of Julian Assange”

John Furse, “Not In Our Name: The Psychological Torture of Julian Assange” (July 2020)

Making good use of archived video material and photographs, current news reels and interviews with mental health experts and former Ecuadorian diplomatic personnel, this timely documentary makes an excellent case for investigative journalist and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange having been harassed, humiliated and bullied over the past decade, not just by governments but also by media outlets that turned on him, to the extent that his treatment past and present constitute torture as defined by the UN. The film looks at various forms of known psychological torture and applies UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer’s definition of the phenomenon to Assange’s case, using examples to demonstrate its argument.

The video is broken up into segments on the basis of the various types and characteristics of psychological torture. In each segment that deals with a particular aspect of such torture, the film finds an example in Assange’s life that conforms to the characteristics of a type of mental torture, such as learned helplessness and hopelessness, constant slander of his reputation, and sensory deprivation and isolation. Many such examples in Assange’s life turn out to conform to several different types of torture at once: trashing his reputation, impugning him as a rapist and narcissist, is not so very different from actual physical isolation and alienation. Constant fear and anxiety about your place in society, and whether people might be inclined to be hostile, even violent towards you, can have a huge bearing on your physical health. At the time this video was made, Assange was being held at Belmarsh Prison in London, itself hit hard by the SARS-CoV-2 disease and there are very real fears that he is extremely susceptible to the disease’s worst ravages due to his psychological state having an impact on his physical health.

The film does its homework very well, interviewing a former Ecuadorian diplomat, and following Assange’s biological father John Shipton to rallies and Nils Melzer at conferences. Clinical psychologist Lissa Johnson, a strong supporter of Assange, puts forward powerful arguments that Assange’s treatment by Swedish and British authorities amount to bullying and psychological torture – and physical torture to boot, as constant stress, anxiety and fear about what the future will bring combine to lower a person’s immunity to disease in the long term. Most interviewees are very co-operative and willing to be interviewed about Assange and what he is supposed to have done or engaged in.

The video runs at a steady pace, not too slow or too fast, and viewers will get a clear view of just how determined the US and UK governments are to make an example of Julian Assange, how prepared they are to harass him and break his body and his spirit, to intimidate other journalists and reporters and force them to self-censor and stay away from questioning authority and speaking truth to power. By exposing UK / US imperialism in all its ugliness and viciousness through his work in leading Wikileaks and publishing information provided by sources such as Chelsea Manning (herself subjected to past torture and present harassment), Assange crossed an invisible red line for which he is being punished constantly. John Furse has made a very impassioned work whose importance cannot be doubted.

The Mythical North Korean Threat: how the US exploits North-South Korean tensions for its own benefit

Carlton Meyer, “The Mythical North Korean Threat” (Tales of the American Empire, 26 June 2020)

Amazingly in this admittedly short (eight-minute) video there’s no mention of North Korea’s nuclear defence program among the DPRK’s other defence strategies and military capabilities which for the most part are very poor. The video pivots on the US need to keep North and South Korea divided so as to maintain its iron grip on South Korea as a vassal state. To that end, the US built its largest offshore military base, Camp Humphreys, at a location some 40 miles south of Seoul to house up to 30,000 soldiers and their families. The base includes primary schools, a junior high school and a senior high school, and a number of fast food franchises are located there as well, to judge from photographs and film featured in the video.

The video pulls apart the propaganda, constantly repeated in Western mainstream news media, that North Korea poses a major danger to both South Korea and the US, and that current DPRK leader Kim Jong-un is a crazed despot. Far from it, the video tells us that Kim was educated at a private school in Switzerland, speaks English well, loves US basketball and has a physics degree. Kim also knows what his country’s armed forces are capable of, and not capable of. The DPRK’s army is made up of agricultural labourers who spend more time working in the fields than maintaining their weapons and equipment; consequently what weapons and military materiel the North Koreans have are in poor condition. Meyer might have added the reason for this state of affairs: due to economic sanctions imposed on North Korea since the 1950s, not to mention the devastation the Korean War brought to the country (some 20% of the population died during the war and every major city was ruined), North Korea has no agricultural machinery or the tools to make such machinery, and farming is highly labour-intensive.

South Korea turns out to be a far more powerful nation than North Korea, militarily and economically, and North Korea well knows the punishment the ROK could dish out if it dared to invade its neighbour. Indeed, many South Koreans realise that the Americans are not needed and demonstrations against the US presence in South Korea are common. The question is why the US continues to stay in South Korea. The video makes clear that in both the US and South Korea, political and military elites profit from the spending (running into the billions of US dollars) that US military occupation enables in South Korea. What perhaps is not clear in the video (its major failing) is the geopolitical value of South Korea as a threat to China and Russia in its far eastern region.

The real eye-opener in this video is the existence of Camp Humphreys and the huge size of the base: a family could easily live there for an entire lifetime and never set foot outside the base. Its shops and facilities however have a generic and soulless look about them: one would never know that it is located in South Korea as everything about the place – its buildings, their design, the shops there, the people who live and work there – does not acknowledge the culture of the host nation. The impression I have is that the camp exists mainly to provide employment for Americans – indeed, actual military personnel make up a minority of all Americans employed at Camp Humphreys – and for US companies to profit from by providing services and goods that resident military families need.

While this video is very informative, I did have a feeling that some information about North Korea might need updating. In recent years, North Korea has experienced some prosperity, along with some relaxation of restrictions on North Korean citizens and private enterprise being allowed. The video relied mainly on old film and not very recent photographs to portray Kim, the North Korean military and life generally in the DPRK. Perhaps at a future time the video might be updated to include more current information about this reclusive nation.

A whistleblower’s insider knowledge and shocking revelations in “MH-17: In Search of Truth”

Vasily Prozorov, “MH-17: In Search of Truth” (UKR Leaks, December 2019)

Currently gaining a lot of attention on alternative news websites is this minimally made and straightforward documentary by Ukrainian ex-SBU security officer and whistleblower Vasily Prozorov. The documentary plays like an extended news report with one shocking revelation after another about what really happened to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 on 17 July 2014 while flying over eastern Ukraine. Initially the English-language dubbing which has a strong Slavic accent is hard to follow but after some minutes of being accustomed to it, listeners can follow the narrative fairly easily.

The first half of the documentary concentrates on dismantling the lies and disinformation that has built up around the Boeing passenger jet’s shoot-down almost as soon as it hit the ground. Apparent leaked recordings of Donbass rebel fighters rejoicing over the shoot-down came out almost straight away on social media, in itself suspicious as such information, if true, would have been classified information by the SBU straight away and not released for a long time. Considerable attention is paid to demolishing Ukrainian government claims that the Ukrainian army did not have any military units, especially units with BUK missile delivery systems, in the area close to where MH-17 fell. Prozorov also points out evidence suggesting that Kiev was planning a provocation in the area that would be blamed on the Donbass rebels, in particular noting that the airspace over eastern Ukraine was not closed to civilian air traffic and that a radar station in Artemovsk in the east was shut down a month before the shoot-down. He considers he may have been privy eavesdropping into a conversation in which a Ukrainian Defense Ministry representative and a security official were discussing possible Russian military intervention in the Donbass region to assist the rebels there and the security official tells the other fellow that something will happen which will stop the Russians from interceding; nine days later, the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet fell from the sky. Prozorov also shows how Western governments assisted Kiev in shaping its narrative of the Donbass rebels having brought down MH-17 by (the US) refusing to release satellite images of the area on the day the plane fell; and by (the Dutch) cherry-picking evidence provided by the Donetsk People’s Republic from the crash site and not showing any interest in collecting the actual wreckage from the crash site for several months.

It’s in the later half of the documentary that Prozorov delivers the most shocking evidence of British and possibly Australian intelligence involvement in setting up the scene for the shoot-down and British intel agents’ close association with two men whom Prozorov regards as the main plotters of the shoot-down, Lieutenant Colonel Vasily Burba and Major General Valery Kondratiuk. Prozorov also fingers Bellingcat (partly funded by The Atlantic Council and the National Endowment for Democracy among others) as a disinformation agency working with British intelligence since the so-called citizen-journalism organisation was founded a few days before the shoot-down and after the incident quickly became the main source of supposed information about the disaster for Western mainstream news media.

Prozorov summarises the main points of his documentary by showing how they fit into an apparent framework of a plot by British and Ukrainian intelligence agencies to create a provocation and distraction that would smear Russia and prevent that nation from militarily intervening in the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and to control and shape the narrative and distort the information about the investigation of the incident.

There is a lot of information to absorb from the documentary and some parts are very detailed and probably not entirely relevant to Prozorov’s investigation. Prozorov does not pursue the theory that two Ukrainian fighter jets shot down the Malaysia Airlines jet though he does refer to Ukrainian eyewitnesses’ accounts of having seen two fighter jets flying very close to MH-17. (At the same time, those eyewitness accounts didn’t include any mention of a BUK missile system, the launch of an SA-11 missile and the noises and characteristic trail of jet-stream smoke such a missile would have left behind.) The role of the US and its agencies (in particular the CIA, the US State Department and other organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and The Atlantic Council) in overthrowing President Viktor Yanukovych back in February 2014 and encouraging neo-Nazi extremism in the government that replaced him gets short shrift. Prozorov says nothing as to why a Malaysia Airlines jet should have been shot down when it is known that an Air India jet and two Singapore Airlines jets passed within half an hour of the Malaysia Airlines jet in the same airspace corridor.

Nevertheless this is a very valuable documentary on MH-17 from a former Ukrainian intelligence officer with much insider knowledge of how the SBU operated in 2014, and of some of the personalities involved in the plot to bring down a civilian jet.

MH17 – Call for Justice: independent journalists’ investigation and findings create more questions than answers about the official investigation

Yana Yerlashova, “MH17 – Call for Justice” (Bonanza Media, July 2019)

Five years after the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 passenger jet was shot down in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, the investigation led by the Netherlands, Ukraine, Australia and Belgium (and including Malaysia intermittently – the country was not included on the Joint Investigation Team for the first six months of the investigation) is no closer to coming to a definite conclusion, based on a definite chain of evidence, as to who actually bears the responsibility for shooting down the jet. Instead the JIT continues to adhere to a narrative, publicised almost as soon as the jet hit the ground, that supposedly Russian-backed separatists fighting the Ukrainian military brought the plane down with an SA-11 missile launched from a BUK missile delivery system. This documentary proceeds from the JIT’s public naming of four Donbass fighters as being responsible for ordering or leading the shoot-down, and global mass news media’s parroting of that announcement. The Bonanza Media team of investigative journalists, led by Yana Yerlashova and Max van der Werff, travel across the globe, from eastern Ukraine to Europe to Malaysia, to interview people including the current Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir, German aviation lawyer Elmar Giemulla, one of the accused Donbass fighters Sergey Dubinsky, members of the public in Kuala Lumpur, independent German journalist Billy Six, a friend of a passenger on the doomed jet, and local residents in the area where the plane went down, to get their views on the investigation and on what actually happened, and find that what actually happened on 17 July 2014 was very different from what the JIT claims and what the rest of the world believes.

While the documentary can be a bit confusing in the way it dashes from one aspect of the Bonanza Media team’s own investigation to another, and each aspect seems remotely related to the next, quite a few things become very clear. The team discovers that the Ukrainian security service SBU’s phone-taps of conversations Sergey Dubinsky had with his fighters were edited and tampered with after the journalists take tapes to IT forensic investigators in Malaysia for examination and analysis. One jaw-dropping fact is that five years after the incident, various parts of the jet can still be found in the countryside around where the plane fell. The journalists come across a large part of the wing in a field and watch it being transported to a Ukrainian woman who deposits it and various other pieces of wreckage into a large shed, promising to deliver the scraps to the Dutch. Villagers in Stepanovka, the area where MH17 tell of what they saw on the day: they say that military jets shadowed the passenger jet while a missile launched from a site held by Ukrainian forces (contrary to the official narrative) headed towards the jet. Along the way, videos that have been used by the JIT to support the official narrative are examined and found to have been spliced together in ways that belie the dates when they were originally made, to suggest that the Donbass fighters received support from Russia and fired the missile. Independent Dutch journalist Stefan Beck tells the Bonanza Media team that he interviewed a Ukrainian military air traffic controller who tells him that the Ukrainian government misinformed the JIT about three radar stations being switched off on the day of the crash (they had actually been switched on).

Many questions arise from this documentary: why was Ukraine allowed to join the JIT but not Malaysia? why did the JIT rely on Ukrainian SBU’s suspect phone-taps as evidence on which to indict Sergey Dubinsky and three other men? why did the JIT not do a thorough job in collecting all the evidence and why is the team uninterested in the evidence the Bonanza Media team and others have found? Why is eyewitness evidence being ignored? All these questions suggest that the investigation was prejudiced against Russia from the outset and remains prejudiced for geopolitical and strategic reasons.

Viewers may be surprised that the documentary is quite short, less than half an hour, and is rather rough around the edges, finishing very quickly and zipping through the end credits. Some aspects of the journalists’ own investigation are quite thorough in coverage and others not so much so. The documentary needs to be seen in conjunction with other online, printed and visual materials and information that query the JIT’s investigation and the conclusions it reaches, and the disgustingly shoddy way in which that team conducted its search and analysed the evidence collected.

Hail Satan? – fun film about a Satanic movement with a serious message about social justice and religious hypocrisy and oppression

Penny Lane, “Hail Satan?” (2019)

Funny and serious at the same time, tight and well made with plenty of information on the history of religious freedom and how it has been abused by evangelical Christians and government working together (and also plenty of popular culture references), this documentary explores the agenda and development of an organisation claiming to be “religious” and to worship Satan but is actually trying to enforce religious freedom and plurality, promote social justice and highlight in a public way through staging amusing stunts the hypocrisy of government, Protestant Christianity and their allies in paying lip service to political freedoms and the separation of religion and the state. Viewers should not worry that the film shows any strange or perverted rituals as there is very little in it that can be called Satanic; what perversion or cult-like behaviour that exists in the film actually arises in the reactions of conservative evangelical Christians to the satirical stunts of self-proclaimed Satanists, and in the film’s rundown of past public scares focused on supposed Satanic ritual abuse of children which actually led to innocent people being tried, found guilty of non-existent crimes and imprisoned.

Inspired by the example of Anton Szandor LaVey who founded the Church of Satan in the late 1960s as an expression of individualism and free will, The Satanic Temple (hereafter referred to as TST) was founded by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, though only Lucine Greaves actually appears in the film. TST first came to public attention in 2013 with its support for a bill signed into law in Florida by Governor Rick Scott allowing students to lead prayer in school; because the law does not specify which religion the students must belong to, it logically allows Satan-worshipping students the freedom to lead prayer in school. Other activities TST chapters across the United States have engaged in include rubbish collection on beaches and highways; performing a Pink Mass over the grave of the mother of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church who planned to picket the funerals of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing; setting up an after-school program called After School Satan to ensure religious freedom and diversiy are respected, and all religions get the same rights and privileges in establishing after-school clubs; and, most memorably, setting up statues of Baphomet alongside public installations of statues of the Ten Commandments outside state capitol buildings in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

In amongst all this activity, Greaves struggles with running an organisation and movement that has grown very quickly, perhaps too fast for one or two persons to handle, and inevitably there are disagreements and conflicts over how TST followers should challenge hypocrisy, discrimination and injustice wherever they find it, with some people believing working within systems can change them, and others believing systems should be challenged and confronted, with the result that one early member, Jex Blackmore, ends up being excommunicated for supposedly threatening violence against President Trump. While TST imposes no more than seven tenets of belief on its followers (all of which are presented in the film), the interpretation of these proves to vary quite wildly among TST members.

Director Lane keeps the pace going briskly with smooth segues from one scenario to another, and adding snippets of an eclectic selection of horror movies, old newsreels, cartoons and rock music videos where appropriate into her narrative to illustrate a point or mock a particular point of view. One particular theme that stands out is how so much of Americans take for granted about their culture or the place of Christianity in US culture turns out to have been influenced by or even originated by Hollywood; another is that the US was founded as a secular nation and society by the so-called Founding Fathers (signatories of the US Declaration of Independence), a fact denied by evangelical Christianity.

There is not much in-depth examination of TST’s structure – indeed, the organisation comes across as spontaneous and organic, not at all hierarchical, in its network – and most of the in-fighting and conflicts of TST were left out of the film. Neither is there any information on the history of Satanism in Western society, how it originally arose and what the motivations behind it were. The organisation is presented as a fun bunch of witty and creative social activist trolls parodying and satirising the pomposity, stupidity – and often the plain viciousness and criminality – of mainstream Christian denominations. Criticisms of TST’s activities from other Satanic organisations or even from TST members themselves are non-existent. (Significantly the film’s director herself joined TST after editing the film.)

Beneath the entertainment, the stunts and TST members’ sometimes outrageous appearances – Lane makes a point of interviewing several TST members who come from all walks of life – there is a very serious message about how some mainstream forms of Christianity have suppressed freedom of religion and equality in worship, and have extended their malign beliefs and influences into everyday life to deny people control over their lives and bodies, and how people who put themselves on the front-line to fight oppression do so with very little money and support from others against insurmountable odds – yet achieve victories with courage, creativity and chutzpah.

Victim of the World Wildlife Fund: racial cleansing and genocide masquerading as nature conservation

Jos van Dongen, “Victim of the World Wildlife Fund” (Zembla, 2019)

Now this is the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism I like to see! In this report for Zembla, a Dutch programme produced by BNNVARA (part of the Dutch public broadcasting system) that makes documentaries, journalist Jos van Dongen travels to Assam in eastern India to investigate allegations that the World Wildlife Fund aids and abets the destruction of villages and agricultural communities surrounding Kaziranga National Park (hereafter KNP) so that their lands can be incorporated into the park to help preserve declining populations of the Indian rhinoceros. Van Dongen discovers that park rangers in KNP have been issued with military assault weapons and are trained to shoot to kill. He also finds that villagers have been wrongly accused of poaching animals and in many cases have been detained, tortured and killed by park rangers. Finally and most shockingly, van Dongen discovers that the WWF has been funding family planning programmes in villages around the park, and that in these programmes medical and non-medical staff have been sterilising men and women.

Probably most viewers will be shocked to discover that the World Wildlife Fund has always had a hidden political agenda aimed at racial cleansing of unwanted and mostly poor and marginalised groups of people, disguised as a concern for conserving nature. With a history of having been founded or represented by people with direct or indirect connections to Nazi Germany or its institutions – people such as Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld (who married into the Dutch royal family) in the Netherlands and Prince Phillip of the British royal family – the WWF was set on a path of following policies and programmes that pit the communities that have always lived with endangered animals and ecosystems (and who know best how to conserve those ecosystems and the endangered flora and fauna within them) against those very ecosystems, and which portray humans and nature as always being in perennial conflict. This mind-set leads to the forced removal (and as the documentary shows, sometimes the torture and murder) of communities and individuals who innocently stray into the parks and are accused of being poachers, by park rangers.

Incredibly the park rangers themselves receive near-paramilitary training and military assault weapons, and are taught torture methods – by whom, the documentary does not say – that are funded by the WWF. While understandably park rangers need to be able to protect themselves from poachers who may be working for criminal gangs, the solutions they are provided with (including a “shoot to kill” policy) may be targeting local communities more than they are actually targeting the poachers, the gangs who employ them and the end consumers (usually the wealthy in other countries) who regard possessing rhino horns or jewellery and other trinkets made from ivory as status symbols. Also, by arming the park rangers with military assault weapons and training them, the WWF may be worsening the poaching problem, as in Kaziranga National Park and elsewhere around the world park rangers themselves have been involved in poaching activities.

Through interviews, notably with Professor Bram Buscher (Professor and Chair at the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University), the documentary makes very clear that the local communities next to national parks like Kaziranga National Park are the people who understand the ecosystems and the endangered species existing within them best; and that the issue is not overpopulation, to be solved by foisting family planning programmes onto these communities or secretly sterilising their members, but is instead the economic growth paradigm and the materialist / consumerist model that accompanies it. This ideology is used to justify land grabs made by governments and corporations working together. Viewers will probably not be surprised to learn that the WWF also works with corporations in promoting its ideology and agenda (in which the supposed rights of nature and animals always supersede human rights) and turning conservation, sustainability and nature into profit-making commodities.

This documentary certainly calls into question the current paradigm of setting aside land for national parks without consulting the communities who have long occupied the land and cared for it for centuries, before the arrival of Europeans, with their greed for land and its wealth, and the many ideological justifications they had for stealing that wealth. The paradigm of conservation championed by the WWF and its supporters – conserving nature for the benefit and enjoyment of a privileged elite – has long had a racist and genocidal underlay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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