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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Identical Strangers: a compelling documentary on a chilling psychological experiment

Tim Wardle, “Three Identical Strangers” (2018)

That a set of triplets should be separated at birth and farmed out to three different families, each representing a different socioeconomic level (upper middle class, middle class, working class), by the same adoption agency without telling the families that the children they were adopting belonged to a set of identical triplets, seems unbelievably callous and stupid; but the fact that the children were deliberately separated and given to the families as part of an ongoing secret scientific study, funded by powerful political interests with a secret agenda and conducted by a scientist who had survived the Shoah during World War II, is truly disturbing. “Three Identical Strangers” tells the story of three identical triplet brothers, Edward Galland, Robert Shafran and David Kellman, born to a Jewish teenage girl who put them up for adoption with an adoption agency in New York that specialised in placing babies of Jewish background with adoptive Jewish families. The brothers discover one another by accident when one of them, Robert, enrolls in a community college and is surprised to be greeted familiarly by other students there who call him Eddie. The two are quickly acquainted with each other by a student and the story of their meeting is written up in a local New York newspaper. The third brother David reads the story and sees the photograph of the pair and contacts the newspaper. The three reunited young men are feted by the news media and appear on talk shows; they are even offered cameo roles on the film “Desperately Seeking Susan”. Ed, Bobby and David discover they have many quirks, habits, likes and dislikes in common, which they and everyone else find very weird; this would seem to suggest that genetics plays a huge part in determining a person’s personality, identity and character.

Having found one another, the boys locate their birth mother but their reunion with her does not go off very well and the birth mother soon disappears from their lives. While the boys set up home together and embark on a partying lifestyle,  their adoptive parents descend upon the adoptive agency to demand answers as to why they were never advised that the babies they adopted were part of a triplet set. The agency fobs them off but not before one of the parents finds its senior officers toasting one another with champagne after their meeting, a scene that strikes him as peculiar.

In the 1990s, an investigative reporter, Lawrence Wright, uncovers evidence that from the 1950s on, child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Peter B Neubauer began a long-term project that involved separating sets of identical twins and the set of identical triplets, and placing each and every child with a different family. None of the families was told that the children they were adopting had identical siblings or that they were all being studied. The families that adopted the triplet boys were not told that they had been specifically selected by Neubauer’s research group and the adoption agency to take the boys as they all already had adopted older girls of similar age.

The film develops its theme and the story of the triplets through interviews with two of the triplets – viewers are left to guess as to what happened to the absent triplet – and their family members, wives and friends. Old family photographs and archival film footage are also used to trace the direction of the triplets’ lives as they mature. Lawrence Wright discusses his research into the science study and two people who briefly worked on the study are tracked down by the documentary makers and interviewed. These two admit that the study was unethical but defend it by saying that when the study first began, the cultural climate was very different and the study was informed by the famous “nature versus nurture” debate of whether human behaviour is mostly determined by environment or by genetic inheritance. The documentary makers also interview a set of identical twin sisters, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, also adopted out to different families by the same adoption agency and who discovered each other by accident, who then set out to find Dr Neubauer themselves.

The “show, don’t tell” approach draws viewers deeply into the film and manages to keep viewers on side and attentive the whole way through, despite the rapid pace established in its first ten minutes when all three triplets are reunited. After the boys are back together, the pace seems to slow down a little and the film coasts along, retelling parts of the threesome’s lives and revealing that all three had troubled childhoods and experienced mental health issues; one of the three eventually is diagnosed as manic depressive. However the film becomes truly upsetting when the triplets and their families discover that other sets of identical siblings also experienced mental health problems to the extent that a couple of people committed suicide.

The film tends to be uneven and is rushed in its last few minutes. It does not make a very good case for stating that nurture trumps nature in determining human behaviour; if anything, the experiences of the triplets, and in particular the different father-son experiences they had, suggest that innate genetic tendencies will or will not manifest and become part of a person’s usual behaviour and make-up depending on the environment in which that person grows up. The film does a good job of showing the connection between having a supportive father and a close relationship with him on the one hand, and not having such support on the other, and how such relationships affect the children’s future emotional well-being and stability, especially when hardships befall them.

One is really curious as to what Neubauer had hoped to achieve or demonstrate with the long-term study – he decided to shelve it and never published the results, instead placing the papers with the Yale University Library and sealing them with an expiry date of 2066 – or what the unnamed interests who funded the research also hoped to learn. One possibility that the study was to serve an agenda beyond child development is that the triplets were placed with families of very different socioeconomic levels. If the boys had turned out much the same, would that not suggest that people’s behaviour and intelligence are unaffected by different environments, and that therefore attempts to enrich children’s environments, provide youngsters and their families with social and financial support, and invest in their education and healthcare are all unnecessary and should be abandoned? The answer to this questions enters the realm of political ideology, in particular the ideological battle between those advocating for socialism and those preferring a society dominated by small elites who also command most of that society’s wealth and natural resources for their own self-interests. Also unanswered is the question of how and why a survivor of the Shoah, who must have been well aware of the Nazis’ own experimentation on sets of twins, should have set up his own long-term (and ultimately flawed) study of groups of identical siblings without the consent of the families who adopted the children .

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 2: Adam Ruins Weight Loss): tackling the symptoms, not the problem behind losing weight

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 2: Adam Ruins Weight Loss)” (2017)

A very timely episode in the second season of the educational comedy documentary series “Adam Ruins Everything”, this one applies the hatchet quite severely (even if in a light-hearted way) to popular misconceptions about the best way to lose weight and to keep it off, and how governments, media and corporations collude to profit from people’s concerns and anguish about losing weight, dieting and exercise, and maintaining low body weight. Tackling three major myths, host Adam Conover reveals that low-fat diets can make people fatter, that counting calories is a waste of time and reveals misunderstanding about what calories measure, and that reality TV shows like “The Biggest Loser”, in which contestants undergo gruelling exercise regimes in boot-camp environments, actually don’t help the people who participate in them.

Perhaps the most informative segment is the first segment in which Conover reveals that beliefs that eating fat will lead to your being fat are based on bad and deceitful science, and that the consumption of low-fat foods and beverages is the culprit because these are usually laden with sugar. Removing fat from food results in it becoming bland in taste so companies compensate by adding large amounts of sugar. A scientist in the 1960s – 70s who tried to alert governments and their agencies, the news media and the public to his findings that sugar was to blame for increasing weight gain in Americans ended up being persecuted by the food industry and being ultimately shunned. What happened to him after his virtual ostracism is unknown. His work languished in obscurity until it was revived decades later after researchers began to discover links between sugar consumption and health conditions such as heart disease and obesity.

Counting calories gets a shellacking as individual people vary greatly in their daily calories requirements and there is no one generic ideal figure that people can adhere to as the level below which they can feel safe and keep their weight down. Even individual pieces of the same food and in the same or similar sizes can contain different levels of calories. Reality TV shows come in for criticism for preying on people’s insecurities about their weight and making spurious promises about helping people to lose huge amounts of weight quickly and to keep it all off.

While the slapstick is very silly and childish, the episode does a good job of presenting its three cases. To counter the silliness, an expert on weight loss and obesity, Dr Kevin Hall, comes on board to explain that, of 14 “The Biggest Loser” contestants he studied, 80% regained their lost weight. Of even more concern is that many of them will have difficulty losing weight again and may even gain more weight since rapid weight loss disrupts their metabolism to the extent that excess weight can only be kept off on a regimen of intense, strenuous exercise and an equally abstemious diet for the rest of their lives: a life-style they are unlikely or unable to maintain if they have to work and raise families as well.

The episode might have done more to demonstrate how corporations and governments collude in misleading people to believe myths about dieting, exercising and losing weight that result more in their wallets and purses losing money than in their actually losing weight. These misconceptions can be harmful to people’s long-term health, causing chronic health problems such as obesity and diabetes, and imposing heavy costs on people, their families and society generally in the treatment of these conditions. It’s really not enough for Conover and the show’s makers to try to reassure viewers that making small changes can lead in the long run to better health and happiness if they ignore the power of the media and advertising to manipulate people’s insecurities about their bodies and their weight.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 1: Adam Ruins Pregnancy): why so much pressure on new parents and mothers in particular?

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 1: Adam Ruins Pregnancy)” (2017)

Appropriately for a first episode of a new season, the topic covered is having a baby and the popular myths and misconceptions that surround women’s fertility, the issue of whether to breast-feed or feed a child formula, and maternal bonding. Emily and her partner are worried that her biological clock is ticking away and before long, she’ll hit the 35th-birthday mark which means her ability to conceive will start vanishing. Enter our chatty host Adam Conover who reassures Emily and partner by advising that a woman’s ability to fall pregnant after the age of 35 years will actually only fall a few percentage points and that even women in their prime years of fertility (late teens to late 20s) only have a successful pregnancy rate of less than 90%. Conover explains that the notion that reaching 35 years of age means that a woman’s ability to fall pregnant will plummet drastically is based on French census data collected from 1670 to 1830!

In a hypothetical scene, when Emily attends a garden party with her newborn child, two women guests start arguing over the breast-feeding versus infant formula issue. Conover brings in an expert who chastises both brawling biddies for their blinkered points of view. Later in the episode, Emily and her partner feel rather depressed that they’re not bonding with their baby as much as they believe they should and that caring for a baby turns out to be tedious, often boring and not much fun at all. Again, Conover tells them that maternal bonding is a very recent and uniquely Western concept and that in the past, when infant mortality rates were high, people were actually advised not to become attached to babies.

The news that turning 35 won’t hinder conceiving a child will be a relief for many women. Pity though that Conover does not consider why this particular myth is still so widespread in television, print and other media. The agenda behind pushing the idea that having a baby after the age of 35 years is close to impossible may well be sinister: it may be insinuating that young women should set aside their career aspirations and devote their time and energies to having children now rather than later. Likewise, other issues covered in the episode tend to be those on which parents are often harshly judged by their families, friends and peers. Unfortunately the show’s format and short running time don’t permit Conover to explore why new parents are often subjected to so much subjective criticism from others (plus subtle criticism from popular women’s magazines, news media and parents’ blogs) on their child-rearing skills to the extent that their relationship with each other and with their child could be strained.

The episode does have its silly moments but on the whole it’s easy on the eye and the ear and has a lot of energy thanks to Conover’s enthusiasm and clowning antics.

A depressing view of Israeli society in “Empire Files: Israelis Speak Candidly About Palestinians”

Abby Martin, “Empire Files: Israelis Speak Candidly About Palestinians” (October 2017)”

Abby Martin is an American journalist who hosts an ongoing current affairs show The Empire Files on TeleSUR, a satellite TV network based in Venezuela. In this episode she goes to Jerusalem (Zion Square, to be renamed Tolerance Square) to discover what ordinary people on the city streets think of the Israeli government’s policies regarding Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Martin’s interviews took place in September 2017, at a time when a right-wing party (with members in the Knesset) had held its conference and among other things approved a plan for Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, and to force Palestinians to move out of these territories.

Given that the public square where Martin meets her interviewees is to be renamed Tolerance Square, the responses she received were not at all tolerant. Most respondents were of the view that the land they call Israel had been given to the Jewish people by God for their exclusive use. Several people were of the opinion that Palestinians or Arabs generally should be bombed or killed. The possibility that bombing or killing Palestinians might encourage more tit-for-tat violence was never considered. A middle-aged man was of the view that Islam is a “disease” dangerous to the whole world and that Israelis should “kick away” Muslims. Some interviewees reveal the extent of the brainwashing and propaganda they received regarding the history of Palestine before 1948 when the area had been under Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman Turk and British rule. One teenager who belonged to a far-right organisation called Lehava (which advocates strict separation of Jews from non-Jews) stated that Jews have a special relationship with God and that Jews should not marry Arabs.

The surprising aspect of the answers Martin received is that she asked very general questions about how the interviewees felt about living in Israel and what they thought of the security situation. The racist responses they gave were completely unprompted and shocking in their extreme violence. Respondents confidently asserted that Palestinian land “rightfully” belonged to Jews – because at some remote time in the past it had been Jewish – and therefore Jews were justified in forcibly taking it away from Arabs without compensating them.

Perhaps as much for her own sanity as for that of her viewers, Martin consults activist Ronnie Barken who grew up in Israel and was exposed to the racist brainwashing that Martin’s interviewees were subjected to. At some point in his life however, Barken realised that all through his childhood and youth he’d been surrounded by a deliberate propaganda fog that demonised Palestinians and encouraged Israelis and Jews outside Israel to fear and hate them and Arab and Muslim people generally. He tells Martin of the Israeli agenda behind the portrayal of Palestinians as inferior, how it is really about stealing the land’s resources which enable a small power elite to exercise oppressive power over a weak people. He explains that Israeli identity depends on segregation from non-Jewish people and on denying Palestinians their identity, their culture and their right to exist at all. Barken’s explanation provides the context in which Martin’s respondents assert that Palestine and everything in Palestine that was actually created or produced by Palestinians over the last 2,000 years – in other words, Palestine’s very history and culture – belong to Israel.

This episode can be very depressing to watch, not least because most people Martin spoke to in her film were otherwise likable, generous with their time and frank in their attitudes. Far better it is though, to know the true nature of a society still traumatised by its past and how it responds to that trauma – but in a way that continues to produce fear, hate and loathing, and transmits those emotions and feelings to others – than to ignore reality and live under delusions fed by propaganda and lies. In this way, the cycle of hate, violence and genocide continues. Meanwhile, others (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) who profit from Israeli racism and prejudice against Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims generally will foment and fan the hatred and violence.

The film could have been better if Martin had tried to investigate some of the sources of propaganda that feed Israeli hate and prejudice: the country’s increasingly poor education system from primary level up to and including tertiary level should be one target; the militarisation of Israeli society that Barken alludes to is another; and the way in which Palestinians as a group are exploited by politicians to gain power and influence for themselves and to  ignore problems in Israel such as increasing socioeconomic inequalities, the concentration of wealth among a small number of families and individuals, and huge defence and security expenditures at the expense of education and social welfare. Viewers would gain a better understanding of the political, economic and moral corruption in Israeli society that underpins the suffering that in turn supports fear and hardened attitudes towards others.

Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City: a snapshot of a city in shock and uncertainty

Graham Phillips, “Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City” (July 2018)

In late July, British journalist / film-maker Graham Phillips spent time in Salisbury in southern England to speak to local people on their opinions of the ongoing police investigation into the purported poisoning of the Russian-born British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia Skripal by Novichok nerve agent at a park in the middle of the city. As of this time of writing (early August 2018), the whereabouts of the Skripals remain unknown after their release from Salisbury District Hospital in May. Since then a couple, Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, have also been poisoned, apparently by Novichok which Rowley found in a well-packaged perfume bottle left at a park in Amesbury, a small city not far from both Salisbury and the Porton Down military defence laboratory, a place notorious for various experiments involving the use of VX nerve gas during the 1950s. Sturgess died in hospital and her body was cremated just recently. Despite constant assertions by the British government and news media that Novichok was the toxin involved in both poisoning events and that Russia has to be responsible for sending or allowing this toxin to be used in Salisbury and Amesbury, the British authorities have not offered any evidence or established a clear chain of custody linking the poisonings to either the Russian government or Russian crime gangs.

In this video and also in this one on his Salisbury trip, Phillips travels by train from London to the city (noting the sizable train fare of 35 pounds) and walks through the streets to the local branch of Zizzi’s Restaurant, a restaurant franchise network with outlets throughout the UK and in some cities overseas. Zizzi’s in Salisbury is one of a number of places Sergei and Julia Skripal visited in the city in the crucial hours of Sunday 4 March 2018 before they were found unconscious and convulsing on a park bench in the shopping mall. The two are known to have ordered seafood risotto meals at Zizzi’s and to have fussed noisily when the dishes were late in coming out to their table.

Phillips sees that Zizzi’s is still closed with hoardings placed in front and guarded by two security guards. He hovers close by and starts talking to pedestrians. Most people refuse to talk about what they know (or don’t know) about the Skripals and only two gentlemen aged 50+ years offer what they know of the couple and the poisoning. Interestingly both doubt the official British government and news media versions of what happened, perhaps because in the weeks following the incident, the story of how the Skripals were poisoned and how the Novichok reached Britain kept changing from one day to the next. Fanciful tales about the Novichok being inserted through the air-conditioning system of the Skripal family car to a friend of Julia’s bringing a packet of buckwheat cereal contaminated with the stuff from Moscow on a late plane, to Julia herself carrying a perfume bottle of Novichok given her by her prospective mother-in-law flew, and finally to the toxin being applied in a gel-like form to the doorknob of the Skripal family home by a secret hit squad from Russia flew about. In the meantime, a police detective also fell victim to Novichok, was hospitalised, treated and released (to an unknown location); the Skripal house was sealed off (later to be bought by the UK government); and the Skripal family pets either starved to death or were so malnourished from starvation that when eventually found were put to sleep. The animals were later incinerated (along with the Zizzi’s Restaurant table that the Skripals dined upon and the famous park bench) at Porton Down without any autopsying done. Indeed, with the recent cremation of Sturgess, the British government seems anxious to get rid of what should be considered forensic evidence for a possible inquest or trial on what happened to the Skripals, Sturgess and her partner.

Looking for more obliging interviewees, Phillips wanders around Salisbury and comes across the park where the Skripals collapsed. Originally cordoned off by police after the Skripals had been taken to hospital, the park is now surrounded by huge advertising hoardings urging Salisbury residents and tourists to keep calm and keep visiting and shopping. A woman feeding pigeons informs him that the park bench has been removed but Phillips does not follow up asking her or anyone else what happened to it. Phillips walks back to the shopping centre and passes The Mill pub where the Skripals had drinks after lunch on the fateful day.

In all, with the amount of time Phillips has spent pounding the pavement trying to find people willing to offer their views on the poisoning incident or on the UK news media coverage of the same, he gets very few responses, and those mostly from people of an age who might figure they’ve now got nothing to lose by talking. The level of knowledge the respondents have about the incident is vague, given that they live in the city or its surrounds, and the general attitude seems to be one of indifference and apathy.

With the camera bouncing up and down constantly and whizzing about, viewers can feel a bit queasy; this video has not been edited for length. As we follow Phillips about, gaining a close view of his surroundings, we see a city trying desperately to regain a sense of normalcy and not coping very well with its newfound notoriety: several shops have shut down, awaiting new owners and businesses with an air of desolation; there are not many tourists in the city for the time of year (July 2018); people keep their heads down, their faces shuttered; and in some parts of the city, a certain melancholy is present. While the urban landscape is neat and clean, and the park is well kept, a sense of unease seems to be present.

He might not have found the answers he was looking for but in this video Phillips has captured a snapshot of a city teetering on the verge of psychological depression. Unless the British authorities offer definitive evidence and answers as to what poisoned the Skripals, who poisoned them and the motive behind the poisoning, and above all admit to where the Skripals have been removed, Salisbury will continue to suffer in silence.

The Faces of North Korea: a soulful visual poem showcasing the humanity and achievements of North Korea

Andre Vltchek, “The Faces of North Korea” (2018)

Visually poetic, even soulful to watch, this documentary is a travelogue of the sights and experiences, along with recent history to establish the context for much of what he saw and heard, of Russian-American journalist and film-maker Andre Vltchek while travelling in North Korea.  “The Faces …” is not just a beautiful travelogue – it’s also a reminder of the humanity of the people of the country and a homage to what they have been able to achieve since the end of the Korean War in 1953, during which conflict all major cities in the country including Pyongyang the capital were completely destroyed and some 20% of the total population were killed by American-led forces.

Vltchek travels around mostly in Pyongyang and to the demilitarised zone so this film isn’t really representative of North Koreans generally and how they live and perhaps flourish. Pyongyang is a clean and modern city with wide boulevards lined with nature strips and trees, and a moderate amount of traffic. There is plenty of astonishing large-scale architecture, much of it either very imaginative or eccentric. Scenes shot from the viewpoint of a front-seat passenger in a car show urban landscapes of quiet pride and matter-of-fact orderliness.

The journalist visits a museum near the demilitarised zone to see photographs and paintings, and to hear talks by the museum lecturer (translated into English by his guide) about the Korean War and its effects on ordinary North Korean people. On hearing of the horrors inflicted on North Koreans – in addition to the carpet-bombing that incinerated entire towns, US-allied soldiers also tortured people – Vltchek better understands the paranoia and fear of another US invasion that North Koreans still carry. To underline his point, Vltchek includes film footage of a US military base in Okinawa from which the Americans launched their invasion of the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s, and of part of an earlier trip he made to South Korea where the militarism and anti-DPRK propaganda propagated and promoted by the government there disgusted him.

What sets Vltchek’s film apart from other documentaries and short films on North Korea that I have seen is his delight in photographing or filming ordinary people going about their lives, in particular children skating about the streets on roller-blades and small girls performing songs and dance routines. A continuous music soundtrack of solo piano melodies enhances the intimacy of these scenes. Of course, as with the other films I have mentioned, Vltchek’s film shows up much of the current Western news propaganda about North Korea for what it is: not only does it deal in worn-out stereotypes about the country and its leadership but the constant repetition is mind-numbing, suggesting that imagination and open-mindedness are in direly short supply among the Western MSM.

The film finishes on an ambiguous note of foreboding and hope that North Korea will continue to progress and follow its own path despite the pressures of economic sanctions and the constant sabre-rattling from its neighbours and beyond, exemplified in the biannual military exercises undertaken during the northern spring and late summer near North Korea’s borders by South Korea and the US. As long as countries like North Korea not only survive but even thrive, there is hope for the rest of the world yet that one day all nations can pursue their own directions towards prosperity and shared wealth among their peoples without the fear that a giant bully will invade them with the aim of taking their land and its resources.

 

NYC to Donetsk & back: an American visitor discovers a new nation in the making in eastern Ukraine

Alexander Korobko, “NYC to Donetsk & back” (Russian Hour, 2018)

Made in 2017 or 2018, or some time after the death of Mikhail Tolstykh aka Givi in February 2017 (his death in his office is mentioned early on in the film), this remarkable documentary follows the travels of Russian-American actor Peter von Berg in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to discover the truth ignored by Western mainstream news media (MSM) about the experiences of the people living in the region, as opposed to what is reported by the Western MSM. Before 2014, the DPR was an oblast or province of Ukraine, predominantly Russian in ethnicity and language, and one of the most industrialised and prosperous parts of that country. After the Maidan Revolution in February 2014, the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, and Crimea’s own escape from Ukraine and reunion with the Russian Federation, Donetsk Oblast held a referendum in May 2014, the result of which led to the establishment of the DPR. Ukraine then invaded the DPR and its fellow rebel republic the Lugansk People’s Republic (also a majority-Russian area in Ukraine) and the three fought a brief hot war from May to early September, 2014. At the time von Berg visited the DPR, it was recognised as a state only by South Ossetia and was still claimed by Ukraine along with the LPR as part of its territory.

With political scientist Alexander Kazakov as his guide, von Berg tours areas that were part of the front-line in the DPR’s fight for survival in the summer of 2014 and is introduced to various people including DPR head of state Alexander Zakharchenko and at least one of his ministers, Alexander Timofeyev, who takes von Berg on a trip to a greenhouse farm growing tomatoes. The actor visits a specialist surgical hospital and talks to the head administrator and medical staff there; he also visits a steel-making factory, an Orthodox church, and a theatre and its cast of actors.  He even meets a Texan, Russell Bentley, who decided in 2014 to throw in his lot with the DPR and help the republic fight the post-Maidan regime in Kiev. The discussions he has with Zakharchenko and others about the society they are building in the DPR are very revealing: the people intend to create a socialist society in which primary and secondary education and healthcare are provided for free by the government, and cultural pursuits and enrichment are taken for granted and are the right of the people to enjoy.

Von Berg is very moved by many of the sights – in particular, the bombed remains of houses and other buildings near the front-line, and a Soviet-era memorial on a hill outside Donetsk city that was deliberately targeted and ruined by Ukrainian tanks – and marvels at the resilience and determination of DPR residents. They are highly educated and cultured and are mindful of their long history and traditions. Zakharchenko reminds von Berg of the significance of the Boston Tea Party in American revolutionary history and Timofeyev quotes the Roman poet Virgil; theatre director Natalia Volkova tells von Berg that the first play her theatre performed after the cessation of war in 2014 or early 2015 was Nikolai Gogol’s “Marriage”, in which a civil servant tries to find a suitable bride through a match-maker. (The travails of the civil servant and the bride might well mirror the DPR’s attempt to urge a federal style of government to Kiev and then its later attempt to become an autonomous republic, then form a federal union with the LPR, and then finally become more or less independent.) The fact that von Berg finds such friendly and cultured people, irrespective of their vocations, will surprise many Western audiences accustomed to societies where everyone knows only enough from his / her own school and college education to perform his / her chosen vocation and little else apart from what s/he picks up from news media and social media. Strangely though, after visiting a medical centre, a factory, a cultural centre and a politician’s office, von Berg does not visit a school, a university or a technical college to find out how the DPR produces people with such a rich and varied education.

In many questions that von Berg asks of his gracious hosts, there is implied criticism of the neoliberal capitalist system as it operates in his home country. Von Berg is impressed with the DPR’s ability to provide medical care (including specialist surgery) for free and education for free up to a certain level as well. Zakharchenko explains to von Berg that the state will fund particular university students’ studies in full if the young people are studying in an area where the government has a shortage of qualified people, on the condition that upon graduation the students agree to work for the government for a given period, otherwise the students are expected to pay for part of their studies. No doubt, on hearing of what students in the US must pay for their studies, Zakharchenko and others must have fallen over backwards at the sheer insanity of a system that bankrupts young people just so they can gain qualifications for jobs that are unlikely ever to pay off their tuition loans over a lifetime of work. What von Berg discovers as he travels around the DPR is also an indictment of the Western MSM’s failure to report the reality of the war in eastern Ukraine and the support that the West gives to fascist, even neo-Nazi regimes to repress their own citizens and to use violence against them where such governments and such actions advance Western political and economic elite goals of seizing other people’s lands and natural resources.

Von Berg comes away with new respect and admiration for a people who, under conditions of war and political and economic uncertainty, have created a thriving society and a rich and layered culture where people have the opportunity not only to fulfill their potential in particular fields but blossom in other areas. At the same time, the threat of a renewed hot war against the DPR by Ukraine, rent by political corruption, economic decline and extreme neo-Nazi terror, and encouraged by the West to recover what it considers to be its territory in the DPR, the LPR and Crimea, is never far away.

A superficial survey of how far a society has recovered a decade after years of war and destruction in “Chechnya: Republic of Contrasts”

“Chechnya: Republic of Contrasts” (RT Channel, 2013)

Made in 2013, this RT documentary is probably due for an update but it remains an interesting introduction to the Chechen Republic under the leadership of Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov. The focus of the documentary is on how far Chechnya has recovered since the two wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s that left most parts of this region devastated and its capital Groznyj all but destroyed. Since 2007 when Kadyrov became Head of the Chechen Republic, the region has stabilised and money has poured into its cities and towns to rebuild its infrastructure and major buildings, and to stimulate the economy. At the same time, Kadyrov has built Islamic schools, introduced aspects of Islamic shari’a law and tried to rebuild traditional Chechen society so as to draw young people away from Wahhabism. The result of stability, new prosperity and instilling a particular fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is a society looking both backwards and forwards in rather awkward ways that probably say much more about Kadyrov and his government’s interpretation of Islam than about Islam itself.

The documentary follows a number of individuals going about their daily work routines. A boy of primary school / junior high school age attends an Islamic school for several hours each day, learning to read and memorise the Qu’ran (in Arabic, not in his native Chechen) and, apart from some sport and general education, doing little else. A female newsreader visits the Firdaws fashion house to peruse suitable Islamic garb for her job. A taxi driver muses over how much his life has changed since the first Chechen war destroyed his apartment: he now has a new, and much better, apartment and his family makes an effort to observe what Chechen traditions and customs remain after decades of Soviet repression (which included deportation to Kazakhstan during World War II, in which many older people and children died). Young single women learn to be photographic fashion models showing off the latest Islamic fashion trends to the rest of the world.

The film’s coverage strikes this viewer as rather superficial for its length (26 minutes), not delving at all into how Kadyrov’s government has restored stability and security with the help of Moscow, and giving the impression that Russian money has been primarily responsible for Chechnya’s new wealth. Did most of that money come from Moscow’s coffers or from taxes paid by Chechen households, individuals and businesses? What industry might Chechnya have that could have produced some or most of that wealth? Are there Chechens who work in other parts of the Russian Federation who send remittances back to their families, and is their money actually propping up Chechnya’s wealth and development? What laws has Kadyrov’s government enacted that have eliminated violence and terrorism? Is Kadyrov’s interpretation of Islam and Chechen tradition accepted by most Chechens or do they think he is cherry-picking only those aspects of Islam that ensure his continued leadership of the small republic? These are questions that may well arise in viewers’ minds on watching this documentary.

Some people (including me) may well find the Islamic schools a potential long-term burden to the Chechen republic: if students at these schools learn little other than reading and memorising the Qu’ran, without understanding its deeper meaning and messages, and have no other education or skills to undertake work, they will end up on social welfare and their families or partners will have to support them. Male students in particular, ashamed that their women or families have to support them, may very well end up drifting into the kinds of Islamist extremism that Kadyrov wants to discourage. On the other hand, Kadyrov is to be commended for allowing women (including his daughters) to pursue careers, even if these are careers in women’s fashion design and modelling. There is nothing though on women training to be doctors, teachers, medical and hospital workers or sales representatives even though a strict literal interpretation of Islam and remaking Chechen society into an Islamic society would require considerable numbers of women to be educated in such vocations so that the separation of the sexes in daily life can be observed.

The documentary ends on a positive, upbeat note and I couldn’t help but feel a great opportunity to detail (even if briefly) how Chechnya functions, what industry it has and how Kadyrov’s government and leadership steer the republic, was lost.