Yuck! A 4th Grader’s Short Documentary about School Lunch: young investigator’s sleuthing into public school lunch program is queasy to stomach

Zachary Maxwell, “Yuck! A 4th Grader’s Short Documentary about School Lunch” (2012)

Here comes wisdom from the mouths of babes … in this case, 9-year-old Zachary Maxwell who at the time of filming was attending a public elementary school in New York City. Every day, he’d look forward to school lunch based on the day’s menu which read like a menu that might be offered by one of NY’s finest 3-starred restaurants … only to be disappointed by the over-wrapped, bland and tasteless factory offerings dumped onto his tray. Irritated by the huge gap between what was advertised and what was the reality, Maxwell began a guerrilla film project in which he surreptitiously filmed or photographed about 75 school lunches served to him over several months, at least until he became careless and the Lunch Monitor caught him waving his phone camera in the air. Out of these pictures and videos, Maxwell created a well-structured investigative documentary project which highlights the hypocrisy behind the school lunch programs being run in New York City.

The documentary is very slick and Maxwell received a lot of adult help in editing the film and creating special effects and animation for the project. He ropes in his young brother Lucas for several scenes including a number of scenes in which they conduct an experiment (not very scientific) to see whether the school cafeteria’s fried potato chips last as long as a sponge cake or fresh vegetables. Maxwell appears in nearly every shot where he plays both investigative sleuth and narrator.

Maxwell concludes from the results of his project that the school lunch program’s hype about its lunches being varied, delicious and nutritious is just hot air and the actual lunches themselves – and viewers can see for themselves – are monotonous and consist of highly processed foods with dubious levels of nutrients (to say nothing of what they contain in additives and preservatives) and little if any of the fresh fruits and vegetables they are advertised as having. Along the way he and his fellow students get an early lesson in the power of propaganda to lead impressionable minds astray. He and Lucas decide that the best school lunches are ones they make themselves and carry to school in brown bags.

The film is at once funny and very entertaining, and very revealing about what children at Maxwell’s school have to put up with when private corporations and governments collude to pursue maximum profits by dumping junk … er, in serving school lunch meals to primary schoolchildren. Maxwell’s school may or may not be typical of schools in New York state in supplying such bland and useless lunches. One would hope such films like Maxwell’s should serve as a wake-up call to education department bureaucrats in that state and across the rest of the United States to start supplying more nutritious school meals to primary and secondary school students … but as long as the country hews to an ideology that privileges self-interest, greed and competition over co-operation, and believes that pursuing profit at the expense of the health of young Americans trumps everything else, Maxwell and his friends will have to be satisfied with eating more plastic processed pulp.

The documentary can be seen at this link.

The Look of Silence: a grim and monotonous film about a personal quest but no context to make sense of it

Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Look of Silence” (2014)

A companion piece to Oppenheimer’s earlier documentary “The Act of Killing”, this film considers the effects of Indonesia’s purges of Communists and people suspected of being Communist in 1965 on society and the general public. Adi, a fortysomething eye doctor in his village, seeks out the people involved in the torture and killing of his brother Ramli, whom he has never known, the brother having died before he was born. His journey takes him around various families in his village. The murderers of his brother hold considerable power and respect in the village, and Adi’s questions have the potential to put him and his own family in danger for their lives. Indeed, a number of people, not the murderers themselves but their children and other relatives, do make threats towards Adi and Oppenheimer himself. Throughout the film, Adi conducts himself with quiet dignity, asking hard questions about how the killers themselves feel about living with lies, and how they think their victims and the victims’ families might feel about them.

It’s a gruelling and unrelenting film to watch, and one that could have been edited for length in parts: I confess I felt quite tired and drowsy during parts of the film. The film’s style is spare and its focus is on Adi’s unassuming yet quietly determined quest to gain some justice and peace for his brother and parents in a country that continues to glorify the mass murder and tortures and teaches schoolchildren highly distorted versions of this dark period of Indonesia’s history. The extreme minimalism can make proceedings quite monotonous and dreary. The film becomes more than one person’s search for answers about his brother’s fate: it’s also an investigation into the nature of denial and evasion, and how continued denial keeps families apart in society from one generation to the next. At the very least, Adi and Oppenheimer are able to get the killers to make idiots of themselves when they revel in the details of Ramli’s murder and how they drank the blood of their victims in the bizarre belief that this would stop them (the killers, that is) from going crazy.

The scale of the narrative, focused on Adi’s personal quest for answers and perhaps an apology or acknowledgement from the killers for how his family has suffered, does not address the issue of how Indonesia’s government and institutions continue to suppress inquiry into the 1965 mass murders and make the search for truth, justice, any reparations and above all reconciliation between the murderers and their victims, and their respective families, impossible. As with Oppenheimer’s previous film “The Act of Killing”, “The Look of Silence” gives no background information or context to Ramli’s murder or the 1965 mass killings generally, so viewers not familiar with Indonesia’s recent history come away knowing no more about this dark episode than they did before, or why the government still will not admit that wrongdoing and harm had been done during this period. That this situation continues more than 15 years after the resignation of President Suharto, whose rise to power had been enabled in part by the so-called Communist purges, after 31 years as the nation’s leader, and the part that Western nations may have played in encouraging and directing Suharto and his followers to kill people and take power, is the real puzzle that gnaws away at the film’s credibility.

A curious aspect of the two Oppenheimer films is how the director manages to get adult men and women, even Adi’s aged father, to act in childish ways. For most of these people also, acting like little children (boasting of their exploits, drinking blood in the belief it will protect them from harm)  incriminates them as murderers but viewers might question the methods that Oppenheimer uses to encourage these people to condemn themselves.

A biased narrative that splits hairs in “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat”

Andrew Lachman, “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat” (2014)

Second in a series of documentaries hosted and narrated by BBC science presenter Michael Mosley, this episode on the impact of the livestock industry on the environment is entertaining and informative enough but its problem is that the issue is framed in a very narrow and culturally biased narrative. Mosley wants to be an ecologically conscious carnivore so already the episode rules out the possibilities of going partly or wholly vegetarian, even if for just one day a week. Even just broadening one’s protein choices to eggs, seafood and dairy products, and no more, isn’t enough: no, we must (uhh) go the whole hog and consider the environmental impacts of eating beef and chicken in the main, and little else. Mosley travels to the US to investigate free-range cattle farming and raising cattle on corn and soy, and discovers that feeding our horned friends corn and soy is more environmentally friendly than feeding them on grass, because a diet of grass produces more methane than does a diet of corn and soy. Never mind whether growing corn and soy just to feed cows is actually a better or more environmentally sustainable use of certain land than growing cereals, vegetables and fruit to feed people. After this revelation, Mosley visits a chicken farm where chickens are fattened up on special diets in air-conditioned comfort and run about inside huge barns and learns that … well, woddaya know? … intensively farming chooks in this way may also be more environmentally sustainable than letting them run about in the open air pecking at table scraps and corn.

My brain may be refusing to accept and process such information that conflicts with what it wants to believe but I cannot accept that such intensive farming really can be sustainable even in the short term. The kind of life cycle analysis that is mentioned in the program should, if it is to be credible, consider the life cycle involved in making meat starting with the life cycles of the corn and soy, and of grass as well, for a better comparison of the total costs to the environment of both alternative forms of raising cattle for food. The amounts of fertiliser and water that may be involved, the petroleum consumed, any human labour and transport costs that make these methods of farming cattle possible all should be included in the analytical comparisons. The same should be done for chickens. We do not know the environmental consequences of switching farmland from other purposes to growing special kinds of crops to feed animals, whether the land needs more water and fertiliser than it would otherwise, and how sustainable such practices are. In the Amazon river region, land cleared of forest for grazing cattle does not last very long and becomes desert after a few years; the meat of cattle grazed on such land is of low quality as well, and fit only for hamburgers. That does not sound like a very good use of land. The life cycle analysis of food also does not stop at the moment we shovel it into our mouths: there are also health effects to consider, whether the food is likely to contribute to people’s risk of obesity or chronic metabolic conditions like diabetes, and the impact of our waste on the environment in the form of sewage.

International comparisons such as what Mosley makes later in the program, comparing US and European meat consumption with Chinese meat consumption and their long-term implications, fall down on the implicit assumption that Chinese carnivores eat much the same kinds of meats as Westerners do and in much the same proportions.

Above all, what the program fails to address is the economic and political systems and ideologies that determine how land is owned and used. Land that might be used to support mixed agriculture with cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens grazing at low densities and co-existing with one another and other farming purposes, is instead farmed highly intensively and in an industrial fashion with one kind of agriculture for profit … and that profit going to corporations or governments rather than individual farmers, farming communities or the people who consume the food. Growing food for profit rather than to sustain communities in ways that enhance people’s health and help preserve the environment for future generates will generate different institutions,  structures and cultural values that support the profit motive and justify industrial farming as “environmentally sustainable”.  This is the proverbial 900-pound gorilla lurking in the background and beating its chest unseen while Mosley wastes his time (and that of viewers) basically splitting hairs.

Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison – where entertainment recruits cannon fodder for the military

Maria Pia Mascaro, “Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison / Marschbefehl für Hollywood” (2003)

People may be surprised that the United States Department of Defense takes a keen interest in much of Hollywood’s movie output, in particular the industry’s production of war movies, to the extent that the Pentagon has an office in Los Angeles that gives advice to film-makers, vets scripts and makes changes to scripts to portray the military in a favourable light. The military also supplies equipment and provides technical advice to enable film-makers to be as accurate as possible in their portrayal of soldiers in action. But there is a price to be paid in accepting the military’s advice and using its equipment (including hardware): the Pentagon demands that films must show American soldiers as heroic and moral, to the extent that truth and narrative accuracy end up being sacrificed and the results turn into pro-military / pro-war propaganda. This made-for-TV documentary demonstrates that the close relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon goes as far back as the 1940s at least and that this relationship has a heavy and deleterious influence on public support for the military, reflected in military recruitment of people. The romanticisation of US soldiers in popular cinema conceals real crimes they commit in other countries during war and peace-time: mass murders, rapes, torture and other atrocities inflicted on enemy combatants and civilians, and even incidents like traffic accidents resulting in the deaths or crippling of civilians, with perpetrators more often than not being exonerated by US military courts.

The documentary relies heavily on interviews with military officials who present their side of the issue in a matter-of-fact way, focusing on details of their engagement with aspects of the film industry, that sidesteps the ethics of their involvement. The interviewer does not probe very deeply into what individuals do – perhaps because these people from choice or compulsion would not co-operate otherwise. The film skips around different aspects of the Pentagon’s complicated relationship with Hollywood, ranging from film directors having to agree to Pentagon interference in writing and rewriting scripts and the military’s refusal to provide hardware and equipment if film-makers do not agree to its demands; to Pentagon interest in developing computer and video games that draw on real wars and incidents and reshape them to the Pentagon’s liking; and to the Pentagon’s practice of embedding journalists with troops so that reporters are exposed only to the military point of view. Some famous Hollywood films like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” and his brother Tony’s “Top Gun” are discussed as examples where the Pentagon exercised a great deal of influence in changing the script so as to whitewash American actions or suggest that atrocities or incidents of torture are the work of a lone “bad apple” rather than the foreseeable results of a culture of bullying, misogyny, intimidation, the exaltation of violence and an apocalyptic mind-set within the military.

The film is not very structured and viewers have to follow the voice-over narration and the interviews closely to make sense of what they see and hear. There can be a lot of information to absorb and viewers might need a second viewing to digest it all. Probably the creepiest part of the documentary is where a lawyer explains that Hollywood (in particular, Hollywood actors) seems obsessed with its self-importance and the industry imagines it can have more influence in US culture and society by contacting Washington and offering its services. By doing so, Hollywood and Hollywood actors end up prostituting themselves by virtually agreeing to propagandise for Washington’s interests. The otherwise laudable efforts of actors like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney in supporting human rights and advocating for particular issues now take on a sinister sheen.

This film best serves as an introduction to a deep and worrying issue of how closely inter-twined the US government and US military are with the nation’s entertainment industries, and how popular entertainment now serves not only as the dominant propaganda tool but also in shaping culture and society to serve a dysfunctional and psychopathic leadership and its ideology.

Citizenfour: a riveting fly-on-the-wall documentary thriller about media, government surveillance and pressures on whistle-blowers

Laura Poitras, “Citizenfour” (2014)

As both fly-on-the-wall real-time documentary and historical thriller, “Citizenfour” is a riveting snapshot of the period in mid-2013 when US whistle-blower Edward Snowden contacted film-maker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald to reveal to them documents he had collected while employed as an IT contractor by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) that demonstrated that the NSA had been conducting a secret illegal surveillance program on millions of US citizens by collecting their telephone data and metadata from various telecommunications and telecom software companies such as Verizon and Skype.

As a more or less active participant in the events of the film, Poitras lets the central characters of Snowden and Greenwald and their actions take centre stage. There is no voiceover narrative but Poitras provides sufficient background information, including a video of US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lying under oath at a US Senate Committee on Intelligence hearing on information gathering: the video apparently galvanised Snowden onto his personal crusade to expose the fact that the US government was indeed illegally wiretapping its citizens’ phone and online conversations. The  narrative backbone starts from Snowden’s initial contacts with Poitras and Greenwald and escalates quickly into their meeting in a ritzy hotel in Hong Kong in June. There, Snowden introduces himself to Poitras, Greenwald and British newspaper reporter Ewen MacAskill, and show the trio the thousands of NSA documents he had collected while employed at the agency. He arranges with Greenwald to reveal his identity as the whistle-blower through Greenwald and MacAskill’s employer The Guardian in mid-June. From then on, Snowden and the others go their separate ways: Snowden to escape the reach of the US government and find shelter in Russia, and Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras to spoon-feed information about the reach and depth of NSA spying on Americans and non-Americans alike through The Guardian, The Washington Post, Brazil’s O Globo, Germany’s Der Spiegel and other Western news media outlets. Not only does Snowden fear for his life and those of his family and girlfriend but Greenwald and Poitras also feel the heat from the US and UK governments: Greenwald’s partner David Miranda is held for questioning by police who also seize his luggage at Heathrow Airport in London in August; and Poitras herself has been harassed by US border agents whenever she travels in and out of her home country.

Certainly prior knowledge of the events filmed in the documentary does help to understand the issues at stake but even viewers not familiar with Ed Snowden and what he did that aroused the ire of the US and UK governments against him, Poitras and Greenwald will be concerned at the threats against citizens’ freedoms and rights to free speech and privacy. Other issues that arise in the course of the documentary are dealt with fleetingly: the Western mainstream media concern with celebrities and personalities rather than with ongoing issues of freedom and democracy and how fragile these are (it’s ironic that Snowden and Greenwald discuss this some time before Snowden reveals himself as the mole and becomes both a media celebrity and target for US government ire); Snowden’s own anguish that what he himself is doing is illegal and how his actions might affect his family’s safety; and the law under which Snowden is being charged with espionage is an old law going back to the early 20th century that does not distinguish between selling secrets to a foreign enemy and divulging secret information in the public interest. The film also exposes the extent to which the UK government co-operates closely with the US in gathering information from its own citizens via the same methods as the NSA does from US citizens, and sharing that information with Washington.

There was not much new revealed in the documentary that I didn’t already know about Snowden and his flight to Moscow, aided by Wikileaks, or about Greenwald and his household of 99+ dogs in Rio de Janeiro. Brief entertainment is provided by vanity shots of Snowden preening himself while looking at the bathroom mirror.

On the whole Snowden and Greenwald are presented in a positive way; even Greenwald’s then employer The Guardian itself is shown as a passive but neutral participant in the film. After the events documented in the film, Greenwald left The Guardian to join US billionaire entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar’s news venture The Intercept, along with Poitras and investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, and The Guardian itself has become a propaganda shill for US and UK government policies and agendas. I think Poitras is rather remiss in not showing that she and Greenwald had started working for a new employer during the making of the documentary as the film’s chronological coverage extends to mid-2014.

From a purely technical viewpoint, the film is well made with a definite narrative that provides the drama and tension that anchor the work and keep audiences’ attention steady until the end.

No Russian troops but plenty of Donetsk determination and pluck in “Donetsk: An American Glance”

Miguel Francis Santiago and Alexander Panov, “Donetsk: An American Glance” (RT Documentary, 2014)

Cheerful LA film graduate and investigative journalist Miguel Francis Santiago, fresh from filming his travelogue “Crimea for Dummies” journeys on to Donetsk, one of the two major cities in eastern Ukraine where civil war has raged between Ukrainian government army forces and separatist rebels since April 2014. With so much contradictory information and propaganda pouring from the Western news media about the situation in eastern Ukraine, much of it emanating from the Ukrainian government itself, and with an agenda to discredit Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular, the only way to find out anything resembling the truth is to visit the area and talk to the local people, and this our hero MFS does with his open and frank manner that encourages others to warm to him. The aim of the film is to investigate and verify Kyiv and Western news media claims that Putin has sent Russian army troops into eastern Ukraine to wage war on the Ukrainian army.

MFS appears to be based mostly in Donetsk City for the making of this film and a tidy and attractive city it looks too, even under duress of bombing, with plenty of city gardens and green space. The streets are spacious though empty and a few people can be seen pounding the pavements. Even trolley-buses, recent targets of the Ukrainian army, are gliding along. Damage to the streets and buildings is being repaired by city workers as best as they can. One of the first individuals we meet is Veselina, commander of a separatist division, who features throughout the film so one assumes that MFS is more or less attached to – or embedded with – her group. She tells the reporter that she gave up her regular work to fight with the rebels and that her desire is to ensure that the people she knows and loves all survive the war. Her men are loyal to her and respect her experience, leadership and judgement.

With Veselina’s division, MFS meets a young woman desperate to rescue her grandmother who stubbornly refuses to leave her home in spite of the bombing around her and a small opera company in Donetsk city trying to maintain a busy schedule of rehearsals and performances to keep up the citizens’ spirits. MFS then trails another commander, Givi, who shows him what remains of Sergey Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk, once the most modern airport in eastern Ukraine: the entire complex has been destroyed and all that is left is endless ruin. MFS talks to people living close to the war front, several of them forced to live in basements where among other things they celebrate a young man’s birthday. What MFS sees and hears, and what civilians tell him, are all too much for the journalist to bear and the film concludes with MFS doing his grunge guitar thang, singing his heart out to the world and expressing his anguish and rage that senseless war is being visited on Donetsk and other places in eastern Ukraine.

MFS never does find Russian troops in and around Donetsk, and local people tell him they have never seen Russian soldiers either. All the fighting against the Ukrainian army is by local people, all Ukrainians speaking Ukrainian dialects of Russian. One man condemns Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko for bringing war and suffering to Donetsk.

It is possible that by only visiting Donetsk, MFS has received a biased point of view about the war in eastern Ukraine and that if he had gone to places like Lugansk, Kramatorsk and Mariupol, he might have seen Russian troops on eastern Ukrainian soil. The people he talks to seem genuine enough: they are all ordinary people employed in jobs like mining, carpentry, various professions and farming, and all have felt compelled to take up arms against Kyiv to defend and preserve their language, culture and land. The spirit and independence of the people of Donetsk city and region are prominent and infectious, and at the end of the film I can’t help but cheer them on and hope that they succeed in retaining their land and identity.

Yes, this is a propaganda film; in the midst of war, in which two opposed sides claim to possess the truth, seeking and claiming “balance” in viewpoint is impossible. One cannot be “impartial”, one must decide who to believe and not to believe, who is right and who is not, based on the evidence and facts found. MFS has bravely put his life and beliefs on the line to bring what he believes is the truth and it certainly does not reflect well on Western news media, our governments and ultimately us that we may be the ones supporting forces inimical to democracy and good governance.

Yet even in an awful and brutal war such as this civil war against the people of Donetsk, the human spirit, as exemplified by the Donetsk people’s cheerfulness, communal spirit and determination to carry on as normal, keeping their city clean and comfortable and performing music and opera, is radiant and shines through the terrible destruction.

Crimea for Dummies: entertaining travelogue, history lesson and Western media propaganda critique rolled into one

Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” (RT Documentary, 2014)

A unique and interesting film by Los Angeles film school graduate Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” is at once a personal film travelogue, history lesson and critique of the Western news media portrayal of recent events in Crimea. MFS sets out to discover how much the global view reflects the actual situation in the peninsula. The Western opinion is that Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula after the Crimean parliament held an illegal referendum that delivered suspect results. The opinion of the Crimeans themselves, as MFS was to discover, is that the referendum not only was legitimate but it reflected majority opinion of Russian voters (and quite a lot of Crimean Tatars who defied their Majlis order not to participate in the referendum) who did not like what was happening in Ukraine and who wanted to secede and rejoin Russia.

MFS visits Crimea to interview people about what they think of Russia and what their lives are now like under Russian rule. Nearly everyone is happy to be living in Russia because among other things people can now apply for free medical insurance which they could not get in Ukraine. According to what he heard in the news in the US, there were food shortages in Crimea after Russian reunification so he visits food shops and finds food in abundance at affordable prices.

Puzzled that the vast majority of people he meets identify with Russia rather than Ukraine, MFS sets out to learn the history of Crimea and how with its mostly Russian-speaking population it ended up as part of Ukraine. He learns that Crimea was incorporated into the Russian empire in 1783 – so its association with Russia began only a few years after the United States declared its independence in 1776. He visits memorials dedicated to those members of the Russian military forces who died defending Sevastopol and Crimea from invasion, first in the 1850s against forces from Britain, France, Turkey and Italy, and then second during the Second World War against Germany. Puzzled that none of these memorials mention Ukraine or Ukrainians, MFS consults a historian about how Crimea became part of Ukraine and she informs him that in 1956 the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine because the leader had spent part of his boyhood in Ukraine and he needed Ukrainian support in the various byzantine machinations in Moscow politics at the time. One interesting tidbit is that MFS learns Ukraine had once offered a military base to the US but since it faced Turkey rather than Russia, the Americans turned down the offer.

The documentary works as both history and travelogue: through Francis’s eyes and experiences, viewers see the kind of sunny, tourist-oriented place Crimea (and more specifically Sevastopol and Yalta) could be with opportunities for sight-seeing, walking tours, swimming and boat trips. In his interviews with the local people, MFS apparently does not meet any non-Russian individuals (like Crimean Tatars for example) who might offer a point of view at odds with the majority opinion that Crimea is and always has been a part of Russia since 1783. Crimean history since that year is rich in associations with Russian history and culture – the famous writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov spent part of his life here – and MFS learns to his consternation that from 1991 to 2014, the Ukrainian government actively sought to suppress this rich history and other expressions of Russian identity among the Crimeans.

Playing a wide-eyed tourist naif enables MFS to come close to people who speak more frankly than they might have done otherwise had he come as an investigator or journalist. Plenty of close-ups feature and MFS’s clowning about gives the film the air of a home-made production.

Propaganda this film may be – there is no way of telling what might have been omitted from the film’s final version and how much – though it is very entertaining and informative. I might say at this point that the woman historian MFS consults was incorrect in saying that Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1956: the year of transfer was actually 1954, the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, in which Ukrainian cossacks joined with Russia in an alliance against the Crimean Tatar khanate and its allies, and that one reason for the transfer may have been easier administration of a pipeline transporting water for public consumption from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to Crimea. The transfer was made quite arbitrarily with no consultation with the Soviet parliament at the time, as should have been done according to the Soviet constitution. Another reason possibly may have been to sway Ukrainians away from supporting nationalist Ukrainian groups agitating for Ukraine to break away from the Soviet Union at the time.

Whether you view the film as propaganda or not, it is nevertheless a good introduction to a small territory in the Black Sea that for centuries has been coveted as prime real estate by great powers past and present.

A snapshot of society on the verge of rewiring its history in “Crimea: Unmasking Revolution”

Artyom Somov, Pavel Burnatov, “Crimea: Unmasking Revolution” (RT.com, 2014)

Powered entirely by interviews with Crimean Russians in the street and following people about as they rouse others and mobilise a referendum for independence and accession to Russia, this RT.com documentary presents what most people in Crimea thought of the regime in Kyiv in Ukraine after the Yanukovych government was overthrown in February 2014. Interviewees included Berkut officers recounting their experiences clashing with neo-fascists in city streets and the parents of a soldier who died in western Ukraine fighting neo-fascists and followers of Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera.

Ordinary Crimeans are in no doubt at all that they were betrayed by lies and propaganda from the Ukrainian government since 1991 and that their future lies with secession from Kyiv and accession to Moscow. The astonishing thing about the Crimeans is how very quickly they grasped the situation and united to organise the independence referendum in super-quick time. By the beginning of April 2014, in defiance of Kyiv and its supporters in the West, Crimea had held its referendum, had counted the votes and found overwhelming support for secession, and broken away to join Russia.

The documentary film crew interview a local historian, Oleg Rodovilov, who tells them about Stepan Bandera’s actions during the Second World War and the terror he and his followers spread among Jews, Russians and others. They also show film of scenes in western Ukraine in which fascists beat a governor and intimidate and cuff another local politician. The film crew travels around the peninsula to Sevastopol and Simferopol to find out what people are thinking, saying and doing. In Simferopol, the people cheer on Berkut officers. Later in the film, a peace activist retells the terrifying experience he and fellow activists had when their bus was held up by fascists and everyone was forced out and made to crouch and move while repeating fascist slogans.

The interviewees who appear are articulate and seem well educated. That may or may not be deliberate on the film crew’s part. To their credit, they do talk to some Crimean Tatars attending a rally to support Kyiv and Ukraine. The Crimean Tatars and Russians nearly come to blows on a public street but the tension is defused  by calls for peace.

The interviews may have taken place quite early in 2014 just after Kyiv fell to the EuroMaidan movement and before the independence referendum was held. They constitute a snapshot of the tense yet excitable situation that existed in Crimea at the time. For those viewers unfamiliar with the history of Crimea and its incorporation into Ukraine in 1954, the film unfortunately provides no background history as to why the peninsula is dominated by Russian-language speakers and supporters of Russia. Nor does the film say why Crimean Tatars prefer to support Ukraine rather than Russia.

The Ukrainian fascists and nationalists are portrayed very negatively and the documentary makers did not interview any pro-Kyiv supporters in Crimea. Given the very tense and polarised situation throughout Ukraine, not to mention the violence stoked by the post-Yanukovych regime and its Western supporters, perhaps the film-makers were wise to avoid the pro-Kyiv side. I am sure though that they would make no apologies for not making a film that shows Western-style “balance” in which supporters of two extreme sides are given equal time to make their case in such a way that the film subtly manages to support one side while appearing even-handed.

The documentary can be viewed at this Ukraine Crisis Updates link.

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of Safra, Magnitsky and Berezovsky in “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M”

“Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M” (EZ Productions, 2014)

Presented by Russian actor Vasily Livanov, known in the West for playing Sherlock Holmes in a highly regarded 1980s Soviet TV series “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson”, this documentary is a keen and critical study into the mysterious deaths of Edmond Safra and Sergei Magnitsky, both associated with the British-American investment fund manager William Browder. The documentary cleverly uses a narrative structure, based on the famous English detective Sherlock Holmes investigating yet another strange crime, to explore the circumstances of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths, compare Magnitsky’s prison experience and death with similar experiences and deaths in the US prison system, and make a case for Browder being linked to the CIA and MI5.

Livanov’s Sherlock Holmes plunges into the mystery straight away by introducing both Browder and his Hermitage Capital Management partner Edmond Safra and mentioning Safra’s puzzling death in a fire in 2007 in almost the same breath. Mention of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in prison and of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s death by hanging in his British country home in 2013 comes hot on the heels of Safra’s demise. Interestingly the film detours through an interview with human rights activist lawyer Paul Wright into a detailed comparison of the medical treatment Magnitsky received in prison and the way in which the US prison system treats many sick prisoners, and pointedly picks out the hypocrisy in the way the US government and Browder have complained long and loudly about how dreadfully Magnitsky was treated by prison doctors (which he was, there is no doubt he was treated appallingly) but are silent on the equally shocking conditions in which US prisoners are often forced to live and how such conditions affect their health and contribute to their early deaths.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Safra in 1998, Magnitsky in 2011 and Berezovsky in 2013 seem to have quite a bit in common: before both Safra and Berezovsky died, they had been preparing to take steps to reveal some valuable information – in Berezovsky’s case, to reveal valuable information to the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. The documentary relies heavily on interviews with freelance journalist Oleg Lurie and Berezovsky’s former head of security services Sergei Sokolov to explain the possible links with the two businessmen’s deaths and HCM and Browder.

A French counter-terrorism officer Paul Barill is roped into the documentary to recount the career of Bill Browder from the time he renounced US citizenship and took up British citizenship, and went on to found HCM and through that investment fund raided the wealth of privatised Russian state corporations and stole other Russian monies. Barill claims that the wealth Browder acquired was used to discredit Russia in various ways, including the destabilisation of Ukraine and the brainwashing of Ukrainians to hate and fear Russia and President Putin.

Technically the documentary is well made and beautifully presented though for Western viewers not familiar with the tax fraud case surrounding Bill Browder and HCM, the treatment of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths together with Boris Berezovsky’s demise might be confusing and leave viewers knowing no more about Magnitsky, Safra and Berezovsky than they did before seeing the documentary. There is enough known about Magnitsky’s career and association with Browder and his own employer Firestone Duncan in the public domain that a shorter documentary about Magnitsky alone could have substituted instead. In particular, the public needs to know that Magnitsky was an accountant who invented a tax evasion scheme for his employer’s client as the mainstream Western media inaccurately portrays the man as a tax lawyer. Some simple animation demonstrating in chronological order what Magnitsky did for Firestone Duncan and Browder would have supplemented the information from the interviews in a way viewers can understand.

The film narrows its focus down to the character of Browder himself and by then many viewers who have followed the sometimes confusing narrative will have concluded that Browder may well be working for the CIA or British intelligence services with the ultimate goal of destabilising and overthrowing the Russian government, and replacing it with one more subservient to the US government which aims to control the country’s energy resources and profit from them.

This documentary could have been a lot more informative and even quite fun. Instead it is quite dry and doesn’t even try to engage with its viewers with techniques such as addressing and challenging viewers to try to solve the mystery of whodunnit to Magnitsky before Holmes does. For all its faults though, this documentary seems to be the only British documentary to show the Russian point of view on the largest tax fraud in Russian history and its reverberations for Russia and its relations with the West.

Exposing Browder: a glimpse into a sordid world of tax fraud and undermining a sovereign country

“Exposing Browder / Spisok Braudera” (Rassledovaniye, 2014)

At last this Russian documentary exposing the shady activities of the investment fund manager Bill Browder has an English-language voiceover soundtrack and is available on Youtube. The grandson of Earl Browder, a founder and secretary general of the Communist Party USA (which later expelled him on suspicion that he was a spy), and son of Felix Browder, a famous mathematician, Bill Browder gained experience as a consultant in the Boston Consulting Group in London and as an investment manager for Salomon Brothers. Along the way, Browder shed his US citizenship and adopted British citizenship. In 1996, he and a partner established Hermitage Capital Management to capitalise on the large-scale privatisations of state corporations in Russia. The firm used the services of Firestone Duncan as consultants on legal, taxation and accounting issues in Russia and the head of that firm, Jamison Firestone, seems to have become quite close to Browder and HCM in their subsequent forays in the Russian investment scene.

HCM did very well though the financial crisis in 1998 must surely have threatened HCM’s capital inflows and gave quite a few of its investors headaches. Riding on HCM’s success – by 2004, it was the largest foreign investment fund in Russia managing over US$3 billion and representing several thousand investors – Browder became a shareholder in the energy corporation Gazprom where he made a name for himself exposing corruption and financial mismanagement.  HCM’s strategy was ostensibly to buy shares in a large undervalued company (usually an energy company) and demand access to that company’s financial records, supposedly for the purpose of uncovering suspicious irregularities in company management. HCM would loudly bray about such irregularities in articles published in Western financial media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal or use lawsuits to shame the target company managers. Political lobbying was another weapon Browder did not hesitate to use.

HCM’s fortunes took a turn in 2005 when Browder found himself barred from entering Russia on the grounds of “national security”. Initially supportive of Russia, Browder soon turned against Moscow as HCM became the subject of tax evasion probes and government raids on its offices. In following years, Russian police came across a network of various companies based in odd parts of Russia (Kalmykia near the Caucasus being one such place) through which HCM operated. These companies employed mentally and physically disabled people as financial advisors to exploit a loophole in Russia’s taxation system so as to claim tax rebates. This harebrained scheme was the brainchild of the Firestone Duncan accountant / auditor Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky’s subsequent imprisonment and later death from undiagnosed heart disease or a chronic pancreatic condition (I’m not sure which) while in prison received a great deal of publicity and media attention in the West as an example of Russia’s treatment of political prisoners. Magnitsky’s purported ill treatment was one of a number of issues the United States government flagged as a stick with which to beat and taunt Russia, and an example to sell to a gullible news media and its audience as “proof” of the authoritarian and repressive police-state nature of Russia since Vladimir Putin came to power as President in 2000 and set the country on an independent political and economic course that greatly displeased the US. Among other things, the United States government drew up and approved the so-called Magnitsky blacklist of Russian politicians, business people and other prominent figures who could not enter mainland US territory and whose financial assets in the US, if they had any, were frozen.

As there is such a huge disparity between what Browder claims the Russian government did to bring down HCM and Magnitsky, and what government investigators say they found, and given that investing in Russian companies during the 1990s and the early 2000s was a complicated business even at the best of times when the country’s financial markets were unstable and financial regulatory laws and institutions poorly developed – and the country’s assets were being seized by foreigners like Browder, HCM and Firestone Duncan – a documentary like “Exposing Browder” is very welcome to help viewers try to understand something of what happened and why the example of Browder and HCM and what they did in Russia in stripping the country’s assets and engaging in tax fraud and evasion on an outrageous scale is so important. There is no little irony in the fact that the grandson of a former Communist Party office-bearer in the US should have become the very exemplar of a predatory self-interested capitalist investor who got to the top in that supposedly time-honoured American tradition of striking out on his own, taking major risks, riding out the bad times, reaping benefits in the good times and presenting as a heroic white knight uncovering and reporting corruption and criminal activity.

It is a pity then that the documentary seems rather rushed in its English translation and looks quite slapdash in its breathless presentation. The film was made for TV as part of a current affairs program and should be appreciated in that light. It follows Browder’s career as an investment consultant and manager in the developing financial market in Russia after the country adopted free market principles in running its economy during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Being a Russian-made documentary, the viewpoint understandably is aligned with that of the Russian government and investigators against Browder. It makes no apologies for being partial. There is plenty of detail and viewers may need to see this film a few times to understand the scale of Browder’s underhand activities.

The second half of the film deals with Sergei Magnitsky and his involvement with Browder and Firestone Duncan, how his collusion in tax fraud led to his imprisonment and death, and the way in which the last years of his life have become politicised and exploited by others, Browder most of all. Though what he did merited serious jail-time, Magnitsky emerges as a pathetic figure. While prisons in Russia are not lovely places to be in, and the medical treatment Magnitsky received from prison doctors speaks of their incompetence and indifference to his plight, his death from heart failure is eerie in that he was one of several people associated with Browder who met mysterious deaths from heart disease and other strange causes. The film makes a case that Magnitsky remained loyal to Browder to the end and counted on the American to get him out of jail. After his death, Browder used Magnitsky’s treatment and death as a stick to continually beat the Russian government, slandering various government officials and lobbying the US government to slap travel bans, asset freezes and other punishments against Russian politicians and civil servants.

The last few minutes are a revelation in which the value of Browder and the Magnitsky List to the US government’s agenda against Russia, and the propaganda potential that can be milked from it to convince Western audiences and Russians opposed to Vladimir Putin and Moscow (whether they are genuine oppositionists or those liberal oppositionists funded by US agencies) that Russia is an authoritarian police state hell bent on persecuting individuals, is spelled out. As of this time of writing, Browder is protected by the United Kingdom from arrest by Russian authorities for tax fraud and tax evasion. He is currently working towards convincing the European Community into adopting its own version of the Magnitsky List to further damage Russian financial and other interests in European Community member countries (especially Cyprus). The feeling that Browder may be acting as an agent provocateur and spy on behalf of the UK and US governments is hard to shake off. Why have so many individuals close to Browder, HCM and Firestone Duncan died in mysterious circumstances nearly all at once? How did Browder manage to convince the US government into passing bans and restrictions against Russia and Russian individuals despite his having renounced US citizenship?

With all its faults, the documentary is an excellent introduction into the complexities of the tax fraud / tax evasion affair of Bill Browder, HCM, Firestone Duncan and Sergei Magnitsky from the Russian point of view.