Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital): challenging beliefs and misconceptions about hospitals and medical treatments

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital)” (2017)

Hosted by eponymous comedian and writer Adam Conover, “Adam Ruins Everything” is a comedy / education TV series that aims to challenge commonly held beliefs and misconceptions about many aspects of everyday life, in particular the everyday goods and services that people take for granted. In this episode, Adam visits Rachel (Melissa Tang) who has arrived in a hospital to get treatment for a head cold and perhaps get her mammogram done. In a relentlessly cheery fashion, Adam helpfully informs Rachel (and the show’s intended US target audience) how and why inflated hospital costs have led to medical care being out of reach for the majority of Americans, with the poor being hit the hardest of course, why antibiotics are not as effective as they used to be and may in fact be worthless, and that mammograms have been oversold to women fearful about their health with consequences that may actually be as harmful (if not more harmful) than breast cancer itself.

Potentially the most interesting part of the episode is the chat about ascending hospital costs and how hospitals determine the cost of medical (including surgical) procedures to patients. Most US hospitals refer to chargemasters (often their own) which are lists of medical items billable to patients or their health insurance funds. The prices of items are usually inflated way beyond what their actual cost so that hospitals can offer “discounts” to patients who belong to certain health funds. In addition, wealthy patients or insured patients can bargain down the cost of an item with hospital administration staff while the poor or uninsured patients have to pay full prices. Disturbingly, in most US states (apart from Maryland) hospitals can set their own chargemasters and there is often no regulatory authority that would oversee chargemasters and force hospitals and other medical treatment centres to make these publicly available so that people can shop around and make price comparisons. Unfortunately the swift pace of the episode means that the issue of escalating hospital costs can lose viewers if they happen to look away for a few seconds, and the treatment of the issue looks a little superficial. I’m sure also most viewers would have wanted to know how this state of affairs came about and who was / were responsible for this shambles.

The issue of declining antibiotic effectiveness is crisply well done with animation demonstrating how bacteria can become resistant over time to antibiotics. Once again though, there’s not much on how people themselves can ensure antibiotics are not abused (by feeding them to farm animals whose meat ends up in butcher shops and delicatessans) at a personal level such as washing one’s hands thoroughly and not overusing anti-bacterial soaps and handwash, or at a community level by protesting the use of antibiotics meant for humans in commercial agriculture.

Finally the question of how effective mammograms really are in detecting breast cancer in women before they notice symptoms comes in with an interview with Dr Joann Elmore who explains that there’s not much statistical difference between the number of women who discover they have breast cancer through mammograms and the number who find their breast cancer without the help of mammograms. She also explains that breast cancer cells may behave very differently, some being more aggressive than others. There is the possibility that some women may be diagnosed with breast cancer via mammogram who do not actually have the disease or have a slow-growing cancer, and can end up subjected to major medical procedures that are completely unnecessary and which could jeopardise patients’ long-term health.

The information is delivered in a fun way with slapstick and serious medical advice given equal time. With his surf-wave haircut, guileless manner and a mouth that never stops moving, Adam ploughs through three quite meaty medical issues with a raging and sneezing Rachel in tow. I’d have liked the episode to be a bit longer – another 15 minutes please? – with more information on how the US has ended up spending more on per capita healthcare costs than any other First World country. Yet Americans seem no healthier than other First World nations and could possibly be some of the least healthy people on Earth. The connection between excessive per capital healthcare costs and American’s decreasing well-being certainly merits attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm: a sketchy report on the insidious effects of US military activity on a South Korean village and farming region

Yoichi Shimatsu, “US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm (Lens.tv Report: THAAD Deployment in South Korea)” (2017)

Structured as a news report rather than as a documentary, this item by investigative reporter (and former Japan Times Weekly editor) Yoichi Shimatsu focuses on the effects of an American missile base deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile defence system on an agricultural region centred around the village of Seongju in southeast South Korea. According to THAAD’s Wikipedia entry, the system is “designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach”. One presumes THAAD has been deployed in South Korea to protect that country from inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads from North Korea.

Shimatsu and his cameraman travel to Seongju where he meets protesters who tell him they have been protesting against the missile base since July 2016 when it was established. A local person called Kang (who turns out to be a Buddhist monk) takes Shimatsu’s crew to Bodhidharma mountain, named after the founder of Zen Buddhism, where they survey the missile base and take photographs. Shimatsu identifies a Patriot launch vehicle, part of the Patriot system which targets low-flying intermediate-range missiles that the THAAD system does not target. To Shimatsu, the deployment of the Patriot system at the Seongju missile base suggests that the US intends to use the base as part of an offensive attack against North Korea, and possibly China and Russia, and is not intended solely to defend South Korea against North Korean nuclear attack.

Shimatsu and Kang also discuss the strong electricity vibrations being generated in the missile base for the radar unit there and the effect of these vibrations through the mountains on the growth and development of the area’s fruits, vegetables and flowers. Shimatsu later interviews a young university student who tells him that flowers have stopped growing and that produce has dwindled since the missile base was established.

Not much background context is provided in this 12-minute video and viewers need to do their own research on why and how Seongju came to host the missile base – the luxury golf resort at the missile base was the conduit by which the US military obtained access to the real estate at Bodhidharma Mountain and converted it into a military site – under the auspices of former South Korean President Park Geunhye, daughter of the notorious dictator president Park Chunghee (1961 – 1979) who was impeached in early 2017 for corruption linked to her aide Choi Soonsil. There is scanty explanation on how the strong electricity and electromagnetic vibrations from the missile base could be affecting vegetation and people’s health, and if the video had been a bit longer and its budget bigger, an animation or diagram explaining the possible origin of the vibrations and how they are linked to the activities at the base could have been useful.

The most useful aspect of the report is as a wake-up call to communities around the world contemplating hosting military bases for the US, and the consequences these may have for the communities, their economies and their natural environments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosie Jones, “The Family” (2016)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dylan McDonald, “Buckskin” (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

Eva Orner, “Chasing Asylum” (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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