A celebration of a major art and social utopian movement in “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus”

Niels Bolbringer and Thomas Tielsch, “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus” (2018)

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the artistic / aesthetic movement by Walter Gropius in Weimar-era Germany, this documentary explores both the history and the impact of the movement on art, music and dance, interior design, architecture and urban planning over the decades. The Bauhaus movement was born in a school with the aim of creating a new type of society, one that stressed the full development of the human individual’s physical, mental and artistic capacities in a socially conscious collective environment. Through such development, the ills of early 20th-century Western society that had led to global war, poverty and inequality could be eliminated and a new, better society could result. Artists and intellectuals from across Europe came to study or to teach at the school. The school barely survived the Great Depression and the collapse of Weimar Germany before being shut down by the Nazi Germany, its teachers and students forced to flee overseas.

The early history of the Bauhaus school and movement zips by somewhat confusingly, flitting from dance to painting and to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s works and vision – Le Corbusier was not really part of the Bauhaus movement so why the film devotes so much attention to him is puzzling – and viewers can easily get lost in the slew of images and information that whiz by. It’s only once the film starts exploring the Bauhaus impact on architecture, furniture and interior design, and urban planning in Germany and the poor neighbourhoods, known as barrios, of Medellin in Colombia that it becomes focused and its aim of revitalising Bauhaus as an inclusive social utopian movement becomes apparent.

The best part of the documentary is when it shifts to those barrios and the architects bringing Bauhaus principles to the people there analyse the needs of the people living in the slums and adapt the Bauhaus vision to fulfilling those needs. In bringing a communal gym to one slum neighbourhood – which also does multiple duty as a meeting place, child care centre and more besides – the architects encourage a sense of community among the slum dwellers who in turn come to identify more and more with their neighbourhoods and are prepared to support and defend them. The architects look at the issue of transport within overcrowded barrios climbing up the sides of hills and mountains, and come up with the brainwave of building escalators and a cable car system that take commuters up and down hills with minimal disruption to communities and an efficient use of the available land. The added bonus of the cable car system is that it is fun to ride and affords riders incredible views of Medellin and the surrounding mountains.

The Bauhaus approach is contrasted with other rational approaches to urban planning in Paris (here is where Le Corbusier has been influential) which have resulted in a very divided city where the more pleasant (and tourist-oriented) areas are in the middle, industry is banished to one side and housing estates into which immigrants from all corners of the globe have been tossed together with no thought as to how they’ll all get along spread endlessly outside the city with inadequate and inefficient public transport links to the industrial areas where they have to work. Many of the social problems that bedevil France – the annual youth riots in summer, the isolation and alienation of migrant youngsters that encourage their radicalisation by terror organisations – surely have their origins in this form of urban planning. The Bauhaus vision on the other hand is to work with the people and their needs, and the limitations of the physical and social environment in which the people live, and create and develop solutions particular to that context; as a result, no two communities where Bauhaus principles have informed their planning will be the same.

Unfortunately the film says nothing about how and why the Bauhaus movement declined in influence in the later half of the 20th century; surely that decline coincided with significant political, economic and social trends during that period. The movement’s utopian ideals would surely have clashed with the aims of neoliberal capitalism across most parts of the world. The film’s failure to locate the Bauhaus movement, its aims and aesthetic ideals within the political, social and economic ideologies prevailing across the world most certainly accounts for why the documentary seems vague on the Bauhaus movement’s later history.

The Untold Story – “Korean Empire”: a testament to Korean determination in reclaiming lost history

Park Jeong-woo and Park Hee-joo, “The Untold Story – ‘Korean Empire’ ” (Arirang TV, 2013)

A symbol of the Korean people’s desire for freedom and independence and their first contacts with the West of their own initiative in the late 19th century, the Korea Legation Building at Logan Circle in Washington DC was for a long time lost to Koreans as their embassy in the United States from 1910 to 2012. Built in 1877, the building was purchased by the Joseon kingdom then ruling Korea in 1891 to be used as its embassy in dealing with the United States. At the time, King Gojong had ambitions and plans for modernising Korea along Western lines, against the objections of his Qing Chinese overlords. Unfortunately, geopolitical events beyond the Joseon kingdom / later Korean empire’s control led to the building passing under Japanese control in 1905, after that nation defeated China and then Russia in two wars. Japan later sold the building in 1910 for $10, having bought it from Korea for $5: an insulting gesture to the Koreans if ever there was one. Through the efforts of the Korean-American community in raising the money to purchase the building and keeping the issue alive among their own members, the Legation Building was finally relocated with the help of the US National Archives and bought back by the Koreans in 2012, with the intention of using it as a cultural and educational centre.

Using archived photographs and animation (often in combination) and interviews with Korean-American academics and Korean diplomats, the documentary is a handsome and highly visual presentation of a little known period in Korea’s history when the Joseon kingdom declared itself independent of China in 1897, with King Gojong as its first emperor, and attempted to conduct its own diplomacy with the West free from interference from China, Japan and Russia. However – and the film does not make this very clear – the Koreans may have put too much faith in the United States as a trustworthy ally: while the documentary acknowledges that President Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century saw Japan as much more important and modern than Korea, it is silent on American ambitions to be a dominant power in the affairs of East Asia and how the US co-operated with Japan, looking away when that nation occupied Korea and made it a colony. The film also treats much subsequent Korean history from the early 1900s on in a superficial way. Nothing is said of what happened to King Gojong and his son Prince Sunjong after their empire is gobbled up by Japan, and some viewers may find this omission a major fault of the documentary.

By making a film about the Korea Legation Building and its complicated history, Arirang TV pays tribute to the people who tirelessly sought to locate it and try to buy it back. The film’s narrative demonstrates the determination of the Korean people to remember and reclaim a vital part of their history as an independent nation navigating its way through a treacherous and dark period in its life.

Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria: where the mundane becomes exotic in a real country not supposed to exist

“Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria” (Bald and Bankrupt, 2019)

During his travels in Moldova in early 2019, the English vlogger known as Bald and Bankrupt (Arthur Chichester to his bank manager) is intrigued that apparent breakaway state Transnistria (known as Pridnestrovie to its people) boasts its own government, armed forces and national emblems, yet is unrecognised by the United Nations and the European Union. BB drives off to Tiraspol and Bendery where he finds both cities rather dowdy and a bit quaint and eccentric in appearance and presentation, but certainly nowhere near as decrepit and dejected as Kishinev. He steps into various shops, cafes and restaurants to chat to people and finds that not only are they happy to talk about their lives, they also take pride in being part of a nation that everyone else in the world politely ignores. Moreover, they revel in their Soviet heritage even though they know that that part of their history will never return.

In his quest to imagine the Soviet past, BB goes out of his way to visit a forlorn and derelict fairground where he goes for a pendulum-type ride on one of the aged and rusty fairground rides. Simulating the machines on which Soviet cosmonauts trained for trips into space, the contraption spins him round and round on an axle that also turns upright, spinning BB on a vertical plane. Good thing BB is bald or his hair would have transformed into a brilliant shock of white! After the ride, our host is all smarmy “it didn’t scare me” and thanks the elderly woman who sent him on the wildest ride of his life.

For quieter stimulation, BB goes into a worker’s cafe that has barely changed over the last half-century or so and eats a homely lunch of borsch, salad and fruit juice. Feeling well nourished, he trots off to a bookshop where he is amazed to see the lady in charge use an abacus instead of a cash register or a calculator to work out his change.

Armed with his selfie stick and mobile phone, filming as he goes, BB’s film, like his other films on Moldova that I have seen so far, immerses the viewer in ordinary everyday incidents that together make up an exotic adventure in the places where he travels. The mundane becomes unique and coming across ordinary babushkas shopping for groceries to prepare paskha cakes for Easter with wonky carriers turns into an opportunity to broaden and educate one’s mind on foreign culture and customs. Every time BB takes a step somewhere, a new adventure seems to beckon. Along the way, BB treats his hosts with dignity and respect and they readily warm to him and open up with personal stories, information and recommendations on where to go next.

Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why: a UK tourist finds out why in the ruin and decay of Kishinev

“Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why” (Bald and Bankrupt, April 2019)

Bald and Bankrupt is the nom de plume of an English traveller who makes short videos of his travels to little-known and neglected parts of the world for his Youtube channel of the same name. The fellow certainly is bald but bankrupt in generosity and conviviality he most certainly is not. This video which he filmed himself on his mobile phone was taken during a trip to Chishinau (I prefer using the old Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, a country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine in southeastern Europe bordering the Balkan region. Initially Bald and Bankrupt – we’ll call him BB for the sake of convenience – visited Moldova on a jokey trip as he had heard that the country was the least visited place in Europe and that fewer people visit Moldova in a year than visit his local Tesco store every day!

In the space of just over 16 minutes of edited footage taken on his mobile phone, BB reveals the alarming extent of the neglect of public facilities in Kishinev: stairs leading from the street into the graffiti-covered tunnels to the subway are broken and dangerous to use, the wheelchair access is unusable; a large hotel is derelict and its fountain is empty save for rubbish; an observatory is falling into ruin. BB talks to pensioners in the streets and all independently agree that life under the Soviet Union before 1991 was better and cheaper.

Walking around city neighbourhoods, BB sees some election posters and reels off the names of various politicians and describes them as thieves or embezzlers. He sees pensioners selling personal possessions on the street and is shocked to see an advertisement from someone willing to buy people’s hair: a sure sign that people are desperate and will sell anything of theirs to supplement meagre incomes and buy food. BB mentions that pensioners are paid 40 euros every month.

At the end of his video, BB tells viewers something of what Moldova was like when it was part of the USSR: it was a holiday destination for Soviet tourists, it offered a good life for its citizens. Since independence, the country has been ruled by corrupt oligarch politicians who have looted the national wealth and impoverished the citizenry, even though it is supposedly moving closer to the European Union which is dangling the prospect of EU membership and a surefire path to the sort of prosperity that countries like Latvia and Lithuania are currently enjoying … not.

BB is a likeable narrator, very knowledgeable about Moldova’s politics and history, who resembles fellow Brit, the journalist Graham Phillips who himself fearlessly sallies into countries that mainstream Western news media would rather not know about, in appearance and open manner. His video on Kishinev is the first of a number of videos on life in Moldova.

An entertaining introduction to a remote country in “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos”

Masaman, “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos” (2018)

In an entertaining short film of just under 13 minutes, viewers are treated to a fascinating survey of one of Latin America’s least known yet quirkiest countries. Founded by Jesuit priests who established missions in the country to convert the indigenous Guarani-speaking people to Catholicism and to teach them farming and submission to the Spanish crown, Paraguay has a culture with a definite Hispanic foundation and flavour but its people (mostly of European descent) speak two languages, Guarani and Spanish. Being a country of the sub-tropical savanna interior with no sea-coast, Paraguay initially was part of the Spanish-American empire’s Viceroyalty of Peru with its capital in Lima, before coming under the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata with its capital in Buenos Aires.

Gaining independence in 1811, Paraguay came under the rule of dictators, starting with Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia who destroyed the power of the old Spanish elites and created a communal society under conditions of political isolation from other countries. Francia forbade the elites from marrying only among themselves, forcing them to marry local people, and the country became self-sufficient in foodstuffs and manufacturing. Carlos Antonio Lopez succeeded Francia as dictator and ran the country as his personal kingdom though also continuing its economic development. Lopez was followed by his son Francisco Solano Lopez whose ambitions brought Paraguay into a war against its neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1860s, a war that utterly destroyed the country, killing 70 – 90% of its adult male population and completely ruining its society and economy. The occupying victors carved out choice territories and reduced Paraguay to its current small size. After foreign occupation ended in the late 1870s, Paraguay tried to rebuild its population by inviting migrants across the world to establish settlements: hence, a number of utopian and sometimes experimental socialist settlements were set up by migrants from Australia and migrants from Germany led by Elizabeth Nietzsche (the racist sister of Friedrich Nietzsche) and her husband among others.

The film does a good job tying such quirky facts as a mostly European people speaking a native American language, the extreme shortage of adult men in Paraguay in the late 1800s and Paraguay’s reputation for odd (and slightly sinister) utopian colonies together to the country’s unusual history and how that history was influenced by its geography, its lack of a coast-line and the original peoples of the area watered by the Parana River and its tributaries. After the late 1800s, the film more or less neglects Paraguay’s history and recovery after the devastating wars of the 1860s, and how that recovery impeded its political and economic evolution. Not much is said about how Britain viewed Paraguay as a threat to its economic domination of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil through its investments in land and railway construction, and furnished those countries with money and armaments. (Can’t Perfidious Albion keep its nose out of other countries’ affairs?!)

The film uses maps, historical materials and photographs of city and farm life to create an attractive tapestry celebrating the country’s people, and their languages, culture, history and diverse origins. There isn’t much information given about the country’s contemporary politics or its current state of development; one would love to know how it compares with its neighbours in economic development and the standard of living enjoyed by its citizens. Needless to say, there’s nothing about what Paraguayans think of their country’s future prospects. The film serves as a good general introduction to a country as existentially isolated from the rest of the world as it is physically.

Biological Weapons & Experimentation on Humans (Frank Olson): echoes of 1953 death of CIA scientist still reverberating today

Egmont R Koch and Michael Wech, “Biological Weapons & Experimentation on Humans (Frank Olson)” (2002)

Recent news of the death of Chinese physicist Zhang Shoucheng, supposedly through suicide by falling from a building, on 1 December 2018, the same day Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecommunications / electronics company Huawei, was arrested by Canadian authorities in Vancouver at the bequest of the United States on vague charges jogged my memory of having read about the death of a CIA scientist more than a century ago in similar circumstances. (Zhang was supposed to have attended a dinner with Meng at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.) I had forgotten the name of the CIA scientist but remembered he had been drugged with LSD by fellow CIA researchers without his consent some time before his death. Armed with those details, I did a search on DuckDuckGo and Google and very quickly found what I wanted: information on the death of Frank Olson in November, 1953, in circumstances eerily similar to those in which Zhang died – in Olson’s case, falling through a window on the 13th floor of a New York City hotel and onto the pavement below.

More than 20 years later, in 1975 the Rockefeller Commission released some of the details of the CIA’s notorious MKUltra project, a series of experiments aimed at mental manipulation of human subjects to weaken their resistance to questioning, and the US government admitted that Frank Olson had been doped with LSD. The Olson family pushed to sue the CIA; instead the US government offered them $750,000 and the then President Gerald Ford and the CIA apologised to them. In 1993, Frank Olson’s body was exhumed and an autopsy (the second one done on him; the first had been done soon after his death) determined that, in contrast to the results of the first autopsy, no cuts were present but instead Olson’s head and chest had suffered blunt-force trauma severe enough to have killed him before his body was tipped through the window. In 1997, the CIA inadvertently declassified the 1953 edition of its notorious assassination manual which, among other things, suggested that … The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface …In chase cases it will usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him …”. With this information, the Olson family sued the CIA in 2012, without success.

Koch and Wech’s documentary investigates the circumstances in which Dr Olson was drugged and killed, and traces his career as a biological researcher at the US Army Biological Warfare Laboratories and then with the CIA. This work took him through some very murky activities with both employers: Olson worked on the US bio-weapons program, experimenting with anthrax among other disease-causing agents, and later was drawn into the CIA’s Project Artichoke program (which investigated interrogation methods that could force people to confess and which included the use of LSD, forced morphine addiction and withdrawal, and hypnosis) and Project MKUltra. Olson became troubled by the direction the research was going into – the research included drugging people and subjecting them to painful physical and psychological torture – and wanted out. His superiors realised he had become a security risk and plotted to get rid of him. The film then starts to jump back and forth between 1953 and 1993, comparing the results of the second autopsy with those of the first, and discrepancies between them being observed. The film details Olson’s last overseas trip to Berlin where he appears to have done some private research on past CIA activities in Germany during World War II and Soviet methods of interrogation. This trip took place against the background of the Korean War, during which the CIA tortured POWs by injecting or threatening to inject anthrax – the very bacterium Olson had experimented on years before – into them. From this point on, the documentary follows the way in which the US government continued (and still continues) to lie about Olson’s death and avoid admitting responsibility and paying proper compensation to his family.

If one compares the circumstances surrounding Zhang Shoucheng’s death – like Olson’s death, also recorded as a suicide caused in large part by depression (which in Olson’s case could have been brought on by LSD ingestion) – one finds they are also quite suspicious. A tenured physics professor at Stanford University, Zhang was noted for his work in quantum physics (with applications for the global semiconductor industry) and was predicted by some to be a future Nobel Physics Prize laureate. He was also a founder of Danhua Capital aka Digital Horizon Capital, a venture capital fund investing in early-stage and growth-stage technology start-ups in Silicon Valley. Danhua Capital itself is funded by Zhangguancun Development Group, an entity owned by the Chinese government which invests in technology innovations. This background and connection to the Chinese government might have been enough to put Zhang onto the radar of a US government agency suspicious of any secret  Chinese attempts, whether real or imaginary, to steal American cyber-knowledge and codes and transfer these to China through Chinese nationals like Zhang working and teaching in the US.

At the same time, the US government is irked that Huawei, being based in China rather than the US, is less amenable to communications ranging from suggestions to requests to threats that it allow US intel and military agencies to gain access into the software in the IT equipment it sells to gather information that could be later used by the Americans to blackmail people or generate disinformation. To this end, the US has persuaded its Five Eyes partners Australia and New Zealand, and Japan as well, to ban Huawei from supplying equipment for their 5G mobile networks. With Canada now having arrested Meng on charges relating to Huawei trading with Iran (under US economic sanctions), one expects that she will be used as a hostage in China-US trade talks by the US to pressure China to force Huawei into accepting back-door links into its equipment. Such extraordinary behaviour is the kind of sordid horse-trading expected of head-chopping takfiris terrorising civilians in parts of the Middle East.

Incidentally on the same day that Meng was arrested and Zhang died, a factory owned by Dutch tech company ASML, specialising in extreme ultraviolet lithography technology (used in the production of the next generation of semiconductors by Chinese, US and South Korean tech manufacturers), caught fire. This led to ASML advising of delays in supplying this technology to its customers in early 2019. One of these customers is semiconductor maker SMIC which is partnered with Huawei, Qualcomm and Belgian company IMEC to build China’s most advanced integrated circuit research and development programme.

The very strange occurrence of three seemingly unrelated incidents, their connections only becoming clear once the background context to them becomes known, on the same day, and one of these incidents bearing an uncanny resemblance to a death whose causes are still unsolved 65 years after it occurred, is sure to spark off conspiracy theories speculating on who or what may be responsible for them. It is likely that just as Frank Olson’s death continues to be the subject of controversy and his family continues to struggle for justice and closure, so too Zhang Shoucheng’s death will be shrouded in speculation and disinformation. The consequences of what transpired on 1 December 2018 are likely to be very far-reaching, not least because Meng’s arrest alone raises issues of sovereignty for the Five Eyes Anglocentric nations and their ability to control their own political, economic and other relationships with other countries and foreign entities without interference from a third party. Citizens from China, Russia or from any other country with which the US has poor relations or which has been targeted for regime change, will certainly think twice about visiting Canada, Australia or any of the other Five Eyes nations, or indeed any other Western nation; and employers may consider seriously taking away their business from those countries where their employees could be arrested, imprisoned and extradited to the US on false charges.

Servant or Slave: how Aboriginal people were exploited for their labour in conditions of virtual slavery

Steven McGregor, “Servant or Slave” (2017)

Few Australians have very little appreciation of the apartheid-style society that exploited Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and even Melanesians imported from abroad for their labour to clear land for pasture and plantation crops like sugar cane, establishing in the process the foundation for Australia’s agricultural wealth. But to understand how generations of Aboriginal children were taken away from their families for most of the 20th century, put into institutions that trained them to perform menial work or heavy labouring jobs for very little money (or even none), and how not just their employers but also Australian federal and state governments and their agencies benefited from such an institutional phenomenon, we need to know the social, political and economic context, and the ideology underpinning this context. The fact is that the Australian nation was founded on the exploitation of its resources – land, water, plants and animals, and ultimately even its native peoples – along with the exploitation of the convicts, migrants and others who came to the country after European settlement began in 1788, for geopolitical reasons that favoured a small English (and later British) elite. This exploitation was part of a vast imperial structure that encompassed lands in several continents (notably in Africa and southern Asia) and impoverished millions, destroyed their cultures and traditions, forced them to work and even to fight for their colonial masters in wars in distant countries, and allowed them to starve during periods of famine.

The value of “Servant or Slave” is not just to document how thousands of Aboriginal girls and young women were kidnapped or taken from their families and forced into institutions by the Australian government that trained them for domestic service, but to show how this arrangement was deeply embedded in Australian society and how the exploitation of Aboriginal people’s labour, through domestic service and other forms of employment, benefited the government and the people and companies who employed Aboriginal people in menial jobs or heavy physical work. The five indigenous women sharing their stories of how they were kidnapped by government agents from their families, put into institutions where they were beaten, sexually abused, brainwashed into believing they were inferior and taught not to trust their own people, and then later employed as full-time housekeepers, maids and unpaid baby-sitters, are very brave in reliving their experiences and traumas in interviews. They speak of the long-term psychological traumas and other harms they and their families (both their birth families and the families they later had themselves) suffered. These women’s experiences were typical of the experiences other Aboriginal girls (and even boys) had to undergo. Through interviews with historians and academics, we learn that Aboriginal people were never adequately paid for the work they did as domestic servants or rural agricultural workers and that as a result they could not amass and pass on any material wealth to their children and grandchildren, which helps to explain why so many Aboriginal families in many parts of Australia still live in poverty. Even more horrifying is news that the money that should have been paid to Aboriginal workers was instead used to fund even more predation of Aboriginal children and to support the institutions that trained them for lives of servitude.

The documentary uses re-enactments of the interviewees’ experiences to emphasise the fear they felt, their desperation and their isolation from help. While the re-enactments are tastefully done and are even poetic in style, they do tend to distance the audience from what is being shown on screen and don’t fully convey the horror of the abuse being portrayed or the victims’ immense suffering.

While the women interviewed reveal strength, determination and even pride that they endured such dreadful lives, and managed to find love through their children and grandchildren, the documentary ends on a fairly pessimistic note in observing that the monies owed to generations of Aboriginal people for their labour have either not been paid at all or are being dished out to them in ways and under conditions that are highly insulting and patronising towards them. It seems that the exploitative mind-set and ideology that dominated whitefella thinking and behaviour towards Aboriginal people from the mid-nineteenth century on still infects Australian politicians and bureaucrats, and still influences federal and state government policies that affect indigenous people’s lives. As Australia continues to follow the United States, Britain and other Western capitalist nations on a downward trajectory into more economic austerity, greater social inequality, lower standards of living and more financial and economic instability, the situation for Aboriginal people as a highly vulnerable group is likely to get worse.

Additional material that was not included in the original documentary focuses on the colonial exploitation of Melanesian people from the Solomon Islands and other Pacific island nations from the late nineteenth century as indentured labourers in sugar cane plantations in Queensland and other rural work that required much physical exertion in hot tropical or semi-tropical conditions.

A narrow, personal focus in “The Tsar and Empress: Secret Letters” does little justice to two ill-fated personalities of Russian history

“The Tsar and Empress: Secret Letters” (2017)

A lavish two-part series revolving around the letters that Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra, this documentary explores the theme of how two individuals’ love for each other is so consuming that they end up isolating themselves from everyday affairs and in so doing, condemn themselves and their children to untimely (and brutally violent) deaths and the Russian empire to instability and chaos. While this series can be highly informative about the Romanov couple and the people associated with them (notably the self-proclaimed holy man and mystic Grigory Rasputin), it is weak in placing them in the wider political context of the last decades of Imperial Russia, and in the relationship of the position of tsar and the Russian imperial family in the empire’s politics and society. Anyone wanting to know more about how the last tsar and tsarina were so unsuited for the roles they inherited and should have been prepared for, and how Russian society changed so much in the late 19th century that it left imperial political institutions behind in the dust – leaving Nicholas II and Alexandra even more superfluous – will be left wanting by this series, in some ways as much divorced from the wider political historical context of Imperial Russia as the hapless last Romanov emperor and his family were.

Narrator historian Suzannah Lipscomb, cutting an unforgettably glamorous figure with flowing wavy blonde locks and fur-collared scarlet jacket, does a capable job investigating the private lives of the tsar and tsarina from the time they meet in 1884 all the way to their awful deaths in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Lipscomb is aided by other historians who emphasise the characters of both Nicholas II and Alexandra as instrumental to their relationship, which seems at times to have been quite shallow in its constant and almost suffocating infatuation, even given the fact that at the time people writing personal letters to each other could be melodramatic in expression, and in particular their beliefs and weaknesses which made them unpopular with most sections of Russian society. Nicholas II seems to have been easily dominated by Alexandra, a strong, forceful but credulous woman; he clearly was not born to be a leader, much less a leader of one of the world’s largest empires and one undergoing vast social changes that were bound to generate unrest and desire for political, economic and social reforms among the people and in turn place great political pressures on the Imperial government and on Nicholas II himself, in particular on his choice of ministers and other advisors. In this, the tsar made disastrous choices in relying on his wife and the most senior ministers such as Plehve and Pobedonostsev who met public demands for political reform with repression and violence.

The documentary’s narrative style is restrained in contrast to the romantic melodrama of the Tsar and his wife’s letters, several of which are read out by off-screen voice actors. The characters of Nicholas II and Alexandra alone suffice to convey the autocratic and introverted character of the Russian monarchy and its remoteness from most of contemporary Russian society at the time. Surprisingly there is very little information about how the couple brought up their children, apart from the understandably close and often obsessive attention Alexandra gave to Alexei, the only son and a haemophiliac to boot. Reading Internet sources enables one to discover that Nicholas II and Alexandra were devoted parents, in many ways even model and quite progressive parents, to their five children but one shouldn’t have had to trawl Google outside the documentary to find this information, given its subject matter and range.

Where the documentary really falls down though is in not considering how the backgrounds and education of the doomed Romanov couple contributed to their characters and the flaws in them, and how all these factors might have led to their unpopularity with the Russian people and their consequent withdrawal and isolation from society to focus obsessively on their relationship and their children. Alexandra’s reliance on Rasputin says much about the couple’s lack of education, their naivety and inability to cope with the pressures and expectations imposed on them by the institution of monarchy and the competing forces of modernisation in Russian society. In some ways, Nicholas II and Alexandra are not to be faulted for having been brought up by their respective families to have a conservative view of monarchy and its role in society, and of their particular roles as Tsar and Tsarina, divinely appointed to ensure stability and to lead and guide the Russian people, gently at times but firmly – very firmly, to the extent of using punishment and violence – away from modern attitudes and demands for democracy and reform. Had the documentary laid more emphasis on the conflicting social and political demands made on the last Romanov emperor and his wife, viewers might come away with a more sympathetic opinion of them.

Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda: the history and nature of a long-running hybrid war for a nation’s oil resources

Hernando Calvo Ospina, “Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda / Venezuela, la Oscura Causa” (2017)

A very informative documentary, “Venezuela …” reveals the true nature of the war being waged against the South American country, currently one of the richest in accessible oil reserves in the world, by the United States and its allies: this war is a brutal one with roots going as far back as the early 20th century, when the then First Lord of the Admiralty in the British Empire, Winston Churchill (yes, that Winston Churchill), made the decision to convert all British warships from running on coal to oil – enabling the ships to accelerate more rapidly and run faster on fewer boilers – and thus made oil the most valuable, most desired commodity on Earth. The US-led war on Venezuela has been constant: it has not always been a hot war in the form of coups against legitimately elected governments leading to repressive dictatorships but it has been a war waged on several fronts – politically, economically and psychologically.

Wisely Calvo and his film crew allow his interviewees, several of them experts in domestic and international politics, the economy and Venezuelan history, to present the way in which this war has proceeded and continues to proceed on these fronts. Journalist Patricia Villega in particular describes how the political opposition, aided and abetted by the US, not only refuses to accept the results of presidential and parliamentary elections when these do not go in its favour but also stages protests and demonstrations in which they denounce and demand the resignation or overthrow of the legitimate government and resort to violence and arson at the first resort. Parallels between these actions and those of “demonstrators” in countries such as Ukraine (in Kiev in early 2014), in Syria (in Dar’aa in 2011) and Iran (in Mashhad and some other provincial cities in January 2018) are so close as to be eerie and to suggest that such actions emanate from a playbook or set of guidelines the “opposition” is urged or told to follow by unseen instigators. The economic war not only includes US trade sanctions against Venezuela – meaning that no country can trade with Venezuela for fear of US retaliation against it – but also the hoarding of staple foods and medicines by food importers and pharmaceutical companies which drive up the prices of these items out of reach of ordinary citizens, the aim of which is to foment unrest and dissatisfaction with government policies leading to protests which the political opposition can hijack (as was done in Syria in 2011) for its own purposes.

The film begins with a quick survey of Venezuelan-US relations from the early 20th century on, making very clear that US interest in meddling in Venezuela’s politics centres around the country’s oil and other energy resources. This survey segues into Hugo Chavez’s early attempt to enter politics (in a rather abrupt and dramatic manner in the form of a failed coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992) and his later presidency which then led (with his untimely death from cancer) to the current government of Nicolas Maduro. From there the film explores various aspects of the hybrid war the US wages on Venezuela: there is the economic war, expressed in trade sanctions and the hoarding actions of firms opposed to the governments of Presidents Chavez and Maduro, aimed at destabilising the economy and discrediting government policies; and there is also the propaganda war being carried out by local media companies, owned by private interests (some of which are allied to the political opposition), through TV, radio and print broadcasting. Foreign mainstream news media have also reported negatively on Chavez and Maduro’s styles of leadership, portraying them as authoritarian and repressive demagogues and damning their socialist policies and programs. From there, the role of Colombia as an ally of the US in destabilising Venezuela is briefly mentioned.

The film ends on a defiant note while treading a delicate line between trying to be optimistic and facing up to the likelihood that Venezuela will once again be steamrolled into submission by its more powerful and vicious neighbour to its north. That’s perhaps the most appropriate way to end its presentation, to rouse viewers to support Venezuela or at least believe that whatever happens to the country, its people will not give up hope of finally becoming free of all foreign interference.

Viewers who do not know much about Venezuela and who want to find more about why Chavez and Maduro have been demonised so much by the Western mainstream news media, and what they have been able to achieve in following a socialist path, need to do their own research as the film says very little about the Bolivarian revolutionary agenda and programs.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 9: Adam Ruins His Vacation): American history gets ruined in farcical retelling

Jeff Chan, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 9: Adam Ruins His Vacation)” (2017)

At last didactic comedian Adam Conover has something in common with most Americans: he’s unable to relax on vacation but, to the chagrin of new girlfriend Melinda (Punam Patel), keeps working and manages to demolish three cherished shibboleths most of his fellow US citizens hold about Mount Rushmore, poker machines and the history of how Hawaii came to be annexed by the United States. A pity though that the presentations of how the Mount Rushmore monument and Hawaii’s downfall from proud indigenous kingdom to an over-priced tourist destination turn out to be bizarrely camp and amateurish, as if even the producers  behind “Adam Ruins Everything” could barely bring themselves to treat these topics with the respect they deserve. Here is one episode where an animated treatment of two historical subjects would have worked better than two teams of hokey actors engaging in nonsense.

The episode goes as far as it dares in revealing that the Mount Rushmore monument was built on land stolen from the Dakota (formerly known as Sioux) nation after years of US army repression and genocide against it. The show also admits that President Theodore Roosevelt was included in the monument because he happened to be a close friend of the sculptor Gutzon Borglum. What the episode doesn’t say is that before working on the Mount Rushmore monument, Borglum had worked on Stone Mountain in Georgia state to create a monument to Confederate heroes that would have included an altar to the Ku Klux Klan and that Borglum himself had been a member of that organisation.

The segment on poker machines and how, thanks to a combination of computer digitisation and psychology, they are designed to keep players hooked on playing them for as long as possible is both informative and entertaining if at times a little disturbing. Even a hammy Patel can’t quite dispel the sinister implications behind slot machine addiction: if humans can be hooked onto pouring more of their hard-earned money into machines with a mix of intermittent reinforcement and mesmerising visual effects and ringing bells, what other machines could people be persuaded to attach themselves, limpet-like? Something like … a smartphone?

The story of how Hawaii was annexed by the United States ends up confused and shallow in its treatment, even with the addition of a university professor to supply details. American and European business classes supported a group of conspirators who deposed Queen Lili’uokalani, overthrew the monarchy and then sought annexation to the US in 1893. Some years passed, a change of government in Washington occurred and the Spanish-American War broke out before US Congress eventually passed legislation to annex Hawaii in 1898. The context of war encouraged many Americans to view Hawaii and Pearl Harbor in particular as an asset projecting American power into the Pacific region and shielding the US West Coast from invasion.

After an uneven and rather disappointing and shoddy presentation that did two of its three topics an injustice, no wonder Adam was feeling worn out and dejected. Someone please send him on another holiday, preferably in a place where the history is not so dark … but there are very few such locations in the world these days whose histories don’t involve groups stealing others’ lands and resources and turning the original owners into impoverished slaves through brutal violence and political, economic and social institutions that discriminate against them.