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.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 6: Adam Ruins What We Learned In School): throwing Christopher Columbus and King Tut under the Magic School Bus

Amy Winfrey, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 6: Adam Ruins What We Learned In School)” (2017)

In this completely animated episode, Adam Conover joins a teacher, her students and the Magic School Bus to dispel popular misconceptions about Christopher Columbus and the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen and to demonstrate that grammar rules are for the most part irrelevant and serving mainly as guides to facilitate communication between and across sub-cultures. Aimed at a teenage audience, the episode is streamlined into treating just three topics, one after the other, and compared to other “Adam Ruins Everything” episodes isn’t quite so hyperactive.

In the first part of the episode, Christopher Columbus is revealed as a far from benevolent character who “discovered” America – indeed he never even went near the mainland United States but landed instead on the territory of what’s now the Dominican Republic. There, believing he had reached India, he named the native Taino people Indians. Even then, Columbus didn’t show much respect for his hosts but rather, over several trips between the Caribbean and Spain, proceeded to rob the Taino of their lands and enslave them. The indigenous population dropped in numbers alarmingly and eventually their Spanish colonial masters had to rely on the African slave trade for labourers to do their dirty work. The present-day adulation of Columbus stems from a deliberate public relations campaign cooked up in the late 19th century / early 20th century at a time when Italian immigration into the US was high; being of Italian descent himself, Columbus was adopted by American federal and state governments as a representative of Italian-American potential and to ease tensions between the immigrants and native-born Anglo-Americans.

The pharaoh Tutankhamen is shown to be significant mainly because his tomb, hidden in the Valley of Kings rather than in a lone-standing pyramid, was overlooked by grave robbers over hundreds of centuries; thus in 1922 when a British expedition came across his tomb, it was intact and filled with thousands of valuable treasures. The pharaoh in real life didn’t really have a chance to enjoy all that wealth: ascending to the throne as a 9-year-old boy, he had to take advice from adult viziers and the high priests of the ancient Egyptian religion. His reign was very short as well – he died at the age of 19 years. No wonder that compared to other pharaohs, Tutankhamen’s life was so unremarkable.

The last sliver of this episode demolishes the notion that grammar rules play an important role in safeguarding the English language from improper use and argues that English is a continually changing and complex language. Grammar rules are shown to be illogical and inconsistent – we say “myself”, “yourself”, “ourselves”, so why not “hisself” and “theirselves”? All that grammar rules do is ease communication and interaction among communities that may speak and use English in different ways and who need common ground in using English when their members meet and interact.

For many viewers, this episode will be more enjoyable than others where live action Adam is in danger of parodying himself. The pace is more leisurely and less hyperactive, and the animation is very well done with a homely look. I wish there were more such animated episodes of this series.

Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story): taking audiences through the length and breadth of Chinese history

Ian Bremner, “Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story)” (2014)

The famous Great Wall of China is rightly one of the most awe-inspiring engineering feats in human history and this documentary valiantly tackles those aspects of the Wall’s own history that have inspired its construction and made it such an important megastructure. The documentary follows chronological order from the time the Wall was first begun over two thousand years ago, using that basic logical structure as a foundation to explore some of the more quirky characteristics of the Wall.

The documentary begins with the dimensions of the structure itself and, from following recent research, discovers that the Wall is made up of at least sixteen different walls plus other walls whose remains still lie underground. Altogether all these walls have a total length of 21,000 km which is much more than the distance between the North and South Poles! Naturally the question of why the Chinese went to so much trouble to build walls arise and the program diverts to an investigation of a nomadic horse-riding tribe, the Xiongnu, living in the Gobi and other realms north who during the first few hundred years of the first millennium CE harassed the Chinese empire at about the same time that Germanic and Hun barbarian tribes tormented the Roman Empire with raids and plundering. The Xiongnu’s cavalry tactics forced the Chinese to improve their defence capabilities by building a network of walls that acted as much as a communications network and a form of military offence against the nomads as it did as defence. Unfortunately nothing is said about how successful the Wall was in its myriad functions against the Xiongnu or what happened to these nomads.

A major attraction of the Wall is its longevity and here the most surprising aspect of the documentary is revealed: during the Ming period (1368 – 1644), when reconstructing the Wall became a major engineering priority, mortar made of sticky rice was used to help cement massive bricks. During this period, the Wall’s reconstruction stimulated brick-making on an industrial scale and encouraged hundreds if not thousands of craftsmen, workers and their families to migrate to northern and north-central China to work in kilns located near or on the Wall itself.

Finally the program considers the success of the Wall in its various functions (actual and expected) and finds a rather mixed record: it was not all that successful in repelling Genghis Khan and his mixed Mongol / Turkic forces in the 1200s, or the Manchus in the 1600s. Nevertheless the Wall continues to stand as a symbol of Chinese civilisation, ingenuity, determination, stability and invincibility.

Easy to follow thanks to Paul McGann’s narration, and with experts like William Lindesay, chemistry professor Bingjian Zhang and military historian Mike Loades on hand for more detailed explanations and enthusiastic demonstrations, the program provides interesting fodder at a steady clip and weaves its way through the Wall’s history, jumping from one topic to the next smoothly and skilfully. Animations help audiences appreciate the size and complexity of the Wall’s various meanderings across northern China.

Audiences are sure to ponder questions such as whether the Wall could have led to an industrial revolution in Ming-era China but this and other issues arising from the program’s narrative demand independent investigations in their own right. This documentary is aimed mainly at a family audience and school students learning Chinese history: what better way to understand some of the length and breadth of that history through its best-known engineering feat?

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel): breathless rush admits no disbelief about inspiration for Bible story

Elliott Kew “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel)” (2017)

The Bible story of the construction of the Tower of Babel as a metaphor for humanity’s arrogance in presuming itself the equal of God was once well-known to generations of children in Western society and still resonates among people in Western countries even today. This “Treasures Decoded” episode breathlessly takes viewers into Iraq, to the archaeological site of an enormous temple building known as Etemenanki built during the sixth century BCE by the King Nebuchadnezzar II, ruler of the Babylonian Empire. To that end, he apparently conquered the Jewish states of Israel and Judah, and carted off those states’ best and brightest craftspeople and workers to work on the building.

The episode goes into some detail as to what Nebuchadnezzar II’s grand construction was made of, what it would have had to look like given that it must have been 90 metres tall and made of mud bricks, and the stresses it might have suffered due to its height and construction materials. It should be no surprise that such a tall mud-brick construction had to be a pyramid-like ziggurat with steps going up its sides in addition to the long staircase the Tower of Babel was reputed to have had. Contrary to the Biblical story, this particular construction lasted a very long time, in fact  well into the fourth century BCE, though by the time Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire (which replaced the Babylonian Empire in 550 BCE) the temple was in a very sorry state. Alexander had the temple pulled down, planning to rebuild it. Unfortunately he did not reign for very long, dying of malaria and over-exertion in his early 30s, and the temple was never rebuilt. The mud bricks used in its construction were instead recycled into other buildings and all that remains of the temple building is its foundation and some mud bricks.

The brisk, almost frantic pace of the episode leaves no space for viewers to doubt that Nebuchadnezzar II’s grandiose project was anything other than the inspiration for the Tower of Babel. I did have the impression that much of the evidence presented in the episode was too good and too slick to be accurate. Consulting Wikipedia and some other sources, I discovered that Etemenanki had been rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II and a previous ruler before him.

While learning about Etemenanki and why it was constructed the way it was, was interesting enough, I would have thought its place in Babylonian society, its role and function in projecting Babylonian power, and the awe it inspired in Nebuchadnezzar II’s Jewish captives would have been even more intriguing to know. The episode relied a bit too much on comparing the building with the Tower of Babel story, and not enough on its own compelling features and the possible megalomania that inspired it. So many documentaries these days make increasing references to stories in the Bible as touchstones for investigating archaeological sites that are impressive in their own right, and I fear this trend may have the effect of overwriting real Middle Eastern history with a fictional narrative working against the interests of the real people who live in the real Middle East.

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 8: Garden of Eden): exploring the mystery behind the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture

Tom Cebula, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 8: Garden of Eden)” (2017)

Many if not most people in Western society know of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and how they contrived to be cast out of the Garden of Eden for eating of the fruit of knowledge and as punishment were forced to toil and grow their own food for the rest of their lives together. Eve in turn was forced to suffer childbirth in pain for her part in persuading Adam to eat the fruit. While most treat the story as purely a creation story and an allegory into how sin came into the world, for others the Garden of Eden must be a real place somewhere in the Middle East. Intriguingly an archaeological site consisting of megaliths and other stone structures discovered in 1963 and known as Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for “Potbelly Hill”) seems to answer to the description of Garden of Eden in its specific location, being between the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southeastern Turkey. This 50-minute episode examines the development of Göbekli Tepe as a holy site for groups of hunter-gatherers over a period of 2,000 years between 9,500 – 7,000 BCE and the part the site may have played or represented in the transition from hunting and gathering to early agriculture in the Middle East.

To its credit, the episode dwells little on the Bible story and presents Göbekli Tepe and its history as far more complicated, mysterious and intriguing than the Bible story itself. The fact that the structures built there were constructed by hunter-gatherer groups confounds archaeologists since before the site’s discovery, ancient hunter-gatherer societies had not been thought to have the capabilities or the need to build such structures: such groups were considered too nomadic and did not have the social structures required to marshal enough people away from finding food and to build the megaliths and temples. The carvings of animals suggest the site may have been a sanctuary of some sort but for the time being, academics do not know what the carvings might have meant for the people who built them and visited them.

The connection with the story of Adam and Eve, apart from the physical location, is that Göbekli Tepe may have been built at a time when Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were in the process of abandoning their nomadic ways of life and taking up more sedentary residence in permanent or semi-permanent housing and villages, and cultivating wild grasses that became the basis for modern cereals like wheat. The narrator and the experts interviewed for the episode point out that the shift from hunting and gathering to farming had deleterious effects on people’s health. What must have happened in that part of the world – and indeed, other parts where people also gave up full-time hunting and gathering and became farmers – is not mentioned, much less speculated upon, and for many viewers that’s probably the weakest part of what is otherwise a highly informative episode on Göbekli Tepe.

With the transition to full-time farming complete some time after 7,000 BCE, the significance of the site apparently faded and Göbekli Tepe was abandoned by the descendants of the original megalith builders and worshippers. The site ended up being backfilled and that in itself is also a mystery to be added to the other mysteries that still perplex modern archaeology about this site.

 

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.

9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo: an ordinary documentary short with little to say and leaving too many unanswered questions

Floor van der Meulen, Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma, “9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo” (2016)

Filmed over nine days (hence the title) in August 2012, this 13-minute documentary short captures one witness’s view of the beginning of the war between the Syrian government and the jihadis in Aleppo that was to last over 4 years until east Aleppo’s liberation by the Syrians and their Russian, Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) allies. Photographer Issa Touma filmed scenes within his apartment and outside through his apartment window; the effect is to give a very intimate and often claustrophobic, even paranoid view of the war as it developed (rapidly as it turned out) from what appears to be a skirmish between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to a more serious conflict between the SAA and jihadi terrorists that promises to be longer and brutally violent.

While the film, chronologically ordered by day, looks interesting enough in its scenes and their details, it lacks a clear narrative: why did Touma choose to film over nine days, as opposed to, say, seven days or 14 days, and why did he decide to stop filming once the terrorists replaced the FSA? Where does his despair emanate from? Why does he refuse to take sides in the war? For that matter, why did he decide to stay in his apartment instead of leaving the apartment block with his neighbours? Why did he prefer to stay in the apartment, to stay isolated (and watch Hollywood movies on TV) and not look out for his remaining neighbours? Assuming that he spent most of his daylight hours in the apartment, I am astonished that so little film and so little monologue ended up in this documentary.

Had Touma admitted his opinion of the Syrian government, the FSA and the jihadis, viewers would have a better idea of his demoralisation at the arrival of the jihadis. However, by saying that he refuses to support one side or the other, Touma ends up appearing apathetic and passive, and this impression may turn off viewer sympathy for his plight.

For a film that won the European Short Film Award in 2016, this documentary has very little to commend it. While street scenes and the ambient background soundtrack convey the drama of escalating conflict encroaching on an individual’s neighbourhood, the film overall turns out to be an ordinary piece of workman-like quality and offers nothing new or different that most people following non-mainstream news media on events in Syria over the past several years do not already know.

Killers in Eden: an informative documentary on a unique relationship between humans and wild animals

Klaus Toft, “Killers in Eden” (2004)

Made for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, this television documentary explores an intriguing partnership forged between humans and wild animals that may have existed for hundreds of years and which died out in the middle of the 20th century. Before the British established colonies in Australia, indigenous people living around Twofold Bay in the extreme southeastern part of Australia relied on orcas (killer whales) to drive larger baleen whales into the bay to be killed by the people for meat. Over time, the Yuin tribal people came to regard the orcas as their totem animal and spiritual brothers and sisters. When Europeans arrived in the area in the early 1800s and established a whaling station, they employed local Yuin men as harpoonists. At first the whites regarded the local orcas as pests but the Yuin persuaded the British to work with them. The animals would drive baleen whales into Twofold Bay where they could be killed by the humans, and alert the men to the victims’ presence. Both humans in their flimsy boats and the orcas co-operated in harassing and killing the whales. For their help, the orcas received the tongues of the dead whales as per Yuin tradition and also fed on the birds and fish that came to pick at the whale carcasses.

With a mix of interviews with a zoologist and local people old enough to have seen first-hand the partnership between whalers and orcas, archived documents, some computer-generated animation, voice-over narration and re-enactments of actual whaling trips, the documentary delivers a highly informative and engaging story of how two intelligent species worked together and came to respect one another. The major thrust of the film’s narrative enquires into whether the orcas acted on pure instinct and self-interest (if that’s the correct term) or if their co-operation was voluntary and based on trust and a desire for sociability with individuals that happened to be an alien species. It becomes obvious (though this could be also due to the film-makers’ desire to portray orcas in as positive a light as possible) that the orcas are cunning opportunists capable of exploiting new hunting situations to their advantage and since their reasons for hanging around Twofold Bay meshed with those of the humans, the two species readily formed a mutual hunting partnership. In particular, a close relationship formed between one whaler, George Davidson, and an animal called Tom which was a leader of one pod; indeed, several orcas were known by and received names from the whalers.

The descriptions of how the humans and orcas worked together are thrilling and interviewees mention orcas saving the lives of humans on a number of occasions while hunting and killing baleen whales. The re-enactments and the quick editing of shots also draw viewers’ attention to the danger of hunting and harpooning whales.

No partnership, however ideal, is without its tragedies that threaten to break it up and the mutual arrangement between the whalers and the orcas of Eden is no different – there is mention of an incident in which an outsider from beyond Eden thoughtlessly butchers a stranded orca. He is chased away but from then on, the local Yuin people refuse to work any more with the whites and the orcas behave erratically as well. In the end, a few orcas led by Tom continue working with the whites. Not long after, with the death of Tom in September 1930, the orcas and whalers end their partnership: by then, the global whaling industry has decimated most baleen whale populations on the high seas and the number of baleen whales migrating twice a year past Eden has tumbled dramatically to almost nil.

The documentary is as much about preserving a record of a unique episode of human-animal co-operation and co-existence in history and making it known to the outside world as much as possible before the last people who have had first-hand experience of witnessing whalers and orcas working together die. Tom’s skeleton was cleaned after his death and is on display in a local museum in Eden. The town still survives and one of its main industries is now whale-watching, as whales have resumed their annual migrations up and down the New South Wales coast: a fitting and happy irony to conclude the documentary on.

 

The Act of Killing: chilling documentary on mass murderers and the society that supports and celebrates their deeds

Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Act of Killing” (2012)

A chilling film, made all the more so by moments of black humour, kitsch and banality, “The Act of Killing” focuses on a group of elderly men in North Sumatra (Indonesia) who participated in the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people scapegoated as Communists in Indonesia over 1965 – 1966. This event occurred in the aftermath of the military overthrow of President Sukarno and the chaos that resulted. The military government arrested people suspected of Communist Party membership and affiliations, and many were tortured brutally and killed; their bodies were disposed of in equally horrific ways. In some parts of Indonesia, gangs of thugs and people belonging to the Pancasila Youth paramilitary organisation were hired to do the killing. The people killed included intellectuals, trade union members, landless farmers and ethnic Chinese.

The film centres around one ex-gangster, Anwar Congo, and his various buddies. The men are invited to make a movie re-enacting what they did in 1965, using any film genre they want for inspiration and to express their ideas and aims. The men fancy themselves as Hollywood mafia gangsters and cowboys and film various scenes for their flick dressed accordingly; they even import elements of Hollywood musicals such as a sappy music soundtrack and a chorus line of attractive young women dancers. For some strange reason, the chubby Herman Koto appears in outrageous drag in many scenes.

Over the course of making their film, Congo and Company explain why they did what they believe they had to do in the past. They believe that making the film will help explain to young generations of Indonesia that the killings did really happen, that the nation must face the truth of its history, and that in some way the bloodbath was necessary to extirpate the baleful Communist influence at its roots. They view themselves as heroic in the way John Wayne’s characters were heroic in his movies. Slowly though, another reason for the making of the movie is apparent: Congo and his pals admit to experiencing qualms and psychological issues over their past behaviour. Congo has nightmares and fellow killer Adi Zulkadry, in denial, tries to justify his actions by saying that winners make the rules and what constitutes moral actions or immoral actions changes all the time. However, as the film within a film progresses, Congo realises the true evil of his actions and he reacts viscerally (literally) when forced to face up to what he did.

The film is very long and meandering but its focus on Congo’s own coming to terms with what he did maintains viewer attention and provides the structure for further exploration of various issues that crop up throughout. Initially the old men treat their homemade film and its subject as one huge joke and strut about as would-be Hollywood film stars. There is the sense that these men have distanced themselves from their behaviour by viewing their deeds as a form of acting, as if participating in the killings was like participating in a Hollywood movie. Indeed, Congo began his criminal career as a ticket-scalper for Hollywood movies at his local cinema.

At times the home-made movie edges uncomfortably close to reality especially in those scenes where particular incidents are being re-enacted and actors, even extras, are overcome by the import of the scenes: a man playing a torture victim becomes visibly upset; and in a later scene various women and children playing villagers are also inconsolable with one woman collapsing and Koto’s daughter unable to stop crying. Actors playing Pancasila Youth paramilitaries throw themselves rather too enthusiastically into their roles for viewers’ comfort.

Viewers will be disturbed by the old men’s astonishingly childish and gleeful behaviour: they not only view their actions through Hollywood movie imagery and language but they also believe themselves entitled to the rewards given them by the Suharto government and its successors. Several killers including Congo have become wealthy men, able to travel overseas, go on hunting expeditions and shower gifts on their wives, children and grandchildren; some of these men have become politicians and have risen to high positions including Cabinet minister positions in the Indonesian government.

Although the documentary is by turns difficult to watch and can be horrifying, it has some value in demonstrating the complex psychology of mass murderers and how they cope with their past histories. The film also shows that the men’s crimes are still celebrated in modern Indonesia, as disturbingly evidenced by a TV interview Congo and his friends give to a fawning female interviewer. Scenes depicting Pancasila Youth rallies can be shocking to viewers. In one section of the film, Congo’s younger pal Herman Koto embarks on a campaign to get elected to parliament and viewers are able to see something of how political parties and candidates bribe voters with gifts, money and promises in order to gain influence. In one memorable scene Koto visits Chinese shopkeepers and all but threatens them if they do not hand over money. It becomes apparent that corruption is widespread in Indonesian society and is at its most insidious in the most ordinary everyday settings.

There is not much historical context given in the film – what is needed is given in titles in the documentary’s opening scenes – and Oppenheimer does not dwell much on contemporary Indonesian society and how its support of the thuggish murderers is a crucial part of how the men view themselves.

One thing that is absent in the film is the role that foreign powers, the United States most of all, played in encouraging the Indonesian military in 1965 to start hunting down so-called “Communists” which led to the hiring of thugs like Congo to kill anyone and everyone suspected of disloyalty to the military regime. This in turn provided an excuse to thump outsiders like ethnic Chinese who were seen as wealthy and preferring their own over native Indonesians. After all, the language, ideology and cultural values Congo and his pals use to demonise their victims and justify their acts came from the US, not from their own culture and society. Because that aspect is missing, Oppenheimer overlooks the fact that the United States and other Western countries like Australia continue to support the Indonesian government and military in shaping Indonesian society as a fascist society, one capable of future mass violence in which a new generation of thugs will re-enact Anwar Congo’s crimes – for real. By concentrating on small-time killers like Congo, the film misses a much greater and more horrific truth.

 

The Bank of North Dakota: how a state-owned bank overcame ideological and political opposition on the road to success

Prairie Public Television, “The Bank of North Dakota” (2005)

In an age in which large private banks have a stranglehold over governments and economies, and by extension over entire countries and their societies and resources, I find it reassuring that in the US there is one bank that actually serves the needs of its clients – and that’s because it’s a state-owned and controlled bank.

Using a mixture of historical archive material, voice-over narration by Doug Hamilton, some re-enactment and interviews with North Dakota state politicians, bank staff including BND head Eric Hardmeyer, an economist and a historian, the program explains why and how the Bank of North Dakota was conceived and incorporated in 1919. In the early years of the 20th century, North Dakota state was heavily dependent on agriculture as a mainstay of its economy. The very nature of agriculture, especially wheat farming and cattle herding, meant that the people of North Dakota had very little control over aspects of production, distribution and sale: weather determined whether the harvest would be good or not; railway companies controlled the transport and distribution of agricultural products in and out of the state; and the price of the products depended very much on global supply and demand, and so the prices might be determined or even fixed by stock markets of the time. Descended from independent-minded and naturally sceptical immigrant folk, the North Dakotan farming community determined to control at least some aspect of the farming business and in 1916 the people got their chance: in 1916, the Non-Partisan League swept into power in the state, established an Industrial Commission and passed two bills that created the Bank of North Dakota and a state-owned mill and elevator, and gave the BND the power to issue state bonds to raise money to lend to farmers at reduced interest rates.

The state-owned BND ran up against considerable opposition from out-of-state private banks and the business-backed Independent Voters Association. Eventually the NPL was forced from office and the functions of the BND were severely reduced from the powers granted it by the legislation passed in 1919. The bank ended up being controlled by the Independent Voters Association which allowed the bank to continue to lend to farmers. During the Great Depression, the BND decided to stop foreclosing on farmers’ homes and properties if the farmers were still living there. World War II brought prosperity to North Dakota as global demand for wheat and other agricultural products gew. In a way, control by the IVA and the events of the 1920s to 1950 with two credit crises were a blessing to the BND as the restrictions placed on the bank’s activities forced it to concentrate on North Dakota’s economic development by accepting individual and small business deposits, providing loans to individuals, households, students and small to medium-sized businesses and sticking strictly to those functions. The bank has never been tempted to expand outside state borders and move into the financial markets.

Produced on a modest budget, the program describes the bank’s early struggles, its present position as a development bank and its future as a significant player in North Dakota’s economic development. At the time of its making, the oil industry in North Dakota was in its infancy so there is not much information about how the BND is assisting oil exploration and extraction. There is not much information about the challenges and problems the BND might have faced in recent years so the program runs a little like a 26-minute advertisement singing its praises. People suspicious of state-owned banks might turn up their noses at what seems to them an endorsement for evil “socialist” financial schemes. However the recent economic performances of North Dakota state compared to most other US states – North Dakota often coming first in the nation in economic performance and financial solvency – must owe a large debt to the BND.

Unfortunately there is not much in the program that people in other parts of the US wanting to know how they can establish similar state-owned banks can learn from the BND’s example. The BND’s success is due in part to the unique economic and historical circumstances of North Dakota in the mid-20th century: the state’s economy for a long time was perhaps much less diversified than some other states’ and at times it was a backwater so large corporations that would have opposed the BND ignored the state and its financial activities for a long time. With oil exploration and for-profit alternative energy schemes having now arrived in the state, it remains to be seen if the BND can rise to the challenges of dealing with a rapidly diversifying economy bringing in large cash flows and of making the best use of that money while remaining true to its original functions as set down by the Non-Partisan League back in 1919.