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 too 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.

Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 1): a timely historical survey of mining in Australia

Jacob Hickey, “Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 1)” (2012)

If this first episode is typical of the three-part series, this documentary should be quite an eye-opener on an industry that, even more than the sheep and cattle industry, made Australia and Australians the country and the people they are. The episode performs a fair few introductory functions: it traces the history of mining in Australia back to early gold rush years in the early nineteenth century, it links mining with the early growth of Australia’s second city Melbourne and it looks at certain aspects of Australia’s cultural history and social development such as racism, the White Australia Policy and nationalism and how these were influenced by mining.

Beginning with the impact of gold rushes in the state of Victoria during the nineteenth century, the documentary stretches out to include the early history of Chinese immigration into Victoria to the extent that Chinese made up 10% of the people living in that state and were the third largest ethnic group in the country after the English and Irish. The reactions that Chinese immigration stimulated among local whites form one of the darkest episodes in the nation’s history and the growing racism against Asians, later extended to Pacific Islanders, in the second half of the nineteenth century has an eerie parallel with deepening racial hostility towards black people and American Indians in the United States in the same period. The documentary also traces the cycle of resource boom and bust in Australia’s economic history: the boom period of the 1870s – 1880s gave way to a major depression in 1893, from which arose the drive to unite the various Australian colonies into one federated self-governing dominion in the British empire. Sharemarkets begin their rise in the colonies at the same time and to some extent the frenzied activity that often take place in the country’s bourses lead to a rollercoaster economy. The documentary embraces other mining booms in nickel and iron ore (associated with Lang Hancock who with his wife is said to have discovered the immense iron ore deposits in the Pilbara region of Western Australia in 1952) and brings viewers up to the present day with the issue of the fair distribution of income earned from mining and the conflicts this has caused in the mining industry for the past 160+ years and continues to provoke today.

Using archived photographs and film, interviewing historians and interspersing time-speed camera work into the program, overlaid by voice-over narration, this film is easy on the eye and ear and travels at a steady pace. There’s quite dramatic footage that director Jacob Hickey obtained with a camera bound to the fixed wing of a plane. Some people may object that the documentary’s range is rather too all-encompassing and that mining can’t be blamed for the race riots that took place in the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s – 1860s or that Melbourne’s Golden Age wasn’t entirely based on mining wealth. But to consider Australia’s social, political and economic development as having been stimulated by mining is an original and thought-provoking idea: the film dares to suggest blandly if mutely that the mining industry, not stock-raising forms of agriculture or wheat-growing, has really been the mainstay of Australia’s wealth and development.

It is too early to say yet if the series will touch on mining’s impact on the Australian character and attitude to a land beneath which lies an enormous treasure chest of minerals that can be dug out easily. Certainly the easy availability of gold and other minerals and the riches these have brought can be thought to have contributed to the Australian reputation of self-satisfied “she’ll be right , mate” complacency and acceptance of mediocrity in most situations. Is it possible that Australian expectations that resources booms will last forever more or less with the odd rare hiccup or two make Australians quite vulnerable to the coaxing and sometimes outright bullying of other more powerful countries? How will Australians cope when the news finally dawns that we cannot live off mining indefinitely, that it might be destroying other more useful activities such as agriculture, tourism and scientific research into plants with medicinal qualities, and that it might have stymied cultural, social and political development and maturity in Australia? The experience of refugees fleeing war-ravaged countries like Afghanistan says that Australia’s fair treatment of others, especially underprivileged others and allowing them to share in the nation’s wealth seem to be values not many Australians, migrant as well as locally born, believe in or share.

Tsar to Lenin: an incredible compilation of archival footage of the Russian Revolution

Herman Axelbank and Max Eastman, “Tsar to Lenin” (1937)

Presented by Mehring Books and the Socialist Equality Party, “Tsar to Lenin” is an incredible historical document of the Russian Revolution, beginning with the uprising that saw off Tsar Nicholas II and his government in February 1917 through the October Revolution of the same year to the civil war that lasted three years and which resulted in Soviet victory and domination of the lands that became the Soviet Union in 1921. The film is a compilation of archival footage found and assembled by Herman Axelbank (1900 – 1979) in chronological order with a spirited and often dramatic narration by Max Eastman (1883 – 1969). The original photographers and film-makers who made the films in the assemblage numbered over 100 people who came from all walks of life: Russians of all classes including the Tsar himself and his Royal photographer, foreigners including Americans, Japanese and others,  those who supported the Soviets and those who opposed them.

The film begins with a sardonic description of life in pre-Revolutionary Russia: the lives of the aristocracy, particularly those of the Tsar and his courtiers, are portrayed in some detail. We see the Tsar at leisure with his courtiers, playing a ball-game and later swimming nude in a lake. (Eastman’s narration smirks that the world has never seen a king presented as “he really is”.) The Tsarevich is shown with palace guards who help him up on his horse. From there the film flits to the lives of the upper class and progresses to the peasants and industrial working class people and at this point the story takes off as workers go on strike and march in demonstrations in St Petersburg. We soon go to war with the Russian forces and Eastman informs us that the Russian army fared very badly against Germany and its allies. Against this background, the Tsar increases his repression of the workers and peasants, protests break out and in February 1917 the Tsar is overthrown.

The new Menshevik government tries to continue prosecuting the war against Germany and this in itself leads to more demonstrations. The Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin gain popularity on an anti-war, populist platform that promises land reform, food and other material security, and peace to the workers and peasants. In November 1917 (late October in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time), the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd (the former St Petersburg) and from there Soviet influence spread to the rest of European Russia and Helsinki in Finland.

At the same time, anti-Bolshevik resistance – the White movement –  forms from a motley collection of monarchists, republicans, army generals, disgruntled nobles and political reactionaries, and Ukraine under nationalist and anarchist influence attempts a breakaway from Russia. Foreigners are invited by the new Ukrainian government to assist and the West eagerly sends troops and supplies to the anti-Bolshevik forces through several fronts including Kiev, northern Russia, the Ural mountains region and even Vladivostok in the Far East near Japan. The fighting is hard and atrocities are committed by Soviet and enemy forces alike. The highlights of this section of the film include a shocking sequence of images in which troops commanded by anti-Bolshevik leader Admiral Alexander Kolchak execute Soviet POWs in a field and repeatedly look into an open mass grave to make sure all their prisoners are dead. Another very distressing scene shows mummified Russian Orthodox monks being exhumed and then re-interred in a ruined building.

The film concludes with the victory of Soviet forces, backed by the Russian people, against the Whites and their foreign allies, and the final sequence of scenes shows some unforgettable footage of Vladimir Lenin animatedly explaining socialism to his audience. The man’s eyes are shining with excitement and his being gives no indication of the mysterious condition (syphilis?) that would afflict him in his later years and lead to his untimely death. Eastman’s narration portrays Lenin as an idealistic and passionate man with a vision that encompasses all that would benefit the Russian people.

Major highlights in the film are many and include detailed listings of people prominent in the Menshevik and Bolshevik political elites, a bird’s eyeview of a scene in St Petersburg in early 1917 in which Tsarist troops fire on panicking people running away and scenes of fighting in northwestern Russia during the civil war. There are uplifting scenes as well, notably those of the celebrations that took place in February 1917 when the Tsar was overthrown. There is also an impressive and detailed listing of delegates who attend the Internationale in Moscow in 1920. Interestingly, Joseph Stalin is introduced quite late in the film and appears for less than a minute; his small footnote appearance suggests that his contribution to the momentous events from 1917 to 1921 was either insignificant or perhaps sinisterly underhand.

The film is well put together and Eastman’s narration, often slyly mocking of personages like the Tsar and Menshevik leader Alexander Kerensky, is easy to follow. School students and undergraduate university students will find this documentary a good introduction to the events of the Russian Revolution; I myself thought I knew a fair amount about the events of 1917, having studied some Russian history at school, but I obviously forgot a great deal about the 1917 – 1920 civil war. In the film, Axelbank and Eastman make no apologies about whose side they’re on; they’re clearly on the side of Lenin and Leon Trotsky who is also portrayed as a heroic leader. (The booklet that accompanies the DVD that I watched explains that Eastman later repudiated his former radical views and embraced a more politically conservative viewpoint.)

And even if viewers are not history students, they will still discover much in the documentary that resonates with contemporary global political issues today: the Western invasion of Russia in 1917 and the war the Soviets were forced to fight against foreigners – the film states that the Bolsheviks were up against 14 foreign forces – has its parallel with events currently unfolding in Syria where mercenaries from Iraq, Libya and other countries, backed by Saudi Arabia and NATO, are fighting with the Free Syria Army against  Syrian government forces.

À propos de Nice: silent film satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of 1930s France

Jean Vigo, “À propos de Nice” (1930)

Posing as “a day in the life” travelogue of the French city of Nice, Vigo’s documentary short is a cunning satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of France at the dawn of a new decade. What gives the film its power is its soundless montage of images and scenes filmed and spliced together in ways that mock the pretensions of the nouveau riche / bourgeois classes and celebrate the earthy and more vital culture of working-class people.

The film begins with stunning aerial shots of the city followed by lapping waves on a beach and puppet forms of a couple visiting Nice for a holiday. The puppets, superimposed upon by images of a game of poker played at a casino, are quickly swept aside into a third layer of the beach scene and the film then focuses on early morning scenes of workers cleaning the promenades and generally prettifying the city to receive its daily wave of rich tourists. And arrive they do, only to plonk themselves down on cheap deck-chairs, read newspapers, snore and not pay attention to the flow of life around them. Vigo commences to deconstruct the sterile life-style of the wealthy by contrasting it with the vivacity and energy of the workers, most revealingly in parallel scenes of rich couples strutting stiffly in ballrooms while the ordinary people celebrate a carnival in which they carry giant papier-mache statues of grotesque figures, some of which are parodies of the rich. Throughout the film also we are treated to repeated images of ocean waves washing up and over sandy beaches and to images that stress the circularity of life from birth to maturity and finally to death.

The film’s major asset is its cinematography, courtesy of one Boris Kaufman the brother to Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman), he of “Man with a Movie Camera” fame: camera angles emphasise the phallic nature of huge towers and other buildings in a mock fetishisation of industry. The architecture and urban design of Nice are as much under attack by Vigo as representative of the power of the plutocracy as are the elites themselves. In one very memorable shot, the camera traces the curves of a building’s colonnade as if to blow invisible raspberries at the structure’s pretensions to classical grandeur. Near the end, there are brazen images in slow motion of otherwise dowdily dressed women mugging for the camera by dancing the can-can, flinging their legs high up in the air and knowingly flashing their knickers and stocking suspender belts at the audience. There are some distressing shots as well: a boy with what looks like a serious skin disease on his face stares at the camera briefly and a startled cat is caught next to a pile of rubbish on the ground.

A surrealist influence appears in a couple of sequences played for laughs: we see several shots of a woman on a deck-chair, her outfits constantly changing with each shot until in the last shot she appears nude; and a juxtaposition of three shots of a man on a deck-chair too, sunning himself until he appears mummified and then to reptilian form as suggested by the shot of several crocodiles at the end of the sequence!

If ever people need proof that with the arrival of sound, the film industry lost some pizzazz and an inventive, curious spirit, this film and other experimental pieces like it would be it. While modern audiences would be uncomfortable without a soundtrack, this first film by Vigo is recommended to art film connoisseurs and to film students to see how a completely silent story can be told simply by the judicious juxtaposition of unrelated images and techniques such as layering, use of slow motion and repetition.