Biological Weapons & Experimentation on Humans (Frank Olson): still a relevant film for current troubled times

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 – before the two were due to attend a dinner at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina – jogged my memory of having read about the death of a CIA scientist in similar circumstances more than a century ago. I had forgotten the name of the 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 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 after his death; 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 …, itself eerily close to the way in which Olson died. With this information, the Olson family sued the CIA in 2012, without success.

This 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, 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 includes drugging people and subjecting them to painful physical and psychological torture – and wanted out. His superiors realised he had become a security risk. 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 surround Zhang Shoucheng’s death – like Olson’s death, also recorded as a suicide caused in large part by depression – 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 on the radar of a US government agency suspicious of any secret and underhanded Chinese attempts, real and 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 to blackmail people or generate disinformation. To this end, the Americans have 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 vague charges and sure to extradite her to the US soon, 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-doors into its equipment. This 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.

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 as well, not least because Meng’s arrest and the harassment of Huawei raise issues of sovereignty for the Five Eyes Anglocentric nations and their independence.

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.

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.