A superficial survey of how far a society has recovered a decade after years of war and destruction in “Chechnya: Republic of Contrasts”

“Chechnya: Republic of Contrasts” (RT Channel, 2013)

Made in 2013, this RT documentary is probably due for an update but it remains an interesting introduction to the Chechen Republic under the leadership of Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov. The focus of the documentary is on how far Chechnya has recovered since the two wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s that left most parts of this region devastated and its capital Groznyj all but destroyed. Since 2007 when Kadyrov became Head of the Chechen Republic, the region has stabilised and money has poured into its cities and towns to rebuild its infrastructure and major buildings, and to stimulate the economy. At the same time, Kadyrov has built Islamic schools, introduced aspects of Islamic shari’a law and tried to rebuild traditional Chechen society so as to draw young people away from Wahhabism. The result of stability, new prosperity and instilling a particular fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is a society looking both backwards and forwards in rather awkward ways that probably say much more about Kadyrov and his government’s interpretation of Islam than about Islam itself.

The documentary follows a number of individuals going about their daily work routines. A boy of primary school / junior high school age attends an Islamic school for several hours each day, learning to read and memorise the Qu’ran (in Arabic, not in his native Chechen) and, apart from some sport and general education, doing little else. A female newsreader visits the Firdaws fashion house to peruse suitable Islamic garb for her job. A taxi driver muses over how much his life has changed since the first Chechen war destroyed his apartment: he now has a new, and much better, apartment and his family makes an effort to observe what Chechen traditions and customs remain after decades of Soviet repression (which included deportation to Kazakhstan during World War II, in which many older people and children died). Young single women learn to be photographic fashion models showing off the latest Islamic fashion trends to the rest of the world.

The film’s coverage strikes this viewer as rather superficial for its length (26 minutes), not delving at all into how Kadyrov’s government has restored stability and security with the help of Moscow, and giving the impression that Russian money has been primarily responsible for Chechnya’s new wealth. Did most of that money come from Moscow’s coffers or from taxes paid by Chechen households, individuals and businesses? What industry might Chechnya have that could have produced some or most of that wealth? Are there Chechens who work in other parts of the Russian Federation who send remittances back to their families, and is their money actually propping up Chechnya’s wealth and development? What laws has Kadyrov’s government enacted that have eliminated violence and terrorism? Is Kadyrov’s interpretation of Islam and Chechen tradition accepted by most Chechens or do they think he is cherry-picking only those aspects of Islam that ensure his continued leadership of the small republic? These are questions that may well arise in viewers’ minds on watching this documentary.

Some people (including me) may well find the Islamic schools a potential long-term burden to the Chechen republic: if students at these schools learn little other than reading and memorising the Qu’ran, without understanding its deeper meaning and messages, and have no other education or skills to undertake work, they will end up on social welfare and their families or partners will have to support them. Male students in particular, ashamed that their women or families have to support them, may very well end up drifting into the kinds of Islamist extremism that Kadyrov wants to discourage. On the other hand, Kadyrov is to be commended for allowing women (including his daughters) to pursue careers, even if these are careers in women’s fashion design and modelling. There is nothing though on women training to be doctors, teachers, medical and hospital workers or sales representatives even though a strict literal interpretation of Islam and remaking Chechen society into an Islamic society would require considerable numbers of women to be educated in such vocations so that the separation of the sexes in daily life can be observed.

The documentary ends on a positive, upbeat note and I couldn’t help but feel a great opportunity to detail (even if briefly) how Chechnya functions, what industry it has and how Kadyrov’s government and leadership steer the republic, was lost.

Exposing and satirising British news media propaganda idiocy in “The Hooligans: Joining the Kremlin’s Football Army”

Pavel Serezhkin, “The Hooligans: Joining the Kremlin’s Football Army” (2018)

Here’s a very funny mockumentary that pokes fun at Western (and in particular British) news media propaganda hysteria about the Russian government supposedly preparing an army of “hooligans” to attack foreign football fans arriving in Russia to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup tournament and follow their national teams. Australian sports fanatic Alex (Alex Apollonov), having failed at just about every sport and, influenced by BBC news reports about Russian soccer hooligan violence, racism and homophobia in Russia, and the Russian “new man”, whose role model is supposed strong-man Russian President Vladimir Putin, travels to Russia to find real Russian hooligans with whom he can bond. One fellow Alex especially wants to meet is Vasily the Killer, who apparently masterminded the riots at Marseilles during the UEFA European football championships in 2016. Accompanied by his friend and mockumentary narrator Aleksa (Aleksa Vulovic), plus a film crew, Alex flies to Russia to find his hero and the group known as the Orel Butchers, made notorious by the BBC as instigators of the violence in Marseilles.

The reality the two friends experience is nothing like what they expected: the Orel Butchers are just a bunch of football-crazy friends and Vasily the Killer turns out to be a family man with a large brood of children who was not even in Marseilles at the time the riots occurred. Denis, alleged by Western news reports to have led the Orel Butchers in the Marseille riots, is revealed as … non-existent. The Orel Butchers add that they were asked by Western news reporters to put on balaclavas “for fun”. Alex and Aleksa meet Alexei Smertin, a retired football player and the anti-discrimination / racism inspector for the 2018 World Cup, and stadium security to ask what they know of Russian hooligans and what barriers are in place against hooliganism. Stadium security turns out to be very good. In their search for the “new Russian man” at a gym, Alex and Aleksa discover that the gym owner firmly discourages violence and hooliganism. The duo attend a football game and sit among a group of raucous but well-behaved fans.

Vulovic and Apollonov are well known for having travelled to North Korea in 2017 in search of a haircut supposedly not approved by the North Korean government (and which Vulovic got, along with a snazzy moustache). They bravely brazen their way into most situations with a mix of apprehension and awkwardness, and their deliberate misunderstanding of their hosts’ explanations is often more embarrassing than funny. In the gym scene where the two are looking for the “new Russian man”, they misinterpret and mistranslate what the gym owner is saying, and in that reveal a common disinformation method (allowing someone to rattle on in his or her own language and deliberately twisting that person’s words in the English language translation or subtitles) used by mainstream news media outlets to paint a completely different story.

Alex eventually returns to Australia much sadder (though not necessarily wiser) at not having found any Russian football hooligans in spite of what he was led to believe from following BBC news reports. Viewers hope that he will find a sport that accommodates his limited physical abilities and which is popular with Australians. At least, having visited Russia, he and Aleksa have found a country with warm welcoming and very polite people living comfortable if not lavish lifestyles, far from the old Soviet-era stereotypes that Western news media outlets still insist on applying with the aim of demonising Russia and Russian people for having a leader and a government that will not kowtow to elite American hegemony.

 

Blue: the impact of human activities and pollution on marine environments and ecosystems told through individual stories

Karina Holden, “Blue” (2017)

Instead of bashing its audiences over the head with facts ‘n’ figures about the impact of human activities on oceans and marine ecosystems, this documentary chooses a show-don’t-tell approach in which several stories focusing on particular issues are told from the viewpoints of their activist / researcher protagonists. While the initial presentation is relaxed, frequently languid, and the documentary can become quite poetic with beautiful scenes, the film can be also uncompromising and direct in presenting uncomfortable and even gut-wrenching scenes and facts. Children watching this documentary may need adult reassurance in viewing some scenes.

A marine biologist who enjoys free diving notices over time that fish populations in the areas where he swims are dwindling rapidly. A young activist visits a fishing village in Indonesia where she observes fishermen bringing in sharks and cutting off their fins for the shark-fin trade, the remaining carcasses either being thrown back into the sea or mashed up into feed for pigs. A journalist at a Filipino fish market notes how bluefin tuna populations are rapidly becoming depleted because of over-fishing for the sushi trade in Japan and the US. In the meantime huge commercial fishing trawlers fling huge nets into the oceans to catch huge schools of fish. Many of these nets either become lost or are dumped into the ocean and some wash up onto beaches in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria region to be picked up by local indigenous rangers. They find the remains of long-drowned turtles caught up in the nets. If that’s not confronting enough for viewers, a later story in which researchers checking the health of young albatross chicks by pumping their stomachs and finding plastic bits and pieces (some large enough to cause obstruction and possibly even agonising death) will have some viewers racing for the barf-bags.

Through these stories – I must admit to becoming very cynical about the current trend in film documentaries and other non-fiction media in general to tell “stories” above other methods of relaying important information – particular environmental issues relating to sea life and marine ecosystems are explored to varying degrees of depth. The broader contexts of several issues are not made clear, though: the over-fishing of sharks for their fins is not linked to the rising prosperity of the middle classes in China and other parts of Asia, and likewise the depletion of bluefin tuna stocks does not mean much when the huge global market for bluefin tuna sushi (which becomes ever more prestigious among sushi fanatics as the fish itself becomes more endangered) is unmentioned. Where all the plastic bits and bobs floating in the oceans to be swallowed up by seabirds (which then feed them to their chicks) come from in the first place remains unsaid. (Are they blown out to sea by wins or are they flushed out untreated into rivers and coastal marine environments through storm-water drains?) The emphasis on telling multiple personal stories means statistics that would drive home the scale of each issue, and the urgency that each such issue requires to be remedied, are ignored.

The film ends on a hopeful note, urging viewers to take action, however insignificant viewers themselves may feel about whatever it is they can do, to help save marine species, combat over-fishing and control plastic pollution in the oceans. The underlying problem of the capitalist structures and values that we have, urging more growth and exploitation of natural resources while ignoring the consequences and effects of more economic exploitation at sea and on land on marine ecosystems, remains untouched.

The Corbett Report (Episode 33: Meet Edward Bernays, Master of Propaganda): still retaining the power to shock with minimalist presentation

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 33: Meet Edward Bernays, Master of Propaganda)” (February 2008)

It might be a bit dated, what with social media platforms like Facebook now dominating people’s time (and perhaps moulding their thoughts, opinions and behaviours), and selling their personal details to corporate advertising sponsors and election campaign staff, but this episode of “The Corbett Report” on Edward Bernays and the poisonous legacy he left still has the power to shock viewers. Bernays is famous as the founder of public relations and modern methods of propaganda, based on discovering what motivates people and what they fear and desire, and using those fears and desires to manipulate people’s thoughts, views and behaviours, all to achieve certain ends. These methods are based on the assumption, derived from psychoanalytic theory (founded by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the uncle of Edward Bernays), that human beings are essential irrational creatures ruled by fears, feelings and instincts they are unaware of or which they cannot articulate in words.

Using various sources, of which the most prominent are two documentaries, Alix Spiegel’s “Freud’s Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations”, made for National Public Radio in 2005, and Adam Curtis’s “The Century of the Self”, made for the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2002, James Corbett demonstrates how Bernays was able to change public perceptions and behaviour, usually to the detriment of people’s long-term health and security, for the benefit of his private corporate clients – and ultimately himself, since he would have reaped quite an income along with a reputation for dramatic results which would have brought him more clients. The examples used are superb if gob-smacking: Bernays was able to change the US public’s perception of what a hearty, home-cooked breakfast should involve (bacon and eggs) for his client who wanted to increase its bacon sales; he created a strategy to promote cigarette smoking among women, which involved hiring a group of young women posing as feminists and suffragettes to light up cigarettes during an Easter Day parade in New York City, for his client The American Tobacco Company; and he orchestrated a media campaign using the American Dental Association promoting the fluoridation of public water supplies so that the Aluminum Company of America and other special interest lobbyists could legally dump aluminium fluoride waste into water repositories. Through such campaigns, Bernays and his clients may have contributed considerably to harming the long-term health of generations of Americans and others abroad. Furthermore, this harm may have also had an impact on Western societies and cultures as there are studies suggesting that fluoridation of water can damage children’s neurological development. Corbett mentions that Nazi German concentration camps and Soviet gulags put sodium fluoride into their water supplies to induce passive behaviour in prisoners; whether this is true, I do not know as considerable controversy still surrounds this matter.

The most worrying aspect of Bernays’s career as a spin doctor is the work he did for the US government and the CIA in convincing the US public in the 1950s that the somewhat social-democratic Arbenz government of the small Central American nation Guatemala was Communist and therefore a major threat to American security. The success of Bernays’s campaigns led to US public support for the eventual overthrow of the government and its replacement by an authoritarian military government. The ultimate beneficiary of this destabilisation of an entire country (which entrenched it further in a culture of political instability, poverty and violence) was the American corporation The United Fruit Company which resented the nationalisation of several of its properties by the Arbenz government.

Bernays’s influence spread far outside American public relations and political propaganda: his book “Propaganda”, published in 1927, his ideas and campaigns were studied by the Nazi German and Soviet governments who put their new-found knowledge to use in their own public propaganda campaigns. That Bernays was surprised that enemies of the US were using his book and propaganda methods to promote their ideologies and change their populations suggests a lack of insight and reflection on his part. Certainly such news did not stop him from eagerly offering his services (for money of course) to the US government and its agencies to get rid of governments that encroached on the interests of US private corporations. Eventually Bernays seems to have become cynical about human nature as suggested by his daughter Ann in the episode’s last scene; but the quality of thinking, believing and acting by the American public as it developed during the 20th century generally must be seen as a reflection of the predatory and anti-intellectual capitalist society that helped to shape it, and in this Bernays must bear a great deal of the blame for his role in demonstrating the potential of propaganda campaigns in manipulating human emotions, fears and instincts for short-term profit.

The episode is easy to follow but listeners may have to hear it a few times to absorb the information – the presentation is very dense and far-ranging. It ends with recent examples of US propaganda aimed at deceiving the public into believing outright lies about US government policies and actions. A situation has now developed in which the American public has become increasingly estranged from the US government and the elites who dominate it and determine its policies: this strained relationship extends also to the mainstream news media industry which peddles lies and stereotypes, and manufactures or misrepresents propaganda stunts designed and timed to sway public opinion to favour US government actions that promote the interests of global finance, the arms industry and giant energy and other corporations. Were Sigmund Freud alive today, he would be horrified at how his psychoanalytic theories have been used and abused to bring about a dysfunctional world.

The Corbett Report (Episode 332: The Weaponisation of Social Media): a brisk survey of government online propaganda methods

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 332 The Weaponisation of Social Media)” (April 2018)

A brisk, and at times even brusque, survey of how governments, the military and intelligence agencies use and exploit social media platforms to influence and change public opinion and to spread disinformation and propaganda, this episode of “The Corbett Report” might need a few viewings for its message to burrow into your brain. Part of the reason is that this 15-minute video breezes across a range of methods and subterfuges the US government and its agencies resort to, to insinuate themselves into social media conversations and discussions through sockpuppets, false online identities, trolling practices and astroturfing campaigns; but the video does not dwell very long on one of these deceptive techniques before flying onto another. For people who have never considered that their governments would deliberately try to manipulate their thinking and behaviour to deceive them and to direct them into agreeing with their rulers’ agenda or to do things they would otherwise never consider or refuse to do, such information will come as a huge shock.

For all that though, and despite its far-ranging reach that includes an interview with US law professor Cass Sunstein, who also served as a public official under US President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2012, the video is surprisingly tepid on what individuals can do to recognise manipulation when they experience it online, how to deal with trolls and sockpuppets, and how to lessen their exposure to manipulation in future, not to mention how people can come together to confront government deception and propaganda. The video also does not propose non-profit social media alternatives to Facebook and similar platforms that could be used by children, teenagers and others who find Facebook’s business model repellent.

While the video is very well presented and its pace is smooth if urgent, I couldn’t help but think the film could have been much more effective if it had spent more time on each subterfuge that the US, the UK and Israel engage in (including selective editing of articles on Wikipedia) and where possible show a few examples of each, explore the history behind it and reveal also the consequences where these occurred. Perhaps at a later time, “The Corbett Report” could revisit this topic in greater depth.

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz (23 April 2018) – exposing the reality behind the Syrian White Helmets

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz (23 April, 2018)

A most unexpected surprise from what I would have considered the least likely medium surfaced recently: US stand-up comedian (and political commentator) Jimmy Dore featured Bolivian actress Carla Ortiz on his weekly one-hour radio / online show. Ortiz recently returned from a trip to Syria – her second trip I think, although I’m not really sure – during which she visited Aleppo and among other things saw for herself the headquarters of the fake humanitarian first-response group the Syrian White Helmets … which happened to be located a couple of metres away from the headquarters of Al Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda). The actress also spoke to several people who had done volunteer work for the White Helmets – which mostly involved acting in the group’s propaganda films – and filmed scenes in sections of Aleppo that had just been liberated from terrorists by the Syrian Arab Army.

I missed seeing the first 20 minutes of the interview but what I did see and hear was in turns astounding, horrifying, depressing and uplifting. One astounding fact was that while volunteers working for the Syrian Arab Army would be paid the Syrian equivalent of US$50 a month for 16 to 18 hours of work, volunteers for the White Helmets could expect to receive a hefty US$1,500 a month. The temptation for Syrian civilians in areas captured by terrorists to work for the White Helmets – especially as the terrorists deliberately withheld food from civilian hostages unless they were prepared to pay hugely inflated prices – must have been immense. Ortiz and Dore do not discuss where the money would have come from to pay White Helmets volunteers but one suspects the most likely sources of funding are donations from Western governments and money from Sunni-dominated oil kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.

In her film, in which she enters the White Helmets headquarters, Ortiz points out two Al Nusra flags and states that they could not have been placed there accidentally, as very few Syrian citizens support Al Nusra and most such citizens hate the group. Ortiz notes that nearly all terrorists operating in Syria are from overseas. She reels off a list of actions of the terrorists that demonstrate their callous brutality: they keep civilians in cages and use them as human shields, and commandeer schools and hospitals, thus stunting children’s education and preventing families from obtaining medical help and medicines. People are deliberately starved as well and children die from malnutrition and diseases that could have been treated.

At least twice in the interview, Jimmy Dore mentions the CIA as paymaster for the terrorists to overthrow Assad but the reality may be more complicated than that: several Western governments want Assad gone and each would be using several agencies, including intel agencies, charities and news media outlets, to channel money and weapons to the terrorists, train them and promote them in the guise of humanitarian aid groups and organisations such as the White Helmets and Violet Organisation Syria.

However horrifying the war has been in Syria and especially in Aleppo, Ortiz speaks highly of the Syrian people: she notes that Syrian society has made great advances in giving women leadership roles in politics (the current Syrian vice-president is female and 30% of the country’s ministries are headed by women) and society generally. Since Aleppo’s liberation in 2016, 800,000 refugees have returned to the city and people are busy in rebuilding the city and making it function normally again. Ortiz draws inspiration from Syrians’ upbeat and positive attitudes, their love for their country (which, interestingly, they regard as a “living motherland”) and their pride in their 7,000-year history in which they themselves find inspiration and hope. Ortiz also speaks about the kind of world we are bequeathing to future generations, and what should be our legacy to them.

The interview flowed freely and quickly – Ortiz speaks quite rapidly and animatedly, and becomes emotional a couple of times – and the conversation bounces smoothly from one topic to another. Ortiz and Dore get on very well together and I am sure Ortiz will be returning to Dore’s show as guest interviewee in the not too distant future. The show is highly informative though viewers and listeners need to have some background knowledge of contemporary Syrian politics, how the current war began in the country and the various groups involved in fighting the Syrian government.

One thing that emerges from their talk, though Ortiz and Dore may not have been aware at the time, is the way in which Western news media portrays Syrians and Arab peoples generally: as backward people obsessed with religious sectarianism and literal interpretations of Islam and Shari’a law in particular. In the mindset of Western MSM news, Arab countries are always unstable and have long histories of tribal and religious conflict; this particular stereotype is not only racist but is part and parcel of a worldview in which Arabs cannot be trusted as stewards of energy resources needed by the West and cannot (and by implication should not) control their own lands. In this view also, Israel is the only country that is stable and democratic, and therefore should be treated favourably – in spite of its genocidal policies towards Palestinians and racist attitudes towards guest workers, refugees, immigrants and even Jewish people with non-Western backgrounds.

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.

Real-life horror movie treatment of patients in “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” which the Canadian government refuses to acknowledge and apologise for

Harvey Cashore, “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” (The Fifth Estate, December 2017)

As The Fifth Estate’s website post on this documentary says, the scenario might be straight out of a Hollywood B-grade horror movie plot: patients in a psychiatric hospital subjected to electro-shock treatment, rounds of drug treatment including hallucinatory drugs like LSD to induce comas lasting weeks, even months on end, hypnotic suggestion and sensory deprivation, all supposedly to cure them of mental conditions like anxiety, depression and paranoia. Yet these patients end up behaving like infants and their memories are almost destroyed. Incredibly this scene was the reality for hundreds of Canadians being treated by medical personnel under the supervision of Dr Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allen Memorial Institute in the 1950s and 60s as part of the notorious MK ULTRA project directed by the CIA and supported by the Canadian government. These experiments, aimed at breaking down people’s negative mental structures and patterns causing their problems, were ultimately recognised as failures and the program at the institute was shut down in 1965, yet the demands by patients and their families for compensation from Ottawa went ignored or were obfuscated for years. The Canadian government has never apologised for supporting and funding Dr Cameron’s experiments which caused such suffering and injury to patients and which affected their families as well, and continues to deny responsibility for its part in the experiments despite grudgingly paying compensation to some (but not all) patients who brought law suits against it.

Using a mix of archived materials, dramatisations and interviews with former patients of Dr Cameron, narrator and writer Bob McKeown builds a compelling story of how the experiments began as a response to the return of US and Canadian soldiers from the Korean War who had been held as POWs by the North Korean government and who supported its Communist ideology. Determining without apparent evidence that the North Koreans, Russians and Chinese were using mind-altering methods on prisoners, the CIA decided to research the use of drugs that could counter such brain-washing and influence captives from Communist nations to support capitalist ideology. At the same time, at the Allens Memorial Institute in McGill University in Montreal, Dr Cameron was investigating ways of treating and curing schizophrenia by erasing memories and deprogramming then reprogramming the brain and psyche. The CIA recruited Cameron into its MK ULTRA and related projects and paid him through a front organisation called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. From there the documentary follows the paths of two former patients and what they suffered, and it details the profound effects of Cameron’s experiments on these patients and their families, and on other families.

Rather than admit its role in financing and encouraging the brain-washing experiments, Ottawa persecutes the victims of the experiments by denying compensation, subjecting former patients to eligibility requirements for compensation, placing gag orders on people and forcing people to pursue justice through the legal system.

Although the two female patients interviewed by McKeown were fortunate indeed to survive their treatments, the documentary makes no mention of those not so lucky and who continue to suffer long-term ill health (or have even died) as a result of the experiments. The documentary’s narrow focus on selected Canadian victims means that the wider ramifications of the experiments, especially for the CIA renditioning programs in the Middle East and western Asia which often involved torture and the use of mind-altering drugs on prisoners, must go ignored.

A Tale of Two Traitors: short documentary on two double agents is short on answers as to why spies turn traitor

Ronna Syed, “A Tale of Two Traitors” (Fifth Estate, March 2018)

In the wake of the recent incident in the UK concerning a suspected poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter, and their continued incarceration in a small general hospital while the official account of how they were poisoned and what they were poisoned with continues to change from one week to the next, the Canadian investigative news documentary series The Fifth Estate revisited Canada’s own answer to Sergei Skripal, a KGB spy codenamed Gideon. In the early 1950s, Gideon was posted to Ottawa where he fell in love with the wife of a soldier and was persuaded by her to spy for Canada. Gideon apparently gave much valuable information about the Soviets to his new masters in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Surprisingly, an RCMP employee, James Morrison, was spying for the Soviets at the same time and revealed to his masters that Gideon had betrayed his country. In 1955, Gideon was recalled back to the Soviet Union and the Canadians presumed that he would be executed. In 1982, James Morrison spoke to The Fifth Estate and admitted having betrayed Gideon to the USSR. For his betrayal, Morrison was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In 1992, after the downfall of the Soviet Union, a former security officer, Don Mahar, received a phone call advising him that a man had appeared at the British embassy in Lithuania claiming to be Gideon. After interrogating the man with questions that only Gideon knew the answers to, Mahar was satisfied that the man in Vilnius was indeed Gideon. Gideon was brought back to Canada. The news that Gideon was still alive and moreover safe in Canada brought relief to James Morrison and his lawyer Peter Cronin, and to investigative reporter John Sawadski who had been following the story for several years. Morrison died and was buried in an unmarked common grave in 2001 with no eulogy and few people in attendance. Gideon died in 2009, having never tried to re-establish contact with the woman he fell in love with and who had encouraged him to turn traitor.

The nature of what Gideon gave to the Canadians, that was apparently so serious that when he returned to the Soviet Union he was presumed to be going to an early grave as a traitor, is not revealed in this short report. The fact that the Canadian security services were so sure that Gideon had been executed for treason that they considered his survival a miracle might say more about their prejudices about the KGB and the Soviet Union, than about the Soviets themselves – but the program does not inquire into this angle as its focus is narrow and extends no further than exploring the shenanigans of two double agents. (The Canadians do not consider the possibility that the Soviets might have regarded Gideon so beneath contempt for betraying his country that execution would have been too good for him, and career and social ostracism would be judged a more fitting punishment.) On the other hand, the report does not go into much detail as to why Gideon and Morrison decided to betray their countries for selfish and quite trivial personal reasons: Gideon’s romance with another man’s wife must have turned out a short-lived fling and Morrison betrayed Gideon for a small sum of money. For such short-lived thrills, the consequences of what these men did stuck to them, millstone-like, for the rest of their lives. Morrison died in disgrace as well.

I’d have liked to know more about how and why agents turn traitor, and why they would betray their countries for often superficial and not well thought-out reasons, or small amounts of money, when surely they would know that doing this would jeopardise their lives and the lives of their families back home, and bring public condemnation on themselves that will last the rest of their lives. The program can viewed at this link.

 

The Queen of Versailles: portrait of a billionaire family living the American Dream and exploiting it to excess

Lauren Greenfield, “The Queen of Versailles” (2012)

Originally intended as a documentary on the construction of one of the largest single-family detached houses in the United States, this film ended up being a character study investigation of the house’s owners, David and Jackie Siegel, after David Siegel’s timeshare resort company Westgate Resorts crashed in a mountain of debt during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that came soon after. Following the Siegels as they try to cope with the fall in their fortunes to the extent of having to fire thousands of employees and most of their domestic servants, and putting their unfinished home up for sale at a time when others are dumping their houses on the market as well, the film becomes a fly-on-the-wall observer of this particular American Dream gone badly sour and the effect it has on one family’s relationships and the family members’ characters. Not commenting on the Siegels’ behaviour and excesses, and the sometimes abominable ways in which they treat their employees and household staff, the film forces viewers to make up their own minds about the character and morality of David and Jackie.

The astonishing aspect of the film is not the way in which the various characters, in particular David and Jackie Siegel, react and behave in the wake of their misfortune, nor the devastation they leave behind, nor even their children’s maturity in coping with their straitened circumstances compared to the parents’ own immaturity, but in how completely open the Siegels are in allowing the film-makers to track them and the ways in which they deal with the changes in their circumstances. Jackie copes by going on compulsive shopping splurges which result in a lot of waste and a considerable number of pet animals (bought for her children, who number eight in total plus a niece) dying unnecessarily because no-one knows how to look after them – the hired staff did all that but they’ve been let go – but she is clearly devoted to her husband and children, and is prepared to downsize her lifestyle. Her obsession with plastic surgery stems from a background of having been abused by her first husband and her desire to please her second husband David who – perhaps unsurprisingly – turns out to be the more contemptible figure. A Scrooge-like figure, David Siegel is uninterested in his younger children’s welfare – he has not even set aside money for their future education – and regards Jackie as a tiresome trophy wife cum compulsive shopper. Siegel’s idea of fun is to surround himself with 50 Miss America contestants in his home during a reception to promote the pageant: is this creepy or not for a man in his 70s?

One important part of the documentary is its description of the parasitic business model Westgate Resorts used that was the foundation of the Siegels’ excessive wealth: the company sold timeshare mortgages to people who dreamed of owning vacation homes for two weeks each year: homes that they would have to share with 26 other starry-eyed owners who were also sold timeshare mortgages, regardless of their ability to pay. Siegel then bundled these mortgages together in packages and used them as collateral to borrow even more money from banks to build more resorts which were then sold to more ordinary working folks who had to buy timeshare mortgages … and so the cycle continued. This particular house of cards was bound to collapse along with the banks that pursued similar lending policies once their respective vacation home and property bubbles burst. Once the money dries up and Westgate Resorts’ business model falls apart, Siegel becomes obsessed with holding onto a lavish hotel in Las Vegas. This means 7,000 Westgate Resorts employees are suddenly thrown into unemployment queues (presumably with no advice as to how to find work and no employment references) and the household staff are cut down with no thought as to how the Siegel children will be affected. Two nannies from the Philippines speak of how working for the Siegels has impacted on their families back home: one woman has not seen her children, siblings and parents for years on end.

As the weeks, months and eventually years drag on, the family’s financial situation becomes even more dire and relationships among the Siegels become very estranged. David Siegel retreats into his office amid a tower of papers and bills he refuses to pay, and doomsday in the form of a letter from the ban informing the couple of impending foreclosure encroaches upon them. While initially Jackie Siegel continues to stack up mounds of shopping, few of which she or her children need, the blonde bombshell turns out to be more realistic than her husband: she begins donating unwanted toys, clothes and other items to charity, she teaches her daughters how to prepare family meals and she anticipates having to move into a four-bedroom home that will be physically squeezy for a family of ten but plenty of room for steadfast and unconditional love (mostly coming from her).

At the end of the film, the family’s manifold problems remain unresolved but Jackie holds her head high as she surveys the crumbling ruins of her Versailles home and gardens. Whatever her faults and weaknesses, one has to admire Jackie for her lack of guile, her pluck and her loyalty to her family and friends. She tries to help an old school-friend keep her home by giving her $5,000 but unfortunately once the friend’s bank starts foreclosure proceedings, it insists on going through to the bitter end and the friend loses her home. On the other hand, David Siegel elicits little sympathy from viewers for his greed, his lack of reflection and his pathological need to hang onto that hotel in Las Vegas against all advice. Incredibly he boasts about having put George W Bush in power as US President before having second thoughts about admitting to doing something illegal and undemocratic to strangers who might report him.

Most viewers outside the US will wonder at the kind of psychopathic society that enables people like David Siegel and his company, and financial institutions to prey on and exploit the dreams and hopes of ordinary Americans for a better life, if not a luxurious one given to excess, and through their own short-sighted stupidity, avarice and incompetence bring a whole society crashing down in a succession of debt bubbles, in the process wiping out the middle class and sending huge numbers into poverty and destitution. While the film does not say anything about the context in which Westgate Resorts thrived by exploiting people’s dreams and desires, let alone pass judgement on it, nevertheless overseas audiences are likely to notice the apparent lack of proper government or other institutional oversight of an industry that allowed such corporate parasites to prey on the vulnerable and the unsuspecting.

Since the documentary was made, David Siegel attempted to sue the film-makers but failed. Jackie Siegel appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap. In mid-2015, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter Victoria died from an accidental overdose of methadone. Westgate Resorts has recovered to become a lucrative timeshare business once again, employing some 4,700 people and earning billions in sales revenues. The Siegels may one day be able to complete the construction of their Versailles mansion and move in. One wonders though what sort of “Happily Ever After” world will greet them if and when they do.