Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College): how financially naive young adults end up in the grip of neoliberal economic ideology

Paul Briganti, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College)” (2017)

Aiming squarely at its target audience of US high school students and undergrads, this episode is nevertheless of interest to foreigners who coasted through undergraduate university and college courtesy of government-funded grants or scholarships, or even enjoyed free tuition, and might be mystified as to how and why Americans these days land themselves in life-long debt because of … student loans! Adam Conover takes prospective college student Cole (Lukas Gage) and the audience through what almost amounts to a labyrinth of why going to college these days is so necessary – because most jobs in the future will demand a college degree – yet how going to college can become an unnecessary financial millstone around young people’s necks.

Initially Cole thinks he can be like Bill Gates and become a drop-out tech billionaire. Not so fast, Adam points out – most people who have only a high school diploma will eventually end up, at every stage of their career, earning less than someone with a college degree. Quickly convinced by Adam’s argument, Cole decides to read the US News & World Report’s college rankings guide on what college to choose – only for Adam to explain how the guide is manipulated by college administrators and ultimately can’t advise on the best colleges to attend with respect to the quality of education offered. Moving into a noisy student party, Adam and Cole shout their way through a quick history of lending to college students: initially government funded and regulated, the institution known as Sallie Mae was privatised in the 1990s and almost immediately began to exploit naive 18-year-olds for profit in much the same way that banks began pushing subprime mortgages onto people with suspect credit histories who could not pay off their housing loans.

In spite of the happy atmosphere and Cole’s kooky, gullible nature, the episode does deliver a very grim message: to get ahead in life, people need college degrees but may risk acquiring a huge debt that only could take a life-time to pay off but which could also affect their eligibility for future social welfare, not to mention limiting their choices as to work, having shelter and even planning a family. Happily Adam suggests to Cole that he should see a financial advisor about the kind of loan that would suit him and that community college or a publicly funded college may be a better option than going to an expensive Ivy League university.

The action seems a lot more histrionic and the whackiness has a forced quality about it due to over-acting on Conover and Gage’s part. Oddly there’s none of the animation that enlivens other episodes in the “Adam Ruins Everything” series. As with other episodes I’ve seen of this series, there are no really great revelations that most members of the public, particularly college students and their families, wouldn’t already be familiar with. Still this is a very entertaining show that moves briskly and which ends on an upbeat note.

Ultimately though the show can only go so far as to demonstrate that privatising institutions that offer student loans can open the door to predatory profiteering on financially naive people, and cannot draw parallels between the nation-wide student loan manipulation rort and similar bubbles such as the subprime mortgage bubble that killed off Lehmann Brothers in 2008 and ushered in the Great Recession. Once again, neoliberal capitalism rears its ugly head to prey on the vulnerable. Is there an alternative? “Adam Ruins Everything” unfortunately cannot offer one: for one thing, suggesting that university tuition should be free might not go down well with a TV-viewing public brainwashed to believe that a social welfare state is too, er … socialist.

 

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art): the hermetic world of fine art is dashed to pieces by loudmouth comic

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art)” (2017)

In this episode, Adam swipes the world of fine art, art galleries and art auctions by demonstrating that what is currently considered great art wasn’t necessarily so at the time it was made, and that the current fine art market in which certain artworks worth millions can exchange ownership is nothing more than a tax scam by which wealthy people can gain tax concessions by gifting or donating paintings. The episode gets off to a grand start by examining the worth ofLeonardo da Vinci’s famous “Mona Lisa” painting and how it originally became ubiquitous: someone stole the painting from the Louvre in 1911 as at the time the painting was considered a minor work and therefore didn’t merit around-the-clock guard. The publicity the painting gained after its theft and later (two years later in fact) return was enough to cement it in the public mind and its status rose accordingly.

With art student Persephone (Celesta de Astis) as his Frida Kahlo clone companion, Adam takes a grand tour of history and shows Persephone (and viewers) that originality in art is over-rated and what really matters is how artists adapt familiar themes, ideas and other people’s work and mould them into something different. He reveals that famous Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo began his career copying ancient Greek and Roman statues and was often able to pass his copies off as the real things. Of course, everyone should know that famous English playwright William Shakespeare took his subject matter for nearly all his plays from other people’s literary works.

The rest of the episode is taken up by Adam’s shredding of the art market world and how the prices of paintings can be manipulated by insiders currying favour with a small clique of critics and buyers to exclude people wanting to join the clique. The result is that artists themselves end up as pawns of the art market and their careers as artists can be made or broken on the whims of people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing as the cliche goes. At this point Persephone despairs, her dreams of becoming a great artist having been dashed into smithereens, and considers going to business school; but Adam tells her she can still create great art if it comes from the heart and represents what she feels as a human being.

Most of what Conover covers about the hermetic world of the art market will be no big surprise for those who know something of its manipulative creepiness but will certainly be eye-opening for Conover’s target youth audience. Even the revelation that the CIA promoted abstract expressionism during the 1950s by sponsoring experimental art shows and gatherings (no matter how much Western publics actually preferred representational art to abstract art) as a way of combating the Soviet Union and its rival socialist realism movement in an artistic Cold War will be familiar to many people. Indeed, there’s not much in this episode that hasn’t been said before except perhaps the revelation about how the world’s most famous portrait actually became famous. What makes this latest report from “Adam Ruins Everything” notable is its colourful use of animation and live action to put its points across and Adam Conover’s own mouthy and comic encyclopaedic style topped with an amazing surf-wave haircut and a loud pink suit.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital): challenging beliefs and misconceptions about hospitals and medical treatments

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital)” (2017)

Hosted by eponymous comedian and writer Adam Conover, “Adam Ruins Everything” is a comedy / education TV series that aims to challenge commonly held beliefs and misconceptions about many aspects of everyday life, in particular the everyday goods and services that people take for granted. In this episode, Adam visits Rachel (Melissa Tang) who has arrived in a hospital to get treatment for a head cold and perhaps get her mammogram done. In a relentlessly cheery fashion, Adam helpfully informs Rachel (and the show’s intended US target audience) how and why inflated hospital costs have led to medical care being out of reach for the majority of Americans, with the poor being hit the hardest of course, why antibiotics are not as effective as they used to be and may in fact be worthless, and that mammograms have been oversold to women fearful about their health with consequences that may actually be as harmful (if not more harmful) than breast cancer itself.

Potentially the most interesting part of the episode is the chat about ascending hospital costs and how hospitals determine the cost of medical (including surgical) procedures to patients. Most US hospitals refer to chargemasters (often their own) which are lists of medical items billable to patients or their health insurance funds. The prices of items are usually inflated way beyond what their actual cost so that hospitals can offer “discounts” to patients who belong to certain health funds. In addition, wealthy patients or insured patients can bargain down the cost of an item with hospital administration staff while the poor or uninsured patients have to pay full prices. Disturbingly, in most US states (apart from Maryland) hospitals can set their own chargemasters and there is often no regulatory authority that would oversee chargemasters and force hospitals and other medical treatment centres to make these publicly available so that people can shop around and make price comparisons. Unfortunately the swift pace of the episode means that the issue of escalating hospital costs can lose viewers if they happen to look away for a few seconds, and the treatment of the issue looks a little superficial. I’m sure also most viewers would have wanted to know how this state of affairs came about and who was / were responsible for this shambles.

The issue of declining antibiotic effectiveness is crisply well done with animation demonstrating how bacteria can become resistant over time to antibiotics. Once again though, there’s not much on how people themselves can ensure antibiotics are not abused (by feeding them to farm animals whose meat ends up in butcher shops and delicatessans) at a personal level such as washing one’s hands thoroughly and not overusing anti-bacterial soaps and handwash, or at a community level by protesting the use of antibiotics meant for humans in commercial agriculture.

Finally the question of how effective mammograms really are in detecting breast cancer in women before they notice symptoms comes in with an interview with Dr Joann Elmore who explains that there’s not much statistical difference between the number of women who discover they have breast cancer through mammograms and the number who find their breast cancer without the help of mammograms. She also explains that breast cancer cells may behave very differently, some being more aggressive than others. There is the possibility that some women may be diagnosed with breast cancer via mammogram who do not actually have the disease or have a slow-growing cancer, and can end up subjected to major medical procedures that are completely unnecessary and which could jeopardise patients’ long-term health.

The information is delivered in a fun way with slapstick and serious medical advice given equal time. With his surf-wave haircut, guileless manner and a mouth that never stops moving, Adam ploughs through three quite meaty medical issues with a raging and sneezing Rachel in tow. I’d have liked the episode to be a bit longer – another 15 minutes please? – with more information on how the US has ended up spending more on per capita healthcare costs than any other First World country. Yet Americans seem no healthier than other First World nations and could possibly be some of the least healthy people on Earth. The connection between excessive per capital healthcare costs and American’s decreasing well-being certainly merits attention.

US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm: a sketchy report on the insidious effects of US military activity on a South Korean village and farming region

Yoichi Shimatsu, “US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm (Lens.tv Report: THAAD Deployment in South Korea)” (2017)

Structured as a news report rather than as a documentary, this item by investigative reporter (and former Japan Times Weekly editor) Yoichi Shimatsu focuses on the effects of an American missile base deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile defence system on an agricultural region centred around the village of Seongju in southeast South Korea. According to THAAD’s Wikipedia entry, the system is “designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach”. One presumes THAAD has been deployed in South Korea to protect that country from inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads from North Korea.

Shimatsu and his cameraman travel to Seongju where he meets protesters who tell him they have been protesting against the missile base since July 2016 when it was established. A local person called Kang (who turns out to be a Buddhist monk) takes Shimatsu’s crew to Bodhidharma mountain, named after the founder of Zen Buddhism, where they survey the missile base and take photographs. Shimatsu identifies a Patriot launch vehicle, part of the Patriot system which targets low-flying intermediate-range missiles that the THAAD system does not target. To Shimatsu, the deployment of the Patriot system at the Seongju missile base suggests that the US intends to use the base as part of an offensive attack against North Korea, and possibly China and Russia, and is not intended solely to defend South Korea against North Korean nuclear attack.

Shimatsu and Kang also discuss the strong electricity vibrations being generated in the missile base for the radar unit there and the effect of these vibrations through the mountains on the growth and development of the area’s fruits, vegetables and flowers. Shimatsu later interviews a young university student who tells him that flowers have stopped growing and that produce has dwindled since the missile base was established.

Not much background context is provided in this 12-minute video and viewers need to do their own research on why and how Seongju came to host the missile base – the luxury golf resort at the missile base was the conduit by which the US military obtained access to the real estate at Bodhidharma Mountain and converted it into a military site – under the auspices of former South Korean President Park Geunhye, daughter of the notorious dictator president Park Chunghee (1961 – 1979) who was impeached in early 2017 for corruption linked to her aide Choi Soonsil. There is scanty explanation on how the strong electricity and electromagnetic vibrations from the missile base could be affecting vegetation and people’s health, and if the video had been a bit longer and its budget bigger, an animation or diagram explaining the possible origin of the vibrations and how they are linked to the activities at the base could have been useful.

The most useful aspect of the report is as a wake-up call to communities around the world contemplating hosting military bases for the US, and the consequences these may have for the communities, their economies and their natural environments.

David Bowie Iconic: an unedifying trio of interviews with rock star legend

?, “David Bowie Iconic” (2016)

From the packaging, I thought this DVD was supposed to be a documentary about the British rock / pop legend but instead it turned out to be three interviews from three decades strung together without any unifying theme to them. The interviews are not in chronological order and the topics Bowie discusses with the interviewer have no bearing on his career or personal development. Of the three interviews featured – and God only knows why they were selected – probably the best known is the second interview dating from 1974 when Dick Cavett interviewed Bowie who was then heavily addicted to cocaine and was highly nervous, twitchy and insecure during that interview. The other interviews are dated some time in the mid-1990s and in 1987 and show a much healthier and more self-assured and relaxed Bowie.

A package of Bowie interviews should have shown interviews from most phases of the man’s career from the early 1970s right through to 2015 or whenever it was that Bowie could no longer give interviews due to failing health from liver cancer. In particular interviews about how he and fellow Brit Brian Eno composed and recorded the music for the albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “The Lodger”, collectively regarded as Bowie’s Berlin trilogy even though “Low” was not actually recorded in Berlin, would have been interesting for diehard fans and casual observers alike. How Bowie was able to overcome his addictions, paranoias and fears, and whether the music he made during the late 1970s was therapeutic for him would have been intriguing to know as well. Instead we are treated to rambling stuff about British guitarist Peter Frampton and how Bowie hoped to work with him or bizarre topics like black noise.

There was not even any of Bowie’s music played either to link the interviews or as background music that would allow viewers to appreciate why he is so highly regarded as a rock / pop music innovator and visionary. Needless to say, this DVD should be avoided.

The Family: a moving documentary on a bizarre religious cult that preyed on social utopian ideals and yearnings for a better life

Rosie Jones, “The Family” (2016)

For over 20 years, the quiet town of Eildon and the Melbourne suburb of Ferny Creek played host to a bizarre religious cult led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her de facto husband Bill. Initially teaching a syncretic mix of Christianity and mystical Hinduism, the cult adopted and developed a set of beliefs that taught that a global apocalypse caused either by human hubris or a natural disaster would wipe out most of humanity and there would be only a few survivors. Those survivors would be led by select leaders and the cult’s goal was to supply those leaders by finding and cultivating young children. To that end, Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s cult, known as The Family, recruited members from Newhaven psychiatric hospital in the Melbourne suburb of Kew and collected children from cult members or through adoption organised by doctors, lawyers and social workers associated with the cult. Between the mid-1960s and 1980, The Family had gathered as many as 28 children, all of whom were kept secluded from the outside world, told that Anne was their biological mother, home-schooled and forced to undergo a severe upbringing that included frequent beatings and physical abuse, irregular schedules that Anne changed at whim, and dosing with dangerous psychiatric drugs and hallucinogenic substances like LSD and psilocybin. Only after one of “her” children was expelled from the cult for rebellious behaviour did Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her sycophants come to the attention of Victorian police. Despite limited resources, the tireless detectives raided the buildings at Lake Eildon where the children lived and released them in 1987. Little did they know that after years of beatings and brainwashing that their true ordeal was to begin as Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne fled to the United States.

The documentary proceeds through the use of interviews with the now adult children who endured years of hell, with ex-Family members (and one current member) and with the two police investigators Lex de Man and Peter Spence (?) who poured all their own physical and mental resources in chasing leads to get arrest warrants for the cult leaders and who themselves suffered immensely due to lack of support from their own employers, to trace the history of The Family, how it gained popularity among the upper middle class in Melbourne during the heady days of the late 1960s, coming out of a stultifying and repressive post-World War II culture, and Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s background of childhood poverty, her own institutionalisation and her ability to prey and capitalise on people’s yearning for alternatives to a repressive Christianity and the Sixties’ flirtation with Hinduism. The story is not told chronologically – it does jump back and forth from past to present and back again – and viewers need to piece much information together for themselves. Unfortunately the film gives rather scanty and hodge-podge information about The Family’s teachings which are a mix of apocalyptic Christian beliefs – cult members are told that AH-B is a reincarnation of Jesus – and Hindu beliefs in reincarnation and karma; it may be that the cult’s beliefs changed a great deal over time, more and more favouring AH-B as the messianic fount of all knowledge as she became more controlling and sociopathic. AH-B’s obsession with collecting children with blond hair might indicate an underlying obsession with racial hygiene.

While the film tells us very little about the psychology of AH-B herself, and how she was able to hold so many intelligent and educated people spellbound over several decades, viewers can get some (but not much) idea of the social / political context in which The Family arose and managed to last for so long. Australia in the 1960s was coming out of a long period of social isolation and repressive religion, and the country was exposed to new ideas and beliefs about alternative living and value systems from overseas. There was experimentation with mind-altering drugs as forms of escapism, spiritual awakening and release, and therapy; more sinisterly, the same drugs were being used in mind-control experiments sanctioned by the CIA in North America. One reason that The Family may have lasted as long as it did was that the cult had allies in prominent social and public life in Melbourne who did all they could to stymie police and media investigations going as far back as 1971. The detectives interviewed in the documentary speak of inadequate resourcing and time given to their work, their request for a Royal Commission being knocked back, and an internal police culture that refused to deal with the stress and the trauma of seeing so many people badly affected by years of physical and mental abuse. Ultimately though the film says nothing about whether The Family constitutes a bizarre aberration in Australia’s social and cultural history or if something very like it could appear again in the country. Through AH-B’s own childhood experience of an unstable family life, her crazed attempts to recreate that life and her own institutionalisation in a way that she could control, and how her ideal unravelled so disastrously, we might question the place of institutions like family and notions of what constitute proper parenting in a society where these institutions and beliefs are continually challenged by rapid technological, social and cultural change.

The film pays tribute to Sarah Hamilton-Byrne (later Dr Sarah Moore) who after being expelled from the cult in the late 1980s alerted Victorian police to its existence and activities. Dr Moore continued to experience mental health issues as a result of her upbringing and died in 2016. The documentary is very moving and often depressing as individual cult members describe their experiences. Ultimately though, more questions arise than the film has answers to meet them, as the cult still survives and its victims have not all been compensated or healed.

 

The Coming War on China: a hard-hitting documentary drawing on the history of US relations with the western Pacific

John Pilger, “The Coming War on China” (2016)

Two years in the making with literally a cast of thousands involved in crowd-funding it, Pilger’s “The Coming War on China” might have lost some of its edge due to the passage of time and the ascent of US businessman celebrity Donald Trump to the United States Presidency but it’s still a timely warning of the possibility of war between the US and China and what it means for the countries of the western Pacific Ocean region from Japan and the Koreas in the north down to Australia in the south. The entire documentary is planned like a 2-hour news bulletin / current affairs program complete with four different yet related sections that make up the context to a possible war: the relationship of the US over the decades to the peoples of eastern Asia/ Micronesia, as exercised through American military power, the rise of China from a dirt-poor country to near-superpower status over the last 100 years, and the efforts of peoples in the western Pacific to resist American arrogance, bullying and destruction and to reclaim their lands, dignity and futures.

Pilger’s presentation pulls no punches and is hard-hitting and gritty. The first section of the documentary deals with the American takeover of the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific and the US military use of the islands for nuclear testing. Although the islanders were evacuated before the testing, they were encouraged to return to their homes some years later in spite of the US government’s knowledge that the islands were still radioactive. Through interviews with surviving islanders, Pilger details the horrific health effects such as leukaemia and thyroid cancers that they have had to suffer. Children were born with deformities and mental disabilities, creating an even greater burden on island parents. On those islands with US military bases, the islanders are kept in virtual concentration camps where they dwell in poverty and squalor, and each day are shipped out to the bases in the mornings to perform menial work and in the evenings shipped back home by the authorities.

The second section of the film deals with China’s relations with the West since the 1800s and focuses on the opium wars between China and the British Empire. China’s loss meant that the country was forced to continue buying opium from Britain to feed a growing number of addicts who would constitute a veritable lost generation. A startling revelation is that later US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather was a prime mover and shaker in the opium trade. Pilger glosses quickly over the fall of the Manchu empire, the later warlord period and the rivalry between Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi and Communist leader Mao Zedong. After Mao’s death in 1976, Communist party leadership passed to Deng Xiaoping who initiated the economic policies that led China to prosperity but which also brought greater social inequalities, urban poverty, mass migrations and cemented China’s role in the global economic network as Workshop of the World to the detriment of working peoples in other lands as Western corporations outsourced manufacturing work from their countries of origin to China to take advantage of cheap labour and a relaxing of industrial regulations.

The last sections see Pilger travelling to Okinawa, Jeju island in South Korea and other places to interview people engaged in various forms of resistance to US military bases and continued abuse of the local people through crimes committed by soldiers and contractors (who end up being whisked back home and are never brought to justice) and through scientific experiments misrepresented to locals as beneficial and harmless.

Each section is worthy of a documentary in its own right – indeed, a documentary “Nuclear Savage” was made of the Marshall Islanders’ plight by Adam Horowitz in 2012 – and the links among them and how they form the background to US aggression against China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea will look tenuous to most viewers. The detail can be mind-boggling and viewers are sure to feel knackered when the end credits begin.

The one thing lacking that could have really pulled this entire documentary together more tightly is an examination of the political, economic and financial systems that bind the Wall Street financial industry, arms corporations, the US Department of Defense, the White House, Congress and the various lobby groups on Capitol Hill that fund Federal politicians’ election war chests. Pilger does not go into much detail as to where all the billions of greenbacks spent on the military actually go: he notes that some military equipment is increasingly faulty, causing danger for local people living near military bases on Okinawa and other parts of Japan, but does not link this to the corruption in US defense spending in which hundreds of millions spent seem to go down a black hole drainpipe and the Pentagon is unable to account for the lost money. Pilger needs no farther to look than the trouble-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program with its notorious cost blow-outs, various defects and the possibility that the whole concept of a generalist stealth fighter jet reliant on electronics is impractical and outdated.

In spite of the emphasis on US government arrogance, racism and stupidity, Pilger’s underlying message is that people armed with knowledge of past US crimes can resist and push back against US power. If audiences knew the truth of what has and continues to be done in their name, they would reject the lies and propaganda that the corporate media establishment surrounds them with. How people can fight back, Pilger does not say: he cannot offer a general program of how people can and should resist US global tyranny, as resistance needs to be localised and diverse in its tactics.

A significant political interview of amazing revelations in “Secret World of the US Election: Julian Assange Talks to John Pilger”

John Pilger, “Secret World of the US Election: Julian Assange Talks to John Pilger” (RT.com, October 2016)

One famous Australian journalist talking to another famous Australian journalist should be a major media event covered by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation or the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) but unsurprisingly neither of these networks was interested in promoting, let alone broadcasting, excerpts of John Pilger’s astonishing interview of Assange in which nearly every reply Assange gives to Pilger is a jaw-dropping revelation of the depths of the corruption of one of the two major candidates in the 2016 US Presidential elections – I’m referring of course to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate – as revealed in Wikileaks’ releases of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s email server and leaked to Assange’s organisation. The really amazing thing about this interview is that both Assange and Pilger manage to keep their nerve talking about Clinton’s connections to Saudi Arabia and Qatar among others through her and her husband Bill’s humanitarian charity Clinton Foundation and those nations’ funding of ISIS; her obsessive pursuit of regime change in Libya that resulted in Muammar Ghaddafi’s death and mutilation; and the US political establishment’s attempts to derail the other US Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign, among other matters discussed.

Those who can’t or won’t bring themselves to believe that Hillary Clinton is steeped in corruption and has broken numerous US laws, from laws on government record-keeping to laws on the conduct of private charities, the law on perjury and laws regarding conflicts of interest during her time as US Secretary of State (2009 – 2013), are advised to refer to various blogs and websites (not all of which are politically partisan) detailing her many blunders and crimes: 21st Century Wire is one good website as are also Club Orlov and Off-Guardian.org among others.

The excerpts from Pilger and Assange’s conversation are gathered up into two main subject groups: the Podesta emails detailing the scope of Hillary Clinton’s numerous conflicts of interest, and Assange’s own predicament, holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, awaiting possible extradition by the UK to Sweden on trumped-up charges of rape.

Without a doubt, this interview must be one of the most significant political interviews of 2016 and it is a great pity and tragedy that it isn’t more widely known and broadcast in Australia at least, if not in the United States. The interview and its transcript can be viewed at this link.

Channel 24 (Russia) Interview with First Lady of Syria Asma al Assad: a riveting conversation with a classy lady

Channel 24 (Russia) Interview with First Lady of Syria Asma al Assad (18 October 2016)

In contrast to so many female politicians and spouses of world leaders, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al Assad comes across as a natural and genuine person, well-spoken, intelligent and perceptive, in her first interview with a foreign interviewer in 8 years. Asma al Assad talks about her experiences in carrying out charitable works and projects of social and economic advancement in Syria, and in holding the country together under continuous assault from jihadi groups and those Western and Middle Eastern countries that finance and supply them with arms, advice and new fighters. As of the time of interview, her projects to improve Syrian people’s lives, particularly the lives of young people, are still ongoing though her focus is now on helping the families of soldiers and others who have died or are injured as a result of war. Asma al Assad speaks warmly of her husband, describing him as calm, approachable and easy to talk to, and explains why so far she has refused all offers (all non-Syrian) of sanctuary for herself and her children away from Syria. She expresses confidence in the country’s future and ability to rebuild its society and infrastructure.

Mrs Assad is a thoughtful interviewee, very articulate, and highly critical of Western duplicity and hypocrisy in portraying the situation in Syria to the public outside Syria. Having worked as an analyst in a major investment bank in the UK (where she was born and attended school and university) and in Europe, Mrs Assad was well prepared for the role of First Lady, tackling social problems in Syrian society, and easily sees through the apparent generosity of those Western countries that offered her asylum and financial security during the current war. She presents a very calm demeanour and her voice tends to be rather monotone. A contemporary young Western audience might find Mrs Assad rather boring to watch and listen to, and not at all glamorous or dramatic. Yet whatever glamour she emanates – and she does look like someone of class – comes from her inner being. The result is an interview that, while it does not touch on anything different from the narrative of war, suffering, Western hypocrisy and having to battle propaganda that we have come to expect, is nevertheless riveting.

Portrait of a major 20th-century literary icon and his impact on Western culture in “William Burroughs: Man Within”

Yony Leyser, “William Burroughs: Man Within” (2010)

An obvious labour of love for Yony Leyser, this documentary on subversive US experimental novelist and artist William S Burroughs and his place in 20th-century Western culture takes viewers on an often bewildering tour of the man’s achievements and private obsessions, fears and loves through interviews with those friends, acquaintances and associates who knew him well. Like the man himself, the film turns out to be very layered, focusing on Burroughs as a writer, role model, friend and above all a human being with all the fears and frailties that human flesh is heir to. For some people, a portrait of a highly contradictory, misanthropic yet often lonely man with a hunger for love and security may emerge; for others, Burroughs’ wicked black humour, often delivered po-faced style in that distinctive dry and gravelly voice of his, may be the most impressive aspect of the man.

The documentary’s structure is generally chronological, beginning with Burroughs’ early years as part of the beatnik movement along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and moving through his junkie period in the 1950s (which gave him the material for early novels like “Junkie” and “The Naked Lunch”) and his friendship with British artist Brion Gysin which was to influence his style of writing profoundly. Fortunately the film also attempts to make sense of the many strands of Burroughs’ artistic work by segmenting his work and the associated connections into broad categories of writing, music, the visual arts and hobbies and other extracurricular activities such as collecting guns and cats; this does mean that the film does go backwards and forward in time against its general chronological structure. There is some voice-over narration by US actor Peter Weller (best known for playing the cyborg in “Robocop”) but the bulk of the documentary is driven by interviews with several well-known artists, musicians and writers as director John Waters, singers Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, members of Sonic Youth, director David Cronenberg and above all performance artist / musician Genesis Breyer P-Orridge who knew Burroughs well during the 1980s and who offers quite deep and interesting insights into Burroughs’ character.

The film is sure to appeal to Burroughs fans and people unfamiliar with his life. Unfortunately there’s not much detail about the novels that made Burroughs famous apart from the observation that novels like “The Naked Lunch” were really a warning about the dangers of heroin addiction and not an encouragement to embark on the Tao of Narcotics. Disappointingly there’s nothing about later novels like “The Soft Machine” and “The Ticket That Exploded” which explored drug and sexual addiction as a form of control restricting human freedom and development, or “The Western Lands” which confronts death by investigating dream states and hallucinations, magic and the occult. The documentary is also not much interested in exploring Burroughs’ politics, inasmuch as they influenced his writing and the themes of psychological and social control that appear in his novels.

Inevitably the film surveys the influence that Burroughs has had on popular culture, notably rock and pop music, name-checking musicians across three generations and of various genres, in particular punk and new wave. The hit parade of Burroughs acolytes does take on a cult-like aspect and one sometimes wonders just how deep an impact Burroughs really has made on people like Sting and U2.

The film is no less inventive and complex than Burroughs’ style in its use of animation, historical film, Burroughs’ own spoken-word performances and excerpts of his writings. It ends on an unexpected revelation that casts the man in a new light. Yony Leyser is to be much commended for the way in which he has shaped the film’s narrative which mirrors the way in which Burroughs wrote much of his work.