A tale of two countries, the question of independence and misrepresentation of the truth on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)” (RT.com, 8 March 2014)

I haven’t been following this weekly series of interviews since December 2013 – I made up my mind to tune in only if someone of interest featured on the show – and Episode 17 piqued my interest as it features RT.com legal commentator Alexander Mercouris giving his opinion and insights on the Western media’s presentation of events in Ukraine since November 2013. As a visitor to and commenter on Russia-related blogs The Kremlin Stooge and Da Russophile, I’ve come across Mercouris’s comments on many topics that the blog authors and their guests post and have occasionally conversed with Mercouris myself. If this background means of course that I’m biased in my assessment of this episode, then so be it: at this point in time, I think it impossible to be impartial on the events in Ukraine and how they are being interpreted in the Western press, if one believes that the role of the media is not only to report accurately on events as they occur but also strive for truth and be an advocate for those whose interests are not served or enhanced by violent seizures of power from legitimately elected governments (no matter how incompetent and corrupt those governments may be) by groups who pretend to be one thing but serve hidden masters and agendas.

Mercouris is a clear-voiced and articulate speaker who is easy to follow, thanks to his careful arguments which are evidence of his ability and legal experience in analysing complex issues. Galloway’s interview of Mercouris focuses largely on the telephone conversation between Baroness Ashton, chief foreign envoy of the European Union, and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet who at the time of their conversation had just returned from a fact-finding mission about the demonstrations and shootings on the Maidan in Kyiv over February and March in 2014. In their conversation (hacked and made public by Russian hackers), Paet speaks of talking to a woman doctor who is not identified in the conversation but is known to be Dr Olga Bogomolets, a pro-Maidan supporter, about the attacks on the Maidan demonstrators by unknown snipers on 22 February 2014. Bogomolets mentions that she treated both the police and some of the demonstrators for bullet wounds and noted that the bullets that hit the police were similar to those that hit the demonstrators: an indication that the bullets came from the same fire-arms.

Galloway and Mercouris note that the phone conversation is calm in its discussion of the sniper attacks and that Ashton expresses surprise and shock and makes noises about investigating the sniper attacks. Since the attacks though, Ashton appears to have done little to start an investigation. Mercouris  compares the sniper attacks with the ongoing war in Syria, noting that the same people who funded the neo-fascist seizure of power in Kyiv, forcing the legitimate if weak President Yanukovych to flee for his life to Russia, are much the same people funding the Free Syria Army and jihadi forces in Syria against President Bashar al Assad. Both interviewer and interviewee agree that if Ukraine is to avoid falling apart, with eastern Ukraine threatening to break away after the recent Crimean referendum in which Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the West must work together with Russia to help Ukraine financially.

In just under 14 minutes, both interviewer and interviewee can’t hope to cover all aspects of the crisis in Kyiv and Ukraine. They note that the Western media has done a poor job in reporting the situation there: while mainstream news media in the US have completely ignored events in that faraway country, so-called quality news media like the BBC have misrepresented the situation as one in which Russia is the villain threatening Ukrainian integrity and must be stopped with threats of war or actual war. Unfortunately neither Galloway nor Mercouris touch on why the Western media might be doing such a shoddy job, nor why a situation exists in which the quality news media tells more lies than the tabloid news media, for all its obsession with celebrity gossip and sport, does. The time passes very quickly and Galloway is forced to cut off his interview quite abruptly.

Galloway’s second interview is with a former UK Labour Cabinet minister, Brian Wilson, who happens to be a long-time friend of Galloway’s and who plans to tour with Galloway promoting the “No” case against Scottish independence ahead of the September 2014 referendum. Surprisingly, Galloway does not compare the upcoming Scottish referendum on the question of independence with the mid-March referendum in Crimea on whether to accede to Russia or revert to the 1992 Ukrainian Constitution’s position on Crimea’s status in Ukraine (in which the peninsula would enjoy autonomy under Ukrainian sovereignty) though I suppose to have done so would have bogged him and Wilson down in a long discussion comparing the two.

Wilson makes a point that Scottish people living and working in England apparently will be unable to vote in the referendum; though he does not elaborate further, that fact may well suggest that the organisers of the referendum have chosen to obscure the extent to which the Scottish economy is enmeshed with the economy of the rest of the UK and independence could have quite adverse consequences on Scottish employment levels. Would Scottish people living and working in other parts of the UK be forced to return to Scotland where there may not be any jobs available in the general industry area these people work in? For that matter, would non-Scottish UK citizens have to leave Scotland to try to find work elsewhere in the UK – and end up finding none? Additionally Wilson points out that the obsession with independence and Scottish identity might be obfuscating other more pressing issues that Scots are interested in. If Scottish identity depends on Scotland being independent, then Scottish identity might be very weak to begin with and independence will not solve that problem. The experience of Ukraine as an independent country since 1991, during which time the government made few attempts to establish a Ukrainian identity and a Ukrainian culture to bring together and unite different groups with varying histories, languages, religions and cultures, should serve as a warning.

There’s much to be said for Wilson and Galloway’s case against independence for Scotland but 13 minutes just aren’t enough time for a deeper discussion and the “No” case seems a bit superficial. I’ll have to find out more myself about what independence might mean for Scotland and whether there’s a real case for the “No” cause.

Though Galloway and his missus Gayatri Pertiwi might not have realised at the time, Scotland could learn something from Ukraine’s experience of independence and proceed a bit more cautiously down the road towards breaking away from the United Kingdom. The case for independence may not be as clear-cut as Scottish voters might be led into thinking it is.

The Syrian Diary: a valuable historical document giving an alternate viewpoint on the Syrian civil war

“The Syrian Diary” (Rossiya 24, 2013)

Made for Russian television, this documentary follows Rossiya 24 reporter Anastasia Popova and a Syrian army unit she is attached to (or embedded with, depending on your point of view) as the soldiers move through parts of Damascus to flush out and fight so-called “rebel” soldiers of the Free Syria Army. The documentary makers are unabashedly firm supporters of the Assad government and Syrian army forces. As such, this film is a valuable historical document as it shows a snapshot of the Syrian civil war from the point of view of pro-Assad supporters and also interviews three women with first-hand experience of the war and its effects on civilians. Given that so much Western mainstream news reporting about events in Syria is extremely biased against Assad, the intention being to support without question US desires to invade Syria and depose Assad, alternate opinions and ways of viewing the conflict, however dispassionate, are needed and very welcome in creating and developing a more complex and nuanced picture of what is happening on the ground.

The film’s narrative structure is not always too clear from the jumpy collages of individual accounts spliced hurriedly together. We jump from one interviewee to another but a few people dominate: Yara Saleh, a reporter herself; Bassem, a soldier who has lost a father and brother; Bassem’s wife Nadia; a middle-aged man; Mikhail, a reporter; and the widow of Amir, a friend of Bassem and Popova, who was tortured and executed by FSA forces. Through these people and others, we see themes developing: the loyalty and support for Syrian army troops demonstrated by the Syrian public, who turn out in their droves to hail and congratulate the soldiers; the soldiers’ willingness to die for Syria, their discipline and good natures; the bewilderment of Syrians at the lies being built up around their country by Western governments; and the barbaric behaviour of the FSA men in their treatment of civilians and the way they butcher their victims.

Call it propaganda, yes, but the film does flesh out what many alternative underground news media websites and other outlets have long suggested about the FSA forces: many if not most come from other countries (Libya and Saudi Arabia are mentioned), the fighters are young, illiterate, ignorant of their history and their Islamic religion, and untutored in the ways of the world. The fighters swallow whatever lies they are told by Saudi-funded Wahhabi “sheikhs” who most likely know nothing of Islam and its principles themselves. Disturbingly, the film mentions that many FSA fighters are on drugs and commit outrageously brutal and sickening acts of violence and desecration while under the influence of these drugs. Where these substances come from and who is supplying them and why are never known: one does not need an IQ in triple digits to guess that these drugs are most probably psychoactive substances made in some First World country and then delivered to middlemen parties in Middle Eastern petro-sheikhdoms who supply them along with weapons, ammunition and willing if gullible young men to Syria.

There are heart-breaking scenes of Amir’s treatment by the FSA rebels who obsessively film everything they do and then release the videos to Western news media with claims that government troops carried out the atrocities. A segment on Syrian soldiers praises their stamina and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their brother soldiers and their country, and portrays them as a sober and disciplined fighting force. A small section shows the soldiers goofing around on a bicycle and talking and laughing with children. Something of the generosity and hospitality of Syrians themselves, their religious tolerance, their reverence for their land and their love of a good time with lots of rhythmic sinuous music and dancing shines throughout the documentary.

Only the most obtuse can come away unmoved by this documentary. I recommend this film to all viewers following the news about Syria’s internal conflict and who are heartily sick of the Western news media’s performance in covering the civil war.

Hidden truths revealed (or maybe not) on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 2)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 2)” (RT.com, 23 November 2013)

Broadcast on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, this episode partly focuses on the various conspiracy theories surrounding the death and whether any of these might be closer to the truth of what actually happened and if Lee Harvey Oswald really had been capable of shooting JFK on his own. Interviewee Michael Yardley, a weapons expert, talks at length on Oswald’s background and on the physical context of the shooting as it related to the wounds suffered by the President and the film evidence of the shooting. Yardley regards Oswald as a “deeply suspicious” character whose loyalties and ideological beliefs are extremely dodgy, and refers to a number of conspiracy theories revolving around Oswald in which the CIA and other organisations seem to be linked to him. Yardley discusses the logistics of the killing and finds that Oswald could have killed Kennedy. The interviewee also delves into the circumstances of Robert Kennedy’s killing in a Los Angeles hotel in 1968.

In the episode’s second half, the focus switches to the Chilcot inquiry into the British government’s conduct in the period leading up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 with interviewee David Davis, a Conservative Party politician. Davis refers to the snail pace at which the inquiry has proceeded due to the obfuscation thrown up by the political establishment and the embarrassment this has caused as the delays only confirm the public distrust of the government and its agencies. Davis looks at likely reasons as to why the Chilcot inquiry is blocked by the refusal of relevant institutions to co-operate with the inquiry. Despite having supported the intervention in 2003, Davis acknowledges that the invasion has failed in its supposed aims of delivering democracy to Iraq and freedom for its people, that it has caused much suffering to Iraqis and damaged US and British standing in the Muslim world, and that it has discredited the US and UK political establishments in the eyes of their people.

The switch from the JFK assassination to the Chilcot inquiry is rather abrupt – I was watching the episode on Youtube so all the advertisement had been removed – and I’d have liked the assassination to have taken up the entire episode rather than half. Admittedly while the details of the assassination are interesting, they add nothing new to the topic that most people already know. What really was interesting was Galloway and Pertiwi’s brief chat about the Kennedy brothers’ link to President Sukarno of Indonesia; whether the assassination marked a turning-point in Indonesia’s relationship to United States and might have led to Sukarno’s overthrow in 1965, and the subsequent bloodbath that followed as the Indonesian Army pursued, imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of people suspected of Communist sympthaties, was not discussed and perhaps we shall never know. Perhaps if Galloway had steered Yardley away from the details of the shooting and the two discussed the conspiracy theories surrounding the killing, why they continue to persist and what the persistence of these theories suggest about people’s views of JFK himself, the discussion might have been much more riveting.

Both interviews are very absorbing and the time passes so quickly that when Galloway terminates both interviews, the shock that the minutes have sped by is truly disorienting.

As usual with these episodes, Galloway and Pertiwi converse a little about the topics under scrutiny and Galloway casually mentions that former US President George H W Bush, the then CIA Director, happened to be in Dallas at the time of JFK’s shooting.

Spotlighting systemic racism in Britain on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 4)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 4)” (RT.com, December 2013)

In this episode, the Galloways enquire into institutional racism in the United Kingdom. First off, Gayatri Pertiwi tours the streets of London collecting opinions of the general public on whether they consider Britain to be a racist country; not surprisingly, she finds the responses depend very much on the perceptions and experiences of the individuals she stops. Taken together, the responses point to an underlying racial prejudice that persists thanks to a worsening economic situation, a rise in social inequality and deliberate fanning by the nation’s media and institutions including the Cameron government, the police and the court system.

Galloway interviews social and political activist Lee Jasper who wrote a report on racism in Britain. Jasper reveals that racism is deeply embedded in current government policies and government agencies and that this is generating wide consequences throughout society. The racism is directed not only against black British and Asian British (“Asian” in this context refers to people whose antecedents come from the Indian subcontinent) but also against travellers, Roma, Bulgarians and Romanians. Especially worrying is how racism has become rife in the police force and the law courts.

Next up is Stephen Norris, a former London Mayor candidate and member of the Conservative Party, who discusses racism in the police force. He and Galloway refer to various scandals that have dogged the police including the death of Mark Duggan in police custody in 2011 which set off riots across Britain and agree that the police have not dealt with these scandals sufficiently enough that perpetrators have been arraigned and charged with serious crimes. Particularly alarming is the extent to which police supply information to a greedy press in exchange for money.

The Galloways sum up the episode by canvassing Twitter responses on the extent of institutional racism in the UK. They find that most people agree that while Britain is much less racist than, say, France or the Netherlands, and indeed most other countries in western Europe, the situation is worsening; one respondent says that the media is stoking fear of immigrants and blacks among the general public. Galloway himself observes that as the economy declines and people compete for a shrinking share of jobs, racism will increase and politicians will whip it up for what it’s worth as they see votes in it.

This is a highly informative episode on how racism has become resurgent in a country under enormous social and economic pressure, and how governments and media collude in dividing people and encouraging mutual hostility and distrust among them, the better to control them and profit from their divisions and suffering. The racism comes at a time when the Cameron government is floundering in its management of the economy and government, and needs something to divert public attention away from its general incompetence and isolation from the public (several of Cameron’s Cabinet ministers have little real-world experience in industry and are basically career politicians and party bureaucrats), and its genuflections before powerful hidden corporate interests. The suspicion that in spite of the tapping scandals at News Corporation the Cameron government continues to work secretly with the Murdoch-owned media for cash is never far away. At the same time, the Galloways and their interviewees do not offer any suggestions as to how racial prejudice can be eradicated from the police and judiciary. At the very least, this last episode in the Galloways’ Sputnik series serves to alert people to a deep and ongoing problem in British society.

Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 3) – talk-show politics and current affairs with a very slick media performer

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 3)” (RT.com, November 2013)

In addition to representing Bradford West in the British Parliament, the politician / writer George Galloway found time to make a 4-episode series on global politics and current affairs with his wife Putri Gayatri Pertiwi. In Episode 3, he interviews John Wight on peace talks between the US and Iran over the Iranian nuclear energy program and Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross on the plight of Christian communities in Syria during the Syrian war between the Bashar al Assad government and so-called “rebels” fighting for its overthrow.

The episode divides into two parts each dominated by Galloway’s two guests. John Wight discusses the situation in Syria and how it reflects the posturing of the Western powers, in particular the US, and their allies in Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who have interests in the continuation of the Syrian war. The influence of the Western general public and the British government on delaying (temporarily at least) the Americans’ headlong rush into committing US troops to support and fight alongside the Free Syrian Army and other insurgents is touched upon. In the second half of the episode, Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross talks about the difficulties and dangers faced by Syrian Christians from extremist Islamic militants in the FSA.

Galloway is the dominant figure throughout the episode with his slick presentation style (though perhaps he should have been advised that some viewers would find his high-collared suit, reminiscent of suits once worn by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, somewhat disturbing – but he would probably tell such viewers to bugger off) that is finely attuned to hosting a current affairs talk show. Pertiwi plays distinct second fiddle and side-kick to Galloway by presenting additional information and videos of questions posed to the general British public on Iran and Syria. John Wight knows George Galloway and is able to hold his own in discussion while Mother Agnes Mariam is a very softly spoken interviewee.

For those who know a fair deal about Syria from following alternative news media on the Internet, Wight and Mother Agnes Mariam do not add much new information. Those following mainstream news media are not likely to have heard of Mother Agnes Mariam or her organisation Mussalaha (Reconciliation), which strives to mediate disputes, and thus do not know of the harassment and slandering that follow her in the West due to her support for the Syrian government. In recent months, the nun has been trying to call attention to the FSA rebels’ kidnapping of women and children from villages in parts of Syria in August 2013 and the kidnapped people’s exploitation as apparent victims of chemical warfare supposedly waged by the Syrian government later in month on videos made by the rebels. The nun has been met with silence at least and outright vilification by anti-war groups in the West. Indeed, Galloway refers to an incident in which Mother Agnes Mariam was barred from attending a Stop the War Conference in London by Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill. It would have been most informative had Galloway devoted the entire interview to the nun and discussed with her what she thought of the incident and why it happened.

That Mother Agnes Mariam supports the Syrian government in the war does not automatically mean she supports or has supported its style of governance or the policies it has pursued. The Syrian government has followed secular policies since a group of army officers who were members of the Ba’ath Party seized power in a coup in 1963. All the army officers involved were Shi’a Muslims of the Alawite sect. In the years that followed, one of the officers, Hafez al Assad, removed his fellow coup leaders and became President in 1971; he replaced the old Syrian power elite with one of his choosing. Now ironically, the power elite he installed is intent on maintaining power (and perhaps forcing or persuading al Assad’s son and successor Bashar in continuing the old ways). Under Alawite rule, religious minorities may not have had very much freedom but they at least enjoyed security and stability so in the current chaos it should be no wonder that they prefer the devil the know to the devil they don’t.

I did respect Jeremy Scahill before for previous investigative reporting he has done on Blackwater Inc and the Obama government’s secret drone wars in the Middle East but my opinion of him since has been dropping so I was not too surprised to discover that he’d been instrumental in pushing Mother Agnes Mariam out of the StW Conference.

I did find the Galloways a little too slick and “media-whorish” for my liking. They are very highly opinionated and I suspect they only invite those interviewee subjects whose views and opinions match or correspond with their own. Their hearts and minds are in the right place and I sense they are basically decent so I will try to follow the other episodes they have done if only to confirm my intuition which is usually only 50% right.


Change My Race: documentary on deracialisation reveals an Australia unsure of its place in a world changing for the worse

Julia Redmond and Rhian Skirving, “Change My Race” (2013)

This SBS production is a disturbing enquiry into a new trend known as “deracialisation” in which young Australians of Asian, African and Middle Eastern background are undergoing often drastic forms of plastic surgery to look more Western or Caucasian and fit a narrow Western ideal of beauty. Actor Anna Choy presents and narrates this documentary that’s part investigative journalism and part personal journey into what it means to be Australian and to be accepted as Australian or not, based on one’s looks. Through interviews with surgeons, young women yearning to look less Asian and more Caucasian, a counsellor and a feminist commentator, Choy confronts the extremes to which people are willing to risk their money and health, and perhaps future happiness, to go under the knife and conform to an ideal that for the most part is unrealistic and dictated by a small group of powerful men in distant lands.

After a quick introduction in which she dissects the Australian standard of feminine beauty, Choy whisks off to South Korea and visits the trendy Gangnam district (the place that singer Psy pokes fun at) of Seoul where some 500 plastic surgeons specialise in facial reconstruction that makes Korean women look more Western. The baby-faced look with large double-lidded eyes and a V-shaped jawline culminating in a neat pointy chin, typical of K-pop girl singers (many of whom may have had similar surgery or whose features are altered in magazines and music videos), is popular throughout South Korea. A commentator Choy visits says that facial reconstruction in South Korea took off after the country began opening to the West in the early 1990s after the downfall of the military government and women’s magazines that focused on diet, beauty and looks proliferated.

The rest of the documentary revolves around three young Australian girls who come under pressure to change their looks. Kathy, a Vietnamese-Australian girl, is pushed by her parents into a nose / chin / eyelid job; a girl of Thai ethnicity adopted by an Australian family jets off to Bangkok for breast augmentation surgery followed by a holiday; and a girl of mixed Sri Lankan-British ancestry talks about being bullied at school in the remote Queensland town of Mackay for her dark looks and using skin-lightening cream during her teenage years to be more acceptable to her peers. Along the way Choy visits a counsellor who has seen many young Australians wrestling with identity issues because of their non-Caucasian appearance and talks to a feminist commentator about the role that Western ideals of beauty play in society and how these heavily saturate people’s subconscious feelings and minds. Also interviewed briefly is an African pharmacist in Australia who admits she sells skin-lightening creams to black Afro-Australian customers though she’d rather not: the creams often contain dangerous substances like steroids which have the potential to ruin people’s health and even kill.

The program moves fairly briskly and has time for Anna Choy’s personal reminiscences about what it was like for her growing up Asian in a country of non-Asian faces and how this has deeply affected her sense of identity and confidence. The film bogs down during scenes of Choy’s own self-interrogation and her emotional reactions but quickly picks up its main themes again. The documentary does a good job of emphasising that a global power elite dictates acceptable beauty standards to women around the world through the global fashion industry and the media and subsidiary industries like cosmetics and skin care that prop it up. On the other hand, the film is not exactly about advocacy journalism so there is no call to arms against a network of industries, organisations and figures who work together to brainwash men and women alike into accepting an unrealistic and narrow notion of beauty and achieving that beauty.

The really sobering aspect of the documentary is the suggestion that Australia as a multicultural and tolerant society is less so than it believes itself to be and that this tolerance is very fragile. Australia as a society is not confident in itself and of its place in the world. Due to global economic, political and social forces beyond its control, Australia is likely to feel less confident and more confused about its identity and its role in the world, and those people who because of their appearance don’t fit an ever more narrowly defined notion of what it means to be Australian are likely to feel the brunt of mainstream Australian frustration and anger resulting in prejudice, discrimination and violence.


Blackfish: a direct demonstration of corporate exploitation of humans and animals alike

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, “Blackfish” (2013)

It’s as much advocacy journalism as documentary and makes no apologies for aiming at the heart as much as the brain: “Blackfish” is a heart-rending account of an incident at the Sea World marine park in Orlando in 2010 in which an orca named Tilikum drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau after a performance and the context of that incident. The historical context stretches as far back as the 1970s when boats used to go out to Vancouver and then Iceland to capture young orcas for Seaworld marine parks. The documentary covers Sea World’s treatment and care for its captive orcas and the hiring of the people who perform with the animals and are responsible for their training. As an advocate for the release of orcas from captivity and to return them to the wild or in marine nursing-homes where they might enjoy some semblance of a natural life, and for allowing the animals to live free from harassment in safe environments, “Blackfish” is second to none.

Through interviews with former Sea World orca trainers, whale researchers and a man who used to capture orcas for Sea World, viewers are exposed to the Sea World view of both orcas, other captive marine mammals and trainers: both animals and Sea World employees are expected to bring in audiences and revenue and to churn out profits for the company. The animals receive the minimum care, food and shelter the company deigns to give them and the employees receive training in feeding and caring for the animals, and in performing with them. Although the film is very strong on describing how the animals are abused and exploited as circus performers, it is less effective in demonstrating how the trainers themselves are also exploited for their sympathy for the creatures’ well-being. The trainers come to love the animals as extensions of their own families and Sea World capitalises on and exploits this concern.

The film dwells at length on Tilikum’s previous history of injuring and killing a Sea World trainer at Sea World Pacific in Vancouver and how this was kept secret from the trainers at Sea World in Orlando when he was transferred there. The trainers had to find out themselves about his history and his interactions with his Vancouver trainers. There is also some information about the trial held over Brancheau’s death, during which representatives of Sea World obfuscated the court on circumstances surrounding the trainer’s drowning and how information about Tilikum’s behaviour was withheld from the Orlando marine park employees.

If the film appears very one-sided, that’s mainly because Sea World itself refused requests for interviews from Cowperthwaite and her team. Viewers learn very little about Sea World’s history, how the company was founded and what its aims were originally. It will astonish most people to learn that the company was originally owned by Anheuser-Busch, a brewery company, for nearly 50 years before it was sold to the Blackstone Group LP, a financial management company specialising in investment funds and financial advisory services. If Sea World’s aims had included giving people a greater understanding of cetacean and other marine mammal behaviour and life, this understanding seems not to have made much impression on Sea World’s management and owners: the trainers themselves often have considerable knowledge about orcas but they acquire this through their own efforts and by sharing information among themselves (though not with other Sea World trainers outside their own parks – they aren’t allowed to do so) and they readily admit that they were drawn to working with orcas through having visited Sea World in the past as children. One trainer says that she thought trainers needed advanced degrees to apply to work with orcas but discovers that the only qualifications needed are personality and the ability to swim! Other trainers refer in oblique ways to the culture of conformity at the company and the way in which Sea World takes advantage of trainers’ youth, naivety, energy and eagerness to work with and care for orcas, to treat the trainers in appalling ways.

As an example of directly demonstrating the way in which corporations chew up and spit out their employees and assets – be they humans, orcas and other sea mammals – alike as money-making machines for profit, “Blackfish” has little competition: it’s a highly impassioned and very moving documentary that held me spellbound all the way through. Scenes in which mother orcas grieve for the loss of their young are highly emotional.

As to why Sea World should have invested so much in keeping and training orcas for entertainment when the company could have used dolphins, one surmises that it’s the orca’s large size and reputation as top-order predator of the seas – orcas are known also as killer whales and sea wolves – as much as its playfulness, intelligence and distinctive looks that attracted Sea World to capturing them. There might also be a sinister motive: that the capture and use of orcas to provide entertainment and the promotion of an image of orcas as cute animals mask that age-old Christian desire to control the natural world and force it into the service of human greed.

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

Klaus Toft, “Killers in Eden” (2004)

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

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

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

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

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


The Gatekeepers: a powerful indictment of Israel’s obsession with security and use of fear, terror and violence

Dror Moresh, “The Gatekeepers” (2012)

An astonishing and powerful documentary about the Israeli internal intelligence security agency Shin Bet as seen through the eyes and viewpoints of six former heads of that service, “The Gatekeepers” turns out to be an indictment of Israel’s obsession with its security and resort to continual violence and terror in resolving its conflicts with Palestinians and neighbouring countries, and the instability and corruption such violence causes to Israel and the Palestinians alike. Moresh initially was moved to make this film after seeing the Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara” which dealt with the life and experiences of the former US Secretary of Defense.

The documentary takes the form of interwoven interviews between Moresh and his six interviewees and is set out in seven segments that follow a loose chronological structure starting with Shin Bet’s emergence as a result of the Six Day War in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the present day. Each segment focuses on a significant incident or series of incidents in which the Shin Bet was involved and which had a significant effect on Israeli government policy, public opinion and society generally. The interviews are embellished with archival footage and computer-generated reconstructions that approximate what happened.

Although the film appears dry, its impact and importance come through the men’s descriptions of their own feelings and views about their actions and the orders they were given by successive Israeli Prime Ministers like Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres among others. The former heads’ disgust for those politicians who bullied them and Shin Bet into performing hateful actions that killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of Palestinians and traumatised thousands more, yet hung out the Shin Bet heads to twist and wither in the condemnation of the Israeli media and public opinion, is very clear in the segment on the Bus 300 affair in which Shin Bet agents executed two Palestinian bus hijackers while the two men were tied up and helpless. Soon after this shocking incident, Avraham Shalom, one of Moresh’s interviewees, resigned as Shin Bet head and was pardoned, yet the memory of the incident in which he ordered the killings at the behest of the government affected him deeply at the time of interview nearly 30 years later.

Later segments in the film dealing with the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s, the rise of extremism among born-again Jews and the Jewish settler movement, and the targeted assassination of prominent Hamas leaders and members like Yahya Ayyash show how the Israeli government’s reliance on terror and violence to thwart Palestinian aspirations to self-determination and right to land stolen from them has steadily corrupted both Israeli politics and society, and traumatised Israelis as well as Palestinians. Each side ends up being driven to commit more desperate and deadly acts of violence and killing which escalate in scale, inhumanity and impact, and leave the other side even more psychologically wounded and intent on revenge.

The focus on interviewing the former Shin Bet heads has the unfortunate effect of ignoring the wider effect on Israeli society and economy. The constant obsession with repressing the Palestinian people privileges certain segments of Israeli society and entrenches their power and influence over Israel institutions. At the same time, other issues in Israeli culture and society are ignored and government spending on dealing and resolving these issues is either scant or even declining. As I write, I can Google for information on the levels of poverty in Israel and find articles reporting that Israel has the highest poverty rate and the highest child poverty rate, with 1 in 3 children living in poverty, of the OECD countries. This is before we even consider the levels of destitution facing Arabs in pre-1967 Israel and Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. I can also Google for information on the levels of social and economic equality in Israel and discover to my amazement that a very small number of families there control over half the nation’s wealth and wield incredible influence over society.

The former Shin Bet heads admit that they have behaved immorally and criminally, and see the irony of their having treated Palestinians almost as dismally as the Nazis treated Jews during World War II. The climax of the film comes when all of them express contempt for past Israeli Prime Ministers and governments, and advocate dialogue with all Palestinians, including groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that were or are dedicated to wiping out the Israeli state, as the only way to resolve conflict and bring about peace. As one of the interviewees jokingly admits, retirement from Shin Bet has made him a little bit “leftist”.

Even if Israel as a whole were to turn to peaceful diplomacy and conflict resolution, the path ahead is still strewn with problems, of which the major one is certainly the United States and other Western countries and the lobby groups in those countries’ governments that have an interest in prolonging conflict and using Israel as an enforcer to steal the natural resources of Middle Eastern countries and deny all Middle Eastern peoples, Jews, Muslims and other religious groups there alike, the right to control and determine their own destinies and use their territories’ wealth to secure their own well-being.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God – depravity, denial and abuse of power in Catholic paedophilia scandal

Alex Gibney, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” (2012)

No matter what narrative or other devices are used to tell or illustrate an issue, there are some topics that are just so horrific in what they tell us about the extent of human depravity, and also so tragic in what they also tell us about how much people will deny the depravity and corruption they see, hear and know, that regardless of the style of their delivery, I and other viewers will still feel sick to the point of vomiting or passing out. Yet the topics can be so urgent that, nauseous as I feel, I know I can’t avoid them no matter how ugly they are. Such was how I felt when I heard that this documentary on paedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States was showing in Sydney; even though the documentary was being screened far from home, I felt I had to see it.

I confess that there may be guilt on my part: twenty years ago I’d done some volunteer work with children in my local (non-RC) church and was unaware at the time that the man in charge in of youth and children’s activities there was a paedophile. Other people who had more to do with this youth leader perhaps were in a position to know. There were parents who had long held suspicions about the man and an incident involving him, some teenagers and alcohol gave them the green light to notify police. The man tried to flee but was arrested. I no longer have anything to do with this church and do not know if the church community has drawn any lessons from its association with this man.

Gibney’s documentary is part of a corpus of films in which he documents abuses of institutional power by people who have been entrusted by others to act as leaders or custodians of resources. The documentary centres around five deaf men who had been students of a boarding school for deaf children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin state, and who had been molested by the priest in charge, Lawrence Murphy, in the 1960s – 70s. The men’s recollections, communicated in expressive and often emotional sign language which is given voice by a number of actors who include Ethan Hawke, form a major part of the film’s narrative. The men tell of the horrors they endured from Murphy and his enablers among senior boys (many of whom he also abused) at the school, the shame they felt, the indifference they encountered from other adults who worked at the school and the difficulties they experienced in making their plight public and bringing Murphy to justice.

The documentary follows the men’s efforts in alerting the police and lawyers to their cause, and in taking their complaints to senior bishops in the Roman Catholic Church. Initially meeting resistance, apathy and denial, the men press on and lawyer Jeff Anderson, acting for one of the deaf men Terry Kohut, files a lawsuit against Pope Benedict XVI and some senior Cardinals in the Vatican.

The film dovetails into an investigation of paedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland; the case of Marcial Maciel Degallado, a Mexican priest who founded the Legion of Christ and who abused hundreds of boys and had relationships with two women; and examines the rise of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office that pursued the Holy Inquisition for several hundred years) to the papacy in 2005. The film makes clear that Ratzinger had known of a great many cases of paedophilia among his priests during his time as prefect and pope. Ratzinger is described as a fairly sensitive individual troubled by so many incidents of paedophilia in so many dioceses across the world yet apparently unable to act against any one of these, perhaps for fear of upsetting or angering powerful factions within the Church.

There are many issues touched on by the documentary though they’re not explained in detail: for one, the forms of cognitive dissonance apparent throughout the entire period when the deaf men were pursuing their case, from the nuns who shut their eyes and ears at Murphy’s bizarre behaviour in the evenings when he visited the boys in their dormitories, and who also defended Murphy zealously (even going so far as to trick one of the deaf men in signing a document to drop a lawsuit), to the Church’s attempts to rehabilitate priests who had confessed to molesting children, and to the wider community’s attempts to discredit the deaf men and Kohut’s lawyer. Particularly repugnant were victim-blaming and other forms of self-serving bias such as Murphy’s assertions that the children were engaging in homosexual activity anyway and he was taking their sins upon himself; or that people, by being called by God to become priests, become a special kind of human and need no longer be subject to normal standards of ethical behaviour.

The Vatican’s establishment as a separate state agreed upon by a representative of Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini, the later fascist leader of Italy, in 1929 is mentioned as is also the fact that institutional paedophilia first came to the notice of the Roman Catholic Church as long ago as the fourth century CE. The Church’s own behaviour in denying, then concealing the scale of paedophilia among its priests and forcing victims to secrecy in exchange for compensation should leave viewers in no doubt that the institution is so corrupt, oppressive and evil that it is beyond repair and should no longer be supported by governments and money.

If there’s one criticism to be made about the documentary, it is that it omits investigating into how priests like Murphy become abusers and whether their training or the culture at the seminaries where they train influences their future behaviour  towards vulnerable people. An incident in Austria in 2004, in which a seminary had to be closed by the Vatican for possessing images of child pornography, bestiality and sexual violence downloaded from the Internet onto its computers might suggest that an unhealthy culture that trains and conditions would-be priests into becoming sexual predators, and what that says about the exercise of power within the Church, has been perpetuated, even encouraged, in the Church for a long time.

The film is noted for its even-handed and calm tone in documenting the abuse that the deaf men suffered and their efforts in trying to Murphy to justice and casting light on the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. This approach neither glorifies the deaf men as heroes nor condemns Murphy or those who shielded him as villains. What is an obvious theme in the film is that having power and influence can corrupt even the most intelligent and sensitive of people. Maybe the problem lies as much in the power structures, institutions and networks we have created over hundreds if not thousands of years, and the seductive promise of renown they offer to humans.