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.

More to tiny houses than size in “Beyond Curb Appeal: Jay Shafer and the Politics of Tiny Houses”

George Packard, “Beyond Curb Appeal: Jay Shafer and the Politics of Tiny Houses” (2011)

While cruising the Internet (as you do), I found this little film about Jay Shafer, an architect and director of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, who specialises in designing tiny houses. The interview was conducted with Shafer in his own tiny house in February 2011: he talks about the political, psychological and economic aspects of living in small houses and the freedom and luxury they offer as opposed to larger houses and the restrictions those impose on their inhabitants.

Why did Shafer decide to live in a tiny house? First reason, and one that impressed me, is that in many parts of the United States, there are municipal zoning codes that actually prevent people from living in houses below a certain floor size (minimum required size in many zoning jurisdictions is 750 square feet and rises to 1,000 square feet in areas where land is expensive): Shafer reveals that many zoning codes regarding residential requirements originated with insurance companies and the building industry. Presumably the larger your home, the more “stuff” you collect and pack into it, the more housing and contents insurance (or what passes for such) you might require and the more expensive and complicated your housing and contents insurance policy might be. In addition, many safety codes set as minimum requirements levels of safety that far exceed what’s needed in homes and might require the owners to spend far more on meeting these minimum safety levels than they otherwise would. In larger houses, such minimum safety requirements might have a bigger impact on the owners’ hip-pockets than small houses would: there are bigger and more rooms to heat or wire for electricity, and warm air might dissipate more quickly in larger spaces than in smaller spaces so the rooms need even more heating to compensate for the greater heat loss than might be expected for their size. Shafer also notes that local government councils even prohibit people from doing certain things in their homes – for example, some councils won’t allow people to camp on their own properties, even if the camp is temporary, but will allow people to keep recreational vehicles in their backyards – and suggests that, though the intention may be good, the municipalities may be infringing on people’s Fifth Amendment rights.

Shafer notes that the banking industry is biased in favour of large houses: large houses cost more and might require larger loans to finance them. A large mortgage will be a millstone around the house owner’s neck and the bank can exercise great psychological control over the owner. Shafer suggests that a large house can be a virtual debtor’s prison, forcing the owner to slave away just to make the mortgage payments, and limiting the owner’s options to exercise choice in other areas of life such as employment: a person with mortgage obligations will be very reticent to change jobs or careers even if s/he doesn’t enjoy the job or has reached a career dead-end and needs a sea-change.

Shafer talks about his educational background in art, design and architecture, and about the various places he lived in: dormitories, a large 4,000 – 6,000 square foot house, even a truck. He discusses the aesthetics of his architecture: the proportions of the houses he designs, where the inspiration for particular proportions, forms or designs comes from, the almost instinctive feel that humans have for structure, balance and form. Even a seemingly trivial issue such as whether to add a porch or not to a house becomes significant: a porch signifies a transition zone from the public to the private and this can be very important to an owner or tenant going in and out of the house; likewise a transition zone alerts people inside that there are strangers coming in. The issues of community and individuality, and of communal space and individual privacy are also briefly discussed.

Late in the film, Shafer takes his interviewer, Joan Packard, and director / cameraman George Packard on a tour through his 96 square foot house, explaining how his house has been designed for efficiency and maximum use of space. The entire bathroom is a shower and Shafer explains how he keeps the toilet dry while showering. The one bedroom is placed in the roof space and Shafer shows that the bedroom window is large enough for him and a partner to squeeze through in case of fire.

Last, Shafer discusses how useful his tiny houses might be for ageing baby boomers as alternatives to living in nursing homes or in large houses long since vacated by children and grandchildren. He does not suggest other groups who might find his houses convenient: temporary boarders, teenage or college-age children, university students from overseas living on campus, people needing urgent emergency accommodation or temporary / casual workers who have to live on their employers’ properties for some reason. People running bed-and-breakfast operations who might need extra accommodation for guests would also find such houses useful. The houses would also be useful in areas where natural disasters have destroyed buildings and left many people homeless; they would also be good for people who have some mild physical or mental problems or are only able to hold part-time jobs yet can live independently.

In some ways, this film was quite an eye-opener: it had never occurred to me to think that the type of housing we live in, and the kind of houses advertised to us, their design and styling, could be deliberately slanted towards forcing us to spend more money and keeping us in thrall to a political / economic ideology that restricts our freedoms and denies us choice. Since houses are reflections of our culture, what we value or don’t value, and influence the way we interact with family members, or even the kinds of family structures we have, then forcing people to live in larger houses than they need or can afford, in conditions that might isolate them from others at great personal cost or cause strains that could result in misunderstandings, even domestic violence or divorce, extreme though those issues are to consider, is shockingly cruel and might well infringe on people’s rights.

Shafer is an affable interviewee and the film is well-made for its budget and ambition. It doesn’t probe very deeply and challenge Shafer in the issues he talks on, and some background information on the history of housing in the US since 1945 would have been useful, so the film perhaps appears as an oversized advertisement for its subject and his company.

The film is available for viewing on Youtube.com or at George Packard’s Curiously Local blog. It really is worthwhile watching and some people may be inspired to design and build their own small houses or to find out more about them and whether their own councils allow them to build tiny houses.

D Zyuz’kov’s Natalia Yurchenko documentary: a contemplative and poetic TV sports special

D Zyuz’kov, Natalia Yurchenko documentary (1984)

A curious little 20-minute gem on Youtube, this Soviet television documentary about the gymnast Natalia Yurchenko, made about the time when she was World Champion, is notable for its style of cinematography, its respectful and sombre approach to its subject and the sometimes eerie music soundtrack, created by N Mitrofanov, which seems more appropriate to an avant-garde science fiction / fantasy film of the 1970s.

Surprisingly the film begins with the worst experience Yurchenko had at the 1983 World Championships where she won the all-round individual title: a couple of days after that high, she competed in the vault final, injured her knee on landing and had to be carried off. The film then deflects to scenes of Yurchenko training in the gym under the watchful eye of coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, doing warm-up exercises, fussing over other gym pupils training under Rastorotsky and idling in the spare time, playing a tune on a piano or looking at the scenery outside her room. There are actually very few shots of Yurchenko performing her routines and those that appear are bunched up near the end of the documentary and are not shown in full so it is hard for viewers who know her routines to be able to work out when and where she performed the routines and place a date on the documentary. The film’s narrative, unfortunately without English sub-titles, is provided by Yurchenko herself in voice-over and by Rastorotsky in an interview.

Yurchenko’s voice is very girlish and makes her sound younger than she was when the film was made. She appears to talk about her life in training and how it consumes her every moment; the value of the film as a historical document of Soviet gymnastics and sport generally would appear to be minor (my assumption). The film features many close-ups of Yurchenko’s face which have the unintended hilarious effect of highlighting the heavy fringe of hair over her forehead. Her expression is usually very serious and contemplative. Rastorotsky during his interview and training sessions comes across as a gruff bear of a man who expects to be obeyed and is stern and unyielding towards his charges, even his star gymnast.

The style of the film is what makes it stand out: the cinematography is slow-paced for a sports documentary with long shots of its subject looking thoughtful. The film has many shadows and the lighting seems poor in parts, making the film look more sombre than the film crew might have intended. The highlight is a psychedelic dream sequence about halfway through the film, in which bright white lights edged with blue-green colours are superimposed over a scene of Yurchenko performing on the beam. The music ranges from Frederic Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No.4 – a curious choice since the music has an ambience of despair – to a space-ambient lounge music piece played on cheap synthesiser to more conventional orchestral music; the space music has such acid tones that one expects the film to bleach its colours and turn into shades of bleached baby-blue, sickly lime-green and lemon yellow. For a TV sports special, the film has a lot of visual and sound poetry which may have suited the personality of its star.

The film comes across as a snapshot of a gymnast at a particular moment in time, no more, no less, and if viewers are looking for information about her life up to that point of time when the documentary was made, they will be disappointed. As it turns out, the 1983 World Championships were perhaps Yurchenko’s greatest moment in what became a long tenure (for the period) on the Soviet national women’s team: Yurchenko anchored the team almost to the end of 1986 when she retired from the sport. Years later, she emigrated with her husband and daughter to the United States where she coached gymnastics in Pennsylvania for several years. She is the current head women’s gymnastics coach at Lakeshore Academy in Chicago. As far as I know, Rastorotsky taught gymnastics in France and China after the break-up of the Soviet Union and returned to Rostov-on-Don in 1999.

 

Alternative Views’ Gulf War documentary: damning criticism of UK and US complicity in Iraq-Kuwaiti discord

 Frank Morrow / Alternative Views, Gulf War documentary (1990s?)

Found an interesting documentary on the Gulf War which delves into the history of Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia just after the end of the First World War and the demise of the Ottoman empire. Under Ottoman rule, there were not political boundaries separating the regions that became these countries and Iraq and Kuwait in particular were part of the historical region of Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with the cultural and commercial capital based in Baghdad. Once these areas came under British rule, the British carved out the territory that became Kuwait in 1922 so as to deny Iraq, which resisted British rule forcefully during the early 1920s, a sea-port. Over the next 20-plus years, the Kuwaitis and Iraqis endeavoured to reunite their countries but were continually thwarted by the British. After the Second World War, the Iraqis continued their effort to reunite the two countries right up to and after 1961 when the British granted Kuwait its independence. Iraqi leaders who attempted reunification tended to be bumped off violently, and the assassins usually turned out to have the blessing of (and assistance from) the British and, later, the US through the CIA. In the 1960s, the Ba’ath Party was in power in Iraq and a rising star in that party was Saddam Hussein.

The documentary jumps roughly three decades to the early 1990s when Saddam Hussein is President over a war-weary and impoverished Iraq, having fought an 8-year-long war against Iran that resulted in a Pyrrhic victory for Iraq. The film speculates that based on evidence the CIA may have tricked Iraq into invading Iran, duping Hussein into believing that the Iranians were weak and disorganised after the Shah’s downfall and that parts of Iran would be easy pickings. Certainly the US was supplying Iraq with weapons and intelligence on Iranian troop movements, and at the same time was supplying Iran with weapons, ensuring the two countries would bleed each other. The effect of the Iran-Iraq war was to restrict the supply of oil, ratcheting up oil prices and profits for oil companies.

The documentary consists of various talking heads dominated by Frank Morrow narrating the recent history of the Persian Gulf region. After the halfway point the documentary becomes a group discussion involving Morrow, economist Dr Harry Cleaver and Doug Kellner. Kellner then takes over, detailing how Iraq in the early 1990s came to be seen as the major threat to peace in the Middle East and how Saddam Hussein and his war machine had to be taught a lesson. Syria and Gaddafi’s Libya were also seen as threats. (Israel was not considered a threat despite having the largest war machine in the region and a history of attacking and destabilising Lebanon.) Other speakers include former CIA officer Phil Agee, US academic Edward Said and David Sheehan: their sections of the film appear to be excerpts of longer film clips.

The film is put together in a basic way and cuts off at the end but the gist is clear: the unhappy history of Iraq and its fraught relations with Kuwait is in large part a result of cynical manipulation by the British empire and then the Americans with the aim of keeping the Iraqis weak and malleable, and of controlling the region’s oil resources. The Americans come to realise that by manipulating Iraq and Iran through supplying both sides with armaments they can control the supply of oil and set oil prices accordingly. The US continues to play off Iraq and Kuwait against each other. Saddam Hussein himself doesn’t come off all that well; one might have thought that he should be more wary of relying on the Americans’ good graces and not take the US at face value.

As for the British, their sordid role in the making of the current Middle East and in particular Iraq and Kuwait has largely disappeared into the fog of history and the film’s greatest value is in highlighting the enormous damage the British empire did to Arab peoples across western Asia in the early 20th century. I suspect that even here the documentary has only scratched the surface of ongoing British political and economic involvement in the politics of region.

 

A compelling character study in “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince”

Martin Scorsese, “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince” (1978)

After making his break-through films “Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver” and “New York, New York”, Martin Scorsese turned back to directing a documentary short about a friend, Steven Prince, who appeared in a small part in “Taxi Driver”. The film is in the form of an extended interview divided up into several chapters headed by film clips of Prince as a small child at home. Prince talks about several hair-raising episodes in his life as a drug addict  before he got the “Taxi Driver” gig, including the time he shot and killed an armed robber while working at a petrol station, helping a woman who overdosed on a drug by injecting adrenalin into her chest and following a manual while doing so (a tale nicked by Quentin Tarantino for “Pulp Fiction”), escaping the cops during a drugs bust by bursting into tears and accidentally electrocuting someone while driving a van over wires.

Scorsese focusses his camera on Prince and just lets the film roll while Prince reminisces animatedly about the ups and downs in his life and sometimes acts out what he or someone did. The stories may or may not be true and those that are might be very exaggerated for the benefit of viewers. Prince has quite a cadaverous look similar to Marilyn Manson / Brian Warner in his younger days in the 1990s. The relaxed, minimal nature of the filming with very few edits gives it the feel of a home movie and Prince is a very entertaining raconteur who holds viewers spellbound with his tall tales. Scorsese and another actor appear in the film as minor presences.

The film does look a bit ragged early on, especially during a fight scene, but it is very well-made and has none of the jerkiness and occasional out-of-focus shot that might be expected of a home movie of its type. One has to remember Scorsese made this film during a period in his life when he was partying a lot and high on drugs including cocaine. There’s no moralising about how drugs are bad for you and can ruin your life, or how being a drug addict exposes you to the full range of human behaviours and their depravity and is a life lesson in itself. The last scene in which Prince talks about his last conversation with his father before the older man’s death from heart disease is very moving: for a brief moment before the credits begin to roll, Prince falls silent and his usually lively face becomes a quietly powerful study of warmth and feeling as though resolving to stride forward in life as a tribute to his dad with whom he had a rocky relationship until their telephone reconciliation.

Definitely worth a look if you’re a Scorsese fan or you just like visual character studies pared down to the bone.