The Promise: a slurpy romantic melodrama overshadows significant historic events

Terry George, “The Promise” (2016)

A film about the Ottoman Turkish genocide of Armenians and other Christian minorities (1915 – 1918) is probably never going to succeed with a wider audience than the communities involved – and especially as the genocide is still denied by the Republic of Turkey – so one resigns oneself to a retelling of that horrific period in 20th-century history through a melodramatic plot revolving around a complicated love triangle. In 1914, young Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) aspires to become a doctor in his backwater community of Sirun in southeast Turkey but needs money to travel to Constantinople and pay his way through medical studies there. He is betrothed to local girl Marta and her dowry money helps get him to Constantinople and enrol at university. He boards with Uncle Mesrob and his family and almost immediately falls for his young cousins’ dance tutor Ana (Charlotte le Bon). If you think young Mikael will have problems juggling his affections for Marta and Ana, there’s more to come: Ana herself has been in a long-term relationship with American news reporter Chris (Christian Bale) so, er , the two young people have their hands and heads preoccupied with conflicting emotions and guilt. Unfortunately for them – and maybe fortunately for us having to sit through 133 minutes of film – events in southeast Europe drag Germany and Ottoman Turkey into war against Britain, France and Russia, and almost straight away (as if on cue) the dastardly Turks start rounding up Armenians and throw them into prison camps (to be forced into hard labour, dying of malnutrition and maltreatment), forced marches into the mountains and deserts, and cattle trains going into the wilderness. As the war drags on – and the Ottomans are failing badly, though the film makes no references to how the Turks are faring in the war – the government resorts to mass slaughter of the Armenian people.

Through the tumultuous events, Mikael, Ana and Chris endure personal and shared hardships and sufferings: after escaping a prison camp, Mikael is briefly reunited with his family and marries his betrothed in Sirun while Ana and Chris manage to rescue a group of orphans and take them to safety with an American Protestant missionary. The three main characters reunite again and try to save Mikael’s parents, wife and nieces. They are too late and only manage to rescue his badly injured mother and young cousin Yeva. Chris is captured by Turkish soldiers and incarcerated in a prison where he is sentenced to death as a spy. He is rescued by the US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and a mutual playboy friend (Marwan Kenzari) of his and Mikael’s (whose life was also saved by the friend) but the friend pays for his generosity by being executed by a firing squad.

Mikael and Ana take the orphans to a refugee camp and the camp moves to Musa Dagh mountain where the men vow to fight the Turkish army following them. Chris boards a French war cruiser which arrives at the bay beneath Musa Dagh. While the refugees try to fight off Turkish bombardment and board the life-boats that will take them to the cruiser, the tension that naturally arises from the scenario gets an artificial lift from the tension surrounding the love triangle: out of the three – Ana, Chris, Mikael – someone will meet his/her kismet in a most tragic way.

The slurpy melodrama just manages to stay mildly annoying thanks to good acting performances from the leads, though there’s hardly any chemistry between le Bon and Isaac. The plot piles cliché upon cliché with stock characters like the token good Turk who starts out dissolute spoilt playboy son but redeems himself by saving Chris and Mikael’s lives, and with often unnecessary action thriller scenes that add nothing to the plot save one miraculous escape after another. The Musa Dagh stand-off and subsequent rescue of refugees by the French cruiser are worth a film in themselves and should not have been overshadowed by the love triangle’s resolution.

The film’s concentration on the romance leaves no room for a wider investigation into why and how the Ottoman Turkish genocide against Christian minorities in the empire started: no context is provided as to why all of a sudden ordinary Turkish people who had previously been friendly with Armenians should turn on them. Nothing is said of European powers’ intentions to dismember the failing Ottoman empire which would have been enough to give any tottering, unstable empire paranoid thoughts as to whether its minorities were being encouraged from outside to revolt against it. The Turks and their German allies are tarred with a black villain’s brush while the Americans and the French at least are treated as saviours. Audiences are basically brow-beaten to accept the genocide as given, and not to question why it should have happened late in the history of the Ottoman empire, decades after it embarked on Westernisation / modernisation, and not earlier in its 460+ years of existence.

Memoirs of a Geisha: overblown rags-to-riches soap opera romance with a shallow and conservative message

Rob Marshall, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2002)

Essentially a variation on the Cinderella story through Western stereotypes about geisha and their role and function in Japanese society, “Memoirs …” is an overblown rags-to-riches rise of a young girl from an impoverished farming family living in Japan in the early 20th century. The child Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is packed off to a geisha house to work as a servant. There she meets the haughty geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who kicks the child around. In spite of the bullying and numerous beatings from Hatsumomo and the mistress of the geisha house, Chiyo dreams of becoming a geisha herself. A chance meeting with a stranger known only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) sets Chiyo on the path to becoming a maiko (apprentice geisha) under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) who teaches her dancing, music and the art of conversation among other skills she needs to be a geisha. Through the years Chiyo grows into a beautiful young woman and is renamed Sayuri. Sayuri becomes a highly accomplished geisha and her beauty becomes legend. Of course this riles Hatsumomo who with another traine maiko called Pumpkin plots against Sayuri.

In its first half the film is slow and laboured in building up Chiyo’s background as a downtrodden servant who holds fast to her dream of becoming a geisha. The movie only starts picking up speed once the Chairman meets Chiyo on a pedestrian bridge and then Mameha appears at the geisha house to offer to train the girl. Events move quickly and the film becomes more interesting and sumptuous. Hatsumomo becomes even more of a threat to Sayuri as she determines to ruin the younger woman’s reputation permanently. Yet as Sayuri triumphs in her chosen career, she discovers numerous career shortcomings: other geisha are jealous of Sayuri’s rocketing to fame and many men vie to become Sayuri’s danna (patron) but her heart yearns for the one man who could take her away from having to entertain male clients for a living and give her true love.

Tailored to Western audiences and their knowledge – or lack thereof – of Japanese culture, the film does not strip away very many common stereotypes about the geisha profession. Viewers knowing little about how young girls train to become maiko and then geisha will get no help from whatever information the film proffers. Whatever independence is demonstrated by geisha – the woman running the geisha house where Chiyo meets Hatsumomo is very indomitable – is often undermined by some of the dialogue and the voice-over narration portraying geisha as women whose futures depend entirely on ensnaring a wealthy danna. The reality is that while many geisha do need a rich patron, the world of geisha houses is completely dominated by women: they run the geisha houses, they recruit and train new geisha and they are responsible for their own incomes and the incomes of the geisha houses they run. In short, geisha are more often than not independent and capable businesswomen. Instead the movie focuses on the soap opera situations Sayuri finds herself in but her character and the characters of the rest of the cast are bland and colourless; only Gong Li’s bitchy and cruel Hatsumomo offers something meaty if somewhat overdone. Yeoh is wasted as Sayuri’s okiya Mameha and likewise Watanabe as the Chairman drifts in and out ineffectually for much of the film. The acting overall is capable but not great.

As expected of a film about geisha, based on a best-selling novel, and with a big budget, the cinematography is excellent, the costume design is lavish and the interiors of Japanese geisha houses and tea houses are beautifully designed and constructed.

Ultimately the film is a shallow exploration of a character’s survival through at least three tumultuous decades in Japanese history without providing much detail about how becoming a geisha has made Sayuri the wise elderly narrator looking back over her life. The movie’s plot shoehorns what might have been a story about endurance and patience during a period of dramatic change, crisis, war and foreign occupation into a live-action Disneyland romance. In doing so, it demeans the intelligence of Western viewers by delivering a conservative message that also reinforces stereotypes about Japanese women and society.

Hero: a smug film that twists Chinese history and delivers a deplorable message

Zhang Yimou, “Hero” (2002)

If one needs proof that a visually gorgeous film with a good cast can ultimately be undone and wasted by a demoralising and ugly plot and theme, Chinese director Zhang’s “Hero” is it. That the film was tailor-made for Western audiences featuring a mix of Chinese and Hong Kong actors is even more of an insult to both the Chinese (for distorting the history on which the film is based) and Westerners who might assume that Chinese people passively prefer stability and corruption over change and good government. What’s really puzzling is why someone of Zhang’s stature as a director saw fit to make this film.

The film’s story takes place during a period in China’s history well over 2,000 years ago when the King of the Qin state has been brutally conquering and uniting competing neighbouring kingdoms and is on the verge of becoming China’s first emperor. The King has recently – and only just – survived being assassinated by three sword-fighters known as Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. A prefect known as Nameless (Jet Li) arrives at the King’s court and claims to have fought and killed these assassins. His tale is told in flashback. The King (Chen Daoming) counters Nameless’s story by proffering his version in which Nameless had staged his fights with the three assassins who volunteer to die so that Nameless can bring the swords of Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) to the monarch as “proof” of their deaths. This forces Nameless to admit the truth, that he has a special ability to inflict apparent death without touching vital organs and used this to “kill” Snow in front of the Qin army. Before leaving for the capital for his meeting with the King with the two assassins’ swords, Nameless is shown two characters written by Broken Sword in the sand which together explain why Sword, when he had the opportunity, decided not to kill the King.

The film proceeds at a good clip until it divides into its three sub-plots – each differentiated by a dominant colour (red, blue, green) – whereupon it bogs down in soapie weepiness as the lovers Sword and Snow dispute over which of them should fight Nameless and “die”, and whether vengeance on the King for having despoiled their own country of Zhao is the right thing to do. Sword’s decision not to kill the King on the basis that a peaceful, unified state is better than constantly warring ones and that, for all his brutality, ruthlessness and paranoia, the King of Qin must be the best man to achieve that peace, has an effect on Nameless when his moment comes to attack the King.

The morality of the decisions Sword and Nameless make is very dubious to say the least. Is the unification of China, and with it the achievement of peace and stability, really worth the severe suppression of difference and dissent? Should genocide of an entire nation and its culture, language and history be the necessary sacrifice to achieve unity and peace? Is there no other alternative to passive resignation and allowing a brutal ruler to run roughshod over vassal states as he sees fit? If the film is serious about its theme, then it leaves a very sour taste in this viewer’s mouth. The political implications of such a theme for Chinese and Westerners alike are immense: can a utilitarian approach to politics, achieving what most people desire only at the cost of the lives of a minority, be acceptable?

The film’s insinuation that the King of Qin is pressured by his court and army to execute Nameless is even worse propaganda, suggesting that Chinese people essentially are bloodthirsty thugs who do not know mercy and compassion, and that the King wouldn’t have been the tyrant and despot he was if he’d not been subjected to so much pressure by vengeful mobs.

Apart from the smug and inhumane message, the film suffers from weak character development and an over-emphasis on computer-enhanced martial arts ballet. An excellent acting cast is wasted as are also the cinematography and slick special effects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tracker: a desert Western study of European colonialism and exploitation and its effects

Rolf de Heer, “The Tracker” (2002)

On the surface, a simple story of four men hunting a fugitive who has committed a crime, “The Tracker” is a study of European colonialism and exploitation of Australia’s original people, and the pain and violence these people have had to suffer as a result. The story is set in an unnamed remote part of the country in 1922: an aboriginal man (Noel Wilton) has apparently killed a white woman and is on the run. The police send out four men: the expedition is led by a man known only as the Fanatic (Gary Sweet) with young rookie policeman the Follower (Damon Gameau) and an older policeman the Veteran (Grant Page) in tow. They rely on an aboriginal man known as the Tracker (David Gulpilil) to interpret the trail left behind by the Fugitive to follow and apprehend him.

As might be expected, the plot is simple enough for plenty of psychological inquiry into the Australian character and how it has been (and continues to be) affected by colonialism and the attitudes and beliefs that upheld it: beliefs such as white supremacy over non-white peoples, the so-called white man’s burden in bringing cultural, moral and spiritual enlightenment to others, and the notion that hunter-gatherer peoples are doomed for extinction. The white characters are basically crude stereotypes that express these beliefs but in different ways according to their generation: the Veteran represents an older passive generation that may know better but prefers not to challenge colonial authority, and suffers for that; the Fanatic represents a bureaucratic, hierarchical layer of colonial society obsessed with control to the extent that he is willing to kill others if they obstruct his mission; and the Follower symbolises a young generation that, while having grown up with racist beliefs, is more open-minded, able to change and prepared to acknowledge Aboriginal laws and spirituality.

Thanks to David Gulpilil’s subtle acting, expressive face and mischievous nature and sense of humour, the Tracker is the most developed and complex character. In his ability to use and exploit both Aboriginal and European religion and law to his advantage, assist the Follower, gain justice for the Veteran, and later protect the Fugitive and the Fugitive’s community from the full force of European vengeance, the Tracker combines compassion and cunning in a way that looks completely plausible and natural. It is a pity that the other actors were not allowed the same range of expression in their characters: the Veteran in particular has only one or two lines of dialogue and is essentially a robot. Gameau makes the most of a naive character who comes to respect the Tracker, if not necessarily the cultural tradition he represents. While Sweet does a decent job as the Fanatic, the character is essentially a crude cartoon that would strain the ability of even the finest actors to make human and realistic.

The countryside is a significant character in its own right, to the extent of influencing characters’ decisions and part of the action. The Tracker is at home with the land while the white characters express various levels of discomfort with it: the Fanatic obviously is the most uncomfortable as demonstrated by a remark he makes about dead animals which is cut down by the Veteran, who has made his own pragmatic accommodation with the land. The Follower suffers various reactions ranging from culture shock to wide-eyed wonder and an acceptance that he may never fully understand the spiritual relationship that the Tracker has with the land.

Viewers may have qualms about aspects of de Heer’s direction and his use of composer / musician Archie Roach’s songs about Aboriginal suffering in scenes where the four men travel long stretches of country. De Heer’s use of paintings mainly to express the violence done to individual characters may puzzle viewers also, as this device distances audiences from the brutal nature of colonialism to Aboriginal and white people alike.

While the plot is thin for the film’s length, and the movie is preachy and doesn’t really work well as a psychological study, “The Tracker” is very moving and astonishing to watch, thanks to the landscapes and the actors, in particular David Gulpilil, who surely rates among Australia’s greatest actors.

Torn Curtain: an unremarkable spy thriller film let down by poor casting and a laboured script

Alfred Hitchcock, “Torn Curtain” (1966)

To properly appreciate how good a director Alfred Hitchcock was over a career of 50+ years, one needs to see the lesser films he made as well as the better or more notorious ones (like “Psycho” or “The Birds”) that everyone remembers. Any other director trying to make “Torn Curtain” with the constraints Hitchcock suffered would have ended up making a very mediocre film; it’s to Hitch’s credit that in spite of an over-long and laboured script, an undistinguished music score, having no say in the choice of lead actors,  and working in a genre that ill-suited him, he was able to make a competent spy thriller film that is sometimes visually gorgeous and which emphasises the dangerous nature of espionage for ordinary people who choose to participate in it for motives other than greed, and the cynicism of those who use and exploit the public’s idealism and loyalty to achieve murky ends.

US nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) agrees to carry out a dangerous mission in which he pretends to defect to East Germany to obtain a formula from an eccentric professor at the University of Leipzig. His mission is nearly derailed by his assistant / fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who follows him, determined to find out what he’s up to after seeing a telegram message meant for him only while on board a ship taking them both to a science conference in Copenhagen. While Sarah takes some convincing by Armstrong’s East German security to defect with him, Armstrong himself needs clues and directions to make his way across East Germany to Leipzig to find the professor and trick the older man into giving up the necessary secret formula. In his quest, Armstrong nearly comes undone when East German security agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) follows him and threatens him. Armstrong and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Colwell) dispose of Gromek in an excruciating fight scene – but this has unfortunate consequences for both Armstrong and Sherman when government authorities realise that Gromek is missing and trace his last movements to the farm that Armstrong has had to visit.

The film divides into two very uneven halves: the first half contains most of the suspense, thrills and tensions; the second half unfortunately tends to drag due to the nature of the plot in which most of the action takes place early on and then the fall-out from that action takes up the rest of the story. (In this, “Torn Curtain” follows the structure of “Psycho”.) This means that whatever tension arises in the rest of the film depends greatly on the two lead actors being seen to care for one another and having a strong connection as they try to escape from East Germany; in this, both Newman and Andrews’ performance falls flat. The two actors do what they can in their own way but there is little on-screen chemistry between them and their acting conforms to rule. Hitchcock and Newman were known not to have worked well together: Hitchcock was unimpressed with Method acting which Newman and other actors of his generation relied upon. Possibly the tension between the director and his lead actor actually improved Newman’s performance in the film (especially in the fight scene with Kieling) but on the whole the acting from the leads is very ordinary. Andrews should have been a sparkling and assertive presence but her role turns out to be a passive and subdued one that makes little use of her talent and potential to be a more feisty and active heroine – in a film where the male lead finds himself in situations where he needs help from women!

The plot is not always credible and some of its twists and turns are too light-hearted and implausible especially when put up against the brutal violence of Newman’s fight scene. The juxtaposition of the brutality and some of the sillier scenes certainly highlights the riskiness and uncertainty involved in espionage and the danger it poses to ordinary people who agree to do it. While Hitchcock could certainly manage both vicious violence and comedy, both need a solid plot and a good cast to carry off both genres and their elements, and the tensions that arise from that combination. For a good example of such a film, viewers should refer to “North by Northwest”; by contrast, “Torn Curtain” is its lesser sibling. Fortunately “Torn Curtain” is saved by its underlying themes of deception and commitment (be it commitment to a relationship or political ideals) as opposed to self-interest, and distrust of and contempt for government authorities that would cynically rely on untrained individuals to carry its work for them yet force them to make their own way back to safety when plans backfire.

The film’s best moments are in an early wordless scene where Gromek pursues Armstrong through a museum, their fight scene and some of the later chase scenes through rural countryside. In some of these scenes, Hitchcock is an undoubted master of wide-scene filming and direction, and the cinematography is very beautiful. The suspense is taut and spellbinding.

AntiRacist Hitler: a subversive cartoon satirising Western social policies and hypocrisy

Matt the White Rabbit, “AntiRacist Hitler” (2013)

A subversive animation short satirising open-borders immigration policies and multiculturalist agendas in Western countries, most of which also hypocritically support Israel’s own racist policies and genocide against Palestinians, this cartoon posits what would happen if Israel were forced to have similiar social policies imposed on it. The former German chancellor Adolf Hitler, having apparently been in hiding in Argentina for over half a century (which might explain his youthfulness and the unchanged moustache), returns to the West and announces before an amazed audience that he no longer believes in Aryan racial supremacy and now embraces multiculturalism and diversity. He vows to bring diversity to the whole wide world and selects Israel, bastion of Zionist exclusivity, as the place where to start. Miraculously elevating himself to head of the Israeli government (one assumes he had to send the entire fruitcake Knesset somewhere out of the way … maybe not remote railway terminuses in rural eastern and southern Poland), the new Hitler opens the country’s borders to all the displaced peoples of the world. Over time, the new arrivals remake Israel’s urban landscapes into their own, their languages replace Hebrew and they intermarry with Israel’s Jewish population until Israelis are no longer Jewish. The last remaining Jewish citizen in the country runs into Hitler’s office and exclaims that Israel is no longer Jewish, at which Hitler (barely looking up from eating lunch) murmurs that he had not foreseen such a scenario when he first opened the borders.

While the motivations behind the creation of “AntiRacist Hitler” could be racist and discriminatory towards non-white people, the way in which the new Hitler uses the “diversity” agenda and supporting social policies to eliminate Jews should at least give us all pause to consider how similar policies and programs have been used by Western governments in the past to undermine social democracy, workers’ rights and working conditions and to denigrate those protesting against the weakening of worker protections as fascist or racist. The outsourcing of manufacturing from Western shores to Third World countries offering cheap labour in conditions where workers’ rights are suppressed viciously can be seen as a parallel policy to open-borders immigration policies: ultimately everyone, local people, immigrants and overseas workers alike, stand to lose whatever rights they had and whatever social and industrial democratic progress they had previously made. Democracy overall has receded under the onslaught of the corporate state and the individuals and corporations supporting it.

Where the cartoon possibly falls short is in implying that Jews (or an elite made up of Jews) are actively encouraging multicultural “melting pot” or “salad bowl” societies in Western countries. Such a blanket assumption opens the door to racist infiltration into and eventual domination of individual countries’ historical narratives of how they initially encouraged immigration and what their original reasons for doing so were; in most cases, the reason was that governments determined sufficient manpower was lacking for their nations’ economic development and decided to import foreign workers to overcome worker shortages. In some countries such as Germany, these foreign guest workers were not expected to stay permanently and they and their families were supposed to return home when they had fulfilled their work contracts. To that end, the host countries failed to provide education for these workers in the host language, culture and history, and as a result these workers and their families ended up alienated and disadvantaged.

In other countries that imported foreigners to fill their factories, programs to assimilate these people and to teach them the languages of their host nations existed but since the 1970s when the neoliberal economic paradigm became supreme, such programs have been squeezed for funding. At the same time, the corporate world in these countries continually wants more foreign workers to come, regardless of the prevailing economic situation and whether there are enough jobs for both foreigners and locals. In many nations where manufacturing has now ceased to exist, the only way money can circulate is through financial bubbles including property bubbles … which means that people have to be persuaded to take out more mortgages … and if the present population is already saturated with excess debt, then immigrants and refugees are the next targets.

What would have made the cartoon’s message even more biting would be the fact that many of the poor flooding into the new Hitlerian Israel are people displaced by wars and invasions instigated by Israel through its lobbying activities in Western governments. The invasions of Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Libya (2011) and Syria (2011 onwards) by the US and its allies have the effect of removing political and economic challenges to Israel as the only or the most advanced / democratic country in the Middle East.

Ultimately the cartoon’s message is very simplistic and reduces a complex issue to a level where it and its creators might be accused of racism (unjustly perhaps) but its use of a known historical figure notorious for policies of genocide to demonstrate how superficially anti-racist social policies might in fact be racist, even fascist, is sobering and thought-provoking.

Battleship Potemkin: a classic of drama, passion and the power of people to overturn injustice and oppression

Sergei Eisenstein, “Battleship Potemkin” (1925)

Although this film was made over 90 years ago and is a silent black-and-white work, it still stands up well against current films thanks to its crisp action and a plot that will still resonate with many people, especially those living in countries experiencing political repression in their daily lives. The film’s emphasis on the people as the grassroots foundation for political and social movements that can overthrow governments and implement new and better ways of living is a refreshing contrast and rebuttal to Hollywood stereotypes about the power of individuals to drive and achieve change.

The action takes place over five episodes that form a narrative arc set during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Sailors on the warship Potemkin sympathise with workers rebelling in St Petersburg over their inhumane treatment by bourgeois employers and an autocratic government. The seamen get a taste (literally) of that treatment themselves when their officers try to force them to eat meat tainted with maggots. The captain forces the sailors to assemble on deck, separates those who refused to eat the borscht made with the meat and orders a firing squad to shoot the rebels. Ordinary seaman Grigory Vakulinchuk appeals to the firing squad not to shoot. The shooters put down their weapons and a brawl between the officers and the crew breaks out. In the melee, which the sailors win, Vakulinchuk is shot dead by two officers.

The grieving sailors lay Vakulinchuk ashore at the port of Odessa. Local citizens view his body, see the message attached to it that explains his actions and death, and are moved to rebel against the local government and military authorities. The tsarist government cracks down hard on the citizenry in memorable scenes that take place on the boulevard steps: a boy and then his mother are shot dead in a horrific sequence that underlines the inhuman, machine nature of the advancing troops upon the panicked crowds; a young woman is killed and the pram with her baby runs down the steps, the baby’s ultimate fate remaining unknown; and a woman doctor, appealing to the troops’ humanity and brotherhood with their fellow Russians and Slavs, is mown down along with other innocents.

The Potemkin gets a call for help from the Odessans and the sailors rally by firing on the headquarters of the military authorities, destroying the building. A fleet of warships is soon on the Potemkin’s trail. The sailors know their firepower is as nothing against the might of the Russian navy: how will they and their cause, and the Odessans as well, fare when the battleships catch up with them?

Although the film has probably been over-analysed, not necessarily for the right reasons, and its use of montage, clever and imaginative though it is, has also been over-emphasised, Eisenstein’s work remains compelling in its brisk, no-nonsense way of putting together otherwise unrelated shots so as to suggest not just a story, but a story with a message about revolution, and how revolution and mass movement can only succeed if the people believe in equality and brotherhood, and are not simply out for personal liberty. (And clever montage cannot work without good camera-work that has a feel for drama, emotion and visual artistry, framing each and every scene like a diorama in itself, and equally clever and brisk editing that brings pacing to suggest increasing tension leading towards a climax.) In this film, personal sacrifice is a significant part of achieving a freer and more equal society. Vakulinchuk acts as a catalyst but his role as leader cannot be over-stressed as it would be in a Hollywood film.

Also significant to the film’s enduring success is its cinematography which stresses crowd scenes, often shot in panorama and in imaginative ways to boot, and the clever use of black-and-white imagery that approaches German Expressionism’s use of black and white and all the shades of grey in-between. Violence in the film is not explicit yet the discreet ways in which it is filmed make a deeper impression on viewers than all the cartoon hyper-violence of much current film-making which tends to numb the senses and prevent a proper and appropriate emotional reaction to visual brutality.

The actual plot might be thin and heavy-handed, the acting (all by non-professionals) overdone and the characters very stereotyped, but what Eisenstein brings out of his material is a film of great drama, power and passion.

Ironically, at this time of writing, the people of Odessa (in Ukraine) continue to struggle for freedom, equality, brotherhood and justice for their fellow citizens who were tortured and butchered by neo-Nazis in the trade union building in early May 2014, and whose suffering continues to be denied in the West.

The Great Dictator: using comedy and drama, silent film and talking picture to confront fascism

Charles Chaplin, “The Great Dictator” (1940)

It’s over-long and the slapstick comedy is laid on very thickly but film legend Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” is daring political satire for its period, especially when one considers that at the time as now Hollywood generally shied away from taking a stand for ordinary people against those who would oppress them. Chaplin takes pot shots at war film propaganda, dictatorships (and Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in particular), revolutionaries and political authority in turns, and is clearly on the side of ordinary people against those who would oppress them. The actor / director / screenwriter plays two roles in the film reflecting the divide between repressive authority and humble worker bee.

An everyday man, unnamed but conventionally known as the Jewish barber (Chaplin), recovers from a 20-year amnesia brought on by injuries incurred during his time as a soldier with the Tomanian army in the Great War (1914 – 1918). While he has been in hospital, Tomania has suffered economic and political instability resulting in a putsch that brings Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again) to power. The barber tries to return to his former job in the Jewish ghetto he calls home but the community is under constant harassment from storm-troopers. With the help of local girl Hannah (Paulette Goddard), the barber evades the storm-troopers and re-establishes his business but due to the past amnesia, he’s not easily intimidated by the security forces and he keeps getting into trouble with them. At one point in the film, he falls in with a bunch of revolutionaries planning to get rid of Hynkel but their plot to assassinate the leader fails before it even has a chance to go into action.

Running parallel with the story of the barber is a sub-plot centred around Hynkel in which he luxuriates in megalomania, plotting to take over the world and having to entertain the equally insufferable Mussolini figure Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria. The subplot is basically an excuse for Chaplin to make fun of the real-life Hitler by exaggerating the man’s quirks and tempestuous tirades; the buffoonery is overdone and sometimes tiresome, to say nothing of the way in which the German language suffers undeserved humiliation and Italian-American people suffer stereotyping. A highlight of this subplot is the silent scene in which Hynkel, completely wrapped in fantasy, balances and plays with a globe, only for it to burst like an ordinary balloon. The symbolism and message behind this scene are priceless.

Flitting between being a talking picture and silent movie, the transitions are not always smooth and the film itself is uneven. Audiences of the time expecting straight-out comedy might have been puzzled by the switching from comedy to drama and back again, especially in the film’s later montage sequences where storm-troopers burst into the Jewish ghetto and start beating up people. The plot is thin and consists of linked comedy skits with only the barest connections between them. At times both plot and sub-plot seem to be hunting around for ideas that might refresh them with opportunities for more buffoonery. Major characters like Goddard’s Hannah are not well developed and serve as mouthpieces for Chaplin’s political messages of unity, tolerance and democracy.

The film’s main highlights are Chaplin’s acting which often shows surprising depth and intelligence beneath the slapstick and the character stereotyping; the near-ballet scene with the globe; two separate scenes in barbershops; and the climax in which, mistaken for the dictator Hynkel, the barber delivers a speech that at once pleads for universal love, tolerance, equality and brotherhood, and damns the capitalist structures and institutions that turn people into cogs in a cold-blooded machine system. (Significantly after the film’s release, the US government began to follow and scrutinise Chaplin’s career and political beliefs more closely, and FBI director Herbert Hoover used Chaplin’s beliefs and the various personal scandals that dogged the actor against him in a smear campaign that damaged Chaplin’s career.) Oakie chews the scenery as Napaloni and his scenes with Chaplin poke fun at megalomania and the petty arrogance of dictators and autocrats generally.

The real worth of the film lies in Chaplin’s deft use as actor, writer and director of both comedy and drama, using the techniques of silent and talking-picture film-making, to confront and criticise fascism, at a time when American society’s reaction to fascist governments was to ignore it (or work with it secretly), and to support ordinary people in their resistance against oppressive governments. At the time the film was made, Chaplin did not know of the horrors (because most of them were yet to come) of Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, physically and mentally handicapped people, Soviet POWs and others in its network of concentration camps in eastern Europe.

Let Your Life Be A Friction To Stop The Machine: bare-bones film delivers a devastating alternative history of the United States and the West

“Let Your Life Be A Friction To Stop The Machine” (Class War Films, 2012)

It’s a modestly made film – just a series of linked visual stills of cartoons, film snippets, paintings and other media, all tied together with voice-over narration – but this is a devastating alternative history of the United States since its founding, one that rips up the myths of the country’s founding and the values the US was founded on, and exposes the seedy truth behind the events, ideologies and trends that shaped the nation and made it what it is today. The film begins by saying boldly that Americans have been brainwashed for 240 years at least with a mythology and narrative created and maintained by a financial elite that has profited handsomely from the sweat and labour of the American people and which kept them all weak, divided and enslaved by various means political, economic and cultural. The country was founded upon the invasion of a continent, the genocide of its rightful owners and the enslavement of millions of others from another continent. The country was born out of lies and hypocrisy and survives through lies and hypocrisy. Whew, what a premise!

It’s best to watch the film all the way through while listening to and absorbing the narrative a couple of times at least as what the film says about the America of the past and the America it has become today will stun most people in the West. The myth of American exceptionalism, of American Manifest Destiny, together with the belief Americans had in their society and culture’s innate goodness and progressiveness blinded people to the awful crimes they committed upon the aboriginal peoples, the Africans and others brought to America as slaves or indentured labour and eventually peoples abroad, firstly in Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, then Latin America and Japan, and currently the whole wide world. These crimes continued through two major world wars, then a period of stand-offs between the US and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War and right through the 1990s to the present, in which the US is now waging wars against supposed Islamic terrorists like al Qa’eda, ISIS and Boko Haram throughout western Asia and much of Africa. Behind the more overt crimes such as illegal invasions and occupations of other countries, overthrowing legitimate governments with so-called colour revolutions and encouraging ongoing violence and chaos, are covert crimes of massive looting of natural resources (especially energy resources), environmental pollution and destruction of local cultures, histories and institutions.

We come to the America of the present: a nation mired in political corruption that stinks to high heaven; a nation where the middle class has collapsed under the combined pressures of a debt-based financial system, an economic ideology whose idolisation of profit has led to job flight and unemployment, and cultural nostrums that fault individuals for catastrophes not of their own making; and a nation that avoids dealing with major problems by resorting to fantasy, violence, conquest or war against its own citizens or other countries. Institutions and values that emphasised cooperative effort to improve people’s lives have been debased and hounded into extinction. Resources that once were owned communally and shared equally have been privatised and commodified, and sold to the highest bidder. If you find all this too much to take in, the narration collapses it into two general trends: the use of police state methods and cultural brainwashing to shore up the mythology, and the resort to overseas military adventures (all of which end in disaster) to spread the mythology and at the same time grab other nations’ territories and resources.

America, whether it is the actual United States or the US plus its satrapies in North America, Europe and other parts of the world, anywhere that has imported American culture lock, stock and barrel since 1945, has become a degraded and impoverished entity whose future is dark, bleak … and dead. The driving forces behind this Great Reversion have been the West’s political / financial / corporate elites who have controlled its major institutions, both government and private alike. (At this point, the only criticism I would make about the film’s narrative is that it identifies the financial elites as the drivers behind the myth of American uniqueness and stops there. The reality may very well be that the financial elites themselves may be as much pawns of another layer of hidden power as governments and corporations themselves are pawns of Wall Street and the City of London.) The tragedy is that for all the deceptions and lies, the myths of America that the elites have promoted have been so seductive and appealing that they have become part of people’s individual identities, so to condemn and spurn them is effectively to condemn and spurn oneself.

The narrative though isn’t without hope though it does not offer any solutions. That is as it should be, because it does not claim to have the definitive answer to defeating the hydra-headed monster that has been the Anglo-American empire. Any solution offered could be subverted by the empire itself, as it has done to past instances of protest, civil disobedience and revolution. Responses to it must be individual and creative: they can involve helping others or alerting people to the ways in which the system is crushing them so they can help themselves. For some people, disengaging from the empire and its seductions, and setting out on their own individual and / or collective paths, may be all that’s needed; other people can help to safeguard them from the empire.

So wherever we all are, whatever we are doing or what stage we are at in our lives, let’s now determine our lives to be a friction to stop the Machine.