Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2): an attractive visual experience spoilt by repetitive propaganda police-state stereotypes

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2)” (2018)

In this second and final episode, Michael Palin ventures outside Pyongyang to spend a few days exploring parts of the North Korean countryside. He travels to the Demilitarised Zone where a guard tells him of the history of the Korean War – from the North Korean point of view which conflicts with what Palin knows. Palin muses on the ceasefire that currently exists between North Korea and the West and its consequences, one of which is that North Korea is compelled to maintain a large army made up of farm labour conscripts. Not far from the DMZ is a town, Kaesong, which during the Korean War was part of South Korea and therefore escaped the bombing that razed most North Korean cities and towns. In Kaesong, Palin is treated to some old Korean culinary traditions and stays at a Korean version of a ryokan. The next day, it’s onward to Wonsan on the east coast, a town targeted for development as a holiday resort for locals and foreigners. Still under construction, the holiday resort redevelopment already has an international airport ready and waiting for tourists who will not arrive until later in 2019. Palin is a bit nonplussed wandering around a huge airport terminal where the only other people besides himself are shop assistants with nothing to do except wait for non-existent customers.

Palin’s significant encounters with local people include meeting a farmer and her son. Farming is done by hand – few farmers have tractors or other heavy agricultural machinery that would obviate the need for labourers – and the demand for such labour is great. The farmer invites Palin into her sparsely furnished home for a big lunch feed. Palin thinks the farmer is trying to impress him with so much food to hide what he supposes are food shortages in rural North Korea. Later on, when Palin and one of his guides visit Mount Kumgang, he attempts to engage her in conversation about comparative politics and what she thinks of her country’s leaders: she tells him the North Korean people respect and identify so much with Kim Jong-un and what he brings to his people that to criticise him would be to criticise the people who support him wholeheartedly. In the end, the guide Soyang manages to parry the questions Palin zings at her quite cleverly and he has to admit defeat.

Palin’s visit concludes with a trip to a new district in Pyongyang developed especially as a showcase technology park and futuristic residential area. He marvels that the large district, boasting several incredibly tall skyscrapers built in a very distinctive style, has sprung up in the space of a calendar year. Leaving North Korea, Palin feels not a little regretful at saying goodbye to his guides (who he has become quite close to) and the charming people who have looked after him over the past fortnight.

While Palin is entranced by his hosts’ graciousness, the people’s cheerfulness, the culture and the beautiful countryside, he can’t quite escape his own conditioning and continues to view North Korea through the prism of a paranoid and closed police-state society ruled by a dynasty of rulers who permit no criticism and who demand absolute loyalty and suppression of individuality. He mentions the huge army North Korea maintains but appears not to understand the necessity for it: every year the United States, South Korea and other invited countries stage massive military exercises twice a year close to the North Korean borders, usually timed to coincide with the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons, forcing the country to pull labourers from the farms to be on stand-by in case the exercises turn into actual invasions. The connection linking US sanctions against North Korea over the past 70 years, the lack of agricultural machinery that would make farming easier and bring in bigger harvests, the constant aggression by the US and South Korea, and the consequent need for a huge agricultural labour force and for a large army provide the context against which food shortages leading to apparent starvation and malnutrition occurred in the 1990s. All this unfortunately washes completely over Palin’s head; instead he lapses into quite sanctimonious monologues about how North Korea will have to choose between following its current path of independence, and accepting Western-style capitalism and democracy (which he views as inevitable if North Korea is to survive in the long term, though not without regret that it will destroy part of the country’s charm) to be part of the 21st century.

Aside from the dreary and repetitive propaganda Palin keeps reminding viewers of, the former Monty Python comedian is genuinely interested in seeing how North Koreans survive and thrive in an apparently restrictive society. It is a pity that he does not give them much credit for their resurrection from the nation-wide devastation and destruction brought by the United States in the 1950s that was further compounded by nearly 70 years of economic sanctions.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1): Western insistence on stereotyping a country ruins a striking travelogue

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1)” (2018)

At least two years in the making, this 2-part travel documentary follows comedian / world traveller Michael Palin during a two-week trip exploring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea / North Korea, marvelling at its visual and audio sights, and trying to engage as much as possible with the people he meets. The trip took place at a time when North Korea under its leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea under President Moon Jae-in were starting to warm to each other more and were seriously considering the possibility of reunification. In his first week in North Korea, Palin was taken by his guides through Pyongyang, and what he sees and experiences in the nation’s capital is the focus of Part 1 of the documentary.

The sights alone are worthwhile watching – Pyongyang is a clean city with wide spaces, some very eccentric and colourful architecture, and (for a city of its 3-million-strong size) not a great deal of car traffic. Fretting over the lack of Internet, the absence of a phone signal and the North Korean authorities’ insistence on holding his and the film crew’s passports once over the Chinese border from Dandong, Palin gradually settles into the life and pace of Pyongyang. He marvels at the government’s early morning broadcasts of songs aiming at motivating and inspiring people to look forward to a new day working for and benefiting North Korea. He visits an extravagantly built underground train station and takes a ride on the Metro. He gets a head massage by a woman in a barbershop – in North Korea, women run barbershops and hairdressing salons apparently – and visits a class of junior high school students. Their teacher looks a bit nonplussed at the strange Englishman blowing up a balloon depicting the globe and tossing it among the kids. When prompted as to what they’d like to do after leaving school, the youngsters say they want to be scientists, teachers and doctors, and to serve North Korea. One girl, declaring that she will be a famous writer, recites her poem about Mount Paektu (the birthplace of Kim Jong-il). Palin concludes from this little episode that, erm, the students aren’t taught critical thinking.

Among other visits, Palin meets a government-employed artist who creates visual propaganda and explains the symbolism behind what he does. He goes to a sports centre where teenagers are training in table tennis. The final day of his stay in Pyongyang is the May Day public holiday and Palin goes to a public park where people are picnicking with their families, drinking, dancing and generally having a great time. One drunken man crowns Palin with a tiara of leaves before being pulled away by his wife.

Palin obviously wants to accept everything at face value and believe that the happy and contented people he meets are genuine in their opinions, feelings and behaviour. Years of his own indoctrination by relentless Western media propaganda about North Korea – not to mention the agenda behind his visit – keep intruding on his thoughts, leaving him troubled and perplexed. The apparent poverty he sees around him – most notably depicted in shots of both Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea on opposing sides of the Yalu River, as the train carries Palin across the bridge – is attributed to North Korean paranoia in sealing the nation off from foreign influence. Nearly 70 years of US sanctions (which target nations that dare to trade with North Korea as much as they do North Korea itself) against the country could just as likely have contributed to the nation’s poverty and its emphasis on cultivating every hectare of available land with rice and other important staple foods.

The constant insistence on portraying North Korea as a repressive police state by Palin and the film-makers is insidious and is sure to colour and shape Western viewers’ abilities and opinions in watching the program. There are moments where Palin comes close to showing a gross lack of respect for his hosts and his two guides especially. One might suspect he is being pushed by the film-makers and the film producers to ask questions he might find offensive. That the North Korean government stresses hard work, being part of a big family and working together, meeting communal and national goals, and generally having a positive attitude seems to be lost on Palin and the film crew, who brush all this effort away as propaganda.

The irony in making a film exploring North Korea and its people, that serves mainly to reinforce Western stereotypes about it being a repressive police state producing robotic traffic police and people unable to think for themselves, for Western audiences living in countries which themselves are increasingly repressive and obsessed with brainwashing people with identity politics propaganda and depriving them of the skills to think for themselves and evaluate differing opinions using reason, may not be lost on Western viewers.

Vice: satirical biopic is as empty as the man it lampoons

Adam McKay, “Vice” (2018)

A rather patchy satirical study of the life of former US Vice-President Dick Cheney, “Vice” shows how an unscrupulous individual can attain and abuse power, and in so doing change the lives of millions for the worse, in ways unimaginable and unforeseen – not only in countries that bore the brunt of American viciousness and brutality, but also at home through policies that enriched a small, already wealthy political elite at the expense of the middle classes, the working classes, and the marginal and impoverished underclasses alike – by achieving a position once thought irrelevant and exploiting its apparent insignificance. The film jumps back and forth between various episodes of Cheney’s life, beginning in 1963 when Cheney (Christian Bale) is charged for the second time in less than twelve months for driving under the influence of drink and is forced by his girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) to take stock of his life. From there, the young Cheney buckles down to study: he leaves Yale University, attends a university in Wyoming and manages to obtain five draft deferments when he becomes eligible for the military draft.

His political career starts in 1969 when he becomes intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) – in real life, he was actually intern to someone else – and from there, he ascends to becoming White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford. Later, after Jimmy Carter becomes US President in 1976, Cheney campaigns to represent Wyoming in the US House of Representatives and wins the seat; he ends up being re-elected five times. He becomes Secretary of Defense under George H W Bush’s term as US President from 1989 to 1993. During Bill Clinton’s tenure as US President (1993 – 2001), Cheney served as CEO of Halliburton, a company that provides services to petroleum exploration and production companies. In 2000, Cheney is approached by George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) to be his running mate in his campaign for the US Presidency. Along his path to the ultimate power-trip – being the eminence grise that makes the decisions for President Dubya while not having to take the responsibility for them – Cheney maintains a cold, calculating mask that reveals nothing of the stony ambition behind it as he exploits Article 2 of the US Constitution (which puts the executive power of government in the role of the President) to the extent that Dubya becomes a de facto monarch and Cheney his vizier.

The film’s style – it’s a mix of documentary (with narration by an unnamed Everyman character), drama and comedy – can be entertaining as well as educational but fails to probe Cheney’s character deeply enough to reveal the inner reptilian hell that drives him all the way to Washington DC and ultimately to the White House. What past traumas, hostilities, injustices and grudges was Cheney nursing, that he was driven to become a power-mad bastard without true feeling or emotion? While Christian Bale is all but immersed in Cheney and basically impersonates him, his preparation for the role and his acting are not served well by the script which hops from one scenario to deal with another fairly briefly and superficially before zipping to yet another. The overall impression viewers are likely to get is a film that crashes through a virtual CV of infamy, selectively emphasising those incidents that make Cheney the villain he is. So zealously does “Vice” pursue this point that it manages to get one thing wrong: the film portrays both Cheney and his wife as hostile towards the LBGTI community and its demands; in reality, both were sympathetic towards gay marriage.

Bale is surrounded by a competent cast ranging from Steve Carell who is on fire as Donald Rumsfeld and Amy Adams doing her Lady Macbeth best on devoted wife Lynne, to Sam Rockwell who all but impersonates Dubya. Other actors pale by comparison, mainly because their characters get little screen time due to the script. Had the script concentrated on fewer highlights (and lowlights) of Dick Cheney’s career, and investigated these in more detail – in particular Cheney’s control of the White House during the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, and the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 11 September 2001 – the film could have shown how Bush, Cheney and various others continued a culture of lying, secrecy and a penchant for vicious violence, preferably carried out by others upon victims in distant lands, with no thought for the consequences that might arise, that not only survives and thrives in the present day but has spread to other nations around the world.

At the end of the film, viewers will not know much more about what made Dick Cheney and the stone that passed for his heart – his heart problems being very much an ongoing joke in the film – than they did at the beginning. Ticking over too many of Cheney’s great moments of vice, and not dealing with them with the depth they need, “Vice” ends up playing too much like a propaganda film made for Democrat-voting audiences who like to consider themselves “progressive” in their views and politics. While the film concedes that the abominable Hillary Clinton as New York state senator supported Dubya’s war on Iraq, it treats other Democrat Presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama with kid gloves. At the same time the film makes no attempt to understand how rural voters were drawn to the Republicans and how the Republicans exploited the gap between voters in the US heartland states and the urban-based Democrats obsessed with their identity politics.


A sense of Cold War paranoia and self-righteous American exceptionalism in “Espionage Target – You!”

“Espionage Target – You!” (1964)

Commissioned by the United States Department of Defense for training US military and civilian personnel sent abroad, this film is an example of how closely Hollywood, collectively and individually, worked with the US government in producing propaganda … er, training and educational movies. This film purports to show how agents working for the enemies of the US attempt to recruit American military and civilian employees to obtain information by searching and exploiting weaknesses in the individual Americans. Three re-enactment scenarios, based on actual cases, in different parts of the world – in West Germany, Japan and Poland – are shown: in each, a friendly stranger approaches an individual or group of individuals and strikes up a conversation in which s/he probes the chosen victim/s for vulnerabilities such as loneliness, money problems, sexual issues, alcohol and gambling. Once the stranger identifies a person’s weakness, that issue will be manipulated to the extent that the victim comes under continuous pressure and harassment to deliver, and will feel stressed and conflicted: a state that the agent can control and exploit even more.

Invariably the agents are described as working for the “Sino-Soviet” or Communist espionage system and can appear as quite personable and charming people. One such agent, Nick Macrados, is played by Anthony Eisley,  who appeared in a number of well-known television series spanning 30 years from the late 1950s on. Macrados recruits two US Army servicemen into a scheme to obtain secret information by plying them with money and drink; one of these Army guys, Karras (Pete Duel) later realises that he has been tricked and informs his superiors. The scheme is rumbled by Army authorities who arrest Macrados and Karras’ buddy Templeton (Michael Pataki). This re-enactment is the longest of the three and takes up at least half of the film’s half-hour running time; consequently the other two re-enactments are more sketchy and generic in their details. In all three examples, the victims realise they have been targeted and report to the appropriate authorities who take charge of the respective situations and apprehend the enemy agents.

The scenarios proceed briskly and in a fairly straightforward and low-key way that some viewers might find surprising, seeing as the film is a Hollywood production. The acting is efficient and consistent, and seems realistic enough. Refreshingly for the period (mid-1960s), the Asian actors who appear as a Chinese spy and his Japanese honey-pot accomplices act in a natural way and speak English without faked stereotyped Asian accents. (Although one actress could have toned down her alarmingly fairy-floss black coiffure.) The film is easy to follow and at its end the narrator sums up the foreign agents’ modus operandi and the actions American citizens abroad should follow if approached by people they suspect of being part of that insidious Sino-Soviet espionage network. Of course, the problem is that now the way in which the enemy agents work has been revealed, their employers are sure to change their methods and the film will no longer be relevant.

Both Hollywood and the US Department of Defense seem unaware that at the time, the Soviet Union and the Chinese had fallen out and were not much on speaking terms, much less able to co-operate. On the other hand, maybe the US government did know that the Communist world was divided but preferred not to divulge such information to the American public, all the more to maintain the fear and the level of American suspicion towards foreigners. The seemingly friendly and paternal tone of the film does little to hide a wariness and no small amount of paranoia, along with a sense of American superiority and belief in manifest destiny in which Americans are the natural police force of the world and pull others into line. For a film made in the 1960s, this training short features quite a number of stereotyped Hollywood film elements (in dialogue, aspects of plotting, characterisations) associated with films made in the 1940s – 1950s.

The film is notable for its cast of actors like Eisley, Duel and Pataki, who found themselves in demand for movies and TV shows, several of which became classics in their own right; and as an example of how closely Hollywood works with US government agencies to push an agenda.

Undercover in Idlib: secret snapshot of jihadi-held Idlib province in northwestern Syria

Jenan Moussa, “Undercover in Idlib” (2017)

Presented and narrated by Jenan Moussa, a reporter for Al Aan TV in Dubai, this 22-minute documentary on the situation in Idlib province, in northwestern Syria, as of 2015 – 2016 reveals facts that Western news media outlets have never shown: that a number of towns in the province including Jisr al Shugur are dominated by jihadis and their families from China and Central Asia, and that the whole region is controlled by extremist groups like Jabhat al Nusra, the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaeda. The documentary was secretly filmed by Moussa’s informants (all pro-opposition) on cellphones; had they been discovered to be filming, they would have been imprisoned, even put to death. Even filmed in secret however, and with all the other limitations such filming involved (such as the use of cellphones), the documentary is clear and enough film footage was taken by Moussa’s sources to support a clear narrative.

Filming took place in Idlib city, Jisr al Shugur – revealed as a complete wreck – and other towns in the province. Film footage shows huge amounts of graffiti scrawled on walls and buildings quoting pronouncements by Al Qaeda leader Ayman Mohammed Rabie al Zawahiri. Houses and buildings abandoned by pre-2011 Idlib households and businesses have been seized by extremist groups and auctioned off to their followers; even crops have been seized and auctioned off. Christian churches have been defaced or converted into mosques and in one town a statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by an al Nusra flag.

Of the various checkpoints in and out of Idlib province, mostly with Turkey, the vast majority are controlled by Jabhat al Nusra and the rest controlled by other extremist groups allied with them. If any so-called “moderate” anti-government rebel groups exist in Idlib province, their presence was confined to their headquarters.

The most amazing revelation is that all of Moussa’s sources agree that huge numbers of ethnic Uyghur jihadis from China, plus Uzbek jihadis and “Turkistani” jihads and their families have settled in Idlib province and number from 10,000 to 20,000 people. All made their way to Syria from China and Central Asia for jihad. Moussa does not say how they managed to travel long distances from their original countries or on what passports they travelled on.

Since the documentary was first made, Jabhat al Nusra changed its name to Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) so Moussa asked her contacts to return to Idlib province to take note of any changes made. They reported that the propaganda had been softened and made more colourful and appealing to the local people. Al Zawahiri’s name was scrubbed off from walls where his quotations had been scrawled on and any references to HTS or its predecessor had disappeared, to give the area a more generic look.

Moussa reveals her sympathies with pro-opposition / anti-government forces (if they exist) in Syria by stating at the end of the documentary that everyone in Idlib province fears what may happen once Syrian government forces and their Russian allies begin their offensive to drive out the extremists in the province. Apart from this bias, which I disagree with, the film is a sobering survey of the reality of Idlib province: a permanent resettlement policy is under way in this part of Syria which I fear is intended to lay the foundation for a new invasion of the rest of the country by religious extremists supported by Syria’s enemies.

BlacKkKlansman: use of race politics demeans the achievement of a black police officer in exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s evil

Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman” (2018)

Filmed as a blaxsploitation-styled comedy drama, this work revolves around a real scenario in which a black American police officer in Colorado state actually infiltrates a local branch of the notorious racist organisation the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a white man interested in joining the KKK. The characters and much of the plot are based on the memoir written by that police officer, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington). The period during which Stallworth infiltrated the KKK spans the late 1970s and the early 1980s but director Spike Lee places the action in the mid-1970s. Stallworth joins the Colorado Springs police force as a rookie cop and initially works in boring records administration work. He is soon transferred to undercover work and his first job is to attend a student rally where a former Black Panther activist Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) gives an address urging race war. At this rally Stallworth meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, and is attracted to her. Their developing romance, in which he hesitates to tell her what he does for a living after she criticises the police as “pigs”, forms a sub-plot to the film.

At work, Stallworth spies a KKK recruitment advertisement in the local newspaper and phones the number . He pretends to be a white man wanting to join the organisation but foolishly gives his real name. Stallworth and a team of other police officers then arrange for a colleague, Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to act in his stead, meeting members of the local KKK branch and socialising with them under Stallworth’s name. Zimmerman eventually enrolls in the KKK after Stallworth, handling the application to join over the phone, phones KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) to speed up the admin work, which Duke happily obliges. All seems to be going well except that long-time KKK member Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) senses that Zimmerman isn’t what he appears to be and starts doing some research on Zimmerman and Ron Stallworth, even visiting Stallworth at home. When not investigating Zimmerman’s “bona fides”, Felix and two other KKK members, chafing at their president’s moderate style of leadership, stalk Patrice after her complaint at being sexually harassed by a racist police officer goes public, find out where she lives and plot to silence her by using Felix’s wife to place a bomb outside a civic rally or her house.

Eventually David Duke comes to Colorado Springs to preside over Zimmerman’s joining ceremony which takes place on the same day the civic rally is scheduled. The police assign Stallworth to protect Duke and soon enough, the action quickens and starts going pow-pow-pow.

Because Lee uses race politics as the all-encompassing prism through which viewers see what happens, reinforced by Lee’s attempts to situate the film within current political / racial tropes portraying US President Donald Trump as racist, “BlacKkKlansman” falls into a stereotypical black-versus-white paradigm that admits no other viewpoints that might complicate the message Lee wants to tell. This means that all characters, especially the KKK members, end up as crude one-dimensional stereotypes that actually demean the work that the real Stallworth did in busting the KKK Colorado chapter. After all, if your enemy is portrayed as a bunch of ignorant hick idiots, the danger it poses seems less than what it would be if the enemy were highly intelligent and sophisticated. The KKK members are obsessed with race purity and recreating their ideal of a prosperous America. There is nothing in the film about the poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunities that these people and their families might have suffered over decades as a result of political corruption and the lack of Federal and State government expenditure on social welfare, health and education in those regions of the US where poverty among both white, black and other communities had been entrenched since the end of the US Civil War and the KKK flourished.

On the other side, the black people among whom Stallworth moves are mostly naive middle class, college-educated youngsters who zealously follow every faddish fashion and idea that smacks of “black power” in the way they dress and do their hair, and generally act as one big mass. The weakest parts of the film are in fact those parts where the black middle class people huddle around leaders and role models (one of them played by Harry Belafonte) and seem to act as one many-headed mass. Is Lee sending up the black middle class, and the culture and the music associated with “black pride” of the early 1970s? Just as troublesome is the film’s emphasis on Zimmerman being Jewish and his being forced to acknowledge his Jewish heritage as a result of having to confront anti-black and anti-Jewish racism in his contacts with the KKK; as if somehow being a lapsed Jewish believer, attending synagogue only during the high holy days perhaps and being indifferent to Jewish rituals the rest of the year, is something to be ashamed of.

The most revealing moment comes when the Black Students Union members, after listening to a talk given by Harry Belafonte’s character about a lynching that occurred in 1916 and an early silent film, “The Birth of A Nation” by D W Griffith, start yelling “Black Power!” and pump their fists in the air, at the same time that the KKK members, having witnessed Zimmerman’s induction into their ranks, watch the same film and start shouting “White Power!”, also pumping their fists in the air. At this point, the film appears to be advocating racial separatism which completely ignores the issue of class as a factor in encouraging race hatred and division. Such racial separatism diverts attention away from forming a united front that can successfully confront and overthrow those political elements that benefit from fragmentation of the body politic on ethnic, religious and other identity-based criteria and keeping it impoverished and oppressed – just as political elites in the southern states of the US and elsewhere used race-based politics to keep white and black people apart, poor and weak when they should have been together and strong. It is significant that David Duke is now on public record as saying that he likes Spike Lee’s work and respects it, which may suggest that Duke himself has not only seen this film but has recognised the unintended parallels in the portrayal of the BSU and the KKK, and seen the naivety of the students as comparable to the stupidity of the KKK members in the film.

The film ends up doing Ron Stallworth and his achievement in penetrating the KKK and exposing its terrorism a grave disservice. The whole story might have been better served filmed as a documentary.

One oddity about “BlacKkKlansman” is that it portrays the Colorado Springs police force as basically benevolent in spite of the odd bad apple or two – even though police forces across the US in recent years have been prominent in several racist incidents and attacks in which people have died. Significantly scenes at the end of the film, focusing on recent incidents in which neo-Nazis and white supremacists / separatists are prominent, fail to include police attacks on anti-racism activists. Might Spike Lee be pulling his punches here and directing people’s anger against racism into channels that divert that anger away from the institutions that most perpetuate racism – like Hollywood?

Those Who Said No: a slickly made and polished film that is less than honest about the politics of the activists it champions

Nima Sarvestani, “Those Who Said No” (2015)

A very polished film, complete with stereotypical mournful droning music in parts, this Iranian / Swedish documentary follows proceedings of the Iran Tribunal, a people’s court hosted at The Hague, in its investigation of alleged violations of human rights and crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1988. According to a cleric, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, between 2,800 and 3,800 political prisoners were executed or disappeared by the Khomeini government. These massacres began in mid-July 1988 and went on for several months.

The documentary does a very good job recording the testimonies of people who had been arrested, imprisoned and tortured by Iranian prison authorities. One witness after another takes the stand to answer questions from stony-faced (and often bored-looking) judges about their time and experiences in prison. This constant narrative is broken up by a minor story of a man who survived the tortures and mistreatment, and who travels to Japan to confront Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a former representative of the Iranian court system in the 1980s, in Tokyo.

Where the documentary fails is in providing a full political context to the arrests, the imprisonment, torture and execution of the political prisoners by the Iranian government in 1988: why were these people arrested and for what crimes, and what were the organisations or groups they belonged to – these are details that are not mentioned in the film. Having to do my own research, I discovered that the majority of the prisoners who were executed were members of a radical leftist organisation known as the People’s Mojahedin of Iran or Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) which among other things it did during the 1980s carried out bomb attacks against and assassinations of various clerics in the government and sided with the then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces, even going so far as to set up its headquarters in Iraq: a move regarded by most Iranians as a grave betrayal since Iraq and Iran were at war. After 1985, MEK became a full-fledged fruitcake terrorist cult centred around Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam, and spends a great deal of its money on organising propaganda campaigns, using computer bots to spread disinformation on social media platforms and lobbying politicians in the US government. New recruits to MEK are subjected to intense indoctrination and bizarre rituals that may include sexual abuse with the aim of breaking down their sense of identity in an environment that deliberately isolates them from the outside world and makes them dependent on MEK members. The organisation has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Iran and some other countries since the early 1970s and most people in Iran shun the organisation.

After discovering the MEK connection, I am not surprised then that the Iranian government cracked down severely on political prisoners and tortured and executed thousands. Political prisoners belonging to the Iranian Communist Party (Tudeh) and other leftist groups were also arrested and jailed, and many of them were killed; unfortunately the film does not identify these people who were swept up in the killings. What the film omits to mention lessens the impact it wants to make, and moreover makes the film less than honest as a crusading vehicle for political activism.

Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money) – a shallow and confusing enquiry into the historical importance of money

Celso R Garcia, “Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money)” (2017)

One viewing of this episode of the National Geographic series was enough to put me off watching the rest of the series. Host Jason Silva is an earnest and enthusiastic commentator but his vocal delivery seems to have a hard grinding quality and his voice sounds as if he is being strangled by too many rocks far down his throat. His movements are often jerky and for some odd reason the camera crew insists on holding the camera at angles so that at times Silva appears to be looking and talking away from the camera, and this approach tends to emphasise his stiff body movements even more. With his voice and his body language, Silva comes across as a sales representative trying (and not too successfully at that) to pressure his customer into buying something – an approach that might be apt for this particular episode in the “Origins …” series which is about the hold that money has over humans.

For a series intended for family viewing, if this episode is typical, then the whole project should be re-thought. The structure of the episode is hard to understand and follow: we jump backwards and forwards in time as the narrative pursues detours into the history of the Atlantic slave trade that robbed the African continent of human talent and energy and put millions (plus their children born into slavery in the Americas) into bondage to European political, social and economic elites, then into the Opium Wars between the British and Chinese empires in the 1840s which delivered Hong Kong to the British, and the use of paper money in China during the reign of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the 1200s. Very little is said about why money is such an important invention that it spread all over the ancient civilised world like wildfire (as a means of exchange and as a measure and store of value) and how it is superior to bartering and other non-money forms of exchange. Practically no attention is given to other inventions and technologies that were spawned by the widespread acceptance and use of money: the rise of banks for example and the concepts of debt, loans and interest, that would in their turn enable and encourage the rise of social and political hierarchies based on material wealth as measured by money as well as accidents of birth; the invention of the stock market and the concepts of investment, risk and hedging against uncertainty; various other institutions and concepts such as insurance or the idea of a central bank to approve issues of money and to develop and conduct monetary policy; and the birth of book-keeping and accountancy. Not to mention of course digital technologies and the phenomenon that is the global financial economy.

Historical re-enactments are downright cheesy and take liberty with historical accuracy. They run for far too long and upset the documentary’s momentum. Some re-enactments, such as one early scene in which two desert African tribes exchange food and weapons, or a later scene set in Mesopotamia in which a sinister-looking Middle Eastern man wearing a turban encourages a youth to gamble away money needed to buy medicine for a sick woman strike this viewer as racially prejudiced. I cannot believe that such racial stereotypes can still be considered acceptable for a documentary TV series aimed at the general public.

Significant events covered by the documentary are attributed in their causes to the hold that money has over the participants. The problem with this simplistic idea is to deliver more power over human decision-making to money – it’s one way of holding people down, by denying them free will and responsibility for their actions as masters and slaves in a social system where hierarchy reigns and inequality is rife. The differing attitudes of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism towards work and the acquisition of material wealth count for little in the European drive to collect colonies from the 1500s on, as do the desire for territory and natural resources, and souls to forcibly convert to Christianity. The Opium Wars in China may very well have had their cause in the British use of opium as a means of exchange to acquire tea and other desired Chinese goods – but the opium was also handy as a weapon to weaken China by creating widespread drug addiction on a massive scale that was bound to affect the Middle Kingdom economically and for which the Chinese had no remedy.

Viewers may pick up some interesting facts and pieces of knowledge but the episode lacks a clear narrative structure that would encompass those facts and demonstrate how they are all related. At its worst, the episode appears to cherry-pick facts and ignore other related and significant facts. In particular, there is little said about who is ultimately responsible for creating money and regulating its creation and supply at any one time. Dare I say that the episode takes for granted that money should be allowed to flow freely through society without regulation that would distribute it more evenly so that everyone has a share in the society’s wealth and none has far too much or far too little?

The Final Journey: a formulaic road movie about hope and reconciliation in the Ukrainian civil war

Nick Baker-Monteys, “The Final Journey / Leanders Letzte Reise” (2017)

The plot may be a familiar one – aged pensioner Eduard Leander (Jurgen Prochnow), recently widowed, resolves to return to a distant land he fought a war in over 70 years ago, to find a woman he once knew, and his estranged slacker grand-daughter Adele (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) is forced to follow him to keep an eye on him – but the historical and political context in which their odyssey takes place is a contemporary and highly controversial one, one that takes them to uncomfortable and dark places, psychologically as well as physically, that test their character, their beliefs and ultimately their relationship and feelings for and about each other.

In early 2014, after the death of his wife, whom he has never really loved, Leander suddenly decides to go on a train trip to Kiev in Ukraine. Adele’s mother Uli (Susanne von Borsody) persuades her to try to talk to him to stay home – the older woman has never got on well with her dad – but Leander resolutely stays on the train and Adele is compelled to stay with him. On the train they meet Lew (Tambet Tuisk), a Russian-Ukrainian man who helps them evade train guards because Adele does not have her passport with her. Once in Kiev, Lew takes the two under his wing as they are unable to get hotel accommodation without Adele’s passport and they stay with his family. During the midday meal, Lew’s relatives come to blows over the troubled situation in eastern Ukraine: Lew has a grandmother and a brother living in Lugansk, and the brother (to the approval of the older relatives but not Lew’s) is fighting with the Donbass side against the new (and illegal) Kiev government.

Through contact with a historian specialising in World War II history, Leander determines that the woman he wants to meet, Svetlana Agafonova, lives in Lugansk so he, Adele and Lew travel by car there. There, they come in contact with the Donbass fighters and Lew’s brother and babushka. On further enquiry, the three discover they must cross the river border under cover of night to Russia to the village where Svetlana was resettled after the war. Bit by bit, Adele learns of the history of her father’s participation in the war as the leader of a Cossack regiment fighting under Nazi command against Soviet forces and Russian partisans, and realises that he may have committed atrocities grave enough to make him a war criminal.

In the meantime, Adele tries to stay in contact with her mother and relays some of what Leander and she get up to. As the pair go farther into eastern Ukraine and Russia, and war breaks out in Lugansk province, Uli decides to travel to Kiev and then to eastern Ukraine to find the two.

Schmidt-Schaller and Tuisk give very good performances as the two young party-goers who develop a genuine friendship and romance under unusual and trying circumstances. Prochnow maintains a surly old git outlook, at least until he arrives in the Russian village and discovers a few surprises. Through their journey together, Leander and his grand-daughter discover things about one another they had not known or suspected before: somewhat to her surprise, Adele develops a real warmth and affection for old Opa as she sees that he is truly capable of love and care for others, that he would risk his health and life to reconnect with a woman he knew 70+ years ago and whose current whereabouts he has no idea of; and Leander, to his regret, realises that his true family had always cared about him and for him. The tragedy is that he is unable to last long enough to truly reconcile with the people who care for him.

The cinematography is quite good (in a minimal way) at portraying the countryside in eastern Europe and the poverty of rural areas in Ukraine and Russia.

The script gingerly tiptoes around the current politics of Ukraine and the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and attempts to treat the two sides evenly as though the civil war were just like any other civil war with one brother disagreeing with another brother and families being split over the conflict. The nationalists marching through the streets of Kiev are shorn of their Nazi regalia and Western audiences are likely to be lulled into thinking these people are no more harmful than nationalist thug gangs in other countries and have no place in the Ukrainian government. (Perhaps the Leanders and Lew should have detoured a while in Lvov in western Ukraine, to watch torchlight parades carrying swastika banners and portraits of notorious Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and chanting anti-Jewish slogans through the city streets.) A scene in which the Leanders and Lew are being driven through the Russian countryside at night and pass by a strange convoy of tanks and army trucks going towards the Ukrainian border, at which Lew exclaims, “This is not normal!”, gives a clue as to whose propaganda the film-makers prefer to follow.

In exploring how two characters find redemption and connection through learning about their place in history (and at last finding some direction instead of drifting aimlessly through memory or pleasure), the film brings a message of hope and reconciliation with the past. Unfortunately (and ironically) its attempt to make sense of the civil war in Ukraine is shallow, because the film-makers are ignorant of the West’s involvement in overthrowing the legitimate if ineffective and corrupt Yanukovych government and that government’s replacement with a more criminal and vicious regime.

 

A devious history of chemical and biological weapons on “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” that stops short of serious criticism

Tim Usborne, “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” (2016)

In 2016, the year of its centenary, Britain’s major defence science and technology park, popularly known as Porton Down, received a visit from BBC TV science and medical commentator Dr Michael Mosley and film crew. Mosley and Company prowl around a small part of the facilities – which look just how viewers might imagine they would look, if they’d been told that the area contained a mixture of office buildings dating as far back as 1916 and open-space test sites – and are suitably awed by the labs with all their equipment and machines, the secret chambers, the furnaces where old and outlawed substances are destroyed, and the labyrinths of corridors connecting the various rooms. Much of the documentary is structured around the history of Porton Down, the reasons for its establishment during World War I, the substances its scientists researched or developed (including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve gas) and the controversial experiments performed on animals and humans alike. The story of Ronald Maddison, a young RAF serviceman who died in 1953 during a sarin liquid experiment (for which he had volunteered after being told the experiment was a test for flu vaccine), followed by 50 years of British government secrecy until a second inquest into his death in 2004 brought it into the public domain, is mentioned as an example of such notorious experimentation and the efforts expended by the government to quash public knowledge of it.

As might be expected of the BBC, the documentary treats Porton Down as a beneficent institution whose staff can be regarded as heroes and heroines working for the defence of the British nation against sinister chemical and biological warfare weapons that enemies around the world might unleash. The program acknowledges that animals were experimented upon, and many of these creatures died painful deaths, but their suffering and deaths are to be seen as necessary in the context of major conflicts such as the two World Wars and the Cold War, and subsequent new wars in which various parties including terrorist groups do not care about the Geneva Convention on the prohibition of the use of chemical and biological warfare weapons. So nothing is said about the notorious 2-year experiment over 2012 – 2014 in which over 220 guinea pigs died after exposure to chemical warfare weapons. The program descends into outright propaganda and lies when it asserts that in 1988, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villagers in Halabja with sarin gas (and not a mixture of mustard gas and various unidentified nerve gas agents as should have seen stated); and that in 2013, the Syrian government (called “regime”, as if the Syrian public had never accepted it) under President Bashar al Assad also unleashed sarin gas in east Ghouta, a suburban / exurban area to the east of Damascus.

While peering around some of the laboratories – Mosley and the film crew were not allowed to roam freely for security reasons – and seeing elaborate testing, including the testing of sarin on spider-web gossamer wound around an implement, can be fun and exciting, we are reminded of Porton Down’s role as a front-line crusading against dastardly secret new weapons technologies exploiting the strengths of chemical and biological agents. For obvious reasons, the possibility that Porton Down might willingly and knowingly supply such dangerous agents to terrorist organisations to wage war on governments that the US and the UK desire to overthrow is lost on Mosley and the BBC.

A more informative documentary on the history of Porton Down and its current role and value to UK military defence and UK science generally, and which does not skirt around the laboratory complex’s willingness to use animal and non-consenting human subjects (including communities secretly sprayed with chemical aerosols) or Porton Down’s links to regime change, war and terrorism, would be welcome.