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?

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.

 

Loveless: a character study and thriller that criticises Russian society as stagnant, self-absorbed and materialist

Andrei Zvyagintsev, “Loveless” (2017)

As with previous films of Andrei Zvyagintsev that I’ve seen, “Loveless” is as much a criticism of modern Russian society and what it values as it is of the individuals who pursue hedonistic and materialist goals to the exclusion of all else. The film opens with a Moscow couple, Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), in the middle of divorce proceedings trying to sell their apartment to interested buyers and ignoring their only son Alexei (Matvey Novikov) who suffers in silence at his parents’ bickering. After the potential buyers leave, wanting more time to think the potential purchase over, Boris and Zhenya get stuck into tearing strips off each other while Alexei hides and cries in distress. Over the next day or so, Boris and Zhenya ignore each other by burying themselves in work during the day – and Boris worrying that his conservative Orthodox Christian bosses will turf him out if they discover that his marriage has broken up – and partying with new lovers in the evening. Eventually the couple notice that Alexei has gone missing and call the police. The police are tied up with various other cases of missing persons and refer Boris and Zhenya to a group of volunteers who help them search for Alexei.

The characters are very one-dimensional – Zhenya is a screechy, self-absorbed harpy while Boris is passive and hardly says anything much to defend himself – and everything in the film  from the cinematography and the plot to the visual narrative of various buildings (progressing from comfortable and modern to derelict and decrepit) is overloaded with symbolism and meaning, ultimately referring us to the same banal message that Zvyagintsev’s films usually broadcast: that Russia is a stagnant society given to hysteria and emotion, and Russians are a people who never learn from their mistakes. Working class people in particular come in for heavy condemnation but most significant characters in this film are obsessed with being on the make, acquiring wealth and luxury with the least amount of effort, using other people and checking social media constantly. Dysfunctional family relationships and conservative Christianity come in for heavy criticism, as though these exemplify and underline darker aspects of modern Russian culture and society.

The film’s attempt to create a parallel between Boris and Zhenya’s deteriorating relationship on the one hand and on the other hand their later relationships and even the separation of Russia and Ukraine and the resulting war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine is clumsy and contrived. Sex scenes are far too long and do not add anything significant about the characters who engage in them. While the cinematography can be good, even beautiful (as at the beginning and the end of the film), it dwells a great deal on the bleakness of Moscow winters as a metaphor for the bleakness and apparent apathy of modern Russian life.

Ultimately the film itself takes on a hermetic and self-obsessed bent as it trudges on to a devastating climax, at which (implausibly) Zhenya still rejects Boris as he tries to comfort her. The two later go their separate ways and resume their old habits – and psychological isolation – in new surrounds with new partners. At times the action and plot narrative in the film come across as unrealistic. Zvyagintsev seems intent to keep his characters as undeveloped as can be to bang home his criticism, however deserved or undeserved, of Russia.

I can see that future films of Zvyagintsev are going to be as stagnant and unchanging in the cheap pot-shots they take at ordinary people, as the society he believes Russia to be. Unfortunately those social and other structural problems of Russian society that Zvyagintsev takes to be symptomatic of the worst aspects of Vladimir Putin’s governance and the society that has developed under his leadership – the indifference of the police towards two parents who have lost a child, the alienation of individuals within families, family conflicts that pass from one generation to the next, the insidious influence of conservative religion through elites – are readily recognised by Western audiences as also typical of their societies: these problems are ones produced by capitalist societies.

The Death of Stalin: an unfunny and insulting comedy satire lacking in imagination and original ideas

Armando Iannucci, “The Death of Stalin” (2017)

A British-made comedy satire about the death of Joseph Stalin and the struggle among his senior officials in the Politburo to seize power and become the new leader of the Soviet Union? I find that hard to believe and even harder to believe that such treatment of a significant historical figure – moreover, one who led his nation to victory over Nazi Germany at tremendous cost of millions of lives – from the British, that most Russophobic of nations, would be at all sympathetic to the Russians generally, let alone the victims of Stalin’s government over 20+ years of rule. Even so, I was curious to see what director Armando Iannucci has made of his subject, given that he has carved a reputation in creating funny political satires that emphasise the stupidity and self-serving nature of politicians. Perhaps he would dispel my preconceptions and prejudices and deliver something original and thoughtful as well as sharp and witty without resorting to stereotyping.

Unfortunately though I didn’t need to see the film for very long to realise that Iannucci has not bonded, either intellectually or emotionally, with the subject matter, and is lacking in the maturity and imagination needed to deal with the characters of Stalin himself (Adrian McLoughlin) and the most senior Politburo members: the sinister, self-serving NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the equally ambitious Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official replacement played as ineffectual and rather spineless; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), very much a secondary character who follows the others and bends with the prevailing ideological wind; and the superfluous Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) who has hardly anything to do at all in a crowded film. The result is a film that comes across as detached and divorced from the historical context surrounding Stalin’s last days and the years of political instability that followed his death, culminating in Nikita Khrushchev’s seizure of power from Malenkov and Beria’s downfall and execution. The major characters are little more than stereotypes of politicians corrupted by greed, stupidity and lust for blood. The actors do what they can with their flimsy characters but I did not get a sense of the real men they were portraying. Beale’s Beria in particular gives little indication of the vicious and predatory menace of the real Beria while Tambor’s Malenkov is a buffoon far away from the real Malenkov who, after being overthrown by Khrushchev in 1955, later mounted a failed attempt to depose Khrushchev in 1957: a buffoon certainly would not have had the confidence and the support of others to try to regain the Soviet leadership.

Most of the comedy in the film turns out to be slapstick or farce that sits ill with the particular situation that the comedy is supposed to criticise. Due to the stereotyping of the characters and of Soviet society generally as some post-World War II country that seems to have forgotten that the war ended nearly a decade before 1953, the comedy that arises is tired and not at all funny.

Needless to say the film plays hard and fast with historical accuracy and one senses this was done not to advance any significant messages or themes, other than the trite theme of the nature of absolute power and its effects on human beings and society (you know, the one that says when absolute power corrupts, it corrupts absolutely), but rather to push an ideological stereotype that damns Russians as a servile people doomed never to understand democracy but always to be in thrall to absolute dictators and to live in impoverished conditions marked by frequent casual violence and brutal killings. No wonder the film has been banned in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries: it is insulting to Russian people and Russian history.

Why is China Investing in the Balkans? – VisualPolitik’s guess is no better than yours or mine

“Why is China Investing in the Balkans?” (VisualPolitik EN, 26 March 2018)

VisualPolitik EN is a Youtube channel that posts short video clips on geopolitical and economic topics with a narrow and particular focus. These topics are delivered in a slickly knowing and smug manner by presenter Simon Whistler who at least presents well visually. The topic under his gimlet eye (made even more so by his glasses and his closeness to the camera) is exploring why China is investing in the Balkans region.

The narration starts off on the wrong foot by observing that the various small Balkan countries have one thing in common: they apparently all hate one another. Some also have other things in common: political corruption, large public debt, high levels of unemployment and growing poverty. From this starting point, and with a supercilious air, Whistler plunges into this particular deep end of Europe. Enter China whose politicians and business community seemingly believe they can solve the problems of this southeastern European region by buying ports in a bankrupt, debt-ridden Greece and upgrading their infrastructure, and in the long term incorporate these ports and Greece into China’s grand Silk Road Economic Belt which will encompass central and eastern Europe, central Asia, China itself and littoral areas around the Indian Ocean. Serbia is also keen on Chinese investment and Chinese companies (both private and state) have been busy inking contracts with the Serbians, acquiring industrial assets and opening branches and factories.

While the presentation is smooth and features clippings of videos and newspaper articles splashed across the screen, it doesn’t answer the question it asks. Sure there is reference to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the potential benefits economic integration into the Chinese trading sphere could deliver to Greece and Serbia – but why do Greece and Serbia get preferential treatment from the Chinese, why aren’t other countries in the Balkans also clambering aboard the Beijing-led express? Why indeed have Greece and Serbia turned to Beijing and away from Brussels in the hope of saving their economies? What is the EU doing wrong in those two countries that the Greeks and Serbians hope China can correct? The  video fails to give adequate answers to these questions that viewers might be asking from watching and listening.

The Shape of Water: a magic realist mash-up of several genres lays on identity politics and self-indulgence too thickly

Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” (2017)

Inspired by the famous Hollywood classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro delivers his homage to that film and Hollywood’s Golden Age in this magic realist mash-up of horror, science fiction, romance, spy thriller, musical and political / social commentary.  The main plot – a “Beauty and the Beast” recreation – is straightforward and quite thin, and the Beast is very much under-utilised to this viewer’s disappointment. What makes the film work is the various little sub-plots, several of them admittedly very undeveloped little hints to the point of being stereotypes, that flesh out minor characters and make them interesting in their own right, with a subtle message about how people live and cope in a highly restrictive and conformist society. The film is set in the early 1960s during the Cold War at its most paranoid and thus becomes a criticism of the current world political climate in which Russia is being constantly demonised by an American empire whose politics, economy, culture and influence are in severe decline.

The film bears comparison with del Toro’s earlier “Pan’s Labyrinth”: both begin and end as Gothic realist fantasies about fairy princesses born as fragile humans who undergo trials that test their mettle to prove they are worthy of their royal heritage. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) begins life as an orphan baby found beside a river with neck injuries that prevent her from being able to speak. She grows up mute and finds work as a cleaner at a secret government science laboratory in Baltimore. Fellow worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American, befriends her and learns how to interpret Elisa’s sign language for the other staff and their employers. Outside work, Elisa lives alone in an old, dilapidated apartment above a movie theatre next door to unemployed graphic artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) with whom she shares a love of old musicals and romantic comedies.

Not much happens for a long time until the laboratory receives a strange creature captured in South American by US Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Curious, Elisa discovers the creature is an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) and feels pity for it, especially as Strickland treats it cruelly by administering electric shocks with a cattle-prod. She secretly visits the creature and though neither can speak, they form a fast bond.

On discovering that Strickland has been ordered to kill and dissect the creature for any anatomical features that might benefit the US in its race against the Soviet Union to put humans into space, Elisa determines to rescue and eventually free the creature. She enlists Giles in an elaborate scheme to get the creature out of the facility. Zelda is quickly co-opted into helping Elisa and Giles as is also Dr Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist who happens to be a Soviet spy and who has been ordered by his handlers to kill the creature against his beliefs that it deserves to live for further study.

Elisa keeps the creature in her bath-tub at home and plans to release it into the city canal when the rains come and the canal opens into the sea. Meanwhile Strickland searches for the creature and interrogates the two cleaners without much success. An incident involving the creature, Giles and the artist’s two cats reveals the creature’s ability to heal wounds and delay some symptoms of advancing age. Over time, Elisa and the creature become romantically and sexually involved but as the days pass, the creature’s health deteriorates and Strickland begins to close in on this very odd couple in his search, especially once he discovers Hofstetler’s Russian identity after the scientist is shot by his handlers and tortures him for information about who is holding the creature and where.

The acting is very good with the stand-out performance being Michael Shannon’s tortured Strickland who, although a villain through and through, manages to elicit sympathy as a man who desperately desires approval and acceptance in a culture and a hierarchy that demand a great deal of him and more. He lives what del Toro imagines a typical social-climbing upper middle-class life-style in a stylish house with a submissive wife and two rambunctious children, and gives in to a salesman’s smooth pitch to buy the latest model Cadillac. What happens to the car later on helps emphasise Strickland’s existential torment as a human hamster who has willingly chained himself permanently to a never-ending capitalist wheel of constant material consumption and the need to prove himself to his superiors, his family and society at large. At some point in the film, after the grilling he gets from his superior, Strickland seems to realise that his situation is hopeless, that no matter how hard he tries he will never gain the approval he has sought all his life and this realisation throws him into a blind rage against Elisa, Zelda, Dr Hofstetler and the creature that endangers them all.

Elisa, Zelda and Giles are essentially marginal characters who through no fault of their own will never be accepted by a highly racist, prejudiced and judgemental society and who are more or less resigned to living on its edges. Elisa and Giles find relief from life’s daily grind through their friendship and their love of old Hollywood flicks. The actors playing these characters invest them with quirky spirit, with the result that viewers come away feeling that Zelda especially is a much under-used character. Dr Hofstetler comes across as a man of conscience despite his duplicity.

The cinematography is often very imaginative with ingenious segues from one scene to another suggestive of dreaming or seeing something through water. Dark colours emphasising the paranoid Cold War atmosphere and the characters’ isolation prevail throughout the film. In spite of all this, del Toro inserts comedy and a fantastical sequence in which Elisa gives vent to her dream of starring in her own B&W musical playing a Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire … and guess who plays the Astaire role!

True, parts of the plot are forced – how does the creature manage to learn sign language so quickly? and Elisa’s scheme to rescue the creature and the help she gets from Zelda and Hofstetler strains credibility – and the identity politics aspect is painted very thickly. There’s no reason to assume that gays, handicapped people, non-white people and others who don’t conform to the heterosexual white alpha male archetype will readily help one another against a common foe in a highly stratified society as early 1960s, pre-Civil Rights America. Male characters tend to have some weakness or character flaw while female characters are steadfast with inner strength despite outward vulnerability. For some viewers, the film packs in far too much in the way of different genres, that some sub-plots appear stereotyped, and Elisa’s fantasy musical dream sequence may stretch patience too far.

Above all, as social and political commentary and criticism, the film is shallow and offers no new insights or perspective on US capitalism as a system that divides and then slowly grinds and destroys people, and through its hostility towards other social and political systems (such as Communism) and nature generally, distorts those other systems and draws them into a downward spiral of mutual paranoia, suspicion and further hostility. Compared to “Pan’s Labyrinth”, this particular fairy tale is lacking in punch.

The obsession with past Hollywood glories is becoming a feature of many Hollywood films now and draws this viewer’s attention to the general decline in the movie industry, in its ability to create or find new stories to tell and new or revitalised ways of telling them. Poaching movie directors as well as actors from foreign countries to the detriment of their film industries is another indicator of decline.