Caution, propaganda at work in “Fukushima: Is Nuclear Power Safe?”

Annabel Gillings, “Fukushima: Is Nuclear Power Safe?” (2011)

Eminently likeable scientist-presenter Jim al-Khalili goes on a trip to Fukushima – the infamous site where three nuclear reactors suffered explosions and the release of radiation after being hit by earthquake tremors and tsunami waves in March 2011 – to get a first-hand look at what happened there and how bad the disaster was, to find out how local people are coping with its aftermath and to consider the likely long-term consequences it has for Japan’s future energy policy, in this BBC documentary. Acting as a reassuring presence for viewers, al-Khalili presents the case that nuclear power is much safer than people think and that the long-term effect on public health from the Fukushima incident, based on what is so far known from the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion on people in Ukraine, is likely to be more harmless than harmful. He briefly considers the possibility of thorium instead of uranium as the fuel for nuclear reactors, referring to 1950s pioneer Alan Weinberg in this area, and concludes that the Fukushima accident should not stop governments from considering nuclear energy as an alternative source of energy to fossil fuels in an age in which climate change and Peak Oil are very pressing problems.

Yours truly had the feeling that this documentary was carefully constructed so as not to step on sensitive toes and that information favourable to the nuclear energy industry was selected for the program. The fact that al-Khalili, who admits up-front that he is a professor in nuclear physics, was chosen as narrator and to visit Japan and Ukraine as an investigative reporter to give the documentary an immediate current affairs look is suspicious; after all, he has a stake in wanting research and production of nuclear energy to continue. (He says he is a husband and a father as well in case our heart-strings need pulling.) He draws the viewer’s attention to the upheaval of residents in the areas surrounding the Fukushima plant and the ongoing trauma and stress they still suffer as though it were the evacuation itself and the separation of the residents from their homes and livelihoods that caused their distress, and not the Japanese government’s botched rescue and evacuation efforts and its incompetence in cleaning up the site and keeping people fully informed as to what it’s doing to solve the mess and ensure it never happens again.

Al-Khalili suggests that the design of the reactors contributed to the disaster; the reactors are the oldest and apparently the least modified of their kind, having been commissioned in the early 1970s. All other similar models of the Fukushima plant vintage in other countries have been decommissioned or updated. One would like to ask, why didn’t the Fukushima reactors get the same treatment as these others? If the Japanese government values nuclear energy that much, why did it allow Fukushima to go to pot? Perish the thought that the government values business and profit over safety and people’s well-being!

Al-Khalili’s remark that no-one died as a result of radiation exposure at Fukushima, compared to the 20,000 deaths caused by the earthquake and tsunami, is breathtakingly naive given that the majority of radiation-linked deaths usually occur decades after the affected persons were exposed to the cause. No-one knows what the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident’s effect ultimately will be on the general public as there are many young people whose mothers there were exposed to radiation while pregnant with these youngsters and any radiation-linked diseases they are likely to get won’t develop until they are in their fifties and sixties; how will Fukushima be any different from Chernobyl? The film’s concentration also on thyroid cancers in children seems suspicious; might it be that thyroid cancers actually make up a small proportion of health problems caused by exposure to radiation? There is also the phenomenon known as the Piatkus effect in which low doses of radiation, especially if continuous and cumulative, can cause more cancers and other health problems than high doses of radiation do and this issue is ignored completely.

The section in the documentary where a young man is persuaded to film his moments in his abandoned home in the nuclear exclusion zone smacks of manipulation and cheap sensationalism. Al-Khalili’s apparent sympathy for residents of Fukushima and surrounding areas, forced to evacuate their homes and still living in uncertain limbo at the time the documentary was filmed is worked into an argument that ungrounded fears for their health, not the possibility of radiation-linked health effects, are responsible for prolonging the people’s misery and anxiety about their future health. Nothing is said about the Japanese government’s handling of the evacuation and of how badly it may have treated locals. The effect of al-Khalili’s suggestion that misguided humanitarianism is the cause of the evacuated residents’ anguish is to pit well-meaning do-gooders against the unfortunate refugees while absolving the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, the firm responsible for operating and managing the Fukushima reactors, of responsibility for compensating the affected people so they can find new homes and jobs.

No consideration is given to investigating alternative energy sources such as geothermal energy – Japan does have hot springs which suggest that that potential exists – and the BBC documentary suggests Japan has no other choices of energy extraction. There is no consideration as to whether Japan has been living beyond its means or if its society even needs as much electricity as it has used in the past. Natural gas supplies could replace the use of electricity in some areas of industry, agriculture and household use. Buildings could be re-fitted and building standards changed to encourage energy conservation and efficiency. It can also be argued that heating water to create steam for electricity generation is a poor excuse for using nuclear power; geothermal or solar thermal energy could be used to heat water instead, or wind, solar (in the form of photovoltaic panels) or tidal power could be used to create electricity directly.

In all, this is not a very informative documentary. The focus is made so narrow that the film suspiciously comes across as propaganda for the nuclear energy industry. I am sorry that al-Khalili agreed or let himself be used to shill for nuclear energy.

The Cranes are Flying: expressive and soulful film of hope despite the tragedy of war

Mikhail Kalatozov, “The Cranes are Flying / Letyat zhuravli” (1957)

A soulful film of hope and optimism amid the cruelties of war, this story of a tragic romance between two young people, Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov), during World War II is noted for the expressive acting depth of its main characters and Kalatozov’s skilful direction. The story itself is realistic soap-opera drama: Boris answers the call to war and leaves his young fiancee Veronika at home. He is killed in battle but ends up listed as missing. In the meantime, Veronika takes refuge with Boris’s family and Mark, a cousin of Boris, takes advantage of Veronika one night. The girl is shamed into marrying Mark and Boris’s immediate family accepts her but in a surly way. The family is evacuated to Siberia where Fyodor Ivanovich (Vasily Merkuryev), Veronika’s father-in-law, is in charge of a hospital and Veronika herself is drafted in as a nurse. A soldier patient gets upset about his girlfriend deserting him and Fyodor Ivanovich consoles the guy by telling him the young lady isn’t worth a kopeck and is as bad as the fascists for betraying him and Russia. Veronika overhears the conversation and flees, as though to commit suicide.

Fortunately for the rest of the film, Veronika doesn’t top herself but instead finds new hope through a young abandoned child and a chance meeting between Fyodor Ivanovich and a government official unravels a secret Mark has hidden from the family and Veronika; as a result Mark must leave. Eventually the family does learn of Boris’s fate and Veronika is heart-broken.

Samoilova deserved every best actress award on offer on the planet for her subtle and expressive performance as Veronika at the time but of course never got it: she might not say a great deal in the film but her uncommonly beautiful face reveals considerable emotional turmoil as she endures one indignity or tragedy after another. Her character is only meant to be a stereotype – Veronika represents Soviet woman and her experiences are intended to be representative of what many if not most Soviet women would experience during war – but Samoilova invests Veronika with a vitality that starts out as youthful and innocent and becomes more worldly-wise and less joyful if still defiant in parts. Other characters might get less to do but the men, in particular the actors playing Boris, Fyodor Ivanovich and the harmonica-playing soldier, though more stoic and restricted in emotional expression, are just as effective in conveying feeling and opinion in their body language and in the way they touch or react to Veronika. Veronika’s sister-in-law Irina (Svetlana Kharitonova) may not be very important to the plot but effectively embodies contempt for Veronika in her belief that the girl has betrayed Boris.

The film is beautifully made, courtesy of impressive handheld camera work by Sergei Urusevsky: several staged scenes, shot from often unusual or peculiar angles, show emotional distance or sorrow to great effect (the scene in which Fyodor Ivanovich’s family reluctantly accepts Veronika after her marriage to Mark is a highlight as is also the scene in which everyone hears of Boris’s death); and there are two scenes in which the camera gloriously spins around to imitate giddy youthful love (Boris racing up a spiral staircase early in the film) or to simulate desperate attempts to hang onto life (Boris in his dying moments, looking up at the sky and the bare birch trees). Another great scene of Expressionist-style patchy edits is of Veronika racing a train and then a car while despairing over the conversation she has just overheard her father-in-law have with the soldier patient: the jagged shots quickly assume an abstract painterly quality, the music ratchets up in suspense, and just when you think the girl is going to throw herself off a bridge or under the car, she spies a toddler and saves the child. Plus there’s a great scene of switching viewpoints: Veronika chases after Fyodor Ivanovich and the camera then smoothly draws back and pulls away from her to focus on several Soviet soldiers in a bus being taken to a hospital.

For Western viewers, unusual and unintentional symbolism arrives in the V-formation of a flock of cranes flying across the sky at the beginning and at the end of the film: Kalatozov could not have known what this might mean as the sound represented by the letters “V” and “v” in the Latin alphabet actually appears as “B” and “b” in the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian.

It may be a propaganda film with a banal soap opera plot – the ending is fairly wooden compared with what’s happened previously – but what a stunning and emotionally complex work “The Cranes …” turned out to be under the sure hands of Kalatozov and Urusevsky among others.

The World According to Monsanto: hard-hitting documentary about the infamous agribusiness corporation

Marie-Monique Robin, “The World According to Monsanto  / Le Monde selon Monsanto” (2008)

At issue in this informative documentary directed by the investigative journalist Marie-Monique Robin is Monsanto’s astounding record of environmental and food safety thuggery across the world and its collusion with and manipulation of governments, scientists and scientific research, not to mention the extraordinary extra-legal (and plain illegal) tactics and practices used, to dominate global agriculture. Robin opts for a hard-hitting approach with voice-over narration, interviews with US government officials, scientists, farmers, lawyers, activists and people affected by Monsanto’s activities and occasional animation and diagrams to detail the long history of Monsanto’s destructive practices in the pursuit of profit and domination of agriculture and food supply. Robin herself makes frequent appearances in the film.

Various examples of products made and promoted by Monsanto provide the meat, potatoes and structure of the documentary. Robin speaks to various people about the effects of Monsanto products such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Roundup herbicide, transgenic crops and recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH): the results can be horrific and include cancers affecting the prostate gland and women’s breasts and ovaries among other things. Robin goes into great detail investigating each and every case study of a Monsanto product and some of the information she uncovers is astounding: Monsanto-produced Agent Orange (a brand-name for dioxin) was used as a defoliant in Vietnam to flush out Viet Cong fighters. The methods the company uses to get its way and to deceive governments and the public verge on the criminal: one interviewee describes the lax procedures Monsanto researchers used to determine that Agent Orange was safe for people to use; another interviewee tells of how a whistle-blower at Monsanto who questioned the veracity of Agent Orange studies and the results achieved ended up being bullied and harassed by Monsanto management.

The promotion and spread of GMO or transgenic crops and how their increased use promises more profits to Monsanto through intellectual property law in US get special attention. False advertising and claims of working with farmers to ensure fair treatment when the contrary is true are par for the course; the only difficulty Monsanto seems to have is in how low the company can go scraping the bottom of the ethics barrel. US farmers growing conventional soy crops are visited by the so-called “gene” police from Monsanto who check that the farmers aren’t growing crops with Monsanto-invented genes in a way that intimidates and frightens the farmers. In addition Monsanto buys up seed companies so as to be able to control the gene pools of non-transgenic crops (and perhaps convert them to transgenic crops). In India where transgenic cotton is grown, government officials admit that farmers cannot NOT grow transgenic BT cotton due to seed dispersal; at the same time, farmers must buy transgenic seed from Monsanto at huge prices, forcing them to borrow money from money-lenders at exorbitant rates. Many farmers fall so deeply into debt that they commit suicide.

Ranging across so many Monsanto outrages against farmers and communities, Robin does miss a few issues: the destructive effect Monsanto’s products and GMO crops must have on soil quality, water and ecosystems, and ultimately on the water cycle itself with troubling consequences for the oceans that receive water contaminated with GMO herbicides or crop waste containing genetically modified bacteria; the possibility that GMO crops may permanently cripple people’s health and immune systems when eaten; and the reduced genetic diversity that GMO crops brings to food crops, making global food supplies vulnerable to even small climatic changes and potentially threatening food insecurity and food shortages across the world. One particular issue that’s probably beyond Robin to cover is Monsanto’s political clout with the US politicians themselves: though she documents the revolving door between Monsanto and the US Food and Drug Administration staff, she doesn’t address the possibility that Monsanto may be a significant lobbyist on Capitol Hill and contribute money to politicians during election periods. There’s some investigation into the potential transgenic crops may have for altering land ownership patterns that favour large landowners and agribusinesses at the expense of small farms and the rural-to-urban flight that may cause with consequences for the future of cities in many countries, already bursting at the seams with slums and the social problems that often accompany them, not to mention the loss of agricultural knowledge and practices and the destruction of rural communities.

Robin makes no claim to impartiality, piling on one Monsanto offence on top of another relentlessly, to the point where it all seems too unreal. Except of course, this is one very real nightmare that’s gone on far too long and which tragically many people like those Indian farmers who have taken their lives in despair have never been able to wake up from.

A is for Atom (dir. Carl Urbano): educational propaganda film presents a mildly benevolent view of nuclear energy

Carl Urbano, “A is for Atom” (1952)

Created and produced by John Sutherland and sponsored by General Electric, this promotional / education film is aimed at junior high school students, perhaps to inspire them to consider taking up science and mathematics subjects at senior levels of high school as preparation for the appropriate university studies. The entire film is delivered as an animated piece in the style common to many cartoons of the 1950s with sharp-edged animated figures and a colourful, 1950s-“modern” look. An off-screen narrator delivers the involved science lesson in mildly bright and carefully neutral tones so as to suggest the neutral nature of atomic energy in itself.

The film begins by carefully and clearly explaining what atoms are, what they are made up of and how atoms can be used to create energy. The narrator goes into some detail about what atomic weight is (it’s determined by the total number of protons and neutrons in the atom’s nucleus) and how isotopes of an element may differ by the number of neutrons in the atom’s nucleus. Sprightly animation likens stable elements to ordinary middle-class denizens minding their own business and going to bed early in their own tidily numbered houses while radioactive elements are restless beatnik types dancing wildly to jazz! The narrator then continues onto the history of how atomic energy was discovered by scientists in 1939 and the process of transmutation that they used to split uranium atoms and obtain massive amounts of energy. With the discovery of nuclear fission and chain reactions within nuclear fission, physicists could go on to create and design atomic bombs, learn to use neptunium and plutonium in the process of nuclear fission, and discover uses for atomic energy in agriculture, industry, other areas of science such as biology, and medicine. The film concludes by speculating on further uses of nuclear energy in transport technologies and in society generally, and emphasises that human wisdom and control of nuclear energy will open up a new world of discovery and material comfort for future generations of people.

The bright clarity of the narration and the stylish yet funny cartoons in explaining what an atom is, what elements and isotopes are and how artificial transmutation of uranium-235 created atomic energy make this film highly relevant still to current generations of young school students. Visual explanations and metaphors are straightforward and moderately paced if at times a little bizarre and are sometimes an unintentionally funny commentary on social classes and life-styles of the 1950s! The science presented in the film appears to be fairly accurate although the strong and weak nuclear forces are presented as semi-transparent liquid glue. There is a lot of information given and a couple of viewings might be needed but the imaginative animation is great to watch and even the backgrounds and settings are smart and bright. Atomic energy is presented as a strong, silent, stern but benevolent muscular giant standing over cities, hospitals and farms: a little bit like Dr Manhattan in Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” or Zac Snyder’s reverent film of the same name but without that character’s dangly bits or moral hollowness. Of course this film having GE as its sponsor, the tone of the film is positive about atomic energy and completely ignores its potential for destructive annihilation and crippling long-term health effects on individuals, their families and communities.

Of course the reality in the 1950s was much more complicated: not all physicists and other scientists in the United States and other countries agreed with the use of nuclear energy for industrial, agricultural, scientific and military purposes. The adoption of nuclear energy for such uses in many countries was driven more by political and ideological motives than by economic need and was often against public opinion (Japan being a notable example where politicians like Matsutaro Shoriki and Yasuhiro Nakasone pushed for investment in nuclear power). In 1957, a nuclear accident involving plutonium waste stored underground in Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union rendered a large area of nearly 1,000 square kilometres highly radioactive (it still remains dangerous to this day) and resulted in the evacuation of 22 villages with a combined population of 10,000 people; the Soviet Union suppressed reports of the accident for a long time but it has been suggested that the CIA in the US had known about the accident almost as soon as it occurred and also hushed up publicity about it to avoid loss of public confidence in the US nuclear industry. Doubtless the sponsors of “A is for Atom” would have approved.


It Felt like a Kiss: coming across as a self-indulgent and unremarkable trip into 1960s US pop culture nostalgia

Adam Curtis, “It Felt Like A Kiss” (2009)

A quirky visual montage of old newsreels and Hollywood films that documents a culturally transitional age in American history – the 1960s – during which the United States reigned supreme as the most economically, culturally and militarily dominant power in the world yet also a time when the roots of the country’s decline and perhaps eventual undoing and destruction were being planted: this is Adam Curtis’s “It Felt like a Kiss”. Instead of his usual soothing if slightly shocked narration, the music and captions have taken over: the captions hint at significant events yet to happen and the music, which in the main is 1960s girl-group bubblegum pop and related muzak, is sometimes an ironic commentary on the images and subject matter that suggests itself in the passages of selected montaged images and their neighbours before and after them. The film was originally part of a multi-media presentation with original music provided by Damon Albarn and the Kronos Quartet at its inception as part of the Manchester International Festival in 2009.

I have to admit that although some of the songs were familiar – I was born in the 1960s so some music should be familiar! – I felt they were more a turn-off than a soundtrack to draw me in. There were personalities and excerpts of TV shows and films that I vaguely knew or remembered and of course I recognised Doris Day and Rock Hudson, if not the film they appeared together in. How people born after 1970 can relate to some if not most of the material and the songs in the film is beyond me, unless their parents obsessively reminded them of what they lived through before the offspring were born. If I recognise people like Patrice Lumumba and Nikita Khrushchev or images like the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who dumped petrol on himself and then self-ignited in protest at the civil war in his country, it’s because I was curious enough to try looking up some of these incidents and personalities in print or online media, or they have become iconic in contemporary pop culture.

The film does ground viewers into its preferred time-range by showing captions of significant events about to unfold or to be realised off-screen at a later date: thus the film mentions that construction of the World Trade Center buildings began in the mid-1960s and that Osama bin Laden’s father Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden died in 1967, having built up a successful construction business that spanned nearly 40 years and which included clients such as the Saudi royal family and the Carlyle Group, the global private equity investment firm whose directors and senior management have included George H W Bush, former British Prime Minister John Major, Olivier Sarkozy (the half-brother of the French President) and Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand whose sister Yingluck is the current incumbent. Other events covered include the assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers, JFK and Robert, the history of HIV and how it jumped the species barrier from apes to humans, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s rise to power which was aided by the CIA. The way these tidbits of information are scattered throughout the documentary is meant to be intriguing and titillating but after a while they get a little irritating because they come without much context: the emergence of HIV as a major threat to humankind means little without reference to Mobutu Sese Seko’s corrupt rule as President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the civil war fought in Katanga / Shaba province which tried to secede from the country: both the corruption and the war among other things kept most Zairois stuck in poverty and many people must have hunted apes as a free source of food – this may be one explanation for how HIV came to infect humans. (Another possible if very un-PC explanation is that apes were used as sacrificial victims in religious rituals and their blood included in local medicines or religious worship.) Similarly, mention of the TV show “Bonanza” being Osama bin Laden’s favourite viewing as a child means nothing unless we know for sure if bin Laden sympathised with the Indians and not the cowboys.

The episode overall looks like a rather self-indulgent, even timid excursion in nostalgia for the fads, pop culture and celebrities of mainstream US culture in the 1960s. There’s nothing about experimental or cutting-edge artistic, scientific and technological trends that emerged during the period (we get a brief glimpsed of a young Andy Warhol but that’s about it) which were to become significant in later decades; I would have thought at least the musician and composer Raymond Scott, whose music was adapted by Carl Stalling for classic Bugs Bunny cartoons and who was a significant pioneer in electronic music composition and inventor of various electronic music devices and instruments, might have rated a mention or a music credit as might also the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at the time. The message that the episode is meant to convey – that the dominance of US pop culture throughout the world in the 1960s was overwhelming to the extent that other cultural alternatives were either forgotten or went underground where they festered and warped into something abnormal and diseased – is lost on viewers.

The song “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”, based on US singer Little Eva’s relationship with her abusive boyfriend, is an allusion to the episode’s theme; it was covered by girl-group the Crystals who were famous for songs like “Da Doo Ron Ron”. Little Eva herself became famous for the original version of “The Loco-Motion”, later made famous around the world by Australian singer Kylie Minogue as her debut single.


The Trap … (Episode 3: We will Force You to be Free): picking apart arguments over nature of freedom

Adam Curtis, “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom? (Episode 3: We will Force You to be Free)” (2007)

Part of Adam Curtis’s “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?” trilogy exploring how the concept of freedom came to be narrowly defined by politicians in order to deal with a particular historical emergency (the Cold War) and how this definition helped to turn people in Western societies into self-seeking, soulless automatons lacking in purpose, this episode targets concepts of negative freedom and positive freedom as proposed and developed by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s, and how these concepts formed the basis of policies followed by Western powers to stifle revolutions in Third World countries and / or to bring Western-style notions of democracy and liberty to these countries, often by force and violence. Using archival newsreel footage and excerpts of movies and documentaries such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s famous 1966 “Battle of Algiers” film, Curtis weaves a seductive argument about how the over-emphasis on negative freedom and the West’s fear of and desire to suppress positive freedom have ironically led to the current global situation that the West most feared positive freedom would birth: an unstable and violent world where democracy and freedom are retreating even in its traditional strongholds and where people have become so fearful and insular that they come to lack initiative and direction.

In Berlin’s view, developed in his paper “Two Concepts of Liberty”, negative freedom (freedom from externally imposed constraints) is to be preferred over positive freedom (the improvement of human beings to make them more “rational” thinkers so that among other things they can choose what sort of society they wish to live in). Berlin believed that the Soviet Union and societies with similar political cultures were the greatest threat to freedom in the world because they insisted on imposing positive freedom on their people and this imposition not only curtailed the people’s negative freedoms but was accompanied by fanaticism, violence and mass deaths. Systems must therefore restrain the “do-gooders” who want to improve humanity in case they get ideas about resorting to “tyranny”, whatever that is, to force-feed such improvements. Of course, “coincidentally” Berlin’s ideas dovetailed with other ideas derived from capitalist economics, American cultural values that emphasised individualism and competition, industrial relations (in particular, the scientific management ideas of Frederick Taylor) and were adopted by Western governments as part of an integrated package.

The documentary follows with various examples the paths taken by the proponents of negative freedom and positive freedom with their associated cultural packages in different countries and how these paths clashed. We boing from the American neoconservatives in the 1980s who believed that the US should use its power to actively spread “demcracy” and “freedom” by force to other countries which didn’t necessarily want them (in their American versions) to the 1979 Iranian revolution which according to Curtis was inspired by Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati’s fusion of ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon on decision and freedom in day-to-day life and on colonialism respectively with Islamic principles; to the deregulation / privatisation “shock treatment” meted out to Russia under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s by Jeffrey Sachs and his team of economists which resulted in widespread poverty among the public and in asset-stripping by well-placed members of the nomenklatura (the former Communist Party network of government and government agency insiders and their families) and favoured individuals who became known as the “oligarchs”. (And I imagine Sachs and some of his team got their share of riches as well.) The social and economic upheavals caused by the Sachs team’s recommendations resulted in greater political repression by the Yeltsin government which then pursued confrontations with groups in Chechnya wanting independence as a way of diverting the public attention away from the economic problems; this paved the way for Vladimir Putin to assume power. Somehow we end up in Iraq after 2003 where Paul Bremer, as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority overseeing Iraq’s transition to US-imposed “democracy”, tried to remake the country’s economic and political structures: the result was huge unemployment, hundreds of thousands of people thrown into poverty and greater terrorist activity after the Iraqi army was disbanded (bad move, that) and public servants belonging to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were banned from government employment. The country’s entire pool of secondary and primary school teachers – many of them women, I imagine – must have been thrown into an employment black hole overnight.

Curtis’s argument sounds quite convincing, at least for those who haven’t read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism” which covers much the same territory as Curtis’s documentary does (Russia, Iraq) but from a different viewpoint in which the economic theories of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek take pride of place over the gift of negative freedom and its benefits to supposedly benighted peoples. Like Curtis, Klein is guilty of cherry-picking examples to bolster her arguments especially in her comparison of economic shock treatment to the MK-ULTRA and related psychology experiments carried out by Ewen Donald Cameron and others from the 1950s to 1970s. In both the book and the documentary, the influence of German-American philosopher Leo Strauss’s views, or at least his followers’ interpretations of them, on American political and economic neoliberalism becomes the proverbial elephant in the room; it’s debatable as to whether Isaiah Berlin’s notions about the nature of freedom should be given any preference over Strauss’s views on liberalism (belief in liberty and equal rights) as a precursor to two forms of nihilism (brutality and terror being one, the result of positive freedom; and materialistic, purposeless hedonism the other, the child of negative freedom)  and the role of elites in society as an influence on the American neocons. Indeed Curtis’s documentary in parts looks more like a criticism of Straussian philosophy than of Berlin’s philosophy.

Curtis concludes by saying Berlin that was mistaken in his ideas and that governments and societies following his views on positive and negative freedoms have created a “trap” in which humans live lives lacking in purpose and devoted to materialistic self-interest and hedonism supplied not from within their own imaginations and resources but by external others with hidden agendas. The only way to escape the trap is to create outlets and opportunities for positive freedom. Curtis does not suggest any alternatives as to how to do this; neither does he actually look at whether Berlin’s definition of positive freedom is flawed or ambiguous. If the ideal of positive freedom is to create a better, more “rational” kind of human who can determine what society s/he wants to live in, we had better ask ourselves what we mean by “rational” so that we don’t end up creating a society of so-called “positive” freedoms of the sort that both Berlin and Strauss feared so much and which forced them and their families to leave Russia in 1920 and Germany in the 1930s respectively to avoid persecution as Jews and as members of the middle class. I note that in the documentary, Curtis refers to “rational” people as being motivated by self-interest without reference to emotion: that’s one definition of a sociopath.

We must redefine positive freedom in a way that avoids ambiguity in its definition and takes it beyond a mirror opposite of negative freedom. I prefer to see positive freedom as the freedom that expands one’s horizons as a result of having made a choice between or among mutually exclusive options, such that if you had the opportunity to make the same choice again between or among these options, you’d still go with your original choice. An example would be choosing between an easy, secure life in which you never leave your comfort zone and operate according to your desires and insecurities; and a life that might be hard, lonely, uncertain at times and inviting scorn from others but also a life that makes you a better person morally and spiritually. This enables a person to be in control of his/her life and to achieve self-actualisation.


The Iron Lady: biopic ignores dark and unsavoury aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s life and career

Phyllida Lloyd, “The Iron Lady” (2011)

I steeled myself to watch this film; I had seen the trailer and it had filled me with fear. Donning a Kevlar vest and protective wrap-round glasses to deflect excessive radiation, I entered the cinema with grim anticipation of camp heart-of-darkness horror. As it turned out though, “The Iron Lady” is more sugar-sweet seduction than full-steam-ahead torpedo fire and that soft approach may be more insidious for the target audience. The use of Baroness Thatcher’s dementia to explore the woman’s history in flashback sequences is a useful distancing device that at once humanises her but removes and dehumanises the victims of her policies, and this becomes both the film’s saving grace (aside from its lead actor) as a character study and its weakness as a historical document.

The film simply wouldn’t have worked without Meryl Streep in the lead role: Streep all but submerges herself in the character of Thatcher. I have seen only one other film in which Streep played a real-life woman to perfection and that was Lindy Chamberlain* in “Evil Angels”; Streep was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for that role. Her portrayal of MT looks eerily accurate: she embodies MT’s vulnerabilities as wife, mother, politician, Prime Minister and dementia victim as well as the woman’s more familiar public face as formidable and steely. One highlight scene comes near the end in which MT in the twilight years of her reign holds a meeting with her Cabinet and one man confesses he hadn’t given her an important timetable and the paper he has handed to her is a first draft; Thatcher rips him apart over his spelling and tardiness and the other ministers around him wilt from the full force of the burning light streaming from her being. At once viewers see MT as she must have appeared to her minions – exacting and tough as nails – and also cracks in the carapace: the expression on her face after her ministers depart softens and shows exhaustion and her fingers and hands tremble, as though to suggest that whipping the errant minister took more out of her than of him.

Apart from Streep’s astonishing acting, the film itself has little plot and must rely on Thatcher’s career from the 1950s to her downfall in 1990 for narrative direction. Jim Broadbent and Olivia Colman as Thatcher’s husband Dennis and daughter Carol are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes: Dennis shows nothing of the forceful millionaire businessman who supported MT financially and smoothed her path to No 1 top dog, and Carol is reduced to a caregiver role. (In real life, Carol is a journalist / writer / media celebrity who started her career working for The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia.) Son Mark Thatcher barely figures in the film and that along with other moments indicates an extreme unwillingness on the script’s part to confront some of the less savoury aspects of MT’s general career and ideological persuasion: far from refusing to work with fascist thugs as suggested in the film’s Falklands War episode, the British worked with fascist-ruled Chile (Argentina’s supposed enemy)** during that war; and MT’s son was later investigated by South African authorities in the late 1990s for loan sharking and was also accused of racketeering in Texas about the same time. (And of course there was that little Equatorial Guinea coup d’état attempt escapade in 2004 for which Mark Thatcher was fined 3 million rand and received a suspended jail term.) Other characters in the film simply flit by and register very little on viewers’ radar.

Even as a sympathetic and small-scale character study, the film has obvious flaws and omissions: what happened in the young Margaret Roberts’s life as grocer’s daughter that made her decide to enter politics at a time when women were expected to be wives and stay-at-home mothers? What happened later on to prompt her to challenge for the Conservative Party leadership in the mid-1970s? (It cannot just have been a desire to upset people.) Why did she decide to change her image from a dowdy housewife politician with a shrill voice to a hard-headed plutonium blonde bombshell with the deep throaty tones? Where and how did she acquire and adopt the economic philosophy, championed by economists Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek, of less government intervention and greater privatisation of the economy that was to transform Britain so much during her tenure as Prime Minister and beyond? The film’s narrow focus on Thatcher as a child of the working classes fighting entrenched social and economic class-based attitudes and becoming a role model to all women diverts viewers’ attention away from asking these and other uncomfortable questions about how politicians use public relations and spin-doctoring to further their careers and impose particular ideologies and polices on a restive populace. Posing MT as a role model for girls and women in fighting gender inequality also overlooks the fact that MT is consistently shown to be a woman with a somewhat masculine style of thinking and behaving that likely would alienate and drive away any potential female friends and allies.

Remove Streep and what is left? Hardly anything that would qualify as a film: the ending in which the ghost Dennis finally disappears from Thatcher’s life is comic and leaves the film hanging as it were from an invisibly crumbling cliff. This in itself says something that subtly and ironically undercuts the film’s message: for all her being championed as a role model and leader for women in politics, Margaret Thatcher ultimately depended on a man of wealth and elevated social position to rise to the top.

*Lindy Chamberlain was the woman whose baby was taken by a dingo at Uluru in central Australia in 1980; Chamberlain was later charged with murder, found guilty and jailed for life in 1982. In 1986 after new evidence was found suggesting the dingo story was more credible, and the forensic evidence presented in 1982 found to be suspect, Chamberlain was released from jail and her conviction was overturned in 1988. A 1995 inquest into the baby’s disappearance returned an open verdict. The case has been re-opened and a new inquest is due to begin in early 2012.

**Six countries including Argentina and Chile collaborated under Operation Condor to capture people targeted as “subversives” or “internal enemies”: the collaboration included sharing information on torture and execution methods as well as seizing, torturing and killing people in one another’s jurisdiction. (Source: Third World Traveller,



How to Start a Revolution: documentary gives too much credit to DIY revolution manual

Ruaridh Arrow, “How to Start a Revolution” (2011)

Here’s an interesting 1-hour documentary about Gene Sharp, a modest politcal science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose writings have influenced liberation movements around the globe for nearly 20 years. With a mix of voice-over narration, newsreels and interviews with Sharp and his trusty side-kick Jamila Raqib, who is as much the daughter he needs as assistant, at their modest non-profit Albert Einstein Institute offices, Arrow’s “How to Start a Revolution” shows the methodology Sharp developed to guide wannabe DIY revolutionaries in undermining repressive governments with the aim of winning over police and armed forces to their side. The methodology emphasises a non-violent approach to revolution by enouraging wannabe DIY revolutionaries to study the systems and institutions that underpin their repressive governments’ grip over the general population, and to see how they can undermine public support for those systems and institutions. The armed forces and police in particular are targeted as institutions that revolutionaries should try to win over to their side. A key theme that underlines Sharp’s methodology, detailed in works like “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” which can be downloaded, is that governments, whatever their ideology or structure, only have as much power as the general public is willing to surrender to them and that if subject populations refuse to obey their rulers, those rulers lose power and can be toppled.

The structure of the film follows to some extent the structure of “From Dictatorship to Democracy …” and is also chronological, crossing various continents as it progresses from the past (some time in the late 1980s) to the present day. Revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries in Serbia, Ukraine, Egypt and Syria plus a grizzled Vietnam war veteran are interviewed and failed uprisings such as the Tiananmen Square student protest in China, 1989, and the one that followed the Iranian presidential elections in 2009 are covered. Triumphal and overwrought musical melodrama accompanies sections of the documentary in a way that suggests Sharp’s path to liberation and freedom is more or less the right path. Reactions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Iranian government, the latter in a computer-animated propaganda film clip, suggest that repressive governments are wary of his influence.

Would that I could be so sanguine about Sharp’s influence and value to the world! – but my feeling throughout this doco is that Arrow gives Sharp and his work more credit than they deserve. If it were true that using a non-violent approach to insurrection gets results nearly 100% of the time, then Tibet would be an independent state by now; instead that region continues to be undermined itself by Chinese industrial development with an accompanying influx of Han Chinese settlers into Lhasa and other urban centres there. The Dalai Lama himself has given up hope that Tibet will achieve independence and seeks accommodation with the Beijing regime. One problem I have with the idea of trying to win over the armed forces to one’s side, however noble it is, is that such institutions may have their own agenda which they may try to impose on revolutionaries, forcing them into compromises they cannot later amend or break. Certainly in some horrible countries where religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, is banned or severely circumscribed, the Roman Catholic Church may be a willing partner and sponsor of revolution but would you really want it on your side after the despots are overthrown and you need to hammer out a constitution enshrining religious freedoms, the separation of religion and politics, and equal rights for women, homosexuals and religious minorities?

In addition, how do we define a repressive or tyrannical government? Revolutionaries are often drawn from a comfortable middle-class layer in society and if a government follows policies and spends its money in a way that privileges the lower-class majority while leaving the upper-class minority feeling badly treated in certain areas such as freedom to travel anywhere it likes or free university education at the expense of general and technical education for the majority, can it then be said that such a government is “tyrannical”? The government appears tyrannical to the wannabe rebels but not so for most people who often have a “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know” attitude towards politics. Indeed a big part of why the rebels failed in Iran in 2009 is that the general Iranian population actually preferred incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: a pre-election poll by the Washington Post newspaper done across Iran three weeks before the election indicated that Ahmadinejad had two-thirds of the voters’ support. There may have been some fraud in districts where officials believed he might lose support but generally Ahmadinejad, who is a savvy politician who campaigned widely and tirelessly during election period (while Moussavi barely ventured outside the cities), won the vote fair and square.

Repressive governments themselves (especially if they are staffed by people with technical, scientific and engineering qualifications) can often be very sophisticated, progressive and forward-thinking, and achieve results that benefit people materially. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Japan might not be the technological powerhouses they are without leaders like Park Chunghee (Sth Korea) and the Guomindang (Taiwan) who often ruled with an iron fist but spent money on planned industrial development, education and necessary infrastructure. True, farmers were often thrown off their lands and forced to go into cities to work in factories in dreadful conditions for measly pay, and the countries may still have massive social problems arising from the dislocations caused by rapid development; but would many Koreans, Taiwanese and others in east and southeast Asia want to go back to the pre-industrial days of poverty and colonial domination? Likewise, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is reviled by the West, rightly for his purges of the intelligentsia and armed forces, and for deportations of ethnic groups like the Chechens and Ingush to Kazakhstan that amount to genocide, but most Russians have been and still are happy with what they believe he did for the Soviet Union from the 1920s until his death in 1953. It is significant that China has studied the example of its near neighbours and is emulating them diligently. Strict Communist ideology be damned! – Chinese politicians and their bureaucrats can be flexible and pragmatic when need be.

Ultimately the contention that a government’s source of power is the loyalty and support that its citizens give it could well be the Sharp methodology’s weak point. How can revolutionaries undermine the public’s support for a repressive government and win people over to their side if such a government pursues policies that provide material benefits and establish structures of a welfare state? Over time the people’s loyalty and obedience to their government become so strong that it can relax its grip and assume the guise of a benevolent “soft authoritarian” nanny state that knows what’s best for its citizens and invests in their future with appropriate policies and actions that press all the right warm buttons from a social / economic / environmental / technological point of view. This is the kind of state that exists in Japan and many other Asian countries; such countries stay more or less successful or at least acceptable to their publics until a major disaster like the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown of March 2011 occurs. Until October 2011, Libya also followed a similar state model under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. If people are unhappy about living in such a country because of restrictions on their freedoms, the country can simply relax its emigration rules and encourage such people to leave.

I have a sneaking feeling that Sharp missed out on infiltration, an art form that the FBI, CIA and the British government’s MI5 and MI6 are very good at. How might revolutionaries know whether one of their number is actually working for the enemy? Might not the enemy itself use Sharp’s methodology to undermine the revolutionaries? Additionally foreign governments and intelligence agencies like the CIA can co-opt Sharp’s tactics for their own use against a country whose leader they don’t like. They could manipulate earnest young idealists through social media networks like Facebook and Twitter and feed them information that’s not in the idealists’ interests. Above all, how effective would Sharp’s methods of running revolutions be against a government that is backed by US, NATO or other major power with the weapons and firepower to steamroll totally any opposition to their pet dictators?

In short, aspiring revolutionaries should not have any faith in Sharp’s document and the people promoting it but must develop their own methods and strategies for achieving the overthrow of hated governments, else they will find themselves unwitting shock troops for a new tyranny backed by their country’s enemies.

Experiments in the Revival of Organisms: Soviet science propaganda film blandly ignores a horrifying truth

D I Yashin, “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” (1940)

A curious short documentary from 1940 about a series of experiments on reviving dead or inanimate organs and whole animals, this educational film appears well on the way to achieving cult status: among other things, it has been referenced by Metallica in their 2009 videoclip for their single “All Nightmare Long”. Introduced and narrated by British geneticist J B S Haldane, the documentary follows four experiments starting with two relatively simple ones of reviving a dog’s heart and lungs and progressing to the most ambitious and complex study in which a dog itself is put down and then revived after several minutes. The experiments, all carried out by unnamed female workers, were under the supervision of Dr Sergei S Bryukhonenko, an early pioneer in open-heart surgery procedures in Russia, at the Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy in Voronezh.

The experiments shown may be re-enactments done for educational purposes. Not having qualifications in medicine or biology, I can’t comment on whether the filmed experiments shown are real or fake. Close-ups of revived organs and similar results emphasise the achievements of the work. Bryukhonenko developed a heart-lung machine called an autojektor to do much of the revival work and animated diagrams explain the basics of the machine and how it revives organs and a dog’s head without going into a lot of detail. A general audience will be able to follow the procedures involved as well as a scientific audience and it’s possible that Bryukkhonenko or director Yashin wanted to get as much public acceptance for the experiments leading to additional experiments as possible.

The narration is dry and concentrates closely on a blow-by-blow account of the procedures and how successful the experiments were. I really would have liked to know though what the purpose of the experiments was. What was the experimental design? Why did Bryukhonenko carry out this work? How many dogs or other animals were used? Did the scientists notice any statistically significant differences between the revived animals and a control group? Were the experiments influenced in any way or made possible by the historical context (political, social, technological) at the time? Did the scientists intend this work to have practical applications for medicine and surgery for humans?

The clinical, business-like tone of the film – Haldane’s clipped narration is no-nonsense and brisk, and is keen and narrowly focussed on the work being done – may be the creepiest part about it. None of the workers in the film shows any emotion or awe that what she is participating in could be momentous for science and humanity. The filming method is basic and the look of the film is not particularly sharp but neither is it grainy or blurred. Triumphal music appears towards the end of the film when the dog is revived. If there’s anything in short supply in this film, it is humility.

It’s obvious the film was made to demonstrate the advance of science and medicine under the Stalinist regime of the time. The truth as always is very different and even horrifying. Those viewers knowledgeable about the history of science and scientific research in the Soviet Union will know that during the 1930s – 1950s the scientist Trofim Lysenko exercised a harmful influence on Soviet research in genetics and biology by denouncing and causing the imprisonment and deaths of hundreds of scientists who disagreed with and opposed his anti-Mendelian genetic theories and unscientific practices. Needless to say, Soviet scientific practice suffered immensely for a long time.

WikiRebels: competent documentary on Wikileaks brushes the surface to maintain “balance”

Jesper Huor and Bosse Lindquist, “WikiRebels” (2010)

Made for Sveriges Television AB (SVT), this documentary traces the rise of Wikileaks, the global non-profit media organisation that publishes news and information of a private, secret or classified nature received from anonymous sources and whistleblowers, over a period of several months in 2010. The film is aimed at a general audience and, apart from showing a few scenes in the Wikileaks headquarters in Sweden and explaining the nature of the organisation, who hosts it and who its key people are or were, there is not much mentioned in the documentary that isn’t already public. Relying mainly on interviews, their own film footage and snippets of other TV networks’ newsreels, Huor and Lindquist have created a competent documentary that basically introduces Wikileaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange to the general public but does no more.

The really interesting part of the documentary is the broadcasting of the notorious air strikes on Baghdad, Iraq, on 12 July 2007, in which a team of two US Army Apache helicopters fired on several people and killed a number of men including two Reuters war correspondents in three air-to-ground strikes. The footage which was leaked to Wikileaks by US soldier Bradley Manning brought Wikileaks worldwide attention and led to the US government’s pursuit of Manning.

Some very brief information about Assange is presented before he formed Wikileaks and the film also traces his partnership with Daniel Domscheit-Berg before the two came to disagree on disseminating material without redacting some of it and Domscheit-Berg left Wikileaks to form Openleaks, essentially to be a distributor of information rather than a publisher (though so far it’s not lived up to its name and appears unlikely to). Other significant interviewees featured in the film include Icelandic politician / writer / artist / activist / Wikileaks volunteer … whew, let’s just say all-round talent Birgitta Jonsdottir and a former US State Department advisor Chris Whiton who has written articles for Fox News.

The film does try to maintain a “balance” so as not to appear too favourable towards Wikileaks and passes no judgement on Assange or Domscheit-Berg’s decisions and actions. Significantly Huor and Lindquist make no reference as to who funds or has funded Wikileaks operations in spite of suspicions, some of which have been voiced by Wikileaks volunteers, that Assange has taken money from semi-official Israeli sources. Although the film identifies considerable opposition, notably from the US government and its agencies, to Assange in releasing over 200,000 unredacted US diplomatic cables, it omits to mention that Wikileaks was forced to release these cables because journalists at UK newspaper The Guardian unethically revealed the password Assange used to protect a digital file of the cables in a book published by that paper. It would be ironic if Wikileaks and whistleblower Manning were to be destroyed by the actions of people associated with a major media institution supposed to have a reputation for responsible and ethical journalism; this suggests that Wikileaks’ greatest enemies are not necessarily governments and corporations paying lip service to democracy, clean operations and openness but for-profit media institutions with an interest in capturing and corralling their reading public’s desire for truth and accuracy in news reporting.

At this time of posting, Wikileaks’ survival was looking bleak after several defections by volunteers from the organisation, citing lack of transparency and Assange’s autocratic leadership style among other reasons for leaving, and it now seems to be a matter of when, not if, Wikileaks becomes history itself.