The Swedish Model: a shallow and unedifying view of Sweden’s no-lockdown COVID-19 strategy

“The Swedish Model” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 June 2020)

In March 2020, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus had already been circulating in Europe for at least two months already, most countries there adopted lock-down of varying degrees of severity – with some countries such as Spain adopting such an extreme version that even young children were not allowed outside the places where they lived – yet Sweden opted to follow an approach in which such measures as social distancing and appropriate hand hygiene would be recommended rather than ordered on pain of punishment or penalties. Restaurants, pubs and cafes would still remain open, provided social distancing was practised; schools would remain open; and people would be more or less free to continue with normal activities. The Swedish government’s aim was to limit the spread of the coronavirus infection in the country without overburdening the Swedish healthcare system. Since adopting the no-lockdown policy, Sweden’s infection rate and mortality rate compared with several other European countries have been high, and the general global consensus is that these high rates of infection and death are the result of the no-lockdown policy.

Researched by Lisa Millar, who also provides voice-over narration in parts, this episode of “Foreign Correspondent” takes a similar view, that Sweden’s relaxed no-lockdown policy is in part responsible for the high toll the disease has taken among the more vulnerable groups in society, in particular the elderly in aged care facilities and refugees and immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. A large part of the film involves following different stories of individuals: a director of an aged care home with 350 patients; a Syrian Christian activist; a university professor opposed to the no-lockdown policy who sets up a testing centre in an immigrant neighbourhood in Stockholm; and finally Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who breezily tells his interviewers that Sweden is doing the right thing in striving to achieve herd immunity as he goes about giving speeches and reassuring people that the country is on the right track. He admits that Sweden has neglected its elderly and immigrant groups but takes no personal or other responsibility for the Swedish government’s oversight as he continues on his merry way.

In covering personal stories, the film provides no analysis of why the elderly and the immigrant community bear the brunt of the pandemic that has hit the country hard. Millar tells us that the vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 deaths are of people aged 70+ years, and with most of these people also in aged care institutions, they are unlikely to benefit from lockdown conditions. Indeed, in many countries that do have lockdown, the numbers of people in aged care places suffering and dying from COVID-19 are out of proportion compared to younger age groups and in some countries the median age of death from COVID-19 is in the late 40s. Had Millar stepped back from emphasising personal stories (which, while tragic in their own ways, do not tell viewers much about the nature of the disease as it affects Swedish society), and investigated the character of aged care institutions in Sweden, compared to their equivalents in, say, Denmark or Norway, she might have found something very disturbing: Sweden’s aged care institutions are the responsibility of municipal and regional governments, which have outsourced their management to private companies. Privatisation has led to these facilities housing several hundred patients, cared for by workers on contracts on low pay and working in sometimes quite appalling conditions. To scrape together an income they can survive on, many workers work at more than one facility.

The low income and lousy working conditions in aged care homes mean that such work attracts people who can find little other work in Sweden: these people turn out to be the very refugees and immigrants who themselves have been hit hard by the disease. On top of this, these groups often live in areas designated no-go zones by police, due to gang warfare and high rates of crime, and this means that government offices providing social services (and information about COVID-19 and how to avoid it or minimise its spread) in the languages of the refugee and immigrant communities are scarce. Refugees and immigrants frequently live in very crowded and unhealthy housing, with three generations in the one residence, and aged care workers coming home from working shifts at one or more places might spread the disease and infect their older relatives even if they themselves are asymptomatic.

In general, Sweden’s poor experience in dealing with COVID-19, and in failing to protect its most vulnerable citizens, is a consequence of decades of governments privatising what should be publicly funded and resourced institutions, subject to public accountability, and ignoring the needs of marginal groups in society and the discrimination and barriers that impede their socio-economic advancement. That “Foreign Correspondent” completely missed analysing the broader context which might have enabled it to find the link between the high infection and mortality rates between two groups of vulnerable people (the aged, and the refugees / immigrants from poor countries) but preferred to wring out weepy and emotional stories to attract viewer attention reflects very poorly on the program and on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Australian viewers expect a higher and deeper standard of coverage of national and global issues at the ABC and to see this institution adopting practices associated with trashy commercial television programs purporting to feature political or current affairs issues and analysis is indeed grave and tragic.

The Atlas of False Desires: cynically saying that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Nathan Su, “The Atlas of False Desires” (2016)

By turns inspiring yet depressing, this 8-minute film puts forward a proposition that to save Planet Earth from destruction caused in part by mass consumerism encouraged by social media in the form of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram promoting (or not) so-called social media influencers – often young women paid (or not) to flaunt particular fashion trends of life-styles – activists must resort to using the same tactics of manipulation, astro-turfing, even trolling and fake news generation to appeal to emotion and subconscious desire and to shape opinion and behaviour. The film revolves around an Indian click farm called Desire Atlas that runs a devious IT operation to seed fake content and create a fake grassroots following about a new global fashion trend – undyed garments – through a collaborating vlogger (Bethany Edgoose, who also co-wrote the script with director Nathan Su) in order to save rivers in India from toxic chemical pollution caused by the use of industrial coloured dyes in fabric and to encourage Indian weavers in using and maintaining their traditional knowledge and skills to weave plain-coloured fabrics. The vlogger uses her Manic Monday vlog to promote the hashtag #undyed, a teenage influencer sees the pictures of models wearing clothing made of undyed fabric, believes they are for real and passes the message of a new fashion trend to her friends. Before long, major corporate clothing and fabric labels are up in arms about an apparent new global trend of fashion in undyed fabrics that has suddenly boomed out of nowhere; cyber-marketers and corporate IT employees are nonplussed as to how a trend they had no warning of could suddenly have so many followers in the millions around the world. The global clothing-dye industry collapses and rivers in India no longer carry dangerous toxins.

The message may be too simplistic but it does highlight the interconnected nature of the global fashion industry, how companies use and harvest social media platforms for trends that they can manipulate for profit, and how gullible people, influencers and influenced alike, with little knowledge of the outside world beyond their own immediate experience, can be exploited emotionally by marketing campaigns going for their jugulars. Fashion trends then spread through cyber-space like viruses – emphasises in the film with beautiful computer-generated imagery of clouds of coloured pixels exploding through space above city or country scenes – and create huge shifts in production and distribution in faraway lands, with enormous consequences in the way raw materials may or may not be chosen, where they are transported to and transformed through stages into the end product, and the impact that manufacturing generated by fashion trends can have on employment, people’s lives and cultures, and the natural environment.

In a mix of documentary and fictional drama, “The Atlas of False Desires” proposes that the same tactics that corporations use to entice people to make choices by appealing to their irrational instincts and desires can also be used to influence people to do good. The problem with this idea is that it does not challenge the underlying systems, values and ideologies on which global fashion and clothing manufacture are based. People are still being treated as passive consumers who can be pushed around and mentally brainwashed with ease. Consumerism as a way of life – and a destructive one at that – remains unquestioned. Major environmental issues are not always amenable to simplistic solutions: the health of rivers in India may depend on many factors as well as on whatever industry spews into them. And what will happen when consumers around the world tire of wearing plain clothing with no dyes? Is another trend, perhaps based on the use of natural dyes, ready to sell with the same tactics of manipulation? Suppose the target audience realises it is being manipulated – what do the well-meaning activists at Desire Atlas do then?

No Justice, No Peace: no justice done to Black Lives Matter and George Floyd by shallow news program

“No Justice, No Peace” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 16 June 2020)

Remarkable for what it fails to say and do, this episode purports to investigate how the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has galvanised people across the United States to protest institutional police violence across the nation in the wake of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. With voice-over narration by Sally Sara, the program flits across scenes of demonstrations, aided and abetted by a music soundtrack consisting mostly of soul music, and of interviews with black activists of whom only one, Tamika Mallory, is a BLM leader. All scenes make for good viewing, the music is fine (though hiphop and reggae are conspicuously lacking, even though George Floyd himself was once a rapper known as Big Floyd back in the late 1990s), and the interviewees are angry and passionate, but after all is said and done, and the credits start to roll, the viewer realises how very little new information the program relays that the viewer doesn’t already know.

Very little is said about how far BLM has grown and developed since Foreign Correspondent last covered the movement a few years ago, how many followers it now counts, what its current agenda is and what program for social, economic and political reform and for educating people on racism and the history of racism in the US it may have. There is nothing about Mallory herself, what her stance on various issues affecting black people in the US is and what controversies (such as her past association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan) she has been embroiled in. One thing Mallory could have told Foreign Correspondent is the extent to which police violence in the US is encouraged by both the US and Israeli governments through police training programs conducted by Israeli security organisations of US police officers in Israel itself and in the US. A recent report by UK online newspaper Morning Star found that back in 2012, 100 police officers from Minnesota state attended a police training workshop in Chicago that was sponsored by the Israeli consulate there. The chokehold that Chauvin used on Floyd (and which suffocated Floyd) is one used by Israeli soldiers and paramilitary on Palestinian people.

That Foreign Correspondent omits to say anything about how police violence might be more than just a reflection of historical racism and a legacy of slavery in the US, and how a culture of police violence has grown and spread throughout the country as (among other things) a result of numerous wars the US has waged against countless other nations over the last one hundred years and more to seize their land and natural wealth, in the process exposing generations of US youth to violence, brutality and trauma, and turning some of those youth into traumatised people or sociopaths who either stress easily and resort to violence too quickly or are so inured to committing brutal and sadistic acts that sadism becomes part of their identity as human beings. The Israeli government and its agencies find profit in offering training on humiliating, torturing and even killing people to US police officers, teaching those officers to view people on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder as sub-human and worthless. All too often, those people on those bottom rungs tend to be black Americans or people from poor Latin American countries – and often those Latin American countries that have suffered instability and high levels of drug-related crime as a result of continuous US interference in their politics and economies.

Neither does Foreign Correspondent ask why the murder of George Floyd should have suddenly inflamed and motivated people across the US and other parts of the world to demonstrate against their governments and to pull down statues of past historical figures known to have benefited from the exploitation of Third World nations and peoples as slave traders or colonial administrators. The impoverishment of people across First World nations, and the speed with which that impoverishment has increased since the First World entered lock-down after the appearance of COVID-19 and the panic and hysteria the disease generated, apparently was missed by the program producers and reporters. For many years since neoliberal economics became the dominant political, social and economic ideology under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Anglosphere in the 1980s, people’s living standards and quality of life have steadily eroded, social inequalities have increased, the forces of law and order have become more militarised and antagonistic towards the general public, news and information have turned into propaganda, and old problems once thought to be dying out, such as bigotry and racism, are rearing their heads again.

Identity politics, dividing people on the basis of what identifies them instead of uniting them, is used by elites to weaken popular movements by setting people against one another. By presenting George Floyd’s murder as yet one more example of police racism and violence, and not considering the wider context in which US police violence against black Americans (and other underprivileged folk) occurs, Foreign Correspondent shows itself as a propaganda mouthpiece for the elites controlling governments in the Anglosphere and beyond.

The Doctor vs the President: sordid Russia-bashing using COVID-19 pandemic crisis

“The Doctor vs the President” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2 June 2020)

Even during the COVID-19 global pandemic, Western mainstream news media outlets can never resist the opportunity to bash countries they are ordered by governments, defence establishments and intel agencies not to like – countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela – when they should be highlighting, comparing and analysing different approaches adopted by nations around the world to combating the disease and developing ways of eradicating or controlling it. A prime example of the never-ending propaganda is this episode from Australian television current affairs program “Foreign Correspondent” in which home-bound Russia correspondent Eric Campbell follows the adventures through his laptop of supposed renegade ophthalmologist Anastasia Vasilyeva in her stunt to deliver boxes of masks, gloves and other PPE to hospitals battling the SARS-COV-2 virus in the Novgorod oblast (an administrative region between Moscow and St Petersburg). Along the way, Vasilyeva and her convoy of four cars (with three people in each car – what happened to social distancing?) are stopped and questioned by police who then detain her for breaking lock-down rules (she was supposed to stay in Moscow) and for having no registration in Novgorod oblast (the region having closed its borders to outsiders). Since the convoy included a lawyer, a foreign reporters and three camera crew, instead of a full complement of medical staff and nurses from her trade union (Alliance of Doctors), Dr Vasilyeva obviously knew she was going to be arrested. In addition to breaking lock-down rules, the good doctor also disobeyed police instructions so she was further detained – in full view of the camera crew.

It probably does not need to be said that had Dr Vasilyeva been genuinely concerned about the needs of hospitals in Novgorod oblast, she could have organised a fund-raising effort among Muscovites and sent money electronically to the hospitals or the PPE in the post or by courier to the same, at much less cost to herself and her petrol bill – but of course this would not have made for confrontational TV titillation. Incidentally, the two head physicians of the target hospitals in Novgorod oblast expressed surprise at Dr Vasilyeva’s stunt and concern that the equipment had no certification or registrations, and that the stunt was intended to be provocative. All of this went unreported on the “Foreign Correspondent” report.

The program says very little about Dr Vasilyeva’s Alliance of Doctors, how large it is (or not), and does not interview any other members of that trade union. One would think it should be a very large union with branches right across Russia. There is nothing about where it is headquartered or how much influence it has among the medical profession in Russia. Viewers of the program will come away with no idea of where the trade union’s income comes from. Oddly enough, the program emphasises Dr Vasilyeva’s personal connection with the charlatan “opposition figure” Alexei Navalny, who enjoys very little support among the Russian voting public, who is supposed to be under house arrest for his role in embezzling funds from a state timber company in Kirov oblast, and whose lavish life-style is far beyond the amount of money he earns from his activities and fund-raising. Anyone even mildly au fait with Russian politics will know straight away that people with personal associations with Navalny are likely not only to be feted by Western governments and media organisations, they are likely to be shady characters themselves receiving funding from foreign organisations with an interest in deposing the current Russian government and targeting President Putin in particular.

Ah, yes, no program criticising Russia can resist mocking Putin as a would-be Stalinist dictator intent on prolonging his grip on the country to 2036 through a referendum that would give him an extra two terms as President: a referendum inspired by a proposal from none other than State Duma representative Valentina Tereshkova, who in a former life was the world’s first female space traveller. Funnily, “Foreign Correspondent” does not notice that Putin doesn’t straight away sign a decree making himself President for life – no, he actually decides to put the idea to a public referendum. Elsewhere in the program, Putin is portrayed as something of a weakling in retreating from the public at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lock-down in Moscow (instigated by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin: it was his job after all, not Putin’s) and then somehow re-emerging as the leader in tamping down the infection’s spread and halting its progress. The fact that it is other people’s jobs and the function of health ministries at the national and regional levels to control and if possible eradicate COVID-19 in Russia, with the President watching their progress as any political leader would and should, giving them encouragement and admonishing them for failures, seems to have escaped “Foreign Correspondent”. But when opportunity arises to perpetuate a stereotype of Russia as a tired, clapped-out has-been empire lost in nostalgic fantasy, and its government and leader as despotic and out of touch with reality, “Foreign Correspondent” like every other mainstream Western media outlet seizes it and flogs it at the expense of its credibility with an increasingly sceptical Australian audience.

An opportunity to critically view and report on how successfully or unsuccessfully Russia is dealing with COVID-19 – despite the huge numbers being infected, the actual death toll is very low – and the reason for the huge disparity in the statistics compared to equivalent figures in other countries, adjusted for population size, was missed.

Contagion: a pessimistic and unforgiving study of human society in crisis

Steven Soderbergh, “Contagion” (2011)

Unexpectedly discovering a new lease of life and relevance in the current COVID-19 near-global shutdown environment, this film purports to be a procedural thriller about how health professionals, government officials and ordinary people react to and cope with an outbreak of a mystery viral disease that quickly becomes a pandemic. The film takes the form of several narratives, each centred around a particular character or set of characters, running in parallel and sometimes intersecting, but basically in agreement with respect to the film’s themes. Flashbacks are used and often the film jumps forwards in time to portray the process of social breakdown or individual characters’ development as they try to cope with uncertainty, isolation and ongoing stress.

Returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and Macau, and meeting with a former lover on her way back home to Minneapolis, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes down with seizures and her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) rushes her to hospital. Her death and its mysterious cause puzzle the doctors. Mitch returns home to find that his stepson is also dead. He is put into isolation but is found to be immune to whatever killed his wife and stepson. He later returns home to his teenage daughter Jory and together they sit through self-quarantine and isolation, and observe their neighbourhood breaking down around them as the pandemic takes hold and people either rush the stores or queue for necessities or resort to arson and other forms of violence to get the things they need.

While the Emhoffs huddle together, in Atlanta, representatives of the US Department of Homeland Security meet with Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and express misgivings that the emerging disease in Minneapolis is a bioweapon. Cheever despatches an officer, Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to investigate the situation there and she traces the outbreak to Beth Emhoff. Mears’ recommendations to local public health authorities to set up a field hospital and track and quarantine sick people fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately Mears herself falls sick and dies. In the meantime, a researcher at the CDC headquarters, Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), makes some breakthroughs in analysing the virus’ genome and finds it to be a combination of bat and pig-borne viruses. A professor in California ignores Cheever’s orders to destroy his own samples and identifies a cell culture that Hextall is able to use to create a vaccine.

Conspiracy theorist blogger Alex Krumwiede (Jude Law) posts videos on his blog about the mystery virus and boasts that he has cured himself of the illness with a homoeopathic remedy. Soon people in the US start raiding pharmacies and supermarkets for that remedy. In a TV interview, Krumwiede says that Cheever secretly advised his family and friends to flee Atlanta during the lockdown and this leads to a government investigation of Cheever’s actions.

While all this is happeing, World Health Organisation epidemiologist Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) and other public health officials working in Hong Kong work through CCTV evidence of Beth Emhoff’s activities in that territory and in Macau, during which she visited a casino, and identify her as Patient X. One HK official, Sun Feng (Chin Han) kidnaps Orantes and takes her to his village as a hostage in an effort to get hold of the vaccine when it becomes available. Orantes is released months later when the vaccine doses are eventually delivered to the village by WHO officials, but on being told that these doses are placebos, she returns to the village to warn everyone.

The film flits from one narrative to another without going into any of them in much depth. Characters are little more than stereotypes and audiences may not feel much empathy for them. There is little for Mitch and Jory to do in isolation other than get on each other’s nerves and Jory turns out to be little more than a superficial and stereotyped portrayal of a supposedly typical American teenage girl whose main goal in life seems to be contacting her boyfriend by whatever means she can, even at the cost of endangering her health and life. The most interesting narrative – Dr Orantes being taken hostage and driven to a rural village – is treated the worst: after her kidnapping, the doctor all but disappears from the film and only very late in “Contagion” is she revealed to have accepted a new role as a schoolteacher. Audiences would have found her transformation much more interesting to watch than any of the other narratives. What would have been her motive and how did she come to be accepted by Sun Feng’s people to be trusted to teach children?

Through the use of interlinked narratives, “Contagion” explores the nature of human social interactions and how these are influenced by different environments and external factors that affect them. When order is threatened or breaks down, and people grasp for information and news, scammers like Krumwiede take advantage of the helplessness to advance their own agendas and profit financially. Even researchers and public health officials bend or violate the rules when self-interest is involved: the vaccine is produced despite the fact that at least two people broke protocols in its research and development. Public health officials hesitate to institute lockdown procedures in Minneapolis just before a major public holiday and this allows the virus to escape and turn into a true pandemic. Political cronyism is at work as well: Mears dies because the plane that was supposed to evacuate her and take her to hospital is diverted instead to rescue a politician. Weirdly, vaccines are allocated to people on a lottery basis and one suspects (from the Orantes narrative) that the allocations have been done in such a way that people with power, money and influence get their vaccinations first.

While presenting as a study of human society under pandemic crisis conditions and the uncertainty and instability these generate, the film turns out to be not so different from most other Hollywood films of various genres in portraying humans as essentially selfish, greedy, manipulative, untrustworthy and unreliable in a crisis. The reality during the current COVID-19 global crisis is that so far in most countries, people have become more community-minded, more caring and more mindful of weak and vulnerable people. Contrary to the mostly negative portrayal of social media in “Contagion”, social media in COVID-19 conditions have become a major source of information and community networking for many people. It seems far more likely that the kind of bestial and violent behaviour present in “Contagion” is more a consequence of the dysfunctional neo-liberal capitalist society that exists across the US, with the widespread acceptance of values that privilege exploitation, cheating, ignorance and the use of violence over negotiation and compromise to get what one needs. Above all, the reality is that the US response to the current COVID-19 pandemic has been criminally haphazard, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, among which the poor and particular groups like Hispanic and Afro-Americans are over-represented; and instead of a lone rogue blogger trying to profit from the suffering, the US government at Federal and State levels, and other Western governments, are seeking to profit from the suffering by threatening to sue China for an amount of US$1.2 trillion (coincidentally the same amount that the US owes China in US Treasury bonds) for its supposed failure to notify the WHO of the disease and its pandemic potential.

The film’s conclusion demonstrating the evolution of the virus from a pathogen infesting bats into one infesting pigs and human beings is so clumsily and sketchily done that any message about human encroachment on and destruction of natural environments and the role that industrial farming plays in transmitting exotic viruses and diseases to humans is lost in a narrative that appears highly racist. “Contagion” might appear to be relevant to our current world but turns out to be little more than pro-US propaganda.

Sorry We Missed You: a social realist docudrama that feels not a little exploitative itself

Ken Loach, “Sorry We Missed You” (2019)

He may be well into his 80s but Ken Loach continues to make social realist film dramas that document those aspects of modern British society that oppress its most vulnerable segments: the poor, the weak and those who may be only a pay cheque or two away from grinding poverty and the tender mercies of an uncaring and inhumane State bureaucracy. In “Sorry We Missed You”, Loach turns his attention to the latest trends in employment in post-Blair neoliberal capitalist Britain, principally what is called “freelancing” or the so-called “gig economy” and zero-hours contracts. In Newcastle, the major city in the poorest region (the Northeast) in England, the Turners are a family of four who have struggled to make a life since 2008, when they lost their home and work as result of the Global Financial Crash that felled Northern Rock building society. The family has since had to rent a terrace home and Rick (Kris Hitchen) has tried to make do with a series of jobs in the building industry. He is encouraged to become a self-employed delivery driver at a parcel delivery courier company run by tough manager Maloney (Ross Brewster). For this, Rick needs a huge deposit on a new van which he gets by selling the car his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) needs to provide home nursing to various elderly patients in her contract job.

The film follows the fortunes of the various Turner family members as the parents struggle with the long hours imposed by their respective jobs and the stress their work places on their relationship with each other and with their children Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza Jane (Kate Proctor). Seeing no future in continuing school studies and dismayed at the prospect of going to university with no promise of a job at the end and only a hefty student debt to show for the work, Seb cuts school to spend days with a graffiti crew. This gets him in trouble with his parents, the school and the police, and places extra stress on the parents. Liza Jane is traumatised by the fights at home and tries to intervene at one point by stealing Dad’s van keys. One incident after another lands Rick into deep shit with Maloney. Despite Abby and the children’s realisation that Rick’s job is sinking all of them into a hole of ever-burgeoning debt and the stress this will cause, Rick is still determined to keep on working for his company – even to the point of dying for it.

Based on actual interviews with gig-economy delivery drivers and care workers, the film packs in so much to make its point that its plot does appear very contrived and manipulative. The daughter’s ruse of stealing the keys seems out of character for the child. Most characters are played by non-professional actors and sometimes these actors seem a little awkward, particularly at the beginning of the film. They do warm towards their characters and as the film progresses they produce some stunning virtuoso performances – in this respect, Honeywood and Stone are outstanding. Hitchen and Proctor put in good work as well but they are stymied by the nature of their characters.

While the film does deliver a very hard-hitting message about the effects of new temporary working arrangements in new industries such as delivering goods ordered via the Internet and home-based health care on the people who provide these services and on their families in a society where trade unions were smashed in the 1980s by the Thatcher Conservative government and political parties of all stripes have been captured by neoliberal capitalism, the film also captures the alienation and anguish of people caught in a never-ending cosmic hamster-wheel, in which everything they do to improve their lives only makes it worse, and what is promised to them as “freedom” and “independence” is only slavery and oppression in a new guise. In the end, all that the Turners really have, in a neo-Dickensian world fragmenting and falling apart around them, is one another. Abby does derive a little consolation from the people who depend on her to care for them – but at the same time, Abby and her patients are also exploited by her invisible employer who treats her just as badly as Rick’s company does him. What society exists around the Turners is just as bleak: the over-worked and under-funded NHS comes in for quite a hammering and a well-meaning police officer can only utter the same old platitudes that countless past generations of rebellious teenagers like Seb have heard over and over.

Unfortunately the bare-bones docudrama framework of the film delivers an open-ended conclusion in which viewers can only imagine the Turners on a continual downward spiral that must end in tragedy for one of them. There is no suggestion in the film that Rick and his fellow delivery drivers come to a joint realisation that they are being exploited and that they should band together, even use their employer’s scanners, apps and other technology, to form a union to resist further exploitation. In the same year Loach was making his film, thousands of Uber and Lyft gig-economy drivers around the world were on strike for better pay and working conditions, and similar industrial agitation was developing among other gig-economy workers in other industries.

For a film depicting a such a bleak society, with all the social and economic burdens the society has had to bear for the past 40 years, it seems odd that Loach depicts the Turners and others like them as passive and helpless, at the mercy of predatory companies and the governments they curry favour with, and the technology that is supposed to help them but instead chains them into slavery.

Profiles in Courage: ENN Middle East reporter Gertrude Bellinger – parodying Western MSM disinformation on Middle East affairs

Pavel Serezhkin, “Profiles in Courage: ENN Middle East reporter Gertrude Bellinger” (2019)

Written and produced by The Grayzone journalist Rania Khalek who plays ENN Middle East correspondent / bureau chief Gertrude Bellinger, this very funny satirical video tears the strips off Western news media outlets and their correspondents in the Middle East for reporting disinformation and conforming, both naively and deliberately, to the Western agenda of invasion and overthrow of legitimate governments in that region. Rania Khalek plays Gertrude Bellinger (the name riffs off Gertrude Bell, the English writer / traveller who explored parts of the Middle East in the early years of the 20th century and later provided foreign policy advice to the British government) who is Middle East foreign correspondent and the head of the Middle East bureau for ENN (parody of the US media company CNN) in Beirut. Accompanied by long-suffering second stringer Alia – who acts as camera crew, secretary, researcher and maker of numerous soy lattes – Bellinger trawls Beirut and finds evidence of Hezbollah operatives and operations everywhere: three guys lazing about on a bench at the beach, a hunky fella doing push-ups and three black sedans driving down the highway in the same direction.

The funniest part of the film features Bellinger interviewing a guy who claims to be a senior Hezbollah commander through his translator Ahmed Ahmed. The “commander” spouts all kinds of guff in Arabic and Ahmed Ahmed deliberately mistranslates what he says in English to Bellinger. Viewers are privy to the guys scamming Bellinger; later the two men will saunter down the road to the local bar where they will regale their friends with stories about how they scammed the American reporter for big bucks. When Bellinger herself visits her local watering hole, a friend there tells her she is being scammed by the two men – the reality is that Hezbollah does not permit foreign press access to its most senior commanders – but of course Bellinger prefers to trust her own instincts (or whatever passes for them).

Along the way, Bellinger lives the high life visiting trendy cafes, people-gazing at the beach (and zeroing in on those hunky Hezbollah fighters sunning themselves on the sand or on the bench) and fixing her nails and hair while Alia runs around making more appointments with “senior Hezbollah commanders” and with the nail salon and hairdresser in some posh part of Beirut.

The production is very slick and professional-looking and Khalek is clearly having a blast at the expense of Western mainstream media outlets who, because of excessive cost-cutting and pressures from political and defence elites, push naive reporters into situations where they can be gypped for money (it’s their employers’ money anyway) and fed deliberate misinformation. Already brainwashed with years of propaganda on TV news and at school and university, the reporters are eager for any information that fits in with whatever they’ve been told to believe. The result is sloppy journalism that feeds an agenda increasingly out of touch with reality. When such an agenda pushes nations into wars that destroy lives and ruin societies, even entire nations, the role played by ignorant reporters such as those Khalek parodies, small as it is, can be seen to be dangerous.

Aniara: a disappointing critique of human society in a spaceship on a doomed voyage

Pella Kagerman, Hugo Lilja, “Aniara” (2018)

An ambitious project to bring a poem by the Swedish poet / author / former sailor Harry Martinson (who co-won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1974) to the big screen, “Aniara” tells the tale of a spaceship transporting colonists from a future Earth ravaged by the effects of climate change and environmental destruction to Mars where new homes billed as a Promised Land are waiting for them. Just as you’d expect though, a bit of space junk from some long-forgotten satellite or previous space journey hits the ship and sends it off-course into the deeper recesses of space. To make matters worse, the crew has had to eject the ship’s nuclear-powered fuel reserves to avoid an even worse catastrophe. From then on, Aniara sails farther and farther towards the outermost limits of the cosmos in a vain attempt to find a planet whose gravitational pull can be used by the crew to manoeuvre the ship around and send it back to Earth or to Mars.

In the meantime, while the crew hope to find this planet, a ship employee known as Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), hereafter MR, has been tasked with looking after the passengers’ psychological health by operating a giant machine called Mima which can read people’s thoughts and draw on their memories and dreams to create virtual reality worlds in which their owners can participate. For a few weeks, Mima operates perfectly but after the accident, more and more people want to use Mima as a form of escape from the frustrations of waiting for help or rescue or good news from the Aniara crew, and Mima eventually breaks down completely from the overload of painful memories and nightmares. MR is blamed for Mima’s breakdown and is briefly imprisoned, along with one of the crew, navigator Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), but both women are released a year or so later. By then, they have formed a couple and get to share accommodation.

As the weeks roll into months and the months roll into years, in spite of constant reassurances by Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) that all is well, people’s hopes turn into despair and the glittering consumerist society on Aniara – it is outfitted like a giant passenger cruise liner – breaks down. In various chapters that take place during the ship’s lifetime, people turn to religious cults for guidance and reason for living; some of these cults seem to be no more than excuses for sexual orgies. Isagel becomes pregnant in one such orgy and gives birth to a boy. While the child gives hope to both MR and Isagel, Isagel later becomes depressed at the thought that the child will live his entire life in an artificial environment; viewers can tell 10 parsecs away what tragedy will befall both Isagel and the baby.

MR spends her time teaching esoteric space mathematics to child and teenage passengers in the hope that some of them will learn enough to become part of the Aniara crew. In her spare time, she tries to cheer up Isagel and help bring up the baby, assist the crew where needed and rework part of Mima to create a beam screen of natural Earth landscapes around the ship for passengers to view.

By necessity, the narrative is broken up into chapters that provide snapshots of the gradual deterioration of human society on board the ship, as crew and passenger expectations of a quick, easy and luxurious trip turn into despair and despondency, leading to violence, the proliferation of religious cults, substance abuse and addiction, and suicide. At the same time, due to the episodic nature of the narrative, there is no indication in the film of people gradually overcoming their differences and forming associations to help one another across the class divide or the crew hierarchy, in spite of Captain Chefone’s increasingly despotic and irrational behaviour. Directors Kagerman and Lilja are clearly no believers in people’s ability to overcome lifetimes of imbibing capitalist and consumerist values and ideologies. Unfortunately the film does a poor job as a study of trauma, due in part to its structure: no reason is given as to why so many people form cults or try to kill themselves – it’s as if the directors have assumed such behaviours are inevitable and always follow in a closed environment of extreme need where there is no hope of rescue, so viewers are expected to go along with such plot stereotypes. The result is a very shallow movie.

Character development remains at a woeful level of superficiality and the romance between MR and Isagel doesn’t quite come off as genuine, but as a sop to identity politics. The conflict between MR and the increasingly capricious and incompetent captain seems equally shallow, and MR’s astronomer friend (Anneli Martini) who foresees the ship’s doom is wasted as a character. There should have been plenty of room in the narrative for panics arising from food shortages or a breakdown in some essential item (such as the water supply or the electricity) but strangely the film-makers opted to miss opportunities for testing character and people making decisions that could spell life or death for the whole population and which point to future directions for society on board to develop towards. Can people overcome despair and lack to find comfort in their own imaginations, resources and one another, and combine to create a new co-operative society with better leadership and better decision-making abilities? The film suggests not.

In all, while the cinematography, design and the special effects were very good, much of the science behind “Aniara” is quite dodgy – there is no explanation as to where water for washing sheets and clothes comes from, and in a future where ships routinely take people back and forth between Earth and Mars, surely a technology for cleaning things that does away with water would be more credible – and the sociology is riddled with cheap stereotyping. There is no attempt to explore and criticise capitalism and social hierarchy in the film even though capitalism provides the context in which the Aniara ship sails on its doomed voyage: people did have to pay to board the ship and enjoy its luxuries, and MR was expected as an employee to provide a service passengers had already paid for. The film is a great disappointment.

Red Joan: a stodgy film skirting issues about loyalty, betrayal and the nature of the British state

Trevor Nunn, “Red Joan” (2019)

Adapted from the novel of the same name which as the film acknowledges is based on the real-life case of Melita Norwood, Britain’s so-called “Granny Spy”, “Red Joan” spins an intriguing fictional tale of a young British woman, Joan Smith (Sophie Cookson) who in the late 1930s briefly flirts with socialism at Cambridge University and makes friends with two student Communist followers, Sonia (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes) there. Joan is recommended by Leo to a secret British military physics project whose chief professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) hires her. The project is involved in working out the physics required to discover nuclear fission and eventually build an atomic bomb before the Americans do. While she resists at first, the eventual news of the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 convinces her to change her mind and to pass on the secrets to Sonia. Amidst all of this, Smith becomes romantically involved with Leo at university and afterwards, and also with Davis who has long been estranged from his wife who refuses to consent to a divorce.

Eventually the British security forces become aware that British military secrets are being passed to the KGB and start hounding the unit where Smith works. Sonia flees Britain and Leo is found dead. Max Davis is arrested, charged with treason under the Official Secrets Act and is imprisoned. Smith does what she can to get Max out of prison and, by blackmailing a former university colleague, William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara) who has achieved a senior position in the British Foreign Office, she and Max flee Britain with new identities as Mr and Mrs Stanley. For half a century afterwards, Smith’s treachery remains undiscovered until the early 2000s, when Mitchell dies and old government documents are declassified. The documents point to Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) as a long-serving KGB agent.

The story is told in flashback and pans back and forth between the present and the past as Joan Stanley reminisces to two British security officers about her past misdeeds in answer to their questions. Dench plays Stanley as a somewhat doddery old grandmother, the kind of slightly bemused elderly lady in whose mouth butter would stay solid; viewers may have some trouble matching the elderly Joan to Cookson’s more determined and steely character, but the lovable fuddy-duddy front falls away when Joan Stanley faces the press. The two actresses play their parts more or less well though Dench is clearly underused in her role. Cookson plays her intelligent but naive anti-heroine to the hilt. The rest of the cast is pigeon-holed into stereotyped backing roles: Sonia and Leo are portrayed as glamorous yet sinister, and the scientists Joan works with are obsessed with their own work to the exclusion of everything else, politics included. The modern-day British security forces are portrayed as efficient bureaucrats paying lip service to Diversity and Identity Politics.

In trying to develop the character of Joan Smith / Stanley as an anti-heroine viewers will sympathise with, the film waters down many aspects of Melita Norwood’s background – Norwood was a fervent Communist sympathiser – to the point of turning Joan Smith / Stanley into a bland generic character. As a result the decisions that the young Joan makes often seem bewildering and her justification for spying – that sharing knowledge is fair and, in the context of Cold War politics, has prevented the use of nuclear warfare for 50+ years – is very unconvincing. Stereotypical plot devices are used to tidy up the narrative: Sonia’s disappearance gives Joan a vital weapon with which she can blackmail Mitchell and very few viewers will believe the fantastically comical scheme in which Smith and Davis manage to escape Britain and flee to Australia. (At this point the film-makers decided not to explain how Joan later makes her way back to Britain.)

In spite of the use of flashback structuring to generate a sense of tension that should build up during the course of the film towards the present day, the film tends to be stodgy throughout its running time. Had British security forces been portrayed as sinister, menacing and violent towards both Joan and Davis, rather than as efficient, even sympathetic, the much-needed tension and fear could have been generated. The film fails to acknowledge the repressive and secretive nature of British society past and present, and to draw a parallel between this and Soviet repression and paranoia: the result is that the film, along with the other liberties it takes in reshaping the central character and her background, and in skirting other issues that arise about loyalty to one’s country when it conflicts with one’s ethics and values, does not rise above general mediocre entertainment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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