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

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

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 deology 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.

WikiSecrets: questionable motives and agenda in documentary that smears whistle-blower

Marcela Gaviria, “WikiSecrets” (2011)

Took in this documentary on SBS1 last night on the case of Bradley Manning, the US soldier arrested in May 2010 f0r allegedly passing confidential US national defence information to the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks. The documentary mixes interviews with various talking heads including Wikileaks main man Julian Assange, close associates of Manning himself and the odd interviewee or two who probably are more deserving of time in the slammer than Manning.  Manning himself is not interviewed. The documentary covers the soldier’s background in a general way before detailing his involvement in the US army as an intelligence analyst and how he was able to download masses of classified information and US diplomatic cables and pass them onto to others. Correspondent Martin Smith acts as narrator as well as interviewer and together with voice-over and interviews puts together a story in which a troubled young man, at odds with his society and in particular his employer, gets some kind of revenge on the bullies who have tormented him over the years by leaking secrets that will embarrass them and the government that condones what they have done to him even if it means risking his country’s security.

Lasting an hour, the documentary has an earnest style and is put together simply with some live-action recreations of what Manning might have done mixed in with interviews and some film clips. This simple style gives the documentary an air of sincerity and objectivity that disguise its aims. Issues such as the importance of national security over transparency, accountability and the public interest are presented simplistically in a way that suggests American people’s interests and the need for openness in a democracy are subordinate priorities to the needs of the US government, whatever they are (which the documentary won’t tell us, obviously). The overall view is that Manning has done wrong and should be prosecuted for jeopardising US national interests. But as Assange himself more or less says to Smith, the best way to protect secrets is not to have them in the first place. What he also could have thrown at Smith (who seems antagonistic towards Assange compared to his gentle treatment of other interviewees) is that if the US government needs to keep secrets, then what for? If the secrets are to protect the public, shouldn’t the public know what they’re being protected against?

The documentary suggests that Manning’s homosexuality played a large part in his alienation from the US military and its culture, in particular its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which prevents gay men and women from being open about their sexuality. This “blame the victim” stand conveniently lets the hierarchy within the US military and the US Department of Defense off the hook for not changing the culture of the armed forces to be more inclusive and accepting of people who are otherwise capable of carrying out military duties. Manning is portrayed as a loose cannon at war with inner demons which he may have had but this skewed opinion does not necessarily have any bearing on why he decided to download particular data in vast quantities and feed information to Wikileaks. Most likely in his work he saw evidence of illegal activity and other acts that compromise democracy and freedoms as set out in the US Bill of Rights and that his sense of right and wrong led him to act as he did. Usually when people are bullied or discriminated against in ways Manning might have been, and counselling has had limited success, they turn to drink, drugs or suicide; in some very rare cases, they may carry out acts of sabotage or violence against the people who have bullied them.

Manning’s present incarceration and abuse are treated cursorily in the film; Smith doesn’t mention the name of Manning’s lawyer let alone speak to him. The documentary fails to say that during his time in solitary confinement, Manning was humiliated by being forced to appear naked during inspections, was often deprived of sleep or had his prescription glasses taken away from him

There is no mention in the documentary of what Manning might have seen, heard or experienced in Iraq that led him to do what he did. Apparently to Gaviria and Smith it’s as if the sufferings of Iraqi civilians and the hardships of US and other soldiers and their families count for very little against the embarrassment Manning might have caused his government. There is no mention of people who might have died because of Manning’s actions. The film even fails to make much of a case against Assange for not redacting the names of informants and others on US diplomatic cases and other classified documents. People may have died as a result of Assange’s decision but no names are brought to his (and our) attention.

Ultimately viewers are no closer to knowing what Manning actually did that was wrong other than to follow his conscience. Manning may have committed a crime or crimes but the documentary doesn’t reveal what they are. Viewers learn very little about Wikileaks itself and what it actually does; most of what the documentary reveals about the organisation is petty differences between Assange and his deputy Daniel Domscheit-Berg who left Wikileaks to set up OpenLeaks. Assange’s responses to Smith’s questioning are brief compared to some other interviewees’ responses which suggest some creative editing has been used to make the Wikileaks founder look bad.

What also makes “WikiSecrets” look bad is its failure to compare Manning’s actions with that of the person who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to the Wall Street Journal as a way of punishing her husband Joseph Wilson for reporting that Niger was not exporting uranium to Iraq in the 1990s. Manning’s “crimes” start to look more like the whistle-blower actions they are. The person who leaked Plame’s identity is guilty of a crime for the same reason “WikiSecrets” attempts to paint Assange in a bad way over his initial refusal to redact the names of informants: Plame’s exposure potentially put the lives and careers of diplomats, businesspeople, workers and others plus their families, not just informants, at risk. One has to question the motives and agenda behind the making of “WikiSecrets” in this light.

 

Melodrama, spy thriller hi-jinks and conservation activism a strong mix in “The Cove”

Louie Psihoyos, “The Cove” (2009)

This documentary by American photographer and film-maker Louie Psihoyos combines spy thriller genre elements with an agenda to educate the public about the need to preserve the marine environment by concentrating on one issue and following some related side-issues. The issue that “The Cove” revolves around is the annual slaughter of dolphins and pilot whales at a marine cove in Taiji, a small town in southern Honshu island in Japan. Initially the film concentrates on a lone figure, Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who became famous in the 1960s for training the dolphins that shared the role of the hero dolphin in the popular TV series “Flipper” that was exported around the world and boosted the growth of marine parks that featured bottlenose dolphins as a main attraction. O’Barry later comes to see that his work as a dolphin trainer is having harmful effects on the animals and from then on dedicates his life to returning captive dolphins to their ocean habitat and raising public awareness of problems both captive and wild dolphins face from human activities. The film’s focus extends from O’Barry’s advocacy campaign to Japan’s annual harvesting of dolphins in Taiji where the animals are either caught for export to marine parks or slaughtered for food. This brings up a related issue of the dangers that eating dolphin and whale meat can pose for humans as the meat usually contains high levels of toxic chemicals, in particular mercury and cadmium.

Much of the film is structured around Psihoyos’s attempts to film the actual round-up and slaughter of the animals in the scenic little bay at Taiji by the Taiji fishing fleet. The local people including the police are hostile to the presence of Westerners and try to intimidate them or provoke them to violence. Psihoyos and O’Barry recruit a team of special effects workers, scientists and freedivers to develop tactics and technology that include fake rocks with cameras inside to make a secret film of the Taiji fisherfolk’s activities. The team must place their cameras in and around the bay at night as the round-up and killing usually take place at dawn and the activists film what they do using infra-red photography. A camera is also placed on a helicopter to take aerial shots. This emphasis together with the filming methods used gives the documentary an axis of drama generating tension and excitement and sustaining attention around which diversions into less melodramatic aspects of the dolphin hunt can be made.

Accuracy in some of the information given is suspect and there’s a possibility that the information might have been massaged to arouse strong audience reactions: the film makes no mention of the fact that pilot whales are also killed in the Taiji round-up for food. An animated map shows where live captured dolphins are exported from Taiji to other parts of the world including North America, yet since 1993, dolphinariums in the United States have not imported dolphins captured in drive-hunts. One might assume that if captive dolphins suffer chronic stress – and it must be said that conditions and hygiene in marine parks and other places where they live may vary a great deal throughout the world -they would not be breeding and raising babies yet as of 1996 over 40% of dolphins kept in US dolphinariums were captive-born. Perhaps O’Barry’s zeal as a born-again dolphin advocate has infected Psihoyos and others he comes in contact with and this makes “The Cove” look biased in parts and open to charges of bashing Japan and its culture.

Overall the film is tight and structured with many scenes of great beauty and excitement interspersed with information that generally can be verified through other sources. Unfortunately the film-makers appear not to have researched the history of whaling and dolphin hunts in Japan and in Taiji in particular and this ignorance colours their attitude towards the Taiji locals. O’Barry is perturbed at seeing monuments and study centres dedicated to whales in Taiji but cetaceans are in fact part of the town’s history and culture and this in itself plays a big part in the local people’s hostility and resentment towards the film-makers. Both sides behave combatively which prevents them from looking at ways in which Taiji could still benefit economically from the whales and dolphins that visit the area: sightseeing tours to watch whale and dolphin migrations, using festivals dedicated to whales and dolphins to attract tourists and preserve local traditions, and setting up a marine sanctuary that can be monitored by outside animal welfare organisations are some alternatives. There may be other industries worth developing in Taiji so that its economy is not so dependent on exploiting sea mammals and over time the drive hunt could be reduced and abolished altogether.

Certainly there are other side-issues Psihoyos could have considered in his documentary though they stretch the boundaries of the main subject: why does the Japanese government continue to throw money at whaling and forcing the Japanese public to eat cetacean meat when the industry is in economic dire straits? why does the government pretend there are no health risks involved in consuming cetacean meat? could it be that there are close connections between politicians individually and the government as a whole on the one hand and whaling interests on the other? is the Japanese media under government or other external pressures not to mention whaling and drive hunts to their public? Perhaps, like Japan’s nuclear energy industry, the Taiji dolphin-hunt refers to an aspect of Japanese nationalism that feels insulted and humiliated by post-1945 US occupation and the cultural influences that the occupation brought to Japan, and which tries to reassert itself and its vision of Japanese cultural, racial and technological superiority. Whaling is seen as a tradition worth pursuing because it’s a native “tradition” which, not coincidentally, serves the same purpose of ridding the oceans of animals that “compete” with Japan’s fishing industry over decreasing global stocks of fish.

As with many American documentaries these days the film makes a plea to viewers to take action against the dolphin hunt but doesn’t offer specific suggestions or a list of organisations including Psihoyos’s own Oceanic Preservation Society to support. There is no mention of groups like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society who also have a guerrilla-like activist approach to fighting the global whaling industry and O’Barry comes across as a proverbial lone voice in the wilderness in decrying the Taiji dolphin harvests. After the drama of trying to get film footage of the hunt without being caught and jailed, the film-makers’ ultimate message to viewers is a deflated let-down and some people might go away feeling manipulated.

Man with a Movie Camera: experimental film documentary with the camera as central character

Dziga Vertov, “Man with a Movie Camera” / “Chelovek s Kino-apparatom” / “Liudyna z Kinoaparatom” (1929)

No plot, no obvious characters or a point of view to identify with, no apparent direction or narrative – how can a film be made without a story structure or something similar to stop it from being a mess? A directionless mess is how “Man with a Movie Camera” may present to most audiences as it must have when first released in 1929. The reality is that director Dziga Vertov made the film as a documentary in three parallel parts: a documentary of one day in the life of people in three cities (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa), showing them at work and at leisure and emphasising their interactions with technology and machines in particular; a documentary about the process of making a film; and a documentary of people watching the first documentary. The film is continuously self-referential and aware of its being observed and filmed as it observes and films: throughout the film there are references to the camera itself and its association with human eyes and film techniques such as splitting the screen in half, rotating the film, running two scenes in a continuous repeating back-and-forth montage, jiggling the camera and tracking call viewers’ attention to the act and process of observation.

There actually is a “plot” and there are “characters”: the plot is a snapshot of modern life in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, detailing the variety of work people do and what they get up to in their free time and the complexity and pace of the lives they lead. The impression viewers will get from all the jumpy edits and the use of unusual filming methods is that people are swept along by a force originally of their own making and now with a life and energy of its own. Cities wake up in the early morning and already there are people out and about cleaning the streets and preparing to open shops. Drivers and conductors board trams and take them out into the streets to pick up commuters. Gradually people get up from bed, wash themselves and get ready to go to work. Machines whir and wheeze in factories and trams and buses zip along the roads while pedestrians dart in and out among them. Along the way, Vertov chips in images of people attending weddings and funerals and of a woman giving birth, capturing the entire human life cycle in a matter of minutes. Later in the film people exercise, relax at a beach and play sport and games. “Characters” in the plot are the people at work and play as a collective character, the various cameramen who might also be considered one collective character and the cinema audience shown at the beginning and at the end of the film.

Above all, the camera has the starring role and Vertov acknowledges this by including a stop-motion animation scene of the camera, its case and tripod performing an awkward bow to the cinema audience near the end. At critical points in the film, interlays and montages of the camera lens and the human eye emphasise the camera’s role as an active observer and reporter of human activities. The intention on Vertov’s part is innocent enough but in the context of what was to develop in Soviet society later, the camera as an intelligent and perhaps not impartial observer can be a sinister metaphor for a surveillance state. The cameramen become mere hired help who perform dangerous jobs on the camera’s behalf: one man climbs a perilous ladder up a chimney, his equipment slung over his shoulder; another perches on the top of the edge of a door on an open-top car breezily flying down a street; and a third is carried in a basket over the thundering waters of a dam. There’s one heart-stopping scene in which a man, maybe or maybe not a camera operator, appears to be run over by a train. Who or what is the machine taking orders here, the cameraman or the camera?

Numerous filming and editing tricks including filming from different heights and angles, freeze frames, images laid one over another, speeding up or slowing down the film, and montages of repeating images from one to the next and back (so that the images are commenting on each other) relay Vertov’s view of society as progressive and reliant on the interdependence of human labour and technology. The pace is breathless and often dizzying and the camera itself sympathises with viewers by going dizzy itself. There are no class differences – everyone is a partner together in a world of work and leisure – and there are few differences between men and women at work. Women are shown performing labour and doing desk jobs: there is one marvellous montage sequence showing women telephone switchboard operators plugging wires into boards to connect callers and a woman working on a train carriage. Everyone has a role to fulfil and society’s progress and wealth depend on everyone doing his / her fair share of the work and toil. There’s room for humour too: the camera indulges in a playful overlay of a cameraman setting up his tripod and camera in a glass of beer!

Some viewers may find the machine-like portrayal of society and the people a little creepy: the whole society operates too smoothly and efficiently. It’s very easy to get the impression that the people going about their activities are little ants operating on autopilot, never stopping to think about what they’re doing and whether they could be doing something else or the same thing in a different way. There are references to Vladimir Lenin and yes, the film does portray society as serving Communist ideals and goals and building Communist society with combined proletarian effort. Unfortunately it was France not the USSR that had a Jacques Tati doing his bit to interrupt the machine flow of society and introduce some untidy human chaos, and that much later than when Vertov made his documentary.

The joke about “Man with a Movie Camera” (or should that really be “Movie Camera with Hired Help”?) is that the people in the cinema watching the documentary and the cameraman (men?) making a documentary never see what he (they?) captures on film and neither do viewers like you and me. The humour, energy and zest that inform “Man with a Movie Camera” make it fresh more than eighty years after it was made. Clearly Vertov is celebrating Soviet society of 1929 as technological, forward-looking and thinking, prosperous, egalitarian and buoyant: the film is a cheery and exuberant advert for the society it depicts. Considering the terror that was to come with agricultural collectivisation and the resulting famine in Ukraine, Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party and the Soviet armed forces later, and his restrictions on artistic freedom which the film also celebrates, all in the 1930s, viewers might find themselves watching “Man with a Movie Camera” with a skeptical eye and a sad heart.

The Space Voyage: space adventure propaganda piece for kids is a little subversive

Vasily Zhuravlov, “The Space Voyage” / “Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella” (1936)

In the 1930s, the youth branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, usually known by its abbreviation Komsomol, suggested that a film be made to encourage interest in space exploration among young people and this film, which  features as a main character a boy who is a Komsomol member, was the result. Director Zhuravlov had been itching to make this film since the mid-1920s anyway though possibly without the child character. Shot as a silent film with not very many title cards, the film is fairly easy to follow even though on Youtube.com it has no English-language subtitles. An aged scientist, Professor Sedykh (S Komarov), and his assistant Marina (K Moskalenko) decide to blast off into space in their rocket along with a teenage passenger, Andriusha (V Gaponenko) after Sedykh has been in trouble with fellow scientist and bureaucrat Professor Karin (V Kovrigin), the latter having been irate over finding a sleeping rabbit in a small rocket. The unlikely trio fly straight to the moon where they don spacesuits and happily leap about in close to zero-gravity conditions, taking in the sights and exploring the caves they find. Sedykh nearly gets crushed by a rock but apart from that mishap, the three have a good time and send a signal to Earth that they have landed on the moon. That basically is all there is in the way of a plot.

The glory of the film is in its sets and some aspects of the script: Zhuravlov consulted the then-famous rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on the script and other aspects of the film’s production. The scenes in the film in which Sedykh, Marina and Andriusha float and fly about in the spaceship were probably inspired by a suggestion that once a spaceship escapes the pull of Earth’s gravity, its occupants might experience weightlessness. The camera shows the threesome bouncing off walls and windows, and even adopts a first-person viewpoint of flying with quick edits of swaying and swinging aerial shots: hmm, those three need a fair bit of practice to stop crashing into sensitive levers and steering wheels. The scenes on the moon in which the astronauts jump from rock to rock are all animated (with stop-motion animation) to a high quality and look very realistic for the period in which the film was made. Spacesuits have oxygen tubes and tanks attached to them, indicating the level of research and care Zhuravlov took in making the film appear authentic.

The sets themselves will take viewers’ breath away: even the cameraman must have been in awe at the size and clean streamling of the spaceship, around which workers scurry and little trucks drive, and there’s an excellent “virtual tour” shot in which the camera pans slowly around the ship itself while in the hangar. The ship’s interiors look cramped and are filled with panels of levers, steering wheels and gauges. Moscow itself is portrayed as a futuristic planned city dominated by a few skyscrapers here and there and a long rollercoaster-like bridge that reaches for the sky itself. The lunar landscapes, all painted on background boards, almost have the appearance of abstract avantgarde oil paintings with huge white block-shaped boulders draped over by dark shadows, over which the Earth can be seen rising.

Interestingly during take-off, the astronauts are shown wearing special costumes and sitting in liquid-filled chambers. Presumably the liquid absorbs the changes in pressure and any shocks that occur while the ship escapes the Earth’s atmosphere so that, once in space, the astronauts suffer no ill effects. Tsiolkovsky and Zhuravlov sure did think of everything that could have gone wrong and how to solve any potential problems!

As a film aimed at children, “The Space Voyage” includes considerable humour: Karin is prevented by a group of Komsomol children from stopping Sedykh’s flight and has to pretend that he authorised the flight all along; and Sedykh’s wife, in helping her husband to pack his luggage for the trip, realises he has forgotten to take his warm boots so she hurries to the spaceflight centre with them. The prime humorous aspect is that the flight crew includes no young able-bodied adult males whom viewers would expect to perform the action-hero parts; when Sedykh gets into trouble, Marina and Andriusha are the ones who bail him out. A young military man who is Marina’s boyfriend would have gone on board but Marina throws him out after he throws his support behind Karin’s orders.

Though intended as a propaganda piece masquerading as a children’s space adventure, the film’s choice of main characters and the way the first part of its plot plays out are in their own way subversive of official Communist propaganda: Sedykh and Marina defy a bureaucrat’s orders and Andriusha sneaks away from home and boards the spaceship as a stowaway. Sedykh and Marina initially treat Andriusha as just a kid but after he declares that he and his friends stopped Karin from grounding the rocket, the two allow him to explore the moon’s caves with them. None of them is what NASA or its Soviet equivalent would call “qualified” to be space explorers. When they get back home, they find they are forgiven for their disobedience. Ah, if only real life had been as kind to the film as the fictional bureaucrats were to the trio … “The Space Voyage” was pulled from cinemas in 1936 as the animated scenes of jumping astronauts were judged by government censors to be frivolous and was neglected for a long time afterwards.

 

 

Aerograd: great visuals of wilderness and flying planes in Soviet war propaganda film

Alexander Dovzhenko, “Aerograd” (1935)

It’s a well-made film with stunning shots of wilderness and planes flying in the sky but where would a Dovzhenko film be without the requisite pro-Soviet propaganda? “Aerograd” leads the way in staking the Stalinist government’s claim to ownership of the Far East territories, those areas from the border with Manchuria running up through Sakhalin island to the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and Chukotski peninsulas (the latter separated from Alaska by the Bering strait). The film constantly emphasises the frontier nature of the country in these areas: the forests of huge trees and mossy undergrowth stretch for miles, the rivers are wild and the seas vast, and the ice also stretches on and on over the horizon forever. Pity in a way that “Aerograd” had to be shot in black-and-white as colour film could have focussed on the majesty and richness of the forests and on the cold blue and wild white of the rivers, seas and ice floes.

Unfortunately the version of the film I saw on Youtube.com didn’t have English subtitles so much of the plot went way over my head. The plot is not very clear and has several parallel strands to it though there are definite lead characters (the sharpshooter, a pilot and a Rasputin-like Old Believer demagogue) and a head Japanese villain. There is an airfield being built in a remote part of the Soviet Far East near where a colony of Old Believers (Russian Orthodox Christians whose ancestors rejected the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 1600’s and who were persecuted and forced to flee to remote parts as a result) has lived for a long time. The Old Believers don’t support the Communist government and this stand brings them into conflict with recent Russian settlers building the airfield. In the meantime a few Japanese spies have snuck into the area and see the spat going on so they try to stir up the Old Believers into rejecting Soviet authority and the airfield. One local Russian man is friendly with a spy but is caught and condemned to be executed as a traitor; the man’s friend who appears to be a sharpshooter is given the task of executing him.

The film clearly urges support for the Stalinist government by showing the Old Believers as naive, superstitious and backward in their ways, the Japanese as sinister and duplicitous swordsmen, and other Russians as progressive and rational. One scene in which the Old Believers are at worship portrays them as a bit fanatical. Dovzhenko strives not to appear racist: the handsome pilot, one of the heroes, has a young Asian wife; and a young Siberian hunter declares his support for the Russians. The sharpshooter who must execute his friend seems upset but knows he must carry out his duty.

For Western viewers, the best parts of “Aerograd” are the silent scenes at the beginning and near the end of the film: at the start there are several minutes during which the sharpshooter pursues two Japanese spies through the forests, and near the end a huge flotilla of planes from all over the Soviet Union fly to the Aerograd airfield to help defend the area from Japanese invasion. The forests dwarf the humans running through them; even the undergrowth threatens to swallow them up. During the film’s climax when Aerograd is in danger, planes in strict formation roar through the sky and each succeeding shot, spliced in-between with title cards showing the planes’ cities and regions of origin,  includes more planes until the skies are thundering with their presence and authority.  The music during this part is rousing and dramatic. A very stirring highlight indeed.

Acting varies from natural to over-acting, even histrionic in one scene where the fiery-eyed Rasputin guy fires up a crowd so much that women start sobbing and collapsing.

As it is, “Aerograd” looks very good and if it had English and other language subtitles I would recommend it to history and film students for its value as a propaganda piece urging support for Stalin and collective action, and resistance to Japan. If “Aerograd” were considered for a remake for general viewing, it would probably be in the form of a “Western” as plot, location and character elements ripe for that genre already exist: wild frontier territory near Manchuria; a sharpshooter and a hero pilot who find in each other a natural ally; an isolated community whose political loyalties are vague and have to be prodded in the “right” direction; enemies sent from another country with territorial ambitions; and an aerial version of the US Sixth Cavalry to come to the rescue.

The Sky Calls: visually striking film that’s low on excitement and high on propaganda with a surprise twist

Mikhail Karyukhov and Alexander Kozyr, “The Sky Calls” / “Nebo Zovyot” (1959)

A visually stunning film about space exploration, “The Sky Calls” was the first in a wave of science fiction movies from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe that deal with space travel in a more or less “hard science”, realist way. Unusually perhaps for a film of its kind, the plot is contained within a framing device of a fantasy conceived by a news reporter, Troyan (S Filimonov), after he meets and interviews rocket scientist Kornev (I Pereverzev) about his work and the possibility of space travel in the near future. In the fantasy Troyan accompanies Kornev and various other scientists on a trip to a space station where Kornev meets among others two visiting Americans, pilot Klark (K Bartsevich) and news reporter Verst (G Tonunts) , who plan to fly to the moon. Kornev later declares he and another man will fly to Mars. The visiting Americans report back to NASA who advise them to change their plans and fly to Mars to beat the Russians. The Americans do so, injuring Kornev’s original pilot, so another man Gordienko (A Shvorin) accompanies Kornev instead on the ship Rodina. On the way there, the Russians receive an SOS: the Americans in their ship Typhoon have been hit by a meteor shower which has forced the craft into a trajectory into the sun. The Rodina crew rescues the Typhoon men but the Russians are unable to continue their Mars mission due to a fuel shortage so they must land on an asteroid, Icarus, and wait for an unmanned refuelling vehicle to arrive from Earth.

Emphasising realism and the work that astronauts might be expected to do in space, the plot disdains action-man heroics and one-upmanship in favour of a moral about how friendship and co-operation triumph over nationalistic rivalry and competition, and that the ultimate purpose of space exploration is to encourage and advance knowledge about the cosmos and benefit human society. Any drama arises from the consequences of the American crew’s haste in flying away from the space station at NASA’s orders. Early in the film Klark admits he once crash-landed a craft – his face has the dints to prove his point – so viewers are aware he’s someone who might take unnecessary risks. Generally the Americans come across as slightly neurotic, impulsive and childish, seeking excitement for its own sake; the Russians are depicted as reliable, calm and level-headed. The differences between the Americans and the Russians extend to their societies as well: American society is about acquisitiveness and seeking cheap sensations to a boppy jazz soundtrack while Russian society is solid and grounded in nature against a soothing and anodyne classical music background. The stereotyping leads to rather wooden acting – even the gung-ho air jockey Klark is hard to take seriously as rash, so stolid is he – and precludes any interesting tension and suspense that would result from character clashes and misunderstandings.

The film’s chief glory is in its exterior and interior sets, particularly the scenes set in space and on Icarus. The Icarus landscapes with their contrasts of red light and black shadows show influences that might have come from 1920’s-era Russian abstract art movements like Rayonism and Constructivism. A shot of the rocket that takes Troyan into outer space might comfortingly remind some Western viewers of the old British marionette series Thunderbirds in its solid detail. Cinematography can be quite good too: there is a wonderful early transition from the lights of night-time Moscow car traffic to winking stars in space to the rocket separating from its launch structures. The science is not exact: there is early mention of “winds” in space and there are scenes of people in spacesuits walking or standing on space station platforms or on the surface of rockets while the craft are clearly moving quickly and one wonders how these structures, massive though they are, can generate a gravitational field sufficiently strong enough to keep a crowd of people from floating away; but apart from these and possibly other slips, the attention to visual detail in the sets, the special effects used and the spooky organ tunes, sort of melodic in an eccentric way that emphasises the organ tone, in a number of scenes are excellent.

Acting is unremarkable: even the Americans are underplayed though Klark is supposedly a maverick pilot and Verst lacks space-flight experience and understandably panics when the Typhoon veers towards the sun. Pereverzev as Kornev gets the best lines pontificating on the superiority of co-operation over competition and whatever character development exists is invested wholly in Klark’s realisation that Kornev is right and that his natural soul brothers are people like Kornev and Gordienko who have in common with him training, experience and faith in space exploration. It’s to be noted also that all lead and major secondary roles are given to male actors while female actors are relegated to support roles of mothers, wives, medical doctors and space-flight technicians.

Funnily the film doesn’t look dated though the attitudes and values that power the plot and the characterisation are often very traditional even by 1950’s-period standards. The film suggests that the Russian space crew members are morally grounded due to their almost spiritual devotion to their country (note the name of the rocket “Rodina” which is Russian for “Motherland”) and their political and economic system. Friendship and co-operation are favoured as long as people involved defer to the Russians as leaders among them. At least the film is even-handed in the way it treats Klark and Verst as victims of their political and social conditioning and even Kornev, the obvious leader, is a bit fallible in admiring Klark when the latter admits to his early foolhardy action. Klark achieves moral redemption near the film’s end so at least Kornev’s mission, though it has failed to reach Mars, has done something very significant. The goal of the trip ultimately isn’t that important; the journey itself, the struggles along the way, the unexpected reward of seeing a rising Mars from the surface of Icarus and the lessons learned demonstrate that space travel in itself is a wonder and anyone who becomes an astronaut is very privileged indeed.

The framing device of a reporter’s fantasy suggests mild oblique criticism on the film-makers’ part about the role of the media as a propaganda tool in fanning international or other rivalries that strike against the interests of scientists in working together and sharing knowledge and skills. The character of Verst in particular could be viewed as Troyan’s dark twin, trying to pre-empt or hurry the patient and often tiring work of scientists and forcing them into doing dangerous things they would otherwise avoid. There is the suggestion in Troyan’s fantasy and its eventual manifestation as a novel that scientists should be allowed to work at their own pace and that the proper role for journalists in reporting scientific articles is to inspire interest, wonder and support for scientists in the general public.

Arsenal: as Soviet propaganda, film is surprisingly pacifist and innovative in use of montage

Alexander Dovzhenko, “Arsenal” (1928)

Notable for its skilful use of montages of images to create and build tension, excitement, urgency and other moods, “Arsenal” revolves around an incident during the Russian Civil War: a group of workers at an arsenal factory in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine then as now, rebelled in late January 1918 against the revolutionary parliament of Ukraine that had just declared the country’s independence from the Russian empire. The workers declared a strike and joined a group of invading Bolshevik soldiers to fight the Ukrainian forces. Under the leadership of politician Symon Petlyura, the Ukrainians crushed the factory workers’ rebellion, killing many people, and drove out the Bolsheviks on 4 February 1918. A few days later Bolshevik forces returned and captured Kiev.

“Arsenal” isn’t clear on the actual historical details and it ends when the workers’ revolt is suppressed violently and with much bloodshed; leader of the revolt, ex-soldier Timosh (Semyon Svashenko) bravely faces off against three armed men trying to kill him. Whatever plot exists – the story of the factory revolt actually begins 30 minutes into the film – is very sketchy and is carried mainly by Dovzhenko’s montage arrangements into which inter-titles carrying dialogue are inserted. The overwhelming impression I have is that, regardless of who is right and who is wrong, the use of violence can’t be justified however necessary it seems t people at the time and there appears to be a pacifist thread throughout the film. Violence and bloodshed lead to too many personal tragedies: families are torn apart, widows and orphans face hardship, starvation and poverty.

The film’s main assets are the editing, montage that combines several parallel strands of plot or sub-plot, and cinematography which often features impressive montages of images, many of which are shot at unusual angles or with characters and objects silhouetted against the sky. Particularly memorable are close-ups of factory machines at work, giving the film a near-abstract / futuristic edge in parts. There are some scenes in which the camera tracks along as though riding a train, taking in scenery through a window. The first 30 minutes of the film feature some very riveting set pieces: one series of montages set in the country, demonstrates with searing intensity the poverty and hardships endured by depressed peasants in a village and the sudden bursts of violence two of the villagers engage in against small children and a horse. A war episode follows in which a soldier inhales laughing gas and laughs uncontrollably; the film flicks back and forth between this man and another soldier, silhouetted against the sky, preparing to shoot him, then throwing away his rifle. For this act, he is punished by his senior officer. A third set piece, using quick editing to flash back and forth among images, close-ups and parallel viewpoints of the same incident, chronicles the last trip of a speeding train packed with soldiers returning from war in central Europe; one of the soldiers entertains his pals by playing his accordion. The passengers realise the train is about to crash and soldiers escape while they can. The crash is very severe and the accordion is flung off the train without its owner.

The acting can be florid and overdone and some scenes, such as the Mexican stand-off between a worker and a faltering capitalist in the last quarter of the film, are milked for what they’re worth for tension and emotion.

First-time viewers should familiarise themselves with some of the history of Ukraine between 1917 and 1921 when the country enjoyed a very brief independence before being forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union, so they can make sense of the film. They don’t have to know all the details of the Arsenal factory revolt – Timosh and several other characters appear to be fictional – but just enough about when it happened, the groups involved, who put down the rebellion and what consequences it had for the future of Kiev and Ukraine generally. As a native Ukrainian and wanting to appear loyal to Communism, director Dovzhenko must have trodden a fine line indeed between supporting his country’s aspirations for freedom and being in the Stalinist government’s good books so as to continue his directing career without too much political interference. As a story “Arsenal” can be haphazard with different incidents occurring at once and the film ducking from one line of events to another and back again so viewers should just concentrate on the imagery and see how editing and montage can be used to suggest or generate tension and passion. The pro-Communist stand is very strong, so strong that an element of fantasy creeps in when Timosh resists being shot; it’s an awkward and wryly laughable moment coming after numerous scenes of brutality and death but the obvious alternative might have put Dovzhenko in trouble.