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.

 

Alexander Nevsky: a well-made though not brilliant propaganda film about a Russian mediaeval hero

Sergei Eisenstein, “Alexander Nevsky” (1938)

Unashamedly patriotic and stirring action-movie propaganda for the masses and the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin at the time of release, this historical fiction drama recreates one of the two battles fought by the 13th-century Russian hero Alexander Nevsky that determined his future career as a prince and politician: the 1242 battle against and defeat of the crusading Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire on the frozen Lake Peipus which now forms part of the border between Estonia and Russia. The other significant battle which Nevsky fought and after which he was surnamed – the 1240 battle against Swedish forces on the Neva river near present-day St Petersburg – is mentioned at the beginning of the movie. “Alexander Nevsky” is straightforward in its narrative, starting with a Mongol ambassador visiting Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov) and offering him a position with the Mongols’ Golden Horde which was in charge of Moscow at the time. From there the film hops to the Teutonic Knights’ take-over of the city of Pskov near Lake Peipus where they massacre the population. The Knights march towards Novgorod city where the aristocrats and wealthy traders decide to surrender to the Knights to avoid losing their riches. Nevsky then rallies the common people of Novgorod to resist the foreigners. Interwoven with these events is a sub-plot about two warrior friends, Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrey Abrikosov), who are dead keen on marrying the demure and beautiful girl Olga (Vera Ivashova) who likes them both. She sweetly worms her way out of being forced to choose between her suitors by telling them she will only marry the braver of the two in battle.

The battle against the enemy on the frozen lake (the Battle on the Ice) takes up half an hour of the film’s running time and can be interesting to watch as soldiers seem to hack aimlessly and in all directions and there are very few scenes of stagey-looking stand-offs between individuals of opposing sides. Editing, sometimes quick, with a view to portraying the fighting from different points of view – some shots are close up, others are at a distance or from a bird’s-eye point of view – ensures the constant tussling never gets boring. Scruffy Russian soldiers hack with axes and run about here and there while the more disciplined white-clad Teutonic knights charge as ordered and the foreign cavalry, infantry and archers work together as a machine. Fear not: Nevsky does use a strategy of dividing his forces into three groups to surround the invaders on three sides. As the fight progresses, some of the Russians are exhausted and are felled by lances or blows from the enemy; there isn’t much gore but the fighting is as realistic as Eisenstein dared to go at the time. The horseback fighting scenes look a little cartoony and have the style of 1920’s-era silent film as music often plays over these scenes and the action is quick and abrupt. When the camera remembers to focus on Nevsky himself in the heat of fighting (which isn’t much actually), he’s filmed from the waist up striking with his sword at unseen enemies but not pursuing them on horseback or helping his fellow warriors fend off attacks.

Keeping in mind the circumstances in which Eisenstein made this film – he was under suspicion of disloyalty for having worked in Hollywood and Mexico in the early 1930’s, socialising with painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and writer Upton Sinclair among others, with nothing to show for his efforts – viewers will understand “Alexander …” isn’t as experimental as some of Eisenstein’s other films and is made in a way that glorifies its main character as a god-like folk hero who can do no wrong and which elevates the defenders of Novgorod as heroic yet ordinary people who, given the right kind of leadership, can do extraordinary things. The message behind the portrayal of the Russian side becomes obvious: common people have potential to be heroes but only under Communist leadership and specifically Stalin’s leadership can that potential be put to work and fulfilled. As for the Teutonic Knights, in spite of their white garb (a duplicitous ploy), they are dehumanised by their armour and helmets which cover the entire face and body and sprout talons, antlers and devilish horns. They behave as cogs in a well-oiled war machine which further emphasises their lack of humanity. On conquering Pskov, they are nasty enough to throw little kids onto flaming pyres. Foot soldiers for the enemy wear steel helmets typical of what German soldiers wore in the later part of World War 1 and which they were to wear again in World War 2. The enemy forces are led by the Grand Master who resembles a twisted, demonic version of the fair-haired, square-jawed Nevsky and receive blessings from the Roman Catholic Church whose representatives are shown as sinister and fanatical.

Remarkably given Eisenstein’s need to ingratiate himself with the Stalinist government, the film shows the tragic side of war in which bodies of both sides are strewn over the snowy ground and women search for husbands, fathers and sons and mourn their dead. Although on second thoughts this display isn’t that remarkable as Russian portrayals of war have traditionally called attention to the carnage and tragedy of war and the sorrow of families whose men have died. The film also makes a point of showing Nevsky as a merciful and just hero who pardons and frees the foot soldiers who are assumed to have been drafted against their will into the Teutonic Knights’ army. The knights themselves and their leaders are held for ransom but Nevsky throws a Russian, Tverdilo (Sergei Blinnikov), to vengeful crowds for betraying Pskov to the enemy. Again the message here is ordinary people as a group are basically good and potentially heroic but they can be led astray by the wrong sorts of leaders (read: rich capitalists, self-styled aristocrats and their allies in anti-Communist governments who think only of their own material comforts and would sell their mothers and grandmothers for more wealth) and only someone like Nevsky who loves his mother country Rus is the ideal leader.

Character development as such is non-existent: Cherkasov as golden boy Nevsky stays in heroic mode throughout (which means his end scene where he urges people to celebrate is hilarious, he is so strait-jacketed in the stereotype) and the love triangle sub-plot doesn’t quite work as it should in spite of the best efforts of Okhlopkov and Abrikosov as the suitors who are brave and heroic in battle but comic and awkward in love. Olga remains modest throughout the film and hardly demonstrates much passion for either suitor and Gavrilo himself spends much of his screen time hardly conscious. Okhlopkov puts in the best acting as a heroic fighter who manages to escape death, as a near-buffoon and as an honest suitor who admits he wasn’t the brave one in battle and nearly gets scolded by his mum.

The rousing music by Sergei Prokofiev fits in well with the sequencing of scenes and encourages the rise and fall of tension and emotion throughout the movie. For this reason, the movie is best seen in its 1995 re-recorded edition on DVD or in a cinema environment where the sound quality is good and consistent. A live orchestra playing the music soundtrack as the film screens is a bonus.

Not a brilliant piece of film-making but “Alexander Nevsky” will be of some interest to Russian history buffs and film-makers who need to know how to stage and film battle scenes in a way that retains audience attention and interest.

5 Days of War: as the movie admits, truth is the first casualty

Renny Harlin, “5 Days of War” aka “5 Days of August” (2011)

Directed by Renny Harlin and financed by the Georgian government, this drama is a Russian-bashing screed about the 2008 South Ossetia war and the events leading to it. The movie revolves around the experiences of two news reporters Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) who accept an assignment in Tbilisi, Georgia, a year after their previous assignment together in Iraq ended badly: the two men were rescued by a Georgian military unit in that country after their car was ambushed  by militants. In that ambush, Anders’s girlfriend (Heather Graham), also a reporter, is badly wounded and dies. Anders and Ganz’s noses for news (and trouble) get them fired upon while watching a wedding at a rural Georgian inn, avoiding capture while witnessing and filming atrocities by Russian troops who have invaded the country, and ending up as prisoners of a Russian general (Rade Serbedzija). While simultaneously escaping, yet being drawn to, trouble and danger, the reporters pick up a Georgian woman, Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a guest at the wedding at the inn. Through Tatia and a collective effort to broadcast Ganz’s images to the rest of the world while keeping them away from the Russians, Anders finds a new purpose in life and a reason to go on living.

The romance between Anders and Tatia doesn’t make sense: why should the two fall in love simply because chance threw them together and put them in danger both together and individually? Any “chemistry” that might exist isn’t present and the pair’s kiss looks like an after-thought. More believable is Anders’s loyalty to Ganz when Ganz is injured in a bomb attack and apparently dying: the two have been in many intense life-and-death situations which few other people can understand and sympathise with. Both men are devoted to seeking the truth behind layers of propagandistic fog though paradoxically this search can make them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and the military. The plot’s emphasis on safeguarding the memory stick that holds Ganz’s images and the Russians’ attempt to destroy it leaves no room for character development with the result that Anders, Ganz and their fellow journalists are cardboard cut-out beings not worth caring about.  The actors playing Russians end up perpetuating old World War II stereotypes about Soviet soldiers massacring civilians, raping women and torching farms and crops with flame-throwers. Admittedly the stereotypes are based on fact – the Soviet Red Army behaved abominably wherever it went – partly because of the debased culture that developed in the army as a result of purges of high-ranking officers ordered in the 1930s by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, a native Georgian. What irony. As the movie carries on, hackneyed plot twists appear: Tatia’s family is riven apart by internal betrayal, Ganz is threatened with torture by the Russian general’s sadistic enforcer (Nikko Mousiainen), an attempt to broadcast Ganz’s images fails when the reporters are targeted by a Russian helicopter, and Ganz is hurt in the helicopter attack. The enforcer kidnaps Tatia and forces Anders to choose between saving her life and keeping Ganz’s film.

The film could have focussed on the dilemmas that journalists in war zones face: for one thing, whether the search for truth justifies putting their own lives and the lives of innocents in danger. There are various political and ethical decisions they have to make: how closely should they work with the government or the military? how would such work interfere with their journalist code of ethics? There is a female journalist featured who is embedded with a Georgian army unit and viewers may well wonder what compromises she made to get the story and pictures she wants; it’s likely also the opinions she expresses and the images she shows will reflect her hosts’ political agenda.

The actors do what they can with the story and give at least a three-dimensional look to their characters. Andy Garcia as Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili gives the best performance, endowing his character with a dignity the real person doesn’t deserve: before the 2008 war, Saakashvili had been criticised for the use of brutal police force against protesters in an anti-government demonstration, and for declaring a state of emergency and suppressing press freedoms as a result of the protests, in November 2007. Well-known US actors Val Kilmer and Dean Cain parrot their lines and strut their respective reporter and diplomat role stereotypes, and fellow US actor Jonathan Schaek as Georgian military officer Captain Avaliani spends his screen time saving Anders and Ganz’s hides.

If the film has any saving graces, they’re in the Georgian settings: the cinematography features lovely shots of a town perched on cliffs overlooking a winding river and of the countryside with its mountains and deep gorges. A church used as a refuge gives the film crew opportunities to photograph pictures of religious icons and the wedding scene featured early in the movie gives a little insight into Georgian customs, traditional dress styles and folk dances. Curiously though native Georgians serve as extras, they are absent from the film’s lead and supporting acting roles.

By lapsing into an action-movie rut the film fails to give a near-accurate portrayal of the work news journalists do and the problems they face in unusual and intense situations where disinformation, propaganda and fear replace speech and press freedoms. The film fails to do what it purports to do: the source of the film’s financing alone puts paid to any pretence of impartiality and regard for truth. The Georgian armed forces are portrayed as decent and heroic, the Russians as cruel, barbarous and criminal: in truth, both sides were guilty of over-reaction to provocation with Georgia attacking South Ossetia first with heavy firepower and both Georgians and Russians alike committing grave war crimes. The United States doesn’t come out looking good either: since 2003, the Americans have been sending arms and military advisors to Georgia and encouraging Saakashvili to adopt a very aggressive attitude towards Russia as part of an encirclement strategy that includes ex-Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (where the US has a military base) in Central Asia, Ukraine and some former Soviet satellite nations in eastern Europe.