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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Phyllida Lloyd, “The Iron Lady” (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.