Gibel’ Sensatsii / Loss of Feeling: good-looking film about robots and workers versus capitalists

Aleksandr Andriyevsky, “Gibel’ Sensatsii / Loss of Feeling” (1935)

A very handsome-looking film made in 1935, “Gibel’ Sensatsii” is sometimes also known as “The Robots of Ripley”, “Loss of Feeling” or “The Loss of Sensation”. For a long time the film was thought to be based on Karel Capek’s play “R.U.R.” and some websites still repeat this canard. A young idealistic engineer, Jim Ripley, distressed at the suffering of workers on an assembly line in a factory, invents a line of robots to take over the work. The capitalists who own and run the factory hijack his idea and sack all the humans at the factory, replacing them with the robots. Initially the workers welcome the robots but the capitalists controlling the machines use them to attack and oppress the proletariat. The engineer attempts to regain control of his inventions but fails during the attack. A group of workers manages to subvert the capitalists’ control of the robots and in scenes of fire, destruction and outright warfare, workers and robots alike converge on the capitalists’ hide-out and destroy their slave-masters.

I was daft enough to watch the film without English sub-titles so a lot of the humour in the film went right over my head. There are parts of the film that look like parodies of Hollywood film genres like musicals: in one scene, a chorus line of girls is replicated with a Fred Astaire clone who sings in a high-pitched, effeminate voice. A running gag through the film is that Jim controls the robots he creates by playing a whistle or a saxophone, leading to a very surreal scene in which, drunk, he plays a sax and the giant robots around him sway and dance in time to the music! The capitalists are presented as figures to be ridiculed and the workers, however comic some of them might appear, are usually practical, down-to-earth types who mean well.

The pro-Soviet leanings are deliberate and the film hammers home its loyalty to the Soviet Union heavily. Wealthy capitalist society is decadent and parasitic and the workers, hard-working, patient and enduring, strive for honesty and dignity in their lives when and where they can. If there are hidden messages in the film for audiences in the 1930s to take home, one of them must surely be that no matter how different in looks, cultural background, abilities and skills  robots and workers might be, when both are oppressed by the same enemy, both can and should unite and work to defeat the common foe. The pace of the narrative is slow for much of the movie but in the last half hour the story really starts to speed up as the plot becomes an action thriller piece and segues into war movie mode. Other than the idea of robots replacing workers, being enslaved themselves and joining with the humans to rebel against the factory bosses, the film is not very original in its plot and ideas: even the idea of the robots lacking souls (which gives the film its Russian title) and being unthinking, inhumane automatons is an idea that was already frayed and worn around the edges at the time of the film’s making. Some people might catch an extra level of meaning in the title, in that all humans, be they slave-driver or slave, also lose feeling and connection with one another, their environment and nature generally when placed in situations and relationships where one exploits and bullies the other: certainly the capitalists in the film look as likely to cheat and screw one another as they do to a class of human beings they consider beneath them. Our idealistic engineer, symbolic of the chattering classes and the would-be hero trying to connect heart and head as his counterpart in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” did successfully, is just as brusquely brushed aside as those he tries to help.

Not being able to concentrate on the dialogue and any hidden messages or puns it might contain meant I was free to savour the film’s visual impact which owes something to the art movements of the 1920s and 1930s; there are scenes that look very Expressionistic, especially in the use of shadows to suggest something sinister about the robots. Film sets are staged with dramatic flair: most sets are very minimal in presentation, allowing action, character (or character stereotypes anyway) and dialogue to dominate. Even outdoor scenes, filmed from afar, have drama as robots and workers from over the far horizons advance together towards the camera. There are some stunning scenes, featuring no dialogue or sound but just music, that hark back to the silent film era. The film’s highlights are scenes where the giant robots feature and of these, the ones that stand out the most are the more surreal scenes such as the dancing robots sequence and the scenes of rebellion and war in the last ten minutes of the film.

The acting is not great and some of it is histrionic and staged even by the standards of populist films aimed at the general public. The characters are representative of a particular kind of story-telling narrative aimed at education and inculcating the right values: the idealistic hero who sacrifices himself trying to do good for his people; the hero’s lady-friend who foresees and dreads the inevitable doom that faces him; the stoic workers, filled with heroic revolutionary spirit but also good-humoured, helpful and ready for a celebration; and the capitalists who never miss an opportunity to amass wealth for themselves, especially if that means treading all over the maximum number of workers possible and exploiting an engineer’s original idea for their selfish ends.

For a film that tries to be everything to everyone – there are elements from science fiction, musical comedies, action thriller films and war movies – “Gibel’ Sensatsii” ties its different influences well together. For non-Russian speakers, it’s not difficult to follow and although it is a propaganda piece of its time, its resolution is ambiguous and open-ended.

The Death Ray: early Soviet silent with plenty of action, skulduggery and even some poetic film-making

Lev Kuleshov, “The Death Ray / Luch Smerti” (1925)

A silent Soviet action thriller that starts with a workers’ revolt in a factory which is crushed by the factory owners and the police, forcing the leader of the revolt Thomas Lam to go into hiding, “The Death Ray” is one of the earliest Russian-language science fiction films made. Not surprisingly given the period it was made in, the movie has pro-Communist tones though it appears to be set in a foreign capitalist country. Unfortunately the English-language subtitles weren’t very good as the person who uploaded the film to Youtube (the film is in the public domain) had to transcribe from Spanish-language subtitles which in turn were transcribed by someone else from the original Russian and the title cards used in the film don’t appear to be completely within the camera’s focus so there were bits of the plot cut out. Still the effort made by NightOfTheLivingNES to give as much information as possible about the plot in English is commendable.

The film looks very pulpy, relying heavily on character stereotypes, a fast pace, what appear to be several plot strands and lots of action in which people perform amazing stunts like jumping off balconies set three storeys or more above the ground and suffering only a strained back afterwards: in real life, the man would have died or at least smashed both his legs from the impact of landing on his feet on hard concrete. A death ray is invented early in the film. There are scenes in which people narrowly escape being run over by trains and a plucky young mop-topped boy called Freddy makes a daring escape from the bad guy fascist spies. Plenty of skulduggery is going on between both sides. In  later part of the film, two aviators engage in a bloody knife fight after which one fellow attempts to cart off a heavy suitcase across a meadow; he gets bogged down in a marsh, his foe catches up with him, takes the case and shoves him right into the marsh where he glug-glugs to death.

Technically the film is a bit all over the shop: many scenes including the title cards look cut off at the edges, especially on the left-hand side (from this viewer’s point of view) and the edits look crude and amateurish compared to modern editing. On the other hand, there are very many stills of actors’ faces in close-up and very distinctively craggy and full of character these are: the elites look extra haughty and arrogant with their monocles, sharp profiles and polished, twirled moustaches and the ordinary workers have faces that might have been hewn out of rock. A number of female characters have distinctive and expressive long faces though some uncharitable viewers are sure to think the ladies should get their teeth capped or fixed. Scenes of flying planes near the end are breathtaking and there are some almost poetic shots of nature or scenes at unusual camera angles that might suggest some avant-garde artistic influence at work.

What made it to Youtube unfortunately got cut off at the end where a whole town appears to be in revolt and the death ray that’s supposed to make its appearance and presumably blast quite a few people out of this world and into their next existence fails to appear.

It looks pretty exciting and action-packed for a film of its time even without the science fiction element.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 1: The Primitive Celts): demonstration that victors write history to flatter themselves and demonise others

Terry Jones, “Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 1: The Primitive Celts)” (2006)

This droll history lesson delivered by former Monty Python member Terry Jones examines the complicated relationship the Roman empire had with the ancient Celts whom they more or less subjugated and assimilated over several hundred years and finds that this relationship was even more complex than at first appears and the distinction between “civilised” and “uncivilised” all but collapses. Conventional wisdom that says the Romans were civilised and the Celts were barbaric and savage is turned on its head as Jones discovers that the Celts were more organised and cultured than they have been credited with simply because they didn’t have or use writing to the extent the Romans did. They were unable or unwilling to write their history so the Romans did it for them – not in their favour of course.

Visiting museums and archaeological sites in Britain, Ireland, France and elsewhere in Europe, and talking to scientists and other experts, Jones discovers that the ancient Celts had extensive metal-working industries and trade networks extending throughout their territories across Europe from Spain to the Balkans and Turkey, and traded with their Roman rivals. He discovers the Celts had also developed sophisticated road-building techniques to assist their trading. Interestingly the Celts’ trading and road transport networks reveal their societies to be very decentralised, a possible indication that they valued political and social egalitarianism in which no one city dominated and every city and town was equal, in contrast to the Roman civilisation in which all roads and networks literally led to Rome.

A section in the documentary dealing with the burial of a wealthy and powerful Celtic woman in France leads Jones to discover that Celtic societies treated men and women equally; his trip to Ireland leads him to research ancient Irish laws which confirm that not only did ancient Irish women (and by implication ancient Celtic women) enjoy social equality with men, they also enjoyed economic equality in that they could inherit property, divorce their husbands and keep property after the divorce.

A running narrative is the clash between the forces of Julius Caesar (Rome) and Vercingetorix (a chieftain of the Arvenni tribe of Celts in Gaul), presented as a struggle between two very different and polarised worldviews, one of which was to die and to be distorted by the other worldview as bloodthirsty, violent and savage.  Jones points out that it was Caesar who took Vercingetorix as hostage and treated him cruelly, imprisoning him first, then publicly displaying him before having the Celt strangled to death. One group of Celts singled out for demonisation by Roman propaganda was the druids who were portrayed as sinister witch-doctor types presiding over mass human sacrifices that involved burning hundreds of people in wicker-man statues, hanging people or drowning them; the reality more likely was that humans were offered as sacrifices only in extreme situations of famine or hardship, and that the Romans slandered the druids as they were the political, social and cultural elite in their societies and it was necessary to paint them as wicked in order to break the Celts’ resistance to Roman rule and to teach people who were already vassals of the Romans that it was pointless for them to revolt against Rome as well.

The episode makes the point that history is written by the victors to suit themselves and more often than we’d like to think serves as propaganda to stifle rebellion and keep vanquished people psychologically enslaved so that their lands and resources may be seized by the victors for their own use. This message has much relevance for the world today as it stands on the brink of major warfare in the Middle East that may spread to northern Africa and central Asia. People across the world are being exhorted to support US-led NATO intervention in Syria by propaganda that paints Syrian leader Bashar al Assad as a criminal who must be removed and replaced by a new government that will bring democracy and freedom to Syria. Russia and China, which have objected to al Assad’s forced removal by foreign forces, are being portrayed in the Western press as authoritarian societies hostile to democracy and freedom. Uncomfortable facts such as the United States’ past interference in Middle East politics during the 1950s which among other things helped to bring the Ba’ath Party to power in Syria and Iraq and enabled Hafez al Assad (Bashar al Assad’s father) and Saddam Hussein respectively to seize control and rule as dictators are ignored. The fact that Libya remains in chaos and its achievements under Colonel Muammar Gadhafi’s rule (1969 – 2011) have been destroyed or are being run down by Islamists after NATO intervention is also forgotten. If we don’t wish the 21st century to be one of unending New World Order violence, destruction and widespread poverty under a small and privileged elite, then we must resist the Western propaganda and the people, institutions and countries behind it. Unfortunately the BBC which made “Terry Jones’ Barbarians” series is one major institution peddling such propaganda.

The True Story of Black Hawk Down: too much detail and not enough overview of the Battle of Mogadishu as a historical event

David Keane, “The True Story of Black Hawk Down” (2003)

A very detailed documentary about the events that led to the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 between US Special Forces and forces loyal to a Somali warlord, Mohammed Farrah Aidid, during which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades, hence the title of the film (and of the Hollywood film “Black Hawk Down” by Ridley Scott based on the Mark Bowden book of the same name). Eighteen US soldiers died, 73 others were injured and one pilot was captured while 1,000 to 10,000 Somalis may have been killed. The battle was pivotal in influencing US President Bill Clinton’s decision to pull all US troops out of Somalia a few months later.

Anchored with minimal voice-over narration from David Jeremiah, the film relies mainly on interviews with author Mark Bowden, whose efforts to chronicle what happened before and during the Battle of Mogadishu form the narrative of the documentary, various US Army Rangers and Somali civilians, and backed by archival footage and dramatisations of particular incidents, “The True Story …” is very strong on the details of events leading up to the battle and on what happened, blow by blow, during the battle from a mostly American point of view. The danger with this approach, focussing heavily on a day-by-day recount of events, is that viewers can quickly get lost in detail and lose sight of what the documentary is aiming for: an accurate narrative of the battle, the things that happened and why. There is some effort to capture the Somali point of view to provide a counterpoint to the American account of the battle but the US viewpoint dominates simply by the sheer amount of time allocated to interviews with several soldiers who participated in the mission; the Somali side is captured in snippets of interviews with a small number of civilians.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the interviewees and their feelings for their dead comrades, and certainly Mark Bowden is genuine about his mission and can see some of the Somali viewpoint, but overall I don’t find that the documentary adds much to viewers’ understanding of why Somalia in the early 1990s was such an unstable country and how the United States government failed to gain the support of the Somali people enough to challenge the power of the warlords and in particular that of the most prominent warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. There should have been some information about the overthrow of President Siad Barre, who had ruled the country for over 20 years with an iron fist, drawing on socialist principles to structure the economy, clamping down on clan rivalries and making some reforms, and how that led to political and economic chaos. On the other hand, the impact of the Battle of Mogadishu and the loss of American lives on US foreign policy and Somalia was great: the US withdrew all its military from Somalia not long after and international aid presence there soon collapsed with the result that the country remained chaotic and poor for many years. According to the film, the Clinton government became loath to commit US forces in other foreign conflicts and preferred to use aerial bombardment in military interventions whenever these occurred; this meant that in places like Serbia and Kosovo in the mid-1990s, warfare became even more bloody and dangerous as bombs not only spread death indiscriminately but also depleted uranium. The Clinton government avoided sending US troops to Rwanda when civil war followed by genocide broke out there in 1994; some 800,000 and possibly up to 1 million people died. This embarrassment to the US led to the development of the principles known collectively as Responsibility to Protect which assert that sovereignty is a responsibility and therefore states are responsible for protecting their citizens from mass murder and other atrocities, and if individual states fail in this, then the international community must assist the states or intervene, perhaps by force.

The film pays homage to the bravery of the US soldiers who participated in the battle and acknowledges, somewhat grudgingly, the determination of the Somali people in defending their country. It makes mention of the ugliness and brutality of war and how it changed the lives of the surviving soldiers. To be honest, and I know this will be insulting to the people involved, I found the conclusion rather banal: well of course war is horrible and people die horribly and in pain in war, and of course it dramatically changes participants’ lives and the lives of their loved ones. I would have liked to see, though, less humdrum detail about how some individuals got rescued – their experiences could have been turned into separate documentaries – and a better analysis of how the Battle of Mogadishu turned the tide of war against the US and how it influenced future US military conduct in overseas countries.

The Century of the Self (Episode 4: Eight People sipping Wine in Kettering): too much focus on politics, not enough on culture and society

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 4: Eight People sipping Wine in Kettering)” (2002)

Final episode in this 4-part documentary series brings the penetration of public relations from the corporate world into politics, news and current affairs reporting and nearly all other areas of Western society and culture up to the prexent day with a focus on Philip Gould and Matthew Freud (great-grandson of Sigmund Freud) who respectively advised the Democratic Party in the United States and New Labour in the United Kingdom on the tactics to win back power from political conservatives in those countries. Politicians across the political spectrum appealed to the self-interest of the so-called “aspirational” classes (the lower middle class, upper working-class people) to win power and to do this had to promise tax cuts or cut back on policies considered to be “social democratic”. Citizens became consumers in a culture increasingly focussed on fulfilling their short-term desires and appealing to a shrinking range of interests. People’s self-esteem became heavily dependent on having their needs and wants stimulated and catered to. Marketers and public relations firms developed more sophisticated methods and techniques of splitting consumers according to lifestyle, needs and desires and happily offered their wares and services to corporations, governments and other agencies alike.

As with previous episodes, Curtis employs snippets of old and recent newsreels and interviews to flesh out his thesis of how “left-wing” political parties in the US and Britain re-invented themselves into supposedly caring-and-sharing entities that followed closely the whims and aspirations of voters through polls, focus groups and other strategies recommended by PR consultants. He paints New Labour under its leader Tony Blair as slavishly copying the methods of the Democrats in the US, ignoring the influence of the Australian Labor Party which had re-invented itself as a social democratic party under Robert Hawke in the 1980s on Blair, and Blair’s own attempt to ingratiate himself with young people under the “Cool Britannia” label.

Curtis certainly makes a plausible case for the dominance of Freudian psychoanalysis and concepts as having had a huge influence on the thinking of governments and business without considering whether Freud’s theories happened to have come along at the right time when they did to be seized on by these and other agencies to legitimise their own agendas for controlling people. In other words, if Freud had not offered psychoanalysis to the world, something similiar would have had to be invented. Curtis also does not consider other possible influences on the thinking of both political conservatives and social democrats. The peculiar social, political, economic and cultural conditions in Europe and North America following World War I and continuing up to the present day, with the rise of the United States and its particular set of expansionist values and fantasies together with the collapse of European empires and their values, are ignored as an influential backdrop on the thinking of political and social elites and how they viewed the general public. It could be argued though that elites have always viewed everyone else as something less than human in order to justify their own elevated position to themselves, to make the Great Unwashed believe they are undeserving of democracy and control over their lives, and therefore to secure and maintain the elites’ psychological and physical hold over their serfs. Freudian psychoanalysis, Skinnerian behaviourism, Taylorist scientific management and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism are just some of the tools the elites have used time and again in various bizarre combinations to fine-tune, tweak and oil the joints in our social, economic and political hierarchies.

The episode focusses too much on American and British politics in the 1990s without really considering the effect of public relations on Western popular culture during that decade. There is a brief discussion on the use of product placement among Hollywood movie celebrities but no more; I would have thought that the rise of the cult of celebrity and reality TV shows during this decade merited more serious treatment than it does here. Social trends such as coccooning and the opportunities these gave to PR and marketing people are also ignored.

The sub-text of the entire series – that we have been tricked by our leaders into believing that human nature is essentially bestial and incapable of being improved, therefore we cannot and will never understand democracy, can never govern ourselves democratically and must always be under elite control – is a live current that Curtis addresses rather weakly and never seriously challenges. If anything, this deception is “the trap” that Curtis refers to in a number of his documentaries.




The Century of the Self (Episode 3: There is a Policeman inside all Our Heads – He must be Destroyed): a stroll through an amusement park of curious cultural fads and trends

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 3: There is a Policeman inside all Our Heads – He must be Destroyed)” (2002)

The third installment in Curtis’s series focuses on the rival psychologists and radical groups that challenged Freudian psychoanalysis and its use as an instrument by governments and corporations for containing and controlling the supposed irrational desires and fears of human beings. Included is an inquiry into ways in which people and groups outwardly resisted being dictated to, and methods and techniques of inner examination and exploration with a view to finding a breakthrough to inner freedom. The upshot of using such strategies to resist external controls of oneself, physically, mentally and spiritually, is that these same methods ended up being co-opted by businesses in much the same way and towards the same ends as Freudian psychoanalysis had been used.

The documentary strolls through an assembly line of personalities, groups and pop culture movements and trends, all of whom and which had little in common except a general desire to be free of external social and cultural restraints and to pursue self-fulfilment and individuality. The corporate world rose to this challenge to its power by absorbing this drive for individual self-expression into its agenda: ideas, states of mind, methods and strategies arising from the counter-culture movement were adopted by companies which made them their own. This led to the development of new marketing strategies such as market segmentation based on lifestyle differentiation and the use of demographics, surveys, polls and statistics as well as psychology to measure people’s motivations and buying behaviours, and to predict these. Such strategies not only laid the groundwork for the birth of the consumer society, they also percolated into politics, education, health provision and other areas beyond buying and consuming goods and services. Politicians and political parties began to mould their strategies of attracting voters by appealing to their fears, desires and lifestyle preferences.

With the documentary moving into the 1960s, Curtis’s choice of music soundtrack becomes more eccentric and kitschy, and the images he chooses range from movie snippets to newsreels to what look like excerpts from home videos. Emphasis is on the idea that corporations not only found the drive for self-expression and individuality a godsend in their quest for profit but subverted this drive so that people’s need for self-affirmation and individualisation ultimately depends on buying products and services seemingly tailored to their “needs” and “desires” as determined by business.

Walking through a bewildering amusement park of different counter-cultural fads and trends, I couldn’t help but notice how casually Curtis saunters through them all without giving viewers some idea of where these fads came from, what inspired them and ultimately what happened to them, whether they were fully or partly incorporated into corporate culture or if they died out because of some financial or other scandal. The man stands accused of picking whatever fits his thesis in much the same way that corporations sampled whatever self-actualisation methods fitted their particular agendas. Business is presented as always playing catch-up with whatever fancy notions get into the public’s collective head; there’s no suggestion that companies and government agencies might have seeded the cultural underground with substances like LSD (developed by the CIA and introduced into colleges and universities and other places where young people went) in order to derail it and divide it into segments more susceptible to infiltration and control.

It’s not a bad episode on the whole but it does get repetitive and a shorter running time could have been considered. The development of the consumer society with its concomitant treatment of citizens as consumers and clients rather than as individuals is documented fairly well.  The information given can be patchy and it wanders all over the shop as Curtis trots through one fad or cultural tendency after another.


The Century of the Self (Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent): the use of psychoanalysis as tool for social control

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent)” (2002)

This episode continues Curtis’s investigation of the ways in which Freudian psychoanalysis was hijacked by governments and corporations as a tool to control the public and shape society to achieve goals these agencies desired. The tale is picked up in the context of World War 2 and the Shoah (Nazi-Jewish Holocaust) and what German popular support for Adolf Hitler’s government implied about human nature to Western governments. Horrified by the apparent irrational behaviours displayed by people across Europe, Asia and North America as a result of the Great Depression and the political instability and war that followed, the US government sought to investigate and mould the psychology of the American people through the use of psychoanalysis. Corporations, government agencies and social planners alike employed psychoanalysts to examine human motivation, hidden and unconscious desires and fears, with the aim of manipulating these forces for profit or to control people’s thinking and feeling.

Particular attention is paid to Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna and nephew Edward Bernays who promoted Freud’s ideas and theories and who (especially in Bernays’s case) were happy to offer their knowledge and services to the US government for dubious ends. The most outrageous example of psychoanalysis being used in a way Freud would have disapproved of was in Bernays’s eager co-operation in undermining and toppling the Arbenz government of Guatemala in the 1950s by presenting it to the US public as a tyrannical Communist government allied with the Soviet Union and playing on Americans’ fears of Communist control and supposed loss of their freedoms. Other attempts to understand human irrationality and unconsciousness led to the CIA funding experiments by Dr Ewen Cameron under the MKULTRA project which eventually proved to be a failure. Psychoanalysis entered popular culture: Hollywood movie culture was permeated by the theory and actress Marilyn Monroe consulted high-profile psychoanalyst Dr Ralph Greenson for help with her emotional problems. Her suicide in 1962 was a catalyst for a backlash against psychoanalysis: Anna Freud and her followers were accused of encouraging social control and repression. According to the documentary, Freud retreated to London where she died in 1982.

As is usual with his documentaries, Curtis draws on BBC archival material and mixes it with interviews, snippets of old Hollywood films and an eclectic mix of popular music over which he presents his premise of Freudian psychoanalysis and psychology in general willingly co-operating with government and big business to control people. Implicit is the belief that people are at the mercy of their desires, fears and other hidden psychic forces they can’t understand or control and which make them hysterical or violent; therefore the people must depend on an elite to control and tell them what to think and how to behave. The way Curtis tells his story, it’s as if the arrival of Freudian psychoanalysis suddenly opened the eyes of government and big business and made them see people in a way that makes the hoi polloi putty in these agencies’ hands; Curtis doesn’t appear to concede that before Bernays, governments and corporations had used other methods to convince the general public to support them and their goals. Nor does Curtis consider that other ideas such as French psychologist Gustave le Bon’s theory of crowd behaviour and that crowds might develop a herd mentality could have had some influence on Bernays.

As in another Curtis documentary “The Living Dead (You have used me as a Fish long enough)”, Dr Ewen Cameron’s experiments are not described as being part of the MKULTRA project even though knowledge of the MKULTRA experiments has long passed into popular Western culture. Curtis deals very little with the impact of psychoanalysis on popular culture in the 1950s and early 1960s – the films that Alfred Hitchcock made during this time (“Vertigo”, “North by Northwest”, “Psycho”, “The Birds” and “Marnie”) could have been referenced. He also does not cover any resistance from the psychiatric profession towards psychoanalysis during the 1940s-50s, nor does he mention the potential that psychoanalysis has for encouraging abusive or dependent relationships between the practitioner and his (rarely her) patients. The emphasis given over to psychoanalysis also ignores the social / political / economic context in which the theory began to be used as a tool of control; if people turn to apparently irrational ideologies or forms of government, that may well be because the economic and political situation they found themselves in and which was created by governments and corporations itself was extreme and irrational.

Since Curtis spends much time covering the US invasion of Guatemala and the overthrow of General Arbenz, he might have considered mentioning the impact of that invasion on the Guatemalan people: in particular, how many people died or were injured, and how the invasion set back the country’s political, cultural and economic development.

Generally this film, like many of AC’s films, draws together some interesting parallel strands to create a challenging thesis which isn’t the be-all and end-all of what it covers. If it starts a discussion or encourages further investigation, then this episode of “The Century of the Self” has done its work.




Kony 2012: is this film astroturfing for a US invasion of eastern Africa?

Jason Russell, “Kony 2012” (2012)

Having heard about nothing else but this 30-minute feature going viral across Youtube and various social networking sites, I determined to watch this film championed by mysterious US charity Invisible Children for myself. I found it a very slick and manipulative piece of propaganda aimed at young people and families with children. The film starts with director Jason Russell and his family, and zooms in on his young son from birth on to his preschool years before branching out to the lost children of Uganda, children like Jacob who have lost their families and have been forced to join the Lord’s Resistance Army as soldiers (if they’re boys) or sex slaves (if they’re girls) under the sinister charismatic leadership of one Joseph Kony. Russell dwells for a little time on Jacob and his experiences before delving into a drive for support and donations to help other young people like Jacob, and suggesting ways in which people can bring the issue of child soldiers and finding Kony to be brought to justice to the attention of others.

Russell adopts a deliberate personal style to make very subjective appeals to people’s emotions. His use of his son as willing collaborator is creepy as well as exploitative, to say the least. The filming methods used are so slick as to raise my hackles: the editing and the images, even the sloganeering and strategies suggested to raise other people’s awareness, all look as if they’d been cooked up in an advertising agency that’s done work for past TV current affairs programs. The themes pushed by “Kony 2012” are so familiar as to be banal and devoid of genuine feeling: let’s change the world for the better, let’s be pro-active, let’s protect innocent and vulnerable children from exploitation (speak for yourselves!), let’s bond in solidarity with other aware young people and fight this monster Joseph Kony and triumph where older people can’t or won’t.

No historical context is given, which is extremely suspicious: the film never explains who Joseph Kony is, why he is such a bogeyman and who his Lord’s Resistance Army is fighting against. What is his background, how and why is he a rebel, what political / social / economic conditions existed in Uganda in the 1990s that enabled him to rise to his current position as Uganda’s Public Enemy No 1, and why should we get rid of him now when we could have got rid of him ages ago? Is the Ugandan government under President Yoweri Museveni so helpless that it must appeal to the outside world? Is Kony fighting the Ugandan government? Given that Museveni has just been “elected” to a 4th term and has been in power for 25 years with a blemished record in violating human rights, invading parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and holding elections that yield suspect results that support his continued rule, perhaps Kony is doing the right thing in resisting the Ugandan government!

The film’s suggested solutions are pathetic and laughable: let’s make Kony famous by plastering posters of him across cities around the world on 20 April 2012! Support celebrities like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Bono against Kony! Buy the Action Kit package! Wear the “Kony 2012” bracelets! Donate money to the cause! The Kony 2012 awareness campaign looks too much like an election campaign to ring true. And why should the public be asked to cough up money when famous Hollywood celebrities and other stars in politics and the commercial music industry have more than enough money among themselves to capture and bring Kony to justice and rehabilitate the child soldiers and sex slaves he has abused?

And now that all is said and done, one suspicion remains: the recent announcement of the discovery of at least 2.5 billion and maybe as many as 6 billion barrels of oil in Uganda couldn’t have anything to do with the release of the “Kony 2012” film? How cynical of me to think that a future invasion of Uganda by AFRICOM might need support from young people in the form of a “humanitarian” campaign!

In the meantime, hundreds of children in northern Uganda have fallen victim to a mysterious and fatal neurological disease known as Nodding disease spreading across the border from the newly independent Southern Sudan. It is arguable that this problem deserves more immediate attention and help than pursuing a shadowy warlord who may not even be in Uganda now or be alive still.

Postscript: Since I wrote this review (11 March 2012), I have come across information that Invisible Children has received money from the National Christian Foundation and the Christian Community Foundation, two organisations linked to Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Discovery Institute, the first two of which oppose abortion and rights for homosexual rights, and the last of which advocates the teaching of “intelligent design” (creationism by another name). These organisations have encouraged the criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda to the extent that Ugandans charged with engaging in homosexual activities can be subjected to the death penalty. In addition, Jason Russell has spoken publicly at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school founded by former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell who supported South Africa’s apartheid regime in the past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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