Deduction and reason versus propaganda in pursuit of the truth in “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Case of Alexander Litvinenko”

Alexander Korobko, “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Case of Alexander Litvinenko” (2015)

Not only does this 23-minute documentary present an intriguing scenario of the death of the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko from polonium contamination – a scenario that, among other things, not only exonerates his supposed murderer Andre Lugovoi (a former KGB guard later turned businessman and Russian State Duma representative) but also possibly explains why the British inquests into Litvinenko’s death go nowhere – but it does so in a calm, laid-back way that eschews Hollywood-style hugger-mugger razzle. Taking us into the matter is Vasily Livanov, posing as the Russian Sherlock Holmes, sitting at ease in his armchair and reading out aloud the work done by amateur Russian and British sleuths who shared their information online.

The documentary presents its case that Litvinenko contaminated himself with polonium and carelessly left traces wherever he went, which explains how not only Lugovoi himself ended up contaminated but also other places in London that Litvinenko frequented (but which Lugovoi never visited) also were found to have traces of the element on their premises. Firstly Lugovoi is subjected to a polygraph lie-detector test administered by expert Blake C Burgess and is found to be innocent. The documentary then turns its attention to the US writer Masha Gessen’s scribbling about Litvinenko’s case in her book on Russian President Vladimir Putin (“Putin: the Man without a Face”) and, using information obtained from an interview conducted with an American nuclear physicist, demolishes Gessen’s weird claim that the isotope of polonium that killed Litvinenko was made only in Russia by government workers in 2006 and that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the hit on Litvinenko. The US scientist adds that polonium can be ordered online in tiny amounts. (Plus polonium is used in textile factories throughout the world, including the Indian subcontinent where the bulk of the global textile manufacturing industry is located.) Finally a British citizen journalist visits the Abracadabra Club in London, where polonium traces were found, and speaks to the manager there. The manager recognises photos of Litvinenko’s employer Boris Berezovsky and an associate, Mario Scaramella; but on seeing Lugovoi’s photo, says he does not know the man.

The documentary is easy to follow though its case is not entirely persuasive. The polygraph lie-detector test is not infallible as Burgess himself admits. The Yes / No questions asked of Lugovoi might have been phrased and framed in such a way that a bystander could easily predict the answers he gave. Only one employee at the Abracadabra nightclub is interviewed. Viewers may need more convincing that Gessen is not simply a jealous Putinophobe and that other people have criticised her writing and research. Other possibilities as to how Litvinenko might have died – he might have died from some other toxin and the polonium story is simply a cover to hide the real cause of death – are not considered.

How Litvinenko originally came in contact with the polonium and why is not part of the documentary’s scope so some viewers may be disappointed that the sleuthing done by citizen journalists only exonerates Lugovoi of murder but goes no further. The aim of the program is basically to strip the politics away from the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death and by doing so, demonstrate how the man and the way he died are being used to demonise Russia and its government by the British and other Anglophone news media. Implied here is the notion that the British news media is acting as the propaganda arm of the British government in pushing an agenda that wilfully separates the peoples of Russia and Britain from pursuing common interests and values by fanning the flames of conflict between them.

The documentary treats its viewers intelligently and does not condescend to them with blaring lights, a hasty pace, jagged editing and flashy special effects. Not for the first time do I find myself wishing all documentaries could treat its viewers with respect.

How I Ended This Summer: a meandering character study of two individuals coping with extreme isolation and one another

Alexei Popogrebsky, “How I Ended This Summer / Kak ya provel etim letom” (2010)

Out of a very threadbare and unbelievable plot, Alexei Popogrebsky manages to craft a fairly interesting character study about human frailty, the need that people have for connections with one another, isolation in an extreme environment, modern humans’ relationship with nature (and how they have damaged and poisoned it) and forgiveness. A young university student, Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), is sent to a meteorological station in the Russian Arctic to work with Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), an old-timer set in his ways who takes pride in the work he does there. Pavel finds the work of making daily periodic reports on the Arctic weather and tidal conditions monotonous and boring. Sergei sees Pavel as lazy and immature because the younger man is easily distracted by boredom and plays video games when he should be learning about the environment around him so he can write his essay. The two men do not get on at all and can barely tolerate each other; Sergei even cuffs Pavel on a couple of occasions when the latter makes minor errors in his work. Pavel is easily intimidated and becomes quite paranoiac.

One day Pavel gets an urgent message from their superiors at the State Meteorological Service while Sergei goes out on an unauthorised 2-day fishing trip: Sergei’s wife and only child have died in a car accident. Pavel is supposed to tell Sergei straight away of the news and to get him to contact their employer who is sending a ship to collect Sergei. Because of his fear of Sergei, Pavel neglects to tell him. This failure to pass on important news sets in train a series of events that escalate in seriousness and results in life-threatening danger for both men in very different ways: Pavel through his paranoia and stupidity has several brushes with death and exposes himself and Sergei to radiation poisoning from an abandoned isotope beacon.

Filmed on location in Chukotka, close to Alaska, the movie features stunning scenes of wild subarctic landscapes and vast skies changing colour as the season passes through mid and late summer into early autumn. Long immersive shots of nature reinforce the sense of extreme isolation in this harsh environment where to make one mistake – as Pavel does, and he makes more than one mistake – could mean the difference between life and death. This of course means the film is quite slow in pace and stretches the thin plot almost to breaking point. There is very minimal dialogue which puts great demands on the two actors, particularly Dobrygin, to express emotions and motivations through their characters’ inexplicable behaviours. Both actors do excellent work in portraying two generational types: Sergei representing the stoic older man who puts duty, self-sufficiency and responsibility before personal feeling and comfort (and who sometimes bends the rules whenever he wants to spend time fishing), and expects Pavel more or less to do the same; and Pavel as the young, impulsive and immature fellow who wants to have a good time but is dependent on a disapproving older man who maybe has spent too much time away from other people and is lacking in current social graces.

The cat-and-mouse chase that occurs in the latter half of the film is ludicrous as Pavel is convinced that Sergei is unhinged and is out to kill him, and he plots to outwit Sergei. (The irony here is who is really unhinged, Pavel or Sergei.) The result is a climax that is grim and devastating in its stark and minimal delivery as Pavel confesses what he has done to the fish Sergei has been drying outside their hut and which the older man has been eating. At this point, one expects Sergei to really go ballistic and take his rage out on Pavel but the denouement that follows is just as jaw-droppingly unexpected as Pavel’s confession.

Perhaps the one major weakness of the film is that, having revealed Pavel’s weakness of character, it does not show his redemption, if indeed any has taken place with or without Sergei’s participation. Sergei’s acceptance of his family’s deaths and possibly his own impending death appears unbelievable, at least to Western audiences. Obviously Sergei has forgiven Pavel for his immense moral baseness in poisoning him but how this forgiveness has taken place and under what circumstances is never shown. We cannot tell if Pavel has grown in maturity as a result but we have to assume that he has.

With the themes it has, the film might have been expected to be heavy-going but with minimal dialogue and long scenes of nature and silence, it carries its message lightly. Yes, humans have done great harm to nature and to one another, but when faced with extreme dangers, they must band together for survival no matter what they have done to one another in the past, and forgiveness and acceptance of one another’s faults and crimes must at times override such insults, no matter how awful, horrific and even life-threatening they are. Unfortunately by the time the film reaches this point, it has meandered on and on for so long that this message has the feeling of being tacked on just to round off the narrative and give it a raison d’être.

Russian Media interview President Bashar al Assad of Syria: a view of how Syria is fighting terrorism and advancing political change

Russian Media Interview with President Bashar al Assad (16 September 2015)

Syrian President Bashar al Assad granted a rare interview to representatives from various Russian media outlets including RT, Rossiskaya Gazeta, Channel 1, Russia 24, RIA Novosti and NTV Channel. Given that for the past four years Syria has been under siege from various rebel groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, the interview inevitably centred on Syria’s fight against these terrorist groups, how this fight is progressing and what the process to achieve and maintain lasting peace will be, and the huge wave of refugees leaving Syria for Europe. The interview was conducted in Arabic, English and Russian, and can be viewed at this RT link. The English-language transcript is also at the link.

The interview starts at the deep end with a multi-loaded question on the political process to peace, the President’s view on sharing power with Syrian opposition groups that originally wanted him gone and how he plans to carry out political reforms in the current difficult circumstances. The President replies that from the outset his government used dialogue to bring together different groups of Syrians in Damascus, Moscow and Geneva, to discuss political change and how to fight terrorism, and that this dialogue is still ongoing. However for political change to occur, terrorism must be defeated first, and to defeat terrorism and stop the exodus of refugees, the West must stop supporting terrorists. Most Syrians who are refugees are fleeing Syria because of the terrorist threat, and most remaining Syrians want security and safety first before political reforms can take place.

On the question of international co-operation to solve the terrorism problem, Assad acknowledges the support from Iran, Egypt and Russia at varying levels. There has been some co-operation with Iraq as well. On the other hand, the coalition of countries led by the US has had no success in combating terrorism and has only allowed ISIS to expand its forces. Some Middle Eastern countries are assisting ISIS by providing fighters and weapons.

On the question of the type of enemy Syria faces in ISIS, whether ISIS is a large organisation or an actual state, Assad asserts that the state ISIS claims to have created is artificial and bears no resemblance to a normal society. ISIS is an extremist Islamist creation of the West and serves as a de facto army to bring down Assad’s government and create chaos and instability in the Middle East.

Asked if he was prepared to work with those Western politicians who had wanted his overthrow once peace is restored to Syria, Assad indicates that he would if such co-operation brings benefits to Syria and the Syrian people and that his personal feelings were irrelevant. Assad expresses sorrow that there are so many Syrian refugees who have fled to Europe, as every person gone is a loss to Syria but he also emphasised that the deaths of people in Syria from terrorism are no less tragic than the deaths of refugees on the high seas in the Mediterranean.

The interview concluded with a question as to whether the war in Syria against ISIS and other terror groups began and who Assad thinks is responsible for it. He lays the blame squarely on the US and the oil kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula and refers to the general historical background stretching back to the 1980s when the West adopted the murderous mujahideen in Afghanistan as “freedom fighters”.

Watching and listening to the interview, I was impressed with Assad’s soft-spoken demeanour and his fortitude in the most difficult circumstances. He may not have willingly taken on the role of Syrian President – he was originally an eye doctor working in London until the death of his older brother who had been groomed by their father Hafez Assad as his successor forced him to return to Syria – but he has shown tremendous moral fibre in staying with his people and defending them.

 

Rejuvenation of British politics and student activism on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)” (RT.com, August 2015)

Perhaps the best thing that former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ever did for his party was to resign after the general elections in May 2015, which saw the Conservative Party returned to power and able to govern in its own right. In the current scramble for the vacant UK Labour Party leadership, MP Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as a popular successor with his platform calling for renationalising public utilities and railway transport, tackling corporate tax evasion and avoidance, restoring university student grants and abolishing tuition fees, unilateral nuclear disarmament, urging the Bank of England to create money by funding infrastructure projects, stopping cuts in the public sector, and calling for dialogue with groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and with Russia. Corbyn’s sudden popularity has unsettled the British political establishment and the mainstream British media across the political spectrum – and this includes supposedly progressive media outlets – has leapt to its masters’ defence and is pouring savage opprobrium upon his head. In this episode of “Sputnik …”, Geroge Galloway and guest Seamus Milne of The Guardian (one so-called progressive news outlet that scorns Corbyn and rubbishes his platform) discuss Corbyn’s huge popularity among young people and what it represents in British life: a deep revulsion against the Cameron government and its neoliberal policies, and a desire for political and economic change and social justice.

Milne contrasts the rejuvenation of the UK Labour Party that Corbyn has brought with his platform with the general torpor that has existed in British politics since Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. He and Galloway briefly touch on the slander, including accusations of anti-Semitism, that has been hurled at Corbyn. Whether Corbyn may have much effect outside Britain is yet to be seen but Milne and Galloway speak of the possibility that the Corbyn phenomenon may resound with Europeans tired of neoliberal politics and economic austerity. Having known Corbyn for a long time and having followed his career in politics, Milne and Galloway agree that he is essentially a decent and honest man. Whether though Corbyn can translate that decency and goodness into effective political leadership, neither Milne nor Galloway can say.

Unfortunately at no point in the discussion does Galloway challenge Milne on his newspaper’s general hostility towards Corbyn and his policies, and why The Guardian vilifies him in the way it does. Strangely, both Milne and Galloway admit to being as surprised as the rest of the country at Corbyn’s apparently phenomenal rise in popularity though with their respective backgrounds, I would have thought they were in a position to predict his Messiah-like coming as they would have (or should have) been aware that many Britons, especially young Britons, were thirsting after real political, social and economic change.

The theme of rejuvenation continues in the second half of the episode with second guest Shadia Edwards-Dashti (hereafter referred to as SED merely for convenience), student anti-war activist and a leader of Stop the War Coalition. She and Galloway discuss the radicalisation of university students angered by past government policies of reducing public funding of tertiary education and increasing tuition fees, with the consequent exploitation of students by banks offering student loans at exorbitant interest rates, combined with the lack of suitable part-time jobs to help pay off student debt and the dismal job prospects faced by many graduates; and various factors such as racism that may or may be influencing this new-found political activism. SED also mentions a growing and insidious culture of policing and snitching at universities, and refers to Jeremy Corbyn as a great representative and advocate for young people.

For my money, SED was the better of the two guests and I wish the Galloways had interviewed her for the whole 25-minute episode. As a student activist, SED is in a better position to analyse and offer an opinion as to why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular with young people, and what his popularity says about the Britain of today and the Britain that might come.

MH17: A Year Without the Truth – uncovering the secrecy surrounding the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 shootdown

Yana Erlashova, Vitaly Biryukov, “MH17: A Year Without the Truth” (RT Documentary, 2014)

On 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, carrying nearly 300 people, was shot down in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Over a year later, debris from the shootdown is still being uncovered, the investigation into the incident is still shrouded in secrecy and the narrative accepted (without much questioning) by the mainstream Western news media that the passenger jet was hit by a BUK missile fired by Donbass rebels, supposedly backed by Russia, is not backed by the evidence so far recovered. What is also very odd is that one of the parties likely to be culpable, Ukraine, has signed a non-disclosure agreement with Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands  which allows any of the signatories to veto any attempt by other signatories to release results of the investigation into the shootdown to the general public. In this context, a documentary about Flight MH-17, the secrecy around its fate and what actually lies behind that secrecy by Russia Today (RT) is not only welcome but necessary.

The documentary takes the form of various interviews with people in Malaysia, parts of Europe and the Donbass area where the plane went down, all of whom have some interest in the shootdown: among others, the families of Captain Wan Amran and a co-pilot who were part of the flight crew are interviewed as are also close relatives of a couple of passengers on the jet. The RT team also talk to some of the people who are still recovering debris from the fallen jet in fields around their homes. Dutch blogger Max van der Werff, Malaysian engineer Mohammad Azahar Zanuddin and German freelance journalist Billy Six (who visited the crash site and spoke to witnesses) are among those who doubt the official Western narrative of a BUK missile having brought down the jet. For different reaons, everyone interviewed expresses a desire to see the secrecy surrounding the plane’s shootdown lifted and the facts about how it came down made public: the grieving families of the two crew members need to know how their loved ones died so they can get on with their lives; others such as the Berlin lawyer representing German families who lost relatives in the crash believe that Ukraine must bear responsibility at least for allowing Flight MH17 to fly over an area where civil war was raging and the Donbass rebels had brought down a military jet.

The interview with the relatives of Captain Wan Amran is quite revealing in sections where the women say they were not allowed by the Malaysian government to view the dead pilot’s body directly, let alone touch it to prepare it for proper Muslim burial. The Dutch blogger says that he learned more about the case by visiting the crash site than on what he saw on his laptop; he also questions the Netherlands’ role in leading the investigation into the shootdown, given that the country is a member of NATO and therefore cannot be an impartial party. The German freelancer admits that initially he believed Western reports about who shot down the plane but after visiting the crash site and talking to people in the area, his opinion changed. Local people tell the RT reporter that they saw military jets approach the jet and shoot at it. The Berlin lawyer says that he received death threats by phone from someone claiming to be a Ukrainian Nazi. Most tragic of all is the story of the co-pilot who left behind a young wife pregnant with their first child.

Astonishingly in one scene, the RT journalist and a local Donbass resident in Petropavlivka find fragments of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777; the resident points to a round hole in one piece of the wreckage. They take the fragments to a local government building where a woman tells them that the fragments are set aside for the Dutch Safety Board to collect.

Later in the documentary the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammad bemoans his country’s lack of spine in insisting on obtaining the truth about the crash and in following the Western news reporting in spite of the lack of evidence. He did not think that the investigation into the crash is being carried out objectively.

Although the RT documentary does not claim to have discovered who is responsible for the shootdown, what evidence is presented defies the official Western account and suggests very strongly that the Ukrainian government and military may be complicit in bringing down the plane. Why the Western narrative puts the blame on the Donbass rebels (and by association, Russia) is never explained – the aim of the documentary is mainly to penetrate the secrecy surrounding the crash – and so the shootdown is not placed in the context of the civil war in Ukraine and the parties behind that war that wish to see it continue and drag Russia into the fighting, so as to drain and ruin its economy and possibly destabilise that country and make it ripe for a colour revolution masterminded by Washington.

A more detailed exposition of what happened to Flight MH17 that would put it into a wider context that includes the ongoing war in Ukraine, what is at stake behind it and the media propaganda surrounding its reporting would have been welcome; this documentary does not do nearly enough but given the paucity of information so far about the crash, it is the best there is. Curiously, after this documentary was broadcast, its makers were contacted by the Dutch Safety Board for help in obtaining the fragments of MH17 shown in the film.

Leviathan: a hollow and dishonest film insulting to ordinary people ground down by corruption

Andrey Zvyagintsev, “Leviathan” (2014)

Often taken as reflective of the current socio-political situation in Russia, this film about an ordinary man, living in a remote part of northwest Russia, who loses everything due to local political corruption, other people’s betrayals, the hypocrisy of social institutions and just the fickle hand of fate was actually inspired by a series of events in the US town of Granby, in Colorado state. In the early 1990s, Marvin Heemeyer bought some land and built a muffler shop. He later agreed to sell the land to a concrete company. He then changed his mind and demanded a higher price for his land. In 2001, the local council rezoned the land and gave approval for the concrete company to build a factory there. Heemeyer fought the council’s decision (because the factory would interfere with his own business) over several years and got support from family and friends to resist it, all to no avail. In 2004, with a bulldozer that he customised himself into a virtual tank, Heemeyer demolished Granby’s town hall, the mayor’s house, several other buildings and a number of vehicles including a police SUV. Ending up stuck in the basement of a store he had razed, and surrounded by a SWAT team, Heemeyer committed suicide with his handgun.

In Zvyagintsev’s story, Granby becomes Pribrezhny, an Arctic town that has seen better days as a Soviet factory city and Heemeyer becomes Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), the local mechanic who is fighting a crooked mayor who wants Kolya’s land to build a new development. The mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), repossesses Kolya’s property at a price less than the property’s value and begins moves to evict him. Kolya enlists the help of his old army buddy, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who works as a wily lawyer in Moscow. All their appeals come to nought in court however. Dima manages to find some dirt on Vadim and threatens to expose him. Encouraged by an Orthodox priest, Vadim issues his own threat against Dima and Dima is forced to back off. In the meantime, Kolya has to deal with a delinquent teenage son Roman (Sergey Pokhdaev) who has fallen in with a local gang and his wife Lilia (Elena Lyadova) who works in the local fish plant and who secretly yearns to leave the town and the rural isolation. Bit by bit, Kolya is undone not only by Vadim’s scheming but also by Lilia and Dima when they start an affair together, and his own anger when he and some friends discover the couple’s indiscretion. A chain of events is set in motion that plunges Kolya into further hell and which reveals the corruption of Russian social and cultural institutions, the hollowness of love and friendship, and the failings of human nature. End of story.

For all the fine acting and the beautiful cinematography which makes Pribrezhny and its natural surroundings significant characters in their own right, I found the film itself hollow and dishonest. Several major characters, most of all Dima and Elena, are simply not believable in both their intelligence and stupidity: why would Dima and Elena commence an affair, knowing that by doing so they are betraying Kolya in the hour of his greatest need? It’s as if Zvyagintsev enjoys playing a pitiless God just to see how much he can make Kolya suffer. The film is meant to be about how ordinary people with all their strengths and weaknesses cope in a world where Fate always holds the upper hand, and good fortune can suddenly be swept away by bad, and yet Zvyagintsev seems to think that Kolya must be made to suffer more by ridiculously contrived situations such as Elena and Dima’s sudden love affair and his later arraignment for murder based on circumstantial evidence. Zvyagintsev’s treatment of Kolya, the simple car mechanic whose main failing seems to be drinking too much vodka, is unsympathetic, even scathing: Kolya’s reaction to every problem is either to fall into a blind rage or blind drunkenness, and the character, for all his street smarts (to the extent that he calls on a clever Moscow lawyer to help) and skill with fixing cars, seems incapable of helping himself as he is led away to jail.

The scenes that involve hypocritical or unconcerned priests add very little to the plot and serve mainly to bash the Russian Orthodox Church in a pointless and tedious way. There may be much to criticise the Church for – it did co-operate with the Soviet government in the past, and it may very well be corrupt for all I know – but Zvyagintsev’s harsh treatment of its representatives as one-dimensional idiots suggests an agenda against the Church per se and not a true criticism of its practices or program.

Oddly enough, the one character who seems true to type and who might actually invite audience sympathy is the crooked mayor who revels in stealing Kolya’s property and using thugs to kick city-slicker Dima back into his place, yet needs the bishop Vasily and the priest Lyosha to help him when Dima threatens to expose his crimes to Moscow police. Although Vadim resorts to violence to get his way, his reason for doing so is understandable. His own hypocrisy is open to the audience but he is incapable of seeing it himself; Zvyagintsev intends that the church scene in which Vadim appears be a condemnation of both Vadim and the Russian Orthodox Church, yet the audience is likely to think that Dima and Elena have committed the greater sin of betraying Kolya.

Supposedly a film about how the little people are made to suffer by the corrupt workings of government and greedy individuals together with implacable Fate, “Leviathan” ends up looking more like an insult against ordinary people like Kolya, who does what he can with the resources he has to survive.

No Russian troops but plenty of Donetsk determination and pluck in “Donetsk: An American Glance”

Miguel Francis Santiago and Alexander Panov, “Donetsk: An American Glance” (RT Documentary, 2014)

Cheerful LA film graduate and investigative journalist Miguel Francis Santiago, fresh from filming his travelogue “Crimea for Dummies” journeys on to Donetsk, one of the two major cities in eastern Ukraine where civil war has raged between Ukrainian government army forces and separatist rebels since April 2014. With so much contradictory information and propaganda pouring from the Western news media about the situation in eastern Ukraine, much of it emanating from the Ukrainian government itself, and with an agenda to discredit Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular, the only way to find out anything resembling the truth is to visit the area and talk to the local people, and this our hero MFS does with his open and frank manner that encourages others to warm to him. The aim of the film is to investigate and verify Kyiv and Western news media claims that Putin has sent Russian army troops into eastern Ukraine to wage war on the Ukrainian army.

MFS appears to be based mostly in Donetsk City for the making of this film and a tidy and attractive city it looks too, even under duress of bombing, with plenty of city gardens and green space. The streets are spacious though empty and a few people can be seen pounding the pavements. Even trolley-buses, recent targets of the Ukrainian army, are gliding along. Damage to the streets and buildings is being repaired by city workers as best as they can. One of the first individuals we meet is Veselina, commander of a separatist division, who features throughout the film so one assumes that MFS is more or less attached to – or embedded with – her group. She tells the reporter that she gave up her regular work to fight with the rebels and that her desire is to ensure that the people she knows and loves all survive the war. Her men are loyal to her and respect her experience, leadership and judgement.

With Veselina’s division, MFS meets a young woman desperate to rescue her grandmother who stubbornly refuses to leave her home in spite of the bombing around her and a small opera company in Donetsk city trying to maintain a busy schedule of rehearsals and performances to keep up the citizens’ spirits. MFS then trails another commander, Givi, who shows him what remains of Sergey Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk, once the most modern airport in eastern Ukraine: the entire complex has been destroyed and all that is left is endless ruin. MFS talks to people living close to the war front, several of them forced to live in basements where among other things they celebrate a young man’s birthday. What MFS sees and hears, and what civilians tell him, are all too much for the journalist to bear and the film concludes with MFS doing his grunge guitar thang, singing his heart out to the world and expressing his anguish and rage that senseless war is being visited on Donetsk and other places in eastern Ukraine.

MFS never does find Russian troops in and around Donetsk, and local people tell him they have never seen Russian soldiers either. All the fighting against the Ukrainian army is by local people, all Ukrainians speaking Ukrainian dialects of Russian. One man condemns Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko for bringing war and suffering to Donetsk.

It is possible that by only visiting Donetsk, MFS has received a biased point of view about the war in eastern Ukraine and that if he had gone to places like Lugansk, Kramatorsk and Mariupol, he might have seen Russian troops on eastern Ukrainian soil. The people he talks to seem genuine enough: they are all ordinary people employed in jobs like mining, carpentry, various professions and farming, and all have felt compelled to take up arms against Kyiv to defend and preserve their language, culture and land. The spirit and independence of the people of Donetsk city and region are prominent and infectious, and at the end of the film I can’t help but cheer them on and hope that they succeed in retaining their land and identity.

Yes, this is a propaganda film; in the midst of war, in which two opposed sides claim to possess the truth, seeking and claiming “balance” in viewpoint is impossible. One cannot be “impartial”, one must decide who to believe and not to believe, who is right and who is not, based on the evidence and facts found. MFS has bravely put his life and beliefs on the line to bring what he believes is the truth and it certainly does not reflect well on Western news media, our governments and ultimately us that we may be the ones supporting forces inimical to democracy and good governance.

Yet even in an awful and brutal war such as this civil war against the people of Donetsk, the human spirit, as exemplified by the Donetsk people’s cheerfulness, communal spirit and determination to carry on as normal, keeping their city clean and comfortable and performing music and opera, is radiant and shines through the terrible destruction.

Crimea for Dummies: entertaining travelogue, history lesson and Western media propaganda critique rolled into one

Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” (RT Documentary, 2014)

A unique and interesting film by Los Angeles film school graduate Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” is at once a personal film travelogue, history lesson and critique of the Western news media portrayal of recent events in Crimea. MFS sets out to discover how much the global view reflects the actual situation in the peninsula. The Western opinion is that Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula after the Crimean parliament held an illegal referendum that delivered suspect results. The opinion of the Crimeans themselves, as MFS was to discover, is that the referendum not only was legitimate but it reflected majority opinion of Russian voters (and quite a lot of Crimean Tatars who defied their Majlis order not to participate in the referendum) who did not like what was happening in Ukraine and who wanted to secede and rejoin Russia.

MFS visits Crimea to interview people about what they think of Russia and what their lives are now like under Russian rule. Nearly everyone is happy to be living in Russia because among other things people can now apply for free medical insurance which they could not get in Ukraine. According to what he heard in the news in the US, there were food shortages in Crimea after Russian reunification so he visits food shops and finds food in abundance at affordable prices.

Puzzled that the vast majority of people he meets identify with Russia rather than Ukraine, MFS sets out to learn the history of Crimea and how with its mostly Russian-speaking population it ended up as part of Ukraine. He learns that Crimea was incorporated into the Russian empire in 1783 – so its association with Russia began only a few years after the United States declared its independence in 1776. He visits memorials dedicated to those members of the Russian military forces who died defending Sevastopol and Crimea from invasion, first in the 1850s against forces from Britain, France, Turkey and Italy, and then second during the Second World War against Germany. Puzzled that none of these memorials mention Ukraine or Ukrainians, MFS consults a historian about how Crimea became part of Ukraine and she informs him that in 1956 the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine because the leader had spent part of his boyhood in Ukraine and he needed Ukrainian support in the various byzantine machinations in Moscow politics at the time. One interesting tidbit is that MFS learns Ukraine had once offered a military base to the US but since it faced Turkey rather than Russia, the Americans turned down the offer.

The documentary works as both history and travelogue: through Francis’s eyes and experiences, viewers see the kind of sunny, tourist-oriented place Crimea (and more specifically Sevastopol and Yalta) could be with opportunities for sight-seeing, walking tours, swimming and boat trips. In his interviews with the local people, MFS apparently does not meet any non-Russian individuals (like Crimean Tatars for example) who might offer a point of view at odds with the majority opinion that Crimea is and always has been a part of Russia since 1783. Crimean history since that year is rich in associations with Russian history and culture – the famous writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov spent part of his life here – and MFS learns to his consternation that from 1991 to 2014, the Ukrainian government actively sought to suppress this rich history and other expressions of Russian identity among the Crimeans.

Playing a wide-eyed tourist naif enables MFS to come close to people who speak more frankly than they might have done otherwise had he come as an investigator or journalist. Plenty of close-ups feature and MFS’s clowning about gives the film the air of a home-made production.

Propaganda this film may be – there is no way of telling what might have been omitted from the film’s final version and how much – though it is very entertaining and informative. I might say at this point that the woman historian MFS consults was incorrect in saying that Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1956: the year of transfer was actually 1954, the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, in which Ukrainian cossacks joined with Russia in an alliance against the Crimean Tatar khanate and its allies, and that one reason for the transfer may have been easier administration of a pipeline transporting water for public consumption from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to Crimea. The transfer was made quite arbitrarily with no consultation with the Soviet parliament at the time, as should have been done according to the Soviet constitution. Another reason possibly may have been to sway Ukrainians away from supporting nationalist Ukrainian groups agitating for Ukraine to break away from the Soviet Union at the time.

Whether you view the film as propaganda or not, it is nevertheless a good introduction to a small territory in the Black Sea that for centuries has been coveted as prime real estate by great powers past and present.

A snapshot of society on the verge of rewiring its history in “Crimea: Unmasking Revolution”

Artyom Somov, Pavel Burnatov, “Crimea: Unmasking Revolution” (RT.com, 2014)

Powered entirely by interviews with Crimean Russians in the street and following people about as they rouse others and mobilise a referendum for independence and accession to Russia, this RT.com documentary presents what most people in Crimea thought of the regime in Kyiv in Ukraine after the Yanukovych government was overthrown in February 2014. Interviewees included Berkut officers recounting their experiences clashing with neo-fascists in city streets and the parents of a soldier who died in western Ukraine fighting neo-fascists and followers of Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera.

Ordinary Crimeans are in no doubt at all that they were betrayed by lies and propaganda from the Ukrainian government since 1991 and that their future lies with secession from Kyiv and accession to Moscow. The astonishing thing about the Crimeans is how very quickly they grasped the situation and united to organise the independence referendum in super-quick time. By the beginning of April 2014, in defiance of Kyiv and its supporters in the West, Crimea had held its referendum, had counted the votes and found overwhelming support for secession, and broken away to join Russia.

The documentary film crew interview a local historian, Oleg Rodovilov, who tells them about Stepan Bandera’s actions during the Second World War and the terror he and his followers spread among Jews, Russians and others. They also show film of scenes in western Ukraine in which fascists beat a governor and intimidate and cuff another local politician. The film crew travels around the peninsula to Sevastopol and Simferopol to find out what people are thinking, saying and doing. In Simferopol, the people cheer on Berkut officers. Later in the film, a peace activist retells the terrifying experience he and fellow activists had when their bus was held up by fascists and everyone was forced out and made to crouch and move while repeating fascist slogans.

The interviewees who appear are articulate and seem well educated. That may or may not be deliberate on the film crew’s part. To their credit, they do talk to some Crimean Tatars attending a rally to support Kyiv and Ukraine. The Crimean Tatars and Russians nearly come to blows on a public street but the tension is defused  by calls for peace.

The interviews may have taken place quite early in 2014 just after Kyiv fell to the EuroMaidan movement and before the independence referendum was held. They constitute a snapshot of the tense yet excitable situation that existed in Crimea at the time. For those viewers unfamiliar with the history of Crimea and its incorporation into Ukraine in 1954, the film unfortunately provides no background history as to why the peninsula is dominated by Russian-language speakers and supporters of Russia. Nor does the film say why Crimean Tatars prefer to support Ukraine rather than Russia.

The Ukrainian fascists and nationalists are portrayed very negatively and the documentary makers did not interview any pro-Kyiv supporters in Crimea. Given the very tense and polarised situation throughout Ukraine, not to mention the violence stoked by the post-Yanukovych regime and its Western supporters, perhaps the film-makers were wise to avoid the pro-Kyiv side. I am sure though that they would make no apologies for not making a film that shows Western-style “balance” in which supporters of two extreme sides are given equal time to make their case in such a way that the film subtly manages to support one side while appearing even-handed.

The documentary can be viewed at this Ukraine Crisis Updates link.

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of Safra, Magnitsky and Berezovsky in “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M”

“Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M” (EZ Productions, 2014)

Presented by Russian actor Vasily Livanov, known in the West for playing Sherlock Holmes in a highly regarded 1980s Soviet TV series “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson”, this documentary is a keen and critical study into the mysterious deaths of Edmond Safra and Sergei Magnitsky, both associated with the British-American investment fund manager William Browder. The documentary cleverly uses a narrative structure, based on the famous English detective Sherlock Holmes investigating yet another strange crime, to explore the circumstances of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths, compare Magnitsky’s prison experience and death with similar experiences and deaths in the US prison system, and make a case for Browder being linked to the CIA and MI5.

Livanov’s Sherlock Holmes plunges into the mystery straight away by introducing both Browder and his Hermitage Capital Management partner Edmond Safra and mentioning Safra’s puzzling death in a fire in 2007 in almost the same breath. Mention of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in prison and of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s death by hanging in his British country home in 2013 comes hot on the heels of Safra’s demise. Interestingly the film detours through an interview with human rights activist lawyer Paul Wright into a detailed comparison of the medical treatment Magnitsky received in prison and the way in which the US prison system treats many sick prisoners, and pointedly picks out the hypocrisy in the way the US government and Browder have complained long and loudly about how dreadfully Magnitsky was treated by prison doctors (which he was, there is no doubt he was treated appallingly) but are silent on the equally shocking conditions in which US prisoners are often forced to live and how such conditions affect their health and contribute to their early deaths.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Safra in 1998, Magnitsky in 2011 and Berezovsky in 2013 seem to have quite a bit in common: before both Safra and Berezovsky died, they had been preparing to take steps to reveal some valuable information – in Berezovsky’s case, to reveal valuable information to the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. The documentary relies heavily on interviews with freelance journalist Oleg Lurie and Berezovsky’s former head of security services Sergei Sokolov to explain the possible links with the two businessmen’s deaths and HCM and Browder.

A French counter-terrorism officer Paul Barill is roped into the documentary to recount the career of Bill Browder from the time he renounced US citizenship and took up British citizenship, and went on to found HCM and through that investment fund raided the wealth of privatised Russian state corporations and stole other Russian monies. Barill claims that the wealth Browder acquired was used to discredit Russia in various ways, including the destabilisation of Ukraine and the brainwashing of Ukrainians to hate and fear Russia and President Putin.

Technically the documentary is well made and beautifully presented though for Western viewers not familiar with the tax fraud case surrounding Bill Browder and HCM, the treatment of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths together with Boris Berezovsky’s demise might be confusing and leave viewers knowing no more about Magnitsky, Safra and Berezovsky than they did before seeing the documentary. There is enough known about Magnitsky’s career and association with Browder and his own employer Firestone Duncan in the public domain that a shorter documentary about Magnitsky alone could have substituted instead. In particular, the public needs to know that Magnitsky was an accountant who invented a tax evasion scheme for his employer’s client as the mainstream Western media inaccurately portrays the man as a tax lawyer. Some simple animation demonstrating in chronological order what Magnitsky did for Firestone Duncan and Browder would have supplemented the information from the interviews in a way viewers can understand.

The film narrows its focus down to the character of Browder himself and by then many viewers who have followed the sometimes confusing narrative will have concluded that Browder may well be working for the CIA or British intelligence services with the ultimate goal of destabilising and overthrowing the Russian government, and replacing it with one more subservient to the US government which aims to control the country’s energy resources and profit from them.

This documentary could have been a lot more informative and even quite fun. Instead it is quite dry and doesn’t even try to engage with its viewers with techniques such as addressing and challenging viewers to try to solve the mystery of whodunnit to Magnitsky before Holmes does. For all its faults though, this documentary seems to be the only British documentary to show the Russian point of view on the largest tax fraud in Russian history and its reverberations for Russia and its relations with the West.