A tale of two countries, the question of independence and misrepresentation of the truth on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)” (RT.com, 8 March 2014)

I haven’t been following this weekly series of interviews since December 2013 – I made up my mind to tune in only if someone of interest featured on the show – and Episode 17 piqued my interest as it features RT.com legal commentator Alexander Mercouris giving his opinion and insights on the Western media’s presentation of events in Ukraine since November 2013. As a visitor to and commenter on Russia-related blogs The Kremlin Stooge and Da Russophile, I’ve come across Mercouris’s comments on many topics that the blog authors and their guests post and have occasionally conversed with Mercouris myself. If this background means of course that I’m biased in my assessment of this episode, then so be it: at this point in time, I think it impossible to be impartial on the events in Ukraine and how they are being interpreted in the Western press, if one believes that the role of the media is not only to report accurately on events as they occur but also strive for truth and be an advocate for those whose interests are not served or enhanced by violent seizures of power from legitimately elected governments (no matter how incompetent and corrupt those governments may be) by groups who pretend to be one thing but serve hidden masters and agendas.

Mercouris is a clear-voiced and articulate speaker who is easy to follow, thanks to his careful arguments which are evidence of his ability and legal experience in analysing complex issues. Galloway’s interview of Mercouris focuses largely on the telephone conversation between Baroness Ashton, chief foreign envoy of the European Union, and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet who at the time of their conversation had just returned from a fact-finding mission about the demonstrations and shootings on the Maidan in Kyiv over February and March in 2014. In their conversation (hacked and made public by Russian hackers), Paet speaks of talking to a woman doctor who is not identified in the conversation but is known to be Dr Olga Bogomolets, a pro-Maidan supporter, about the attacks on the Maidan demonstrators by unknown snipers on 22 February 2014. Bogomolets mentions that she treated both the police and some of the demonstrators for bullet wounds and noted that the bullets that hit the police were similar to those that hit the demonstrators: an indication that the bullets came from the same fire-arms.

Galloway and Mercouris note that the phone conversation is calm in its discussion of the sniper attacks and that Ashton expresses surprise and shock and makes noises about investigating the sniper attacks. Since the attacks though, Ashton appears to have done little to start an investigation. Mercouris  compares the sniper attacks with the ongoing war in Syria, noting that the same people who funded the neo-fascist seizure of power in Kyiv, forcing the legitimate if weak President Yanukovych to flee for his life to Russia, are much the same people funding the Free Syria Army and jihadi forces in Syria against President Bashar al Assad. Both interviewer and interviewee agree that if Ukraine is to avoid falling apart, with eastern Ukraine threatening to break away after the recent Crimean referendum in which Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the West must work together with Russia to help Ukraine financially.

In just under 14 minutes, both interviewer and interviewee can’t hope to cover all aspects of the crisis in Kyiv and Ukraine. They note that the Western media has done a poor job in reporting the situation there: while mainstream news media in the US have completely ignored events in that faraway country, so-called quality news media like the BBC have misrepresented the situation as one in which Russia is the villain threatening Ukrainian integrity and must be stopped with threats of war or actual war. Unfortunately neither Galloway nor Mercouris touch on why the Western media might be doing such a shoddy job, nor why a situation exists in which the quality news media tells more lies than the tabloid news media, for all its obsession with celebrity gossip and sport, does. The time passes very quickly and Galloway is forced to cut off his interview quite abruptly.

Galloway’s second interview is with a former UK Labour Cabinet minister, Brian Wilson, who happens to be a long-time friend of Galloway’s and who plans to tour with Galloway promoting the “No” case against Scottish independence ahead of the September 2014 referendum. Surprisingly, Galloway does not compare the upcoming Scottish referendum on the question of independence with the mid-March referendum in Crimea on whether to accede to Russia or revert to the 1992 Ukrainian Constitution’s position on Crimea’s status in Ukraine (in which the peninsula would enjoy autonomy under Ukrainian sovereignty) though I suppose to have done so would have bogged him and Wilson down in a long discussion comparing the two.

Wilson makes a point that Scottish people living and working in England apparently will be unable to vote in the referendum; though he does not elaborate further, that fact may well suggest that the organisers of the referendum have chosen to obscure the extent to which the Scottish economy is enmeshed with the economy of the rest of the UK and independence could have quite adverse consequences on Scottish employment levels. Would Scottish people living and working in other parts of the UK be forced to return to Scotland where there may not be any jobs available in the general industry area these people work in? For that matter, would non-Scottish UK citizens have to leave Scotland to try to find work elsewhere in the UK – and end up finding none? Additionally Wilson points out that the obsession with independence and Scottish identity might be obfuscating other more pressing issues that Scots are interested in. If Scottish identity depends on Scotland being independent, then Scottish identity might be very weak to begin with and independence will not solve that problem. The experience of Ukraine as an independent country since 1991, during which time the government made few attempts to establish a Ukrainian identity and a Ukrainian culture to bring together and unite different groups with varying histories, languages, religions and cultures, should serve as a warning.

There’s much to be said for Wilson and Galloway’s case against independence for Scotland but 13 minutes just aren’t enough time for a deeper discussion and the “No” case seems a bit superficial. I’ll have to find out more myself about what independence might mean for Scotland and whether there’s a real case for the “No” cause.

Though Galloway and his missus Gayatri Pertiwi might not have realised at the time, Scotland could learn something from Ukraine’s experience of independence and proceed a bit more cautiously down the road towards breaking away from the United Kingdom. The case for independence may not be as clear-cut as Scottish voters might be led into thinking it is.

The Syrian Diary: a valuable historical document giving an alternate viewpoint on the Syrian civil war

“The Syrian Diary” (Rossiya 24, 2013)

Made for Russian television, this documentary follows Rossiya 24 reporter Anastasia Popova and a Syrian army unit she is attached to (or embedded with, depending on your point of view) as the soldiers move through parts of Damascus to flush out and fight so-called “rebel” soldiers of the Free Syria Army. The documentary makers are unabashedly firm supporters of the Assad government and Syrian army forces. As such, this film is a valuable historical document as it shows a snapshot of the Syrian civil war from the point of view of pro-Assad supporters and also interviews three women with first-hand experience of the war and its effects on civilians. Given that so much Western mainstream news reporting about events in Syria is extremely biased against Assad, the intention being to support without question US desires to invade Syria and depose Assad, alternate opinions and ways of viewing the conflict, however dispassionate, are needed and very welcome in creating and developing a more complex and nuanced picture of what is happening on the ground.

The film’s narrative structure is not always too clear from the jumpy collages of individual accounts spliced hurriedly together. We jump from one interviewee to another but a few people dominate: Yara Saleh, a reporter herself; Bassem, a soldier who has lost a father and brother; Bassem’s wife Nadia; a middle-aged man; Mikhail, a reporter; and the widow of Amir, a friend of Bassem and Popova, who was tortured and executed by FSA forces. Through these people and others, we see themes developing: the loyalty and support for Syrian army troops demonstrated by the Syrian public, who turn out in their droves to hail and congratulate the soldiers; the soldiers’ willingness to die for Syria, their discipline and good natures; the bewilderment of Syrians at the lies being built up around their country by Western governments; and the barbaric behaviour of the FSA men in their treatment of civilians and the way they butcher their victims.

Call it propaganda, yes, but the film does flesh out what many alternative underground news media websites and other outlets have long suggested about the FSA forces: many if not most come from other countries (Libya and Saudi Arabia are mentioned), the fighters are young, illiterate, ignorant of their history and their Islamic religion, and untutored in the ways of the world. The fighters swallow whatever lies they are told by Saudi-funded Wahhabi “sheikhs” who most likely know nothing of Islam and its principles themselves. Disturbingly, the film mentions that many FSA fighters are on drugs and commit outrageously brutal and sickening acts of violence and desecration while under the influence of these drugs. Where these substances come from and who is supplying them and why are never known: one does not need an IQ in triple digits to guess that these drugs are most probably psychoactive substances made in some First World country and then delivered to middlemen parties in Middle Eastern petro-sheikhdoms who supply them along with weapons, ammunition and willing if gullible young men to Syria.

There are heart-breaking scenes of Amir’s treatment by the FSA rebels who obsessively film everything they do and then release the videos to Western news media with claims that government troops carried out the atrocities. A segment on Syrian soldiers praises their stamina and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their brother soldiers and their country, and portrays them as a sober and disciplined fighting force. A small section shows the soldiers goofing around on a bicycle and talking and laughing with children. Something of the generosity and hospitality of Syrians themselves, their religious tolerance, their reverence for their land and their love of a good time with lots of rhythmic sinuous music and dancing shines throughout the documentary.

Only the most obtuse can come away unmoved by this documentary. I recommend this film to all viewers following the news about Syria’s internal conflict and who are heartily sick of the Western news media’s performance in covering the civil war.

Hidden truths revealed (or maybe not) on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 2)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 2)” (RT.com, 23 November 2013)

Broadcast on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, this episode partly focuses on the various conspiracy theories surrounding the death and whether any of these might be closer to the truth of what actually happened and if Lee Harvey Oswald really had been capable of shooting JFK on his own. Interviewee Michael Yardley, a weapons expert, talks at length on Oswald’s background and on the physical context of the shooting as it related to the wounds suffered by the President and the film evidence of the shooting. Yardley regards Oswald as a “deeply suspicious” character whose loyalties and ideological beliefs are extremely dodgy, and refers to a number of conspiracy theories revolving around Oswald in which the CIA and other organisations seem to be linked to him. Yardley discusses the logistics of the killing and finds that Oswald could have killed Kennedy. The interviewee also delves into the circumstances of Robert Kennedy’s killing in a Los Angeles hotel in 1968.

In the episode’s second half, the focus switches to the Chilcot inquiry into the British government’s conduct in the period leading up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 with interviewee David Davis, a Conservative Party politician. Davis refers to the snail pace at which the inquiry has proceeded due to the obfuscation thrown up by the political establishment and the embarrassment this has caused as the delays only confirm the public distrust of the government and its agencies. Davis looks at likely reasons as to why the Chilcot inquiry is blocked by the refusal of relevant institutions to co-operate with the inquiry. Despite having supported the intervention in 2003, Davis acknowledges that the invasion has failed in its supposed aims of delivering democracy to Iraq and freedom for its people, that it has caused much suffering to Iraqis and damaged US and British standing in the Muslim world, and that it has discredited the US and UK political establishments in the eyes of their people.

The switch from the JFK assassination to the Chilcot inquiry is rather abrupt – I was watching the episode on Youtube so all the advertisement had been removed – and I’d have liked the assassination to have taken up the entire episode rather than half. Admittedly while the details of the assassination are interesting, they add nothing new to the topic that most people already know. What really was interesting was Galloway and Pertiwi’s brief chat about the Kennedy brothers’ link to President Sukarno of Indonesia; whether the assassination marked a turning-point in Indonesia’s relationship to United States and might have led to Sukarno’s overthrow in 1965, and the subsequent bloodbath that followed as the Indonesian Army pursued, imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of people suspected of Communist sympthaties, was not discussed and perhaps we shall never know. Perhaps if Galloway had steered Yardley away from the details of the shooting and the two discussed the conspiracy theories surrounding the killing, why they continue to persist and what the persistence of these theories suggest about people’s views of JFK himself, the discussion might have been much more riveting.

Both interviews are very absorbing and the time passes so quickly that when Galloway terminates both interviews, the shock that the minutes have sped by is truly disorienting.

As usual with these episodes, Galloway and Pertiwi converse a little about the topics under scrutiny and Galloway casually mentions that former US President George H W Bush, the then CIA Director, happened to be in Dallas at the time of JFK’s shooting.

Spotlighting systemic racism in Britain on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 4)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 4)” (RT.com, December 2013)

In this episode, the Galloways enquire into institutional racism in the United Kingdom. First off, Gayatri Pertiwi tours the streets of London collecting opinions of the general public on whether they consider Britain to be a racist country; not surprisingly, she finds the responses depend very much on the perceptions and experiences of the individuals she stops. Taken together, the responses point to an underlying racial prejudice that persists thanks to a worsening economic situation, a rise in social inequality and deliberate fanning by the nation’s media and institutions including the Cameron government, the police and the court system.

Galloway interviews social and political activist Lee Jasper who wrote a report on racism in Britain. Jasper reveals that racism is deeply embedded in current government policies and government agencies and that this is generating wide consequences throughout society. The racism is directed not only against black British and Asian British (“Asian” in this context refers to people whose antecedents come from the Indian subcontinent) but also against travellers, Roma, Bulgarians and Romanians. Especially worrying is how racism has become rife in the police force and the law courts.

Next up is Stephen Norris, a former London Mayor candidate and member of the Conservative Party, who discusses racism in the police force. He and Galloway refer to various scandals that have dogged the police including the death of Mark Duggan in police custody in 2011 which set off riots across Britain and agree that the police have not dealt with these scandals sufficiently enough that perpetrators have been arraigned and charged with serious crimes. Particularly alarming is the extent to which police supply information to a greedy press in exchange for money.

The Galloways sum up the episode by canvassing Twitter responses on the extent of institutional racism in the UK. They find that most people agree that while Britain is much less racist than, say, France or the Netherlands, and indeed most other countries in western Europe, the situation is worsening; one respondent says that the media is stoking fear of immigrants and blacks among the general public. Galloway himself observes that as the economy declines and people compete for a shrinking share of jobs, racism will increase and politicians will whip it up for what it’s worth as they see votes in it.

This is a highly informative episode on how racism has become resurgent in a country under enormous social and economic pressure, and how governments and media collude in dividing people and encouraging mutual hostility and distrust among them, the better to control them and profit from their divisions and suffering. The racism comes at a time when the Cameron government is floundering in its management of the economy and government, and needs something to divert public attention away from its general incompetence and isolation from the public (several of Cameron’s Cabinet ministers have little real-world experience in industry and are basically career politicians and party bureaucrats), and its genuflections before powerful hidden corporate interests. The suspicion that in spite of the tapping scandals at News Corporation the Cameron government continues to work secretly with the Murdoch-owned media for cash is never far away. At the same time, the Galloways and their interviewees do not offer any suggestions as to how racial prejudice can be eradicated from the police and judiciary. At the very least, this last episode in the Galloways’ Sputnik series serves to alert people to a deep and ongoing problem in British society.

Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 3) – talk-show politics and current affairs with a very slick media performer

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 3)” (RT.com, November 2013)

In addition to representing Bradford West in the British Parliament, the politician / writer George Galloway found time to make a 4-episode series on global politics and current affairs with his wife Putri Gayatri Pertiwi. In Episode 3, he interviews John Wight on peace talks between the US and Iran over the Iranian nuclear energy program and Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross on the plight of Christian communities in Syria during the Syrian war between the Bashar al Assad government and so-called “rebels” fighting for its overthrow.

The episode divides into two parts each dominated by Galloway’s two guests. John Wight discusses the situation in Syria and how it reflects the posturing of the Western powers, in particular the US, and their allies in Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who have interests in the continuation of the Syrian war. The influence of the Western general public and the British government on delaying (temporarily at least) the Americans’ headlong rush into committing US troops to support and fight alongside the Free Syrian Army and other insurgents is touched upon. In the second half of the episode, Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross talks about the difficulties and dangers faced by Syrian Christians from extremist Islamic militants in the FSA.

Galloway is the dominant figure throughout the episode with his slick presentation style (though perhaps he should have been advised that some viewers would find his high-collared suit, reminiscent of suits once worn by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, somewhat disturbing – but he would probably tell such viewers to bugger off) that is finely attuned to hosting a current affairs talk show. Pertiwi plays distinct second fiddle and side-kick to Galloway by presenting additional information and videos of questions posed to the general British public on Iran and Syria. John Wight knows George Galloway and is able to hold his own in discussion while Mother Agnes Mariam is a very softly spoken interviewee.

For those who know a fair deal about Syria from following alternative news media on the Internet, Wight and Mother Agnes Mariam do not add much new information. Those following mainstream news media are not likely to have heard of Mother Agnes Mariam or her organisation Mussalaha (Reconciliation), which strives to mediate disputes, and thus do not know of the harassment and slandering that follow her in the West due to her support for the Syrian government. In recent months, the nun has been trying to call attention to the FSA rebels’ kidnapping of women and children from villages in parts of Syria in August 2013 and the kidnapped people’s exploitation as apparent victims of chemical warfare supposedly waged by the Syrian government later in month on videos made by the rebels. The nun has been met with silence at least and outright vilification by anti-war groups in the West. Indeed, Galloway refers to an incident in which Mother Agnes Mariam was barred from attending a Stop the War Conference in London by Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill. It would have been most informative had Galloway devoted the entire interview to the nun and discussed with her what she thought of the incident and why it happened.

That Mother Agnes Mariam supports the Syrian government in the war does not automatically mean she supports or has supported its style of governance or the policies it has pursued. The Syrian government has followed secular policies since a group of army officers who were members of the Ba’ath Party seized power in a coup in 1963. All the army officers involved were Shi’a Muslims of the Alawite sect. In the years that followed, one of the officers, Hafez al Assad, removed his fellow coup leaders and became President in 1971; he replaced the old Syrian power elite with one of his choosing. Now ironically, the power elite he installed is intent on maintaining power (and perhaps forcing or persuading al Assad’s son and successor Bashar in continuing the old ways). Under Alawite rule, religious minorities may not have had very much freedom but they at least enjoyed security and stability so in the current chaos it should be no wonder that they prefer the devil the know to the devil they don’t.

I did respect Jeremy Scahill before for previous investigative reporting he has done on Blackwater Inc and the Obama government’s secret drone wars in the Middle East but my opinion of him since has been dropping so I was not too surprised to discover that he’d been instrumental in pushing Mother Agnes Mariam out of the StW Conference.

I did find the Galloways a little too slick and “media-whorish” for my liking. They are very highly opinionated and I suspect they only invite those interviewee subjects whose views and opinions match or correspond with their own. Their hearts and minds are in the right place and I sense they are basically decent so I will try to follow the other episodes they have done if only to confirm my intuition which is usually only 50% right.

 

Solaris: a philosophical science fiction film investigates the nature of reality and humans’ relationship with the cosmos

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Solaris” (1972)

The great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky was nothing if not consistent: he made beautiful, artistic, slow-burning films that are an immersive experience for viewers. We may not ever see his like again. “Solaris” is one such film but for its subject matter and themes of memory, guilt, the nature of reality as opposed to hallucination and the power of the human unconscious and how it may guide one to redemption. Psychiatrist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), in a morose mood and not on good terms with his father and aunt, is called by his superiors to travel to a far distant planet, Solaris, around which revolves a space station. It seems something mysterious has occurred to all the humans working there and he must investigate. Kelvin duly flies out there and finds only two survivors, Straud and Sartorius. It seems that the other crew members succumbed to hallucinations and other phenomena of a paranormal nature generated apparently by the station’s close proximity to the planet which is completely surrounded by an ocean.

Surprise, Kelvin himself finds himself affected by the planet in the shape of his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), an emanation extracted by the forces of the planet from his memory, which has repressed all conscious reminders of her as a result of the guilt he continues to feel over her poison suicide in the distant past. Initially Kelvin tries to get rid of Kari by sending her off in a rocket away from the station – but she resurrects from nowhere. Again he rejects her, she becomes despondent and commits suicide – again she comes back to life. She clings to him; gradually Kelvin’s guilt and reawakened love for his wife change his attitude towards the phantom. Straud periodically challenges Kelvin’s decisions and attitudes regarding Hari. Eventually Kelvin must decide whether to leave Solaris, having experienced for himself what the disappeared crew members endured, or to travel to the planet itself to discover more and communicate directly with the planet’s ocean which turns out to be a sentient life-form.

The pace is glacial, allowing viewers to absorb the film’s themes and issues concerning the way in which we perceive reality and how we decide who or what is real for us; the limits of scientific investigation, reason and rationality; and the incomprehensible nature of the universe. However far humans search for answers to the meaning of life and other major questions of existence, the truth, whatever it is, always remains out of reach and ultimately we must decide whether to continue searching or come to terms with what we can know and accept that we will never fully know.

Tarkovsky’s particular filming technique emphasises long slow panning and close-ups of still life, including nature and inanimate objects: this gives “Solaris” an epic quality appropriate to the conundrums it deals with. Judicious use of animation and sets – the film’s budget was small for its ambitions – manages to convey impressions of the planet’s giant, moody-looking ocean as its thick magma surface swirls slowly. The film is rather dated in its look but once Tarkovsky starts delving into Kelvin’s mind and repressed memories, the movie becomes absorbing. The cinematography is often very graceful and visually rich; characters sometimes appear as statues and scenes may be set up like dioramas.

Minimal acting is required but Banionas and Bondarchuk play their roles capably. Yes, there is a lot of talk and no action. The plot is threadbare with big narrative holes and at the end of the film, Kelvin is no closer to finding out what happened to all the crew than he was when he first landed on the station. Instead he finds new hope for living and has a chance to reform his relationship with his father in an unexpected way: the resolution has a religious connotation of a human rediscovering his/her faith and being reunited with God.

The film can be very pretentious: the science fiction aspects exist mainly as a setting for Tarkovsky’s investigations into human nature, feelings and motivations, and how humans might reconcile their reason with their emotion. The stretch can be tedious and over-long for many, and the narrative is chaotic at times. Viewers will often have to fill in narrative gaps – and there are several – with their own imaginations to make sense of the film. For all its imperfections, “Solaris” is not a bad film to watch.

 

Tsar to Lenin: an incredible compilation of archival footage of the Russian Revolution

Herman Axelbank and Max Eastman, “Tsar to Lenin” (1937)

Presented by Mehring Books and the Socialist Equality Party, “Tsar to Lenin” is an incredible historical document of the Russian Revolution, beginning with the uprising that saw off Tsar Nicholas II and his government in February 1917 through the October Revolution of the same year to the civil war that lasted three years and which resulted in Soviet victory and domination of the lands that became the Soviet Union in 1921. The film is a compilation of archival footage found and assembled by Herman Axelbank (1900 – 1979) in chronological order with a spirited and often dramatic narration by Max Eastman (1883 – 1969). The original photographers and film-makers who made the films in the assemblage numbered over 100 people who came from all walks of life: Russians of all classes including the Tsar himself and his Royal photographer, foreigners including Americans, Japanese and others,  those who supported the Soviets and those who opposed them.

The film begins with a sardonic description of life in pre-Revolutionary Russia: the lives of the aristocracy, particularly those of the Tsar and his courtiers, are portrayed in some detail. We see the Tsar at leisure with his courtiers, playing a ball-game and later swimming nude in a lake. (Eastman’s narration smirks that the world has never seen a king presented as “he really is”.) The Tsarevich is shown with palace guards who help him up on his horse. From there the film flits to the lives of the upper class and progresses to the peasants and industrial working class people and at this point the story takes off as workers go on strike and march in demonstrations in St Petersburg. We soon go to war with the Russian forces and Eastman informs us that the Russian army fared very badly against Germany and its allies. Against this background, the Tsar increases his repression of the workers and peasants, protests break out and in February 1917 the Tsar is overthrown.

The new Menshevik government tries to continue prosecuting the war against Germany and this in itself leads to more demonstrations. The Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin gain popularity on an anti-war, populist platform that promises land reform, food and other material security, and peace to the workers and peasants. In November 1917 (late October in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time), the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd (the former St Petersburg) and from there Soviet influence spread to the rest of European Russia and Helsinki in Finland.

At the same time, anti-Bolshevik resistance – the White movement –  forms from a motley collection of monarchists, republicans, army generals, disgruntled nobles and political reactionaries, and Ukraine under nationalist and anarchist influence attempts a breakaway from Russia. Foreigners are invited by the new Ukrainian government to assist and the West eagerly sends troops and supplies to the anti-Bolshevik forces through several fronts including Kiev, northern Russia, the Ural mountains region and even Vladivostok in the Far East near Japan. The fighting is hard and atrocities are committed by Soviet and enemy forces alike. The highlights of this section of the film include a shocking sequence of images in which troops commanded by anti-Bolshevik leader Admiral Alexander Kolchak execute Soviet POWs in a field and repeatedly look into an open mass grave to make sure all their prisoners are dead. Another very distressing scene shows mummified Russian Orthodox monks being exhumed and then re-interred in a ruined building.

The film concludes with the victory of Soviet forces, backed by the Russian people, against the Whites and their foreign allies, and the final sequence of scenes shows some unforgettable footage of Vladimir Lenin animatedly explaining socialism to his audience. The man’s eyes are shining with excitement and his being gives no indication of the mysterious condition (syphilis?) that would afflict him in his later years and lead to his untimely death. Eastman’s narration portrays Lenin as an idealistic and passionate man with a vision that encompasses all that would benefit the Russian people.

Major highlights in the film are many and include detailed listings of people prominent in the Menshevik and Bolshevik political elites, a bird’s eyeview of a scene in St Petersburg in early 1917 in which Tsarist troops fire on panicking people running away and scenes of fighting in northwestern Russia during the civil war. There are uplifting scenes as well, notably those of the celebrations that took place in February 1917 when the Tsar was overthrown. There is also an impressive and detailed listing of delegates who attend the Internationale in Moscow in 1920. Interestingly, Joseph Stalin is introduced quite late in the film and appears for less than a minute; his small footnote appearance suggests that his contribution to the momentous events from 1917 to 1921 was either insignificant or perhaps sinisterly underhand.

The film is well put together and Eastman’s narration, often slyly mocking of personages like the Tsar and Menshevik leader Alexander Kerensky, is easy to follow. School students and undergraduate university students will find this documentary a good introduction to the events of the Russian Revolution; I myself thought I knew a fair amount about the events of 1917, having studied some Russian history at school, but I obviously forgot a great deal about the 1917 – 1920 civil war. In the film, Axelbank and Eastman make no apologies about whose side they’re on; they’re clearly on the side of Lenin and Leon Trotsky who is also portrayed as a heroic leader. (The booklet that accompanies the DVD that I watched explains that Eastman later repudiated his former radical views and embraced a more politically conservative viewpoint.)

And even if viewers are not history students, they will still discover much in the documentary that resonates with contemporary global political issues today: the Western invasion of Russia in 1917 and the war the Soviets were forced to fight against foreigners – the film states that the Bolsheviks were up against 14 foreign forces – has its parallel with events currently unfolding in Syria where mercenaries from Iraq, Libya and other countries, backed by Saudi Arabia and NATO, are fighting with the Free Syria Army against  Syrian government forces.

The Temptation of B: low-key sci-fi relying entirely on dialogue and character

Arkadi Sirenko, “The Temptation of B / Iskushenie B” (1990)

A curious film, one of the last made in the Soviet Union before its downfall in 1991, “Iskushenie B” is a science fiction piece based on two works by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, who together wrote a number of short stories, novels and movie scripts in the Russian-language science fiction genre. A writer, Felix Alexandrovich Snegirev (Lembit Ulfsak), living alone in a dingy apartment and eking a living writing stories and articles for a small magazine, accidentally stumbles across evidence of a magic elixir that makes its drinkers immortal if they take a small drop of it every three years. Almost immediately he is taken hostage in his home by five people, some of whom he thought he knew as work associates, who turn out to be jealous guardians of the elixir. Since there can only be five people, all immortal, who know of the elixir and Felix has happened upon the secret, he is presented with a choice of death or choosing immortality which in turn means fighting one of the current five for the right to be the fifth guardian – which would mean one of the combatants would have to die.

It’s a low-key and thoughtful if not especially deep film that revolves around character. Felix continually rejects immortality for various reasons: at first he’s not interested in being immortal if it means one guardian has to die and if he can never see his daughter Lisa or his grandchildren again. Other considerations come into play and the guardians themselves each take turns trying to convince him of the wisdom of taking the elixir or not. The leader of the guardians, a scientifc man, appeals to Felix’s intellecutal vanity, because the others are frankly shallow and self-centred. The woman with whom Felix once had a romance suddenly finds him courageous and sexy. Two other guardians either find him deep and perhaps not to be trusted or more worthy of the elixir than their companion, the feckless Kudryukov, who had been responsible for mentioning the elixir to Felix, thus necessitating his hijack  and the choice between two unwanted alternatives. No great philosophical concepts are explored and no insights into morality, the implications of choosing between death and the immortality that is possible only when another dies, or into the human condition are attained.

The conclusion is quite unexpected and there is a surreal scene which suggests that Felix is rewarded but whether the reward is immortality or something else is left to the viewer to decide. The scene is done in such a way that it could be interpreted also as a figment of Felix’s imagination, one that he might return to from time to time, wishing perhaps that he should have chosen differently from what he was actually granted. Or could the reward be poison that the guardians have left behind to punish him?

The acting is excellent though the characters of Felix and the guardians are perhaps a bit stereotyped: Felix the writer with a strong moral sense and integrity; the guardian leader, the only intellectual man in the select quintet who’d like a friend at least as intelligent as he; Natalya the only woman who has an amorous interest in Felix; cowardly Kudryukov; the urbane man who nurses a dislike of Kudryukov for stealing his cook; and the policeman / enforcer, brusque in manner and a bit sinister. All the actors fit into their roles well and to some extent even look their parts: Ulfsak who plays Felix looks suitably sensitive, a bit haggard and down-at-heel, having seen better days as a writer, husband and father; and Natalya Gundareva, who plays the woman guardian, looking rather cheap, pudgy and not a little sleazy.

The quality of the film is quite good though perhaps it looks rather dark in places and sometimes scenes that take place in light-coloured areas look a little bleached (that might be due to the quality of the film stock or how it has aged since 1990). The pace is leisurely and the plot is driven entirely by dialogue and character development.

Although I wish that the film had delved more into Faustian territory and had explored what it means to be human and authentic (certainly the guardians don’t seem to live very authentic lives, having to hide from police, assume different identities and be secretive in order to stop others from finding out about the elixir), “Iskushenie B” is very entertaining to watch with quite a few surprises in store. Though very talkative by Western standards, the film never descends into a boring, stodgy talkfest going round and round in circles: the characters always seem to have something significant to say or utter something that reveals a great deal about their personalities. Interesting to see that being immortal isn’t cranked up to be what others imagine it!

 

 

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.