The Mirror: a loose autobiographical work on memory, history, nostalgia and regret

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Zerkalo / The Mirror” (1975)

For most viewers, Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” won’t be the easiest film to follow: the narrative follows a stream-of-consciousness structure and dives at will (and going back and forth between them) into three time periods representing its main character’s childhood, adolescence and current situation in which he, a poet, is in his 40s and dying from an unknown respiratory illness. In all of these time periods, he has unresolved issues in his relationships with both his parents (and his mother also has unresolved issues and conflicts with others), his ex-wife and his son. The ex-wife and the son have difficulties in their relationship as well, and a big part of that problem may stem from the difficulties each is having with the husband / father. Now on the verge of death, the poet (unnamed and not shown to viewers) looks back over his life and regrets the decisions he made and actions taken or not taken, and wants to make amends – but time and his failing health do not permit such atonement.

The plot relies heavily on aspects of Tarkovsky’s own life and that of his parents – as in the film, Tarkovsky’s father was a poet (and some of his poetry is quoted in the film) and his mother was a proof-reader. Scenes of the poet’s childhood take place in a beautiful bucolic countryside that could be close to Moscow – but already there are forebodings of dark events to come. A strange man claiming to be a doctor visits the poet’s mother and she seems to fall in love with him. The family barn bursts into flames and people stand by watching slack-jawed when fire destroys it – during a rain shower. Strong winds start up without any warning whatsoever, rippling over overgrown grass and knocking over tea cups and saucers on garden tables.

Scenes set during the poet’s adolescence take place during the Second World War (known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union and the current Russian Federation) and here the film starts to make connections between the poet’s personal life and the wider historical context in which he lives his life, and how major historical events impinge on people’s lives, taking away loved ones and thus setting off a cycle of actions by the poet and the people he associates with, the repetition of which the poet appears to recognise only when he is dying.

In keeping with the film’s dream-like world, the experiences of the poet’s mother and ex-wife (both roles played by the same actor, Margarita Terekhova) and their son Ignat (Ignat Daniltsev, who also played the poet as a young boy) are also very surrealistic, particularly in a scene where Ignat, left on his own at home in the apartment block, visits a neighbouring apartment and the woman there invites him in for tea, asks him to read from a book and then later disappears mysteriously, crockery and all. The rooms seem to change as well and we do not know if Ignat is back at home or still next door. Real or naturalistic scenes co-exist with scenes from the imagination; it may be that Tarkovsky is attempting to capture as much of the human experience in all its beauty, glory, pain and suffering (there is considerable historical archived film of the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese-Soviet border wars included) into a visual work that reflects back that experience.

Themes of guilt, regret, nostalgia and longing, desire, and the repetition that reinforces these emotions, along with how memory and history can cause or buttress them, are very prominent in this film. The natural world with its mystery and apparent randomness is a significant character to whom humans accommodate themselves. The poet’s mother accepts her place in the universe, having done what she could, and achieves a contentment her son has always sought.

The Making of a Modern British Soldier: how ordinary people are trained to become killing machines

Ben Griffin, “The Making of a Modern British Soldier” (Veterans for Peace UK, October 2015)

All you see in this video uploaded to Youtube is a man in mufti standing before a white blank wall, telling the story of his life from the time he was old enough to walk and ask questions of his grandfather about his experiences as a military man and his medals – but what a story he tells, about the propaganda and indoctrination he was subjected to as a teenage army cadet on into his training to be an SAS marine, to the physical and psychological methods used in the British armed forces to mould ordinary people into elitist psychopathic killers, to his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq war after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to his realisation that Western forces in Iraq had merely replaced Hussein’s government in terrorising people and moreover were protecting Western corporate interests in Iraq (all intent on making money and profits from grabbing and selling the oil and other natural resources that rightfully belonged to the Iraqi people) instead of bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to a long-suffering nation. Former British SAS marine and co-founder of Veterans For Peace (UK) Ben Griffin tells the fascinating true story of his old life as a killing machine and how he, like many other people in the British armed forces, had been seduced by highly romanticised military histories and tales of derring-do to join an army cadet group and army camps for teenaged kids who were not academic. As an army cadet, Griffin was allowed to smoke, drink and do all sorts of things that youngsters in civilian institutions were discouraged from doing, and from this beginning, the notion that he and other teenage army cadets were special, a higher grade of human who could look down on everyone else, took hold.

Griffin speaks in great detail about the military values instilled into him and they make for frightening listening: following orders from above instantly and without hesitation for fear of punishment; Spartan-like loyalty to one’s own unit and hatred of everyone else; the enforcement of discipline by punishing an entire unit for one individual member’s mistake; and the removal of one’s natural aversion to killing people with methods including sleep deprivation and repetitive drills. The end result of such intense inculcation must surely be an emotionally and spiritually hollow shell of a human, into which shell fanatical beliefs and behaviours, a hatred of anyone and anything different, even on the flimsiest criteria, replace empathy and compassion. Punishments for mistakes are severe and brutal.

Griffin’s turning-point in his old military career comes during his deployment to Basra in southern Iraq where, after witnessing or being party to grave injustices committed by the British on Basra civilians, he realises that he can no longer stomach the lies that have been shovelled into his head over the years and which he starts to doubt. He is uneasy at the presence of Western corporations with their private security in major cities in Iraq, and what that presence and the security details might say about US-led allied forces and their actions and behaviour.

The film cuts out abruptly while Griffin is still describing how he became involved with the Veterans For Peace organisation in the US and decided together with fellow former soldiers to set up their own British chapter. By this stage, he has said more than enough about how military recruits are effectively manipulated and broken down into dehumanised sociopaths and how British forces, mingling with US and other allied forces, engaged in torturing prisoners (usually culled from the civilian population by raiding their homes and taking male residents) at “black sites”. For this reason, reports of “US forces” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East / North Africa, and maybe other parts of the world, can be assumed to include forces (plus mercenaries from private corporations – and, depending on the region involved, freelancers, militias and naive people recruited via social media or personal / community networks, often portrayed in the media as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists” when the situation permits) from other Western nations.

Griffin’s talk, peppered with anecdotes and very surprisingly detailed information about aspects of British military culture, is highly informative and lively. Griffin’s description of how he as a child fell for the relentless ear-bashing propaganda and how he signed up for army boot camp for wannabe teenage soldiers like himself is especially chilling. This talk is recommended listening for Griffin’s animated style and the information he offers.

Death of Yazdgerd: a slow film illustrates how the common people are caught between two repressive forces

Bahram Beyzai, “Death of Yazdgerd / Mard Yazdgerd” (1982)

Running close to 2 hours with a small cast, a heavy emphasis on dialogue to push its plot and message, and a very minimal and claustrophobic setting, this film betrays its origins as a stage play. Beyzai not only directed this film, he wrote the screenplay and produced it as well. Perhaps as a result, too much of the stage play and the style of acting it requires appear in the film to the extent that the action gets stuck going round and round in a groove while the actors flail about, banging on one story or another over and over and working themselves and each other into near-frenzy. The film drags very slowly and viewers unfamiliar with pre-Islamic Persian history and culture will find it very boring.

The film is based on the actual death of the last Sassanian shah, Yazdgerd III, in 651 CE while fleeing Arab forces invading the Persian empire: tradition has it that he was killed by a miller who was after his purse. In the film, the King is already dead and the Miller (Mehdi Hashemi), his Wife (Susan Taslimi) and their Daughter (Yasaman Arami) are on trial for his murder. The judges who have the power of life and death over them are a Priest (Mahmoud Behrouzian), a General (Amin Tarokh) and a Commander (Karim Akbar Mobarakeh), all of whom are very inclined to execute the impoverished family on the spot if they say anything that turns out to be a trigger word. Desperate to save their necks from an improvised garrotte, the three family members offer various exculpatory versions of how the King died in the hope they will be pardoned: initially the family mistakes the king for a bandit having robbed the King of his wealth and finery; in another version, the King has seduced the Daughter; in yet another version, the King has killed the Miller and exchanged clothing; in still another alternative story, the King is keen on the Wife instead and suggests eloping with her. In the meantime, while the family construct ever more elaborate and contradictory stories on how the King died, Arab forces are steadily wiping out the shrinking Sassanian armies and are encroaching upon the Miller’s hut where the trial is taking place.

The actors – in particular Hashemi and Taslimi – put in excellent and intense performances, even though they can be very theatrical and not a little tiresome in parts. One must suspend disbelief and take for granted that a poor farming family far out from the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon has intimate knowledge of the King’s palace and its architectural arrangements. As the story constantly shifts, and the responsibility for the King’s death bounces from one person to the next (even onto the King himself), the viewer will marvel at the extent the Miller and his family are prepared to lie, or feel guilty as the lies pile up, one on top of the other. At some point in the film, the Daughter appears to be possessed by the spirit of the King himself and starts saying things only the King and his most intimate companions would know. Something of the rigidly hierarchical society and the belief in the near-divine status of the King – to the extent that even the Priest and the old General have never seen the King’s bare face – is revealed.

Through this film, Beyzai comments on the stagnant, corrupt and hierarchical society presided over by the Pahlavi shahs (their power underpinned by British and American support) from 1925 to 1979, and how that society was soon replaced by an equally repressive society supposedly based on Islamic principles. The King himself is revealed as a presumptuous autocrat who treats his subjects badly and whose lifestyle is far removed from the vast majority of Persians who toil endlessly to pay the heavy taxes that support the King’s lavish court. At the same time, the Arab forces that will soon defeat and make history out of the Sassanians are portrayed as dark savages carrying black flags, in contrast to the Sassanians’ white flags.

The Islamic government that replaced the Pahlavis quickly saw the historical parallel the film makes with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and what the film insinuates about the theocratic arrangements, and banned the film from being shown in cinemas. As the trial reaches its climax and the judges prepare to make their verdict, viewers who have stuck thick and thin with the meandering plot will be surprised by the fairy-tale nature of the outcome, which turns out not to amount to much when (to paraphrase a cliched utterance by one of the characters) history will be written by the victors.

How a new empire of global finance was created in “The Corbett Report (Episode 349: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Three: A New World Order)”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 349: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Three: A New World Order)” (November 2018)

This third and last episode examines how World War I was used by British and American elites to reshape global politics and society, including the global economy, in their favour; and in the process destroy empires and an entire generation of young men across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, and bring about new polities, political ideologies and movements with consequences that still survive to this day. Among other outcomes, World War I destroyed the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Turks, either replacing them with weak, unstable states that would later adopt extreme nationalist, even fascist governance, or subjugating their territories to British and French rule that divided them with artificial borders or introduced or encouraged new foreign settlement that itself would result in new conflicts of unrelenting brutality and violence and ongoing instability. The key message of this episode is that not only is war a tool of elites to steal other people’s wealth and territories but is also a tool to reshape society and beliefs and to rewrite histories and traditions to benefit themselves (the elites, that is). Among other things, World War I enabled governments to assert greater control over manufacturing and industry, to mould and direct public opinion by censoring the media and controlling literary, artistic and film output, and (in some countries) to introduce new taxes such as income tax on the general public.

Again with James Corbett’s clear and distinct voice-over narration, easy to follow and to understand, and with archived film footage as a backdrop to his narration, the documentary traces the way in which the Great War fulfilled, for the most part, the goals and ambitions of a Deep State within the British government (and which spread into the US government) in which the United States would be brought back into the British empire as the first step towards ultimate British domination of the world. By installing Woodrow Wilson as President of the United States, American financiers gained financial control of the US economy and of European powers at war by acquiring (through the Federal Reserve) the power to print money, by imposing income taxation and lending huge sums of money to European imperial governments. After 1913, American financiers profited from war financing and gaining ownership and control of major corporations and industries, setting production quotas, standardising products and product lines, fixing prices and developing psychological warfare techniques that would later become useful in mass advertising and public relations.

After 1918, the supposedly victorious European powers Britain and France found themselves so much in hock to Wall Street that in order to pay off their loans, they forced a defeated Germany and its weak new government to submit to paying heavy reparations under the Treaty of Versailles, setting that nation up for political and economic instability and the rise of extremist fascist politics that would dominate Germany. The new post-war financial arrangements also made Europe and Germany in particular vulnerable to the unstable business cycles that dominated the American economy under bankster rule; thus when the Great Depression hit the US in 1929, its effects spread to Europe as well.

The documentary digresses into a brief discussion of how the British and the German governments apparently encouraged Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in their plans to install a socialist government in Russia and even gave them assistance: the German government allowed Lenin and other revolutionaries to travel by train through German territory to Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg, later Leningrad); and Trotsky was briefly detained in Halifax, Canada, by the British while travelling from New York back to Russia in early 1917 after Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the Russian monarchy was abolished. The documentary insinuates that Trotsky may have been used (perhaps willingly, perhaps not) as a pawn by the British though the Wikipedia entry on Trotsky states that the British government released him from imprisonment in Canada after protests by the socialist Menshevik government in Russia. After the Bolsheviks overthrew the Mensheviks in November 1917, Trotsky published “The Secret Treaties and Understandings” that the Russian imperial government had signed with Britain and France to divide up the territories of the defeated Axis powers among themselves. These agreements included the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement which parcelled much of the Middle East between Britain and France, creating new colonies with artificial borders that divided the Arab peoples from one another, and which enabled the British to carve out territory in Palestine for a future Jewish state under the Balfour Declaration, itself initiated by Lord Walter Rothschild who had been a financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, one of the originators of the project to drive the West to war to isolate and destroy Germany and bring the US back under British imperial rule. Thus was the Middle East set on a road leading to repressive and brutal dictatorships, the corruption of Islam by a fundamentalist sect, constant political instability caused by foreign interference and the ongoing brutal genocide of the Palestinians by Israel after its founding by Zionist Jewish settlers in 1948 through acts of terrorism against the British.

Perhaps the saddest and most tragic part of this episode – and indeed of the entire series – comes at the very end when war ceases abruptly in November 1918 and an entire generation of young men, knowing only war and nothing else, suddenly discovers that its life purpose has ended and from then on, its continued existence has no meaning.

This series dovetails with other documentaries and articles I have seen which posit that the British empire has never really ended but has instead mutated into an abstracted global financial empire that continues to brainwash people through dangerous political, economic and social ideologies that keep them divided and weak, and which continually attempts to penetrate those countries such as China, Iran and Russia for their lands and resources by demonising them in attempts to convince people around the world that these nations pose a threat and their governments should be overthrown, by force if necessary. Much recent American politics (at least since 1945) and foreign policy becomes understandable if one assumes that the US has been acting as an extension of the British global financial empire, and moreover is used by that empire to abuse Britain and Europe alike through the European Union. The continuous march towards war against Russia (a nation Britain has hated since the 1700s) and its allies in Iran and Syria who have defied Western regime-change attempts, and the accompanying global propaganda project involving most countries’ news media and cultural industries, should be seen in this context as well.

Apart from the insinuation that the Bolsheviks were tools of the Wall Street elite – it’s more likely that Lenin at least and his followers were happy to use whatever help they could get, wherever it came from, to advance their own aims and agenda, and the idea of using capitalists’ money against their sources would have appealed to the Russians – this documentary series seems fair to me.

 

The rise of Wall Street and the American Deep State in “The Corbett Report (Episode 348: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Two: The American Front)”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 348: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Two: The American Front)” (November 2018)

Having established in Part 1 that a Deep State within the British government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with connections to the monarchy and the civil service, connived to isolate Germany through propaganda and by forming alliances with nations on either side of that country, this three-part series continues with all the major European powers now at war after mid-1914, Germany having to fight enemies on two fronts on its western and eastern borders, and all opposing sides bogged down either in trench warfare in the west or ineffective leadership and strategies leading to constant back-and-forth exchanges of territory in the east. In the west, with both the British, French and German forces locked in stalemate, and all losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers in trench warfare, the British government connived with American financiers to get the American people involved in fighting the war against Germany. Part 2 examines how the groundwork was laid to push the US into allying with Britain and France to fight Germany in World War I well before the war even began.

The work begins with wealthy American banker John Pierpont Morgan and his allies in the US finance industry supporting obscure Princeton university professor Woodrow Wilson as Presidential candidate in the 1912 elections and ensuring that he wins by using former President Theodore Roosevelt as a third party candidate to split the Republican vote. Once in, in 1913 Wilson approves the passage of the income tax act and the Federal Reserve Act which creates the Federal Reserve as a central bank with Morgan and several of his friends as shareholders. From then on, these bankers would be in charge of printing money and would charge the government interest on any money it borrowed from the Federal Reserve. Several of these men were members of the Milner Group, that secret organisation formed by William T Stead, Reginald Brett and Cecil Rhodes, which had worked to influence the British government to make Germany an enemy and to turn the British people against Germany, and the American and British members of the Group plotted to turn the American people against Germany through extensive news propaganda – even though most Americans at the time, being of Irish or Germany descent, were opposed to Britain – and to create a pretext to bring the United States into fighting a European war.

The pretext comes with Britain’s war against Germany on the high seas in the North Atlantic, with Britain enforcing a trade blockade against Germany that eventually leads to widespread starvation in that country. Because of this blockade and other trade sanctions against it, Germany resorts to submarine warfare against British merchant shipping. In May 1915, Germany torpedoes the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania, resulting in the deaths of nearly 1,200 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. The incident helped to turn American public opinion against Germany. In 1916, Wilson was re-elected President, riding high on propaganda that he had kept the US out of war. In April 1917, after continued German submarine warfare on merchant shipping in the North Atlantic (including US merchant ships), the Germans having become desperate due to the prolonged blockade, Wilson declares war on Germany and the US governt begins conscripting and training men to fight in the battlefields of northern France.

Again the documentary does a good job presenting its case that Wall Street financiers and banks created a situation in which they were able to select their own preferred Presidential candidate and install him as President by weakening his opposition, and then connived with their British partners to put a cruise ship and its passengers and crew in harm’s way to pressure Washington DC into agreeing to join the war in Europe. Archival film footage and photographic stills including cut-outs of significant personalities flesh out the voice-over narration and the whole film proceeds at a leisurely pace. Interviews with historians go into considerable detail on how the US government ignored the British blockade of Germany – clearly a war crime – and ignored British interference with American merchant shipping but castigate the Germans for blowing up British merchant ships carrying munitions if American citizens happen to be on board.

In this documentary, the way in which a secret cabal not only gains power behind the British government but also gains power behind the American government, and moreover uses that power to control America’s money supply and money creation functions, to potentially hold the American government and the American people to ransom by demanding interest payments on loans to the government, and (later) to influence post-war European politics and German reconstruction, resulting in the spread of the Great Depression and paving the way for Adolf Hitler to gain power in Germany, is made very clear.

Perfidious Albion’s road of deception and underhand scheming to global war in “The WWI Conspiracy – Part One: To Start A War”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 347: The WWI Conspiracy – Part One: To Start A War)” (November 2018)

At this time of writing, a century has passed since World War I ended, and swept with it into history beliefs in never-ending scientific and technological advancement and empires in Europe (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia). An entire generation of young men was brutally destroyed with grave repercussions for societies across the world that would last for decades to come (and which may still do, in the form of politically conservative societies and cultures with mediocre political cultures and leaders). Yet the ultimate causes of that war remain as puzzling and controversial as they did one hundred years ago.

The conventional narrative of what led to World War I – the various alliances formed by the major European powers that eventually fell into two opposed sides, each jealous of their own political, economic and military power; the competition among these powers for more resources and hence more territory; the nationalism of various ethnic groups in central and southeast Europe, governed by a weak Ottoman empire, which could be exploited by its enemies; the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo in 1914 – is well known but does not explain why an incident in a small provincial town should have been the tinderbox event that set off a series of chain-reaction events resulting in all-out war. This documentary, the first of a three-episode series made by The Corbett Report, looks at the background of historical events and trends beginning in the early 1890s, when in 1891, three men – the diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, newspaper editor William T Stead and aristocrat Lord Esher (Reginald Brett), a confidant to Queen Victoria and later King Edward VII and George V, met to discuss and form a plan to extend British rule throughout the world and reclaim the United States as an integral part of the British empire.

The plan which also involves the formation of a secret society, complete with an inner circle privy to esoteric knowledge and an outer circle of helpers who will be allowed to know only what is necessary for them to be of value, sounds completely outlandish but as the documentary outlines, it is carried out very cleverly and progressively, spanning two decades, co-opting Russia and France as allies against Germany, Britain’s main political, military and economic rival, and with the collusion of the British press. Firstly, the funding of the plan is secured by the British waging war against the Boers in southern Africa that results in the separate colonies and republics in that region becoming one unit (South Africa) under British control, and the gold wealth of that unit coming under the control of the British South Africa Company. The Boer War was incredibly brutal, with over 66,000 civilian casualties of whom 26,000 were Boer women and children who died in concentration camps along with another 20,000+ black Africans out of some 115,000 also interred in concentration camps. Secondly, British news propaganda increasingly paints Germany as a hostile and malevolent enemy seeking to stir up trouble in different parts of the world, even in areas where the British are the actual trouble-makers. Third, the British assist Japan against Russia when war breaks out between those two powers in 1905 by denying the use of the Suez Canal to the Russian naval fleet and forcing it to travel around Africa and through the Indian Ocean up towards Japan; Japan was able to crush an exhausted Russian fleet. In this way, Japan becomes a valuable ally to the British in the Far East.

The documentary presents its case well, that a Deep State formed within the British political establishment in the later 19th century and schemed to create conflicts, even wars, to achieve its goal of isolating Germany and targeting that nation for war. The voice-over narrative is delivered at a fairly leisurely pace and interviews with historians back up the documentary’s premise. Archival film footage, photographs and maps of the period help to delineate the world in which European imperial powers dominated all continents.

I would add only that the British desire to put the United States into its proper place as a colony within its empire preceded the machinations of Cecil Rhodes and his fellow conspirators; the British are known to have assisted the Confederate States of America during the US Civil War (1861 – 1865) to ensure the break-up of the US into two weak states that could easily be dominated by a foreign power.

Though the events covered by the documentary occurred over 100 years ago, they are worth viewing as the strategy used by the British to demonise Germany is much the same as the current British-American strategy to demonise and isolate Russia. Again, the English-language news media is being used to suppress truth and to incite public hostility against Russia and its allies in Asia and the Middle East.

The Syria Deception (Part 1: Al Qaeda Goes to Hollywood): a blunt examination of the cynicism of Western propaganda

Dan Cohen, “The Syria Deception (Part 1: Al Qaeda Goes to Hollywood)” (2018)

This first part of a two-part series is a blunt and uncompromising examination of how Hollywood collaborates with the US government and its agencies in creating propaganda films that misrepresent the war in Syria and demonise the Syrian government and President Bashar al Assad. Narrated by Dan Cohen, the program uses the recent HBO documentary “Cries From Syria” (screened at the Sundance Film Festival and available on Netflix) as an example of the propaganda being promoted by Western news media outlets.

The incredible and cynical lengths to which the Western media and entertainment industry goes in creating such propaganda to convince Western audiences to support an invasion of Syria and the overthrow of its government are illustrated in the exploitation of the 7-year-old girl Bana Alabed, through a Twitter account under her name in which she constantly calls for war in English, a language she actually barely understands; and in the supposed adventures of “journalist” Hadi al Abdullah, in reality a propagandist friendly with jihadists, providing “updates” on the supposed “civil war” being fought by “moderate rebels” against the government.

In the film’s second half, Cohen follows the efforts of American politicians, media outlets and self-styled “activist” propagandists like Nora Barre to talk up public support for a US-led intervention in Syria after a screening of “Cries From Syria” in Congress. Barre makes emotional appeals to people’s compassion, reminding one and all of the helpless women and children held hostage by both jihadis and the government (but emphasising the ferocity of the government much more); while the unpleasant Charles Lister, resident fellow with the Middle East Institute, a neoconservative US think-tank, openly advocates the assassination of Assad. In the waning moments of the film, Cohen accosts the film director who made a documentary about the false humanitarian aid group the Syrian White Helmets, made up of jihadis who film themselves pulling children and babies out of rubble, racing through alleys while carrying the youngsters, and flinging them into empty ambulances without so much as checking their breathing or stabilising them in case of internal injuries.

Featuring stills of media reports, excerpts of videos, films and interviews with propaganda shills like Barre, the documentary pulls no punches in showing how distasteful, abhorrent and, above all, extremely manipulative and exploitative the Western propaganda machine is in trying to convince people of the need to remove Assad, over and above the wishes of the Syrian public. At times the documentary can be a bit confusing in the speed that it pursues its topics, jumping from Hadi al Abdullah to Bana Alabed to Barre and Lister. Each topic (Bana Alabed in particular) is investigated in some depth though the documentary provides no analysis, however brief it would have to be, as to why the exploitation of children has become essential in the making of modern propaganda and who the most likely targets of this propaganda would be.

Though the documentary is aimed at a mainly American audience, it is relevant to overseas audiences as well. Even if it skims over subject matter like the White Helmets, and the purpose behind their creation, the documentary flows with passion, energy and indignation. I’m already looking forward to the second part.

Jirga: a sparingly told story of remorse, compassion and forgiveness

Benjamin Gilmour, “Jirga” (2018)

The wonder is that this film got made at all as it was filmed in Afghanistan, and in areas possibly still dominated by the Taliban at that. Understandably the narrative, seemingly simple and straight-forward, can appear quite disjointed and some things – such as the pink flamingo paddle-boat – come and go without any explanation. An Australian soldier, Michael Wheeler (Sam Smith), appears in Kabul on a personal mission to find a family in a very remote part of Afghanistan. Needless to say, the people he relies on to help him advise him not to go and to forget about his mission: the area is under Taliban control. As you’d expect, Wheeler ignores the helpful advice and hires a driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) to take him south towards Kandahar. On their long and rough journey through very striking and beautiful mountain landscapes, the two men form a strong friendship despite being unable to speak each other’s language. They lose each other abruptly when they stop at a Taliban checkpoint and Wheeler is forced to flee on foot for his life.

After wandering in the desert, Wheeler loses consciousness and when he wakes up again, he finds himself a Taliban captive in a cave. After beating him, the Taliban men discuss what to do with him and one of them, being able to speak English, interviews him and acts as interpreter between him and the other Taliban men. Wheeler explains that he wants to find the family whose patriarch he shot dead during an army raid some years ago. Impressed with Wheeler’s earnestness and remorse, the Taliban leader orders his men to take the ex-soldier as far as they can go towards the village where the family lives. They advise him offering the American dollars he carries with him to the victim’s family will be considered an insult and a curse. From then on, and dumping the money along the way, Wheeler makes his path into the village where he explains his mission to the elders there. The elders form a council (“jirga” in the Pashto language) to debate what to do with Wheeler and whether he deserves to die for killing an unarmed civilian and leaving his widow and two sons destitute.

The sparing, minimal nature of the film, in which much is unsaid and is left to the viewer to fill out with his/her imagination, throws the spotlight onto Smith and his character’s motivations for pursuing his quixotic mission. Wheeler says very little and maintains a stoic face, but he is clearly a very troubled man. He is only able to come to terms with what he did by returning to the scene of his crime, re-enacting it in part for the village elders, visiting the widow and her sons and submitting to her anger and grief. Smith does his best with such a taciturn character, and the emotion he is able to express is very profound, but the role is very limited (and limited even more so by the conditions under which the film was made) with respect to the character’s background and motivations.

The resolution seems quite problematic as well: the village jirga’s decision seems just as eccentric as Wheeler’s quest, and the viewer has the impression that the elders are nonplussed as to what to do with their unexpected visitor. In the end, the decision becomes Allah’s will and the elders abide by it without question, even though some of them obviously don’t agree with it. At the very least some closure has been achieved and people are able to move ahead with their lives.

The message viewers are likely to take away from the film is that Wheeler survives mainly due to the magnanimity, compassion and forgiveness shown him by people who would not be blamed if they had decided on vengeance against him. For all the devastation, poverty, violence and instability that continue in Afghanistan, its people still hold onto their rich culture and traditions, and retain their humanity and spirit. One would like to think that Wheeler appreciates what has been done for him, and will be moved to return to the country in the not too distant future, to learn more about its history and peoples, and to do something constructive for them. Perhaps he might even learn something of how Australia blindly and stupidly followed the Americans into waging a one-year war over and over 17 times and counting. His abandonment of the American money, and what that symbolises – spurning the capitalist system and the beliefs and values associated with it – may represent a first step in this direction.

Foxtrot: a meditation on loss, grief and the circularity of indifference, suffering and brutality

Samuel Maoz, “Foxtrot” (2017)

Divided into three parts, with the first and third parts dominated by the same actors and sharing the same setting (an apartment), “Foxtrot” is a meditation on loss and grief, and how the effects of loss can reverberate over generations, themselves leading to further consequences that might have the result of locking people into a never-ending cycle (as demonstrated in the basic steps of a foxtrot) of loss, grief, indifference – and violence. A decision made in haste sets in place a series of actions that end not only in loss but in friction, conflict, upheaval and maybe missed opportunities for reconciliation … such a decision can ruin people’s lives and turn a nation’s destiny down onto a dangerous spiral of brutality and violence begetting more brutality and violence.

Architect Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife Dafna (Sarah Adler) receive upsetting news from Israeli Defense Force soldiers that their son Jonathan has been killed in a fight. Acting on autopilot, the soldiers sedate a hysterical Dafna, advise Michael to keep drinking water on the hour to stay calm and collected, and tell the Feldmans that the IDF is taking care of all the funeral arrangements. Michael goes through a range of reactions from numbness to anger to grief and frustration as he demands answers about the circumstances of his son’s death from the soldiers. Later, they receive news from their superiors that a different Jonathan Feldman died and the architect’s son is still alive …

… and guarding an isolated outpost on Israel’s northern border along with three other young soldiers in the film’s second act. They eat tinned muck and sleep in cramped and wretched conditions in a shipping container – one that is slowly but surely sinking into muddy soil, as measured daily by how fast a tin of meat rolls from the upper end of the container to the lower sinking end – from one lo-o-ong day to the next. They lift the gate for wandering camels and check the IDs of Palestinians driving from one part of the country to the next. The Palestinians accept their humiliating treatment with passive resignation which, in the case of two wedding guests forced to stand in pouring rain while the soldiers run their information on a ramshackle computer, verges on tears as their hair-styles and make-up are ruined. The bored soldiers tell one another stories, listen to radio music and play video games to pass the time in their cramped and miserable outpost and shipping container, until they meet a group of party-goers in a car who accidentally drop what a soldier mistakes for a bomb and then all hell breaks loose …

Initially there seems to be not much plot for the film to hang on and it does pass by very slowly – all to emphasise the parents’ grief and agony, and how they deal with the shock of the news of their son’s death; and to detail the shabby treatment of young inexperienced soldiers by the IDF in putting them in situations where mistakes they make could have serious life-or-death consequences. The film starts to move when Michael, on hearing that his son might still be alive, demands the youngster’s return and contacts someone senior in the IDF. The IDF duly sets the wheels in motion to bring Jonathan home – but no-one can foresee what happens during the trip.

By mixing parts of the narrative so that the film’s climax comes at the end when it should come about two-thirds of the way through the film, director Maoz reinforces the circular nature of fate and how an apparently innocent decision intersecting with a random act can have devastating consequences. In the third act, Michael and Dafna have already split, their son really is dead but the parents appear not to know how he died: all the IDF will say is that he is one of “the fallen”. While Michael and Dafna make an effort to patch up their relationship, the IDF itself learns no lessons from the second Jonathan Feldman’s death and the circumstances in which it arose, and its soldiers continue to obey and carry out orders, robot-like, asking no questions and continuing to injure, wound and kill innocent people thoughtlessly.

The circularity of fate that traps the Feldmans may be a metaphor for the circularity of continuous trauma, brutality and unwillingness to face up to and learn from its decisions and actions that keeps Israel trapped and which has turned that nation into a global pariah. Ingeniously, Maoz’s film offers a path out of that trap: as the foxtrot needs to be danced properly with a partner, rather than solo, Israel needs to partner and reconcile with the Palestinian people to break it out of its descent into further dysfunction and to become a normal nation.

The cast of actors is very good and Ashkenazi turns in an incredible performance as the grieving Michael. Adler is a good foil though her role as a supportive wife is a little stereotypical. The cinematography is another asset: scenes shot from above, close-up or at unusual angles can stress helplessness, isolation or intense grief. The narrative’s minimal style throws emphasis on characters’ emotions and on the deterministic nature of the events that occur as they seem to lead inexorably to disaster and further tragedy.

The Final Journey: a formulaic road movie about hope and reconciliation in the Ukrainian civil war

Nick Baker-Monteys, “The Final Journey / Leanders Letzte Reise” (2017)

The plot may be a familiar one – aged pensioner Eduard Leander (Jurgen Prochnow), recently widowed, resolves to return to a distant land he fought a war in over 70 years ago, to find a woman he once knew, and his estranged slacker grand-daughter Adele (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) is forced to follow him to keep an eye on him – but the historical and political context in which their odyssey takes place is a contemporary and highly controversial one, one that takes them to uncomfortable and dark places, psychologically as well as physically, that test their character, their beliefs and ultimately their relationship and feelings for and about each other.

In early 2014, after the death of his wife, whom he has never really loved, Leander suddenly decides to go on a train trip to Kiev in Ukraine. Adele’s mother Uli (Susanne von Borsody) persuades her to try to talk to him to stay home – the older woman has never got on well with her dad – but Leander resolutely stays on the train and Adele is compelled to stay with him. On the train they meet Lew (Tambet Tuisk), a Russian-Ukrainian man who helps them evade train guards because Adele does not have her passport with her. Once in Kiev, Lew takes the two under his wing as they are unable to get hotel accommodation without Adele’s passport and they stay with his family. During the midday meal, Lew’s relatives come to blows over the troubled situation in eastern Ukraine: Lew has a grandmother and a brother living in Lugansk, and the brother (to the approval of the older relatives but not Lew’s) is fighting with the Donbass side against the new (and illegal) Kiev government.

Through contact with a historian specialising in World War II history, Leander determines that the woman he wants to meet, Svetlana Agafonova, lives in Lugansk so he, Adele and Lew travel by car there. There, they come in contact with the Donbass fighters and Lew’s brother and babushka. On further enquiry, the three discover they must cross the river border under cover of night to Russia to the village where Svetlana was resettled after the war. Bit by bit, Adele learns of the history of her father’s participation in the war as the leader of a Cossack regiment fighting under Nazi command against Soviet forces and Russian partisans, and realises that he may have committed atrocities grave enough to make him a war criminal.

In the meantime, Adele tries to stay in contact with her mother and relays some of what Leander and she get up to. As the pair go farther into eastern Ukraine and Russia, and war breaks out in Lugansk province, Uli decides to travel to Kiev and then to eastern Ukraine to find the two.

Schmidt-Schaller and Tuisk give very good performances as the two young party-goers who develop a genuine friendship and romance under unusual and trying circumstances. Prochnow maintains a surly old git outlook, at least until he arrives in the Russian village and discovers a few surprises. Through their journey together, Leander and his grand-daughter discover things about one another they had not known or suspected before: somewhat to her surprise, Adele develops a real warmth and affection for old Opa as she sees that he is truly capable of love and care for others, that he would risk his health and life to reconnect with a woman he knew 70+ years ago and whose current whereabouts he has no idea of; and Leander, to his regret, realises that his true family had always cared about him and for him. The tragedy is that he is unable to last long enough to truly reconcile with the people who care for him.

The cinematography is quite good (in a minimal way) at portraying the countryside in eastern Europe and the poverty of rural areas in Ukraine and Russia.

The script gingerly tiptoes around the current politics of Ukraine and the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and attempts to treat the two sides evenly as though the civil war were just like any other civil war with one brother disagreeing with another brother and families being split over the conflict. The nationalists marching through the streets of Kiev are shorn of their Nazi regalia and Western audiences are likely to be lulled into thinking these people are no more harmful than nationalist thug gangs in other countries and have no place in the Ukrainian government. (Perhaps the Leanders and Lew should have detoured a while in Lvov in western Ukraine, to watch torchlight parades carrying swastika banners and portraits of notorious Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and chanting anti-Jewish slogans through the city streets.) A scene in which the Leanders and Lew are being driven through the Russian countryside at night and pass by a strange convoy of tanks and army trucks going towards the Ukrainian border, at which Lew exclaims, “This is not normal!”, gives a clue as to whose propaganda the film-makers prefer to follow.

In exploring how two characters find redemption and connection through learning about their place in history (and at last finding some direction instead of drifting aimlessly through memory or pleasure), the film brings a message of hope and reconciliation with the past. Unfortunately (and ironically) its attempt to make sense of the civil war in Ukraine is shallow, because the film-makers are ignorant of the West’s involvement in overthrowing the legitimate if ineffective and corrupt Yanukovych government and that government’s replacement with a more criminal and vicious regime.