Waltz with Bashir: a film revealing repressed memories and a hideous war crime in parallel

Ari Folman, “Waltz with Bashir” (2008)

Few movies about war must be as personal and intense as this animated film about an Israeli ex-soldier’s gradual acknowledgement of the part he played in a specific war-crime incident in 1982 – the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Lebanese Phalangist militias, for whom units of the Israeli Defense Forces gave cover, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut during the Lebanese civil war – through his recovery by various means of memories he has repressed since his military service in the early 1980’s. Film-maker Ari Folman’s personal odyssey begins when a friend, Boaz, tells him that he (Boaz) has been having recurring nightmares about being pursued by 26 dogs through city streets. Boaz’s recovered memory, which he attributes to the time when he shot 26 dogs as a soldier serving with the Israeli Defense Forces in Beirut in 1982, triggers memory flashbacks for Folman; until then, Folman had no memory of what he did as a young teenage soldier. Folman determines to discover what he got up to during military service by visiting and interviewing old friends and a journalist. The stories they tell him are harrowing and painful. Folman consults a psychiatrist and others who discuss with him topics like repressed memory, recurring dreams and their meanings, mental dissociation and the consequences of such phenomena when they continue for too long and are never brought into consciousness. Gradually by recovering his memories, Folman is able to reconstruct where he was and what he was doing in Beirut in mid-September 1982; the revelation of his part in the massacres, however indirect, is horrific but not surprising.

The film deals with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, manifested as memory repression, insomnia and unpleasant recurring dreams, in individuals like Folman and his friends, and the parallel recovery of an important historic event which still remains deliberately suppressed by many people within and outside Israel and Lebanon as a major war crime. Major people who could have prevented the massacre either directly or indirectly have never been punished or censured appropriately for their failure, deliberate or otherwise, to act. Yet the massacre itself and the context it occurred in obviously had a deep effect on the soldiers who participated: one friend, Carmi, once an outstanding school student, left Israel to open a falafel-selling business in the Netherlands after finishing military service. This reviewer had the impression that other friends like Boaz and Ronny also achieved much less in their lives than they could have as a result of their army service. Perhaps “Waltz …” could have made a more general point about how compulsory military service has affected generations of Israelis and how its effects have percolated through Israeli society and values  but this might have widened the film’s scope too much and risked making it unfocussed.

Choosing animation over a live-action format is a wise move: the animated approach, which includes hand-drawn animation and flash cut-outs, turns the film’s structure away from a documentary genre to a historical fiction genre into which dreams and repressed memories can be reconstructed and replayed. The approach also allows the film to be flexible, flying from an interview into a memory flashback or a dream, then back into real life in a smooth flow. Even if Folman had opted for a live-action approach, he still would have found it necessary to portray flashbacks as animated or semi-animated to alert viewers of the change. The animation does look awkward and amateurish at first – characters look stiff, their heads are too big, their movements are sometimes jerky – but it does have a definite three-dimensional look, especially when the scene draws back from viewers. Transport technology like helicopters and tanks are rendered realistically if not in detail. The predominant use of colours like yellows, browns, greys and murky blue-greens give a very surreal look to large parts of the film; in later scenes in the movie where there is much fighting and killing, the yellowish-brown tints to the sky and bullet-ridden buildings in Beirut along the Mediterranean shoreline give the impression of Hell on Earth.

The animation is at its most effective in scenes where the young Folman is on leave and goes back home; he feels distant from the life whizzing around him in the streets. People behave as if there is no war and Folman senses the disconnect between his experiences in southern Lebanon and life at home. What impact that disconnection must have had on him is never investigated. One very beautiful and quite surreal scene is one in which Folman and Carmi sit on a couch in a field of flowers; another great scene is one where Israeli soldiers are walking through an olive grove while the sun beats down and the trees leave shadows over the soldiers. Suddenly a hidden Arab boy with a rocket launcher on his shoulder lets fly with a projectile that flies in slow motion past the soldiers and blasts their tank apart: beautifully poetic yet very shocking and horrifying.

Whether the recovery of his memories has been therapeutic for Folman, the film doesn’t say: the revelation of what did happen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in mid-September 1982, turning from animation into actual newsreels of the massacre and its aftermath, and Folman’s role in aiding the Phalangist militias lead to an abrupt and open ending. No accounts from relatives of the murdered Palestinians are included, no death toll is given – the figures are still disputed but Folman could have included the minimum and maximum figures in a title card – and there is no mention of Israel’s Kahan commission which found Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defense Minister, personally responsible for the massacre. Such omissions weaken the film’s impact by making it appear a self-pitying sob story with no end. More could also have been said in the film about the culture of the IDF; there’s a hint in a scene where a senior officer watches a porn film that the army is a corrupt and dysfunctional institution.

Viewers need to know the broader context of Israel’s involvement in southern Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war, in particular the IDF’s role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, to be able to follow the film’s narrative which does fly back and forth between past and present. An appreciation of the consequences of Israel’s intrusion into the Lebanese civil war helps: after all, the Hezbollah movement formed in south Lebanon at the same time to resist Israel. Some repetition is to be expected with a theme that includes repressed memories and flashbacks.

“Waltz …” is a brave and confronting attempt to investigate the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder and its symptoms of repressed memory, flashbacks and recurring dreams, and how this investigation brings an entire historical event, still  lacking proper closure, to collective consciousness, perhaps in the hope that it may lead to collective healing for a generation of Israelis.

 

 

 

Arsenal: as Soviet propaganda, film is surprisingly pacifist and innovative in use of montage

Alexander Dovzhenko, “Arsenal” (1928)

Notable for its skilful use of montages of images to create and build tension, excitement, urgency and other moods, “Arsenal” revolves around an incident during the Russian Civil War: a group of workers at an arsenal factory in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine then as now, rebelled in late January 1918 against the revolutionary parliament of Ukraine that had just declared the country’s independence from the Russian empire. The workers declared a strike and joined a group of invading Bolshevik soldiers to fight the Ukrainian forces. Under the leadership of politician Symon Petlyura, the Ukrainians crushed the factory workers’ rebellion, killing many people, and drove out the Bolsheviks on 4 February 1918. A few days later Bolshevik forces returned and captured Kiev.

“Arsenal” isn’t clear on the actual historical details and it ends when the workers’ revolt is suppressed violently and with much bloodshed; leader of the revolt, ex-soldier Timosh (Semyon Svashenko) bravely faces off against three armed men trying to kill him. Whatever plot exists – the story of the factory revolt actually begins 30 minutes into the film – is very sketchy and is carried mainly by Dovzhenko’s montage arrangements into which inter-titles carrying dialogue are inserted. The overwhelming impression I have is that, regardless of who is right and who is wrong, the use of violence can’t be justified however necessary it seems t people at the time and there appears to be a pacifist thread throughout the film. Violence and bloodshed lead to too many personal tragedies: families are torn apart, widows and orphans face hardship, starvation and poverty.

The film’s main assets are the editing, montage that combines several parallel strands of plot or sub-plot, and cinematography which often features impressive montages of images, many of which are shot at unusual angles or with characters and objects silhouetted against the sky. Particularly memorable are close-ups of factory machines at work, giving the film a near-abstract / futuristic edge in parts. There are some scenes in which the camera tracks along as though riding a train, taking in scenery through a window. The first 30 minutes of the film feature some very riveting set pieces: one series of montages set in the country, demonstrates with searing intensity the poverty and hardships endured by depressed peasants in a village and the sudden bursts of violence two of the villagers engage in against small children and a horse. A war episode follows in which a soldier inhales laughing gas and laughs uncontrollably; the film flicks back and forth between this man and another soldier, silhouetted against the sky, preparing to shoot him, then throwing away his rifle. For this act, he is punished by his senior officer. A third set piece, using quick editing to flash back and forth among images, close-ups and parallel viewpoints of the same incident, chronicles the last trip of a speeding train packed with soldiers returning from war in central Europe; one of the soldiers entertains his pals by playing his accordion. The passengers realise the train is about to crash and soldiers escape while they can. The crash is very severe and the accordion is flung off the train without its owner.

The acting can be florid and overdone and some scenes, such as the Mexican stand-off between a worker and a faltering capitalist in the last quarter of the film, are milked for what they’re worth for tension and emotion.

First-time viewers should familiarise themselves with some of the history of Ukraine between 1917 and 1921 when the country enjoyed a very brief independence before being forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union, so they can make sense of the film. They don’t have to know all the details of the Arsenal factory revolt – Timosh and several other characters appear to be fictional – but just enough about when it happened, the groups involved, who put down the rebellion and what consequences it had for the future of Kiev and Ukraine generally. As a native Ukrainian and wanting to appear loyal to Communism, director Dovzhenko must have trodden a fine line indeed between supporting his country’s aspirations for freedom and being in the Stalinist government’s good books so as to continue his directing career without too much political interference. As a story “Arsenal” can be haphazard with different incidents occurring at once and the film ducking from one line of events to another and back again so viewers should just concentrate on the imagery and see how editing and montage can be used to suggest or generate tension and passion. The pro-Communist stand is very strong, so strong that an element of fantasy creeps in when Timosh resists being shot; it’s an awkward and wryly laughable moment coming after numerous scenes of brutality and death but the obvious alternative might have put Dovzhenko in trouble.

 

Alexander Nevsky: a well-made though not brilliant propaganda film about a Russian mediaeval hero

Sergei Eisenstein, “Alexander Nevsky” (1938)

Unashamedly patriotic and stirring action-movie propaganda for the masses and the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin at the time of release, this historical fiction drama recreates one of the two battles fought by the 13th-century Russian hero Alexander Nevsky that determined his future career as a prince and politician: the 1242 battle against and defeat of the crusading Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire on the frozen Lake Peipus which now forms part of the border between Estonia and Russia. The other significant battle which Nevsky fought and after which he was surnamed – the 1240 battle against Swedish forces on the Neva river near present-day St Petersburg – is mentioned at the beginning of the movie. “Alexander Nevsky” is straightforward in its narrative, starting with a Mongol ambassador visiting Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov) and offering him a position with the Mongols’ Golden Horde which was in charge of Moscow at the time. From there the film hops to the Teutonic Knights’ take-over of the city of Pskov near Lake Peipus where they massacre the population. The Knights march towards Novgorod city where the aristocrats and wealthy traders decide to surrender to the Knights to avoid losing their riches. Nevsky then rallies the common people of Novgorod to resist the foreigners. Interwoven with these events is a sub-plot about two warrior friends, Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrey Abrikosov), who are dead keen on marrying the demure and beautiful girl Olga (Vera Ivashova) who likes them both. She sweetly worms her way out of being forced to choose between her suitors by telling them she will only marry the braver of the two in battle.

The battle against the enemy on the frozen lake (the Battle on the Ice) takes up half an hour of the film’s running time and can be interesting to watch as soldiers seem to hack aimlessly and in all directions and there are very few scenes of stagey-looking stand-offs between individuals of opposing sides. Editing, sometimes quick, with a view to portraying the fighting from different points of view – some shots are close up, others are at a distance or from a bird’s-eye point of view – ensures the constant tussling never gets boring. Scruffy Russian soldiers hack with axes and run about here and there while the more disciplined white-clad Teutonic knights charge as ordered and the foreign cavalry, infantry and archers work together as a machine. Fear not: Nevsky does use a strategy of dividing his forces into three groups to surround the invaders on three sides. As the fight progresses, some of the Russians are exhausted and are felled by lances or blows from the enemy; there isn’t much gore but the fighting is as realistic as Eisenstein dared to go at the time. The horseback fighting scenes look a little cartoony and have the style of 1920’s-era silent film as music often plays over these scenes and the action is quick and abrupt. When the camera remembers to focus on Nevsky himself in the heat of fighting (which isn’t much actually), he’s filmed from the waist up striking with his sword at unseen enemies but not pursuing them on horseback or helping his fellow warriors fend off attacks.

Keeping in mind the circumstances in which Eisenstein made this film – he was under suspicion of disloyalty for having worked in Hollywood and Mexico in the early 1930’s, socialising with painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and writer Upton Sinclair among others, with nothing to show for his efforts – viewers will understand “Alexander …” isn’t as experimental as some of Eisenstein’s other films and is made in a way that glorifies its main character as a god-like folk hero who can do no wrong and which elevates the defenders of Novgorod as heroic yet ordinary people who, given the right kind of leadership, can do extraordinary things. The message behind the portrayal of the Russian side becomes obvious: common people have potential to be heroes but only under Communist leadership and specifically Stalin’s leadership can that potential be put to work and fulfilled. As for the Teutonic Knights, in spite of their white garb (a duplicitous ploy), they are dehumanised by their armour and helmets which cover the entire face and body and sprout talons, antlers and devilish horns. They behave as cogs in a well-oiled war machine which further emphasises their lack of humanity. On conquering Pskov, they are nasty enough to throw little kids onto flaming pyres. Foot soldiers for the enemy wear steel helmets typical of what German soldiers wore in the later part of World War 1 and which they were to wear again in World War 2. The enemy forces are led by the Grand Master who resembles a twisted, demonic version of the fair-haired, square-jawed Nevsky and receive blessings from the Roman Catholic Church whose representatives are shown as sinister and fanatical.

Remarkably given Eisenstein’s need to ingratiate himself with the Stalinist government, the film shows the tragic side of war in which bodies of both sides are strewn over the snowy ground and women search for husbands, fathers and sons and mourn their dead. Although on second thoughts this display isn’t that remarkable as Russian portrayals of war have traditionally called attention to the carnage and tragedy of war and the sorrow of families whose men have died. The film also makes a point of showing Nevsky as a merciful and just hero who pardons and frees the foot soldiers who are assumed to have been drafted against their will into the Teutonic Knights’ army. The knights themselves and their leaders are held for ransom but Nevsky throws a Russian, Tverdilo (Sergei Blinnikov), to vengeful crowds for betraying Pskov to the enemy. Again the message here is ordinary people as a group are basically good and potentially heroic but they can be led astray by the wrong sorts of leaders (read: rich capitalists, self-styled aristocrats and their allies in anti-Communist governments who think only of their own material comforts and would sell their mothers and grandmothers for more wealth) and only someone like Nevsky who loves his mother country Rus is the ideal leader.

Character development as such is non-existent: Cherkasov as golden boy Nevsky stays in heroic mode throughout (which means his end scene where he urges people to celebrate is hilarious, he is so strait-jacketed in the stereotype) and the love triangle sub-plot doesn’t quite work as it should in spite of the best efforts of Okhlopkov and Abrikosov as the suitors who are brave and heroic in battle but comic and awkward in love. Olga remains modest throughout the film and hardly demonstrates much passion for either suitor and Gavrilo himself spends much of his screen time hardly conscious. Okhlopkov puts in the best acting as a heroic fighter who manages to escape death, as a near-buffoon and as an honest suitor who admits he wasn’t the brave one in battle and nearly gets scolded by his mum.

The rousing music by Sergei Prokofiev fits in well with the sequencing of scenes and encourages the rise and fall of tension and emotion throughout the movie. For this reason, the movie is best seen in its 1995 re-recorded edition on DVD or in a cinema environment where the sound quality is good and consistent. A live orchestra playing the music soundtrack as the film screens is a bonus.

Not a brilliant piece of film-making but “Alexander Nevsky” will be of some interest to Russian history buffs and film-makers who need to know how to stage and film battle scenes in a way that retains audience attention and interest.

Taxi Driver: good study of an alienated and traumatised individual groping for purpose in a lost society

Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver” (1976)

As a character study of a lonely and alienated man whose mind collapses under the strain of the life he leads and the corruption he sees combined with a history of trauma and violence, this film has few peers. What makes it a great film is its portrayal of a society that has lost its way and of  characters other than Robert de Niro’s lead character Trvis Bickle who like him are searching for direction and purpose. The movie boasts excellent cinematography which captures the dreary and desperate life that Bickle leads as a taxi driver on night shift in the New York City of the mid-1970’s and which features a stunning mise-en-scène shot near the film’s end: this is a survey of a crime scene with two police officers standing frozen as if in shock, their hands still gripping their guns tightly. The sometimes florid music score by Bernard Herrmann (who scored several films for Alfred Hitchcock including “Vertigo” and “Psycho”) may sound a dated for the period but its languorous, repetitive swank and tight drumbeat percussion passages mirror Bickle’s obsessive, repeating fantasies and suit the film’s moods and tensions as they arise. The use of voice-over narration fits in with Bickle’s documentation of his activities in a notebook. The parallel plots of Senator Charles Palantine’s rise to nomination for the US Presidency and Bickle’s crusade to save a child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a life of exploitation under her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) merge into each other smoothly.

Bickle is a disaffected Vietnam War veteran who takes up a job driving taxis at night to overcome his insomnia whose cause is never explained but can be guessed as a symptom of an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder which could explain his honourable discharge from the US army. He is attracted to a political aide Betsi (Cybill Shepherd) who is working for the nomination and election of Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) but after a couple of  dates, he takes her to see a mild porno film that offends her and she walks out of the cinema. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact Betsi, Bickle gives up and concludes she is no better than all the other people he sees in the streets. He comes across Iris looking for clients and decides she needs saving so he prepares himself for the deed by changing his life: he starts exercising and building up muscle, eating healthily, practising shooting and buying guns from a seedy dealer. He finally meets the girl through Sport and tries to convince her to leave her pimp but she hesitates. Finally Bickle takes it upon himself to rid Iris of Sport, his associates and some of her clients.

De Niro was born to play Bickle – he embodies the character’s contradictions: inarticulate and well-spoken; idealistic yet creepy and out of touch with the complex world he lives in and can’t understand; striving to be of worth and to have a good, moral purpose in life but frequenting seedy cinemas to watch porn films and implicitly approving when a passenger (Martin Scorsese in a cameo appearance) says he will murder his adulterous wife. Bickle has a narrow view of the world in which good and evil exist and there are no shades of grey between the two.  His ruminations and conversations with fellow cabbies, plus a scene where he is watching TV and another where he eyeballs a black man flaunting his wealth, suggest he is racist though one of the cabbies he hangs out with happens to be black. Bickle starts to see his purpose in life as cleaning his adopted home-town of the scum he sees on his nightly patrols. De Niro’s acting strikes a good balance between playing Bickle straight and over-acting: at one point in the film, in an inspired piece of scripting or directing (or both), he looks at the camera while rehearsing his fantasies and what he will say in them when he plays them for real, and any misgivings viewers might have about what he’s going to do are made to melt away.

The support cast is good without being remarkable but then it’s de Niro’s film all the way. Scorsese’s cameo as the jealous passenger brimming with rage at his wife’s infidelity and Keitel as the manipulative pimp make more impression on this viewer than Foster does. Foster seems a little too self-assured to play a runaway girl hesitant about leaving her pimp even though she wants to. Shepherd appears bland as Betsi but that’s the point: her wholesome blandness is mistaken by Bickle as angelic when he first sees her. Support characters including a co-worker of Betsi’s who’s keen on her but isn’t all that essential to the plot flesh out the world of “Taxi Driver”, giving the film a richer social tapestry than the plot requires.

The film probably could have been improved if Bickle had seen something in Palantine or in what the senator does that suggests he may be corrupt to justify Bickle’s assassination attempt. The film deliberately excludes any reference to Palantine’s political platform apart from the slogan “WE are the people …” which may be a weakness because there is nothing to pin him down on and demonstrate his  potential for venality. The happy ending plays as a parody of other happy endings in Hollywood dramas but some viewers will miss Bickle’s furtive look into his rearview mirror. This glance tells us that Bickle is still obsessed with his personal crusade of cleaning the “scum” out of the city and will strike hard again. Innocent people may die next time. The music could have been more ominous and repetitive than it is as the end credits start to scroll.

Would that Hollywood might once again make films about lonely people wanting to connect with society and the world but unable to do so because of their flawed, traumatised or disturbed pasts. Such folk end up being driven by forces they can’t understand and explain to themselves or to others, and by a society just as traumatised and lacking in hope and purpose as they, to commit deeds that by sheer chance turn them either into heroes or villains.

 

5 Days of War: as the movie admits, truth is the first casualty

Renny Harlin, “5 Days of War” aka “5 Days of August” (2011)

Directed by Renny Harlin and financed by the Georgian government, this drama is a Russian-bashing screed about the 2008 South Ossetia war and the events leading to it. The movie revolves around the experiences of two news reporters Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) who accept an assignment in Tbilisi, Georgia, a year after their previous assignment together in Iraq ended badly: the two men were rescued by a Georgian military unit in that country after their car was ambushed  by militants. In that ambush, Anders’s girlfriend (Heather Graham), also a reporter, is badly wounded and dies. Anders and Ganz’s noses for news (and trouble) get them fired upon while watching a wedding at a rural Georgian inn, avoiding capture while witnessing and filming atrocities by Russian troops who have invaded the country, and ending up as prisoners of a Russian general (Rade Serbedzija). While simultaneously escaping, yet being drawn to, trouble and danger, the reporters pick up a Georgian woman, Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a guest at the wedding at the inn. Through Tatia and a collective effort to broadcast Ganz’s images to the rest of the world while keeping them away from the Russians, Anders finds a new purpose in life and a reason to go on living.

The romance between Anders and Tatia doesn’t make sense: why should the two fall in love simply because chance threw them together and put them in danger both together and individually? Any “chemistry” that might exist isn’t present and the pair’s kiss looks like an after-thought. More believable is Anders’s loyalty to Ganz when Ganz is injured in a bomb attack and apparently dying: the two have been in many intense life-and-death situations which few other people can understand and sympathise with. Both men are devoted to seeking the truth behind layers of propagandistic fog though paradoxically this search can make them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and the military. The plot’s emphasis on safeguarding the memory stick that holds Ganz’s images and the Russians’ attempt to destroy it leaves no room for character development with the result that Anders, Ganz and their fellow journalists are cardboard cut-out beings not worth caring about.  The actors playing Russians end up perpetuating old World War II stereotypes about Soviet soldiers massacring civilians, raping women and torching farms and crops with flame-throwers. Admittedly the stereotypes are based on fact – the Soviet Red Army behaved abominably wherever it went – partly because of the debased culture that developed in the army as a result of purges of high-ranking officers ordered in the 1930s by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, a native Georgian. What irony. As the movie carries on, hackneyed plot twists appear: Tatia’s family is riven apart by internal betrayal, Ganz is threatened with torture by the Russian general’s sadistic enforcer (Nikko Mousiainen), an attempt to broadcast Ganz’s images fails when the reporters are targeted by a Russian helicopter, and Ganz is hurt in the helicopter attack. The enforcer kidnaps Tatia and forces Anders to choose between saving her life and keeping Ganz’s film.

The film could have focussed on the dilemmas that journalists in war zones face: for one thing, whether the search for truth justifies putting their own lives and the lives of innocents in danger. There are various political and ethical decisions they have to make: how closely should they work with the government or the military? how would such work interfere with their journalist code of ethics? There is a female journalist featured who is embedded with a Georgian army unit and viewers may well wonder what compromises she made to get the story and pictures she wants; it’s likely also the opinions she expresses and the images she shows will reflect her hosts’ political agenda.

The actors do what they can with the story and give at least a three-dimensional look to their characters. Andy Garcia as Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili gives the best performance, endowing his character with a dignity the real person doesn’t deserve: before the 2008 war, Saakashvili had been criticised for the use of brutal police force against protesters in an anti-government demonstration, and for declaring a state of emergency and suppressing press freedoms as a result of the protests, in November 2007. Well-known US actors Val Kilmer and Dean Cain parrot their lines and strut their respective reporter and diplomat role stereotypes, and fellow US actor Jonathan Schaek as Georgian military officer Captain Avaliani spends his screen time saving Anders and Ganz’s hides.

If the film has any saving graces, they’re in the Georgian settings: the cinematography features lovely shots of a town perched on cliffs overlooking a winding river and of the countryside with its mountains and deep gorges. A church used as a refuge gives the film crew opportunities to photograph pictures of religious icons and the wedding scene featured early in the movie gives a little insight into Georgian customs, traditional dress styles and folk dances. Curiously though native Georgians serve as extras, they are absent from the film’s lead and supporting acting roles.

By lapsing into an action-movie rut the film fails to give a near-accurate portrayal of the work news journalists do and the problems they face in unusual and intense situations where disinformation, propaganda and fear replace speech and press freedoms. The film fails to do what it purports to do: the source of the film’s financing alone puts paid to any pretence of impartiality and regard for truth. The Georgian armed forces are portrayed as decent and heroic, the Russians as cruel, barbarous and criminal: in truth, both sides were guilty of over-reaction to provocation with Georgia attacking South Ossetia first with heavy firepower and both Georgians and Russians alike committing grave war crimes. The United States doesn’t come out looking good either: since 2003, the Americans have been sending arms and military advisors to Georgia and encouraging Saakashvili to adopt a very aggressive attitude towards Russia as part of an encirclement strategy that includes ex-Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (where the US has a military base) in Central Asia, Ukraine and some former Soviet satellite nations in eastern Europe.

 

 

 

Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors: uneven animated movie with strident tone preaches a nationalistic message

Mitsuyo Seo, “Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors” (1945)

Japan’s first full-length animated movie is a World War II propaganda film aimed at children and centred around a young boy Momotaro (“Peach Boy”) and his animal friends who represent military sailors. The film is available for viewing on Youtube.com though there are no English or other language sub-titles. Non-Japanese speakers won’t find the movie hard-going anyway as it features music and singing and there’s no over-arching plot. The film’s aim is to instill love and loyalty for Japan and belief in its military invincibility and inevitable victory over British and American forces. The importance of the group over the individual is stressed and collective action based on absolute obedience and loyalty is preferred over individual action which the film suggests can cause a person to go astray.

What plot exists is very loose and falls into three parts that are related only through shared characters. The film-makers’ grasp on history, geography and sociology is precarious. In the first part Momotaro and his sailor friends  are on leave and visiting their families. A young child gets lost chasing a runaway sailor cap and its life is in danger. The sailors and others in their community hear a rescue call and rise as one to save the child. In the second part Japanese naval forces take over a tropical island where they are welcomed by the natives who are represented by exotic species of animals; the sailors build an airbase and take time to teach the locals their language and culture. In the third part of the film the Japanese invade islands in Southeast Asia from the air and force the British overlords there to relinquish control. After parachuting to the ground and ambushing a tank together, Momotaro takes charge of negotiating with the Brits while his friends take notes.

The animation is very uneven: the main characters of Momotaro and his friends (bear, monkey, cat, pheasant) are drawn well with bodies and limbs in correct chubby proportions. Their faces are usually serene and confident with shining eyes though creepy lipsticked lips don’t always syncrhonise well with speech. Momotaro resembles a plump-cheeked kindergarten-age boy straight out of old Chinese Communist propaganda posters. The animals that represent the Pacific Islanders are all very cute and include creatures not usually native to the Pacific islands: elephants, rhinos, crocodiles, squirrels, bunnies, small wildcats and kangaroos all co-exist happily. Perhaps lacking high-order predators like lions and tigers among them gives the folks that open and hospitable attitude towards the invaders. The animals’ portrayal varies from cute and sweet for small critters to rubbery and comic for the crocs and elephants which could have come straight out of old 1930s cartoons. Just as rubbery, dated and definitely caricaturish are a trio of three adult monkeys who look and act suspiciously like 1930s blackface minstrels and the British who are shown as lacking in discipline, cowardly and spineless. Against backgrounds that look solid and almost three-dimensional and the fairly detailed depictions of machinery, the variable standard of animation means the film doesn’t have a distinctive visual style.

Whatever comedy exists in the film seems forced and the songs have been written and played to urge singing along by children. No point in preaching to audiences unless they can be pushed to participate in the message!

The film plays hard and fast with the history and geography of Southeast Asia and its colonisation by Europeans. Most likely the islands “freed” by Japan in the third part of the film aren’t a specific reference to Singapore but representative for eastern Asia and the western Pacific region. Parts of the plot are cut off unexpectedly and the film never returns to them. At the end of the film various small animals practise parachute-jumping onto a map of North America; the implied message is that Japanese domination of the entire Pacific region amd beyond is the next step. Given that when the film was released Japan had already been retreating from US-led forces for two years, and the country was in dire economic as well as military straits, the message is desperate and shrill.

Viewers may note the tone of the whole film can be strident: the pace is steady and fast, the story trajectory is onwards and upwards, and the animals obey orders and act promptly and efficiently without hesitation. The portrayal of some animals as rabbits has an unintended and slightly amusing suggestion of cloned conformity especially in scenes where they prepare the airfield for military planes to land and to take off with almost pre-programmed foreknowledge. A message of unquestioned obedience with one’s heart, mind and soul being at the service of the nation, its government and emperor is strong. Characters might pause only to look at photographs of loved ones and realise how much they miss their families but that’s the only kind of reflection and character development allowed here.

Not a film I’d recommend for children until they’re of an age to understand how seductive and inviting propaganda can be and the different forms it can take to persuade people to adopt particular beliefs and actions.

Balibo: film that forces viewers to think and ask questions about tragic fate of six news reporters

Robert Connolly, “Balibo” (2009)

Imaginatively constructed as three stories that initially fit into one another like Russian matryoshka dolls, of which two more or less spread out and run parallel for much of the film, “Balibo” recounts the fate of five Australian TV reporters who disappeared in Balibo in East Timor in October 1975, and of their compatriot journalist Roger East who investigated the men’s deaths and was himself killed by Indonesian soldiers a few weeks after the original murders. Often billed as a political thriller, the film also dramatises several accounts and stories by East Timorese people, represented by the fictional character of Juliana da Costa, and pays tribute to them and the heroic struggle of their people for independence from Portugal and then Indonesia. The film acts on another level as a road movie in which Roger East, played by Anthony LaPaglia, becomes a close friend of young revolutionary Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaacs), the founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor aka Fretelin, who invited East to come to East Timor to see and report on the events there.

LaPaglia carries much of “Balibo” as the veteran journalist who could have had a cushy public relations job back in Australia but chose instead to go rough in abandoned villages and tropical countryside to find the five reporters after Ramos-Horta shows him their photographs and tells him they are missing. LaPaglia’s performance is understated and matter-of-fact in the manner of stony-faced, hard-nosed Australian news reporting of the 1970’s; later in the film, when he has been to Balibo, seen some horrific sights and returned to Dili, the full impact of what happened to the reporters hits him and he breaks down silently in tears. LaPaglia plays his part quietly and well, giving a good impression of a seasoned reporter who refuses to take no for an answer, pushes himself to walk through thick forest and grassland under army fire and banters with Ramos-Horta on their trek.

As Ramos-Horta, Isaacs doesn’t have a lot to do beyond looking good, being a fired-up revolutionary and bickering with East as they walk to Balibo. He disappears from the film after they reach the town and his character doesn’t appear again until the very end. The actors who play the five TV reporters in the film’s recreation of their journey to Balibo to document the Indonesian invasion are portrayed as chummy (though their employers are rival TV stations – in those days, Australian free-to-air TV channels were more co-operative and less competitive), drinking and laughing together, doing the best job they can filming and reporting on what they see under difficult and stressful conditions, and collecting stories from the local people. Their death scene is painful and shocking in its casual and brutal nature; the men’s fear and near-hysteria as the killers pursue them are very real but not overly dramatic, particularly in a scene in which one man, hiding behind a door, panics and considers his options wordlessly before bravely opening the door to face his killers.

All other significant roles in “Balibo” are played by East Timorese amateurs. The role of Juliana is well played by a young girl who as the eight-year-old Juliana makes friends with East and later sees him being killed, and by an older woman in her 30’s who tells of her life under Indonesian occupation to an Australian man at the time of East Timor’s independence in 1999. Viewers will warm to the young girl who is very charming in the small amount of screen-time she gets.

Filmed on a small budget, the movie relies partly on handheld camera work which means a lot of it looks jumpy to viewers. The story of the five Australian reporters appears in bleached-out, over-bright colours: the film-makers use lenses typical of what was used in Australian news reporting in 1975 to film that part of the plot. Unfortunately, many historical details are glossed over and the despicable role of the Australian and American governments in tacitly approving the invasion – it’s known that US president Gerald Ford and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger passed through Indonesia a few days before the invasion took place, and that then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam believed East Timor should be “integrated” into Indonesia – is reduced to Ramos-Horta’s scatological comment on a photo of Whitlam and Indonesian president Suharto in a newspaper. What happens to Ramos-Horta after he and East arrive in Balibo isn’t made clear though viewers who don’t know much about East Timor’s current politics will be relieved to find he survived the Indonesian occupation in exile and became president of East Timor in 2007. As president, Ramos-Horta has so far been lukewarm on the idea of prosecuting members of the Indonesian military for war crimes against East Timor that left over 180,000 of his people dead.

Apart from its limitations, “Balibo” is an excellent movie that is worth watching. It doesn’t provide much historical background to the tragic events but as drama it’s intended to get audiences thinking about the fate of the Balibo Five and East, and to demand answers from the Australian, American and Indonesian governments about why the six men were killed and their deaths covered up for so long.

Downfall: masterly if flawed fictional account of Adolf Hitler’s last days

Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall” (2004)

This is an incredible and masterly fictional dramatisation of the last 14 days in the life of Adolf Hitler over April – May, 1945, during the dying days of Nazi Germany and the Second World War in Europe. “Downfall” captures a whole world, an era, going down in flames, chaos and desperation as the Soviet army invades Berlin, leaving death and ruin in its wake, the German armed forces collapse for lack of manpower, supplies and coherent strategy, and civilians and soldiers alike scrabble and fight over food and shelter in the destroyed capital. While this is happening, the remnants of Hitler’s regime hide in an underground bunker where Hitler himself, aged and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, persists in his fantasies of leading Germany to victory and creating a new glorious Berlin, a citadel of (kitsch) art and culture, as the country burns around him.

History texts and documentaries can give us the blow-by-blow details of Nazi Germany’s death but what they can’t do is give a psychological portrait of Hitler and his closest supporters like Eva Braun, architect Albert Speer and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda. The film focusses on the characters of these people by structuring itself around the viewpoint (in part) of Hitler’s young personal secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) who appears as a passive observer doing her job and staying steadfast to Hitler to his dying day and beyond; any qualms she might have about her boss’s state of mind and his ways of thinking, she suppresses for the sake of duty and devotion to a man who has always treated her with fatherly kindness and gentleness. Skilfully woven into the drama is a parallel story of a fictional child soldier called Peter who represents both Germany’s manic desperation to fight the war to the very end, exemplified by the recruitment of himself and his young friends in the Hitler Youth as soldiers, and Germany’s hope for renewal as he survives the war and finds a companion in Junge herself after he discovers his parents have killed themselves in despair. Other parallel stories include those of the Goebbels, Braun, Speer, the army doctor Schenck and various military officers, all of whom are torn in some way between what they believe or think is right and wrong, what they know they should do and their loyalty to Hitler.

Students of psychology keen to know how people cope and behave in extreme situations in a virtual prison will find a feast here: Hitler (Bruno Ganz) zings constantly between denial and flights into fantasy – he imagines moving armies into positions to crush the Reds – on the one hand, and tirades about the supposed incompetence of advisors and officers he thought he could trust, and how the German people deserve to die for their weaknesses and inability to uphold and witness for Nazi ideals. He issues ever more eccentric orders to execute competent men and, as news of Soviet encroachment on the bunker comes, makes arrangements to marry Eva and to commit suicide with her. The retreat into fantasy as a way of coping with reality, staving off despair and covering up one’s own incompetence and responsibility for failures by blaming others and wishing evil on them becomes understandable. By doing this though, Hitler becomes a degraded and contemptible human being. We see, through Ganz’s intense and electrifying performance, the kind of “monster” Hitler is: egotistic, self-pitying, volatile and unstable, brutal, charming, kind and affectionate in an empty sort of way. His best friend is his dog Blondi yet he orders the dog killed in a pitiless manner.

Also as extreme and puzzling is the behaviour of people like the Goebbels and various minor characters who regard Hitler as a god and have such faith in his leadership and abilities that they’d rather die with him than live. Normally we’d admire people who place honour, integrity and devotion to ideals above personal interest and ambitions but what can we make of intelligent and capable people like Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) who has such a sincere and child-like if deluded faith in Hitler and Nazism that, unable to imagine a different Germany, kills all her children? What background and psychological history does she have, that on the one hand she idolises Hitler and clings to him in a way at once shocking and demeaning of herself, and on the other moulds her children into perfect little Nazi angels only to despatch of them in a steely and cold-blood manner?

The acting performances, particularly those of Ganz and Harfouch, are strong and riveting. The film loses some spark after Hitler and Braun’s deaths but the knowledge that the Goebbels plan to die and take their six children with them sustains tension to the end. My main gripe is the “happy” ending in which Junge and Peter cycle on a bike away from Berlin through a forest.  For me, this ending is a cop-out to cheer up audiences; the reality is that several of the women who left the bunker along with Junge were captured, raped and brutalised by Soviet Army soldiers. It’s possible Junge was raped and tortured as well though she did not mention if she was raped or not in her memoir, on which “Downfall” is partly based.

The film’s narrow focus on Hitler’s last 14 days, while it demonstrates the mind-set of Hitler and his followers, doesn’t say anything about the kind of society or psychological culture of Germany that allowed Hitler and his National Socialist party to achieve power originally, maintain that power while junking democratic processes and crushing opposition, industrialise the country and restore its pride only to take it into a prolonged war that destroyed its manufacturing achievements. For all his charm and charisma, and his promises, there’s no way Hitler and the Nazis could have just taken over Germany the way they did without support from most major institutions, like the armed forces, industry, the churches and other prominent organisations and individuals. If “Downfall” had included a few flashbacks to Hitler’s early days as a campaigning politician, bidding for the position of Chancellor in the early 1930’s, viewers might have got some idea of how Germany was seduced into trading a failing democracy for a psychopathic dictatorship. It could be said though that we have history text-books and documentaries to give us that background!

As it is, “Downfall” is a significant cinematic achievement which humanises Hitler and his followers without glorifying them; if anything, the movie shows how degraded, pitiful and even stupid they make themselves. Though the film isn’t a completely accurate historical record – some characters like Fegelein and Schenk are shown sympathetically – it demonstrates effectively the horrors of war, the suffering of ordinary people and the indifference of politicians to that suffering. The psychology of individuals like Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels shown provide some insight into the thinking and actions of people caught up in a situation that’s rapidly and chaotically spinning out of their control and beyond their understanding.

The War You Don’t See: an incisive and passionate John Pilger documentary

Alan Lowery and John Pilger, “The War You Don’t See” (2010)

Last night (Sunday, 10 April 2011), I caught this documentary presented by veteran Australian journalist John Pilger on the way the news media has presented war to Western audiences on television and in print for much of the 20th century and in the first decade of the 21st. There’s a particular focus on the UK and US news media’s responsibility in reporting war events and the conduct of war accurately and without bias, particularly if the war is a heavily one-sided war which the US, the UK and their allies have instigated against much weaker countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Through interviews with various journalists from the US mainstream news media outlets and the BBC, Pilger shows how far too frequently the news media in these countries have reported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that prejudice Western audiences against the Iraqi and Afghan civilians and minimise or make invisibile the suffering these people undergo. The reporting also serves to hide and advance the agendas of the governments and the interests of the individuals, corpoations and other institutions that politicians rely on for election campaign money and support.

According to some of the promotion for this doco, the emphasis was on the practice of embedding in which journalists travel with the military on assignments and report incidents from the military point of view. The opportunity this gives the military to shape the reporter’s view to the extent that it can decide what the reporter can see or not see, and report in a way that favours the military and its understanding and interpretation of an incident, is pretty obvious. My impression though was that the documentary didn’t spend very much time examining this practice, both from a historical point of view (as in tracing the history of embedment from the First World War or the American Civil War or when it first started) and from a current viewpoint of someone who actually did go on a mission with soldiers, reported on what the soldiers did or were supposed to do, and then had the report vetted by the soldiers or their senior officers before giving it to the news editor.

The documentary did rather better looking at the collusion between the US armed forces and the Hollywood film industry in making war movies since the 1940’s that emphasise American heroism, self-sacrifice, suffering and soldier camaraderie while ignoring the equivalent, often much greater, among the enemy gooks and ragheads; even here though, while the documentary did good work trashing movies like “The Hurt Locker”, it just didn’t go far enough to examine how so close the collusion is that Hollywood film-makers now routinely consult US armed forces personnel in making war movies and tailor scripts to suit the Pentagon’s tastes. Hollywood also must submit all war movies for pre-screening by top Pentagon officials who can order late changes to the movie even at the expense of historical accuracy before the movies can go into cinemas: if this practice were widely known among the public, there would be a huge outcry but Pilger makes no mention of it.

Likewise Pilger’s examination of the heavy bombing of Fallujah in 2004 doesn’t include a brief look at the almost tragicomic series of events, beginning with US troops’ take-over of a school and their refusal to negotiate with the parents of the schoolchildren, escalating through the lynching of four Blackwater mercenaries who might have been set up by their employer to the US army’s decision to attack twice, first in August and then in November in 2004. How these events were covered in Western media, particularly the lynching incident which generated fury among the US public, isn’t mentioned. The aftermath of the bombings which include recent reports of an astonishing rise in birth defects in children born in Fallujah after 2004, together with doctors’ warnings to all female residents never to have children, and how these were reported by the BBC and other news outlets is also ignored.

I’m not sure how the Israeli commando attacks on the Gaza flotilla in 2010 merit mention in a documentary like this; the whole drama itself deserves a separate documentary treatment. There was much about the BBC’s reporting of the Gaza flotilla’s adventures that Pilger could have raked the organisation over – the BBC only started taking an interest in the flotilla when it was intercepted by Israeli forces – but the documentary’s focus was mainly on the film released by the Israeli Defense Forces showing the activists on the Mavi Marmara purportedly attacking the commandos before they reached the ferry. The murders of nine Mavi Marmara passengers (one of whom was a US citizen whose death was ignored by US mainstream news media), done execution-style, were mentioned briefly. No mention though of the Israelis’ treatment of all the surviving flotilla passengers, once they were on dry land, which included people being beaten (a Greek man got a broken leg) and being forced to parade before baying crowds: that was very much off everyone’s radar here.

The documentary is very good and Pilger’s interviews of various talking heads are incisive but the film’s organisation, especially in its latter half, should have been tightened and restricted more to investigating the reporting of the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how news journalists and their employers are under considerable pressure from both governments and armed forces to report war events in a particular way that favours continued prosecution of war. At nearly 100 minutes in length, the documentary seems very long (it’s quite dry and heavy on interviews) and the Mavi Marmara incident really should have been cut out as its particular focus on the IDF propaganda clip is irrelevant to the overall subject.

I’m disappointed that Pilger neglected to examine the possible effects of news reporting that favours a pro-war agenda on people and societies. I imagine the effects of such biased reporting can be very far-reaching: among other things, the sufferings of both Iraqi and Afghan civilians on one side, and of the soldiers and their families, are minimised and ignored to the extent that both governments and the public end up trivialising them, especially if some Iraqis and Afghans escape their hell and try to claim asylum overseas; and the reporting itself may encourage governments and the military to believe in their own invincibility and to spread war and destruction into neighbouring countries as is currently happening in Pakistan from Afghanistan under US President Obama’s watch. War becomes a self-perpetuating activity that individuals, the armed forces, corporations and governments come to rely on to justify the money and resources spent.