Remote Control War: technical detail substitutes for a proper inquiry into the ethics of using drones and robots in conflicts

Leif Kaldor, “Remote Control War” (2011)

“Remote Control War” presents as a sober documentary on the use of robotics in war, conflict and espionage in the style of a TV current affairs article. The narrow focus of the topic prevents viewers from asking the obvious questions: is war a good or bad use of robotics, and why use robotics at all in war? Now that that particular issue is out of the way, the program briskly takes viewers through the use of forms of remote-controlled technology such as UAVs (drones) in modern warfare. Interviews and a voice-over narrative supplied by Ann-Marie MacDonald are the main way in which the program details the types of technology that exist at present and how they are used. At times, the program almost salivates over particular technologies such as multi-purpose robots that can be used to plant or find and detonate mines, and rescue injured soldiers and civilians. The “balance” of the program lies in the number of interviewees who might be said to support the use of robotics in war (several) against those who might be said to disapprove of such use (one or two).

However the program does a fairly good job in calling attention to particular technologies such as robots that can think for themselves and the repercussions that might arise, and to issues such as people’s attitudes towards the use of drones and robots to kill enemy combatants. Even here the coverage can be superficial and potentially biased: in covering people’s attitudes about using drones to kill, the program only interviews the people who employ the drones; no people in the communities where drones have been used to kill are interviewed as to their attitudes – these are known only second-hand, through the people killing them via the drones. Most distasteful of all is the focus on Israel’s use of drones in fighting Palestinians, who are elevated to the level of insurgents and therefore treated as a mysterious (and therefore malevolent) enemy.

As the program proceeds and the robotic female voice-over delves into the topic of autonomous robot systems, in which robots themselves will make all the decisions, a minefield (pun intended) of ethics, accountability and responsibility is opened. If an entire robot system prosecutes a war, making important decisions that can initiate a chain of actions leading to further decisions that in turn generate more actions, where ultimately does the responsibility for the damage and misery caused and other consequences of that network of decisions and actions lie? Most responses in the film are that a human will ultimately be responsible for (presumably) the decision to use such a system – but the problem that the film doesn’t address is where in a political or military hierarchy would that human be? Already in many hierarchies (political, military, business and so on), responsibility is diffused throughout which makes difficult prosecution of individuals in a corporation difficult if that corporation commits a crime.

The third part of the documentary comes almost as an after-thought to the previous two parts which dealt almost exclusively with robotics technologies: this section deals with the use of drone air-strikes on Pakistani and Afghan targets by the CIA and the legality of such use by an organisation operating in secrecy. At this point the value of the documentary lifts enormously: the ethics involved in using drones to target and kill particular people in areas that happen to be inaccessible to ground troops are finally addressed. Again though, the views of Pakistanis or people who could represent them aren’t canvassed.

Finally the possible use of drones, autonomous robots and swarm robots on civilian populations is considered. The question of what the consequences might be if terrorists, gangs or other organisations got hold of such technologies becomes prominent. As demonstrated by a group of robotics enthusiasts at a competition, the cost of DIY drones and robots is coming down and making the technologies more accessible to the general public – which means the technologies are also reaching people who might one day turn against the military, espionage agencies and governments. Unfortunately the more likely probability that robotics technology will be used by the military, spooks and governments to spy on citizens and turn cities and towns into virtual panopticon societies does not figure at all.

In some respects this is a very good documentary which shows graphically how the various robotics technologies featured are already being used; the sequences demonstrating swarm robots and how they might be used are particularly riveting and not a little sinister and unsettling. However the film seems hesitant to address certain issues or aspects of issues covered in the film that might imply that Western governments and their militaries would not hesitate to use drones and robots against their own populations. Technical detail is used as a cover to disguise a proper exploration of the troubling ethical dimension that arises from the use of such technologies.

Zero Dark Thirty: a journey into a heart of darkness … in its “heroine”

Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)

This film purports to document the hunt for World Public Enemy No 1, the Saudi national Osama bin Laden, and the people and incidents involved in that hunt, leading from the hijackings of four passenger jet aircraft and the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September 2001 up to and including the raid by US Navy SEALs on a compound in Abbottabad, supposedly bin Laden’s residence, in Pakistan in 2011. The film opens with a black screen and a muddled soundtrack of firefighters’ radio calls, people crying for help in the WTC buildings and emergency call operators attempting to calm them down before exclaiming that they can’t hear the WTC callers any more. Cut to a scene in which a Middle Eastern man is being beaten and waterboarded by American agent Dan (Jason Clarke) and some masked accomplices. One of these accomplices is soon revealed as a woman, Maya (Jessica Chastain), a rookie CIA agent posted to Pakistan. The film then follows Maya’s obsessive mission to track down and kill (rather than bring to justice) the dreaded bogey bin Laden while battling the male-dominated CIA paper-shuffling supervisors and administrators.

Along the way, the film fetishises torture and the staging of spectacular stunts based on actual incidents such as the July 2005 bomb attacks on public transport in London, a bomb attack at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad (Pakistan) in 2008, a suicide bomber attack that killed seven people (including a CIA colleague of Maya’s, supposedly) at an airbase in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009 and a car-bomb blow-up attempt at Times Square in New York in 2010. Bigelow’s selective use of information given her by the CIA to build a narrative structured in chapters, some of which carry CIA-jargon titles like “Human Error” and “Tradecraft”, that privilege the use of torture over other (perhaps more mundane and less visually arresting and gruesome) methods of obtaining information should leave viewers in no doubt that Bigelow is embedded with the US Department of Defense and has imbibed very deeply official US government propaganda that torture is justified if the results obtained are valuable. The film shows Maya watching DVD after DVD of men being tortured, Maya brutally interrogating and torturing men herself, Maya and another CIA agent manipulating and torturing a man related to one of the 9/11 hijackers and exploiting his memory loss, Maya happily receiving information from a financier who promptly gives up when he sees her (presumably she’s tortured him in the past) – taken together, all these incidents show that Maya resorts to intimidation, manipulation and torture as a first resort to get what she wants.

Whether the resulting information could have been found in other ethical ways is not even considered in the film. As it happens, a snippet of information found by another rookie female CIA agent in a neglected file does lead indirectly to the location of OBL’s hiding place, thus negating all previous torture efforts, but the film does not treat this agent as heroic or significant and she drops out of sight for the rest of the movie. If any proof is needed that Bigelow and script-writer Mark Boal are enthralled by torture and torture techniques and what they can do, then the film’s particular narrative emphasis, what it dwells on and what it leaves out, provides the proof in spades.

The question of torture aside, the film is a tedious and unenlightening trawl through a glorified police investigation in which Maya, a metaphor for various women agents who worked on the case, reveals unpleasant psychopathic qualities as she pursues her quarry. She empties her head and body of anything resembling compassion, consideration and empathy for others and ultimately a soul. Other CIA agents regard her with some awe at her lack of social life, a sense of humour, need for sleep and family photographs around her work desk. Even the fellow who teaches her the ropes regarding torture is shown to be affectionate towards monkeys he keeps in a cage in an Afghan airbase. At the conclusion of the film when she’s by herself, Maya sheds a tear as if finally demonstrating that she has rejoined the human species – but this comes across as a cynical after-thought on the director’s part. Discussions as to whether Maya is crying for the loss of her innocence, whether she might later come before a US Congressional inquisition on why she constantly used torture to get information, or for making herself redundant now that she’s achieved her career goal, are really neither here nor there.

Characters in the film are unpleasant one-dimensional thug stereotypes. Maya and Dan evoke no sympathy for their single-minded pursuit of OBL. A troublesome aspect of the film is that female CIA agents like Maya and Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) are portrayed as more gung-ho and focused on the hunt for OBL than their male counterparts, as though ZD30 were trying to win over a paying female audience, bill itself as pro-feminist and show that women can be as militaristic as men and presumably are up for frontline combat roles.

While Bigelow has claimed that ZD30 is “a modern, rigorous film about counter-terrorism”, the actual film comes over as racist. There have been criticisms that in Pakistani-based scenes, the language the locals use is Arabic rather than Pashto, Punjabi or Urdu and that Islamabad and some other Pakistani cities resemble war zones or dusty Middle Eastern towns rather the chaotic, overcrowded, several-million-strong metropolises they actually are. The supposedly climactic scenes in which Navy SEALs are sent out at night to storm the OBL compound may very well be inaccurate: evidence is slowly accumulating that both Pakistan’s ISI and the CIA participated in a joint operation in Abbottabad in May 2011, during which a helicopter crashed. The film shows Maya’s astonishment at being a target for demonstrations and even death, as if the thought had never occurred to her that her work might be encouraging more, not less, terrorism. Bigelow makes no attempt at trying to understand the background to the 11 September 2001 attacks or even whether the other terrorist incidents that follow in the movie are in any way at all connected to OBL and al Qa’ida.

“Zero Dark Thirty” turns out to be a journey into a heart of darkness – Maya’s (and by extension, Bigelow’s) own heart of darkness.


1945A / The Gift / R-Ha: three science fiction shorts that show creative and visionary promise

Ryan Nagata, “1945A” (2010)

Carl Erik Rinsch, “The Gift” (2010)

Kaleb Lechowski, “R-Ha” (2012)

These films have a few things in common: they’re very short science fiction films, they use CGI, they have open endings and they involve conflict of one sort or another. The films look very credible in spite of their low budgets and at least two of them have been picked up by Hollywood for future movie treatments. Of the three directors, Kaleb Lechowski is a German film student, Carl Erik Rinsch was Ridley Scott’s protege and Ryan Nagata has had extensive experience working in television since 2005 at least, according to his profile on the Internet Movie Database (

The “A” in “1945A” stands for alternate reality and it poses the question of whether victory of the Allied forces in World War II was due simply to luck on their side and not on the Nazi side. The American forces, fighting somewhere in western Europe, are suddenly confronted by a new sophisticated Spinnepanzer machine that not only stalks the landscape like something out of H G Wells’s “War of the Worlds” but breathes flames up to 50 metres in length and even has a laser death ray that melts tanks into metal pancakes! The Americans panic and flee. Nagata leaves us in no doubt that technology such as this eventually won the war for the Nazis in his parallel universe. Although filmed in colour, the story takes place at night and so the visual style of the film is various shades of grey. The fighting is desperate and brutal on both sides and Nagata doesn’t flinch from showing the horrors of war as soldiers are incinerated and one man screams in pain from two severed legs. The short looks as if it’s part of a much longer film and some viewers might find it unsatisfactory as a short in its own right. The acting looks quite credible and I didn’t think it was amateurish at all.

“The Gift” takes place in a futuristic Moscow in which a stranger carrying a mysterious box wangles his way into a politician’s mansion and uses the box to distract the man’s attention in order to assassinate him. The stranger later dies and his box is picked up by the politician’s robot servant who races away from the police. The second half of the film short is taken up by the police chase which ends tragically for the robot. The police never recover the box which ends up lost in an icy river. We are left to guess what the mysterious object in the box is that fascinated the politician.

The film is suspenseful and the acting at least is effective for the plot’s purposes. The integration of CGI with live action looks realistic though viewers may wonder why such sophisticated technology like a robot servant and a breath-testing analyser in a tiny metal straw co-exists with tinny box-like police cars. Oh well, the Russian government obviously took the police force for granted and didn’t throw enough roubles at the nation’s men in blue. As with “1945A”, we are left guessing at what might happen next with the box and this adventure with the stranger, the politician and the robot is just one of many that the box and its secret denizen have experienced.

Like “1945A”, Lechowski’s short could be a trailer for a much longer film. Two alien civilisations are at war and each is determined to destroy the other. The pilot of one civilisation is captured by the war machines of the other and subjected to torture. He steadfastly refuses to give up any information but the torture forces him to open up his mind to the machines that read his thoughts and memory. The pilot manages to escape and fly off but the war machines pursue him. Has he really escaped or have they tricked him and are using the information obtained from his mind to lead them to his headquarters?

The dialogue between the alien and the machine is hard to follow even with the volume levels turned up to maximum so I lost some of the details of the plot. The CGI work is very impressive, especially in the scenes where an entire city is destroyed by giant spidery war robots. In this short at least, torture pays off and the pilot may live to regret that in a moment of weakness he allowed the enemy to plumb his mind and inner being. Of course there’s always the possibility that in the torture scene the pilot deliberately thought of something that might lead the enemy machines astray. There is the obvious conflict between two very different alien species fighting for their own survival and there is also the conflict between an alien species that believes in putting soldiers on the ground and one that relies on machines to fight on its behalf: the suggestion is that the species that puts its own on the line is somehow “nobler” or more ethical and less cowardly than one that vicariously fights wars. I wonder if Lechowski was making a comment about the West fighting drone wars across western Asia and parts of Africa?

All three films show a lot of promise for their creators and I wish the three well in their future careers as film directors, writers and SF visionaries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb: black satire on fetishisation of war and technology

Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” (1964)

Notable as the film that features British actor Peter Sellers in three very different roles, this black comedy is a satire on the Cold War that had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and which extended to the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell, and the attitudes, culture and outlook associated with that period. In particular, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in which countries refrain from nuclear war due to the fear of universal nuclear catastrophe resulting from detonation of an atomic bomb irrespective of who drops it first, is revealed as an inadequate response to a situation of deadlock which should be resolved by communication and diplomacy, both options being badly bungled by politicians on both sides. The film is outstanding for its cast of actors and their acting: Sellers has perhaps never been better before or since he made the film, and other actors like George C Scott, Slim Pickens and Sterling Hayden also distinguish themselves playing characters on the brink of mental derangement brought about by extreme fantasies and paranoia born from their military training and background.

The narrative divides into three connected strands: General Jack D Ripper (Hayden) is so hung up about the Commies contaminating America’s vitality – there is a clear theme of nuclear power being analogous to male sexuality, therefore paranoia reveals male sexual inadequacy – that he orders a sudden nuclear air strike on the USSR and four bombers take off to drop their loads far deep in Soviet territory. News of the order reaches the White House where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) frantically tries to contact and convince his Soviet counterpart that the attack is a mistake. Muffley tells his War Secretary Turgidson (Scott) to storm the military base where Ripper and his second-in-charge Captain Mandrake (Sellers) are located; Mandrake tries to stop Ripper from ordering the nuclear attack but fails so he turns instead to figuring out the recall code that will stop the bombing. The base is stormed and Ripper’s men, believing they are being attacked by the Soviets, fight back. Ripper commits suicide and Mandrake finds the recall code and phones the White House.

In the meantime the President and his cabinet are shocked at news from the Soviet ambassador Alexei Sadeski (Peter Bull) that the USSR has built a doomsday machine after its politicians read a New York Times article proclaiming that the Americans had already made one. Muffley summons his scientific advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers) who suggests that the ambassador’s statement is a ploy. Sadeski admits the doomsday machine’s secret was going to be revealed by the Soviet government in another week.

Three of the four US bombers are eventually persuaded to turn away but the fourth, headed by Major Kong (Pickens) heads for a ballistic missile complex in remote Soviet territory and in spite of various technological malfunctions in the plane – malfunctions deliberately installed so as to make the job of dropping bombs difficult and so enforcing caution on those who would use the bomb – Kong manages to get it going in a spectacular scene suggestive of sexual penetration and the adolescent schoolboy reaction to “getting it up”. On receiving the news that a nuclear bomb has been released, Muffley and his dejected cabinet begin discussing how they can protect the American population from the inevitable radiation fall-out once the US and the Soviets begin trading inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in earnest. The weird Dr Strangelove, struggling with his atavistic Nazi tendencies, finally stands up and the feared doomsday machine is triggered as suggested by the film’s repeating coda to the tune of Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll meet again’.

The various characters in the film draw their effectiveness from the real people who inform them: Strangelove is based on famous German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, physicist Edward Teller, futurist and strategist Herman Kahn, and mathematician John von Neumann; President Muffley is based in part on US politician Adlai Stevenson; and Mandrake is based on British airforce officers Sellers had known during World War II. Mandrake is played fairly straight though it is not difficult to see Sellers’s most famous role of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther notoriety in the character and Muffley is also quite a straight, non-comic character in spite of the hilarious lines he sometimes has to deliver. Bureaucracy and political ineptitude are targets for satire through these characters. The sinister Dr Strangelove is a metaphor for Nazi scientists and others who fled to the US from Germany while the latter country was descending into flames and hell in 1945, and whose loyalties to America might still be in doubt despite the passage of time. Strangelove worships science and technology and the capabilities and range of opportunities these offer; his character might be said also to satirise those who fetishise technologies of annihilation so much that they rejoice even in the alarming number of deaths the weapons are certain to cause.

Sexual innuendos abound in the characters’ names, the language they use and their actions (Strangelove’s behaviour at the end of the film being an example) and in much of the film’s visuals and the images employed, especially near the end. This suggests that the competition to build up armed forces and military weapons with no thought for their consequences is a puerile fantasy that can only end badly.

Cinematography is employed in ways that enhance the film’s claustrophobic paranoia: the bomber aircraft is cramped, the President’s war room looks bunker-like, sealed off from public scrutiny, the headquarters at Ripper’s military base is made bunker-like as well due to the attacks on it. The film’s climax and conclusion are dominated by scenes of the bomber flying to its definition, all flipping backwards and forwards among themselves, to create a feeling of growing tension as viewers become convinced that the bomb will be dropped in spite of the White House’s best efforts to stop it.

While the film has dated in nearly 50 years as of this time of writing, what with military technology having changed dramatically to the extent that aerial bombing has all but ceased, the point that reliance on technological balance between enemies is fragile at best and dangerously unstable at worst remains and that there is no technological substitute, however seductive, for openness, accountability and diplomacy.



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

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

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

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

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

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

Coriolanus: an examination of a simple man and his place in a duplicitous and corrupt society

Ralph Fiennes, “Coriolanus” (2011)

When I was 28 years of age, a mysterious Shakespeare-reading frenzy seized me and before I knew what I was doing, I had raced through The Big Four Tragedies, a number of Roman plays, a fair few histories and three twilight-career comedies. Of the four Roman plays I read, “Coriolanus” impressed me the most for its terse, severe language and imagery, and its larger-than-life hero whose fault is to be simple and honest to himself in a society that demands he be a duplicitous and morally corrupt career politician. Caius Martius Coriolanus starts off as a soldier, pure in spirit, wishing only to defend his country in war against the Volscian enemy and rising rapidly to the highest position and honour in his native Rome. Now Rome wants to make him a consul but to do this, Coriolanus must defer to the masses and win their approval. A natural elitist who despises the Great Unwashed because they are soft, lazy and capricious where he is hard, diligent and true to his narrow morality, Coriolanus is manipulated by two wily tribunes Brutus and Sicinius into losing his temper publicly and letting fly what he really thinks of the public. The tribunes brand Coriolanus a traitor, Rome agrees and Coriolanus is forced to go into exile.

He teams up with his Volscian enemy, led by Tullius Aufidius, and before long these barbarians are at the gates of Rome with Coriolanus leading the invasion charge. Rome sends two emissaries to beg and bargain with Coriolanus but he is unmoved. Finally his mum Volumnia, his wife Virgilia, the maid Valeria and Coriolanus junior make a personal appeal to our man; Volumnia delivers such an emotional speech that Coriolanus relents and calls off the invasion. Rome and the Volscians make peace but Coriolanus ends up tarnished as a double traitor to the countries he has served and there is only one avenue left for him … death.

In Ralph Fiennes’s film, the action moves from ancient Rome to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990s in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s break-up. Rome is presented as an unidentified Western state, vaguely British with a multicultural population; the Volscians resemble South Slavs in Dalmatia. Fiennes does an excellent job portraying Coriolanus’s hard-man personality and the child-like inner man whose honesty betrays him. A major theme of “Coriolanus” is the homoerotic bromance that exists between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Gerard Butler): one fully expects Aufidius to plant a big wet smacker on Coriolanus’s lips with his own in three significant scenes. Enemy soldiers equally matched who have met several times have more in common with each other than with their own families and people, it seems. Unfortunately once Coriolanus throws his lot in with the Volscians, the relationship between him and Aufidius becomes unbalanced, Coriolanus becomes a star within the Volscian army, and Aufidius understandably feels jealous at the attention his soulmate gets. For they are soulmates of a kind familiar to those who know Shakespeare well: the man of soul (Coriolanus), perfect in most ways except for one flaw that becomes his downfall, up against the man of practicality (Aufidius) who lacks that inner sensitivity and who survives at the expense of his mirror twin but is overshadowed and tarnished by the twin’s death.

The support cast varies from good to great: Butler’s Aufidius and Jessica Chastain’s Virgilia pass muster while Vanessa Redgrave nearly steals the show as the harpy mother Volumnia. Coriolanus’s relationship with his mother is another significant theme: Volumnia seems more in love with war and blood-letting than the son. Is it possible that Coriolanus was driven to be a soldier to please his mother? If Coriolanus had not had Volumnia as his mum, would he have chosen another career instead and become a more balanced, mature man? Is he the replacement for the husband Volumnia once had? Why does Volumnia live through her son and dominate him so much? What might their relationship say about military men and their mothers? Many apparently patriarchal and macho societies throughout the world are distinguished by deep relationships between sons and their mothers: Japan, Saudi Arabia and parts of Latin America are such societies. It is known that ancient Spartan men were extremely close to their mothers who supposedly told their sons that if they went to war, they should either come back totally victorious or return dead on their shields; so Sparta is another candidate society albeit a past one. Fortunately Redgrave plays Volumnia in a way that demonstrates the woman’s deranged nature without making her look camp.

I have some misgivings about the film’s time and place for “Coriolanus”: the period of Yugoslavia’s break-up and the war that raged across Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia generated so much misinformation, propaganda and lies about what really happened there that film-makers who want to make films in that setting are treading in a dangerous mine-field of assumptions and expectations that can easily blow apart. As seems to be the practice with modern-day Shakespearean adaptations, emphasis is placed on the news media channel Fidelis TV (ha!) as a character in itself, relaying urgent news (and spreading propaganda) about Coriolanus and his doings, and helping to damn Coriolanus in the eyes and ears of Romans. The two tribunes Brutus and Sicinius are shown co-operating with two young revolutionary leaders which raises the issue of how much radical youth movements are actually manipulated by cynical politicians; with knowledge that the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy has been abetting so-called “progressive” or “liberal” groups in countries as varied as Serbia in the 1990s, Ukraine, Gruziya (Georgia), Iran during the 2009 Presidential elections, Egypt and Libya in 2011, and Syria in 2012, I consider this issue a very pertinent one indeed.

Not all of Shakespeare’s original play made it into the film and I rather think the film does itself a disservice by omitting Aufidius’s final speech when he realises that he has lost his soul brother. Overall the film does a very good job recreating the martial spirit and ambience of the original play and treating some if not all its themes: the class divide, crowd psychology and how people can be manipulated, the issue of public reputation versus the private reality, gender roles and expectations, and the place of an individual in a changing society whose expectations of him / her shift permanently and for which s/he may be ill-equipped to meet.


Hiroshima Mon Amour: simple story of two lovers hides complicated message about memory and the fragility of existence

Alain Resnais, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959)

This famous film tells a very deceptively simple story: a French actress whom we’ll call She (Emmanuelle Riva) is in Hiroshima for a few days to film an anti-war movie and meets a Japanese architect, He (Eiji Okada) in a bar at night. They fall in love and begin a short affair. The story really starts with their conversation in bed after sex: She tells He what she knows about the atomic-bomb devastation of Hiroshima in August 1945 and that she identifies with the city’s loss and sorrow, and he denies what she says. Though they have their separate lives with marriage partners and families, the two are strongly attracted to each other and He follows She obsessively through the city. She reveals to him her early life: as a teenager during the German occupation of France, she had fallen in love with a German soldier (Bernard Fresson) in her home town Nevers. After the Allied victory, the soldier is shot dead and She is disgraced and banished by her family to a basement cellar for a long time. Eventually She leaves Nevers for Paris.

The film revolves around when, not if, She returns to Paris to her own life and He goes back to his; in the meantime, the couple fight against the forgetting of memory and past love. She wants to return to Nevers to remember the soldier-lover; He wants her to stay in Hiroshima. There’s no indication on his part though that he will leave his wife and it’s just as likely that once She returns to Paris and her husband, that she won’t return to Nevers. Eventually She will forget He and He will forget She, or at most they will remember each other as one of several lovers each will have in an effort to remember previous lovers. Indeed She identifies He with her German lover and addresses the Japanese man as if he were the soldier; he readily accepts the identification but doesn’t reciprocate with identifying her as a past love he might have had. There’s the other possibility that She is emotionally fragile enough because of past history that she will give in to He’s demand to stay in Hiroshima but if she does so, both their marriages and careers are likely to be destroyed.

The plot is a dialogue between two cities, one revelling in victory but unwilling to let go of the past, the other humbled in defeat but ready to move ahead and forge a new beginning. There are many contrasts demonstrated between Nevers and Hiroshima: Nevers is a quiet, provincial town of old stone buildings and cobbled streets, faded and worn; Hiroshima is lit up well into the small hours of the morning, neon signs and billboards blaring new material goods and pleasures to be had. She’s affair with the soldier possibly represents a rebellion against old forms and conventions; for this blasphemy She suffers banishment and is unable to talk about it until she meets He, who can empathise because the old forms of the Hiroshima he once knew are broken.

One-third of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is taken up with a documentary-style montage of images of Hiroshima after its destruction in 1945 and the effects of radiation exposure on the vicitms, interspersed with images of the lovers in each other’s arms, overlaid by voice-over dialogue between She and He that isn’t necessarily connected with the parallel visual narratives. This section of the film is the most fascinating and innovative part. The film is highly self-referential: She is an actress making an anti-war movie (yet “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is hardly a movie about war and peace in their conventional meanings) and He is an architect who might have designed some of the buildings that will appear in her film. The rest of the film bounces between the present in Hiroshima and the past in Nevers smoothly as if the divide between the two temporal periods doesn’t exist and the events that happened in Nevers are happening at the same time as the lovers are meeting in Hiroshima. There are also references to other films in which lovers are torn between impossible demands: in one scene, She and He visit a night-club called Casablanca, a reference to the famous Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman film.

The two actors are to be commended for their portrayals of two characters, one emotionally scarred and vulnerable, the other apparently sensitive yet a bit creepy in his obsession with the foreign woman. The camera comes in close to their faces and focusses on their wide eyes, filled with fear, longing, desire and lust in turns. Riva in particular is convincing as She, torn between her desire for He and wanting to return to Nevers, unable to make up her mind between upholding the past and her memory of the German on the one hand and and on the other staying with He who would fade away like the German were she to leave Japan: a scene in which she returns to her apartment, opens the door, hesitates and then races up and down a staircase, returns to her apartment again … reflects her state of mind and also sums up her existential dilemma of being torn between the past and the present. Excellent cinematography work turns the town of Nevers and the city of Hiroshima into significant characters in their own right: scenes in Nevers are constantly contrasted with scenes in Hiroshima in a way that demonstrates Nevers as looking back to the past in spite of being victorious in war and Hiroshima as being brash and self-confident in striding to the future though it suffered defeat and tragedy on a tremendous scale.

The film shows itself to be more complicated than just a love story between two lost souls carrying lots of emotional baggage from towns that have suffered collective traumas of their own. The importance of memory, the present’s links to the past, the transitory nature of existence as demonstrated by Hiroshima’s unenviable history and the affair with the soldier, and the contrast between victors looking back and losers looking forward are demonstrated very well. There are subtle ironies in the film: during war-time, She was free with her soldier boyfriend but when peace comes, it spells death for the soldier and discrimination, imprisonment and ultimately exile for She. Hiroshima’s destruction provides a wealth of creative opportunities for He the architect. She and He’s paths cross at a particular point in time and although they seem to be together forever in the film, it actually covers the space of less than two days and when the film ends, the couple’s time together is already counting down to zero and they will (may?) depart forever.

At the same time, there’s something not quite real about She and He and the whole film itself is quite artificial and insubstantial in feel. The characters’ dialogue isn’t natural and Hiroshima and Nevers have a staged look about them. The film looks deliberately self-indulgent and pretentious, and it’s possible to interpret it as lacking in meaning. Nevertheless “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is a very moving film to watch, particularly in its first twenty minutes when the documentary montage sequence and the lovers’ conversation run in parallel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orpheus: visually lovely meditation on triumph of love over death, the role of the artist and life in Vichy France

Jean Cocteau, “Orpheus / Orphée” (1950)

Intriguing re-telling of the famous ancient Greek legend set in post-WW2 Paris, this film combines surrealism, fantasy, situation comedy or soap opera depending on your point of view, mystery thriller and romance in its story of doomed passion, artistic inspiration, the cult of celebrity and inquiry into the nature of fascism. Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous poet whose mere appearance in a cafe filled with bored university students listening to the latest beatnik jazz causes a riot during which a young man Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe), a would-be challenger to Orpheus’s crown, is killed by two motorcyclists. A mysterious woman called the Princess (Maria Casarès) calls Orpheus as a witness and whisks the bemused poet off to her villa. He tries to follow her but she avoids him and he ends up being returned home by the Princess’s chauffeur Heurtebise (François Perier). Reunited with his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), Orpheus tries to settle back into his quotidian life but becomes obsessed with death and with recording a mysterious radio code on a strange radio station in his car. In the meantime Heurtebise becomes infatuated with Eurydice but the missus, worried about her husband’s new obsession, tries to get help and is hit by two motorcyclists. She descends into Hades and the grieving Orpheus, led by Heurtebise, goes down there to get her back.

Everything pans out more or less according to the original legend but with an extra twist: the Princess is but one personification of Death and she has fallen in love with Orpheus to the extent of breaking some unknown rule of Hades. This transgression brings her before a panel of judges in the ruins of Hades in a blackly hilarious Kafkaesque scene that most likely satirises the bureaucracy of Vichy France. The judges allow Orpheus and Eurydice to return to the upper world but one condition of Eurydice’s return leads to the couple having to live more or less separate lives in a parody of what real-life couples often go through when they’ve been married for some time and realise they don’t get on well but not so much so that they feel like divorcing, so they live parallel lives under the one roof but barely look at or speak to each other. Needless to say, Orpheus breaks the taboo and not only does Eurydice shoot back to Hades but Orpheus too is shot (literally: Heurtebise produces the gun) there as well so that he and Death can fall into each other’s arms.

In “Orpheus”, the mundane becomes the extraordinary and fantastic as mirrors become portals to the underworld and humble dishwashing gloves enable people to literally plunge through the mirror and walk into a world of beautifully lit and shadowed ruins of buildings. The car radio relays Death’s messages to Orpheus in scenes that perhaps mock poetic inspiration and at the same time recall the methods that the French Resistance and Allied Forces used to disguise their radio communications during the war against Vichy France. Scenes often have a dream-like quality with the stand-out scene being the one in which Heurtebise leads Orpheus on his first trip to Hades: Heurtebise himself floats serenely through the underworld while Orpheus struggles to keep up and a boy selling glass keeps wandering and interrupting him – a beautiful and magical scene. The special effects which include backwards-running of film and the use of mercury for some mirror scenes may be very low-budget primitive by modern standards but are dazzling all the same. There seems to be a running theme about how film itself is a mirror on human psychology.

The acting varies from ordinary in Déa (to be fair to her, Eurydice wasn’t required to be much more than either simpering or dead) to extraordinary in Casarès and Perier: Casarès in particular is alluring and sinister yet turns out to be a deeply affecting character with whom we find ourselves falling in sympathy with as she sacrifices not only her happiness in love but also her freedom and that of Heurtebise in reuniting both Orpheus and Eurydice for the second time. The couple return to the upper world and domestic bliss (?) together while Death and Heurtebise, their respective loves unfulfilled, must face eternal and grim punishment.

The whole shebang could have been laughable and pretentious camp but in Cocteau’s hands the film becomes a visually lovely and dreamy meditation on self-sacrificing love and the role of the artist in the present-day world and how to navigate it as s/he becomes famous, shot through with a parallel narrative of what life must have been like in Nazi-ruled France with its sinister motorcycle police, the tribunals to flush out French Resistance fighters and the threat of torture and death to those who disobeyed bureaucracy and acted on their own initiative.