Land: a film of two exiles from society finding friendship and healing

Robin Wright, “Land” (2021)

For her directorial debut, US actor Robin Wright chose to do a challenging character study of a bereaved woman, Edee (played by Wright herself), still in shock after losing her husband and son, who isolates herself in a log cabin in the remote Rocky Mountains somewhere in Wyoming state. She intends to start her own vegetable garden and go hunting and fishing if need be. Her plan to go completely off-grid is apparent in the split-second scene where she ditches her cellphone into a rubbish bin, and is reinforced when she tells the man from whom she is buying his father’s log cabin that he can take away her rented car and haulage vehicle. Her attempts at living off the land however meet with failure upon failure and she doesn’t get far coming to terms with new neighbours like a pack of wolves and a huge bear that ransacks her log cabin during a severe winter. In the middle of a terrible blizzard, Edee curls up on the floor of her freezing log cabin, ready to die and to be done with life.

In the nick of time though arrive local hunter Miguel (Demian Bichir) and nurse Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) who find Edee only days away from starving and freezing to death, and who bring her back to life with medicines, soups and warm clothing. Alawa wants to get Edee down to town and into hospital straight away but Edee refuses. Miguel offers to care for Edee and, surprisingly, teach her how to survive on her own since she is adamant about staying in her log cabin. From then on, Miguel visits Edee frequently to teach her how to chop wood and how to hunt, shoot and prepare deer and cook venison. Hunting her own food and eating meat help to strengthen Edee so she can concentrate on teaching herself from books on how to create her vegetable garden. Before long, Edee is doing well for herself and becomes close friends with Miguel. At this point in the film though, Miguel tells her he is going away and leaves his dog with her. Time passes and Edee soon realises something may have happened to Miguel, that he has been away from his own home for too long.

On the surface a film of survivalist self-exile and isolation, “Land” turns out to be a meditation on reconciliation, healing and being able to connect with other people. In his own way Miguel is a damaged human being who has suffered loss because of past irresponsible behaviour; by helping Edee and teaching her how to survive, he finds purpose in living and ultimately grace and redemption. From Miguel, Edee learns to reconnect with people though on her own terms and to reach out to others when she needs help. Eventually she is able to come to terms with her loss and to reach out to her sister-in-law when she wants to, not when she needs to.

While Wright and Bichir give excellent performances as Edee and Miguel, the script does leave much to be desired: the sudden jump from Edee on her own being hopeless to Edee being capable and self-reliant under Miguel’s tutelage strains credibility, especially in before-Miguel and after-Miguel scenes of Edee chopping wood. While the landscape and the ever-changing seasons are significant to the film’s visual impact and as an important aspect of the plot, even the physical environment seems subordinated to the whims of the plot with the bad weather, the wolves and the bear bothering Edee before she meets Miguel and everything brightening up and the bad animals staying away after she meets Miguel. There is much in the script that seems forced and not a little hokey, especially when Edee meets Miguel for (spoiler alert) the final time and they both reveal to each other the reasons why they did what they believed they had to do, that brought them together in the first place.

Of course the physical environment of the Rockies is essential to making this very minimally styled and structured film work and to give the impression of the passage of time. The dialogue is very sparse which I consider detracts from the realism the film attempts to show: in real life, Edee would have been talking to herself a lot as she encounters one trial after another. Voice-over narration by Wright would have added another, perhaps deeper and thoughtful dimension to the film: Edee would be wondering why Miguel goes out of his way to help her and what he hopes to get out of helping and teaching her. A mystery and not a little frisson of tension could develop as to his intentions toward her. As it is, the film seems very circumscribed by its minimalist scope and the landscapes and cinematography are made to do the work of carrying the film.

The American Occupation of Iran 1941 – 1978: Iran as a pawn of British and US self-interests

Carlton Meyer, “The American Occupation of Iran 1941 – 1978” (Tales of the American Empire, 13 March 2020)

So much history is covered in this short 8-minute documentary that it bears watching at least a couple of times – though a few questions might be raised at the end of the video. In 1941, broke and needing oil badly for its armed forces, Britain decided to invade Iran to seize the country’s oil rather than pay royalties to the Iranians on oil production. Claiming to be neutral, the US actually provided military aid to allow both Britain and the Soviet Union to invade the country and then partition it and seize Iranian assets. Although Iran put up a fight, its armed forces were overwhelmed. The ruling Shah (Reza Shah Pahlavi) at the time was deposed and his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi agreed to replace him as a puppet ruler of a virtual American colony.

Under the 1941 Lend Lease Act, the US government provided military assistance to the British and the Soviets while at the same time the US public had to accept rationing of food and fuel, wage freezes and increased income taxation. Housing construction was halted and automobile factories had to switch over to producing war materiel. 30,000 US troops were sent to occupy Iran and Iran’s government had to accept Americans in major positions. Even after World War II ended, when most US troops returned home, the Iranian government under Mohammed Reza Pahlavi still relied on US advisors. Most of the country’s oil profits went to British and US oil companies, and the Shah frittered much of whatever oil profits came to Iran on buying US weapons and equipment (and setting up a nascent nuclear manufacturing program) and on enriching himself and members of his family. The US helped Mohammed Reza Pahlavi establish SAVAK, a combined secret police / domestic security / intelligence agency, which later gained notoriety among the Iranian public for torturing and executing people who opposed the Pahlavi government.

There are a few errors in Meyer’s presentation: he refers to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company as the Anglo-American Oil Company (they were actually two different companies, the former being the forerunner of BP and the latter the forerunner of Esso) and appears to insinuate that Germany invaded Poland in 1939 after the Soviets had done so (in fact Germany invaded Poland first, then the Soviets did so). Mention of Iran nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s assets in the early 1950s under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh might have a few viewers scratching their heads as to what Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his US advisors were doing that Mossadegh would dare to nationalise a British company, as it was after this nationalisation that the British and the Americans would work together to depose Mossadegh and install a new government that would not upset London and which would allow the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company to continue keeping much of Iran’s oil wealth in its own coffers.

On the other hand, I do not have an issue with Meyer calling Iran’s current government a democracy as Iran does hold regular Presidential and parliamentary elections, however imperfect and corrupted the country’s government and political institutions may be. Indeed, Iran’s politics seems to be no more and no less “democratic” than those of Western nations where leaders are more likely to be hand-picked by their parties or other interested organisations, be they local or foreign, and presented to voters as the only choices rather than the voting electorate itself being allowed to put forward credible candidates for leadership positions.

In the last few minutes of the video, Meyer quickly updates viewers on the events that led to the downfall of the Shah in 1979. Meyer probably could have made much more of US arrogance and failure to read the mood of the Iranian general public and the widespread dissatisfaction at all levels of society with the Pahlavi royal family’s corruption and the increasing violence of SAVAK. Viewers will note the parallel between the US ignorance of the changing reality on the ground in Iran, as people joined protests and mass demonstrations against the Shah’s rule, and the current US bewilderment and panic at events in many parts of the world – in China (Hong Kong and Xinjiang), Russia, Syria and Venezuela among others – where US-supported grifters like Alexei Navalny (Russia) and Juan Guaido (Venezuela) have failed to rally public support behind them to lead a coup against governments the US desires to replace with puppet regimes. This parallel and similar parallels between the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and the 2014 overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – both coups involved violent mobs paid by US agencies to support overthrowing those leaders – surely make 20th-century Iranian history worth studying. A third parallel may be observed between the impoverishment of the US general public during World War II and the current impoverishment of Americans, the degradation of US national infrastructures and the evisceration of US culture, education, healthcare and other social services to feed an insatiable psychopathic appetite among US elites that celebrates violence, brutality and destruction in the service of empire.

The images used in the video are old and unfortunately the later part of the video uses photographic portraits of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi while Meyer does a general survey of that Shah’s rule – surely some old film footage of the Shah’s excesses might have been available. These are perhaps minor points in what is a general historical sketch of the vicious nature of both the US and British empires and their elites in a nation that has too much of a resource that both empires still need.

The Courier: a film of personal growth and suffering and of friendship transcending politics and ideology

Dominic Cooke, “The Courier” (2020)

The story of Greville Wynne, a most unlikely character ever to become a spy for MI6 during the Cold War in the early 1960s, shuttling between London and Moscow and ferrying classified Soviet information given him by a military official in the Kremlin that reveals nuclear warfare capabilities to MI6 and the CIA, is given widescreen movie treatment that explores the nature of friendship and loyalty in extreme circumstances. Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes to the attention of MI6 and the CIA, represented respectively by handlers Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) as he travels frequently to eastern Europe as a sales representative for an engineering company. Wynne is asked to go to Moscow and contact Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intel official, who will give him papers to bring back to London, in his usual role as sales representative. After initially resisting the offer, Wynne goes ahead to Moscow and meets Penkovsky. A routine is quickly established: Wynne starts making trips to Moscow to catch up with Penkovsky who takes him to the opera and the ballet, and introduces the British man to his family, all the while feeding Wynne with information and photographs that eventually prove valuable to US intelligence and the White House in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However the Soviets themselves have a mole working in MI6 – there were a number of double agents in British intelligence working for the USSR – and the mole helps the GRU to work out who is passing valuable Soviet secrets to the British. Penkovsky and then Wynne are arrested by the GRU, tried and charged with espionage, and both men are thrown into gaol. Wynne winds up in the then notorious Lubyanka prison where he suffers many privations and beatings over a period of nearly two years before he returns to Britain in 1964 as part of a spy swap.

The film serves mainly as a character study of an ordinary Englishman, initially unremarkable in personality and very apolitical, suddenly thrust into a situation where he eventually is forced to take sides and finds himself capable of heroism to try to save a man he comes to regard as a friend when that man’s life is in danger. In doing so, he is captured and is forced to suffer brutal violence, near-starvation and ill health in prison, subjected to psychological manipulation and not knowing if he has been abandoned by MI6. Cumberbatch does excellent work as Wynne who grows in moral stature through the film even though what he does as a courier is a thankless task – there is no suggestion that MI6 and the CIA reward him for the risks he is exposed to. Indeed MI6 is quite willing to discard Penkovsky and his desire to defect to th West once the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) is onto his trail and only Donovan rallies to Wynne’s side to try to save Penkovsky from arrest and certain death. The suffering Wynne undergoes is matched in the physical rigours Cumberbatch had to undergo including near-starvation to get the haggard look. Unfortunately the film ends at the point where Wynne is released from prison and reunited with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and son Andrew (Keir Hill) and we do not see the psychological traumas and other effects – including separation and divorce from Sheila – Wynne suffered, and this perhaps is a grave oversight on the part of the script.

The other actors in the film, and Ninidze in particular, also give very good performances. Buckley does what she can with a very limited role as Wynne’s long-suffering wife. As a sop to current Western identity politics, the character of Donovan is a composite character of several actual CIA and MI6 agents who include a British woman, Janet Chisholm, who also was a conduit for Penkovsky. The cinematography is well done, emphasising the greys of a world of 60 years ago in which black and white were actually not so clear-cut as we think they were, without being remarkable. The scenes set in Moscow or which involve Russians appear very stereotyped and viewers get no real sense of how Russians might have viewed Penkovsky and Wynne after they have been caught and their espionage made public.

The film is well made and fairly faithful to its source material, extracting from it a story about one man’s personal growth and a friendship that transcends politics and the grubby and frequently unethical world of espionage. Still I can’t help but feel that “The Courier” was made largely in the service of current British government propaganda and deliberate disinformation and lies demonising Russia for no reason other than that Russia has been a long-standing rival to British global imperialist and predatory ambitions, and that this context in which the film was made must surely have had some influence on the way the script was written and what may have had to be omitted. While the Americans get what they want to outfox the Soviets on the latter’s deployment of missile bases in Cuba, and the Soviets shut down Penkovsky as a traitor, the British must still be seen to “win” in some way, hence perhaps stopping an interesting story of how espionage was usually done and how unsuspecting ordinary people got roped into spying and ended up paying a price for it, just to achieve that “happy ending”. Intel agencies carry on duelling against each other in spite of the alarming collateral damage they create along the way.

Conquering the Middle East: overview of the US plan to destabilise seven nations in five years

Carlton Meyer, “Conquering the Middle East” (Tales of the American Empire, 2 April 2021)

This episode in Carlton Meyer’s long-running “Tales of the American Empire” series revolves around a long-term military policy that the US had developed some time in the 1990s to invade seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa in the space of five years, overthrow their governments and install new puppet governments friendly to the US and Israel. This policy was communicated to retired 4-star US general Wesley Clark in the weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on 11 September 2001 by a colleague, also a 4-star general, who later showed Clark a classified memo from the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listing the seven countries targeted for invasion: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran. Clark later spoke to Democracy Now! about the memo and the plan in 2007. By then, Iraq had been invaded and its government replaced by one amenable to the Americans (with President Saddam Hussein having been executed on 30 December 2006), Lebanon had been invaded by Israel and Somalia by Ethiopia, and Sudan was starting to break up after civil war ended in January 2005 and the southern part of the country that would later become independent South Sudan in 2011 had its autonomy restored. Syria would soon be hit by a devastating and prolonged drought that, together with the burden of coping with refugees from Iraq and Palestine, would strain the country’s economy and political stability.

Meyer’s short film connects the US policy with Israel’s notorious Yinon Plan, formed in 1982, to expand Israeli territory as far east as Baghdad and as far west to the Nile River. According to the film the strategy was supported by the US oil industry to grab new oil-fields and by the US military-industrial complex which makes huge profits from prolonged warfare with no end. The film does not say who else would have benefited from this policy though it does mention that in the case of destabilising Syria from 2011 onwards with a de facto army made up of ISIS and other jihadi mercenaries, the US struck a deal with Turkey: Turkey would receive Syrian territory along its border with Syria if it would supply arms and military and transport equipment.

The film follows the fate of each of the seven countries on the list in the order they were to be invaded and destabilised, and their governments ousted and replaced. The summaries are short but succinct: the actions of the US and the West in undermining the countries on the list are shocking, with the use of jihadi mercenaries (many recruited through social media) as a de facto army in Syria; infiltration of political, economic and cultural institutions in several of these countries; US sanctions targeting Syria and Hezbollah causing a liquidity crisis in Lebanon’s banks in 2019; the NATO invasion of Libya in 2011 resulting in the murder of Muammar Gaddafi and chaos in that country that continues to the present; US encouragement and support for Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006, leading to war for several years; and the splitting of Sudan into two nations and the replacement of former President Omar al Bashir through a coup with a president acceptable to the West. Of the seven target countries, Syria and Iran have proven more resilient than the others, with Syrian President Bashar al Assad still in power in Syria due to his leadership and strong public and military support for him along with help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in pushing back and defeating ISIS-allied jihadi forces; and Iran overcoming Color Revolution attempts that took place over 2017-2018 and 2019-2020. The policy of destabilising these nations still remains in place.

With the accession of Joe Biden to the US Presidency in January 2021 and the installation of Anthony Blinken as US Secretary of State, the policy has roared back into action as a virtual centrepiece of the Biden Administration’s Middle Eastern / North African foreign policy with US forces carrying out a bombing raid on Syrian territory along the Iraqi border one month into Biden’s presidency.

The film serves as a good introduction to current US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa, and to the recent histories of some of the countries on the US kill list that have been invaded and wrecked. Viewers need to do their own research to get a better understanding of the enormity of the destruction and suffering the US and the West have caused to these nations though as the film by necessity has to cover several countries quickly and the coverage is either too broad or so selective as to be almost cherry-picking. The events described in the film need to be seen in a larger context: after mention of the Yinon Plan, Israel drops out of the film’s target sights, even its invasion of Lebanon in 2006 is glossed over. Viewers will get no sense of the Biden Administration as being beholden to the US military-industrial complex, Wall Street, the media corporations, the intelligence community, foreign governments and their Capitol Hill lobbyists, and other Deep State players with their own self-serving agendas. The eager participation of Britain, France, other states in the European Union, and other Western nations in infiltrating and weakening nations like Lebanon, Libya, Syria and others – in Britain’s case, by running huge propaganda and disinformation campaigns and creating organisations (actually fronts for British companies founded by ex-intel agents) that embed themselves in target nations’ security and justice institutions – go unmentioned.

It becomes clear that the West no longer has the moral authority, if it ever did, to insist that other nations must abide by its interpretation of the international rules-based order when Western nations clearly act like vultures in picking on nations much weaker than themselves.

How is This the World: finding authenticity in virtual reality versus real world addiction and escapism

Sadie Rogers, “How is This the World” (2019)

Starting out almost as a gritty film noir crime thriller, this short film transforms into a music video of science fiction romantic fantasy – but not without some hard questions about how much the real world has degraded to the extent that young generations of people find virtual reality a better place to be true to themselves and to find real values and authenticity, as opposed to a real world full of disillusionment, fake news and history, and manipulation. A worried mother, Elise (Hanna Dworkin), searches for her son Raj (Hunter Bryant) in cyberspace by enlisting an aged worn-out hacker, Bernie (Matt DeCaro) in her search. Bernie sends Elise into the part of cyberspace he originally designed with Chloe (director Sadie Rogers herself) as her guide and companion. There Elise finds Raj secure with his new friends and a girl (Raven Whitley) and finds herself torn between taking him back to the real world of loneliness, isolation and drug addiction, and leaving him in a safe world with happy, healthy youngsters – albeit a world composed entirely of algorithms.

On one level the film can be read as a criticism of the world we have created in which young people have no hope and few spaces now exist in which young people can find one another and experience love and connection in a context free of violence and exploitation. The world Bernie created may look an odd mish-mash of 1980s-era New Romance / indie grunge / Goth punk set in an American high school but for Raj – and eventually perhaps for Elise – it appears more real than the world they have left behind. Of course the irony remains that Raj’s newfound home is not only an imagined simulacrum but it happens to be the creation of someone who himself is jaded and lives in his own dream-world even in the real world. On another level the film might be seen as a lesson in which parents must learn to let go of their offspring and allow them to grow up by making their own decisions and learning from their mistakes. The virtual world that Raj enters is a safe environment in which he can do all this without having to fear that his decisions and errors will follow him into the real world and blight his life forever.

Dworkin holds the film together as it smoothly transitions from dreary, seedy real life, filled with disappointment and alienation, into a colourful fantasy where everyone’s dreams can and will be fulfilled. The rest of the cast does good work but they tend to revolve around Dworkin. The film retains its suspense at least until Chloe begins to sing and the film improbably becomes an extended music clip. Details of costuming and setting are done very well to ensure a seamless change from one film genre to another. Tension is regained when the film cuts off just before the moment Elise makes up her mind about whether to let go of Raj or not.

Red Rover: a sparing character study of human behaviour in extreme situations

Brooke Goldfinch, “Red Rover” (2015)

In less than 15 minutes, “Red Rover” explores very minimally in a character-driven study the reactions of individuals and a community to an imminent global disaster, with the suggestion that future apocalypses and the destruction of civilisation are more likely to be caused by humans themselves than by whatever natural disaster triggers the apocalypse. In a world where lockdowns, mass hysteria and the sudden wipe-out of civil liberties may have caused far more deaths than the mystery COVID-19 pandemic itself has done to justify such government actions, this short film gains more relevance than it would have done otherwise. Two teenagers, Lauren (Natalie Racoosin) and Conrad (Christopher Gray) plot their escape from a remote and insular Christian religious community when they discover that everyone in the community has agreed to commit mass suicide via a communal Thanksgiving-style feast ahead of a supposed imminent asteroid crash into the planet. The two youngsters plan to take Lauren’s young brother John (Ian Etheridge) with them but disaster intervenes. With their families dead, the teenagers travel into town to find shelter. They accidentally come across a group sex orgy in which all the participants are high on drugs. The youngsters continue their search and muse on their future together: marriage, children, establishing a home together. Unfortunately too late Lauren and Conrad discover their time together to achieve what they want is much, much shorter than they’d prefer.

With spare acting and even more spare dialogue, Racoosin and Gray infuse life and credibility into young people who have had limited life experiences and who are at a loss in dealing with a world outside their community. They are forced to grow up more quickly than they expected to; at the same time they cling to remnants of the world that has suddenly destroyed itself, in heart-breaking scenes where Lauren dons a ballgown and Conrad talks about taking her to the prom and marrying her. The minor cast playing the teenagers’ parents do good work sketching out their families’ cult-like behaviours in very early scenes. The film crew pay close attention to the details of background surroundings: the dining room scene with a table heaped up with poisoned foods, the barren township with abandoned cars, plastic sheets scuttling across empty roads and broken glass in shopfronts.

An impression of the world falling apart, even before the asteroid may arrive, and the sad, passive resignation and melancholy that greet Lauren and Conrad wherever they go, linger long after the film ends in a blaze of light. In spite of this, the two teenagers seem determined to experience freedom and the joy of living in the short time they have together. The film drives home the point that even in the face of imminent extinction, people can still choose to live life defiantly and to its full extent. The reactions of two communities, at first utterly unlike each other but with more similarities than either of them can imagine, to the asteroid strike are sure to provoke much personal reflection or communal discussion about the nature of human denial and passivity in extreme situations.

Final Offer: implausible plot made enjoyable by great acting and fast minimal dialogue

Mark Slutsky, “Final Offer” (2018)

The premise is the height of implausibility but great acting from Aaron Abrams and Anna Hopkins as protagonist and antagonist lawyers make the film enjoyable to watch. Henry (Abrams), an alcoholic traffic ticket attorney, is picked up by mystery lady Olivia (Hopkins) at a bar; next thing he knows when he wakes up, he is in a windowless room with Olivia who presents him with the biggest deal in his life. He has been chosen to represent the human species to negotiate and sign away the Earth’s water resources to a giant space-fish species whom Olivia represents. Naturally Henry is horrified and refuses to sign anything but he has no choice: he has only a few minutes to agree and to sign the deal, and the document itself is the size of a legal textbook.

At least Abrams and Hopkins have good chemistry and they also have an advantage in having worked with Slutsky previously. Abrams deftly makes Henry quite plausible as a drunken and rather sleazy attorney down on his luck through the demon drink for much of the film, and then suddenly give his character a razor-sharp mind that finds the crucial flaw in the document that (spoiler alert) scuppers the whole deal. Olivia’s face falls and the space-fish client, seen through a window that opens up in a far wall, rumbles angrily.

The big surprise is that, having defeated Olivia and the alien, Abrams proposes a date with his attractive rival who may or may not be human. This opens up the possibility of a series of short films in which Abrams finds himself doing battle either at the negotiating table or in a courtroom with extraterrestrial judges, lawyers and their equally xenomorphic clients in situations where some aspect of the Earth or its solar system is up for grabs in dubious proposals. Maybe we should stay tuned.

Metal from the Dirt: a short surface survey of Navajo extreme metal

Clarke Tolton, “Metal from the Dirt” (2018)

Unfortunately like other documentaries I have seen on underground heavy metal, Clarke Tolton’s documentary on the underground heavy metal scene among the Navajo people in the United States doesn’t actually feature any of the music from the bands it focuses on. The Navajo are the largest First Nation in North America and have a large reservation stretching over northeast Arizona and northwest New Mexico. Much of their land is remote desert with few highways and the sense of a vast land and being cut off from the outside world is very strong even in this short documentary. Lack of opportunity and access to education and work, unemployment, poverty and the psychological and social problems associated with these phenomena – various substance addictions, depression, a high level of suicide – are rife. Cultural trauma arising from loss of indigenous culture and values, and from past actions from the US government amounting to genocide, afflicts the Navajo. The frustration and desperation with their situation have encouraged the Navajo to take up heavy metal and especially extreme forms of metal such as death metal and black metal, with which the Navajo readily perceive parallels with aspects of their original culture. The scene, known as rez metal (“rez” being short for “reservation”) that has developed is a close communal one in which musicians and their fans and families support one another and express their traditional Navajo cultural heritage and values.

There are good interviews with individuals associated with Navajo metal bands like I Dont Konform, Mutilated Tyrant, Ashtaroth and Born of Winter. Despite having grown up poor in impoverished communities, these people readily perceive the problems they have and are very articulate in detailing the problems and issues they and their communities face. A strong DIY tradition exists among the rez metal bands: they amass huge cassette collections, and I am betting most of those cassettes feature self-recorded work that they share among their friends and other bands. Unfortunately the documentary does not say if bands share members and instruments, and act as roadies for one another.

The most interesting part of the documentary comes quite late in which one musician explains how black metal conventions and rituals mesh well with Navajo spirituality and religion. The wearing of corpse-paint matches the use of black and white paint by Navajo shamans; and black metal performances can be spiritual and transformative in the sense that performers and fans alike can forget (temporarily at least) their everyday cares and enter a different world through the portal of music where they find connection.

The cinematography is very good with an emphasis on the remoteness and isolation of Navajo people from the outside world, forcing them to be self-sufficient (which explains the DIY tradition) and to emphasise communal values over individual self-interest. Landscapes are very dramatic and there are scenes of mountains and valleys that could be straight out of science fantasy novels and films, and scenes where groups of musicians stand alone in the vast desert, silhouetted by blazing sunsets.

If only some of the bands’ music had been featured in the soundtrack, even as snippets of songs, I’d have been quite happy with this documentary, short as it is and only brushing the surface of a fascinating music scene. Tolton and other film-makers making documentaries on underground heavy metal are best advised to make their films for the people and the bands they are filming, and not for a “mainstream” public audience.

Numb: a powerful short film on the effects of lockdown isolation on young people

Liv McNeil, “Numb” (2020)

Originally an art school project to occupy her for the rest of the school year, Liv McNeil’s three-minute film “Numb” has reached far beyond her original audience at her school in Etobicoke, a district in Toronto, Canada: the film has garnered 100,000 views on Youtube and gained praise from Canadian film director Sarah Polley. Starring 15-year-old McNeil herself, the film is a mostly silent work (save for the music soundtrack, “My Tears are Becoming a Sea” by artist M83) detailing a young person’s experience of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and the effect that loss of daily structure and enforced social isolation has on her. After a tour of her bedroom, in which the camera fixates on photos of friends and other memorabilia that establish the lone protagonist’s identity, the film settles on the stunning climax: a full one-minute stop-motion collage of McNeil in front of her laptop, surrounded by furniture, school notes and toys, going through weeks and months of her days in her prison, during which she suffers a silent breakdown and screams.

This heartfelt and intensely emotional film should be considered an indictment on governments and public health experts who impose lockdowns and other restrictions on healthy populations, with no thought as to what to actually do during lockdowns to ensure such actions only remain as a last resort, and who fail to protect the most vulnerable groups (in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the elderly and others resident in nursing care homes, often run by private companies for profit) from the very scourge that supposedly necessitated lockdown in the first place. “Numb” can also be read as a protest against government and corporate actions and restrictions that cause and/or promote long-term economic and psychological pain and damage: jobs are being lost, businesses are shutting down, people are losing hope and taking their frustrations out on family members or even themselves.

Hard Reset: a predictable and tired short film on human and AI relations in a future materialist society

Deepak Chetty, “Hard Reset” (2016)

The premise and the plot are predictable and rather tired, as are also the “Blade Runner” urban setting and that film’s use of the hard-boiled detective narrative together with science fiction tropes. In the not-too distant future, artificial intelligence is used to create cyborgs, known as synths, programmed to serve human beings in a limited number of ways – as miners, explorers, entertainers and prostitutes – that bespeak the materialist / consumerist orientation of society. These synths have no free will; indeed, giving them free will is a crime punishable by death as decreed by the bureaucracy, GovCentral. In this world, young detective Archer (Oryan Landa) finds solace with a synth, Jane PS626, to whom he pours out his dreams. The synth has to leave him for another customer who, against the laws of their society, programs her to have free will. The synth later kills him and Archer and his partner Sebastian (Holt Boggs) are sent out to terminate her if necessary.

With Archer having feelings for Jane PS626, and those feelings being reciprocated, bringing the synth to justice or just bringing her down becomes a complicated business for Sebastian and the three synth enforcers he brings along. Sebastian just wants to do his job, get his money and maybe a promotion, and be pals with Archer. Archer finds connection with Jane PS626 and the two escape to a derelict lot (shades of “Blade Runner”!) on the edge of the city. Sebastian and his enforcers track them down and the scene is set for an almighty confrontation.

As in “Blade Runner”, humans are portrayed as either existentially lonely, alienated beings who rediscover their humanity through a synthetic humanoid, or as dehumanised robot creatures. One wonders how Archer and Sebastian became friends as well as partners in the first place, the two men being so different. Jane PS626 learns to love and care for Archer in the brief time they have together. Just when viewers think they have seen the climax, as in most films featured on the DUST science fiction channel, “Hard Reset” introduces a twist into the plot – that’s why it’s called “Hard Reset” after all. We realise we have seen an alternative plot in which Archer reclaims his humanity, though briefly. The “real” plot is the one where Archer fails to seize the opportunity to escape his humdrum existence and as a result loses Jane PS626 – forever. He may never know what it’s really like to be human and is doomed to dream forever with no-one to share his dreams with.

Landa is appealing as Archer though he plays the character in the way I imagine Ethan Hawke would have done: the brooding, troubled Archer is drawn and fleshed out in a way that would have suited Hawke. McAdam is beautifully luminous as Jane PS626 but is not given a great deal to do; even Joanna Cassidy’s Zhora and Daryl Hannah’s Pris in their brief moments in “Blade Runner” had definite identities and despite having been made for very specific roles (Pris being a pleasure replicant) they both displayed abilities far beyond what they were required to be. As Landa and McAdam carry the film, viewers are entitled to think they’d be more than stereotypes. The rest of the cast do what they can in their constrained roles. The special effects are good for a short 40-minute film with a limited budget.

At least the film asks viewers to consider the morality of treating humanoid artificial beings in ways we would consider treating real humans as immoral. Synths may not have free will or the ability to know right from wrong, but just as exploiting animals because their cognition appears limited compared to humans is wrong, why then would exploiting machines with some limited cognition or self-awareness be moral? One might also consider that humans out of touch with their morality or humanity are no more deserving of compassion or empathy than those they treat grievously. This is a theme also of “Blade Runner”.