The Chinese Companies Behind Water Supply in Africa: how Chinese companies transform lives and communities in Angola and Zanzibar

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 6: Precious Water)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

This South African documentary follows two Chinese corporations on opposite sides of southern Africa in their efforts to supply impoverished rural and urban communities with running water. The first half of the documentary features China Railway Jianchang Engineering Limited (GRJE) building water pipelines and water and sanitation infrastructures to bring running water to communities on Zanzibar Island in Tanzania. The second half of the documentary focuses on the work of Guangxi Hydroelectric Commission Bureau (GHCB) and in particular the work of one of the company’s managers in bringing water infrastructure and a power station to Luanda and Lobito respectively, two major cities in Angola. (Luanda is also the capital of Angola.) In both halves of the documentary, the Chinese companies not only work on constructing pipelines to bring water into communities and take stormwater and sewage out, and provide work and training for local people, but also become involved in social projects the communities need. The GHCB manager interviewed in the documentary has also invested time, money and effort in establishing a farm to provide food and work for people in the Lobito area. GRJE is also helping to build a hotel on Zanzibar and its engineers have consciously incorporated traditional Zanzibari designs and craftwork in the hotel’s construction.

Interviews with Chinese managers and local people in Zanzibar, Luanda and Lobito focus not only on the transformative effect the water infrastructure projects are having on the lives of the people but also on the respect the Chinese and their African partners have for each other. The Chinese respect the hard work and diligence of the African people and the Africans find the Chinese to be reliable and helpful in going beyond the original aims and scope of the water supply and sanitation projects. Voice-over narration provides historical and economic context for the projects; in particular, viewers are made aware of the destructive effects of the civil war that lasted over 25 years in Angola on people’s lives and the conditions they live in. Unfortunately the voice-over narration has to fight the music soundtrack to be heard clearly.

The cinematography is very good with many, sometimes confronting close-ups and panoramic, even postcard-picture views of Zanzibar, Luanda and Lobito. African children figure very prominently in the film, giving it a bright and even sometimes bubbly and optimistic feel.

How Chinese Money is Changing Housing in Africa: a survey of how Chinese companies are transforming African people’s lives and societies through housing projects

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 2: Building Homes)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

Part of a South African-made series of six episodes on Chinese business investment in Africa, this very interesting and visually appealing documentary looks at how two major Chinese construction companies have gone about building major housing projects in Angola and Tanzania, and furthermore how these two companies have become further involved in improving the lives of the people who have moved into the houses and of the workers employed in building the houses. The documentary uses both voice-over narration and interviews with managers and employees of the construction companies, and the people living in the housing projects to illustrate what the construction companies have done for them and the transformations that have followed.

The documentary is split into three parts for easy viewing. The first part follows the Shanghai Construction Group (SCG) in its construction of mass housing across eight provinces of Tanzania for the Tanzanian Peoples’ Defence Force. A military veteran and his family are given a new house and they marvel at the amenities and the space that they did not have in their previous shabby dwelling. The second part of the documentary surveys a new satellite city, Kilamba City, built on the outskirts of Luanda, the capital of Angola, built by CITIC according to Chinese construction codes and standards. Streets follow north-south and east-west orientations, and buildings are oriented in ways so that harsh sun can be minimised where possible and good ventilation is maximised. CITIC provides an additional service – an after-sale service if you like – in repairing utilities in individual dwellings even where the fault may have been the residents’ fault.

The third part of the documentary covers CITIC’s involvement in helping to improve agriculture, in particular food production and agricultural research, in Angola. This part of the documentary also follows CITIC’s construction of a vocational school to train young people in civil construction, mechanics and electrical work. The episode concludes with CITIC’s sponsoring of a table tennis club for children which extends to bringing out coaches from China to teach the children how to play.

Unfortunately the background music is very loud and drowns out parts of the commentary so much information can be lost and viewers need to repeat the documentary a few times to catch interesting snippets. Apart from this technical fault, filming is very well done and includes panoramic shots of the housing projects and Kilamba City itself to illustrate the huge scale of this particular project and the urban landscaping that accompanies it. A brief bit of historical context is included: after independence in 1975, Angola experienced a long period of civil war and foreign interference which ended in 2002. Much reconstruction needs to be done, employment must be found for people, services need to be provided and it seems that Chinese firms such as SCG and CITIC are not only filling the gaps of assisting in reconstruction, building new infrastructure and providing jobs and vocational training for people, but also addressing people’s needs for schools and providing children with recreation and sport, thus also extending their help and influence into local cultures. Emphasis is on how China and African nations have supported one another in the past and how the Chinese remember and honour the support African peoples have given them – by providing practical help.

The documentary portrays a very positive picture of how Chinese companies are helping Africans lift themselves out of poverty by giving them work and training as well as the housing and amenities they desperately need. Western nations and companies would do well to observe what the Chinese are doing and emulate the best aspects of the Chinese example. Of course one notes that the documentary says very little about what SCG and CITIC might or might not be doing that could be negative, and which the Angolans and Tanzanians could be critical of – for one thing, we do not know who is financing the housing projects or how they or any loans taken out on them will have to be paid for – and one could argue that the film fails to look at the long-term issues likely to arise from the mass housing projects. By focusing on the present, the film could be attacked as pro-Chinese propaganda. One can argue though that private Western developers would not do any better – and would do far worse – in failing to consider even short-term consequences of any construction projects they might undertake in impoverished nations: one only has to see what such companies do in their own nations, and the problems relating to urban design and infrastructures, and failure to connect with local communities that private housing projects often engender.

What the Media Won’t Tell You About Venezuela: mini-documentary won’t tell you much more either

What the Media Won’t Tell You About Venezuela” (ReallyGraceful, 3 June 2017)

Viewers of this very short mini-documentary on Venezuelan politics won’t learn very much about why Venezuela’s current socialist government under President Nicolas Maduro continues to survive despite the country’s poverty and food shortages – nor will they learn anything about what’s actually fuelling the food shortages there. The thrust of ReallyGraceful’s video is to show that the people of Venezuela – and by implication, people in other middle and lower income nations around the world – are caught between two camps of evil, or what ReallyGraceful herself perceives as evil, and that the Western mainstream news media will push their audiences to choose one of these camps (usually the US and its allies) as the good guys. In the film, former President Hugo Chavez and the socialist ideology and structures he implemented in Venezuela are viewed by ReallyGraceful as part of Venezuela’s ongoing problems; at the same time ReallyGraceful correctly identifies Venezuela being under siege by the US and forces allied with it (among them, Israel and the global finance industry including the Bank of International Settlements) as part and parcel of the problem as well.

While ReallyGraceful does well in fingering the dominance of the oil industry in Venezuela’s economy over past decades as the underlying foundation of Venezuela’s recent past and current problems, she fails to note that this dominance is the result of policies made by past politically conservative governments in the country working together with US political and corporate interests to the detriment of Venezuelan people. Such policies privileged foreign oil interests (to the extent that other industries in the country suffered from lack of support and declined) and ignored the healthcare, educational and other social needs of the Venezuelan people. When Chavez became President in 1999, he sought to rectify the dire economic straits of the majority of Venezuelan people by using oil revenues to fund social services and other programs. To his credit also, Chavez tried to diversify Venezuelan industry and support programs aimed at reviving agriculture though with mixed success.

ReallyGraceful notes that food shortages have been severe in Venezuela but fails to realise that, again, the favouring of the oil industry and US oil interests by conservative governments before Chavez led to the decline of agriculture in Venezuela to the point where the country became overly dependent on imports of food, even food staples. For some reason, or perhaps because his time as President was cut short, Chavez never tried to wrest control of food imports away from companies owned by wealthy families and individuals opposed to his government and socialist ideology, and current President Maduro and his government are perhaps too preoccupied in dealing with more urgent issues to be able to address this issue of food imports. The result is that food importers can use classic-economics demand and supply phenomena as blackmail over the general public and create social and economic chaos for the Maduro government.

ReallyGraceful’s anti-socialist stance blinds her to the possibility of Venezuelans as individuals and in groups, communities and non-profit organisations confronting the food shortage issue by growing their own food and organising their own food markets to sell, barter or otherwise distribute food to those who need it most.

I note though that ReallyGraceful ends her film by observing that Venezuela is under pressure from the US and the global finance industry to yield its natural resources to foreign ownership and control. As she always does, she invites viewers to comment on her mini-documentaries, which is her way of admitting that she is open to criticism and counter-opinions.

A case for postal banking in “Taking on the banks: The truth about the Australia Post Cartier watches affair”

“Taking on the banks: The truth about the Australia Post Cartier watches affair” (Citizens Insight / Australian Citizens Party, 19 February 2021)

In this video, the Australian Citizens Party makes a strong case that the Australian government’s sacking of Christine Holgate as CEO of Australia Post for awarding senior Australia Post managers Cartier watches worth $20,000 as performance bonuses masks an agenda to enforce a privatisation of the postal institution which would effectively prevent Holgate from developing Australia Post as a postal bank offering an alternative banking service to the Big Four banking corporations (Westpac Banking Corporation, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Bank of Australia) that would actually benefit all Australians and the Australian economy in the long term. Narrator Glen Isherwood explains how supporting Holgate is an important step in supporting the creation and development of a postal bank that works for the public’s interests, and in forcing the Australian banking and financial industry to clean up the corruption among its largest companies which enjoy oligarchic cartel-like control over the industry.

Isherwood leads off with examples of corruption such as liar loans, faked payslips, forged documents and cash bribes in the Australian banking and financial industry. Liar loans amount to nearly $500 billion and customers have been charged up to $1 billion worth of services they never received. Despite a recent Royal Commission in 2018 uncovering instances of bank corruption and predatory behaviour on bank customers, the Coalition government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed the Commission did not uncover any criminal behaviour that his government did not know about. Isherwood then returns to the topic of Australia Post and Holgate, and reels off how Australia Post saved bank customers across the country when the major Australian banks closed down branches and left many towns and communities without a banking service. For this, Holgate compelled the major Australian banks to pay commissions amounting to $70 million to Australia Post. Isherwood then demonstrates how the Australian government contrived to create a case around Holgate and the Cartier watches to push for her sacking by paying $2 million for a report whose authors Maddocks even admitted Holgate had not engaged in illegal activity but nevertheless found there were no rules governing Holgate’s decision to award the watches to the senior manager (which could be interpreted to mean that she had broken no rules at all).

An interesting comparison between Holgate’s performance as Australia Post CEO and her predecessor Ahmed Fahour’s performance then follows, showing up how effective Holgate has been in turning around Australia Post’s business and forcing the major Australian banks to cough up what they owe to Australia Post. Isherwood’s report is supported by interviewee Angela Cramp, the executive director of Community Licensed Post Offices Group, an organisation representing the interests of the people who are owner-managers of licensed post offices.

At the time of this review, a swelling group of prominent politicians (including Barnaby Joyce and Bob Katter), journalists, analysts and others have come forward to support Holgate. The Australian Labor Party is attempting to distance itself from its early castigation of Holgate and portraying itself as a staunch supporter of Holgate by piling criticism on the Morrison government. Two more interviewees, solicitor Robert Butler and former ANZ Bank director John Dahlsen discuss Holgate’s performance as CEO: Butler describes the craven behaviour of Board of Directors of Australia Post in supporting privatisation of the Australia Post and desertion of Holgate once her views about Australia Post becoming a postal bank became known; and Dahlsen praises Holgate’s achievements in a difficult working environment.

Using interviews and newspaper articles, the Australian Citizens Party exposes the agenda of the Morrison government and the elites it answers to as a predatory one antagonistic to the interests, needs and desires of the Australian public. Privatising Australia Post would deliver huge profits to a small number of companies and individuals while Australia Post employees lose their jobs and post offices in rural or remote areas are forced to close, leaving communities without banking services. The Australian Citizens Party cites sources such as Daisuke Kotegawa, a former senior Ministry of Finance public servant in Japan, who explains the difference between financial benefit (usually immediate and short-term) and economic benefit (usually associated with major infrastructure projects, and long-term and often hard to quantify), to support its call for a postal bank service. Viewers sceptical that the Australian Citizens Party is cherry-picking and citing sources to support its push for a postal banking service are urged to do online searches on the advantages and disadvantages of postal banking: the article by Mehrsa Baradaran at this link is a good introduction to the topic .

Strategic Flows, by Jacek Bartosiak: stream-of-consciousness monologue on geostrategy and geopolitics

Hubert Wala, “Strategic Flows, by Jacek Bartosiak” (Strategy & Future, 11 January 2021)

Strategy & Future is a Polish thinktank founded by lawyer / speaker / writer Jacek Bartosiak dedicated to stimulating and developing geopolitical thought and strategy for Poland and Central Europe. This film on how connections and flows between and among individuals, communities, organisations, nation states and their networks influence and are influenced by geopolitical / geostrategic concerns. At the level of nation states and their relations with one another, connections and flows which Bartosiak calls “strategic flows” (be they movements of people, trade in goods and services, flows of data, information and technology, and transportation logistics) not only determine the destinies of nations and their peoples but have also been subjected to varying forms of regulation including restrictions and outright bans. In his narration (a transcript of which can be found at this link), Bartosiak draws on history, and in particular recent history from 1945 onwards, to emphasise the importance of strategic flows as a major rationale (if not the major rationale) for the decisions that nations and major powers and superpowers especially make and have made in recent times.

Bartosiak flits between the example of Poland and larger powers such as the US to demonstrate how these nations’ physical geographies influence and determine the decisions they make with respect to defence and allocating resources to their militaries. He states that over the past 500 years, beginning with European nation states traversing the Atlantic Ocean to found colonies in the Americas and to open up trade routes to Asia, the World Ocean has become the major foundation over which global power can be exercised by nations. In the past, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and France all vied for influence over the Atlantic Ocean and its networks and then over other oceans and theirs; since 1945, the dominant power that rules the World Ocean is the United States through its Navy.

European and then US control of the World Ocean produced its antithesis in other nations’ conquests of the Eurasian landmass and the construction of railways to strengthen their control of the lands of the Eurasian heartland. Nations such as Britain and France that were sea powers were also keen to dominate trade networks in regions of the heartland (the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia) to link their colonies with both land and sea routes.

In recent times, US control of the oceans, and the political influence exercised by the US by its military projection, has come to be challenged by the rise of China as a major economic power and as an alternative role model, ideologically as well as politically and economically, for other nations, especially Third World nations, to follow. Bartosiak concludes his talk by stating that a new era of power struggle has begun between China and the US, with China challenging the US in creating a new trade network (the Belt and Road Initiative) across the Eurasian heartland and into Africa and even the Pacific ocean, in disputing and undermining the assumptions underlying the international rules-based order, in determining and controlling narratives about who runs the world and how it should be run, and in presenting an alternative model of economic growth and development that is not dependent on understanding and following Western political ideologies.

I must confess that the transcript is not easy to follow – it does have a stream-of-consciousness direction – and the film is even less easy to follow. Bartosiak’s voice-over narration is very monotonous and his narrative would have been better served in being structured in sections organised chronologically and perhaps starting with Poland and then jumping to the US. The narrative would have been much easier to follow. The continuous background music is unnecessary and is unintentionally soporific. At least the collage of films, much of which is irrelevant to the narrative, will keep viewers awake.

My main criticisms of Bartosiak’s talk are that he appears very selective in choosing facts and other information that support his views, and he makes assumptions about China and Russia – two nations that happen to be designated enemies of the US, and by extension enemies of Poland – that are not supported by facts or later political and economic development. He blithely brushes aside the chaos and poverty Russia suffered in the 1990s as a result of President Yeltsin’s leadership. He interprets China’s BRI ambitions and the nation’s move into developing 5G technology as geostrategic moves by Beijing to break Eurasia away from US domination, ignoring the fact that through economic sanctions on China and other nations signing up to China’s BRI, the US is effectively retreating into isolation of a not-very splendid kind. He ignores the possibility that American military dominance of the World Ocean has come at a significant cost to the American people themselves in the form of decaying infrastructures across the US mainland, the loss of manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico from the 1990s onwards, and the destruction of the US middle classes by their politicians, the US financial industry and large US corporations, all of whom, Bartosiak might have noticed, are linked through money flows and shared ideologies.

If USE blog readers are still interested in watching the film, following the transcript is best recommended – unless they’re watching it as a cure for insomnia.

The Red Dagger: a fiery poem essay narration and diatribe against corruption and oppression

Alan Cox, Heathcote Williams, “The Red Dagger” (2013?)

Presented in six parts on Youtube, British actor / poet Heathcote Williams’ poem essay “The Red Dagger”, a diatribe against the City of London and the part it has played in oppressing humanity across the world since the 1300s at least, is given vivid and impassioned audiovisual life by fellow UK actor Alan Cox who narrates the poem and supplies the montage of art, photographs, film stills and snippets of film and video to accompany his recitation. The red dagger of the title refers to the red sword that appears on the emblem of the City of London and, according to Williams and Cox, represents the dagger used in the murder of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in England, in 1381 by officers loyal to King Richard II. (According to other sources I have read, the red sword on the emblem is a representation of St Paul, the patron saint of London.) Through the details of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, in which Tyler and rebel monk John Ball led a movement insisting on social equality, abolishing the political hierarchy supporting the monarchy and ending the feudal system (under which peasants were the de facto property of landlords, bound to their masters’ lands), the poet Williams calls attention to the corruption of the political and economic elites that surrounded King Richard II (reigned 1377 – 1399) and finds parallels with the present City of London, its corruption and its control of the global financial industry, and how the activities of the financial elites impoverish and enslave entire nations.

Parts 1 and 2 of Cox’s fiery narration cover the 1381 uprising of English peasants against the King and his lords, and in itself the uprising as portrayed is very stirring. Whether or not the uprising has lessons for us in the 21st century might be debatable: for one thing, the levels of technology in mediaeval England were low, scientific and other general knowledge was limited, and the manipulation and exploitation that English elites exerted over the peasantry correspondingly were limited to mainly physical means, with some limited brainwashing of people’s minds courtesy of the Christian Church, a significant landowner and itself a major landlord oppressor of peasants. The most significant parts of Cox’s narration are Parts 3 and 4 in which he goes into detail about the extent of the activities and networking of the elites in the City of London and its secretive institutions, the extent to which the City of London controls the British government, its past participation in the British colonial / imperial project and the Atlantic slave trade, and its current participation in trafficking arms to nations with sordid human rights records and the global drug trade. Individuals and businesses in the UK financial services industry take advantage of opportunities to evade paying taxes owed to the government by sending money into offshore trust accounts or transfer pricing arrangements in tax havens. Something of the lavish, decadent culture of the City of London elites, dependent on rich banqueting and the associated networking, fuelled by addictions to drugs, casual sex and use of prostitutes, and possible links to sex trafficking and other sordid underground activities, is revealed in the narration and montage.

Cox’s film and Williams’ poem cover much ground and detail of how the City of London operates and has operated over the centuries, and viewers might well need to see the film at least twice to absorb most details. Being based entirely around Williams’ poem, the film does not give information sources so viewers will need to do their own research to confirm the information about the City of London. (A good start is Nicolas Shaxson’s book “Treasure Islands” which investigates the global scourge that is taxation evasion.) While the poem and film might play hard and fast with some details in parts, and Tyler’s actual rebellion might not have been as utopian, idealistic and socialist as the poem implies, the poetry genre proves to be an ideal format by which Williams (1941 – 2017) brings important political, economic, social and historical information to the general public’s attention.

The film along with transcripts of each part and footnotes giving information sources can be viewed at this link.

The Plot to Destroy Syria: a good overview of the agendas aiming at Syria’s collapse and extinction

Carlton Meyer, “The Plot to Destroy Syria” (Tales of the American Empire, 2 October 2020)

In just over 10 minutes, director / narrator Carlton Meyer lays out quite a detailed context of antagonists and their agendas behind the US-led war against their common protagonist target Syria. This war has been portrayed incorrectly (but deliberately) in the Western mainstream news media as a “Syrian civil war” waged between so-called anti-government opposition groups supposedly fighting for democracy and freedom on the one hand and on the other Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad who is always painted as dictatorial. Meyer’s explanation of the background to the war that began in Dar’aa in southern Syria in 2011 is succinct and accurate, and viewers do not really need to know very much more beyond what Meyer states in the video, though a general knowledge of Syrian history since the country became independent of France in the 1940s, with the rise of Hafez al Assad to the Presidency in particular, would certainly help.

Meyer points out that quite a few nations in Syria’s neighbourhood want Assad gone: Israel for one wants to grab territory where Jewish people lived in Biblical times, and this territory happens to stretch from the Nile River in Egypt as far east as Baghdad in Iraq, and from northern Saudi Arabia in the south to Cyprus and much of Syria in the north under the notorious Yinon Plan; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms, all Sunni-dominated, do not want an example of a country whose institutions are based on socialist principles and values so close to their own oppressed Shia-majority publics, and their plan for a gas pipeline running through Sunni Muslim territory from the Persian Gulf to Turkey and Europe was nixed by Syria; and Turkey under current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen on taking over Syria’s northern border areas as part of a resurgent neo-Ottoman empire. In addition, The United States has long had ambitions to invade Syria as part of a long-term plan under the Project for the New American Century to invade seven countries in the Middle East and northern Africa and seize their energy wealth and mineral resources. Meyer could have noted that all these nations’ ambitions overlap considerably although viewers should be able to see this overlap and realise it will lead to a situation where Syria’s enemies will co-operate to a certain extent where their interests coincide and clash where their interests conflict – with Syrian cities, towns, villages and the countryside as the battleground. Wisely Meyer does not discuss ISIS or Jabhat al Nusra, both of which need their own videos to explain how these groups arose in Syria and how they are funded and supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Turkey, the US, the UK and France.

Maps showing Israel’s Yinon Plan and its designs on the Golan Heights and surrounding areas in Syria and Lebanon, the Sunni gas pipeline (and the pipeline running through Iran, Iraq and Syria that replaced it), Turkey with Syria’s northern border areas added to it, and others make for a very visual history lesson. There are not many live-action films referenced in the video and what there are, are of US politicians during discussion and debate. For the most part the video is well-paced but it does get faster and quite breathless in discussing Bashar al Assad near the end. Assad is portrayed as an intelligent and socially progressive leader who is popular with his people. Ultimately it is due to Assad’s character as a man of integrity that he continues to be President of Syria and to attract the public support that holds the country together and stops it from succumbing to a de facto coalition of invading forces from all around the planet.

The video is worth replaying to get a full picture and understanding of what was originally at stake for Syria and still is, even though the country has defeated ISIS and other invaders and is in the process of steadily reclaiming territory (though the US still holds parts of eastern Syria) and driving terrorists out of Syria through Idlib province. The major stumbling block is Turkey which continues to drag its heels in repatriating the terrorists remaining in Idlib and to harass Syria’s northern border areas. Meyer promises more short films about Syria and the recent war there.

WeWork – The $47 Billion Disaster: a profile of a company and its founder peddling an unsustainable vision and business model

Dagogo Altraide, “WeWork – The $47 Billion Disaster” (ColdFusion,2019)

Some workers probably wish their employers would make their working lives fun for them by sending them to fun fairs once a week perhaps to ride on roller-coasters for free. Few of them would probably opt to work for a company that is a virtual roller-coaster all the time. This though has been the role of tech company WeWork in the last few years. Founded in 2010 by Israeli-American entrepreneur Adam Neumann, WeWork provides office space with a funky hipster atmosphere to pop-up and start-up ventures and freelancers, the aim being to foster a collective collaborative culture that will spark creativity and new ideas to pitch and market to target audiences. Over the next several years, the company grew very rapidly and expanded overseas to the point where it owned 840+ properties in over 120 cities around the globe and rented them out to up-and-coming entrepreneurial ventures. In 2017, Neumann met Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank, who was besotted with Neumann’s vision and plans for WeWork enough to commit billions in investment in WeWork. This enabled Neumann to set up and splash out mega-bucks on subsidiary firms like WeLive, a service that buys furnished residential property (usually following the then current fashion Zeitgeist) and leases it out, and an experimental school for preschoolers and kindergarteners – provided their parents can fork out the yearly equivalent in fees of a lower middle-class income.

Unfortunately this mix of generous investment funding and Neumann / WeWork has led to a very precipitous rise and equally steep fall in WeWork’s fortunes as documented by Cold Fusion TV, an Australian online media company helmed by founder Dagogo Altraide (who made the video under review and also provides voice-over narration), in a very calm and straightforward, rational way that makes following the ups and downs of WeWork’s recent history quite easy for viewers, even if the highs and lows are dizzying. The documentary makes clear that WeWork’s abstract business model is financially unsustainable and resembles an elaborate real estate Ponzi scheme, in that the people who rent space from WeWork essentially become the company’s employees as well as tenants. As long as WeWork provides a place for freelancers and contractors to work in, all is well for them; the moment WeWork decides to sell the property, these people have nowhere to go and become effectively unemployed. They could perhaps go to their local libraries or the Starbucks coffee shop to work as long as those places offer free WiFi but then they could have done that initially and not gone anywhere near WeWork. In addition, WeWork’s business model can only work if property prices are rising and interest rates are low, in a real estate environment where perhaps few people are able to afford their own homes because banks keep lowering interest rates to encourage property speculation and thus pump money into the economy, leading to a situation where people end up borrowing big. As one interviewee in the documentary says, the moment property prices start going down and interest rates start going up, WeWork’s business model starts to rack up huge debts quickly and alarmingly and the company starts sacking people.

What doesn’t help WeWork either is its founder Adam Neumann’s bizarre and narcissistic behaviour, verging on sociopathy, in the way he misuses the billions invested in WeWork by SoftBank, preferring to splash money on private jets and a luxurious and wasteful lifestyle. Meanwhile his employees must tolerate his abusive behaviour and tirades, his lies, his drinking and his frankly unhygienic habits. The documentary makes clear Neumann’s shabby treatment of WeWork employees and SoftBank’s trust and investment in WeWork.

The last part of the documentary is interesting in its demonstration of how WeWork’s failure and collapse without even having come as far as going public on the New York City Stock Exchange exposes the fragility and instability of the US financial system centred around Wall Street. Public confidence and trust in large investment banks doing the right thing by the bulk of their shareholders and by the public generally undergird the banking and finance industry; if confidence and trust are lacking, the banks potentially face failure and closure if companies they invest billions in fail and the banks are exposed. They would then have to call in their loans and other companies start to fail, setting off a contagion of runs and further losses of public confidence and trust in their operations.

The documentary is well made, relying on a mix of static photos and occasional moving picture videos. The pacing is steady and easy-going, and Altraide speaks with a reassuring air and confidence. If Altraide is furious at WeWork for peddling a false New Age / Age of Aquarius vision of people in offices wearing comfy casual clothes, quaffing coffee and sitting in colourful open-space settings while they work, his voice remains remarkably free of bitterness and anger. The story Altraide tells is structured in clearly defined segments, with perhaps the most interesting segment being about Neumann’s self-centred arrogance and sense of entitlement.

What the ColdFusion video ignores is why and how a company selling an abstract feel-good hippie vision and similar tech firms promoting a work culture of fun and supposed high ethical ideals end up being not only wasteful of investment money but also turn out to be deeply corrupt and hypocritical.

Vladivostok 2020: portrait of a very Russian city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean

Graham Phillips, “Vladivostok 2020” (2020)

In this 20-minute showcase of the glories of Vladivostok, the famed Pacific Ocean gateway to Russia, investigative British journalist lists what he calls his Magnificent Seven features of the city, the Magnificent Seven part being a reference to Vladivostok’s most famous export, Yul Brynner, who was one of the stars of the Hollywood Western classic based on the Japanese film “The Seven Samurai”. And these seven features are indeed amazing, not just magnificent: the two major bridges alone spanning the bay on which the city straddles, Russian Bridge and Golden Bridge, are breathtaking in their scale and architectural beauty; the city’s port is still a working port through which Russia exports and imports goods to and from nations around the Pacific Rim; the city’s emblem, the Siberian tiger, adorns Vladivostok in sculptures and in the city’s popular culture; and most amazing of all, Vladivostok is the only major Russian city in which most people drive right-handed cars, an anomaly from the chaotic years in the 1990s when manufacturing in Russia nearly all but ceased and Russians in the nation’s Far East regions imported cars from Japan to drive and sell.

Initially Phillips sets out to counter and debunk a BBC documentary featuring narrator Simon Reeve who travelled through the city. Apparently Reeve made much of Vladivostok’s geographic proximity to the Chinese border with the insinuation that Chinese investors and migrants would soon overtake the city and turn it into a Chinese city. Although Phillips does an excellent job of refuting Reeve and the BBC to the extent of grinding the Britons into fine powder beneath his feet, the camera lets the city do most of the talking: statues and memorials to famous figures and events of Russian and Soviet history dot public spaces, Orthodox cathedrals vie for tourists’ attention with their onion domes, distinctive crosses and flamboyant colour schemes, and ordinary citizens uphold quaint and eccentric Russian customs and traditions such as going commando in cold water in the middle of winter. Astonishingly Phillips also comments on the rise in shark attacks (!) along the Pacific coast near Vladivostok and accordingly the city authorities have set up shark nets along the coast so residents can indulge in another distinctive Russian custom: going to the beach, swimming and sunning themselves even when the day temperature is barely into the early 20s Centigrade.

Without doubt the best parts of the film are those parts where the camera pans around the cityscape as Phillips walks around or drives across the two bridges. Special mention must be made of a lighthouse whose keeper Phillips visits for tea and sugar, and of a famous submarine whose crews participated in major feats of heroism against the Japanese navy during the Second World War. While Phillips strolls about, one can’t help but notice how clean and tidy the streets are, how wealthy it and its citizens look, and the confidence they have. City panoramas show a gleaming, prosperous urban landscape dominated by cars, cars and more cars, many of them actually being right-hand drive cars imported from Japan. Phillips’ film is sure to have many viewers putting Vladivostok on their bucket lists of cities to visit.

The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: a survey of Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership in the 1990s

Leo Mattei, Johnny Miller, “The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms” (PressTV, 2017)

Made for the Iranian news channel PressTV, this measured documentary turns out to be a detailed survey of the period of Russia’s transition from a Communist society to a capitalist one under President Boris Yeltsin (1991 – 1999) and the neoliberal economic reforms carried out under the guidance of the so-called Harvard Boys (US economists with Harvard University backgrounds tasked to assist the transition). These reforms privatised most state-run industries including the major energy industries and enriched a small number of well-placed people, many of whom were former Soviet government apparatchiks looking out for Number 1, while the vast majority of people in the new Russian Federation became impoverished. Living standards and life expectancies fell as people lost jobs and fell into despair; many turned to drink and dangerous drugs, and in parts of the country, the rates of new HIV / AIDS infections skyrocketed alarmingly. As discontent against Yeltsin’s policies became widespread, in 1993 the Russian parliament impeached Yeltsin who then dissolved the parliament; the stand-off resulted in military units ordered by Yeltsin storming the parliamentary building and the national TV station centre, killing nearly 190 people and wounding nearly 440 others. Yeltsin became a more dictatorial leader and economic “reforms” continued to devastate the country’s economy, especially its manufacturing industries, sending more people into poverty as jobs were lost. The country’s financial situation became dire and Russia was forced to rely on IMF loans which in turn tied the country even more to neoliberal economic policies, placing it on a downward spiral into more economic and financial destruction and instability, and with that political corruption and escalating levels of crime, including gang warfare and homicide.

Through interviews with people who were close to Yeltsin, such as his former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and former Soviet Deputy Prime Minister / founder of centrist Yabloko Party Grigory Yavlinsky, or observers of the period, such as sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky and historian Alexander Tarasov, the documentary follows the career of Yeltsin as President starting with a tour of the Yeltsin Center and its museum in Yekaterinburg. This is a strange and sinister place: it whitewashes Yeltsin’s career and encourages not only uncritical hero worship but rewrites Russian history in the 1990s. The interview with Korzhakov who wrote a book of his experiences dealing with Yeltsin in 1997 is an excellent remedy: Korzhakov is frank about the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and the deeply corrupt and despotic nature of his government. Kagarlitski, Tarasov and other interviewees discuss the economic policies of advisors and ministers such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais who favoured “shock therapy” privatisation. Ordinary people are also interviewed: they speak of how the Soviet aircraft industry, built up over decades, was effectively destroyed by the “reform” policies, and how the corruption in Yeltsin’s government (from which Yeltsin family members benefited financially) and among the country’s new rich elites, known as “oligarchs”, permeated Russian society generally, encouraging the growth of criminal gangs and other criminal activity across the country. Most disturbingly, photographer Alexander Poliakov, interviewed about the 1993 constitutional crisis, implies in his statements that the events of the crisis may not have transpired as reported in official accounts.

In the mid to late 1990s, the most significant events in Russia were the outbreak of war between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya (the causes of which Yeltsin himself must bear some responsibility for) and Yeltsin’s re-election as President in presidential elections held in 1996, for which Yeltsin needed US help in creating a marketing campaign playing on voters’ insecurities and fears, and the results of which (in some regions such as Ossetia) were likely tampered with or made up to help get Yeltsin back into power. Once returned as President though, Yeltsin gave himself over to the demon drink and allowed his government to fall into the hands of others. Powerful oligarchs meddled openly in Russian politics by buying up influence over politicians. The looting of the Russian economy continued with some oligarchs amassing tremendous fortunes reckoned in the billions of dollars. Corruption and crime were rampant throughout the country. Just when people could see no hope out of their predicament, Yeltsin surprised everyone by resigning as President in 1999 and nominating Vladimir Putin to succeed him as caretaker President. The following year, Putin won the presidential elections and since then has been President (with a 4-year break from 2008 to 2012).

The documentary flows smoothly and well, and does an excellent job in following the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and his disastrous policies on particular sectors of the Russian economy, the social fabric and day-to-day life for many Russian people. The film notes the insidious role the Boris Yeltsin Center plays in whitewashing the politician and the impact he had. Just as insidious though is how the film gives little credit to Vladimir Putin in ending oligarch meddling in the nation’s politics (by making an example of crooked businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky by jailing him for 10 years when he refused to give up interfering in the political process) and reviving the Russian economy, and insinuates that high global prices for oil in the early 2000s were mainly responsible for the Russian economic resurrection. As leader of a centrist, socially liberal party, Yavlinsky is not likely to have a neutral or positive opinion of Putin, and as a dissident academic, neither is Kagarlitsky.

The film ends on a warning note about how undertaking “wrong” economic reforms can ruin economies. This is an incorrect reading of what was done to Russia by neoliberal economic policies during the Yeltsin years: far more correct is that these policies were intended to destroy Russian power and break up the country so its resources could be seized by foreign corporations and elites, and so they were the “right” policies. Attempts by the Yeltsin Center and others to portray Yeltsin as a saintly leader and decision-maker are to be seen in a similar light, parallel to how other major world leaders who also introduced neoliberal economics in their countries have been sold to the public as wise or capable, even as their economic policies sent thousands or millions into unemployment, poverty and despair.