A litany of blunders and oversights in “Deepwater Horizon: Ten Mistakes”

Jess Reid, “Deepwater Horizon: Ten Mistakes” (2021)

An investigation into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico near the US state of Louisiana in April 2010, that killed 11 workers and created a massive environmental catastrophe in the Gulf, this documentary manages to be fairly well researched yet easy for its target general public audience to follow. Concentrating on the major errors behind the oil rig explosion, starting with aspects of the culture of BP that emphasised the pressure of time and budget over-runs over safety issues, to mistakes and fateful decisions made by engineers on the oil rig, to underestimating the enormous size of the oil spill and the lack of proper plans to cap the well and to clean up the oil spill, the film draws out what it considers to be the major blunders behind the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and explains how they contributed to the accident. A number of experts including former US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu who served in the first Obama administration add their perspectives to each of the issues raised. Their points are illustrated with fairly simple technical animations and archived film of the explosion and the environmental and economic disaster it caused.

Although very detailed, the film does not do enough to show how the various mistakes it identifies are linked and reflect a corporate culture in the oil industry obsessed with making profits and taking unnecessary risks, especially in a highly risky and dangerous activity such as deep-water oil drilling. In such an industry, the pressure on keeping within time and budget limits can encourage people to take short cuts, to overlook or compromise on safety issues, to conform rather than speak out or express misgivings, and downplay problems or the scale of problems when they occur. Disaster and contingency planning is given short shrift and when a disaster does occur, the corporation resorts to a quick technical fix to disperse the problem to make itself look good for the government, the media, the public and (most of all) its shareholders and investors.

The film fails to pound the US government for its weak regulation of the oil industry and its revolving door personnel policy in which oil industry executives take up positions in the US Department of Energy, loosen regulations on their former employers and then later return to the industry with a change of government. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the film comes near its end when the government fails to punish BP in proportion to the scale of the explosion and the damage it caused to marine environments and the livelihoods of communities and the industries around the Gulf that rely on viable marine environments and ecosystems there. The consequences of the oil rig disaster and of the use of Corexit dispersant to disperse the oil spill on the health of the people who worked on the rig and in the affected environments were and still are considerable. The experts interviewed in the film agree that many of the mistakes and blunders identified have not been properly dealt with and could lead to another major deep-water oil rig explosion.

The film serves as a good introduction to a major human-made disaster that is still generating long-term environmental, economic and human costs in the Gulf. Viewers wanting more information will need to do their own research but at least they will have a handy foundation to work from.

A Day in the Life of an Untouchable Sweeper: a snapshot of discrimination against Dalit people in India

Amudhan R P, “A Day in the Life of an Untouchable Sweeper” (2003)

Known as “manual scavenging”, manually cleaning public and private toilets, open drains and streets of human excrement is still being done by thousands of men and women across India. Much of this work is traditionally done by people from the Dalit (untouchable) communities that are at the bottom of the caste social system. Dalit women sweep and clean dry waste in streets, collect it in cane or metal vessels, and carry these vessels on their heads to dispose of the shit at central disposal points in their communities. Men and women clean faeces from public and private toilets, gutters and drains, and men usually clean sewers and septic tanks.

This video, scripted and filmed by Amudhan R P, follows Mariyammal, a sanitary worker with the Madurai Municipal Corporation as she cleans a street near a temple in Madurai. Mariyammal describes her daily routine to Amudhan as she goes about her work – her employer does not give her proper protective clothing or equipment like a mask, gloves or appropriate footwear so she goes barefoot to avoid soiling her shoes – and vents her anger and frustration about the work she has to do, the lack of proper equipment she is given to do her job, and the discrimination she is forced to put up with from the people around her because she is a Dalit and a sanitary worker.

Featuring close-up shots, and with a jerky style due to Amudhan having to carry the camera on his shoulder, the film can be very confronting for viewers as they see the amount of back-breaking work Mariyammal must do every early morning: scattering ash or sanitary powder over piles of faeces, and sweeping the shit into her vessel with scoops she must obtain or buy herself. She makes three trips to a central disposal area in Madurai. She tells Amudhan that she herself is in bad health (in the opening credits, the film notes that sanitary workers are at risk for asthma, malaria and cancer from their work) but despite requesting a transfer to other work, her employer refuses to move her. She cannot give up working despite her meagre pay and demeaning job as she is a widow with a large family of boys (some of whom must work as labourers) and a huge debt with high interest to pay moneylenders after taking a loan to pay for a son’s wedding. Amudhan passes no judgement on how Mariyammal does her work or on her frustration but patiently asks questions and absorbs some of the anger she vents. Mariyammal turns out to be a feisty lady especially when she takes a break and orders morning tea for herself from a tea vendor. She is not afraid to boss local children for shitting in the street she has to clean and local people appear to tiptoe gingerly past her as she strolls through the streets like a queen.

Since the film was made, it has won awards at film festivals in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi and was even shown at a film festival in China. The street where Mariyammal worked was shut down and Mariyammal was shifted to different work. The working conditions of other Madurai sanitary workers have improved somewhat with better equipment given them as well. Providing the poor people of Madurai and elsewhere in India with better living and working conditions that might include better public sanitation infrastructure – when one sees the dreadful public toilets in Madurai, one understands why poor people prefer to poop in back lanes and alleys – and which turn the faeces into a useful asset such as fertiliser or fuel, seems to be beyond the scope of government at local, regional and national level though: the legislation to provide proper public and private sanitation, making manual scavenging unnecessary, may exist but enforcement is something else altogether.

How medicine and nursing became the accomplices of genocide in “Caring Corrupted: The Killing Nurses of The Third Reich”

James Bailey, “Caring Corrupted: The Killing Nurses of The Third Reich” (2017)

A grim and horrifying film, all the more so for its clinical, matter-of-fact tone driven mainly by interviews of researchers and Holocaust survivors, “Caring Corrupted …” explores and explains in much detail the role of the medical and nursing professions in killing physically and mentally handicapped adults and children in Nazi Germany (1933 – 1945) and participated in the Holocaust. The film uses voice-over narration and interviews to give a detailed chronological narrative in which a context of military defeat, political and economic chaos, and government inability to deal with the Great Depression and pay outstanding war debts to the Allied victors resulted in the rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists to power in Germany in 1933 and their subsequent control of German society and culture with widespread propaganda resulting in the mass brainwashing of people, and of medical professionals in particular.

Chillingly the film details the Western political / cultural context of the early 20th century, built on Western imperialist policies seeking to justify the genocide and enslavement of peoples in Africa and Asia in order to steal their lands and resources, in which prevailing political, economic and scientific ideas and ideologies combined in birthing scientific racism and eugenics. The film shows that the ideology of racial hygiene to justify selective breeding of humans and getting rid of people deemed racially or genetically inferior was widespread in Western societies from the 19th century onwards well into the 1970s, not just in Germany; indeed, much of the inspiration for pursuing racial hygiene policies in Nazi Germany came from the United States. The nature of German society in the late 19th / early 20th centuries with its emphasis on hierarchy, junior doctors and nurses deferring to more senior doctors and nurses, and women deferring to men provides another aspect to the context.

The film’s chronological narrative follows the development of involuntary euthanasia programs (known as Aktion T4 programs) for handicapped people and children in hospitals, and the ways in which doctors and nurses participated in those programs – the nurses often holding children while the children were overdosed with sedatives by other nurses on the orders of doctors or senior nurses – and how those euthanasia programs developed into larger institutional programs that herded Jewish, gypsy and other groups deemed racially inferior into concentration camps and systematically killed them with the participation of medical and nursing personnel, many of whom had previously worked in the euthanasia programs. In a number of concentration camps in Germany and Poland, horrific and sadistic medical experiments were carried out on inmates: all these experiments were overseen by Dr Josef Mengele and suggested either by him or other physicians. In all these experiments, doctors and nurses were involved in carrying out tasks that amounted to torture, mutilation and murder. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II in May 1945, a number of doctors and nurses were tried and convicted for war crimes and crimes of genocide but many of the institutions they worked in and carried out the euthanasia programs still continue as working hospitals.

Unfortunately many of the root causes and the political / economic / cultural context in which the euthanasia programs leading to the Holocaust arose still exist in societies around the world. As the film concludes, the factors that turned Germany, one of the most culturally advanced nations in the world in the early 20th century, still exist in most nations: they are often factors rooted in human psychology and especially in human social psychology.

The film has become more relevant in the current COVID-19 pandemic era as medical and nursing professionals, particularly those working in hospitals, come under pressure from governments to administer injections of experimental drugs with often severe side effects (including death) and short-lived benefits, and to deny patients more appropriate and safer (but less profitable for large pharmaceutical firms) treatments. General practitioners in many countries are also under pressure to administer jabs of purported vaccines to patients or face the threat of losing their licences to practise medicine. Widespread government propaganda about COVID-19 and its supposed threat to public health to justify lockdowns and abolishing civil liberties, and at the same time discriminate against people refusing injections of COVID-19 vaccines, eerily echoes the Nazi propaganda that demonised Jewish people, gypsies, Slavs and others considered racially inferior and unfit.

It is no longer just enough to learn about the Holocaust and the roles that the medical and nursing professions played in it; we must also learn how we can easily be manipulated and brainwashed by governments and corporations into hate and following their agendas.

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Robert Malone (15 September 2021) – how COVID-19 is exploited for money at the expense of public health

“The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Robert Malone” (15 September 2021)

For much of this 75-minute interview with US virologist / immunologist Robert Malone, the usually very talkative host Jimmy Dore is quiet while Malone explains carefully and in much detail the risks associated with the use of mRNA vaccines as the sole solution in eradicating the COVID-19 pandemic. As a contributor to the development of mRNA inoculation technologies – in the 1980s, he did studies that found mRNA could be transferred in a lipid into cell cultures to direct the production of new proteins, and later worked with others on research suggesting that mRNA could be synthesised so as to create a desired protein – Malone may be assumed to know much about what mRNA vaccines can and cannot do, and what their consequences in the short term and long term may be.

Malone is allowed to range far and wide in his criticism of the West’s reliance on COVID-19 vaccines at the expense of other treatments in dealing with the pandemic, and of the issues arising from that reliance. There are ethical issues involved in governments compelling people who work in particular industries or in the armed forces to be vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccines, the efficacy of which can wane over time, and which could also drive the evolution of the SARS-COV-2 virus in such a way (through selective pressure on the virus to change or delete that part of its genome targeted by the mRNA vaccines) that will render the vaccines useless and require the use of booster vaccines. These issues have consequences for public trust in health care generally and in doctors, nurses and other health care workers in particular. The reliance on vaccines gives power to pharmaceutical corporations who dictate to governments, public health officials, the medical profession and pharmacies as to what treatments can or cannot be allowed for patients.

The discussions that Jimmy Dore initiates are equally of value: he inquires about the phenomenon of leaky vaccines and how these enable more virulent strains of a virus to evolve, putting unvaccinated people and vulnerable people with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems at risk; and he and Malone thrash out at length the restrictions by governments and pharmaceutical corporations on news media, social media and other public discussion about the effectiveness of Ivermectin in treating COVID-19 symptoms. Later in the show Dore goes rogue over a Rolling Stone story that went viral on social media: the story referred to a doctor in an Oklahoma hospital claiming that gunshot victims had to be turned away by the hospital because it was supposedly being overwhelmed by patients who had overdosed on Ivermectin, portrayed as livestock deworming medicine. The story was later proven false by the hospital which said the doctor making the claim was not employed there – yet the story was picked up by news and current affairs media outlets and repeated endlessly with the insinuation that Oklahoma state residents, being Republican Party voters, are too stupid to know better than to use drugs for animals. Malone’s contribution to Dore’s diatribe is that news media in the US is dominated by a small number of corporations which are cross-linked and integrated with pharmaceutical corporations which, like news media companies, have also become fewer and larger through takeovers of smaller companies and mergers with bigger companies or companies of similar size over time.

There is later discussion of possible reasons for the low prevalence of COVID-19 in Africa, among them the fact that most people in Africa are less likely to be obese and to be diabetic. The reasons are complex and cannot be isolated from one another.

The best moment of the interview comes late when Malone talks about how pharmaceutical corporations are exploiting the pandemic for profit by forcing vaccines onto governments supposedly representing billions and using their power to stop the public from finding out about cheaper, safer and/or more effective solutions and treatments. Big Pharma also funds US government agencies like the United States Food and Drug Administration, many of whose employees come from Big Pharma itself and go back there. The share prices of Big Pharma companies also rise in part due to their manipulation of news media to favour them and their vaccine narratives.

There is much Dore and Malone don’t cover in the interview – in particular, the international system of intellectual patents followed that is exploited by the pharmaceutical industry to get rid of generic drugs or drugs like Ivermectin whose patents have expired – but this interview, while heavy-going and aimed mainly at US audiences, is an informative introduction to the politicisation and exploitation of COVID-19 for money and influence.

Be Water: a dull and over-long biography of global pop culture icon Bruce Lee

Bao Nguyen, “Be Water” (2020)

A stolid documentary, Bao Nguyen’s visual biography of global pop culture icon Bruce Lee is a conventional retelling of his life, starting with his birth in San Francisco in 1940 and his early years in Hong Kong as a child actor and his introduction to martial arts as a young teenager. Through the use of archived films and photographs, and interviews with people who knew Lee, “Be Water” follows Lee’s journey between two very different worlds that he was part of, and yet not part of, as his family sends him away to SF and then to Seattle for further education after the teenager gets involved in fighting other kids and runs afoul of Hong Kong police. Lee completes high school in Seattle in 1960 and later travels to Oakland to continue his martial arts training and to teach others, Chinese and non-Chinese alike. He is criticised by people in the SF Chinese community for teaching martial arts to non-Chinese students. He participates in martial arts exhibitions and comes to the attention of Hollywood producer William Dozier in 1964 who sees potential in Lee as an actor. This leads to a role as Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet” which lasted one season from September 1966 to March 1967. During this period Lee meets and marries Linda Lee Cadwell and they have two children, Brandon and Shannon.

From then on, Lee continues to develop his particular style of martial arts, which he called Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid art drawing from different martial arts and combat sports including boxing and fencing. In this, he was influenced by the examples of Muhammad Ali and other rising boxers of Ali’s generation, many of whom were African-American. He also appeared in other TV shows and worked as a stuntman and martial arts instructor to actors who sought him out. After being turned down for the lead role of the television series “Kung Fu” – the role went to David Carradine – Lee returns to Hong Kong on the advice of a Hollywood producer to make a film there that he could later show to Hollywood studio execs. Lee discovers that he is a huge star in HK where “The Green Hornet” was broadcast. Signing contracts with Golden Harvest and later forming his own production company, Lee makes three films “The Big Boss”, “Fist of Fury” and “Way of the Dragon” in which he is the lead actor: these films rocketed him to stardom across Asia.

The documentary can be very long and quite dull in its chronological layout, and for an in-depth work it does contain some inaccuracies about details of Lee’s life and some of the work he did. The concept for the “Kung Fu” television series was developed independently by three script-writers and Lee had been invited to audition for the show: Lee had independently developed his idea for a similar TV series “The Warrior” based around a martial arts practitioner but, contrary to what the documentary says, the “Kung Fu” series was not based on “The Warrior” though the two shows shared similar ideas. Despite the documentary’s heavy reliance on interviewees like Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell and their surviving child Shannon, and others close to Lee, the information about Lee’s philosophy that underpins Jeet Kune Do and its heterodox approach seems to have been cherry-picked and shoehorned into fitting the film’s agenda about Lee himself trying to find an identity in two societies and cultures that initially reject and then accept him. Lee’s own emphasis on being inclusive and how his adaptability and open-mindedness led him to become an innovator as a martial artist, actor, film-maker (director and script-writer) and philosopher are given short shrift. I have the impression that Lee himself regarded his path as a continuous work in progress, the “identity” of which would not and would never be complete until death, yet the film insists on imposing its own notions of what Lee was carving out for himself within the framework of identity politics.

While there is interesting information about past discrimination against Asian-Americans in US society and in Hollywood in particular, and how Asian-American people have been patronised by American culture as well-behaved and subservient minority American citizens (implying that African-American citizens are bad because they dare to protest at the discrimination they suffer), at the same time there is not enough information about Lee’s own impact on US popular culture and how his example and work influenced Hollywood beyond his death in 1973. How his work influenced his children – and many others – to follow in his foot-steps as actors and martial artists themselves is not discussed. In the wake of other film documentaries and other material about Bruce Lee’s life, this recent documentary adds very little that is new apart from pigeon-holing him as an Asian-American attempting to “bridge” two cultures..

A plot to take down Russian political activist in “Navalny: Fake Poisoning (Part 1: The Patient)” is unravelled

“Navalny: Fake Poisoning (Part 1: The Patient)” (Soloviev LIVE / Vesti News, 24 August 2021)

Presented by Alexander Sosnovsky and Sergei Karnaukhov, this very smooth and slick investigation traces in considerable detail the chronology of Russian political activist Alexei Navalny’s journey on that fateful day 20 August 2020 when he left his hotel in Tomsk accompanied by two aides Ilya Pakhomov and Kira Yarmysh and went to the airport in that city to catch an early morning flight back to Moscow. While on the bus to the airport, Navalny is recognised by bus passengers who take selfies on their mobile phones with him. Half an hour into that plane trip, he falls ill and the flight crew divert the plane to Omsk. Just before the plane lands, Omsk airport officials receive bomb threats but the plane is cleared to land. Omsk Hospital medical personnel rush to the airport and take Navalny to the hospital.

While doctors put Navalny into an induced coma and on a ventilator, take blood samples and conduct tests, and stabilise the patient, news flashes around the world that the activist has taken ill and almost immediately Western news media speculate that he has been poisoned with Novichok, a deadly nerve agent of organophosphate origins. Over the next few days, Navalny’s wife Julia demands that Navalny be transported to Berlin for treatment and Russian President Vladimir Putin gives permission for this to happen.

With recorded video statements from various medical workers who treated Navalny while rushing him to hospital and in the hospital itself, and from a police officer, Sosnovsky and Karnaukhov posit a narrative that suggests a plan to have Navalny fall ill on the plane and the plane forced to circulate above Omsk airport while Navalny’s condition deteriorates was in place. The behaviour of the people accompanying Navalny on the plane or associated with him while he was in Tomsk and then Omsk is very odd. In particular, Navalny associate Maria Pevchikh and two others immediately make their way to Navalny’s hotel in Tomsk, break into the room where he stayed and collect various items including three water bottles after seeing Yarmysh’s tweet on their mobile phones that Navalny has been poisoned. (Later, Pevchikh is photographed at Novosibirsk airport buying a water bottle from a vending machine with the exact same labels as the three bottles collected at the hotel.) Significantly the three people who collected the water bottles in Navalny’s hotel room refused to answer police questions during the police investigation and Pevchikh flew out of Russia and back to Britain.

Meanwhile the Omsk hospital doctors, consulting with doctors in Moscow, determine that Navalny is suffering from a metabolic disorder – a high amount of sugar is found in his blood samples – and treat him accordingly. Elsewhere in the program, Sosnovsky and Karnaukhov mention that Charite Hospital doctors treating Navalny in Berlin found lithium in his system and wrote a report which they submitted to the British medical journal The Lancet. The presenters note that lithium is used to treat bipolar disorder and depression and that an overdose of lithium can lead to confusion, fainting, seizures, coma and death. Combined with other substances, lithium can inhibit the action of cholinesterase (necessary for the proper functioning of the nervous system) in the body.

The involvement of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who apparently found toxins in blood samples taken from Navalny by Charite Hospital doctors that were consistent with toxic chemicals in schedules 1.A.14 and 1.A.15 in the Annex on Chemicals to the Chemical Weapons Convention, in contrast to what doctors in Omsk and Moscow found; and various odd discrepancies in details regarding when the samples were collected, depending on whether the German doctors or the OPCW are making the claim, not to mention that the bomb threats to Omsk airport came from a server in Germany, might suggest that a plan to poison Navalny had already been in place some time – perhaps even weeks or months before – before Navalny went on his trip to Tomsk, and that various organisations such as the OPCW among others were under pressure to adhere to the plan. Somewhere in the elaborate establishment and running of the plan, the water bottles in Navalny’s hotel room disappear and the Novosibirsk vending machine water bottle turns up instead with supposed traces of Novichok.

Sosnovsky and Karnaukhov compare Navalny’s poisoning with the dioxin poisoning of then Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko during Ukraine’s presidential elections in 2004, and how that poisoning incident led to run-off elections which Yushchenko won, with the implication that Navalny’s poisoning was supposed to have set off a train of events that would result in Navalny somehow becoming Russian President eventually. (Leave aside the fact that Navalny enjoys little popularity in Russia and has no significant political backing.) At the end of the episode the two presenters promise that Part 2 will cover Navalny’s recovery and what happens when he leaves Charite Hospital in Berlin.

The value of an investigation such as this conducted by the television show “Soloviev LIVE” is in showing how an incident is conceived and planned, with propaganda supporting the plan is created and repeated across news media outlets, and how the plan depends on the various actors involved and/or drawn into the incident behave … and how the plan can rapidly fall apart when some of those actors don’t play their part as ordained. Whichever parties make such plans seem arrogant enough to assume that people will behave in certain patterns and follow certain paths, simply because those patterns and paths would be what the planners themselves would follow. Apart from a few technical details – the constant flashing of “Patient” throughout the program is annoying, even though this title card is used to help structure the program’s chapter-by-chapter presentation – this episode is very professional and appears thorough in its investigation. The presenters put forward facts and details with no apparent visual or audio bias (though they finger the lithium as the cause of Navalny’s poisoning and collapse) and leave viewers to make up their own minds.

Karolyi: a slick example of sports propaganda whitewash

Jack Felling “Karolyi” (NBC Sports, 2016)

Here is a very slickly produced documentary made for the NBC television network as part of a series of sports documentaries made before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The documentary breathlessly follows the careers and lives of Romanian women’s gymnastics coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi from the time they met in Romania at sports college in the early 1960s, marrying in 1963. The Karolyis started a national gymnastics school and one of their early students was Nadia Comaneci. The Karolyis trained Comaneci to the level where she and other of their students were named to represent Romania at the 1975 European Championships and the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. The success of the Romanian team and Comaneci in particular at these Olympics catapulted the Karolyis and Comaneci to international fame – but it also led to conflict developing between Bela Karolyi and the Romanian Communist government, with Comaneci becoming an unfortunate victim. After the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, the disagreement between the Karolyis and Bucharest deepened and the Karolyis defected to the United States in 1981. After their defection, the Karolyis had to struggle to re-establish their coaching careers in the US and for a time Bela himself had to work as a manual labourer on a ship dock. They were able to establish a gymnastics school in Texas and took on an eager student called Mary Lou Retton. Retton’s success at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles laid the foundation for the Karolyis’ rise to becoming the national coaches for the United States women’s gymnastics teams from the late 1980s onwards to 2016. During this period, the Karolyis (with the help of a US senator) were able to get their daughter Andrea out of Romania in the early 1980s and built their gymnastics training camp and ranch in a rural area north of Houston.

The fawning documentary depicts the Karolyis as being rugged and persistent Ayn-Rand individualists achieving incredible fame and success as sports coaches almost on their own. Bela Karolyi apparently built his training camp and ranch himself. Nothing is said of the help the US gymnastics community gave to the Karolyis to help them set up their gymnastics school in Texas. The Karolyis’ most famous students (Comaneci, Retton and US 1992 and 1996 Olympian Kerri Strug) are interviewed along with the Karolyis themselves, and what the young women say tends to be positive towards the Karolyis. There is none of the criticism that has dogged the Karolyis over the decades with respect to their training methods and psychological manipulation of young gymnasts in Romania and the US, the cult-like atmosphere fostered by the physical isolation of their training camp and ranch, and how the context of this isolated training camp combined with their treatment of the girls and their families set the stage for sports doctor Larry Nassar to be able to sexually abuse hundreds of young gymnasts.

In the wake of the US gymnastics sexual abuse scandal that erupted in September 2016, this documentary now looks quite creepy especially in the scenes depicting the training camp and its isolated surrounds. It still has some value though as an example of propaganda that whitewashes its subjects in a very favourable light (of a softly golden glowing kind) and would be suitable for propaganda studies looking at how sports celebrities are created and moulded to push particular ideologies that celebrate rugged individualism and heroism.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team) – how athletes become fodder for nationalism in team events

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team)” (2020)

The final installment in this fascinating and informative documentary series follows MyKayla Skinner as she aims to do what very few other US gymnasts before her have done: leave the US national team to concentrate on collegiate gymnastics which helps her regain her original love of the sport and then attempt to break back into the elite level and win a place on the US Olympics team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Previously Skinner had been an alternate for the team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro: she still had to practise and work on all her routines for those Games in case she had to replace a team member; unfortunately for her, no-one on the team got sick or injured enough that she was needed. After years of hard work and struggle, and periods when her motivation was flagging, Skinner retreated into collegiate gymnastics (which makes different demands on gymnasts) and rediscovered the joy and her childhood dreams. Moving back into the elite however demanded more exacting standards from her so, with the help and advice of her coach, Skinner changed and upgraded her routines, began the strenuous conditioning and practice again … and somehow, in 2019, got engaged and married to her boyfriend.

The episode explores the politics and sometimes powerful nationalism underlying the team event in major women’s gymnastics competitions like the Olympic Games and the world championships, and how geopolitical events and issues can have a deep influence on the young women competing for Team USA in gymnastics. The boycotts that affected the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, both political in nature, had a huge impact on the team and individual competitions in both men’s and women’s gymnastics: the Los Angeles competitions will always be seen as lesser compared to the 1984 Friendship Games gymnastics competitions organised by the Communist nations in eastern Europe. The example of the team competition during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, in which US team member Kerri Strug famously performed her second vault with a badly injured ankle and collapsed after hitting a perfect vault with no hops and saluting the judges, is described in considerable detail by fellow team member Amanda Borden with archival video film to illustrate her words. Borden also talks about her self-doubts even after making the 1996 Olympic team and the psychological uplift she got when all the other girls on the team voted to make her team captain.

Other gymnasts like Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Dominique Moceanu, Samantha Peszek and Betty Okino describe their experiences as US Olympic team members and how at some point in their careers they mentally switched from performing for themselves and their families to performing for the other members of their teams and ultimately for their country at team competitions. Svetlana Boginskaya remembers her time as a member of the Unified Team (formerly the Soviet Union team) for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as bittersweet, as she and other team members won their gold team medals and then went home to new individual nations, never to perform as one team again.

While much screen time is devoted to how changes in team competition rules and scoring affects coaches’ strategies in selecting particular gymnasts for national teams, very little is said about how nationalism might have a pernicious effect on gymnasts’ psychologies and add extra pressure on the girls to perform to the expectations of not only their coaches and team officials but also of the news media in their countries, the corporations that sponsor them and the general public who follow the girls’ progress. Competing at the Olympics, especially if held in a country the gymnasts are unlikely ever to visit again, should be a fun experience where they meet new people and come in contact with new cultures and different ways of thinking and seeing things; instead it becomes an experience often filled with dread, anxiety, even fear and pain, or a reinforcement of ugly chauvinist attitudes and stereotypes about other people and countries.

As the last episode in the series, this installment might have gone out on a high note with various gymnasts and ex-gymnasts interviewed for the series saying what they believe gymnastics has done for them: has it improved their lives, given them opportunities to discover what talents and strengths they have, led them on career paths they might never have had otherwise? What do girls like Skinner, Jade Carey, Sunisa Lee, Morgan Hurd and Jordan Chiles think on their present journeys through the sport – what do they believe will open up to them in their future careers by gymnastics when they finally hang up their hand-grips and leotards for good? Apart from this, the series has been an interesting if perhaps very US-oriented exploration of the recent history and culture of the sport.

Since this series was completed, Skinner succeeded in her dream to represent the United States at the delayed 202o Tokyo Olympic Games but as one of two non-team individual gymnasts, the other being Jade Carey. Consequently Skinner did not compete in the team competition but performed as an all-round competitor in the qualification rounds. She did not qualify to compete in the all-round final but did compete in the vault final after fellow US gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of that competition; Skinner ended up winning a silver medal for vault.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics) – how a toxic culture obsessed with success enabled sexual predation on minors

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics)” (2020)

A major theme of “Defying Gravity …” has been the dysfunctional culture of the sport obsessed with success and winning medals at all costs to the detriment of the health and well-being of the athletes involved. The competitive and exacting nature of women’s gymnastics and the willingness of young female gymnasts to please their superiors has led to individual coaches, officials, judges and others to manipulate, shame and abuse young women. A toxic culture is created that further attracts manipulative, often sociopathic individuals who may have their own agendas with regard to the gymnasts – agendas that include the sexual abuse of under-age girls.

This episode explores the sexual abuse scandal that rocked US gymnastics in the 2010s when gymnasts and former gymnasts like Jamie Dantzscher, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross, Dominique Moceanu and others exposed Larry Nassar, a sports doctor employed by Bela and Marta Karolyi at their gymnastics camp in Texas during summer holidays, as a sexual abuser. Dantzscher and Wieber describe the camp and the competitive, often abusive atmosphere created by the Karolyis which pitted girls against each other and made them afraid to complain to their parents or other significant adults. The Karolyis did not allow parents to attend the camp and this made for a cult-like ambience where girls were cut off from people who could have challenged the Karolyis and their treatment of the gymnasts. Moceanu points out the qualities that Nassar had that endeared him to Marta Karolyi in particular – among them, his eagerness to please her and flatter her – and how he was able to take advantage of her friendship towards him to assault the girls in his charge.

Unfortunately Nassar is not the only person in the gymnastics world to have abused numerous gymnasts: former US national women’s gymnastics coach Don Peters was also found guilty of sexually abusing gymnasts and many coaches in the US have been put on a banned list – although as sports journalist Blythe Lawrence observed, the criteria for banning a coach are not clear as so many coaches who should have been banned were not on the list. Former Soviet star Olga Korbut speaks bravely about the abuse her coach Renald Knysh inflicted on her and on other gymnasts he trained back in the 1970s. There is no mention of whether sexual abuse occurred in other countries’ gymnastics programs though the physical abuse Romanian coaches meted out to gymnasts (and of which Romanian gymnasts themselves have spoken to the press) is well known.

Driven by interviews with Dantzscher, Wieber and other gymnasts, the episode climaxes in trial hearings at which the gymnasts testify before judges and speak about their abuse. The court case against Nassar climaxes when he is sentenced to 175 years’ jail time. For this, the gymnasts are awarded the 2018 Arthur Ashe Award for bravery.

Ironically perhaps the very qualities instilled by their coaches into these young women – persistence, grit, grace under pressure – are the qualities that enable them to stand up to their abuse and their abusers and to speak out against a culture and organisation that for too long have condoned abuse and allowed abusers to prey on succeeding generations of young gymnasts. However, as long as gymnastics and other sports continue to prize a winner-takes-all attitude, and derive their values from a competitive and combative neoliberal capitalist ideology that winks at bullying and abuse, the potential for a sports culture that enables physical abuse, psychological manipulation and sexual predation on minors will always exist.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault) – not the most powerful episode in the series

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault)” (September 2020)

Compared to previous episodes in this six-part series, this fourth installment is not nearly as fascinating and the human stories featured seem rather superficial. The vault, its history and development, its place in gymnastics as an exacting and often the riskiest and most dangerous apparatus for gymnasts, and the experiences of various gymnasts, past and present, with that apparatus dominate nearly the entire episode.

The gymnasts who are the primary focus here are Grace McCallum and Jade Carey (both of whom later competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games after the series was made): McCallum comes from a large family with limited resources and Carey is coached by her father. The episode could have made much more about these families’ involvement in their daughters’ training and gymnastics careers, including the sacrifices parents and other family members have had to make, and covering the social and economic contexts (even if in a very general way) in which families are often forced to make decisions to forgo things or experiences to put their children into private sports clubs to get the opportunities to develop their talents. What sort of neighbourhood or town do these families live in, that compels them to enroll their daughters in gymnastics and not any other sport? Why do some families support their daughters in pursuing gymnastics, knowing the sacrifices they have to make and the perils that might await their children in the sport, while other families with equally talented daughters do not? There could have been references to families pushing their daughters to continue training even when the girls have lost motivation or are in pain, and the pressure and guilt gymnasts may often feel knowing that their parents and siblings have given up or denied themselves opportunities so that the girls can continue with gymnastics. The issue of whether gymnastics and other popular sports other than team sports like football or baseball should be subsidised by state or federal governments or charities – so that Grace McCallum’s family would not have needed to pay private fees for her gymnastics and maybe one or more of her siblings could also have opportunities to excel in a sport or creative activity also supported by government or charity money – would become a theme underlying the episode.

As usual, the episode is driven by interviews with past and current gymnasts who often provide good, even penetrating insight into the sport and the often toxic and cult-like culture surrounding it. Kathy Johnson especially is an excellent commentator and critic of practices within the sport that have harmed gymnasts in the past. Unfortunately though there is not very much information given about reforms and changes in the sport with regard to safeguarding and improving young gymnasts’ self-esteem and general mental health.

There is brief mention of the tragic story of Julissa Gomez who suffered brain damage after botching a vault at a competition in Japan in which she hit her head and injured her neck, and was later starved of oxygen while being treated in hospital in Japan. This incident is passed over very quickly. There is no mention of the pressure Gomez was under to perform the type of vault that led to her catastrophic injury and later death.

I rate this episode as a lesser entry in what otherwise has been a fine series so far.