Tag Archives: Documentary

War is Sell (2004)

 “How and why might a culture take their conflict into an organized form?”

Napoleon once said, “Men will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon,” and considering he talked 1000s of men into an insane assault against Russia, well, we can only assume that Napoleon knew what he was talking about. The documentary film, War is Sell takes a look at how a war is ‘sold’ to the people who have to fight it. Obviously the politicians who come to the decision that war is the only solution to whatever foreign policy problem the country faces are not the ones who put their lives on the line, so the big question becomes, how do those at the top–those making the decisions–persuade the rest of us peons to go along with it?

war-is-sellWar is Sell is divided into three sections. The first section, Tricks of the Trade examines some tried-and-true methods behind whipping a country into a war frenzy, and this takes us to a discussion of propaganda. Propaganda is defined as “attempts to indoctrinate a mass audience” while it “strives to be invisible.” Interviews with several writers and media watchdogs are included, and the film examines propaganda techniques including: Demonizing the Enemy, 3rd Party Endorsement, Staying On the Message, Telling the Big Lie, Using Doublespeak, and Silencing the Opposition. The film uses a historical approach with archival footage to examine these tactics used through WWI up until the present mess in Iraq.

The film’s second section, Teaching Propaganda is the weakest. The filmmakers enter the classroom of high school teacher, Mary Skinner and record her lesson about propaganda and subsequent discussions with her students. While Skinner’s valiant efforts in the classroom are noted, this section of the film is uninteresting. Perhaps if one plans to teach a classroom of students the same sort of lesson, there’s some value here, but apart from that, this second section seems wildly out of place.

The film’s third section, however, was extremely interesting. This section, The Culture of War takes an anthropological approach to examine the phenomenon of violence. Professor Neil Whitehead from the University of Wisconsin presents a rational, thoughtful and intelligent overview of humans and their violent tendencies, and he notes that when it comes to war, there is a political gap between the “intentions of the leaders and the willingness of the followers” that has to be “filled with some sort of narrative.” The narrative, Whitehead argues, might include the “danger of resource loss” and/or the presentation of “aggressive action from another.” This narrative, Whitehead explains “need not be untrue.” Naturally, however, problems arise when national aggression towards another country is unjustified (based on, let’s say, wildly inflated intelligence information) or “presented as the only possible option.”

This final section (and strongest part of the film) includes: The Need for Propaganda, Bred for War, The Cannibal Within, The Terrorist Within (an examination of state terrorism and the Theory of the Intimacy of Violence.)

The 2-DVD disc set places the film on one disc, and the other disc is devoted to extras. Extras include: archival footage, WWI posters, short films: America Goes to War, Divide and Conquer, and Despotism, footage of the US presentation to the UN in 2003, miscellaneous Iraq War propaganda, deleted scenes, John Stauber: Embedded Reporters, Mary Carpenter: Trench Warfare, Robert Fisk: Descending into the Pit, Alexander Cockburn: Very Bad Liars, and Amy Goodman: The Silenced Majority. It’s somewhat uncanny to see propaganda materials from WWI and realise how strikingly similar these materials are to the stuff used to trumpet the Iraqi War. I suppose some things never change. For those interested in reading more about war propaganda, I recommend Mickey Z’s handy-dandy guide: Seven Deadly Spins.

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Anarchism in America (1983)

“I’m a man of peace, and that’s why I’m an anarchist.”

This DVD includes two documentaries–the title film, Anarchism in America and The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists. In the first film, the filmmakers take the thesis that some aspects of the American temperament are compatible with aspects of anarchism. The filmmakers take to the road and interview various individuals with this thesis in mind. A variety of individuals–both anarchist and non-anarchist are interviewed–including a truck driver, and workers from a worker-owned sewing company. The decisions these individuals have made in their lives are examined in light of anarchist beliefs. The film also includes a segment featuring Ed Headman from the No More Nukes Programme in which he explains how the non-hierarchal aspects of the anarchists can also be found in No Nuke protests.

Additional segments from this 75-minute film include a brief clip of the Dead Kennedys in performance, followed by an interview with the band members. Archival footage of Emma Goldman is included, and the intensely practical Murray Bookchin also describes his movement towards anarchism following his disappointment with Communism.

The second film, The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists is 55 minutes long, and it’s the stronger of the two films. The film examines the massive immigration to America in the late 1800s–a movement that brought with it a number of Jewish anarchists from Russia. They “replaced American culture with a counter culture” and established an “anarchist milieu.” These anarchist communities were devoted to fighting for better labour conditions in the sweatshop conditions prevalent in America at the time. The film also examines the Yiddish anarchist newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme–a newspaper that survived from 1890 until 1977. Many of those involved with the paper are interviewed, and with their words, they recreate the atmosphere of the times and the philosophical and ethical framework behind anarchism. In one particularly delightful scene, the caretaker of the Haymarket memorial remembers that during WWI, with anti-German feelings running high, the mayor of New York insisted on calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” (makes you think of those freedom fries….). The film also examines the strong antiwar sentiment amongst anarchists who are largely “pacifist by conviction…refusing to pick up arms”–and in particular describes the anti-conscription efforts of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman who were ironically deported to Russia for their activism.

The interviewees describe a rich, vital, and well-organised anarchist society that included lectures, dances and the establishment of the Anarchist Red Cross–an organization devoted to aid for prisoners in Czarist Russia. Historian Paul Avrich appears to discuss the role of anarchists in the Labor movement in America–and various highlights in the movement are mentioned–including the Haymarket tragedy, the Ferrer Modern School, and the persecution of anarchists that resulted in the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Of the two films, I preferred  The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists. Anarchism in America is a bit too shapeless for my tastes.  From directors Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher.

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Why We Fight (2005)

 “They want to spread democracy around the world on the point of our bayonets.”

Using footage from Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation, director Eugene Jarecki’s documentary film Why We Fight includes the departing president’s warning: “we have been compelled to create a permanent armament industry of vast proportions. We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.” Eisenhower, according to interviews with family members, struggled with the growing Military-Industrial Complex, and as an old soldier, he was alarmed by its explosive expansion following WWII. The film examines the roles of all the players in the war food chain–from those who make the bombs, those who design the bombs, those who drop the bombs, those politicians who make the decisions to drop the bombs, and those contractors who profit so well from carnage. On the other side of the coin, the film also includes footage of the results of so-called “precision guided missiles” (and as it turns out, they can be wildly inaccurate), and this includes some fairly gruesome photos of the morgue in Baghdad.

why we fightOn another level, the film examines the background stories of two people touched in different ways by the war in Iraq. There’s a very sincere New Yorker, Wilton Setzer, a retired policeman who lost his son in 9/11. At first, he sought revenge for his son’s death, and like many Americans, he somehow connected the war in Iraq to the bombing of the Twin Towers. Setzer was flabbergasted when he heard Bush admit on television that there was “no connection” and his sense of clear outrage is shattering as he realizes that both his grief and patriotism have been exploited. Another thread follows the story of William Solomon, a young man who decides to enlist in the army following the death of his mother. One of the most interesting observations the film makes about enlisting is that “self-interest” is used to gain recruits, while paradoxically they are then expected to pay the ultimate “self-sacrifice.”

The most powerful statement the film makes, however, is the complete, startling emotional and moral disconnect of those involved with the war-machine of the Military-Industrial Complex. The film interviews humble assembly line bomb makers, and one woman who charmingly says she’s rather be “making toys” for Santa Claus, agrees she’d rather not think about the ultimate goal of the bombs she helps make. Similarly, pilots interviewed gently smile as they recall how proud they felt to be involved in the first air strike in the war on Iraq. Even a weapons designer–a woman forced to flee the debacle in Vietnam, is now ironically employed to design and create weapons that are crafted for maximum destruction. The film follows the war food chain through the huge corporations that benefit from war, the lobbyists, congress and the politicians who need to feed the voters at home with jobs from the Military-Industrial complex.

Undoubtedly, the film is so good because director Jarecki calls upon such a range of participants. Those interviewed include Richard Perle from the so-called New American Century Project, McCain, Gore Vidal, and various military advisors and historians. Lt. Gen Kwiatkowski who resigned from the Pentagon when she could not stomach the disinformation campaign that raged prior to the invasion of Iraq sums it up beautifully: “Why we fight? Because not enough people are standing up and saying I’m not doing this anymore.”

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Dreams of Sparrows (2005)

 “Baghdad is hell.”

The documentary The Dreams of Sparrows is the first film from Iraqi filmmaker Hayder Mousa Daffar. Daffar states, “I wanted to show the world what life was like in Iraq.” Those fortunate enough to stumble across this film certainly gain at least a brief, painful glimpse of daily life in Iraq.

dreams of sparrowsDaffar and his associates interview a number of Iraqis and travel to several locations. Most of those interviewed are optimistic about Saddam’s removal from power–although a few interviewed Iraqis start swearing when they hear the name ‘George Bush’. But as the film wears on, months go by, and optimism changes to despair as the daily conditions worsen. Those standing in long lines for petrol are interviewed, and the mood isn’t pretty. We see glimpses of life in a private girls’ school in Baghdad, a temporary shelter for the homeless, a Sadr City insane asylum, and a Palestinian refugee camp. Palestinian refugees were welcomed by Saddam, but were turfed out of their homes after the U.S. invasion. When the film was made in 2003, these Palestinian refugees had spent 8 pitiful months in tents. One man asks, “Where is the democracy and the freedom?”

Members of the General Union of Writers in Iraq present their philosophical interpretations of the current situation, and one man explains the insurgency as an inevitable consequence, “When you provoke a people against their leader, you will start a revolution.” There are even a few shots of U.S. troops. Some are protecting a petrol station–others are seen storming a home, and still others are seen chatting with Iraqi children.

The Dreams of Sparrows has its amateurish moments, but overall it’s a fascinating glimpse at a tragic situation. The film begins with a cheesy reenactment (just like those appalling history reenactments), and while it’s understood what the filmmaker is trying to say–the film would have been a lot better without the reenactment. A word of warning–there are a few graphic scenes involving humans and animals. The film takes us to the site of mass graves in Fallujah, and dead and starving animals are a common occurrence in the film. In English and Arabic.

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Deserter (2008)

 “I don’t understand this war, but I’ve seen what it’s done to the guys who’ve come back and that scares me. I don’t think I’m a coward, and I don’t want to desert my friends or my unit, but I’m not going to kill for this war, and I’m not going to die for it.”

Deserter from Big Noise Films (www.bignoisefilms.com) is the background story of Ryan Johnson’s decision to go abandon the military and go to Canada. From California’s socio-economically depressed Central Valley region, Ryan joined the army in 2003. When faced with deploying to Iraq, Ryan contacted the GI Rights Hotline and then with his wife Jen, he went AWOL, drove to Canada and slipped into the “modern day underground.” During the Vietnam War approximately 100,000 sought refuge in Canada, and Desertion is a subject that’s largely being ignored by mainstream media at this time.

deserterRyan’s decision is basically the core of the film’s content, and we see Ryan in various stages of his decision-making process–from a phone call to the Hotline and on the road to Canada. Although the film’s focus is Ryan, his situation is emblematic of thousands of young people who find themselves torn between the demands of conscience and military orders. In 2004, the Pentagon admitted that 5500 soldiers had deserted since the beginning of the war in March 2003. While according to some websites in the fiscal year 2007 alone 4,698 soldiers deserted.

Ryan presents arguments for the moral dilemma he faced. Obviously becoming a deserter and seeking asylum in Canada is not an easy decision to make. This is a decision that has permanent irreversible consequences, and those who become deserters leave family, friends and country behind–perhaps never to return. The decision is further complicated by the fact that it’s unclear whether or not U.S. military personnel will be allowed to stay in Canada. Furthermore, there’s no sign that the Iraq War will be ‘over’ any time soon, and it’s perfectly obvious that anyone who deserts from the military will have to stay away until the political climate changes.

Footage makes it clear that this was not an easy decision for Ryan, and the film creates a platform for his arguments. Basically, he felt caught between moral obligation and military duty in an impossibly difficult situation. Knowing that going to Iraq would mean involvement in a war he did not agree with, and the possibility of killing, Ryan understood that with desertion he faced social ostracism and a jail sentence for his act. Clips of interviews from Iraq veterans, including Camilo Mejia, underscore the idea that changed by the experience of war and haunted by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) “no one ever comes back from Iraq.” The implication is that if you go to war, you are going to come back as a statistic one way or another.

I don’t think anyone makes the decision to become a deserter lightly, and the footage of Ryan’s explanations underscore that he had nowhere to turn. Given the social and familial pressure to conform, let alone all the economic pressures, flag waving and patriotism that get tied up into the argument, it’s much easier just to conform and go along with the madness.

For those detractors who argue that Ryan shouldn’t have signed up in the first place, well …. yes. But once having signed up, what happens when someone experiences a shift in morality? Since this is Ryan’s story, the film doesn’t directly deal with the legal route to leaving the military–gaining Conscientious Objector status. It’s not an easy process. In the five calendar years 2002-2006 425 CO applications were filed with an overall 53% approval. At this time the number of deserters far exceeds the number of CO applications filed for the same period.

The film refers to the idea that military enlistment is influenced by socio-economics, and this is a very touchy subject in some quarters. After all, the implication that the members of the working class are fighting wars while some people are laughing all the way to the bank may dampen all that war-mongering enthusiasm.

Over the last few months, I know three young men who have joined the military for financial reasons after their recruiters swore they wouldn’t have to go to Iraq. Now most of us take it for granted that the recruiters say whatever is necessary to get those signatures on the enlistment papers, and given the current state of affairs, it takes a certain level of naiveté to believe that you’re not going to get sent to Iraq. But that’s just what has happened over and over again. I remember one woman looking me in the eye and telling me the recruiter told her 18-year-old son that he wouldn’t be sent to Iraq because he was needed in ‘Intelligence’ in the U.S. Well guess who got sent to Iraq?

We can expect to see more films on the subject on those military personnel who resist. I hope Ryan’s story causes anyone contemplating a stint in the military to think twice about it. And Ryan & Jen, wherever you are, I wish you the best of luck.

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Storm the Skies (1996)

“Exile was not enough.”

The documentary Storm the Skies digs into the life of Ramon Mercader, the assassin of Trotsky and argues against the idea that Mercader was a disillusioned Trotskyite. The film begins by tracing the life of Ramon Mercader’s mother, Calidad. Although she came from a wealthy Spanish family, in adulthood, she became a committed communist and an enemy of her class–even robbing her family’s own factories at one point. Married off to a wealthy man, she rejected a great deal of her domestic life–and her hubbie dragged her off to bordellos so that she could understand what male-female relationships were all about.

Mercader’s mother sent her children from civil war Spain to the relative safety of the Soviet Union. Here, the so-called “war children” were treated well and given a stellar communist education, and it’s emphasized that even at this point, Mercader was treated as a special case. The film argues that Mercader was a committed KGB agent when he undertook the mission to assassinate the exiled Trotsky. The film traces his relationship with Trotskyite Sylvia Ageloff, reveals Mercader’s various identities, and how he penetrated Trotsky’s household in Mexico.

Some parts of the film seem quite disconnected from the main narrative–for example, the film begins with footage of the Rolling Stones performing in Barcelona in 1975, and while it’s always great to see this band, the exact relevance to the subject at hand remains unclear. Also when describing Calidad’s marriage, the filmmaker tosses in some ancient footage of rather large women engaging in hanky panky at a Spanish bordello–again, the footage seems irrelevant. Also the exact relevance of the interview with a Spanish actress who visited Mercader in a Mexican prison remains cloudy. One of the biggest faults with the film, however, lies in the fact that those interviewed are never identified. Documentaries usually identify those interviewed with a few words at the bottom of the screen. This device is completely absent from the film, so it’s impossible to identify those interviewed–although a few people identify themselves by giving statements such as they guarded Trotsky, etc.

There’s some marvelous footage in the film–Trotsky’s funeral, and scenes of Trotsky’s house, and it’s possible to see the security reinforcements Trotsky added to the house (raised the wall, built guard towers, etc). Unfortunately, the film vacillates between treating Trotsky and then Mercader as heroes. Of course, some of those who are interviewed were in Trotsky’s innermost circle, and worshipped the man, so a certain amount of the hero-worship factor is unavoidable. When tracing Mercader’s life post prison the film asks the question whether or not he was a hero to kill Trotsky or just another pawn of Stalin and the Soviet government. By the time the film ends, there’s an overwhelming sense that Mercader is supposed to be a great hero for bumping off Trotsky. The film doesn’t elaborate on the subject of Trotsky’s many crimes to humanity–that’s clearly not the subject of the film–but instead of being caught in the argument that one of these two people is a hero, the time would have been better spent on relevant information and filling in some of the gaps. After all some of us don’t see either Trotsky or Mercader as heroes and would prefer more background information on the subject matter. The film only briefly touches on the involvement of Diego Rivera and Frida Kalho, for example, and this section could bear much closer scrutiny. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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The Take (2004)

 “Occupy. Resist. Produce.”

takeThe documentary The Take examines the fallout of the 2001 Argentine economic crisis with a focus on unemployed factory workers. There’s solid background here–the IMF’s role in the crisis, $40 billion cash exiting the country overnight, and President Menem’s decision to close the banks. When Argentineans discovered that they could not withdraw their hard-earned savings from the banks–and that foreign loans were paid with their money, understandably people were more than a bit P.O’d. There’s some great footage conveying the rage of the people as they storm the banks and lay siege to institutions in which Argentineans had placed their trust.

The fallout from the economic collapse was devastating. Factories closed–and bosses simply vanished overnight–leaving thousands of unpaid workers in the dust. Without work, and no hope of getting employment, workers spontaneously formed cooperatives and “reclaimed” (occupied) workplaces. Previously abandoned workplaces became productive once again, and this raises several ethical and legal questions. In the middle of this controversy, director Avi Lewis and writer Naomi Klein follow the stories of several of those workplaces including some of the more famous names–Zanon Ceramics and the one that started it all–the Brukman Suit factory–now a collective of 58 seamstresses.

Included here are many interviews with various workers as they attempt to seek the legal right to occupy–and work in–the factories. I’m not sure that the film made it perfectly clear that these workplaces were occupied by employees who were owed back wages, and consequently this gave them the ‘right’ for legal redress. The film also covers the critical issues collective members must face, and the Menem vs. Kirchner political campaign. Menem’s “Messianic” comeback marketing campaign is almost funny when one considers exactly what really took place in Argentina under his watch, but then politicians are particularly practiced at denying reality. One of the most interesting–and unexpected–elements to the film is that many Argentineans apparently look back to Peron’s rule as the golden age of Argentine. That’s sad, but I suppose this is a relative evil approach. Many of those interviewed, however, express intense distrust and dislike of all politicians, and this has led to a refusal to participate in elections–for participation is seen as tacit endorsement of a corrupt system. There’s also some great footage here of the riots that took place as the Argentineans expressed their absolute fury and disgust for their government. Excellent stuff, and if you enjoy this film, I also recommend the book Horizontalism edited and translated by Marina Sitrin.

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