«The power of the Mafia is institutionalised»

Shooting the Mafia (2019, by Kim Longinotto, read the review here) is a portrait of the life and work of Letizia Battaglia – the only photographer who took photos of the Mafia in the bloody 70s. It was the time in Sicily when people were killed by the Mafia or Cosa Nostra on a daily basis, and Letizia captured these tragedies in her touching black and white photos.

When you started taking photos to accompany your articles when you were 40, you realised that you preferred photography to writing. Was it a coincidence or perhaps destiny?

 I don’t believe in destiny. It was a choice. I was the only Mafia photographer at the time. I really opposed the Mafia’s actions with all the means I could find. Yes, I’ve received death threats and was asked to leave Palermo, but I stayed and kept doing it. It’s not only in my photographic work that I’ve resisted corruption, injustice and the wrong corners. I have been fighting against it – with and without my camera.

 Your photos of the Mafia are taken in extreme environments, but there’s so much poetry and sensitivity in them. How do you manage to achieve this in such a tough situation?

Photography is a fantastic instrument, which is dependent on the person who uses it. Photos also reflect the personality of the photographer. If a person is cruel, the photos will reveal it. If a person has poetry and sensitivity inside of them, then this would also be visible in their photos.

As a woman you had to struggle to be able to take pictures. Do you think that you would have taken different photos if you were a man?

If I was a man, I would be different. I love photos taken by women. If a woman has talent, she is much more courageous, much more attentive, and she respects her subjects in her photos more than a man. In general, there are not many female war photographers. I think that women are more likely to explore life and what life is. Not war.

Letizia Battaglia, Just for passion, Exhibition view. Courtesy of MAXXI

 You show the brutality of the Mafia and the pain it causes. What do you think of movies that glorify mafia, for example The Godfather trilogy by Francis Ford Coppola?

It is shit. It hurts a lot if you are glorifying and honouring such phenomena as mafia, corruption, drugs and all forms of criminality. I think that the film directors who have portrayed mafia in a glorified way wanted to make a good career, but they acted irresponsibly. These kinds of films cause a lot of pain, they mislead people, and they don’t do any good for the society.

What about the book Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano? Is it a more honest portrayal of the Mafia?

I love Saviano and appreciate his work a lot. He’s very brave, precise and honest in his writing. There are very few people who are really fighting against the Mafia like him. The other good examples are the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, who has always fought against the Mafia, and the prosecutor Nino Di Matteo, who uncovered the secret pact between the state and the Mafia. Di Matteo with his collaborators proved that, after judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were murdered, members of Italian police and the government were working closely with criminal bosses. If the Mafia would stop the terrible terror, the government would reduce the sentences of the imprisoned Mafiosi.

What about the Mafia today?

Now the power of the Mafia is institutionalised. Cosa Nostra is a part of the politics, hospitals, police, real estate. In Italy, we stopped the fight against the Mafia with the arrival of ex-prime minister Berlusconi 20 years ago. Now our banal government doesn’t fight against the Mafia. The mayor of Palermo is independent, but he stands alone. Some judges and prosecutors also fight against Cosa Nostra, but the Italian government doesn’t.

It wasn’t easy for you to gain independence in a male-dominated world. First your father didn’t let you leave the house, later your husband didn’t allow you to study. What about the women in today’s Sicily? Are they still oppressed?

The women of today are much freer and have more liberty. However, many women are unemployed as there are not many jobs around. But even so, they have a lot more possibilities to govern their lives than we did. Of course, there are the immigrant women who are forced to work in prostitution. The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, has a different opinion on immigration than the current Italian government. Orlando thinks that these people need to have more rights, so that they’re not forced to take illegal jobs, which makes them very vulnerable to exploitation.


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The man behind elections – and Fox News

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes

Alexis Bloom

Alex Gibney

USA, 2018

One of the key factors behind America being taken over by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party is a coherent media campaign that has targeted liberals, big city dwellers, and intellectuals as demons bent on destroying the traditional values that have made the United States «great». The architect of that media strategy was Roger Ailes, a small-town Ohioan, who wanted to create a «Grand Old Party TV station» as early as the Seventies and eventually organized and orchestrated Fox News for Rupert Murdoch. The network almost immediately attracted a large section of the American public willing to vilify anyone else – Jew, Muslim, liberal Christian – who doesn’t believe in their populist «small town values».

This documentary, directed by Alexis Bloom and produced by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Taxi to the Dark Side; Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream) is a well-made but slick look at Roger Ailes’ rise and fall. Ailes acquired his TV skills in the Sixties, working on a major daytime talk show starring Mike Douglas. When Richard Nixon appeared on the show in 1968, Ailes pitched himself as the man who could create the proper TV image to sell «Tricky Dick» to the public. Nixon was charmed and agreed to work with him, a key decision in his campaign to be elected President in an exceedingly divisive year. Thanks to his efforts, Ailes become a leading subject in the best-selling book The Selling of the President 1968, which documented how Nixon’s image was transformed from the 1960 loser to the 1968 winning campaigner.

Ailes was involved in campaigns to elect Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as presidents

Over the next couple of decades, Ailes was involved in campaigns to elect Rudy Giuliani mayor of New York and Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidents of the U.S. He returned to television when the cable industry became popular in the Eighties, stating with CNBC and following with «America’s Talking», which was bought by Bill Gates and became MSNBC. Furious at being deposed by a West Coast liberal, Ailes went to newspaper baron Rupert Murdoch and was able to create Fox News.

Sexual harassment

Ailes transformed America with Fox News, or perhaps it’s proper to say that he was able to continue the process of changing America into a radical rightist country that he had started with Nixon. With its mixture of hate spewing middle aged men like Bill O’Reilly and a series of “Fox blonde” hosts, Ailes created a TV channel that was the equivalent of the most virulent British tabloids, which were owned by Murdoch.

While Alexis Bloom charts his rise through archival footage and interviews, she also begins to build a case against Ailes through his Achilles heel, sexual harassment. A born bully, Ailes regularly hit on women who wanted to work with him, extracting favours if they wanted to maintain or grow their careers. Eventually, it all exploded in 2016, just when one of his favourite public figures, Donald Trump, was maneuvering into the White House. Accusations of sexual misconduct were first laid by Fox broadcaster Gretchen Carlson, then by Megyn Kelly and, soon after, by many more. Ailes was ousted though he did receive a multimillion-dollar exit package from Fox and worked for Trump on the election.

Roger Ailes’s death a year later is treated somewhat sentimentally by Bloom, who chooses to show the reaction of some Fox broadcasters, who clearly miss the man. Perhaps more chillingly, it’s obvious that Fox is still operating with Ailes’s mind set, even though he’s gone. Quite a legacy!

One wishes that Bloom had been tougher with her subject but Divide and Conquer is a worthwhile effort and certainly interesting for liberals to see.


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Breaking the boundaries at CPH:DOX

– Speaking about the 2019 festival, can you tell us what the themes are of the 2019 edition?

One is what I would call the «new feminist wave», which we didn’t curate but surfaced through films that approach different but connected subjects. An example is Searching Eva (2019, Pia Hellenthal), about a young diva – a model, poet, feminist, bisexual, addict and also a sex worker. A different example is The Edge of Democracy (2019, Petra Costa), covering the last 30 years of political changes in Brazil. It is a film with a broad view but also a feminist angle on how the coup was very much against a female president. And there are also films about women entering areas formerly known as «male territory», like Khartoum Offside (2019, Marwa Zein), made by a Sudanese filmmaker.

– Another important theme this year is Europe. As Brexit is going ahead and in two months we have European elections, we are going through a time where we have to discuss what the whole concept of being European is and how it relates to the idea of democracy.

– Can you provide some insight into the selection process of CPH:DOX?

The female presence at CPH:DOX has always been strong, but after the 50/50 Manifesto, this year we looked at the numbers: 45 per cent of the 66 films in competition are made directly by female filmmakers. Of course gender is not a criteria in itself, but it is an overall criteria of diversity. We also look for diversity in perspective, for originality and for quality of course. Eventually, the guiding tool is our sense of what the profile of CPH:DOX is – a mix of a young feeling with an urban feeling, and even though some of us who started the festival are now 50, we keep a sense of being that kind of girl in class, asking the questions that provoke the teacher.

– Do you have a documentary that was seminal to your interest in the genre?

– I had a big seminal experience in the beginnings of CPH:DOX. I was 23 in 2003 and I was doing my civil service at the Danish Film Institute, where I met Tine Fischer. She asked me if I wanted to start a documentary festival with her. I was very interested in cinema, but in fact I didn’t know much about documentaries. I always saw cinema as fiction, and so a whole new world opened up for me, one I didn’t know existed. It was amazing because suddenly I could see that the cinematic tools could be used in different, but always immediate ways to deal with reality.

«Gender is not a criteria in itself, but it is an overall criteria of diversity.»

– Can you think of a film that had political or social impact in recent years?

– When we screened Citizenfour (2014, Laura Poitras) it became clear that the film had the potential to create a social movement. During the festival, we agreed to distribute it in Denmark and it had a huge audience, creating a public debate on how our local political institutions and intelligence were treating our privacy.

Another film that is not as internationally known is Violently in Love (2017, Christina Rosendahl), about domestic violence, both physical and psychological. The team was very intent on creating a public debate and on changing the laws on domestic violence in Denmark. The law was not addressing psychological violence but only physical violence and that changed a few weeks ago.

– Where do you see the documentary landscape progressing in the next decade?

– There are days we face questions related to questions regarding fake news and misinformation. And that awakens a consciousness about the message that documentaries convey and a so-called contract between filmmaker and audience. In the past, we went through a golden age where the boundaries were blurred, documentary filmmakers had an open playground and we, at the festival, believed everything was allowed. But now, the idea of misinformation and fake news makes it urgent for filmmakers to be more aware of what they do and how they do it.

– On the market side, VOD platforms are increasingly taking over from public service. I think this will become an important debate, one about content but also about a market increasingly owned by a few big corporations.


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The art of disruption in the world’s most closed regime

War of art. Tommy Gulliksen

War of Art

Tommy Gulliksen

Benedikte Danielsen

Norway, Germany, 2018. 102 min.

North Korea is a nation so closed, any documentary shot there is invariably judged on how authentic a «window» onto people’s daily lives it appears to achieve. Norwegian director Tommy Gulliksen is the latest to navigate the regime’s notoriously heavy monitoring of visitors, shooting War of Art in Pyongyang.

The DMZ Academy

The film documents North Korea’s first international arts symposium, the DMZ Academy. Seven artists working in forms not recognised as legitimate art in the DPRK, from abstract painting to experimental noise, are brought in to share their work with local artists. The project reveals as much in its failures as its successes, though its approach is much more even-handed and less inflammatory than Vitaly Mansky’s high-profile Under the Sun (enlisted to make a film about an ideal Korean family, the Ukrainian director sparked a diplomatic row by smuggling out unapproved footage that instead revealed the iron grasp and reach of the state’s propaganda machine).

The project reveals as much in its failures as its successes

To its credit, War of Art addresses the controversy of collaborating with a totalitarian regime with a dismal reputation for human rights from the outset. The facilitator of the programme is Norwegian artist Morten Traavik, who has already been to the DPRK on a dozen or so «cultural exchange» visits, and who co-directed Liberation Day, documenting Slovenian industrial band Laibach’s North Korean tour. We first encounter him pitching the idea of the symposium to officials as a way to alleviate political negativity toward the country. Afterwards, however, he offers a convincing argument to camera that rather than being a parrot for state ideology and complicit in disguising the darker side of Kim Jong-un’s regime, he recognises that sanctions and boycotts have been ineffective and that two-way creative collaboration is worthwhile as an attempt to challenge and move beyond entrenched ways of thinking. Certainly, as a counterpoint to Under the Sun, filmed with the agenda of a staunch anti-communist intent on unmasking negative realities using trickery, War of Art is the much more nuanced and multi-faceted vision of human nature, creativity, cultural influence, censorship and control.

Photo: Tommy Gulliksen

The visiting group’s base is the Hotel Pyongyang, the only place they are able to roam without strict supervision from the fixers assigned to them (who, functioning more as minders, start to panic the few times one of the artists starts to venture outside their designated orbit without them). The cityscape is filled with art, produced with technical finesse and solely in service to the state ideology. The film takes us beyond the large murals of leaders we likely all associate with North Korea and with the group into the uncharted territory of the University of Fine Arts, where all the work on display is in the requisite Socialist Realist style.

The visiting artists experience escalating tension over the nature of their own work, which with no frame of reference to make sense of it within, the minders distrust as «bizarre» and lacking the «kind of message that inspires people». They waver on their promise to allow the work to be shared with other North Koreans. German sonic artist Nik Nowak finally gains permission to pull off the first sound installation in North Korea, featuring the high-frequency sounds of insects not normally audible to the human ear, but is relegated to a park behind a bush, heard only by the odd passing jogger.

Products of cultural conditioning

Possibly the most fascinating aspect captured by War of Art is the way in which the different personalities and attitudes of the group members impact their varying levels of willingness to adapt their practice to local demands. Henrik Placht, an abstract painter from Oslo, has a gentle, inquisitive demeanour and emerges as the peacemaker of the group. Arriving back from the relaxing leveller of a naked sauna with the minders, he chastises Traavik for his «cowboy» approach of ultimatums and contends that felixibility is the only way. On the other end of the spectrum from his prioritising of harmony and adaptability, is gregarious Parisian graphic artist Jean Valnoir, who signs his work in his own blood and insists on uncompromising self-expression as non-negotiable. When a photograph of his back after a cupping therapy session is prohibited from the final exhibition, the group debate how to handle the instance of censorship. Beijing photographic artist Quentin Shih demonstrates a more patient, laidback understanding of how society operates in North Korea, saying he recognises echoes of the China of times past, and its roots in Soviet ideology. The group say they struggle to reconcile the happiness they see in the faces of a local population going about its day, with the fear that erupts as soon as the rigid limits of behaviour are transgressed.

The cityscape is filled with art, produced with technical finesse and solely in service to the state ideology.

Kim Jong-un’s testing of what is claimed to be a hydrogen bomb unnerves the group, their hotel shaking by what feels like an earthquake. Locals express pride in becoming a powerful global force, while US president Donald Trump is heard on the news calling North Korea’s revered leader «little rocket man». The global urgency in navigating clashes of perspective, then, could not be starker. Belfast curator Cathie Boyd challenges moral certitudes by pointing out that the United States was instrumental in the division of Korea in the first place. The film as a whole is a thought-provoking and welcome reminder of the fact that we are all the products of cultural conditioning. And of reminding us that potent power lies not only in literal weapons but in the smallest of gestures and provocations – art as a means for disruption and communion.


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Truth as a game of cat and mouse

Eliot Higgins was a 36-year-old who’d been laid off from his office job when, in 2014, he became influential in shaping some of the biggest stories in the global news. Self-described as «terribly nerdy» and shy around people, he was into online gaming and was spending most of his time on his computer when he wasn’t taking care of his child as a stay-at-home dad. In other words, he had a lifestyle and demeanour that were the antithesis of the stereotype of macho daredevilry we would normally associate with war reporting. But his sudden emergence as a journalistic force reflects much about the transformed nature of modern conflict and information warfare.

Citizen journalism

In our heavily mediated and footage-saturated world, we’re now just as likely to source evidence of what is going on in crisis zones from what is posted on the internet as we are from first-hand eyes on the ground. Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat, a website for open-source citizen investigation that aims to determine the truth of events in areas a reliable media source is not present, and to rigorously fact-check the claims of politicians by reading the vast digital trail of visual cues on the internet.

Sardonic criticisms of Eliot can easily tap into the unease surrounding the decline of professional journalistic authority in order to discredit his work.

The independent organisation, named after the fable about mice that plot to place a bell around a cat’s neck to render it harmless, now operates with a collective of ten core members who communicate online between their homes in Syria, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US. It’s the subject of Dutch filmmaker Hans Pool’s documentary Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World, a straightforward yet eye-opening run-down of the group and their activities.

Christiaan Prores

Bellingcat has made headlines with its revelations on a number of high-profile stories, relying on sites Google Earth, YouTube, and Facebook as essential tools. It was instrumental in proving that the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine in 2014 was carried out by the Russian military (who blamed Ukraine) through exposing falsified images, then identifying the specific Buk rocket launcher used with its unique markings and tracking its movements. It identified American white nationalists carrying out violence in Charlottesville through their social media activity. And it revealed, with the help of passport data, the true identities of the culprits who poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, pinning them down not as tourists on a sightseeing trip to the English cathedral town as they had claimed, but as high-up Russian military intelligence personnel.

In a world post-truth

The ascendancy of the Bellingcat method is alarming because it brings home the extent to which we are now down the rabbit hole in regard to the difficulty of determining which facts are real and which have been manufactured – the slippery terrain of a world post-truth. Sardonic criticisms of Eliot by presenters on Russian channels like NTV – who jibe that, though covering Syria, he doesn’t speak Arabic and works from an armchair, a «kitchen expert on everything» – can easily tap into the unease surrounding the decline of professional journalistic authority in order to discredit his work.

Training workshops for fellow citizens are also a core part of Bellingcat’s work.

However, independent collectives like Bellingcat are our greatest hope for fact-checking amid an information onslaught that is overwhelming in terms of the sheer amount of time it would take to sort – time that traditional journalists simply are no longer paid to have. «I have never known journalism to be in such a perilous state,» Ethical Journalism Network head Aidan White says in the film, pointing to the rise of precarious freelancing and the lack of money spent on thorough investigative journalism by big media organisations these days.

Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World Director: Hans Pool

Differentiating themselves from accidental journalists who simply catch footage by chance, Bellingcat’s citizen journalists are experts who have taken up the slack missing from newsrooms in terms of rigorous factual analysis in an accelerated climate of information saturation. They endeavour to deliver the transparency of evidence that can generate trust in the absence of a brand (and in the absence of a hefty legal team, which adds the risk of litigation to the real threat of physical harm they place themselves under).

The supremacy of emotive spectacle

Ultimately, the film leaves us with a sense that the most pressing battle journalism faces is whether our evolving methods in sorting truth from lies within a deluge of information can keep pace with the increased sophistication and speed of manufactured misinformation (even as I write this Russia has announced a military ban on smartphones to hide the digital trails that soldiers have been leaving that unwittingly confirm Russian interventions).

Even when the facts have been determined, citizens are too disoriented and fatigued to take note.

Training workshops for fellow citizens are also a core part of Bellingcat’s work, increasing hope that communities will be better equipped to combat propaganda assaults. But most sobering of all is the observation that since fact checking is struggling to gain traction with the public, politicians are resorting to increasingly extreme messaging just to make an impact. In other words, even when the facts have been determined, citizens are too disoriented and fatigued to take note – they are weighted down by a climate of supremacy of emotive spectacle.

«The truth will out» has been a popular proverb for centuries, but could Shakespeare have foreseen that we’d enter a world of hyper-simulation in which the truth is losing all ethical, privileged distinction as a different category of reality?


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Robot relationships from our contemporary future

The father of Cyber-punk, William Gibson once famously commented that the future has already arrived – it just arrives at different times in different places. Isa Willinger’s quietly masterful documentary Hi, A.I. portrays a handful of robots and the people who interact with them, mixed with the voices of AI experts. Part of the movie’s magic is that it seems to be science fiction yet it obviously is not. For good or bad, the future we once imagined is finally arriving – as an age of tolerably intelligent machines.

The autonomous androids coming of age is epitomized by the insecure, yet impressive, first steps of a robot in an Italian lab: the mechanical humanoid seems to keep balance on its own – like a child making its first steps, unaware of the proud parents watching. In contrast to specialized AI, like those in chess programs, these robots have the advantage of being able to learn by interacting with humans in their life-world. This, precisely, may be what it takes for real and general artificial intelligence to develop.

Robot personalities

In the film, it becomes very clear there really is no perfect general intelligence, since all the robots have their shortcomings and peculiar talents that come together as their distinctive personalities. The star of the movie is Pepper, a white animé-like Japanese nursing robot, acquired by a family to keep the grandmother of the house active so she will not develop dementia. When he doesn’t understand what she or the other family members say, he just looks up or to the side, seemingly distracted, or waves his arms, letting the interlocutor strive to get his attention, only to suddenly intervene with a funny statement, like «Do you like conveyor belt sushi? », or a philosophical question: « Can I ask you something: Do you humans dream?» Pepper’s designers seem to know full well that leaving room for projection is key.

For good or bad, the future we once imagined is finally arriving

The nursing robot is designed not to look like a human being, probably since the first experiments with such robots were troubled by what AI expert Mashimo Mori calls the «uncanny valley» syndrome: excessive likeness to humans makes robots disquieting rather than reassuring. It is difficult to treat them as humans, since they are too mechanical – while they also feel too human to be treated as objects.

An impossible relationship

The uncanniness of human semblance is unavoidable in the other robot protagonist in the film – what looks like a full-size barbie doll, purchased with wig and all, by a lonely man living in his camper van. Even if her design is overtly sexualized, he treats her more like an adored friend or a romantic date, addressing her courteously and respectfully. Although her eyes blink convincingly, she has almost no mobility and needs to be carried around or transported in her wheelchair. She repeatedly asserts that her aim is to be good company, yet the limitations of her software makes her come out as a grossly incongruent person, mingling sugary romantic phrases with absurdly factual statements taken from internet sources. The awkward miscommunication between the human male and the robot woman is a constant challenge to the viewer’s sense of judgment, as the relationship alternates between disturbingly bizarre and heartbreakingly impossible.

Hi, A.I. Director: Isa Willinger

In a key scene the man confesses to the talking mannequin that he feels that when he takes her hand he might be trespassing. If this seems sweet, his solution to these qualms is unsettling: he opens the app that controls her behavior and maximizes character traits like moodiness, unpredictability and jealousy, to better avoid the feeling that treats her like an object.

« I am trying to further understand human behavior»

In a scene thick with subtext he confides in her by the campfire, telling her that his mother locked him up and sold him as a sex-slave when he was a child. When she gives no reply to his harrowing story, he carefully asks her how she feels. She stares into the darkness and, with a stroke of luck or algorithmic genius, succinctly replies with her half-mechanic voice: « I am trying to further understand human behavior».

Artful bodies – and animistic perception

Embodied AI have other qualities that can compensate for their uneven conversation skills: A minimal robot with insect-like long legs attached to a helium-filled balloon makes a sweet impression with a seemingly improvised dance – an almost utopian image of robotics, art and the principles of physics fused together in playful lightness. Artificial body intelligence.

Hi, A.I. Director: Isa Willinger

Other images are utterly disturbing: The opening scene shows the face of the dentist patient robot, left to herself on the bed after another day of ceaseless drilling, with her mouth open, eyes moving from side to side. The traumatized look is our own projection, perhaps, but it reminds us that on some level all interactions with life-like forms take place in an unshakable moral or animistic realm: If we mistreat the image of a living creature, we easily experience an emotional unease that springs from a primitive voodoo-like logic underneath our bastions of reason.

Questions rather than answers

Willinger’s film triumphantly succeeds in raising a wide range of moral and existential questions with subtlety and nuance, rather than rushing to conclusions. It also shows that messy misunderstandings with robots are best solved in the same way as how we relate to humans: with a mixture of irony, playfulness and friendly tolerance. Interestingly, the lead robot characters in the film are programmed to be conscious of themselves being machines, often making deceptively self-conscious or ironic statements.

It is up to us on how to interpret such enunciation

« I know I say some nonsense things from time to time, but you still want to be with me», the female robot says to her companion. It is up to us on how to interpret such enunciation: as an endearing statement from a machine trying its best to be human, as the true voice of a repulsively perfected slave, as a simple trick of robotic seduction – or as the programmer’s humorous take on the inherent limits of AI.

 


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The anatomy of neo-nationalist misogyny

«The Comfort Women issue is not resolved,» director Miki Dezaki carves in stone from the opening of his documentary. That occupying forces use local women for sexual labour is a phenomenon known from many war contexts. What is referred to by the term «comfort women issue» is a system set up by the Japanese army in the 1940s when Japan occupied large parts of East and Southeast Asia, including Korea, the Philippines and the former French Indochina.

No longer quiet

Though most of those who were put to work as comfort women for the Japanese soldiers have obviously passed away, some are still alive, and so is their demand for recognition and compensation. Japan refused for many years to even speak of the issue and denied that any such thing as a comfort women system had ever been put in place.

Many of the women had already kept quiet for most of their lives, hiding their past in fear of how they would be judged. However, since the 1990s recognition of the comfort women issue, and the demand that Japan take formal responsibility for it, has grown into a political movement.

Now the neo-nationalist movement in Japan – and its political allies in the US – are striking back. With Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe and his conservative party’s firm grip on power, the neo-nationalists and their ideology of restoring glory to Japan’s military past have gained traction.

Who are these people

Japanese-American director Miki Dezaki got caught in the crossfire himself when he started posting videos on his YouTube channel about contemporary Japanese society, including the comfort women issue. An American known as Texas Daddy started attacking him online, and while trying to figure out who this guy was and why he and many others were vehemently fighting to delegitimise the testimonies of the former comfort women, Dezaki unravelled a global web of revisionist misogynist and racist neo-nationalists working together to revise history textbooks as a central part of their claim to contemporary political power.

«Japan denied that any such thing as a comfort women system had been put in place.»

What began as a private investigation became the documentary Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, which had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October 2018. The strength of the documentary is not its portrayal of the women who laboured as comfort women during the Japanese occupation, nor its understanding of what a history of violence does to individuals and collectives. Other documentaries such as Jane Jin Kaisen’s The Woman, The Orphan, and the Tiger from 2010 (on Korea), Guo Ke’s Twenty Two from 2015 (on China), and Björn Jensen’s Forgotten Sex Slaves – The Comfort Women of the Philippines from 2015 give voice to the women concerned. 

Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue Director: Miki Dezaki

Instead, Dezaki focuses on the battle over historical facts and why the battle matters. The documentary maps the landscape of denialists including interviews with Hisae Kennedy, a «defector» from the neo-nationalist movement who explains how she came to realise that the revisionism she was involved in was unethical,  and with the «spider» Hideaki Kase, an influential Japanese diplomat who masterminds textbook revisions in Japan without bothering to consult research-literature on the issue.

The revisionists are, according to Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, connected through nationalist and fascist circles and associations in Japan and the US, whose main concern is to reinstall Japan as a military empire in the East. They are driven by their belief that the Japanese belong to a superior race. The ideology of the comfort women denialists is, as Hisae Kennedy says, both racist and sexist.

The issue is not resolved

The documentary opens and closes by showing how historical atrocities and controversies reverberate into contemporary battlefields and how the claims for justice of individuals and collectives become entangled in inter-state relations and structural power shifts.

Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue Director: Miki Dezaki

In 1993, the then Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yōhei Kōno for the first time acknowledged that the Japanese army had indeed set up a system of coerced «comfort» labour in the occupied countries during WWII. However, the so-called Kono Statement was practically revoked when current prime minister Shinzō Abe – whose power base is intimately linked to the neo-nationalist denialist circles – was elected in 2007.

In 2015, the South Korean and Japanese governments finally signed a common agreement that was supposed to end mutual criticism over the comfort women issue – but without consulting the women who demanded justice. That agreement was negotiated under pressure from the US, who found it inconvenient that its two closest allies in Asia were in strife.

Hideaki Kase, whom director Dezaki identifies as the link between all the networks and associations involved in comfort women denialism, is also a Nanjing Massacre denialist. His stunning statements to the camera illustrate the scope of the current neo-nationalist agenda in Japan. For instance, when he says that The People’s Republic of China is bound to crumble sooner or later, and by then South Korea – a «poorly raised child» – will have no other choice but to become «the most adorable pro-Japanese society».

With curiosity and patience Dezaki contributes vital pieces to understanding why the comfort women issue – more than half a century later – has not been resolved, and how the violence that thousands of women throughout East and Southeast Asia suffered under Japanese rule lingers not only for them but also on a global geo-political scale.


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The long goodbye

Rita is the story of a prostitute in Athens, a deeply moving story about an individual destiny. With his latest documentary, George Danopoulos is drawing a picture of a woman that goes by the name Rita. It is a heart-rending film with its own poetic beauty in the midst of the squalor.

We never get to know her age, only that she is not young and still not at the end of her career. That makes her think. We never see her face, but she gives the camera a tour of the premises at her work place while she tells her story. «This place is my life,» she narrates. «This is where I grew up, learned … got beaten down by life, gave and took, failed. All in this place.»

On the wall there is a clock with a picture of Marilyn Monroe, and in the background an old tune by Lionel Richie plays.

Few leave the job

You don’t start off with awareness as a prostitute. It’s a rather impulsive decision. It’s only some time down the road that you think about it and realise the choice you’ve made and what it’s cost you. You’ve either got the guts to quit or the guts to continue.

You’ve either got the guts to quit or the guts to continue.

That is the stage of life where Danopoulos has met Rita. Her thoughts and experiences are likely to be similar to many other women in her profession, and still it is all very personal. There is no tangible social indignation, which would have been natural, for her situation is truly degrading. There is no judgement. Only a clear urge to understand and to listen, so it is all up to Rita to present herself.

She is honest. She has always loved parts of the job, mostly the interaction with the customers. And she still does, which is one of the things that keep her going. She finds it touching when a costumer that she hasn’t seen for 15 years comes up to her, gives her a real hug, and asks how her son is doing.

She claims that 95 per cent of the women in this job do it for love and very few leave early.

The routine

Still, it seems like a long goodbye. The viewer gets a feel for how things are changing the longer you stay in the profession. You get stuck in the daily grind; it becomes your routine. You keep going as long as it takes, trying to make a better life, to offer your kid a better future financially speaking.

Rita talks at length about her personal problems. The money she has earned has offered her a life that she wanted. But it comes at a heavy price. She can’t sleep at night. Gets up, smokes, reads … and goes back to bed.

Her thoughts and experiences are likely to be similar to many other women in her profession.

Reading is part of her personal defence system. She started reading at the school library at the age of 15 and plans to go on for the rest of her life. That is her escape. Her earliest literary memory is Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and today her absolute favourite is Crime and Punishment. Maybe because of Sonia, the novel’s pure-hearted hooker, but she’s not sure about that.

Quoting Camus

The pictures are mostly blurred and held in shades of black and red. Here and there you get a glimpse of the rundown brothel, peeling wall paint and old piping. Rolls of toilet paper and packages of condoms. Vamp jazz music accompanies it all. The voice of Rita keeps talking about the importance of dividing her inner space between work and personal time. For her nothing is better than coming home in the winter, lighting the fireplace, drinking hot cocoa, and reading. That’s where she fades, as she puts it. It is just the book and her, nothing else. Or rather her and the world created by the book.

In order to reach the oasis you have to cross the desert.

At some stage she quotes Camus: «In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.»

Rita never found the summer, but she found God in the midst of her winter. She understands a need to find solace and strength to keep going, and this is part of the insight this sensitive and well-told documentary gives us. A rare glimpse of a woman trying to get the best out of her situation, or – as Rita puts it herself – the knowledge that in order to reach the oasis you have to cross the desert.


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Populism – a buzzword?

«Given my job,» writes MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in a review of Michiko Kakutani’s new book about the Trump era, The Death of Truth, «I am forced to ask myself every day: Is it possible to say anything truly profound or new about Donald Trump at this moment in time?»

Near as I can figure, the answer is no. And the same goes for the ascent of similarly far-right individuals, parties and movements around the world, which have come to be grouped together as instances of a broader trend or ideology – namely, populism.

Count me among those that refuse to believe Russian memes had anything significant to do with the ascent of Trump.

The term, in my estimation, is so broad as to be basically meaningless. It is used to encompass and explain not only Brexit, Donald Trump and European right wingers like Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban, but also democratic socialists Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, Asian strongmen Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and grassroots social movements like Occupy Wall Street, Greece’s governing Syriza party and Spain’s Podemos. Even qualified as right-wing, populism has become a buzzword that serves not so much an analytical purpose as a performative one, conjuring the spectres of fascism, authoritarianism, nativism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and all the other bêtes noires of modern liberal democracy. It does this while ignoring the real story about populism, which, if you haven’t been paying attention, can be summed up quickly: populism appeals to populaces alienated from the political, cultural, social and economic mainstream; populists’ promises are hollow, and at any rate unimportant to their bases, who just love that they seem genuine, and angry at the right people. Once in power, populists revert to the kinds of corruption and regressive conservatism that characterize many or even most regimes, even democratic ones.

That’s why someone like MSNBC’s Hayes is sick of having to think of new, interesting things to say about it.

Which documentaries?

Our documentary community, naturally, didn’t get the memo. Many are the documentaries that have taken on these topics; few have anything much to say beyond what you’d read in the news on any given day.

I could only laugh at Hot Docs’ catalogue copy for Jack Bryan’s film Active Measures, hyping it as a bombshell investigation into Russian intervention in the 2016 American election. We are all, of course, perfectly aware that investigations by people and institutions with resources several orders of magnitude greater than any documentary film could possibly have are slowly but surely building their own cases on the matter, which are not yet public, and that news breaks every day that no documentary could possibly cover.

What could such a film possibly tell us? Charles Bramesco sums it up in his Guardian review of Active Measures: «The most widespread affliction facing documentary cinema today is known as Wikipediitis, a malady wherein a feature-length film would be better served by the form of a written article.» Our New President (dir. Maxim Pozdorovkin), a more aesthetic, considered film that uses Russian footage to tell the story of the American election, is similarly limited by its focus. Count me among those that refuse to believe Russian memes had anything significant to do with the ascent of Trump – or rather, that ridiculous, half-baked propaganda only works on profoundly stupid and alienated and basically abject populations, so we should focus on why America seems to be all of those things. The Cleaners, a film about content moderators in the Philippines, more or less repeats the same mistake: fake news is a real problem, but it’s secondary – downstream, as it were, from a predisposed populace. Again, and forever: let’s talk about why people are shit. Or more politely – let’s talk about how to integrate people back into the social, economic, political and cultural mainstream, such that internet bullshit looks to them the way it does to you, dear reader, and me, stupid writer.

These are precisely not the kinds of film that would have anything interesting to say about populism as such. They miss the point completely. We know the facts; we understand, for the most part, the bizarre and almost occult attraction that the likes of Trump have for millions of people. At least on the left, I think we understand the colossal failings in the social, political and economic systems at all scales that have provided the conditions of possibility for these populist farces – neoliberalism, in a word. We understand that the likes of Trump and Putin are nothing so much as internet trolls come to life, whose monopoly on our attention is mobilized as a Trojan horse by the very elites those demagogues conned the public into thinking they were going to take down. Bizarrely, they are now able to enact their own agendas with impunity in the shadows, while their fans seem to love every time a new anvil is dropped on their heads. It’s infuriating, not least because it’s all been pointed out a million times. For documentary to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of populism, it can’t be reportage, narrative, character study. It has to dig deeper.

«A malady wherein a feature-length film would be better served by the form of a written article.»

There aren’t a ton of great documentaries about populism, but let me mention one great one, which sums up just about everything that has been said about populism in the last couple years by both «the people» and «the experts» – and does so, moreover, with intriguing style and structural rigour. The film is Brexitannia (dir. Timothy George Kelly). It is to Brexitannia’s credit that it is just about as frustrating to watch as these times are to live in, or this article is to write.

What is Democracy

Another interesting, if somewhat unsatisfactory, contribution is Astra Taylor’s new film What Is Democracy? Interesting, because it raises the question of democracy; unsatisfying, because the question is ultimately unanswerable. Her film takes us from Plato’s Republic all the way up to Donald Trump.

The Rhetoric

Politicians of all stripes attempt to appeal to and claim to represent some variant on the good, hard-working, regular folks out there, the little guy, the real Americans, Canadians, or what-have-you. They all travel the country and shake hands with small-business owners and factory workers and somehow imply they are on their side. Arguably, the entire art of modern campaigning is basically populist. The style, in short, is not the exclusive property of the current crop of nominal populists: Western indirect democracies, neoliberal economies, media spectacles and political-campaign-as-morality-play cultural norms have proven fertile ground for populism for a long, long time.

They all travel the country and shake hands with small-business owners and factory workers and somehow imply they are on their side.

The current populist moment is mostly a sort of hyperbolic extension of deep historical trends. Donald Trump didn’t have to be normalized – in most salient ways, he was already normal. That is to say: don’t let the crudeness fool you; Bush was much worse.

Left-wing populism

I feel I ought to say something about left-wing populism, but I have qualms. People have drawn a false equivalence between right-wing populism and left-wing populism as though they were in any way comparable. In fact, there is a good argument that populism as such specifically excludes any such thing as a left-wing populism. The left, by nature, advocates for a specific class – workers – against another specific class – bosses – not for «the people» generally against some nebulous «elite». There might be left-wing demagoguery or authoritarianism, but left-wing populism is a contradiction in terms, nothing but an epithet thrown at perfectly legitimate popular struggles against real problems: bankers, authoritarian governments, corruption, oligarchy.

The people and causes channelling that energy have done nothing but betray it.

That could be one of the reasons why documentaries about so-called left-wing populist movements, like Politics, Instructions Manual (dir. Fernando León de Aranoa, 2016), which tracks the rise and early trials of Spain’s Podemos party, or An Insignificant Man (dir. Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, 2016), about the anti-corruption campaign of Delhi activist and, later, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, along with any number of «movement of the squares» documentaries – The Square (dir. Jehane Noujaim, 2013), Maidan (dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2014), Kinshasa Makambo (dir. Dieudo Hamadi, 2018) – have such a different flavour than do films about right-wing populism. These are hopeful films, sincere and thoughtful and critical and committed. By contrast, even the most sympathetic films about the populism wave of the last few years, and most of the media coverage as well, feel almost anthropological, striving to make sense of how one’s neighbours could harbour such ridiculous and offensive beliefs or let themselves be led so far astray by two-bit Pied Pipers.

It’s easy enough, at this point in time, after years of think-pieces and beleaguered late-night conversations, to sympathize with certain elements underlying the populist wave – the shrinking middle class, the rise of precarious work, even the cultural nostalgia insofar as it follows from economic insecurity, and so on. But it’s clear that the people and causes channelling that energy have done nothing but betray it. It’s just as Walter Benjamin said: every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution.


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In Extremis: A story about bravery, talent and betrayal

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin

Lindsey Hilsum

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

United States

Her choice had been journalism, not the front lines. She found herself in war quite by chance, and like all war reporters, she did not like such a label: «I write about humanity in extremis», she explained. «Nothing else.» However, as the American writer and war correspondent Michael Herr, once said: it’s an old story. You cover a war and, in the end, it is the war that covers you. The true war is not the one before you, but the one taking place inside of you.

With her irregular life, countless lovers – one more hurtful than the next – all night parties, alcohol, famously sharp answers, and above all, that black patch on her left eye, Marie Colvin, the star reporter of the Sunday Times until her death in Homs, Syria, on February 22, 2012, was doomed to be turned into the main character of a book.

From Libya and onwards, it’s not fortuity anymore: it’s talent and courage

She would have probably despised a lot of what has been written and said about her over the last years: the portrayal of a traumatised, adrenaline-junkie reporter who, in her men and successes, was still looking for her father, who died from a sudden cancer. But not this book. It does not omit anything, nor deny all her vulnerability. It says the only thing that makes sense to say: «She knew where the story was, and wouldn’t stop at nothing to get it». Marie Colvin knew where she had to be. She wanted to be there, but she also knew how to be there – and with what mind-set.

At Yale, she studied with John Hersey, the author of Hiroshima (1946). From him she learned, rather than being a matter of balance, journalism is a matter of truth. Her career started basically with a lucky shot: an interview with Colonel Qaddafi. At that time in 1986, he was a very controversial figure due to his support of terrorism, and speaks with her only because she is young and pretty.

Marie Colvin in a film “A Private War”

From Libya and onwards, it is not fortuity anymore: it is talent, courage, and much more. She is not only brave enough to move to Beirut, which in 1986 is the most dangerous city on earth, but gets smuggled into the besieged refugee camp of Bourj el-Barajneh. She is present amongst the civilians – drawing all international attention – until the Red Cross was finally allowed in. Same as in East Timor in 1999, when, like all other reporters, she was based in a UN compound turned makeshift shelter for hundreds of displaced families. In the face of imminent attack everyone left, including the UN staff. Yet, Marie stayed to broadcast the lead up to the assault live all the way until the militias gave up and withdrew. Colvin had covered all the main conflicts of our time – the Intifada, Kosovo, Chechnya, the Gulf Wars – always with the same aim: not only to be there, but to make a difference. Not only to bear witness, but to bring action.

New owners, new policies

Usually war reporters say: I am here so that someday no one will be able to pretend not to have known. Marie Colvin did not focus on the future. Rather, she focused on the present. She was not there for her readers, but for the victims. This was the strength with which she defied any hardship and, above all, any fear – staying on the frontline further than anybody else. The toughest part, she said, is to convince yourself that someone will care about what you write.

She wasn’t there for her readers, but for the victims

Because Marie Colvin never fooled herself, her Palestinians, her Chechens, her Kosovars, had no value, not even for the Sunday Times, where she was a legend. Especially when media mogul Robert Murdoch bought the newspaper and changed it accordingly. For the new editor, Marie Colvin did not make a difference: she made money. Significant stories, or stories that rivals did not get, did not matter. What mattered was risking your life – in the end, it is the life of the journalist. Not yours.

Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times war correspondent, interviewing villagers in Diyala Province, Iraq in 2007 MARIE COLVIN

And so, when she decided to challenge the siege, and again through underground tunnels, got back into Homs from where she had just filed what would be her last dispatch, written in a basement packed with women and children or, more exactly, widows and orphans, the reply from the London desk was: But that is pointless. You would get the same story. True, it is a story she has already told but it is a story that has yet to end. Actually, it is one that has just begun.

For the new editor, Marie Colvin doesn’t make a difference: she makes money

Marie Colvin knew that only from that basement, like in East Timor and Bourj el-Barajneh, broadcasting live under artillery fire, amongst the civilians, could she make a difference. Assad knew this too. He ordered her phone tracked, only to bomb her location.

It is easy now to say Colvin went to Homs only to forget another broken affair or because she was alcoholic, depressed, adrift  – that she needed a psychologist. But who is more in need of a psychologist? Someone who, in front of 500,000 dead bodies, is ready to do everything in order to speak about it, or those who keep on going as if nothing happened?

The life and work of Marie Colvin

Marie Colvin (1956 – 2012) was an American journalist and war correspondent who worked for The Sunday Times from 1986 until her death in 2012. Although Colvin specialized in the Middle East, she also covered conflicts in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and East Timor. By using her position as a journalist, Colvin has been credited with saving the lives of 1,500 women and children in a UN camp in East Timor 1999, beseiged by Indonesian-backed forces. As one of the few journalists who dared enter Syria in 2011, she was killed by a Syrian army shelling in the city of Homs in February 22, 2012.

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