Citizenfour (2014)

This review originally appeared on Truthout. It is reposted here with permission from the author and the website. Review written and submitted by Dan Falcone.

Director: Laura Poitras

Introduction

Citizenfour is about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s actions as well as the collective work of reporters, and whistleblowers Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, Jeremy Scahill and William Binney.

Laura Poitras produced My Country, My Country in 2006. In that film she explained life for Iraqis under American occupation. In 2010, she produced The Oath, which covered two Yemenis’ relation to Gitmo and the War on Terror. Poitras also produced The Program, which discusses the domestic surveillance enterprise in Bluffdale, Utah. As a result of this body of work, Poitras undergoes monitoring by the United States Government, and is harassed routinely by border patrol agents.

Laura Poitras is not shown in the film. She compares this to never seeing a writer in a book. For her, the work is about what is unfolding in front of her camera. She is the film’s narrator. Poitras obtained some 20 hours of Edward Snowden footage to make the film. The film is done in the style of “direct cinema,” originated by Jean Rouch. Citizenfour shows what happened, as it happened.

Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, skip to “Conclusion.”

Citizen Four’s Anonymous Emails to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald

In the film’s opening scene, Poitras’s voice can be heard as a car proceeds through a very dark tunnel showing only a light trail above. Citizen Four’s initial emails are read by Poitras to the audience. Poitras reads:

“Laura, at this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk … From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, … site you visit … subject line you type … is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. … In the end if you publish the source material, I will likely be immediately implicated. … I ask only that you ensure this information makes it home to the American public. … Thank you, and be careful. Citizen Four.”

The film's portrayal of the transfer of important digital files

The film’s portrayal of the transfer of important digital files

Snowden calls himself Citizen Four because he believes he is not the first person within the NSA to find the actions of the United States Government deplorable. He also insists that the story should not be about him but about his actions and the potential actions of others. Citizen Four contacts Poitras because he is aware of her involvement in reporting and film making, but most importantly, he knows how she is being victimized by the NSA’s far-reaching system at airports.

The film goes on to discuss Presidential Policy Directive 20, a 2012 strategy implemented by President Obama to broaden, enlarge and strengthen the existing Bush-era national security procedures.The film successfully reveals the erosion of judicial oversight when it comes to national security in the United States, especially in relation to matters where no national security is at stake. It suggests that the real goal of security is for the actions of power and privilege to be insulated from the public.

In a case involving Mark Stein and AT&T, a judge on close circuit television remarks to the attorney, “What role do Justices have, would you like us to just go away?”

Tech activist Jacob Appelbaum is seen at a conference describing the concept of “linkability.” Linkability is the concept of tracing citizens in order to know where they are at all times based on information and technology. To Appelbaum, this is very alarming.

Glenn Greenwald’s first Citizen Four-related story is on Verizon and is headlined worldwide. It is based on Citizen Four’s email:

“Publicly, we complain that things are going dark, but in fact, their accesses are improving. The truth is that the NSA in its history has never collected more than it does now. I know the location of most domestic interception points, and that the largest telecommunication companies in the US are betraying the trust of their customers, which I can prove.”

The Hong Kong Revelations

Greenwald and Poitras organize to meet with Citizen Four in the hotel lobby in Hong Kong. Snowden explains that he will be working on a Rubik’s cube. That is how they are to identify him:

“On timing, regarding meeting up in Hong Kong, the first rendezvous attempt will be at 10 A.M. local time on Monday. We will meet in the hallway outside of the restaurant in the Mira Hotel. I will be working on a Rubik’s cube so that you can identify me. Approach me and ask if I know the hours of the restaurant. I’ll respond by stating that I’m not sure and suggest you try the lounge instead. I’ll offer to show you where it is, and at that point we’re good. You simply need to follow naturally.”

In the hotel room in Hong Kong are Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill. They discuss the content of some of Citizen Four’s documents and Snowden lets them know his name, and how the NSA was spinning out of control. Snowden felt that NSA policy construction was reaching a point where it could never be meaningfully opposed by citizens.

Snowden reveals in the film that he was born in North Carolina and he goes by Ed. He comes from a military family in the section known as Elizabeth City in Pasquotank County. He then moved to Fort Meade, Maryland because his father worked near Washington DC. To this day, in DC, taxi drivers have stories about how they used to drive Snowden around the DMV area in the early 2000s. They comment that he looked the exact same way, and they collectively agree that Snowden was decent to drivers and tipped well to union members specifically.

The famous Honk Kong interview with Snowden

The famous Honk Kong interview with Snowden

Snowden added that some people involved in security state surveillance are extremely bright while also describing some as completely mediocre. In other words, the tools and capability for people to watch everyone were no longer specialized; there was a generic function and incredible possibilities for anybody to be watched at any time, routinely within the NSA. There is an expectation to be under the NSA gaze.

Snowden additionally commented on how at NSA you could log-on and watch a drone strike from any desk. The expectation was that all things were to be watched. Furthermore, he informed the reporters in his hotel room that all of the information coming in to be investigated was entering in real time.It was not being stored to be investigated at a later date.

Snowden then describes to the reporters GCHQ and its program called Tempora. GCHQ is The Government Communications Headquarters in Britain. This intelligence gathering facility supplies signals intelligence to the British military and government. He describes the meaning of a “full take” enterprise. This is a full sweeping collecting of data without any discrimination. Snowden is alarmed that there is collusion with a foreign government to network domestic watching. In other words, Snowden reveals that what happens in the GCHQ is illegal in the United States but the UK, according to one of Snowden’s emails, “let us query it all day long.”

Snowden it seems has so much knowledge of NSA capability that to the average citizen his concerns may appear to border on paranoia. In the hotel Snowden, explained to the reporters that the phone needed to be unplugged since there are devices inside phone receivers even when hung up. He knows this because he has been a part of efforts to make them. Snowden also has a ritual in the hotel room – he would always cover his head when typing in his password. This is someone fully aware of the consequences, and he knew the inevitability of having “a target on his back.”

Snowden lets the reporters know that at NSA, 1 billion telephones and internet sites could be watched simultaneously and that the Department of Defense has 20 sites set up working to equal 20 billion people being watched at once.

The Tempora story is reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian without mention of Edward Snowden. The reaction to the leaks was fast and furious. Here, the as-it-happened-style of the film is at its best. Snowden is seen in the film watching the story break before he is known to the world. Greenwald was a guest on CNN as he discussed the danger of neglecting court orders to conduct indiscriminate and sweeping collections of people’s personal data. He talked about how perilous it is for the government to eliminate the warrant requirement.

Journalists of the Hong Kong interview

Journalists of the Hong Kong interview

After Greenwald appeared on CNN, Snowden received a call in his hotel room that the NSA Human Resources director had shown up at his house. They just entered and broke in. No one knew where Snowden was, since he routinely disappeared for work for various projects and trips. Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s partner, explained that the rent checks were not being wired through properly and that the street where Snowden lived was lined with construction vehicles. This may have propelled him to go public sooner since it provided a crystal clear example that his identification was soon to come. Greenwald urges him to consider coming out and Snowden agrees. He does emphasize however, his worry that the story will become about him instead of an issue of public concern.

The Aftermath of Snowden Coming Out as the Leaker and Whistleblower

On June 10, 2013, Snowden had agreed to go public by allowing Greenwald to expose his identity. Snowden explained how he was an infrastructure analyst for the NSA with top secret classified information. When the story broke that Snowden was the leaker, his name and image were suddenly visible worldwide and the film illustrates the impact on Snowden of becoming an icon instantaneously. Producer Laura Poitras asked if he was okay. Seconds later, the phone rings and Snowden answers – it is the Wall Street Journal which had tracked him down in the hotel in Hong Kong just moments after the story broke. This is one of the more fascinating scenes in this cinema verité.

Moments after that call, other calls start to pour in and Snowden is in need of a Hong Kong human rights attorney to get him out of the hotel safely. In Poitras’s room he discusses with the human rights attorney asylum options and extradition for political speech. The Hong Kong attorney sets Snowden up with Robert Tibbo, another human rights lawyer. Snowden is subsequently charged with three felonies back home. They discuss taking Snowden to Iceland or Venezuela. He winds up in Moscow, Russia and is permitted to stay for one year.

A rather interesting clip is when the international lawyer meets to discuss the three felony charges under the Espionage Act, a US domestic law from WWI to eliminate in-country spies. WWI propaganda under Woodrow Wilson had similar forms of political repression with “big lies” while stifling and challenging dissent. Snowden was being placed in this WWI context. He was not however, a spy, but a whistleblower.

Snowden begins to pack his things and organize his stuff. On his bed is copy of Cory Doctorow’s, Homeland. This is a quite apropos novel since it includes two afterword essays by computer security researcher and hacker Jacob Appelbaum, and the late computer programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Near the end of the film, we learn that the FBI and the UK teamed up to find Snowden and that the UK Government ordered Guardian investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill to destroy all of his devices with content provided by Snowden. Apparently, the United States still has greater freedom of the press than the UK.

We also see the White House calling for Snowden to surrender and claim his due process rights before a court. President Obama does not think Snowden was a patriot; he thinks there was a “law-abiding” way for him to express concerns and dissent in “orderly” fashion.

We also see footage of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda being detained after a flight from Berlin to Heathrow. This was a clear jab at intimidation and reminder that national security is now gratuitous, far-reaching, intimidating to individual people and internationally orchestrated. It provides evidence of the NSA and GCHQ working in cahoots.

We are shown the “Dagger Complex” in Germany, a United States military base that tells of our collusion with Chancellor Merkel and our interest in running drone programs through Germany as cover. Additionally, reporter Jeremy Scahill is shown following up and investigating reports from a second anonymous whistle-blower. William Binney is also featured at the end of the film. The bookending of Binney is important for the film’s thesis. Snowden was not a disconnected isolated character. He wasn’t alone in wanting to come forward.

At the end of the film, Greenwald is in a hotel room with Snowden in Moscow. At this point, Greenwald must have believed Snowden’s fear that every conversation could be recorded. So Greenwald writes down names and facts in between generic phrases, like something from Mad Libs. He places everything on paper to show Snowden in the hotel room. In Moscow, Greenwald reveals to Snowden that the work of Jeremy Scahill (via another whistleblower) shows that the US was working with other nations and governments to collect data and use drone weaponry. For instance, drone strikes that were done through Germany were traced up to POTUS. Snowden was stunned to learn it. Then Greenwald reveals that “Citizen Five’s” (if you will) whistleblowing has helped the public to learn that POTUS has 1.2 million specific citizens on a watch list. Again, Snowden gasps.

Conclusion

Historian Lawrence Davidson has written of Edward Snowden:

“. . .Edward Snowden decided to release massive amounts of secret government data in order ‘to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark.’ However, what the historical record suggests is that, under most circumstances, only a minority of the general population will care. Thus, in the case of the United States, the effectiveness of whistleblowers may be more successfully tested in the law courts wherein meaningful judgment can be rendered on the behavior of the other branches of government, than in the court of public opinion. However, this judicial arena is also problematic because it depends on the changing mix of politics and ideology of those sitting in judgment rather than any consistent adherence to principles.  In 1971 judicial judgment went for Ellsberg. In 2013, men like Manning and Snowden [and Assange] probably do not have a snowball’s chance in hell.”

This astute observation is troubling yet reality-based. Snowden’s actions don’t seem to be admired by a majority of citizens and President Obama certainly knows this. Perhaps the film can help to relay more information to people and become more than just a political thriller. I think the film tried to emphasize the need for people to care about this issue. The results are yet to be seen. For Snowden and Greenwald and everyone else involved with this film, they had to act.

Snowden knew he had to act, gambled on his activism picking up speed, and needed to reveal classified information to make his statement. We know this because William Binney and Poitras, and a host of other reporters, producers, academics and activists, are continually marginalized and harassed at gun point.

In Rolling Stone, Greenwald had a traditional Voltaire-styled perspective on speech, “To me, it’s a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it … not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate.”

A possible defense for President Obama is that he inherited a dog’s dinner from the Bush Administration in the way of American Foreign Policy. A recent argument by Aaron David Miller, an elite liberal propagandist, follows this trajectory. He was left to maintain or heighten all provisions and engaged in a dangerous, perhaps unlawful, search for Osama bin Laden on sovereign Pakistani soil. President Obama pledged to take boots off the ground and vowed to only apply “smart power” to conflict zones and flashpoints. He tried, and has succeeded, in making high tech protection a populist positon accepted by the mainstream electorate. This is not a compliment.

Some detractors of Snowden maintain there is an unsettling racialized component within this story. It is argued that since some President Obama antagonists are white, and not all applied the same level of work when Bush was President for eight years, their work is illegitimate or at least suspect. This to me is false. Snowden had Bush disenchantment and there is no question that Greenwald (How Would a Patriot Act?) and Poitras did as well.

President Obama doubled down on Bush’s surveillance policies and enhanced them dramatically in forming his strange interdependent political platform. The President relentlessly tries to suppress the image at home that his foreign policy is disliked by the world. This effort is the main reason for the surveillance and hence the whistleblowing. I will defend President Obama from the lily white Tea-Party and GOP at large, but that should be everyone’s limit.

In accord with Snowden skepticism, I have read Sean Wilentz’s disturbing tales of Snowden in the New Republic. He states that Snowden:

“. . . became furious about Obama’s domestic policies on a variety of fronts . . . he was offended by the . . . [new president’s] ban on assault weapons. [Snowden remarked,] ‘. . . I’m goddamned glad for the second amendment,’ Snowden wrote, in another chat. ‘Me and all my lunatic, gun-toting NRA compatriots would be on the steps of Congress before the C-SPAN feed finished.’ Snowden also condemned Obama’s economic policies as . . . a . . . scheme “to devalue the currency absolutely as fast as theoretically possible.” (He favored Ron Paul’s call for the United States to return to the gold standard.) In another chat-room exchange, Snowden debated the merits of Social Security.”

Wilentz writes that, “Snowden’s disgruntlement with Obama, in other words, was fueled by a deep disdain for progressive policies.” And just recently in reaction to the film, The New Republic continued its anti-Snowden barrage. We learn that this cannot be pure whistleblowing since Glenn Greenwald has had “conservative” views on immigration and even litigated in protection of white supremacist clients. The New Republic sees Snowden et al as makeshift progressives who haven’t earned their progressive stripes. Maybe there is a point here: Snowden’s own previous history of political activism was disproportionate to the act of leaking the essence of the NSA’s secrets. Even this is irrelevant though, in my view.

I tend to reject the defense of the President on the grounds of comparing him to Bush domestically. Even as the ACA and the ARRA are important signature President Obama achievements, the spying and reactionary positions on civil liberties are just far too extreme. The film conveys this well and that is what makes this movie excellent. Snowden states, “If all ends well, perhaps the demonstration that our methods work will embolden more to come forward.” So far he is correct and the film is quite popular. Snowden hoped that the work he did was just a tiny part in what would lead to the Internet Hydra Principle, where the erasure of one would only ensure that three more would pop up.

Lastly, allow me to reiterate that Snowden should not be judged personally. It is possible he had unsavory political views, but people do change and evolve.  He is a young man. For those that consider Snowden correct in principle but illegal in practice, again consider that William Binney’s legal assertions and complaints were met with harassment and punishment.

Snowden and Greenwald have a unique political versatility. It seems at one point or another they have occupied and navigated the multiple realms of progressivism, libertarianism, and the moderate areas in between.

Ultimately, my final word is that Citizenfour was extremely well done. While it seems to irk liberals (aka non-progressives) that Snowden and Greenwald may be apolitical and amoral opportunists, I simply judge them by the merit of their conclusions, which are , in my view, heroic.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Dan Falcone has a master’s degree in Modern American History from LaSalle University in Philadelphia and currently teaches secondary education. He has interviewed Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Richard Falk, William Blum, Medea Benjamin and Lawrence Davidson. He resides in Washington, DC.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

This review contains spoilers of a film currently in theaters

Director: Francis Lawrence

The third film of the Hunger Games series was recently released in theaters and has continued the conversation about the nature of political repression and resistance. Like the previous two films, this story deals with the oppression of the “districts” by the powerful Capitol, which had used a yearly violent “hunger games” event where each district had to pay a “tribute” of two citizens to fight to the death in a battle royale that was broadcast across the country. The previous film ended with a plot by some of the tributes in concert with a resistance movement to destroy the arena during the broadcast of the games. This destruction of the arena launched a revolution throughout the districts against the Capitol and is what sets the stage for this film.

The leader of the revolution gives a speech

The leader of the revolution gives a speech

Mockingjay Part 1 begins shortly after the previous film’s end. Instead of focusing on the larger society of this universe, most of the time we spend in this film is focused on the resistance movement that is leading a revolution against the Capitol, along with the ruins of the districts that the Capitol has violently destroyed. The main character, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) continues her role as the symbol of the resistance as she had in the previous films. The main difference in this film however is that the revolution was actively under way while in the previous film it was merely being anticipated. Katniss continues to be a unwilling hero and is constantly reluctant to help the resistance, often allowing her personal issues to get in the way of her dedication to the broader cause. For example, her partner from the games Peeta Mellark has been taken hostage by the Capitol and is being used to produce propaganda against the revolutionaries. She feels that he is being forced to denounce the revolution, but she becomes more concerned with saving him from his captors than trying to combat the propaganda that the Capitol has put out against the revolution. The revolutionary leaders are eager to have Katniss begin producing propaganda against the Capitol, as she is already a symbol for the revolution. While she does reluctantly agree, she adds the condition that Peeta (and other tributes) be freed and pardoned for their propaganda against the revolution. This decision upsets many of the revolutionaries but the compromise is made.

This personal motivation of hers is often portrayed as being more important to her than fighting the Capitol, until she is later shown first hand the destruction of her home district, which is when she begins to develop an even deeper opposition to the Capitol’s growing war against the districts. Once she begins to see the destructive nature of the Capitol, Katniss eventually comes around to helping the revolutionaries to a greater extent, but her motivation constantly remains highly personal and individualized. The other revolutionaries are sometimes frustrated by her selfishness and the film does a good job at portraying it as a major struggle between her and her comrades, a sort of critique of personal motivation in a time where great discipline is needed. While Katniss does eventually come around to supporting the revolution, her reluctance shows that she needed to learn to subvert her own interests to the interests of the broader movement. Although it is questionable how temporary her devotion is considering that her main goal remains rescuing Peeta.

Katniss speaks with the President of the Capitol

Katniss speaks with the President of the Capitol

The contrast between her personal motivation and the more collective mindset of the revolutionary movement is highlighted by the aesthetic portrayal of the resistance. The conditions that the revolutionaries live in resemble a sort of Ninteen Eighty Four type of society, where everyone wears the same jump suit, a military discipline is required from everyone, and goods and services are scarce. This way of portraying the resistance is an interesting choice that does not come off as a simple critique of their creeping authoritarian tendencies, but rather we are still meant to sympathize with the movement and see the necessity for that kind of discipline considering their conditions. Each film so far has had a different take on Panem (the fictional North American country in which the films take place). The first film focused on the  consumerist and joyous character of the Capitol, the second film had a different take on the Capitol that portrayed it as a Fascist society with military parades inspired by Triumph of the Will, and this film focused instead of the seemingly militaristic society that was attempting to overthrow the Capitol’s rule. While this film does not try to make obvious moralistic statements about how the resistance is structured, there seem to be no implied critiques of how they have conducted themselves up to this point, and their ability to fight the Capitol seems to be justification enough for why they exist in the form they do. The brutality of the Capitol is made clear in all three films, so there is not much room for critiquing the way the revolutionaries have waged their war so far.

The dystopian dining hall of the resistance

The dystopian dining hall of the resistance

The film spent a lot of time dealing with the production of propaganda by the revolutionaries instead of focusing on Hollywood style military battles between the good guys and the bad guys. Both the Capitol and the revolutionary movement focus much of their efforts on trying to win a media war against each other, with Peeta being used by the Capitol to discredit the revolutionaries, and Katniss being used to spread the revolutionary message. Unlike most major films however, propaganda is not seen as an inherently negative or dishonest endeavor but rather just another tool of conflict.

Like the previous films, Mockingjay continues to be a film about revolt and subversion of an oppressive system. It is to a large extent a vague struggle between the “good” heroes and the “evil” oppressors which leaves room for much interpretation. This vagueness will allow commentators from both the Left and the Right to claim it as promoting their message. The way in which the resistance is portrayed and the nature of political propaganda complicate the good/evil dichotomy to an extent and show that struggles against oppression can be complicated even in a world like the one depicted in the Hunger Games.

Viva Venezuela: Fighting for Socialism (2013)

Produced by: The Revolutionary Communist Group (UK)

VivaVen2Viva Venezuela: Fighting for Socialism is a documentary filmed during the last election of Hugo Chavez through his death in 2013. The film explores various aspects of the movement for socialism in Venezuela by interviewing activists, workers, and students in Venezuela as well as contrasting it with the struggle against austerity in the United Kingdom.

The film does not only attempt to follow the campaign of the PSUV and Chavez but rather focused on the rank and file of the movement in Venezuela. Very little time is devoted to Chavez or the leadership of the PSUV at all and instead we get a refreshing picture of what is going on in Venezuela by seeing those who are implementing the policies of Bolivarian socialism and the effects it has on the communities in question. This is quite a contrast to most documentaries about Venezuela which focus on Chavez as a figure rather than the overall social process of the movement for socialism in Venezuela.

While the film is mostly comprised of interviews of activists and workers, it also contains a sequence that shows the progress and characteristics of Venezuela’s “socialist city” Caribia.This particular project was considered one of Chavez’s “last projects” but the film demonstrates that it wasn’t just some initiative from above, but rather poor and working people are who make it run and plan how they want the city to work.

VivaVen3The British activists in the film make it clear that Venezuela is in a period of transitioning to socialism and is not there yet, pointing out that there are still rich capitalists there who want to stop this very transition. This is clear with continued battles between the government and opposition forces.

The film itself is a showcase of the process of transformation in Venezuela and serves as a good introductory piece to those who are not as familiar with what is taking place there. It can be a valuable resource for activists and educators looking to study the situation.

At the time of this post, the film can be viewed in its entirety online.

Jonah (2013)

This is a guest submission by Claire Smithson. Jonah is a short film that premiered at the most recent Sundance Film Festival about a small town which is transformed into a major tourist destination and the problems associated with that transformation. The film can presently be viewed online in its entirety.

Director: Kibwe Tavares

The beach before the transformation

The beach before the transformation

Excess and destruction seem to be the ongoing themes of conscientious fiction and film in recent years, ranging everywhere from totalitarian societies in series like The Hunger Games to consumerist culture, which becomes a living hell of disillusionment and chaos. Kibwe Tavares of Robots of Brixton fame explores the latter in his aesthetically dramatic short Jonah, an exploration of individual and social identity which undergoes devastating transformations under the onslaught of capitalism.

Visual Artistry

Visual poignancy is first and foremost in this Factory Fifteen and Film Four production, employing a series of techniques that switch from jarring first-person point of view to sweeping long-shots of a land which has been ravaged by riches. Blinding illuminations ascend into the skyline of a once peaceful and pristine landscape, threatening to topple the frail structures and foundations they reside on – an instant allusion to the statement that capitalistic excess has little substance to effectively sustain a society. The speed and seemingly “organic” metamorphosis from a quiet seaside town into a gaudy tourist mecca emphasize the rapidity and ease with which greed and consumerist culture can completely take over a society like a monstrous entity, and the director’s manipulation of the camera and how it pans through once happy side streets as they are turned into neon franchised sleaze-holes is deeply distressing. Tavares executes each scene with precision and bewilderment, careful to capture the shifting emotions of both town and people as they grow sick and exhausted from their deteriorating society. This plague is also echoed in the “originator” of this sickness, the mythological jumping fish, whose once vibrantly-colored exterior is smothered with hooks and tires and other tokens of destructive waste culture.

Loss of Identity

The city transformed into a tourist destination

The city transformed into a tourist destination

What is particularly striking is the sense of identity and its importance on both personal and public scales. The buoyant and happy exchanges between the two friends at the beginning of the film, laughing and casually taking photos from a stolen camera reveal a fascination with how they perceive one another, which is instantly changed with the emergence of the almost Biblical jumping fish which will come to define the protagonist and his home, initially fulfilling his desire to turn the sleepy village into an exciting metropolis with “Buckingham Palaces and Taj Mahals.” He rises into an iconic celebrity figure, hailed as the “Fish Man” who revels in the excess of brightly-lit bars and strip joints while his friend gradually grows distant and casts one last lost look before disappearing entirely.

As life continues to crumble, so does the stamina of the tourist industry itself – and the very excesses which once made it a flourishing hub of activity are now intimately tied to its demise and a faux sense of escape and healing. Bearing with it a strong post-colonial tone, destructive influences of fetishized sex, misogyny and alcohol lead to further misery and oppression as the culture turns into a binge-drinking hell hole, reflective of the poverty and mental/social disruption it plays, particularly in African nations. There is no redemption or way out which can offer empowerment and healing, and sex, drugs, or alcohol addiction recovery is non-existent – rather than intervention, or even a bold revelation, the immediate world is forced to stretch itself out to exhaustion and collapses in on itself. Decaying signs like “Fishbucks Coffee” and the ominous “Coming Soon” banner which raggedly hangs below a silhouette of the half-constructed “Raj Mahal” signifies a land of forgotten dreams which have rotted away into oblivion, mere shadows of their former idealistic glory. This is now a sordid place which has lost its true identity through the mass consumerist rush, whose citizens are left without a name in the shadows of a town whose capitalistic identity made it known world-wide.

Return to Origins

Consequences of the transformation

Consequences of the transformation

The protagonist’s identity in turn is distorted, and left a withered old man just like the landscape he has so dramatically transformed. His pursuit of the jumping fish resembles a lack of responsibility, a vengeful attempt at redemption and a bitter disposition towards his fate as the man who gained everything and lost it. His chaotic struggle and the rewinding of time which lead right into the ending credits suggest not a return to origins, but serve as a reminder of what has been lost in the name of greed and excess. William Blake once suggested that “The Path of Excess leads to the Tower of Wisdom”, but there is no tower – physical or symbolic – to restore the lost identity and appreciation for the simpler values of life, only a sorrowful diminishing of what was. Visually stunning and metaphorically sublime, Jonah is the modern myth which encapsulates the perfect cautionary tale, and resonates a changing tide which continues to sicken the world both on and off-screen.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director:  Francis Lawrence

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Katniss travels for her tour of the districts

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the sequel to the film Hunger Games and is the next adaptation of the Suzanne Collins novels of the same name. Like the first film, Catching Fire is primarily about oppression and resistance and ultimately, revolution.

This film picks up where the last left off, the main character Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is pressured to go on a tour of the entire country to placate the increasing revolutionary feeling of the people outside of the oppressive capital. During her tour it becomes clear to Kaniss that the entire event is an attempt to pacify the population and distract them from their real problems which is most evidenced by her first stop when the high level of security clearly represents the repressive nature of the capital. A sort of public relations struggle between her and the leader of the nation emerges as he puts increased pressure on her to do the will of the central government.

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Riots against the security forces

Eventually, the government announces that there will be a special “hunger games” (the event where each of the “districts” of the government has to contribute one “tribute” in a free for all battle to the death as punishment for a failed rebellion by the districts against the capital some time in the past) that will be comprised of past winners. This move is made to quell the popularity of Katniss and reduce the chances of her popularity as a symbol of resistance.

From this point in the film on, plot twists and developments reveal that a new rebellion by the districts is brewing and that the tributes in the new hunger games are conspiring to foment the uprising. Katniss throughout both films is a sort of reluctant hero of rebellion and remains so until the end of this film where she eventually destroys the very arena where the hunger games are being played in a defiant act which helps to spark a much broader uprising. The film ends with her learning that her home district has been destroyed by the capital and implies that she will seek revenge.

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The dictator gives a speech

One major contrast of this sequel to the first is the use of a more explicitly fascist aesthetic. This comes through most clearly during a scene in the capitol that is reminiscent of the first shots of Rome in the film Gladiator. The first Hunger Games relied on a much more subtle way of showing the repressive nature of the regime of the capitol. Besides the existence of the hunger games themselves which are the most obvious form of oppression, the first film showed the capital’s culture as similar to contemporary capitalism: joyous masses being distracted by superficial pastimes like obsessing over game shows with a very bright fashion sense. This is in contrast to more traditional depictions of authoritarian dystopian futures like in Nineteen Eighty Four where everything is dark and bleak. But in this sequel, we are shown more traditional dystopian aspects of a future society that come through as an anti-fascist commentary.

On top of painting a relatively detailed dystopian world, Catching Fire is also to a limited extent a call to revolution. Besides being a major plot point that is revealed towards the end, in both films the air of discontent by the masses of people is an important part of how the world the films operate. Donald Sutherland even recently went as far as to say the he wanted the film to “stir up a revolution” which goes to show that this interpretation of the film as a call to revolt is not incredibly far fetched.

Let the Fire Burn (2013)

Post submitted by Lamont Lilly.

Director: Jason Osder

LetFireBurn1On Friday, September 20th 2013, the Full Frame Theatre in Durham, NC hosted the premiere of a film called Let the Fire Burn by filmmaker and director, Jason Osder. It was supposed to premiere during the Full Frame Film Festival in April, but had to postpone its Durham debut until Full Frame’s Third Friday Free Film Series. It was a documentary about the bombing of an organization called MOVE and historical developments concerning the group’s political repression by the city of Philadelphia since 1978. Osder’s premiere of Let The Fire Burn was absolutely riveting.

Prior to the film’s core storyline of the 1985 bombing, Let The Fire Burn details the Philadelphia Police Department’s 1978 raid on MOVE’s Powelton Village home in West Philadelphia. It also shares the story of the MOVE 9, members of the organization who have currently been in prison for 35 years. Carefully cut, the footage is raw and very intense, penetrating the pores of struggle from the front row. As Let The Fire Burn journeys from one decade to the next, viewers never lose a beat.

On August 8th 1978, the Philadelphia Police Department raided MOVE’s communal residence in Powelton Village on grounds of “conspiracy and suspicious activity.” During the raid, Philadelphia police officer, James Ramp was somehow shot and killed. Ballistics and state evidence pointed to friendly fire. Yet, nine MOVE members were convicted of the murder of one cop and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in federal prison. The sentencing judge would later admit that he had no idea who fired the fatal bullet. The few guns that were seized from MOVE’s home were later found to be inoperative by state investigators. Two days later, their Powelton Village home was destroyed by city bulldozers as the group was forced to relocate.

Osder’s visual lens then takes you to the year 1985 to MOVE’s new address on 6221 Osage Ave. The group’s new location was in a quiet and cozy section of Philadelphia’s black working class district called Cobbs Creek. MOVE’s alternative lifestyle was a severe contrast to the neighborhood’s accepted norms and values. Complaints from neighbors reported profanity projected through loudspeakers, children exposed nude publicly, and vast amounts of unwanted varmints. Piles of compost and human waste also created disdain. In all fairness, MOVE members were also advocates of religious freedom, animal rights, gender equality and racial solidarity. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Police Department leveraged those concerns to wage war. Publicly, the decision to raid the group’s new location was to “clean up the building and arrest members who had outstanding warrants.” As Let The Fire Burn so vividly depicts, the Philadelphia Police Department’s assault on May 13th 1985, would mark an American tragedy.

That was the day over 200 Philadelphia police officers gathered outside of MOVE’s home on Osage Ave. That was the day over 10,000 rounds of police ammunition was used against unarmed citizens. Officers claimed they were fearful of MOVE’s massive collection of firearms and explosives. Yet, no automatic weapons were found in MOVE’s residence. Initially, officers deployed tear gas through broken windows. Then water, lots of it. One thousand gallons of water per minute were dispersed via the Philadelphia Fire Department from the roof and sides of the house.

LetFireBurn2All of a sudden a bomb was dropped on MOVE’s roof from a police helicopter. Four pounds of C4 explosives were dropped on a row house full of people. Minutes later, another bomb was dropped. When informed about the developments of this violent occurrence, Philadelphia’s African American Mayor, Wilson Goode consciously responded on live video to “Just let the fire burn.” The water hoses that were once pumping thousands of gallons of water per minute were turned off. A raging fire that had already killed 11 people was intentionally allowed to spread. In just a few brief hours, 61 homes had been completely destroyed—memories and life-savings leveled to worthless ashes. Mayor Goode watched the destruction from his office television at City Hall. Only two MOVE survivors exited the burning building – activist, Ramona Africa and a young boy named Birdie, whose testimony and childhood descriptions were documented throughout the film.

In 95 minutes, Osder’s documentary captures this entire saga, plus more. The fabric in which Osder weaves this story is absolutely surreal. Local news channels were covering the entire event live. Much of the film’s footage was cut and clipped from on-the-ground sources actually present that day. The use of archival video was pivotal in this piece. Nels Bangeter was the film’s chief editor, a role quite critical when considering there wasn’t much originally created or produced, here.

Let The Fire Burn took over 10 years to make. And that’s exactly how it looks, meticulous, time-consuming and well crafted. Osder’s eye sculpts the film seamlessly on a tightrope of truth without bias. During the post Q&A, he discussed how most media sources demonized the organization, referring to MOVE as terrorists. Yet, he saw them as human beings who had caught an “extremely raw deal of injustice.” Jason Osder grew up in Philadelphia, stating that “The timing of it dawned on my conscience even as a small child. It was the moment that cracked my childhood shell.”

As for MOVE, this film isn’t just a movie—it’s real lives that are painfully still playing out. Eight of the original MOVE 9 members have been in prison for 35 years now. Merle Africa died while incarcerated in 1998. In 1996, federal courts mandated the city of Philadelphia to pay out $1.5 million to one of the survivors and relatives of two members who were killed in the 1985 bombing. As Let The Fire Burn clearly illustrates, justice is still waiting in this case. Truth is still waiting to be unleashed.

Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace and organizer with Workers World Party. He resides in Durham, NC.

Elysium (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Earth in poverty

Earth in poverty

Elysium is a major blockbuster set in a dystopian future where the rich people of Earth have fled for a space station in orbit named Elysium. In this version of the future, Earth has deteriorated to such an extent that the rich no longer find it habitable and thus only make trips to the planet to manage corporations or oversee the oppressive legal system. There are various social issues that the film deals with that are of interest to the Left which has of course alarmed Fox News and right wing blogs. While there is more to the film than the political content, we will mostly focus on the politics of Elysium and what we should take away from it.

Matt Damon plays the films main character (named Max) struggling to make it by as a factory worker troubled by a criminal past. Max’s struggle in the film exposes the various social and political struggles that we can see prevalent today: class struggle, lack of health care, immigration, and to an extent the military industrial complex. The contradictions of the society are highlighted simply in a sequence where he is on his way to work: he leaves his home and is harassed and assaulted by the police (who have been replaced by androids instead of actual humans), has to speak with his robot parole officer who extends his parole because of the incident, arrives at work late to be told he is too injured to work but will be docked half a day’s pay instead, and then starts his job which is itself to produce more androids like the kind that injured him in the first place.

The automatic parole officer of the future

The automatic parole officer of the future

The major turning point for Max is when he is told by his supervisor to enter an unsafe situation which ultimately leads to an accident where he is exposed to radiation and is essentially left for dead by the company of which CEO just wants Max to leave the building (this of course wouldn’t happen if they had a union!) This leads to a set of events where Max works with a criminal organization that he had previously associated with to attempt to steal information from the rich CEO to make it easier for the organization to sneak people into Elysium.

While Max’s drama plays out, a plot to carry out a coup is being attempted on Elysium by Jodi Foster’s character who in some sense could be seen an analogy to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen. The coup plans fall into the hands of Max through their data heist of the CEO and they discover that they have the power to make all of Earth’s population citizens of Elysium. Through the typical twists and turns of a major action film, this is eventually carried out, making the struggle for legalization for all and access to health care (both of which were motivated by a reaction to unsafe working conditions) the major conclusions of the film. This of course is not typical for a Hollywood blockbuster, which led Vice to go as far as to claim that Hollywood was tricked into making a radical film.

Elysium

Elysium

The film itself is not without flaws. Evil bad guys like the main paramilitary man trying to capture Max are a bit shallow, and the action scenes were a bit cliche at times. But if we are to look at the less-than-subtle political message that comes through to an audience of millions, the film is praiseworthy. The cliche shortcomings and sometimes strange story developments aside, the film is also entertaining and stands out as a sci fi film on its own, although it would be hard not to be excited about a major film where providing healthcare to all citizens of Earth is the conclusion. Elysium has received mixed reviews, not for the political content which has been the focus by political commentators of course, but rather for the problems of the film itself. While the director apparently denied that the film was political, it would be quite difficult to ignore the fact that almost every major plot point in the film corresponds to a major social issue that the Left focuses on today.