The Dissident

The Dissident tells the story of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It is gripping, enlightening, and moving.

This film was quite an eye-opener for me, going into a wealth of context I did not know. I followed the story in the news at the time, but my reaction was “Brutal regime murders journalist. No mystery there then.” I didn’t feel the need to dive much deeper into the details because it was so obvious that no explanation seemed needed.

But there is a huge amount of pertinent context to Jamal’s killing. Firstly, the idea of Saudi Arabia as a place that always has been and always will be as oppressive as it is now, is a reductive over-simplification. Reporting usually has slightly racist connotations of the ancient (and backward), brutal rulers of the ruthless and opulent East, this image of sultans chopping off hands, in an unchanging and unvarying stereotype from a timeless age. This obscures the truth of what is actually happening in the 21st century in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And it makes it harder to tackle the reality of government oppression, and denies and erases the reality of activists and citizens who resist on a daily basis.

In Saudi Arabia, 8 out of every 10 citizens is on Twitter. There has been for generations a suppression of free speech there, but the boom in social media has overturned that in an extremely short time frame. With IRL speech dangerous, online is the only place to have open discussions about the state of the country. It reminds me of a joke in the movie Rosewater, another movie about a journalist being targeted by the state, where his interrogator accuses the protagonist of disseminating anti-government propaganda through newspapers, and the journalist replies that there would be no point doing that, it’s a dead medium.

The Saudi Arabian government has reacted quicker than most to the digital revolution, and has strategies to neutralise online dissent. They have a building with 1000 government staff all with multiple dummy accounts who flood Twitter with pro-government propaganda, to drown out the noise of any differing opinions. Like Russia and China, it has top-level hackers.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s government is changing. While yes, it is a monarchy, not a democracy, the king used to have a wide range of other royals as government appointees. To our ears this sounds worse, because then you’ve just stacked ever more of the same powerful family into positions of power, but it had the converse effect of dispersing power among a range of powerful individuals. Yes, not great, but what is happening now is worse. Because Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) is wildly ambitious, and has been strategically removing from office other royals, and concentrating power solely on him. And up until Jamal’s murder, he was doing so with excellent spin. He was seen as a reformer and moderniser, purging corruption from within the royal ranks. He pushed through many popular policies, such as allowing women to drive, and allowing cinemas and concerts.

So where does Jamal fit in this story? Despite how he is seen now, as a martyr for free speech, Jamal spent most of his life in government reporting institutions, he was part of the establishment. He was a supporter of MBS, seeing his values and goals for the country as aligned with MBS’s espoused vision. He considered himself a patriot, and was not particularly bothered by the Saudi style of reporting, which he saw as basically telling the truth while not being disrespectful to the honoured institutions of the royal family. While he met with reprimand on some stories over the course of his life, he was considered a loyal servant of the state.

So how did he get from there to here? Step-by-step, and very much against his will. While speech was always limited in Saudi Arabia, MBS’s rise to power saw a crackdown. And several journalists, colleagues of Jamal, were arrested. Jamal, as someone considered friendly to MBS was let off with a warning, but even the intimidation he faced was enough to make him flee the country. Even then, he believed he would return, that things would calm down, that he would watch for the release of his colleagues. But things got worse, and he was now seen as a defector. His wife had to divorce him to protect her and their kids. He was fired from all his Saudi Arabian outlets, and he became targeted by trolls on Twitter. It was MBS’s overreaction that drove Jamal from someone content to see the country change little by little to someone who became an activist against increasing government tyranny.

And that was why Jamal was considered so much more dangerous. Because he had spent his entire career on the inside of the establishment, he knew how they worked, he had powerful connections, he knew MBS, and he had a large following because he had mainstream exposure. And now he was going rogue, using his platform and knowledge to speak about against MBS, and hiding behind the shield of American residency and employment at the Washington Post.

He was not just any journalist. And he was considered far worse than any protestor who was on the outside of things. MBS took Jamal’s defection and criticism as a personal betrayal.

And worse, when Jamal started to meet up with other dissidents like Omar Abdulaziz, he became a mentor to the younger generation of activists, and they in turn radicalised him and educated him on how new technology was being utilised for surveillance and oppression. He learned of the government tactics on social media, the new frontier of propaganda, and started to organise an online resistance. And for the Saudi government, if you are trying to counter their cyber attacks, that means you are engaging in war against the state.

That is the big picture part of the story, but this film also has the very human part of this story. Jamal was a man, who at the age of 60, had the life he had built for himself taken away. And while he had his integrity, he facing a lonely life in a strange land. And then he met Hatice Cengiz, and fell in love. And they planned to marry and start a new life together. And while he had taken every precaution to stay clear of his government’s reach, if they were to wed, he had to get a marriage document from the Saudi embassy. So he and the woman he loved turned up in the bright sunshine of the afternoon, and he told her to wait for him outside while he stepped inside and got it. And she stood. And she stood. And she stood. And hours passed, and she began to worry, and she called the police, she called journalists, she called Jamal’s friends with political clout. And she stood there until 1 in the morning. And he did not come out. And that’s because she had stood outside on the street while he was being murdered in that building. It is a nightmare we cannot even imagine.

And now this is the future she has, trying to hold to account her fiancĂ©’s murderer. It is not what she wanted, but it is what has come to pass.

It is a deeply moving story, showing the best in people, who act with love and integrity, and the worst in people, who act with cruelly and callousness.

City Hall

Four and a half fucking hours that took! Fucking hell. I don’t know why you would insist on that being a movie rather than a miniseries. I mean, it’s the filmmaker’s perspective, but I dunno. Maybe he thought the minutiae of municipal governance wasn’t something that would get people tuning back in, and he needed to trap people in a cinema in a oner to get them to watch it, preferably under a big net.

He needn’t have worried though. This is an interesting documentary. I would tune in again, and maybe with a bit more merriment that after being killed by a marathon run time. City Hall is a close-up look at how democracy actually works. Not elections, not campaigns. What happens on a day-to-day level to keep a city running, and ensure what it’s doing is representative of the will of the people.

It’s basically a year in the life of Boston, and covers a huge variety of topics. It feels like the director shot nearly every municipal meeting. There’s something quite exhausting about the scale of it. They say if you wanna get away with something evil, hide it in something boring. That also works for good too. City Hall tries to unearth from interminable meetings and concept-level discussions a city-wide movement towards redressing economic, racial and gender disparity. In the dull and mundane maintenance of school buildings, business building permit community consultations, and fact-finding enquiries, lies the hidden successes of the lowest unemployment rate in the city’s history, the increase in Latina women business leaders, and a far larger engagement in furthering civil rights than has been seen in half a century. People are getting off drugs and being supported in addiction recovery. Improvements are being made in providing services to homeless queer youth. Discussions about mental health and trauma are being foregrounded in every aspect of community work.

Quietly interesting is how I would describe this film. There are no car chases or explosions. There are no cast of characters where you can boo the baddies and cheer for the goodies. But if you slow down, and accept the pace of intent listening, you will find the stories of a whole city’s worth of people. There is a gallery of individual experiences being interwoven to give a portrait of how a city hangs together.

It’s also about how democracy functions. Because at first I was like, “Ahghugh!” and nearly had my head roll of my shoulders in protest at having to listen to a council meeting. And that’s kinda the issue. We don’t want to do good, we want good done for us. Democracy is so important, but please, don’t make me hear about it. So how do you ensure people’s will at the ballot box perpetuates itself for the next 5 years? And not through media reports of scandal when it goes wrong, but all those boring days it goes right. That’s what City Hall looks at, and comes up with a lot of answers and also no answer. Is it people’s dedication? Political will? Good habits and routines set by policy and culture? Community relations? An engaged population whose sustained attention will hold you to account? All? Something else?

It’s a good one for thinking about. And a good one for slowing down and listening to. Take it more like a podcast than a movie. But worth your attention, definitely.

Eye of the Storm

My favourite bit in this is when he tells of getting the first exhibitions of his work, this wee Glasgow fella, son of a shipyard worker, and his painting is hanging in Kelvingrove Museum. It’s of Athole Gardens, which is on a slope, so the buildings look all askew in the frame. And there he is, standing anonymously in the gallery, marvelling at his achievement, in front of this painting, when a fella comes up, takes one look at it, and turns to him and says, “It’s aff a’ square. Aw they uprights in the picture, they should up upright. They’re aw laid back, aff a’ square. And it’s our fucking money that’s being spent on that picture that’s nae good at all.”

I fucking love this city.

Eye of the Storm follows James Morrison in the last years of his life, as he tries to continue to paint despite his failing eyesight. His career spans more than 60 years, as he goes from painting Glasgow tenements to rural landscapes, first in Scotland and then around the world. I enjoyed the use of animation to illustrate his memories, done in his style of art, really bringing to life his little tales. Painting in the Arctic and being come upon by a polar bear, or drawing in Paris and finding his favourite brushes.

I could have done without the constant interruption of quotes from famous artists, one at the beginning was quite enough, thank you. And I wasn’t so keen on the inclusion of the animator talking about her process and contribution to the film, I’d have preferred it stayed focused on Jimmy.

But other than that, a pleasant journey through the life’s work of a local man whose art had a global reach.

If you like this…

Handsome

Eeeeeee. A profoundly uncomfortable watch. Handsome is a documentary about Nick and his brother Alex, who has Down’s Syndrome, as they talk to other siblings in the UK, USA, India and Vietnam about providing lifelong daily care for a sibling with Down’s.

So, as someone with lifelong mental health issues, my teeth are immediately set on edge whenever it comes to other people’s problems with your disability, like it’s about them, not you, and other ableist tropes. And my back gets immediately up when you see able-bodied people talking to each other about disabled people’s experiences over their heads like they’re not even there. But to pull away from my knee-jerk reaction, I also have no experience of what it is like to provide 24 hour basic daily care for someone on a indefinite timescale.

Alex is 23 and still cannot wash and dress himself, and even sometimes has issues using the bathroom. That’s a level of care beyond my experience. And as life expectancy grows for adults with Down’s, Alex can expect to outlive his parents, and the question is, who will provide his care then?

Nick wants to become Alex’s full-time carer and is currently living with him, but as he enters into his mid-20s, he is having to look frankly at their future. The discussions with the other siblings highlights issues like careers, starting your own family, and potentially having kids in the future. If Nick were to pursue a career and increase his earning potential, he could provide for Alex financially, but wouldn’t be available for that full-time care. Also, such responsibilities are going to make dating and finding a partner more difficult, and how will those responsibilities be balanced if young children come on the scene? At the start of the film, Nick’s focus seems to be gathering info on how he can make his and Alex’s life together work, but by the end, he seems to have come to the decision that he needs to pull back, and establish his own life first, before he can make a place for Alex in it.

I found so many things about this documentary problematic, literally too many to reiterate, but I was particularly struck by the choice to show Nick washing Alex. Nick constantly emphasises how little Alex understands, which makes me question what his understanding was when he consented to being filmed naked for the documentary. This is just one of a thousand choices that just made me cringe.

I suppose you have to give the film credit for being unyieldingly frank, and close to the bone regarding this hugely important and intimate issue. At the same time, it comes with a weight of massively problematic ideas, and while I don’t want to downplay the reality, it can feel very difficult to watch at times.

Truman and Tennessee

Archival interviews, footage, and readings in their words of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams on their work, life and friendship. They met when Truman was 16 and Tennessee 28, and formed a lifelong bond that lasted until death. The film traces their youthful exuberance in their common sentimentalities, their drifting apart with time and consuming romances, their professional rivalry, their decline into alcohol and drug abuse, and the nadir of the relationship with broken confidences and scorning in public print. Ultimately though, despite its ups and downs, even at the end, their friendship endures, despite the vast distances between who they were and who they become.

Enemies of the State

Man, the knots people will tie themselves in coz they can’t hold two truths at the same time. What is so difficult about understanding that you might be being investigated for national security reasons and guilty of sex offences at the same time?

This film builds this story up like it’s a mystery, was Matt DeHart being persecuted by the federal authorities or was he a child predator? It’s not really a mystery though, since both things can obviously be happening, so it’s not really pulling the rug out from anyone when they switch from presenting the case for the former to presenting the case for the latter. It’s like the Julian Assange thing all over again, I don’t know why they think these things must be mutually exclusive.

Unfortunate to see the old Warcraft getting namechecked in all this.

Castro’s Spies

That was fucking great!

Spying’s a bad job, isn’t it? You basically destroy the life you want, to live a life you don’t want, to do something nobody knows about, and in the end you will either end up shot in the head, be put behind bars, or live out your life in disgrace. Who applies for something like that?

These mad bastards apparently. Castro’s Spies is about the Cuban 5, a group of Cuban spies who spent years embedded in the militant anti-Cuban exile community in Miami and skulking around airforce bases, checking that a fleet wasn’t amassing for an invasion. This film does a really good job of boiling down a long history of conflict between the US and Cuba into the salient context for the work of these men. It talks about how, after the US failed in its direct action against Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, it trained and sponsored militias of Cuban exiles who subsequently carried out terrorist acts against Cuba. That’s not me saying that – they interview Jose Basulto, the founder of Brothers To The Rescue, who was like, yeah, I rocked up on a boat and fired a cannon indiscriminately into a beachfront hotel. You’ve got Orlando Bosch who the US themselves convicted for taking a fucking bazooka to foreign ships entering Cuba waters, and who all evidence shows was responsible for the bombing of Cuban flight 455 killing 73 civilians. The US was obviously meant to be arresting these fucknuts for acts of terrorism, but since it was against Cuba, they were a bit like, eh. So Cuba sent a group of agents to Miami to keep an eye on things.

The other good thing this documentary does well is allowing the space to acknowledge that you can be a hero who does shitty things and an asshole who does good things. And I’m not talking that bullshit balance of, maybe blowing up a plane full of innocent men, women and children is fine, I dunno, there’s two sides to every story. They talk about how the Brothers To The Rescue saved refugees from drowning in the Florida Strait as they made their way to the US on dingys. They talk about how the Cuban agents basically abandoned their wives to raise their kids alone, with the added stigma now that they were publicly seen as defectors to the US. There is an acknowledgement that the Cubans who fled the revolution into exile felt they had lost what little they had built up in the way of property and wealth, which would naturally make them oppose the new government, even if it improved the lives of the vast majority of the people. And that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s largest trading partner, Cuba’s economy was in the shitter, and a lot of people who this revolution was supposed to help found themselves in dire poverty. This documentary is good at presenting the complicated truth.

Ironically, the Cuban 5, despite being hailed as heroes at home, actually play a very mundane part in the drama of history. Mostly they counted planes, making sure there wasn’t a sudden build up of forces in the closest bases to Cuba. They reported back on the activities of the most active exile organisations, which wasn’t really a secret to anyone, Brothers To The Rescue tried to get as much tv coverage for their work as possible. The agents were all flat broke, one worked as a janitor, none of them were paid by the Cuban government. That was something I didn’t know, that Cuba doesn’t pay its spies, because if it’s about the money, the US will be able to outbid you every time. So Cuba just tells you, do your duty to your country, and off you go.

Despite these humble practices, they do manage to amass over time a great wealth of knowledge, and it’s more the anti-Cuban militias who play the dashing heroes of the piece. They are actively making plots, making plans. Jose Basulto decides to fly over Havana dropping leaflets telling the people to rise up against the communist government and be free. He characterises this as a ‘non-violent action’, which is big talk for the guy who shot up a hotel in that very city, now violating national airspace. I mean, sure, he knows it’s leaflets, but Cuba’s just supposed to take it on trust that this guy who likes to shoot at them is just gonna fly over a major city full of civilians and dump stuff out his plane onto them, but it’s ok, it’s just gonna be leaflets. Can you imagine if anyone pulled that shit on America? They’d have to identify you by your fucking teeth. Just imagine some al Qaida dude flying a plane over DC and being like, “Don’t worry, this time it’s only leaflets!” Fucking idiot.

Anyway the Cubans politely ask the US to make him stop, they do fuck all, and this guy comes over a bunch more times, each time somehow expecting to show how brutal this regime is, that they only tolerate foreign agents aerially bombarding anti-government propaganda on their capital city a bunch of times. Eventually he gets what he wants, Cuba retaliates, and shoots down 2 of the 3 planes. And it’s outrage over this that requires a response back in the US. Nobody really wants to go to war over this fucknuckle’s stunt, but Americans are dead and there needs to be a show of strength. So the FBI, who’ve known about the spies in Miami for long and weary, and never bothered to bust them because they were never up to much to be concerned about, offer them up as scapegoat. They had sent Cuba communications about the activity of the Brothers To The Rescue, so they were responsible for the murder of the shot-down pilots.

It’s weird because the action that unfolds around them gives grandeur and meaning to the work of these very low-level spies, whose lives otherwise would have seemed wasted on a very admin-y kind of espionage. As I say, it’s a weird job.

Fascinating documentary, well presented.

Steelers

So I liked the story of Steelers more than I liked the presentation. The story of Steelers is about the first gay men’s rugby club, set up back in the 90s, now competing for the cup in the international gay rugby tournament. It has all the drama of a sports documentary, following the ups and downs of wins and losses, but also the personal stories of the coach, team captain and players, of discovering they were gay, coming out, and struggling to find a place where they could be their whole authentic selves.

Nic is the coach, pushing her team towards success, while being one of the only lesbian rugby coaches out there. Drew proves being a rugby captain is not incompatible with being a black fat drag queen. And Simon speaks very vulnerably about how, after experiencing rejection from friends after coming out, and descending into a deep depression, rugby has given him a lifeline, a home and community of support.

Now to the parts I don’t like. The director is a member of the Steelers, and should by rights be able to tell his story alongside his teammates. Yet by presenting his story in narration, and kinda interjecting his story in amongst the others, it kinda feels like its drawing the focus of documentary from its subject back to its filmmaker. Which is something that sets my teeth on edge. And it doesn’t help that it’s done in this really Tell rather than Show way. Like, some people’s stories he just relays in narration over footage of them playing, rather than interviewing that person and letting them speak for themselves. Also, in the opening scene, he tells us what the documentary is about, rather than let the documentary speak for itself, which it both ham-fistedly direct and mawkish, which actually detracts, rather than adds, to the emotion of the piece. In a lot of ways, I would have just have got rid of the narration all together.

The other thing I didn’t like was the musical score, which was overdone and melodramatic. However, conversely, that actual song picks for the soundtrack were really strong. So you could pivot from one scene that really worked to another that really didn’t. Never seen that kind on incongruence before.

All in all, a good film. A little rough in the execution, but compelling in the characters and story, heart-warming, with a good message.

My Favorite War

My Favorite War is an animated memoir of the director’s childhood in Soviet Latvia in the 1970s and 80s. It traces her inner journey from dedicated Communist Party follower to skeptical and rebellious agitator for the truth and democracy. It is a coming-of-age story, steeped in political history.

The favourite war of the title is World War Two, as fascinating to Latvians as it is over here. She loved to hear stories from the older generation of the war, and watched the shows on tv of the noble soldiers fighting Nazis. One was called Four Tank-men and a Dog, which sounds great and I would watch the shit out of, and will be my next Netflix binge if I can find it.

Everything about life in Latvia seemed a consequence of the war, from Soviet rule to the constant preparations for invasion from the next enemy, America. Nazi being a shorthand for pure evil, nothing done to them or against them or because of them would ever be questioned. In the face of such horror, an enemy faceless and soulless, nothing would be too far a step. And no one would ever be seen to take their side by questioning the current power, the heroes who had defeated them.

Yet as the film goes on and the main character delves deeper and deeper into the stories of the people all around her, she realises most people were put to as much harm by the Soviets as by the Nazis. The Soviets saved them from the Nazi invasion just to commandeer their land for military bases. They saved the country from ruination only to have them remain struggling in poverty and goods shortages. And they saved them from Nazi atrocities only to deport them to Siberia and death. In becoming a dedicated soldier against this evil, the main character has become most like them, unquestioningly following orders of a callous and unjust regime.

At the end, she says for her, World War Two ended in 1995 when the last Soviet military base shut down in Latvia. The last invader expelled, the last authoritarian power defeated.

And so she hopes will the destiny of people everywhere, to reject in their hearts the narrative of division, of othering people as the enemy, of blind devotion to those who seek only to exploit you as a weapon, of making you forget your shared humanity.

If you liked this…

Machine

It’s not often you see a documentary about emergent technology and come away feeling comforted.

One of my old uni lecturers said, “I’m not really worried about AI. Because all a computer can do is add 2 numbers, subtract 2 numbers, multiply and divide 2 numbers, and decide which one is larger or smaller.” That proves decidedly prescient given the subjects covered in Machine.

Machine is a sort of setting to rights by robotisicist and AI specialists on the capacity and limitations of AI. The good news about AI is, a lot of it’s shite, so we’re not all gonna be replaced by androids just yet. The bad news is our problem isn’t AI, it’s capitalism, the state, patriarchy and racism. So yeah, there’s that.

The kind of point of Machine is to say that the future of AI is not a technological problem, it’s a philosophical problem. And the problem with us getting good or bad results from AI, is down to the fact that we don’t really understand ourselves or know what we want. In fact, at basics, the trouble with replicating human thought, is we don’t really understand how humans think. It’s Dostoyevsky’s problem with creating a sane society for an insane species flung into a technological future.

In short, people say what they want, then don’t want it. Best example is the driverless car trolley problem. People say that a driverless car should swerve to avoid injuring a group of pedestrians, even at the sacrafice of the safety of the driver. When asked if they would drive such a car, they’re like, “Fuck no!” How can a technology be developed to serve such a contradictory customer base?

An interesting conversation starter. Give it a watch if it pops up on Netflix, which I suspect it will.