Last Men in Aleppo (Syria): Surviving and rescuing through the bombings
All Governments Lie (United States): The need for independent journalism
The Woman and the Glacier (Lithuania, Estonia): The serene loneliness of heights
This is the first installment of a series of reviews on documentaries seen in the Docs Barcelona Festival 2017.
Last men in Aleppo
Chilling film on the terrible life of people in Aleppo, the second Syrian city, bombed relentlessly by Bashar al-Assad’s air force and his Russian ally. Placed in northern Syria, close to the Turkish border, Aleppo was from 2012 to 2016 the field of a bloody battle between dictator al-Assad’s troops (and those of his friend Putin) and the opposition formed by Free Syrian Army (FSA) and forces linked to terrorist organizations. Both sides were brutal in their armed actions, and civil population was the victim of that brutality. Aleppians had to choose between staying in a besieged city, risking their lives at every moment, or escaping to Turkey (that has closed its borders and is being paid by the European Union to act as a barrier against the movement of displaced persons) or embark towards Greek islands and the void. No one knows any longer what is bad and what is worse.
In spite of the fact that it’s a long time since Al-Assad’s enemies fled Aleppo or were killed, bombings have continued. The situation makes us think in those lines by Skakespeare’s King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport”; we only need to substitute killers for gods to get an accurate description of what’s going on in Aleppo.
Last men in Aleppo shows the lives of some people who have decided to stay. In particular, the called “White Helmets“, an organization composed of civilians who have taken on the task of going to the bombed places in order to save as many lives as possible and rescue people trapped among the rubble, or at least to take out the corpses. More in particular, follows three White Helmets: Khaled, Subhi and Mahmoud, who were among the founders of the organization. We see their dreadful daily existence, looking at the sky when they hear the noise of engines flying over them, anxious in the face of the imminent shelling. When the bombs fall, randomly, at any given point of the city, on any building, they run in their rickety all-terrain towards the place hit by the projectile, and remove the debris as they can: sometimes with their hands, sometimes with a digger. At times they extract survivors, at times dead bodies. We see how they carry dead children in their arms, the head hanging, the limbs suspended. It is dreadful. In the rubble they find members cut from their bodies, feet, arms, legs. A man carries his dead son. Another one loses three children in an instant, by a bomb.
White Helmet’s moral and emotional exhaustion is huge. After each of their interventions they need to smoke a cigarette, to tell one another how many people they have been able to save, how many dead people they have dig up. They try to cling to the rescued, but what obsesses them are the dead they have carried in their arms.
The film registers some conversations among the three White Helmets, in the dead times between bombings. Despair afflicts them. They ask where are their Arab brothers, why the leaders of neighbor countries don’t take action. One says that the whole world has joined to shell them. At one point they see on TV how their fellow citizens wait in refugee camps close to the Turkish border without any assistance.
In the film there’s little dramatic development. The devilish cycle goes on and on: bombing, extraction of alive and dead people from the debris, affliction, bombing. During the film’s running length, spectators are able to feel, at tiny doses, the emotional exhaustion that has been mining the surviving Aleppians for five years. There is indeed a sort of outcome, when one of the White Helmets is killed by a bomb. His friends carry him while chanting religious hymns. One doesn’t know if Islam will be able to help them to resign themselves to the atrocities being committed against them.
The film is very well made, has good cinematography and a consistent structure. Even in the most dreadful and aberrant situations the dignity of non-fiction cinema lies in giving a serious witness, respectful of the victims and of the watchers.
Another film on Syria in this blog: Silvered Water. Syria Self Portrait.
All Governments Lie
Documentary on independent, investigative journalism, a counterweight not only necessary but indispensable in our time of big corporate conglomerates, of information turned into entertainment business and of continuous misrepresentation in mainstream media. Nowadays most media publish what their rich owners dictate, without using any critical filter, and have become a simple public relations branch of Government and interest groups. It is in this dreadful scenario where independent journalism must play a vital role. As one of the participants in the film says: “There’s only two types of reporters: those who care and those who don’t. Most of them don’t care”. Some of those who care are featured in this enlightening film.
The moral dismantling of journalism has been taken place for a long time (see, for instance, Noam Chomsky’s and Edward S. Herman’s 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (the title as well of a 1992 documentary), but has gotten worse and worse until the age of post-truth, when there isn’t even liability for public lying and distortion any longer. That is the view of the Canadian journalist and filmmaker Fred Peabody, who some years ago decided to become a free-lancer in view of the fact that the media where he had been working until then were becoming ideological tools and simple sources of entertainment.
His first idea for this film was to make a biography of I. F. Stone (1907-1989), a journalist who told the truth on many nasty situations involving the US Government, and who because of his ethic integrity had to quit the mainstream media. From 1953 to 1971 he wrote and edited his own newsletter, the famous I. F. Stone’s Weekly, a reference for the whole profession because in its pages he fought against such disgraces as racial discrimination and the totalitarian repression of McCarthyism. Peabody wanted to capture the spirit of Stone as an inspiration for the new generations of journalists. Afterwards, he realized that the message would be more significant if he showed also the Stones of today, the independent journalists who risk their jobs and their lives just to be honest, in spite of all the coercions and threats. And so, All Governments Lie combines the evocation of Stone with interviews to many of the foremost current American journalists that keep alive the ideal of their profession as an ethic and responsible counterweight.
Many of the participants are well-known figures in the field of American independent journalism. Amy Goodman, from 1996 editor and host of Democracy Now!, radio, TV, and online news program, a main source for reliable, researched information; Jeremy Scahill, who has informed on such bloody conflicts as those of former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, and is a co-founder and editor of the online news program The Intercept (Scahill appeared in this blog already, in the post on Dirty Wars); Glenn Greenwald, also co-founder and editor of The Intercept, journalist and lawyer, the man responsible for the investigation and disclosure of the informations provided by Edward Snowden on State surveillance (Citizen Four); Matt Taibi, journalist working in Rolling Stone, the only one in this film who writes for mainstream media, and even so has managed to keep his independence; John Carlos Frey, non-fiction filmmaker devoted to show the brutality of life in the Mexican border, and the exploitation and violations of labor laws committed by his own country, who discovered secret mass graves in Texas; Chris Hedges, who documented the atrocities of the American Army in the invasion of Iraq; Ana Kasparian, host and producer of The Young Turks, the online news program most viewed all over the world; Tom Engelhardt, journalist, professor and media analyst; the famous director Michael Moore, here not so admired as the other participants in the film because of his excessive desire to play the leading role, that makes him a showman who presents as entertainment the analysis of serious matters, and in so doing doesn’t help to create a segment of enlightened public. And we listen to a whole series of young reporters who are unearthing many aspects ignored by the mainstream media: imperialism and neo-liberal globalization, racism… In short, matters that the entertainment industry and the hidden propaganda want to evict from the news programs, turned into harmless, brainless shows.
The testimony of these independent journalists is backed by the opinion of external analysts, such as the incombustible linguist and intellectual Noam Chomsky, and the veteran muckraker Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters that in 1972 brought to light the Watergate scandal.
To sum up, a panoramic view of independent journalism, today more necessary than ever as a resource to keep a critical, active and rebel civil society, unwilling to be destroyed by the many authoritarian structures being extended across the planet. It is a collective task based on reliability and credibility, aimed to the difficult and slow construction of a more ethical world.
It is desirable that some good filmmaker makes a similar film on Latin American, European, Asian, and African journalists. They are fighting against violence and corruption for our benefit.
Other films on independent journalism in this blog (in Spanish): Citizen Four and Dirty Wars.
The Woman and the Glacier
Beautiful, poetic film on the Lithuanian scientist Aušra Revutaite, who spent 32 years in the Tian Shan mountain range (between Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, and the Chinese region of Xinjiang). It is not an informative documentary, almost nobody speaks, there aren’t any facts and nothing is argued for or against. We witness the existence of a human being in an extremely deserted place, at an altitude of 3,500 meters, with the only company of a dog (Atlas), a cat and books. Revutaite studies climate change as it is registered in the Tuyuksu glacier, from a refuge-observatory put up in the Soviet times. He chose a life of loneliness and silence, serenity and contemplation, in an amazing mountain scene: high rocky peaks, ice-covered slopes, underground passages where rivers run between shining minerals. The sky is bluer, the wind is felt like an invisible presence, the rocks are massive and silent.
The slow, conscious existence of the scientist is conveyed through a suitable cinematography. The director, the Lithuanian Audrius Stonys, shows Revutaite world in fixed and tracking shots, that manage to capture the geologic time, much superior to human time, worlds apart from the anguished precipitation of modern world. Cinematography, natural scene, and (scientist’s) peaceful life create this poetic, transcendent film of leisurely pace. Poetic, of course, doesn’t mean affected nor picturesque: there isn’t any postcard image, “pretty” in an easy, cheap sense.
The takes of life at heights are contrasted by those of a man playing a traditional string instrument close to a road. What does the director mean with these shots? It isn’t clear, the spectator must intuit it, rather than reason it. It is more obvious the ending, when a fool drives an off-road to one of the mountains of the ranges shouting and making noise: the contrast to the scientist’s respectful attitude and reverent silence couldn’t be starker. The barbaric man, allied with technology, has desecrated the holy space of the mountain, the natural world.
Another interpolation consists of archive images, black-and-white footage of old expeditions to the same mountain range, and of scientists in the same observatory. The juxtaposition of modern color images and the old ones creates the feeling of different layers of time overlaying in the same place, like geological formations.
What remains in memory are the plain, dry images of steep hillsides, of treeless, hard rock, of the many ice and liquid water configurations, of the serene blue sky, of Revutaite face, so sculpted by time as the rock, as this beautiful film.