“Born in China”: in an alien world, animals behave like people in a primitive civilization

Born in China,” directed by Chuan Lu for Disney Nature (obviously intended for large markets in both the US and China) takes us, for the most part, to the high mountain plateaus of western China, just north of Tibet, and very much giving the look of being on another planet.  In fact, traveling to China, for most Americans, would probably be as close as it gets to space travel to an alien world.

John Krasinski narrates intersecting morality tales of five wild animal characters, covering a spring to the following spring, a marathon effort to film (the filmmakers show how they did it in the epilogue during the closing credits of a 76 minute feature).

He actually starts with cranes in the lowlands, before moving on to the Tibetan antelope (chiru), a panda with her daughter, a snow leopard with her two cubs, and a young rebellious male in a close-knit sub nose red monkey family.

The female snow leopard lives in the most alien-looking landscape, right out of one of Clive Barker’s Imajica dominions (the Fourth, probably). In an early scene she faces off a competitor for hunting territory and prevails. But later he hurts her paw in a chase and is less able to hunt, as her two kids are just getting old enough to start hunting for themselves.  Out of desperation, she takes on a herd of chiru and apparently reaches the end of her career.

The little boy monkey is jealous of the birth of a baby sister, and with the gender-based social discipline of the family structure that rather resembles Islamic polygamy. (The film does not say what happens to the unattached males, but it probably is not pretty.) Failure to protect younger siblings can leave then vulnerable to their one enemy, a huge hawk that snoops down and takes his sacrifice. A bird eating a primate, very bizarre.

The monkey community lives on the verge of civilization. We understand how animals live in a world of survival of the fittest, but social organization, however authoritarian in moral tone, that assigns risks and responsibilities within the herd or extended family, is a step toward more complex social and political organization, as in human society.  This is what we would probably find on other planets.

Tibet scene similar to film (wiki).

Name: Born in China
Director, writer: Chuan Lu
Released: 2017/4/21
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/4/22, 6 PM, fair crowd
Length: 76
Rating:  G
Companies: Disney Nature
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2017 t 11:45 PM EDT)

“Seed: The Untold Story”: a civilization restart could depend on botanical diversity

Seed: The Untold Story”, by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, documents the activities of seed archivists, who aim to preserve samples of natural seed stock that is being lost by mega-agriculture.

The film starts in Maine, with an elderly man who sees himself as a kind of Noah, maintaining his own seed bank as a personal (and individually controlled) legacy for the world.  It then, with some animation, gives some history of activities by civilizations to preserve their seed genetic bases, including a “civilization restart” bank in northern Norway.  Destroying seed banks has been an aim of military campaigns, as the Soviet Union maintained one around St. Petersburg during WWII.  The film also shows major conservation activities in New Mexico and Kauai, Hawaii.

It was eye-opening for me that the loss of genetic diversity among our plant food supply could threaten civilization itself.

With Vandana Shiva, Andrew Kimbrell, Jane Goodall, Winona LaDuke, and Raj Patel.

I remember those essay botany tests in undergraduate college (around 1965) all too well.

The film (from Collective Eye) was shown on PBS Independent Cuts on April 17, 2017; the original length of 94 minutes was cut to about 53;  I would rather see PBS offer a 90-minute slot and show the entire original film.

Name: “Seed: The Untold Story”
Director, writer:  Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel
Released:  2016
Format:  HD video
When and how viewed:  PBS Independent Lens, 2017/4/17 at 10 PM
Length:  94/56
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Collective Eye, PBS Independent Cuts
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, April 17, 2017 at 11:30 PM EDT)

“Unseen Enemy” on CNN gives dire warning about future flu pandemic, while covering them all

Unseen Enemy”, directed by Janet Tobias, is a somewhat rambling but comprehensive documentary aired Friday, April 7, 2017 by CNN Films (and Vulcan), covering the major pandemics that have shocked the world in the past few decades.   The film covers more material (mainly avian flus, Sars-like diseases and HIV) than “Spillover” (March 18) but with less detail .

The film is narrated by Jeffrey Wright, and Sanjay Gupta from CNN is a major executive producer.  Soka Moses, Peter Piot, and Laurie Garrett, among many others, appear.

Near the end there is a simulation of what things look like if an avian influenza pandemic really did break out.  The film does cover the 1918 Spanish flu at the end of World War I (anticipating Ken Burns’s next documentary) and predicts that 200 million deaths and a freeze of the world economy could occur with new avian influenza.  The growth of H7N9 in southern China, where people live near poultry, is cause for alarm, but so far when H7N9 or H5N1 is transmitted from poultry to person, it doesn’t seem to continue a person-person chain.

And even seasonal flu can cause unpredictable death, as a Minnesota family recounts the loss of a teenage daughter.

The film also pays covers up front the Ebola virus, giving some case histories in West Africa, and only briefly mentioning cases coming to the US for treatment.  There is a scene late in the film where people are given “certificates” from a department of health in Sierra Leone of their recovery.   There is also a scene showing the incredible amount of protective gear and decontamination needed for health care workers.

Likewise, it covers the sudden development of the threat to unborn children from mosquito-borne Zika, starting in Brazil, although it doesn’t add much that is new.

It also lays out a progression of infectious disease: outbreak, to epidemic, to pandemic, to endemic. HIV is a good example.

The film has striking aerial photograph of many shantytowns around the world, from West Africa to Cambodia to India.  There is a history of a quarantine for an unusual disease in astern India.

The film takes the position that man’s destruction of wildlife habitat drives animals into more contact with humans, where transmission can occur.  An example is with bats, which can spread nipah, rabies and histoplasmosis, as well as Marburg, which is similar to Ebola.

The film ends with a plea to personal responsibility, in not infecting others:  not going to work when sick (presentism) and in hand sanitation in public, as people with weaker immune systems are more easily infected by others. The hashtag is “#ItTakesAllofus.

The film was followed by a brief panel discussion where Anderson Cooper quizzes Gupta, Garrett and Anthony Fauci from NIH, well known from the days of AIDS (“And the Band Played On”). Fauci said there is hope for a generic vaccine for all types of influenza with cross immunity, as this may be the only way to prevent an eventual bird flu pandemic. Significant progress was reported on vaccines for both Zika and Ebola.  The Trump administration’s plans to reduce funds to NIH could place the nation at greater pandemic risk, as would “vaccine denial”, as herd immunity is an important factor.

Vulcan link.

CNN link.

Monsters and Critics link.

The film is a World Health Day presentation.

(Posted: Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 5:45 PM EDT)


“24 Snow”: visually stunning documentary traces the life of a Siberian horse farmer

Mikhail Barynin was in person for the QA for his stunning wilderness documentary “24 Snow” (produced by Egor Makarov), at the SC Environmental Film Festival, presented in partnership with Moscow’s ECOCUP.  He spoke only Russian, and a woman translated for him, before a full house at the Carnegie Science Center today.

The film introduces its hero, Sergei, in a remote wildnerness camp with just two wooden cabins, everything weighted with snow, and a temperature of -60 C.  We learn he breeds horses for a living, and spends a lot of time away from his family, like a nomad, occasionally visiting Siberian villages.

The dialogue is in Yakut, and the scenario is in the Sakha (northeastern Siberia).  The digital photography presents almost extraterrestrial scenery, with mountain ridges that look metallic in color and large lakes and rivers with flowing ice.  The ruins of smaller Soviet industrialized towns appear.  But there are festivals, and tents set up for kids to play in.  The cramped life within cabins and yurts is shown.  In the countryside, people do not have electricity

Toward the end there is a disturbing scene where Sergei has to kill some of his horses.

Vladimir Putin has provided economic inducements, including free land, to people who will settle Siberia and live off the land and have big families.  One of the biggest motivations for the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law was the idea that speech making homosexuality sound acceptable would further depress Russia’s birth rate.  Putin has even called for “procreation days”.


1 (director, in Russian)


3  (about journalism in Russia)

4  (climate change issue in Russia)

Amga River, typical scenery, Wiki.

Name:  “24 Snow”
Director, writer:  Mikhail Barynin
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1   (Yakut)
When and how viewed: 2017/3/19  DC Environmental Film Festival at Carnegie Institute of Science, full crowd
Length:  93
Rating:  NA
Companies:  ECOCUP
Link:  Facebook, UN

(Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2017 at 10 PM EDT)

“Spillover: Zika, Ebola and Beyond” looks at the peril of pandemics spread from animals to man

Spillover: Zika, Ebola, and Beyond” (57 min) , written and directed by James Barrat (and produced by Tangled Bank Studios), accounts for the histories of three dangerous zoonoses, that is, (viral) infectious diseases that move from animals to people.  The film was shown by the DC Environmental Film Festival at the Carnegie Institute of Science and was followed by a free sandwich reception.

The overall message of the film is that viruses can spread suddenly from animals (usually mammals but sometimes birds) to man and create devastating pandemics among humans not immunologically prepared for them.

The film focuses specifically on Zika (especially in Brazil), Ebola (West Africa), and Nipah (Bangladesh). The film has spectacular digital on location photography of many remote locations, some of it aerial from drones (including many slums and poor or primitive neighborhoods), and along with some very realistic rotoscopic animation.  This could have made good material for an Imax science film at the Smithsonian.

The narrative starts in Recife, Brazil, in 2015, as mild flu-like cases of Zika show up in young adults.  Soon people realize that babies from infected women are being born with microcephaly, with brains that will not develop normally.  In time authorities learn mosquito control, even infiltrating areas with poisoned males who will cause infertile offspring to be born.   Since Zika can be sexually transmitted, it theoretically could bring back some personal ethical and political conflicts that we saw in the 1980s with HIV, as I asked in the QA (previous discussion).

The movie also switches to West Africa,, mainly Sierra Leone, showing the impact of Ebola, and noting that of the 11000 fatalities in Africa, 900 were with caregivers and health care workers, exposed directly to body fluids hitting compromised skin.  One young man walks three miles to the hospital to avoid infecting people on the bus, and survives.  A female nurse survives.  But many are buried. One person is taken off a plane in Lagos, Nigeria (shown well by drone), and dies.  Very vigorous contact tracing in Nigeria prevents the epidemic from spreading.

The film mentions new vaccines for both of these diseases.  But it also says that contact tracing is essential to control epidemics.  That sounds unrealistic to me in practice – forcing people to maintain “social distance”.  The film does not get into the cases of people treated in the U,S., which there is much better chance of survival with supportive care.  Most deaths occur from body fluid loss and subsequent organ failure.

The recent epidemic in West Africa may come from a single case of a child eating the carcass of a particular wild animal.

The film also looks at Nipah, which surfaced in Bangaldesh in 1998 and then 2004.  It causes an encephalitis that can have a high mortality rate and lead to mental retardation in children.  The reservoir may be fruit bats who feed on date palms (there is a scene of workers “shaving” palm trees with machetes to get to the sap).

Sierra Leone road similar to film.

Lagos, Nigeria

Recife, Brazil.



1       (note that H7N9 bird flu in China has increased in recent months).

2  — my question on the politics of contagion

3  — Trump budget cuts

Fact sheet:

Name: “Spillover: Zika, Ebola and Beyond”
Director, writer:  James Barrat
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1  HDEF
When and how viewed:  DC Environmental Film Festival, Carnegie Auditorium, Washington, free, 2017/3/18, free, full, reception followed
Length:  57
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS, Tangled Bank Studios
Link:  PBS  official (July 2016)





(Posted: Saturday, March 18, 2017 at 10 AM EDT)

“Voices of Chernobyl”: Supplications from the family members of victims of the 1986 nuclear power plant catastrophe in the Ukraine

The documentary “Voices of Chernobyl” (2016, “La supplication”, or “The Prayer”), by Pol Cruchten, is actually based on a “novel” by Svetlana Alexievich)

But the presentation of the film is rather simple.  A number of people, especially family members of the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers and rescue personnel, stand in the ruins, or sometimes in the early springtime river, plains and forest country of northern Ukraine, and give testimonials to their personal losses.  Often the victims (mostly men) are shown, lying still, clothed.  The horrific symptoms of radiation poisoning are described verbally, but the men are usually left intact visually.  Some of the victims are children born about the time of the disaster who then develop leukemias.

The speakers (in French, with subtitles – the country of origin is Luxembourg) mention the upwind damage in other countries, most of all Belarus, where many abortions would then be performed.

Toward the end, a few women gardeners, indeed “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” (index) appear, working the soil fearlessly.

The actual “accident” led immediately, according to Wikipedia, to 31 deaths, but many more must have occurred gradually.

The film was shown at the DC Environmental Film Festival on March 16 at the Ring Auditorium in the Hirshhorn Smithsonian Museum (where I had seen  the “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition one week before).  The DCEFF program gives the title as “Voices from Chernobyl” as do some trailers; But imdb uses the preposition “of”.

Wikipedia coverage of Chernobyl disaster, many pictures including sarcophagus.

I remember the newspaper coverage of the Three Mile Island disaster in March 1979, when I was living in Dallas;  for a while a melt-down was feared.  When I worked with Dan Fry’s group “Understanding” from 1975 to 1979, I met a woman, in New York City, who wanted to start a national caravan to oppose nuclear power.  She was a one-issue person.

However, young inventor Taylor Wilson has argued that small underground fission plants for many utilities could make the power grids safer (from solar storms or EMP) by reducing the dependence on large transformers.  Taylor has actually written an article about Fukushima in 2011.  His work (in a book “The Boy Who Played with Fusion” — index) deserves a documentary film now.

Name: “Voices of Chernobyl”
Director, writer:  Pol Cruchten
Released:  2016
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: Ring Auditorium, Hirshhorn, DCEFF, free, 2017/3/16, large audience (a lot of it young)
Length:  87
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Red Lion
Link:  film

(Posted: Friday, March 17, 2017 at 10:45 AM EDT)

“City 40” documents a “hidden” city processing nuclear weapons material in Russia; the US has one, too


Name: City 40
Director, writer:  Samira Goetschel
Released:  2016
Format:  HD
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant Video
Length 72
Rating NA
Companies: D.I.G., Cinephil
Link: official site

City 40” is a compelling documentary (72 min) by Samira Goetschel, about the closed city of Ozersk (or Ozyorsk, in Chelyabinsk Oblast), Russia, in the southern Urals, housing people associated with the plutonium processing plant at Mayak.


The documentary starts by recounting the US’s own efforts to build close communities around its nuclear weapons program in the late 1940s, especially Richland WA near the Hanford reactor. There are the visual invocations about loose lips, long before the days of cyberwar.


Stalin responded by building a closed secret community for scientists called simply City 40.  He tried to make the place a paradise for the workers there, as very little travel was allowed and the city was not put on maps until after the fall of the USSR at the end of 1991.

The city sits on a large lake which has over time become polluted with radioactive waste.  There have been numerous accidents and deaths of workers and premature cancers of residents over the decades.

The film, near the end,  reviews the murder of Litvineko  (as in the 2013 film “Poisoned by Polonium”).  It also provides an unflattering portrait of the authoritarian leadership of Vladimir Putin.

The film could be compared to the short about the city Norilsk (Nickel plant), “My Deady, Beautiful City” or “The Hidden City”, reviewed here June 28.

The film seems relevant to documenting the worldwide risk from unretrieved nuclear waste, especially within Russia and the former Soviet Union.  I was under the impression that much more of this was scattered around the county, not just around this city.  Besides the NTI docudrama “The Last Best Chance”, a couple of relevant Russian films are “The Return” (set in NW Russia) and “How I Ended This Summer”, set at a monitoring point in NE Siberia.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of the closed city of Mercury, NV, P.D.  located near Las Vegas, still with a residual population.   I was last in the area in 2000.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Richland WA in the early 1950s, P.D.I was most recently near there (Yakima) in 1996.  The film says that the Soviets built Ozersk in response to our Richland, and loose lips gave away we had the city.

By Sergey Nemanov – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

(Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 11 at 10:30 AM EDT)

Update: March 23, 2017

I saw the film again at the DC Environmental Film Festival at the Carnegie Science Center, paired with shorts “Nuclear Winter” and “Triad”.

I thought it was interesting that so many of the nuclear pollutants spill into the Arctic Ocean.  There is a lake near Mayak that is six times as polluted as water near Chernobyl, and Mayak seems to have the highest concentration of nuclear waste in the world. In 1994, Russia (under Yeltsin) allowed mention of Ozersk and allowed the city to be named on new birth certificates, but would not allow old ones to be changed.  Putin’s government has persecuted dissidents for speaking out against the secret cities, of which there are about 40 all over Russia (three in former republics).


“Command and Control”: our close brush with a nuclear explosion in Arkansas after an accident in 1980


Name: Command and Control
Director, writer:  Robert Kenner
Released:  2016
Format:  HD video
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/9/23
Length 92
Rating NA
Companies: PBS, American Experience
Link: official 

Command and Control”, directed by Robert Kenner, for PBS and American Experience, gives a riveting account of the 1980 Damascus Titan Missile Explosion, near Little Rock, AK. It’s based on the book “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” by Eric Schlosser.

The incident happened because the maintenance protocol changed, and a technician overlooked it and brought the wrong torque wrench, late in the day Sept. 18, 1980.  A rivet fell 80 feet to the bottom of the bay (which was not netted) and bounced against the missile, causing a fluid leak, leading to eventual explosion   The feared nuclear explosion did not happen, but the film maintains that it could have gone off.

The initial team evacuated, and another team came in but could not prevent the blast, which killed one airman and severely burned several others.

Several politicians in Little Rock, where a Democratic fundraiser was being held, were told by phone and feared nuclear explosion. Bill Clinton was the young governor at the time and acted naïve.

The Air Force tried to keep the ultimate danger quiet, and disciplined several airmen and ended the careers of a few officers.  The technician got an Article 15.

The documentary uses a lot of stock footage and some models. Many of the men are still alive today, and talk about how gung-ho they were when in their 20s.  The film recapitulates several accidents, especially the crash over Goldsboro, NC in January 1961.

The director points out that nuclear weapons technology is vulnerable to unanticipated human error that can have catastrophic results.  There have been many other near misses.  One or two of them could have started WWWIII with the Soviet Union.  It’s also appropriate to consider the dangers posed by loose nuclear waste (Yucca mountain was mentioned in the QA, but materials in former Soviet republics are a big risk, as demonstrated in the film “The Last Best Chance” (2005) produced with the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

QA Session






(Posted: Friday, September 23, 2016 at 11:50 PM EDT)