“Shadow World”: how American businessmen get rich selling arms to our enemies

Shadow World”, directed by Johan Grimonprez, written by Andrew Feinstein, based on his own book (“Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade”) , chronicles the underbelly of corporate contractors (especially defense contractors) which allegedly sell to the enemies of the US and the west.

A highlight of the film concerns Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who was kidnapped in 2007 and who had been arrested at least twice by US forces.  The scene where he throws shoes at president George W. Bush at a December 2008 press conference in Baghdad becomes a centerpiece of the film, which for the most part is a collage of speakers with short narratives about secret dealings.

The film mentions American support of Iraq and Saddam Hussein during the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.  That caught my attention because Keith Meinhold, one of the early sailors to challenge the gay man the US military (even before “don’t ask don’t tell”), had claimed he was the “best submarine hunter in the Navy” when he served on Orion planes patrolling the Straits of Hormuz – in the days that oil supply really mattered.  (It still does.)

The film does cover some of the misleading rhetoric about Saddam’s phantom WMD’s that serves as a justification for the war in Iraq (I remember watching the accounts at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis when the “shock and awe” started in March 2003).

There is also coverage of selling arms to Saudi Arabia and to countries who have implicitly supported terror.

But selling arms simply becomes a big business career for a lot of people, making them rich.

The practice is particularly disturbing as it could have contributed to the NSA tool leaks that led to an outbreak of ransomware in some companies and hospitals last spring.

The film aired on PBS Independent Lens on Nov. 20.

Wikipedia collage pictures of Baghdad.

Name:  “Shadow World
Director, writer:  Johan Grimonprez, Andrew Feinstein
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS Independent Lens, 2017/11/20
Length:  90 (84 on PBS)
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS Independent Lens, Louverture, Tricoast Films
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at 12:15 PM EST)


“City of Ghosts”: conflict journalism from Raqqa, difficult to watch

The “City of Ghosts” is Raqqa, Syria; this new film by Matthew Heineman is one of the most intense about up-close conflict ever made. It is tough to watch, even with a nearly sold-out audience, which applauded at the end. It reminded me of Kathryn Bigelow and “The Hurt Locker”.

And, specifically, the movie is about conflict journalism, a group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silenty”.

It’s pretty much a truism, that when you throw out one repressive regime with a revolution, the replacement is even more despotic. It happened to Czarist Russia, and it happened to Iran. As the film starts, we see life in this desert city on the Euphrates, from Biblical times, a low-rise city of concrete, stucco and ovals, and Muslim colors – during the Arab Spring, fomented by US social media.

The residents hardly understood what had happened as the Islamic State, ISIL, moved in and took over.

A group of journalists, including a former math teacher, started photo journals. As soon as the pressure was on, they scattered to Turkey and Germany. At least one journalist had his father and brothers targeted and executed. In Germany, police approached that journalist about putting in some kind of witness protection. Eventually, some get refugee status in Germany.

The film covers the professional production values of ISIS recruiting meda, but it doesn’t really show why young Muslim men abroad, especially in Europe, are so easily fooled. It also doesn’t show daily life in Raqqa the way the CNN special “Blindsided” by Fareed Zakaria and Jurgen Todenhofer had.

Raqqa picture (Wiki).

QA of director by the Washington Post.

Name:  “City of Ghosts
Director, writer: Matthew Heineman
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1, Arabic with subtitles below wide-scr image
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2017/7/15, evening, near sell-out, small auditorium
Length:  92
Rating: NA (“R” for extreme conflict violence in a few scenes)
Companies:  Amazon Studios, IFC
Link:  official

(Picture: Mine, in Nevada, 2012).

(Posted: Sunday, July 16, 2017, at 1:45 PM).

“Nowhere to Hide”: close-up video by a male nurse on the implosion in Iraq after Obama pulled the troops out

The film “Nowhere to Hide”, directed by Zaradhasht Ahmed, presents the incredible 5-year video diary of an Iraqi male nurse, Nori Sharif, over five years in Diyala province, around the town of Jalawla, in the five years after President Obama pulled American troops from Iraq and left a power vacuum.

It seems incredible that he could even maintain this diary as battlefield conditions redeveloped around him. It’s not obvious which subgroup he belongs to (maybe Sunni), but violence between Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds first develops. But in time ISIL moves into the area and forces all the civilians, including him and his family, to flee. He and his family wind up in a refugee camp of trailers, even one housing 20 people and several families.

Eventually he returns to he hospital in Jalawla and finds it sacked and trashed.

The film shows the breathtaking desert landscapes, rather like Nevada with mountains in the far distance, and Biblical stucco villages – filled with squalor and poverty as the camera goes up close. The pain is unrelenting.

The film also shows horrific war injuries to civilians still alive, beyond verbal description.

Wiki picture of Mosul dam.

Name:  “Nowhere to Hide”
Director, writer:  Zaradhasht Ahmed
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Pop-Up, Union Market, Washington DC, 2017/7/7
Length:  88
Rating:  NA
Companies:  East Village Films
Link:  theater

(Posted: Saturday, July 8, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

“Risk”: Laura Poitras tailgates Julian Assange, with riveting results

Risk” (2017) is the latest historical and biographical film about Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange. Director Laura Poitras provides amazing “live” coverage of events in Assange’s life starting in 2011, when he sits in a home in Norfolk, England with journalist Sarah Harrison and talks to a man about leaked State Department cables.  Assange says “It is not my problem, but I don’t want it to become your problem.”

One of the most revealing monologues comes at almost the end, when Assange is asked whether he engaged or indulged in his style of journalism to gain “power”.  He says that his garden is the whole world, and the only way for him to be effective as a person is to act globally.  That is how I feel about my own writing.

Assange also pontificates, a bit earlier, on taking risks, especially when you need to be able to take someone else’s bullets and survive them.

Early on, the film presents another major associate, Jacob Appelbaum, rather handsome (despite the gratuitous upper arm tattoo), and explains his work with the Tor Project.  The film makes the interesting point, however indirectly, that refugees and asylum seekers (in the U.S. or any western country) would need access to TOR to communicate safely with relatives back home, an issue that potential hosts would need to heed.  There are scenes where Appelbaum appears in Cairo, and later in Tunis, training Arab spring activists to use TOR, as authoritarian regimes quickly turn against political change, especially in the Muslim world.

The film concurrently covers the release of Bradley Manning’s leak “Collateral Murder” in Iraq, and covers his court martial, and gender change to Chelsea Manning, and mentions her release from Leavenworth by President Obama just before the end of the film.  As a result particularly of this set of leaks, the US and UK governments start to close in on Assange.  There are accusations of sexual misconduct in Sweden, which may very well be a set-up.  A riveting sequence in the midpoint of the film shows Assange putting on macho-man gay leather drag (including contacts), and driving his motorcycle (left side in the UK) in bike lanes to the Ecuadorian embassy, where he get asylum in 2012.  The rest of the shots of him in the film must be taken in the embassy, even Lady Gaga’s visit.

Poitras herself goes global, interrupting her narrative to show Hong Kong and just a little bit of Edward Snowden (from “Citizenfour”).  Sarah accompanies Snowden to Moscow, where he seeks and is granted asylum from Putin.

The film then covers the leaks during the 2016 US presidential elections and how that probably helped Donald Trump (“I love WikiLeaks”) win the electoral vote.

The US Department of Justice announces it wants to consider prosecuting Assange for espionage and getting extradition from Ecuador.  Under the Trump administration (and in a scene showing FBI offices in New York City), Wikileaks is now painted as a foreign intelligence service (maybe especially for Russia and China) and less a legitimate journalistic group to “keep them honest”.

Laura Poitras says she herself faces constant legal restraints and disruptions in travel from the TSA, as have Appelbaum and perhaps Harrison.  Appelbaum faced sexual misconduct allegations which might well have been trumped up (pun).

Atlantic review is here.

Wikipedia on Sarah Harrison.

My own legacy review of “Collateral Murder” (2010).

Name:  “Risk”
Director, writer:  Laura Poitras
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Landmark West End Cinema, Washington DC, 2017/5/8; theater was showing only this film at frequent intervals
Length:  90
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Madman, Showtime, First Look
Link:  FB

(Posted: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 4 PM EDT)

“The Promise”: World War I epic about Armenian genocide is also a personal moral fable

The Promise”, directed by Terry George, and written with Robin Swicord, apparently based on an original story, is a historical epic about genocide, specifically of the Armenians in the early days of World War I by the Ottoman Turks.  The film has a bit the style of a modern western, and makes a compelling narrative with many moral points about a historical event that generally doesn’t get that much attention.  In fact, even today, the Turkish government (exacerbated by Erdogan’s dictatorial and press-suppressing behavior, which Donald Trump has supported), doesn’t admit that the Turks murdered 1.5 million Armenians (in an area that became part of the Soviet Union) during the period.

The basic story concerns an Armenian medical student Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an American Associated Press journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale, who had played the Asperger-like doctor Michael Burry in “The Big Short”, helping drive the 2008 financial crisis), and the Parisian-raised Armenian woman Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), whom both men love.  The movie really plays down the romantic or erotic potential of the love triangle, to pursue more abstract moral arguments.

For openers, as the film opens, Mikael is a pharmacist in the mountain town of Surin, agrees to an arranged marriage so that the dowry will pay for his medical school.  It sounds off-putting to me for a promise of procreation and marital performance to pay for school, but that is how things used to be, where arranged marriages were common and  people were expected to “learn to love” their socially assigned spouses.  Once in school in Istanbul, the winds or war appear.  A friend bribes an official so that he can get a “student deferment” from conscription for being in medical school, an issue that would occur in my own life.  Eventually he faces brutality from Turkish officials who view him as a physical coward.  But he escapes, in a thrilling train sequence, and gets back to Sirun to find the Turks have destroyed it.

Chris and Ana have wound up in a nearby Red Cross facility, but Chris is captured.  The Turks accuse him of being a spy, but his release comes at the cost of the life of the Turk who helped him.  Chris repeatedly insists his writing (he has a notebook that looks like a pre-Internet blog) is necessary so that the rest of the world learns what is going on.  He even tells a French Captain that his reporting may help get the United States to join the allies in World War I (which would happen in 1917).  In the final scenes, where the orphans and some families are recused by the French, Mikael uses his skills to treat civilians wounded in battle (his mother dies), and Chris has to fight like a soldier.  But combat journalists often have to be able to handle themselves in battle.

Wikipedia article on Armenian Genocide.

This is a good place to note Comey’s comments on journalists and classified information.

Name:  “The Promise”
Director, writer:  Terry Georgr
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, very late, 2017/5/2, I was the only person in audience!  Showing just for me!
Length:  133
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Open Road
Link:  FB

(Posted: Wednesday, May 3, 2017 at 5:30 PM EDT)

“Theo Who Lived”: conflict journalist gives bare bones account of his captivity in Syria, covers ransom issue during Obama administration

Theo Who Lived” is a self-narrated autobiographical documentary, directed by David Schisgall, of released hostage Theo Padnos, who took on the name Peter Theo Curtis.

Padnos had been living in Turkey and trying to get articles published in 2012, having become a conflict journalist after earning a Ph.D. in English.  He slipped over into Syria, over open borders, and actually seemed to stumble into an offer of an interview (about another kidnapped journalist Austin Tice) in a small house near Aleppo, when the incident turned into a kidnapping.

He would be held by Al-Nusra for two years,, with various periods of confinement, starvation, simulated lynchings, and other tortures.  But he would be given paper and pen and allowed to write.  Somehow the handwritten parchments survived, and he even acts out one of his stories in the film, about a church arson.  He would be moved around various times and once almost escaped, when he got stuck in a jailhouse windoew while Jewish photographer Matt Schrier did get out and did not sacrifice himself to help him.

His narrative would intersect with that of James Foley, who would be beheaded by ISIS. There would e a series of ransom demands, and his family now back in Vermont had to contemplate meeting it. The film covers the US policy of not paying ransom to overseas terrorists and not allowing families to pay (which has been changed recently under Obama – but it is obviously a double-edged question;  if one family pays privately, other families could be pressured).

The film moves back and forth between scenes in Turkey and Syria (often very graphic urban shots before the destruction by civil war), to pastoral winter scenes in Vermont. Theo actually was born in Georgia.

Theo also visits the urban neighborhood in Turkey where he encounters his former captors, who lived iin a nice apartment.  He also shows his release in Tel Aviv.

Theo also reports the idea of civilian targeting. That is to say, he is personally blamed by his captors by previous US “atrocities”, like using the atomic bomb during WWII, so captivity of a non-participating “forward observer” or potential distant critic sounds like justifiable payback.

Theo has authored at least two books .  He had declared allegiance to Allah, which meant his second book was viewed as apostasy by some.  But his personal views of religion seems to be that he believes parts of all Abrahamic religions and integrates them in his own way.  Anyone can be a Muslim, Jew amd Christian at the same time.

The filmmaking style is indeed one of everyday simplicity. He often walks around in Syria, Turkey, or Vermont and talks as he photographs.  I do that (in other places)!  He does create the scenes in prison on what looks like a stage set.  He seems attached to the idea of being the ultimate spectator, but prison was very real.

New York Times Magazine article by Theo;  Vanity Fair article about Theo by Emily Jane Fox; Article on ransom issue during Obama administration.

Name: “Theo Who Lived”
Director, writer:  David Schisgall, Theo Padnos
Released: 2016
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: Netflix Instant Play
Length:  85
Rating: PG-13?
Companies:  Zeitgeist
Link:  official

Wikipedia picture of Phoenician ruins in Syria, typical of outdoor scenery in the film.

(Posted: Saturday, February 18, 2017 at 5:30 PM EST)

National Geographic Explorer Ep. 3: “Kill List”, “Propaganda Wars”, “Electrotown”


National Geographic Channel’s “Explorer” series reviews a number of controversial international problems.  Each episode covers about three topics, with a short documentary film and short panel QA.

On Monday. November 28, 2016, the “Episode 3” started with “Kill List”, and examination of how the US government, under the Obama administration, has identified targets (on a “disposition matrix”) for drone assassination in countries housing terrorists (usually Muslim).  Tim Samuels, from London, led the investigation along with Jeremy Scahill.  They visited Islamabad and talked to a cleric who believed he was on such a list, and usually travels without his cell phone, even without the battery, which can be tracked.  Drone attacks are unlikely in major cities but more common in rural areas.  The episode suggested that the drone attacks have about 35% accuracy, down from 80% during the Bush years – with a considerable likelihood of collateral civilian casualties.  Targets are identified by social media and especially by NSA collection of metadata.

The panel discussion offered former CIA director James Woolsey, who was rather blasé about the risk to innocent people.

There have been several fiction films about the ethics of drones: “Eye in the Sky” (2016), “Drone”, “Drones”, and “Good Kill” (2015).


The second episode was called “Propaganda Wars” which started with the assertion that ISIS is like a media company that kills people.  In 2014, journalists found that a boundary had been crossed indeed (by the public beheadings).  But in Turkey, a few Syrian refugees make comedy videos and code computer games to counter ISIS, and also make forays back into Aleppo to deliver a print newspaper (Enab Baladi ).  I’ve heard Vladimir Putin talk as if control and power were about propaganda and nothing else (when speaking about the gay speech issue in 2013), as if individual speech means nothing to him.

The panel discussion featured Lana Logan, who gave a brief presentation of “Our Fundamental Rights” (as in the spirit of my 1998 booklet, described here ) She said that all other fundamental rights are predicated on the freedom of speech (although that’s #4 on my booklet, link) . She also said that people need free flow of information in order to hold leadership of a country accountable.


The third segment was called “Electrotown”, Green Bank, W Va, where for ten miles radius cell phone towers and devices are not allowed, to prevent interference with the radio telescope there hunting for alien signals.  People who claim sensitivity to microwaves and cell signals move there and live totally off the grid.  It could become an inviting place for doomsday preppers.

On Dec. 5 there were three more controversial segments.

In a segment called “Wakaliwood“, Director Billie Mintz works in a poor suburb of Kampala, Uganda making B-movies, reflecting violence in Ugandan society, legacy of Idi Amin.

In “Russian Role-Ette: Going Commando“, British journalist Tim Samuels visits some private academies in Russia where young men toughen up and become more manly. Likewise some women go to charm schools. After WWII, where Russia lost so many males, and after decades of women working under communism, more men today are raised by single women. Valdimir Putin wants to strengthen gender roles to increase the Russian birth rate, which helps explain the anti-gay propaganda law of 2013 (“Dispatches”). Samuels participated on a rifle range and in some male hand-to-hand. His hairy body looked soft compared to the laconic Russians.

In “Exploding Bus“, a police academy in Pennsyvlania blows up a bus full of carcasses to simulate an investigation after a hypothetical terror attack.

National Geographic Channel is looking for correspondents.  The website is “Assignment Explorer”.

Wikipedia attribution link for Islamabad Skyline under CCSA 4.0   by Kamranmangrio; link for Aleppo Skyline under CCSA 2.0 by Richard Renwick.

(Posted: Monday, Nov. 28, 2016 at 11:55 PM EST)